I concluded my previous post on DNA and evolution with this comment:
“DNA is fundamental to all life. As christians we can see it as part of the way God has set up the universe. So we should be willing and interested to learn what it tells us about life. I think what we learn is exciting.”
I want to explore that idea a little more. (I’m wondering if this might be one of the most important topics I’ve tackled here.)
It’s hard not to think about God in certain ways
In our western English-speaking culture there seems to be two different folklores about God. Either he’s a benign grandfather in the sky who smiles at whatever we do as long as we don’t hurt anyone else, or else he’s a cosmic controller who ordains catastrophes (“acts of God”) and smites whenever he is displeased.
Neither of these is really a christian view of God, but you can see where they both came from. The first interprets the love of God as mere sentiment, and not the hard-as-nails love of an ethical and just father. And the second is derived from the most primitive ideas about God in the early Old Testament.
The first seems often to be the view of people who have never been very religious, but kind of believe in a God and expect him to be as tolerant as they are. The second seems to be held by two very different groups of people – christians of a fairly fundamentalist kind, or atheists who once were christians of a fairly fundamentalist kind.
Yahweh vs Jesus?
But christians face a difficulty, because we have both the Old Testament and the New, and while the cosmic controller and the benign grandfather are both caricatures of what the Bible teaches, there still does seem to be a difference between what Jesus taught and how God is portrayed, say, in Exodus.
Most christians want to defend God as all-powerful, sovereign, all-knowing, good and unchangeable, so they are uncomfortable with saying the Old Testament picture is wrong and Jesus corrected it, or that God changed.
We have a dilemma.
CS Lewis to the rescue!
As a scholar specialising in ancient history and literature, CS Lewis saw the Bible as containing many forms of ancient literature, including myth (see CS Lewis on the Bible, history and myth). This didn’t bother him as it seems to bother many people. In God’s providence, the Bible includes poetry, parables and letters, so “I think he meant us to have sacred myth and sacred fiction as well as sacred history”.
His explanation is interesting. He believed God started with ancient pagan beliefs and refined them, so that what was “not unlike the Pagan religions, is gradually purged and enlightened till it becomes the religion of the great prophets and Our Lord Himself”. “The earliest stratum of the Old Testament contains many truths in a form which I take to be legendary, or even mythical — hanging in the clouds, but gradually the truth condenses, becomes more and more historical.”
The medium is the message?
But he went further, and made this significant comment almost as an aside:
“That whole process is the greatest revelation of God’s true nature.”
What did he mean?
I think he meant that this process of refining what is already there, using forms of communication that were natural to the people of the day, shows us that God is less inclined to impose himself on us humans, and more inclined to work unobtrusively to serve us.
Yes, the sovereign God of the universe loves us with a love that serves rather than takes or demands. Why? Because he wants to give us the dignity of being his “children” and friends, not servants (as Jesus said in John 15:14-15). The creator creates not to impose, but to give life and freedom.
It is an audacious claim. Let’s see if we can see other examples of this.
God’s true nature
The big bang and the universe we see
God could have created the universe as a going concern, just like it portrays in Genesis, but it appears that he didn’t do it that way. Instead he created an enormous amount of energy at a small point, plus space, time and the laws that govern it all, and then more or less let it go, to form itself within the parameters he set up. Of course he knew all along how it would turn out, but it is a less obvious way for an all-powerful God to do it.
We see a similar process in evolution. God “could” have created human beings straight up, along with a habitat for us, but he didn’t do it that way. Instead, God waited for something like 10 billion years for earth to form, cool and take shape, and for life to form with cells, amino acids and DNA. Then he waited another 4 billion years for that life to evolve through many complicated processes, until finally human beings formed, with the mental, moral and spiritual capacity to be autonomous beings with choice that could relate to him.
It appears that we humans appeared via a more “hands-off” process than many christians have been led to think.
God’s initial revelation of himself
Again, it would seem to us that God “could” have done it differently. He could have appeared directly to people, told them exactly what he expected, not in the simple way expressed in the Genesis story where only one things was forbidden, but with full instructions on how to live a life that pleases him. He could have made things so clear, and imposed himself on the human race so strongly, that we had little choice.
But he didn’t.
The historical, archeological and literary evidence indicates that God allowed the human race to develop their own impressions of who he is based on their experience of the numinous which many anthropologists believe were the beginnings of religion. I think it quite likely that God was interacting with responsive humans all over the world.
