Visiting and Evolving in Monkey Town

Dayton, Tennessee.

Home of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial.

And the home of our dear friend Rachel Held Evans, best-selling author of Evolving in Monkey Town (now Faith Unraveled), A Year of Biblical Womanhood and the forthcoming Searching for Sunday.

If you follow Rachel's blog or Twitter account you'll have noted that Jana and I were in Dayton last week to visit Rachel and Dan and to take in the Tokens Show being held in the historic Rhea County Courthouse where the Scopes Trial was held.

The Tokens Show is a theologically-themed radio variety show, similar to A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor. Tokens is hosted by Lee Camp, author and theologian at Lipscomb University. Musically, the show is built around country, blue grass and gospel music. Comedy sketches focus on religious and Southern characters, our favorite being Brother Preacher. Theologically, the show is built around a theme woven together by music, comedy, Lee's narration and interviews with authors.

The Dayton show was built around the theme "Breaking Down False Dichotomies" with a focus on the tensions between science and religion, especially the debates about evolution. Using the famous Scopes Monkey Trial as the focal point the Dayton show was filmed in the Rhea County courthouse where the trial was held. The authors interviewed for the show were Rachel and Ed Larson, author of the Pulitzer-prize winning book Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion.

Getting to visit Rachel and attend this show (given its historical location and focus on the intersections of science and religion) was too good to pass up. So Jana and I drove to Dayton from Pennsylvania (where we've been visiting my family).

Also, the show was filmed and may appear on your local PBS station. I'll try to keep abreast of those details and let you know when the show is set to appear on TV.

After watching Inherit the Wind the night before to get into the mood, Jana and I arrived in Dayton early enough the day before the show to eat at Jacob Myers, recommended by Rachel. Jana and I had a delightful dinner on the balcony looking out over the river. The next morning Jana and I walked up and down the main street of downtown Dayton visiting the antique shops. Score! Jana found all sorts of things she had looking for all summer in antique and thrift shops. For my own part, I found a vintage suitcase that I'm going to start using on overnight speaking trips.

We met up with Rachel and Dan for lunch and then went with Rachel to her interview filmed in the basement of the courthouse where there is a museum about the Scopes Trial. After that Jana and I did more shopping downtown. (Well, Jana did more shopping. I took a nap on a bench on courthouse grounds.) Before the show we had dinner under the trees of the courthouse. There we got to visit with Rachel some more and ran into a few other friends and acquaintances attending the show.

The show itself was awesome. Though it was a struggle for the tech people and the performers. The Rhea County courthouse, despite its historical stature, is still a working courthouse. And the day of the show the court was in session. The court was supposed to be out by noon but didn't end until two. That put all the Tokens people under the gun. Especially since this show was being filmed. And given that the show was being filmed some of the segments of the show had to be re-taped if something glitchy happened. That often disrupted the flow of the performers, who had to be repeatedly started and stopped by the film crew. But it all worked for me. You got to hear songs twice and it made the audience feel like we were participants working hard with the performers to get the show on film so that others could enjoy it later.

Enough about our visit. You're here for theological conversation. So, three theological reflections about the show.

First, through Lee Camp and Lipscomb University I was thrilled to have my tradition, the Churches of Christ, hosting the show. What a weird tradition I have! As I was describing to Rachel, the Churches of Christ are such a mixed lot right now. Practically speaking, I think we are two different traditions right now, what I've called ecumenical Churches of Christ versus the sectarian Churches of Christ.

The Tokens show in Dayton was an illustration of this divide and how within the ecumenical Churches of Christ the conversation is so much more vibrant, intellectual and interesting than what is happening in evangelicalism. True, there are difficult cross-pressures being negotiated between the work of our intellectuals and the university administrations who are trying make our schools attractive to evangelical families. So Kudos to Lipscomb and Lee for hosting the conversation about evolution and faith at the Dayton Tokens show. The show represented the best of the (ecumenical) Church of the Christ tradition.

Second, this conversation about faith and evolution is important as highlighted in Rachel's interview with Lee during the show. It goes to the show theme of "false dichotomies." Specifically, as Rachel recounts in her poignant memoir Evolving in Monkey Town, conservative, fundamentalist and evangelical churches are putting the best and brightest of each generation in an untenable position by claiming that you can't be a Christian while believing in evolution. So you have to choose: Creation or Evolution.

