The hostility of modern Evangelicals (and their Fundamentalist forebears) to the science of evolution is founded less on scripture than on an ancient cosmology from the Hellenistic Era that drew a sharp distinction between the eternal unchangeability of God and the chaotic, unpredictable character of human life and of the world around us. (Think earthquakes and hurricanes, for example.)
This cosmology (often referred to as “Ptolemaic” because it was codified by the astronomer Ptolemy) held good for a couple of thousand years before Copernicus upset it. It envisaged Earth at the center of everything, surrounded by concentric spheres that carried the celestial bodies around us. The closest of these spheres to earth was the one that carried the moon and it served as the demarcation line between the perfection of the heavens above, where all the stars and planets were seen as obeying regular laws, and the radical imperfection of life here below—the sublunary regions of earth, air and sea.
There was a tendency to associate the perfection of the heavens with God’s perfect and unchanging creation and to attribute the chaos of life on earth to some other cause. Among Christians, it could be seen as related to the Fall of Humanity that forced us out of Eden according to Genesis 3. Paul, for example, seems to suggest that humanity’s failure forced the whole sublunary region into its existing distressed and chaotic state (Romans 8:18-25 ).
The Seven Days of Creation, as narrated in Genesis 1, could perhaps be seen as presupposing the idea of a cosmos perfect as it left its Creator’s hand. God did, after all, pronounce it “very good.” One might still ask, of course, whether “very good” necessarily equates to “perfect” in the sense of “beyond alteration or improvement” or whether it just means what it says: “very good.”
The Eden narrative, in Genesis 2-3, however, contains within itself, alongside the possibility of immortal perfection, the possibility of defection, of falling away, of death. Evangelical rejection of biological evolution rests largely on a presupposition that the perfect original creation could not have allowed for such dramatic subsequent change. But the Eden narrative (Genesis 2) actually suggests just the opposite. It says that God did not create the full reality we know as humanity in one moment, but began with the singularity of Adam and only afterward came to recognize that for one such creature to be genuinely human there had to be more than one.
The God of Eden, like other gardeners, seems to work in part by plan and in part by trial and error. Just read the text carefully—literally, in fact. It was such a reading that led to the Four Sonnets on Eden that appeared on this website in recent weeks. They emerged from paying attention to the strong element of change and uncertainty in Genesis 2-3.
It may, of course, have been possible for humans to grow in relationship to one another and to God while still remaining in Eden. Perhaps, in some parallel universe, there are some who did. But we can barely imagine what that would be like, so far is it from our own experience. Perhaps we can get a hint of it from those moments of human joy when we are most filled with love and delight in the creation—including the human creation. That’s the closest we get to Eden.
Christians in the seventeenth century found it difficult to abandon the ancient cosmology with its clear separation of unchanging celestial perfection from our human sublunary floundering. Poets like John Donne and George Herbert could not quite let it go, deeply embedded as it was in the Christian imagination. But, with Galileo and Newton, their successors learned to shift to a different perspective, displacing earth from the center of the universe and losing the orderly symmetry of the old model.
Darwin took this shift to a deeper level, a more concrete and embodied one. This did not prevent the mainstream of Christian theologians from acknowledging the weight of Darwin’s scientific work and that of his followers. Only in Fundamentalism and its progeny did evolution come to be treated as a stand-or-fall challenge to Christian faith. But if Evangelicals would take their direction from the Eden narrative, they might as easily come to a position friendlier to Darwin and to modern evolutionary biology. Here God creates in a less tidy fashion, with an element of the unforeseen and unpredictable. It is not “evolution” in the Darwinian sense, but it leaves ample room for a process like natural selection.
What is more, human and Christian life in this world is an extension of the same reality. We may represent a falling away from one kind of human perfection—that of Eden—but we also represent a new kind of human possibility, that of coming to know good and evil. Whatever humanity may become beyond and with this knowledge will be different from what we could have become before or without it.
Is one kind of existence better than the other? I would not venture to judge in a case where I know only one of the sides being compared. But there is an old Christian tradition that says our fallen and raised humanity will prove the better of the two. It is the tradition of felix culpa, the “fortunate fall,” which brought about the new and unforeseen wonder of Mary’s motherhood and the union of God and humanity in Jesus.
Thus God will gain some lovers who abide
and some who come back wiser to God’s side.