But eventually he settled on one responsive tribe, and took them through the process that CS Lewis describes, of refining their beliefs so that they gradually became aware of his greatness, his sense of morality, his wisdom and his love. But they learnt most of this through experience, both positive and negative, none of it was forced, they had to choose to follow.
The fullest revelation – a “nobody”!
And so Jesus came, the son of God reduced down to a mere human being so we could understand the character of God. And not a king, a general, a philosopher or a rich man, but a baby born in some hick village, a man who worked with his hands, a peasant teacher, and eventually an executed criminal. A nobody who “could” easily have escaped attention, even after his followers said he had been raised back to life by God as a vindication of all those amazing crazy things he had been teaching.
It was easy to miss what was going on. The religious leaders, with centuries of revelation stored away in their minds, often missed it. You had to have ears ready to hear what God was saying through him, eyes to see the truth behind the “nobody” speaking it out. Isaiah had somehow seen that the one to come would be “Mighty God”, but also a man “despised” and not “esteemed”. (Isaiah 9:6, 53:3)
Too many people today miss it too, even many christians.
But some then and now see him, and catch a glimmer of God’s perspective. Paul said (Colossions 2:6-7) he “did not think equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant”, so that God’s purposes would be achieved.
The omnipotent God achieves his purposes of creating fully autonomous beings capable of choosing to love him or reject his love, by becoming a servant and making only a small ripple in history – yet a ripple that is still spreading outwards to this day.
Life in the Spirit
And the beat goes on! Today we christians are just animated carbohydrates like everyone else, yet we carry within us the Spirit of God, hidden unless we attend carefully, and barely discernible (unfortunately) to the watching world. God’s truth is really stored in fragile “clay pots”!
We stumble along, the church of Jesus stumbles along, but still God works in generally unobtrusive ways. The most unlikely people become converts and we can hardly understand how, but it was God working subtly. The kingdom of God is slowly advancing; even as it declines in some places it is growing elsewhere. Where it is functioning well, some people are healed miraculously, but many more benefit from the hospitals, schools, clinics, aid and development projects and neighbourliness that characterise christians at our best. And quietly people keep turning to the God that many people simply do not see.
Eyes wide open
I believe Lewis was deeply insightful, and right. All these processes do indeed reveal the nature of the “three mile an hour God”. He respects the physical universe and the human beings he initiated, but which in a sense made themselves, and he generally only interferes in subtle ways. He waits for us to turn to him but is constantly offering himself to us with hints and impressions that we’ll miss unless we’re paying attention. He works within human limitations and culture, but inspires us to transcend them.
But once we “see” this revelation of his nature, we see so many things more clearly.
We understand the Bible better
We don’t have to grit our teeth and try to defend the Bible, especially those bits in the Old Testament that seem so far from the God of Jesus. We can see God refining, building from the known to the new, correcting wrong ideas and offering tantalising glimpses of wild and beautiful ideas beyond human imagining. God can reveal himself through wrong ideas, myth and incomplete history – it’s just that the God we now see is not quite the same as the God we thought we knew.
We understand God better
God is more like Jesus than he is like any of our other preconceptions and imaginings. He does indeed have all power and all knowledge, but he chooses to veil that power to allow us to develop as autonomous beings, invited to share friendship with him if we can dare to take up his offer. A God who “stoops to conquer”.
We can ask him to intervene, to guide, to heal, and sometimes he does. But other times that would be contradictory to his plan. I don’t pretend to understand how he works all that out, I can just faintly see that is something like how he works (I think). So let us keep praying, and keep trusting.
And he calls us to nothing less than a partnership with him in restoring creation, including “lost” humanity, starting with ourselves.
And we can understand how he wants us to live
If we are following Jesus, God’s character will be slowly formed in us if we will let him. We will start to behave in ways that are consistent with his newly revealed character. We will …..
- advance his kingdom on earth by serving rather than imposing,
- love and forgive even if it kills us,
- treat others with respect and never force our views, or God’s views, on them,
- do good to others, following the example God sets us, and
- be content to be “nobodies” who are quietly changing the world, one small step at a time (after all, there are very many of us, and if each one does their bit ….).
Don’t stop now!
I am still grappling with these ideas, praying for more wisdom, and struggling to understand and apply these insights.
I offer them to you in the hope that they will be as revolutionary to you as they are to me. Please don’t stop now – don’t stop learning or growing.
We still have much to learn and know, much to do to fulfil our part of the mission while we still have breath. Together we can see him more clearly, love him more dearly and follow him more nearly.