Listen, I know there are complex issues here and slippery slopes to avoid. But to allow zero middle ground here is crazy. There are many very smart and honest Christians who will be persuaded by the scientific evidence regarding the age of the earth and the evolution of the species. To force these Christians to make a choice or to simply force them out is not a good long-term strategy. The better way forward is to extend the right-hand of fellowship to everyone, agree to disagree, and keep the conversation energized. I don't mind sharp theological disagreement so long as we share the Eucharist as brothers and sisters afterwards.

My last theological reflection about false dichotomies related to the show has to do with Lee's conversation with Ed regarding the political and theological paradox that was William Jennings Bryan.

For me, the theological star of the Dayton show was William Jennings Bryan. Why? Because Bryan got me thinking after an observation Lee made in asking a question of Ed.

Our understanding of history often reduces to simplistic black and white narratives. And that's how we've come to understand the Scopes trial. Especially if you watch a film like Inherit the Wind. On the one side is William Jennings Bryan, religious fundamentalist defending a literal reading of the bible. On the other side is Clarance Darrow, courageous defender of intellectual liberty and free thinking. These two titans go head to head in the Scopes trial, in Darrow's famous cross-examination of Bryan about the bible, with Darrow the clear victor. Reason trumps religious fundamentalism!

(And yet, even in Inherit the Wind we see this sort of dichotomy undermined. My favorite scene in Inherit the Wind is the final one. The courtroom is empty, Darrow is alone and packing his briefcase. He picks up the bible in one hand and The Origin of Species in the other. Darrow weighs them back and forth, looking like he's pondering which one to take with him and which one to leave behind. In the end, with a smile, he tucks both the bible and The Origin under his arm and walks out of the courtroom. Darrow refuses to choose. Or, rather, he chooses both.)

Back to the paradox of Bryan. Why was Bryan in Dayton crusading against evolution? The issue for Bryan wasn't really about a literal interpretation of the bible, the concern of so many evangelicals today. The important issue for Bryan was the moral direction of American society.

Specifically, as both Lee and Ed pointed out, in the wake of the bloodshed of World War I Bryan felt that evolution undermined both Christianity and democracy, replacing each with a "might makes right" ethic, where Nietzschean  "supermen" would justify their domination of the weak with an appeal to "the survival of the fittest." And Bryan had a point here. As Lee mentioned during the show, Hitler's Mein Kampf was published on July 18, 1925 while the Scopes trial was taking place in Dayton.

Relatedly, at the time of the Scopes trial Bryan was a vocal critic of American imperialism and militarism. Which is interesting. Today, how many evangelical Christians who reject evolution are also sharp critics of American imperialism and militarism? Not many. Which goes to the paradox of Bryan and how he is a lesson for our own time.

Specifically, if I had to choose I'd be happy to trade evangelicals a belief in evolution for a vigorous prophetic witness against American imperialism and militarism. I'd happily shift to a belief in a literal seven day creation if evangelicals collectively raged and protested against foreign wars, drone strikes and imperialistic policies.

Biblical literalism isn't the boogie man here, it's Empire.

Add to this the fact that Bryan was also an outspoken critic of capitalism and a defender of labor. Bryan argued for an income tax in which the rich pay more than the poor along with the creation of the U.S. Department of Labor. How many evangelicals today align with those sorts of policies? Bryan was also a supporter of the woman's suffrage movement.

My point here that Bryan doesn't fit into the "fundamentalist" box we've created for him. It's another example of the false dichotomies we are living with. William Jennings Bryan was a religious fundamentalist who was also a social progressive.

Which makes you wonder, maybe we need more William Jennings Bryans in the world rather than fewer of them. Because the modern heirs of William Jennings Bryan--Bryan, the defender of labor and critic of American imperialism and militarism--look little like their ancestor.

And let me end with this, how in thinking about Bryan during the show, maybe for the first time, I started to re-think my easy endorsement of evolution.

An answer Ed gave to Lee about Bryan prompted this reflection. Specifically, how did Bryan's religious conservative fuel is social progressivism?

According to Ed it was Bryan's belief in the Imago Dei, that we are all created in the image of God. That belief--that all humans have divine dignity and worth--fueled Bryan's work for women's suffrage and his defense of the working man in the face of capitalistic exploitation. Belief in the Imago Dei also drove Bryan's criticisms of imperialism and militarism.

And this was also why Bryan was so alarmed about evolution. According to Bryan, evolution undermined the Imago Dei, leaving behind a social-Darwinian ethic of survival of the fittest--Hitler's vision where the weak, deformed, defective, handicapped and retarded would be removed from society. A world where the strong could dominate the weak.

Where is human dignity to be grounded if Darwin was right?

Secular humanists, of course, have a suite of responses to Bryan's worry. Bryan's concern, that evolution would unmoor ethics, has often been refuted.

And yet, many intellectuals have noted a curious gap in arguments like those offered by the New Atheists. Specifically, people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens seem to simply assume a foundation of liberal democracy without pondering very much where that foundation comes from or the basis for its warrants. Why should we assume that liberal democracy or the values of humanism will be the necessary and "natural" default of human society or the telos of human development? Why isn't tyranny or social-Darwinism, with the strong dominating over the weak, a perfectly legitimate and warranted alternative? Why shouldn't the victors get to write history and say what is right vs. wrong?

Such questions have led thinkers like Nicholas Wolterstorff in his book Justice: Rights and Wrongs to argue that an account of universal human rights can only be made coherent within a religious framework, similar to the Christian confession regarding the Imago Dei at work in the thought of William Jennings Bryan.

Let me be clear, I am not well-versed enough in the debates regarding ethical foundations to say if such arguments are correct, but I do think that, at the end of the day, a universal commitment to human flourishing and/or rights can only be grounded in an account that takes the value, dignity and worth of every human person as sacred and inviolable. Which makes human dignity, for the purposes of ethical and political reflection, confessional and metaphysical in nature. Or axiomatic--an irreducible given--if you are looking for a less religious word.

Which is to say that belief in universal human dignity is religious in nature. Human dignity is not a matter of science, data or evidence. It is something that we confess. It is simply something we believe in. The most important thing, in fact, that we can believe in.

As Thomas Merton said, "guard the image of man for it is the image of God."

Which is to say, while I accept the scientific account of evolution the ghost of William Jennings Bryan began to haunt me in the middle of the Tokens show.

I accept evolution. But I also believe in the Imago Dei. And those two things, upon reflection, aren't so easily or simply reconciled...

All day Jana and I kept searching for the perfect gift to take home from Dayton. We wanted something to remind us of the Scopes Monkey Trial. The Scopes Trial museum in the courthouse doesn't have a gift shop and the shops in towns don't carry a lot of Scopes memorabilia.

But late in the day Jana found me the perfect gift. It was a vintage cast iron monkey bank (pictured here). I'll be taking it home and proudly displaying it on my office desk.

What a wonderful memento to remind us of the day we visited Rachel and went to the Tokens Show, sitting in the very same courtroom where William Jennings Bryan and Clarance Darrow faced off in 1925.

The day we visited and evolved in Monkey Town.

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33 thoughts on “Visiting and Evolving in Monkey Town”

  1. During the trial the people of Dayton held a banquet in honor of Bryan, who decades earlier twice had run for president not only as a Democrat, but also with the support of other labor-supporting parties and groups as well. John Scopes, the defendant in the trial, attended that banquet. Scopes decades later, reflecting the thinking of millions of Americans in the 1920s, referred to Bryan as "the greatest man produced in the United State since the days of
    Thomas Jefferson." Scopes also at that time used the term by which Bryan was known by his admirers, "the Great Commoner." As a historian, I agree that Bryan is one of the great figures in American history, and should be better known, especially today, as a tireless crusader for the people and against capital. As a Christian, I wish we could get more of our brothers and sisters in Christ to see that Bryan, who was after all a contemporary of Walter Rauschenbusch and Washington Gladden, was not only right on so many issues of his day--and ours--but that he was right for the right reason: faith in Jesus Christ.

  2. Michael Kazin's sympathetic and revisionist biography of Bryan — A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan — tries to put into context Bryan's opposition to the "Social Darwinism" and related movements of the early 20th century. Kazin refutes the idea that Bryan's "real" motivation was opposing eugenics; instead, it was Bryan's consistent stance against any kind of "might-makes-right" morality.

  3. This is a timely post, personally, as I was thinking quite a bit about this last week as I posed a series of questions to Ryan Bell on his 'Year Without G*d' blog. In particular he said (paraphrasing) the teleology of religion was appealing, but he would rather believe an uncomfortable truth that a comfortable lie. But then he talked about how 'we make the world what we want it.' I challenged him that that statement might be as big a 'lie' as religion given how little control we actually have. I personally have no problem with atheism or atheist evangelism, but I do have a concern that many of the headliner atheists seem to be hell-bent (pun intended) on the destruction of religion, but seem to give little thought to the role religion might play in human society (beyond the reductionist view) and what the consequences will be if it is removed with nothing to replace it.

  4. You say that you accept evolution and Imago Dei and that these are not easily or simply reconciled. Isn't that the work of theology--to help us think through how God interacts with the world? Calvin said that creation reflects God (tho sin obscures our ability to see God clearly in creation). If this is so and that creation is through evolution, what does that say about God. It seems to me that those who deny evolution are in the same place that those who denied that the earth revolved around the sun are.

  5. It is the work of theology to handle that reconciliation. My point is that such a reconciliation isn't easy or simple. So I'm not saying we reject evolution, I'm just saying that evolution creates some theological work that I've tended to ignore or downplay.

  6. My take on evolution and imago dei is that God is somehow mysterious involved in the evolutionary process. When humans evolved and developed self-consciousness, it was at that point that part of God's creation was endowed with imago dei and set apart from the rest of the animal world. To have consciousness is to reflect the Universal Consciousness (or Mind) which is God. And since God is love, our teleology is to love. I think this paradigm is similar to the Christian mystical tradition's understanding of our goal of union with God. Just a thought.

  7. The tendency in biography to look for a causal connection between the various facets of a person's life might lead us astray. I don't think people tend to be very systematic and rational. I think we're more erratic and emotive. We have allegiances that sometimes conflict and don't make sense and it's more an accident of temperament and social-historical location than a well-reasoned system of belief. In other words, I think you can say Bryan was right about plenty of things and wrong about this one and you're not throwing any babies out with any bathwater. You're just acknowledging that it isn't very strange for someone to be right about many things and wrong about something else.

    We see this problem a lot when biographers try to deal with moral failings of people we generally revere. We either bracket out the flaw (no one wants to talk about MLK's infidelity or Yoder's abuse of women) or we make the opposite mistake and we say the fly spoils the whole soup.

    Lot's of people are "good without God". The Bryans and Wolterstorff's of the world can't pin "might makes right" on scientific or atheistic materialism because it fails to make sense of the many virtuous atheists or the many power-hungry Christians through history. The data just doesn't support the hypothesis.

    A further question I have is where does the quest for truth rate in all this? It seems that there is an argument here about the moral consequences of our beliefs and perhaps a suggestion that certain beliefs even if true might be worth rejecting based on perceived negative moral consequences. Is seeking truth not itself a virtuous pastime? What a strange position to be in to argue for holding to a falsehood on moral grounds.

  8. You definitely got me thinking today. Here are a few other thoughts on Imago Dei and Evolution...

    I think that as we get a better understanding of biology we're actually seeing the reverse of what Bryan feared. That is, we're beginning to see the Imago Dei increasingly in non-human animals in addition to ourselves. Rather than evolution bringing us down to the level of the animals the opposite is happening. We're increasingly elevating the worth of non-human animals. You see this in the rise of vegetarianism, the opposition to cruelty to animals, experimentation on animals, etc... etc... For the first time in our species' history we are seeing animals as more than a means to an end, but seeing them as ends in an of themselves. We see the rising concept of Animal Rights ( wherein certain non-human animals are being granted legal protections. Very interesting stuff.

    In other words, what if this is analogous to the clean/unclean dynamic. Bryan feared that by recognizing the fundamental similarity of humans and animals that human dignity would be polluted, but in a Christlike reversal it is human dignity that is bleeding onto animals instead of the other way around.

  9. The Imago Dei provides a powerful foundation for an active faith. George Fox, the founder of my own Quaker tradition, said to "Find that of God in every man." which led to women ministers as early as 1650, an anti- slavery position and pacifism.
    I wonder if a resolution of the perceived conflict between evolution and the inago Dei is found in examining how we bear the image of God. If the way we bear the image of God is relational, that is we are human to the extent we have realtionships with each other and with God, then I don't see any conflict. Scriptural support for the idea that we bear the image of God at the level of relationship is Genesis 1 "let us create man in our image" and in the image of God he created them male and female. Thus humans are modeled after the trinity and are meant to exist as a loving :"us" just like God. Additional scriptural support is John 17 where Jesus prays relational unity among men just as he has unity with his father.
    This idea idea also squares with some psychological accounts of how we gain our identity from how we perceive our relationships with other people. In short, I wonder if looking at how we bear the image of God can reduce the tension described in todays post

  10. I don't quite see why evolution and Imago Dei should be so hard to reconcile...but I am not a scientist so am not sure how good my grasp of the most recent theories and evidence is. But as I understand it, the free-for-all survival of the fittest model is kind of a caricature- although still debated, cooperation is now seen as playing a larger role in evolution, isn't it? And when I read about the earliest stages of humanity, or Neanderthal culture, or Neolithic culture (fully human by then of course, but still very very strange-looking to us), I'm struck by the beginning of music, art, language, mourning over death, etc....Neanderthals cared for the injured and disabled and old among them, for example. Even if the earliest humans or almost-humans were not exactly like us, how did they not reflect the image of God at least somewhat? They were already engaging in symbolic and religious behavior; they were already engaging in mercy. And they were also already committing violence against each other- showing a need for God. And the more we learn about animal emotions and cognition, the blurrier the lines seem. That is, why do we think humans beginning from animals makes humans so much less? Do animals have nothing to do with God? Even if we are not vegetarians and don't give animals sacred status, we can still recognize that animals are much more complex than people used to think. Maybe we are animals slowly brought over time to a deeper knowledge of God and ourselves than other animals could ever have, but we are still on a continuum with them, and I think that is important somehow.

  11. Thank you for a great article. My birthday was that week and I so wanted to make it to Dayton for the Tokens Show but was unable to do so. It would have been wonderful to have met you and RHE.

    Your questions and worries about social Darwinism were my own at one time. Even in my most fundamentalist of times I believed in care for the poor, weak, and hurting. It has always been a part of my faith DNA and I refer to it as geektheology.

    How I've reconciled evolution and my faith has boiled down to this: Human beings, in many cases, have evolved to a point in history where for many of us caring for the hurting and weak is something we see in the Scriptures and our faith tradition very clearly. Jesus lived in a point in history where his care for the outcast was strange and weird (geeky) and the Hebrews had a rich tradition of it in their Scriptures as well.

    In seeing this, in seeing human beings grow and change in their care for the other I see the divine hand of God. This means we are not living as the beast of the field but, rather, as those unique beings with the breath of God breathed into them.

  12. We see something like this in the work of ethicist Peter Singer, his notion of "expanding the moral circle" to include non-humans and even the planet. A vision to which I'm very sympathetic. That said, Singer is working with a utilitarian calculus rather than treating human life as sacrosanct. As a consequence, some of the implications he reaches given the calculus he employs are pretty controversial.

    All that to say, while on the surface I like the move of extending the Imago Dei outward, the particulars of that need to be unpacked ethically, politically, pragmatically and theologically. I've not seen that sort of work done. If a baby, a tree and an ant all manifest the Imago Dei how should I adjudicate between killing a baby, a tree or an ant?

  13. The issue I was trying to get at wasn't if people can be good without God. The question I was after was about ethics: How do we define the good? And if a part of that definition involves the belief that all human life is sacred how can that particular belief be grounded? Or does it just have to be accepted axiomatically/confessionally?

  14. True, there is cooperation within close-knit kin groups. Unfortunately, most of the violence in the world is sectarian violence rooted in this "in group" bias. Witness the violence today in Gaza, the Ukraine and Iraq.

  15. 6 comments:

    (1) The demythologising and rehabilitation of Bryan is to be welcomed. The same should go for Darwin! There is plenty of work out there (biographies, studies, articles, etc. - including an ET blog-post) that demonstrates that far from being in league with the devil, the great man was on the side of the angels.

    (2) It is insufficient to agree to disagree with creationists. The neo-Darwinian synthesis is true beyond any reasonable doubt (though there are scientific skirmishes about the details), and truth is truth wherever we find it. Besides, the intellectual embarrassment of creationism is part of a whole raft of false beliefs and bad faith, with immense missiological implications. It is to be rejected in no uncertain terms. Of course we may make common cause with creationists on specific ethical issues - but then that goes for atheists too.

    (3) What we mean by the “image of God” requires close inspection and definition. Our starting (and ending) point must be Jesus, not Genesis. The “image of God” is not a what but a who: Jesus is the imago Dei (Colossians 1:15ff., Hebrews 1:1ff.). Genesis 1:26ff. must be interpreted Christologically, the First Adam by the Second (Romans 5:12ff.).

    (4) The regnant paradigm of the “image of God” until recent times has been the Dominion Paradigm (“subdue the earth ...”), the most perverse version of which continues to be deployed by (especially evangelical) Christians to legitimise the desecration of the environment (richly seasoned with climate change denial), as well as (implicitly) the exploitation of the poor. And what is this - O the irony of it! - but baptised Social Darwinism?

    (5) However, even the more recent Stewardship Paradigm, a huge improvement, is theologically insufficient: it is too anthropocentric, too patronising. Aric’s comments about “animal rights” are salient here - and may be expanded beyond "sentient" creatures. Jesus of Nazareth is the Cosmic Christ who reconciles all things.

    (6) I cannot recommend too highly Elizabeth Johnson’s recent Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love (2014), which is as beautiful as it is brilliant. I think you will find that it not only frames the issues that Richard (as ever) so challengingly raises, it also articulates some of the the answers to which both post and thread are gesturing.

  16. I see your point; an evolutionary perspective inevitably theorizes some kind of groups in competition with each other. Even so, evolution is just an evidence-based description of a process; I don't see how accepting its historical reality eliminates God or means that we need to take it as morally prescriptive or a moral framework.

    Why can't humans as the result of evolution also be in the image of God? Is the idea that the process of evolution is corrupt and therefore humans made through evolution are corrupt? I mean, that if evolution is a natural law/principle, God must have created the world to work that way and since evolution seems to work violently, this makes either creation or God or humans or all three not good? I guess I wouldn't disagree, except to say that unlike Bryan, I don't think the original biblical account is any better. The Bible asserts that we were made in the image of God, but doesn't give much of a vision of what life as a non-competitive Imago Dei before the fall could have looked like, except no clothes and no work, and involving only two people before it fell apart INSTANTLY. Not to mention the fact that the snake was already in the garden, so this wasn't a perfectly good creation (I think you've pointed out that the Bible doesn't really answer the question of the origin of evil). I know you're not a biblical literalist, but even as a poetic account, Genesis is not comforting or fully explanatory. Later in the Bible we're told a lot about what being the image of God means, but it is always about what it means for us in a broken world ruled by unjust powers. Its meaning always becomes clear in opposition to evil.

    The Bible seems to posit humans made perfect, in the image of God, but failing instantaneously. Evolution presents a long and messy process of greater consciousness (and ever broader and more inclusive groups, although the news doesn't make it seem that way) and thus, maybe, humans working towards what they were meant to be- Imago Dei. From one perspective, 99% of human history has been about overcoming the fall. From the other, 99% of human history has been and will be about overcoming evolution-based competitive impulses. The stories just don't seem that different to me. We might not understand God's role in evolution, but the Genesis story is opaque too. Maybe the competitive forces of evolution are just the equivalent of the snake in the garden.

  17. They added another three shows next weekend, so there is still time!

  18. From one perspective, 99% of human history has been about overcoming the
    fall. From the other, 99% of human history has been and will be about
    overcoming evolution-based competitive impulses. The stories just don't
    seem that different to me.

    I think you're missing something important. Why, according to evolution, should you try to overcome those evolution-based competitive impulses? Unlike in the Christian story, there is nothing in evolution that says you should or must overcome those competitive impulses. If we are supposed to following the trajectory of evolution isn't it more natural for us to follow those competitive impulses and engage in out-group violence?

    So you see my point. You state that we should overcome these impulses--like Christians say we should overcome the Fall--but where does that imperative originate? I doesn't come from evolution or from nature. So it has to be coming from outside the system. Which is the point I was making in the post.

    Simply put, the two stories are very different. In the Christian story the Fall is experienced as a problem that must be addressed. By contrast, there is nothing in evolution that says out-group violence is immoral or problematic.

  19. yes, I see- you're right, though I'm not sure I expressed myself clearly. Just to be clear, I WAS trying to envision the imperative as originating outside the system even given the reality of evolution- the amorality of evolution as itself being the problem to be overcome (by God and us). That is, I wasn't trying to argue that morality can come out of
    evolution, but that evolution and the Fall could be equivalent on some
    kind of level. And instead of humanity before the Fall representing the morality outside the system, Jesus would. But if evolution has governed the whole history of the creative process on earth, this view would put God in an odd and maybe too troubling relationship to creation (as somehow in opposition to almost the entire creative process?). I wouldn't know how to begin explaining his role in it. So the problem you highlight in your last paragraph is doubtless still there.

  20. And herein is the problem; making Church of Christ institutions of higher learning "attractive" as the larger culture finds evangelicalism hateful and mean, punching down instead of up: "True, there are difficult cross-pressures being negotiated between the work of our intellectuals and the university administrations who are trying make our schools attractive to evangelical families."

    Also highlights the problem with Church of Christ liberalism: essentially we're just as sectarian as before, except that we've widened our electrified and mined theological borders to be more inclusive of those, now, more politically likeminded. This is merely "swelling" our churches writ large.

  21. Thanks, that helps a lot. If I'm understanding you right--that the amoral (or even immoral in some instances) dynamics of evolution can be equated with "the Fall"--I think we basically agree. I see it much the same way.

    And I also agree (to use your words) that "if evolution has governed the whole history of the creative process on earth, this view would put God in an odd and maybe too troubling relationship to creation." That tension and problem is the exact one I was trying to highlight in the post, that there is no simple or easy reconciliation between evolution and the Imago Dei. As you point out, it sets up a "troubling relationship."

  22. Utilitarian ethics is sometimes treated as a kind of boogeyman, which is unfortunate. The truth is we all use utilitarian ethics (and should) for certain aspects of our moral reasoning. Medical ethics, for example, is often utilitarian in nature. Cutting someone with a knife is morally wrong, correct? Unless that knife is a scalpel and you're a surgeon and the procedure in question is medically necessary and has a good chance of succeeding, and the patient has given informed consent etc... etc... That kind of calculation of means and ends is important.

    That said, I don't think a Utilitarian approach is actually what is driving the expanding of the moral circle with non-human animals. I think it is more deontological, ironically. Science is showing us that many animals suffer, have memories, have emotions and so on. The very idea of sentience is getting fuzzier and that presents us with some interesting choices. One choice is to view certain animals as deserving of inherent dignity and rights. This isn't a teleological view. It isn't about what the animal's purpose is or whether it will ultimately result in a net gain in flourishing for people. It is just an awareness that we can't blithely treat animals the same way we would treat something that is incapable of suffering/joy.

  23. Again, I'm very sympathetic to how ethicists like Singer focus on aggregate suffering across all conscious life forms. The issue I have, coming out of the post, is that if we include animal suffering in our considerations (folding them into the Imago Dei) we've just backed up the issue I described in the post. Why should animal suffering matter to us? Why shouldn't the strong (humans) dominate the weak (animals)? What in evolution--or the whole of the natural world--says it is wrong to create suffering? Is a cat immoral as it pays with a mouse? Is a chimp immoral if it kills and eats the baby of another chimp? Is a parasite evil as it kills the child?

    In short, the imperative to reduce suffering because suffering is evil is, in my opinion, akin the religious, confessional move I describe in the post. We've just replaced "human person" with "the capacity to experience suffering" as the Imago Dei. (A tantalizing move, I must say. You should push that idea further.)

    Basically, that we should or must reduce suffering is something that we just believe in.

    That is to say, it's religion.

  24. I've usually held that the Imago Dei is love, and defined love by recourse to Christ's example, which suggests that it is indeed intimately bound up in our capacity to suffer, specifically our capacity to suffer out of a desire to ameliorate the suffering of others. It would say to me, therefore, that the moment we acknowledge an animal has the capacity to suffer then it becomes an imperative to desire that we should suffer rather than to allow that animal to suffer. The expression of solidarity with those who suffer (including many non-human animals) is how we turn the Imago Dei into a verb.

  25. Agreed. But do you see my point that this imperative to love isn't found in nature but must be confessed? Or do you think I'm wrong about that?

  26. I think that is a really good question, and I don't have an answer. Lot's of elements of love are certainly found in nature (cooperation, affection, etc...), but I have sometimes said that Christian love is unnatural in the sense that it is not adaptive. Particularly in its enemy-love manifestation, Christian love decreases survival odds. It makes sense for societies to laud family-love, tribal-love, even neighbor love and limited forms of stranger/alien love. These things are all potentially advantageous for human society. Enemy-love is explicitly disadvantageous. In this way I'd say that the imperative to love in a Christian sense is not found in nature. It is confessional.

    There is another side of me that wonders whether we have nature all wrong. I wonder whether, following Colossians, Jesus isn't revealing that the nature of the universe *is* love. That self-interest, survival, and advantage are all lies and grace is the deeper truth. I wonder if realizing that animals suffer isn't a glimpse into this deeper reality, that we are bound by something much more mysterious than we think. In other words, is there maybe a cosmic confession of the imperative to love (akin to rocks and trees crying out in place of the crowds proclaiming Christ)?

  27. I do think love is a telos in the universe. But I think its localized, temporary, and fragile. I don't think love is big or strong enough to grab and control the whole tide of creation. Will love ever be able to overtake and reverse entropy? I wonder. It's what strikes me about the raising of Lazarus. It wasn't just that Lazarus was dead. It was that he was rotting, that entropy had gotten a hold of him. Can love roll back the tides of decay and dissolution? On a grand cosmic scale? Might love one day rule over every atom the way entropy does now?

    Waxing on here, I like the idea of seeing the cosmos as one big connected web of mutuality. At some level I think that's true. But I quickly tire of that vision and the spiritualism it produces because, at the end of the day, the Reaper will come a'knocking. And when Death grins in at the banquet things get pretty desperate and grim. Sure, I'm connected to everything. It's a beautiful sight. But if ruining some part of that web gets me a few more days of life or happiness why shouldn't engage in that violence? Which goes to the topic of my recent book. Death--our fear of dissolution--sits at the root of our "sin problem." We won't get people to stop ruining the cosmic web until we get them to overcome their slavery to the fear of death. I think love is the only way to do that, the love of learning how to die the way Jesus died. Which, it seems to me, is the only way to die that can create the possibility for truly living.

  28. Someday I would love to preach with you. Not normally a collaborative artform I know, but there it is.

  29. Great write-up! I'm a frequent reader and infrequent commenter. I attended Bryan, and love your thoughts on the dichotomy between the man and the legacy. Some more information you might find interesting: the textbook that Scopes used, A Civic Biology, is replete with gross racism and eugenics. The full text is available on Google Books. I'll link to the discussion, but it's worth clicking through and reading the relevant passages. Today we draw a distinction between "biological darwinism" and "social darwinism" but the book demonstrates that this divide was not nearly so sharp a decade ago.

  30. Yes! Yes! Yes! This is an important distinction I've tried to draw with others but have consistently failed to articulate.

    Who are the most prevalent users of evolutionary theory in the modern social fabric? I'd argue that it's folks arguing for Game and HBD (Human Biodiversity). The former is pure distilled misogyny, the second is pure distilled racism. And both of them make perfect sense and are actually difficult to argue against without a different ethical framework.

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