The radical transformations of Western Christianity from about 1800 to today can be seen as three acts in an unfinished play.
Act One was staged against the background of the ancient three-story universe that was assumed by those who wrote the Bible, and still believed by most of our country’s founders in the late 1700s.
That ancient universe was a small, local affair. The sky – the “firmament” – was made of stone. The Greeks had assigned their strongest god to hold it up, and Apollo towed the Sun across the sky with his chariot every morning. At night, the light “from above” came through the holes in the firmament (We call them stars). These were the heavens that opened, through which the voice of God could be heard acknowledging Jesus as his son (Luke 3:21-22), and to which Jesus “ascended” after his death. Below the flat round Earth was Hell, from which fire and brimstone erupted through volcanoes, as anyone could plainly see.
Everything in this tiny universe was created by Yahweh, the God of the Bible. The whole universe was about 6,000 years old, a date arrived at by adding up all the time periods listed in the Bible. All forms of life on earth were created at about the same time, and no species could ever become extinct. In 1785, Thomas Jefferson inspected a huge fossilized bone, a bone too large to belong to any known animal. Jefferson wrote:
“Such is the economy of nature, that no instance can be produced of her having permitted any one race of her animals to become extinct.”*
One of the (minor) reasons that he sent Lewis and Clark out west to explore was to find the animals from which that huge bone came, for Jefferson was sure they must still exist somewhere (it was later identified as coming from a giant sloth, long extinct). Most people believed that the only major geological upheaval there had ever been happened about 4,000 years ago, during the Flood. Most importantly, we humans were at the very center of God’s concern, and his whole plan for the universe gave us a special and cherished place in it. This was our home, made to serve all of our needs by our heavenly father.
Those ideas are so foreign to many of us today that it is hard to remember they were simply assumed, and by even the best minds.
Act Two featured the rise of natural sciences – especially geology and biology – which fundamentally changed the worldview within which Western religions had been born, and in which they had some intellectual coherence. I wrote of these in the last two Monday Musings — see here (http://inewp.com/?p=5268) and here (http://inewp.com/?p=5341).
Act Three has been going on from the late 1800s to today, between Science and Religion, broadly defined. Each world picture lacks an indispensable element they are still trying to provide. Literalistic religion is trying to regain intellectual integrity (or at least political power) for the ancient world picture, while sciences try to claim topics like empathy, compassion, “good and evil,” morality, human nature, and how we should live.
Fundamentalists have tried to make arguments for the truth of a literal picture of the ancient worldview since the late 19th century, most famously at the 1925 “Scopes Monkey Trial” in Dayton, TN, where Clarence Darrow caricatured both fundamentalist (and former friend) William Jennings Bryan, and fundamentalism itself as ignorant and anachronistic. That “young Earth” fundamentalist worldview went underground, but didn’t go away. If you find yourself in Petersburg, Kentucky, you can visit the Creation Museum. There, you can see Adam and Eve living in the Garden of Eden, where children play and dinosaurs roam near Eden’s rivers, the serpent “coils cunningly in the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil,” and so on. It’s a 70,000 square foot showplace for literal facts that are cold, hard, and wrong (creationmuseum.org).
To many, this is pathetic, but there is a lot of pathos behind it. Science has “won” the argument over whether the Earth is just 6,000 years old, heaven is “up,” etc. A recent Pew Forum on religion and public life reported that Americans are religiously illiterate – even atheists and agnostics know more about religion than “believers” (pewforum.org).
People are voting with their feet: the biblical stories no longer have a foundation in facts, and are no longer interesting. For the past century, we have increasingly adapted stories from literature, movies, radio and television to fill the hole formerly filled by stories from the Bible. Today, movies using computer-generated images are blurring the line between reality and fantasy. But the best of the films — like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Avatar and Inception — lure us into their mythic worlds because they are dealing, like all good myths, with the enduring yearnings and fears of humans. It’s a safe bet that people under 40-50 know these stories much better than they know stories from the Bible.
In the meantime, some sciences are working to fill the void in the scientific picture of the universe, by creating factually supported stories that include us in important and inspiring ways. Premiering in 1980, Carl Sagan’s thirteen-part “Cosmos” drew millions of viewers to watch this charismatic storyteller try to make the ideas of nearly infinite time and space accessible to non-scientists. It’s still the most popular such television series of all time. A dozen years later, Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry’s influential book The Universe Story was written as evangelical cosmology — its subtitle was, “From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era: A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos.”
A few years earlier, historian David Christian produced a course on what he called Big History: from the origins of the universe to the present. And primatologists like Jane Goodall, Roger Fouts (and his famous chimpanzee Washoe, who learned to communicate with humans through sign language), and Sue Rumbaugh-Savage (and her remarkable bonobo Kanzi) have documented a range of behavior and emotions in these apes with which we can easily identify. That shouldn’t be surprising, since we share over 98% of our DNA with both chimpanzees and bonobos.
The most prolific and persuasive ethologist — ethology is the study of comparative animal behavior — today is probably Frans De Waal. He has published many observations of animal behavior (aka “stories”) to argue that what’s left of religion’s traditional territory is more properly claimed by sciences: “For me, there is nothing more logical than to look at human society through the lens of animal behavior.” This isn’t anthropomorphizing animals, but realizing how much of our characteristic behavior came from ancestors common both to the great apes and us. Just a few of his book titles outline his argument:
Chimpanzee Politics (1982) Newt Gingrich assigned this book to men and women in Congress in 1994. The message seemed to be, “If you’re going to play politics at this level, you need to understand how it works.”
Peacemaking among Primates (1990)
Good-Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals (1997)
Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are (2005)
The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society (2009)
Speaking from within the scientific world view where life began on Earth four billion years ago, and our species separated from the other great apes over five million years ago, De Wall is amused by the idea that religions could have much useful insight into human nature, because “They’re just too new.”**
Many sciences are contributing data to construct a persuasive story of humans against a background of four billion years of life on earth, and ethical/moral behavior we share with an increasing number of species from a few million years ago to tens of millions of years ago.
Right now, Act Three looks like the metamorphosis from the ancient religious to the modern scientific stories of creation, human origins and nature, good and evil, compassion and empathy. It is a time of creative chaos. Right now, it looks like the biblical world view is the “caterpillar” and the scientific worldview will be the “butterfly.” If so, history will have shown both humor and irony – the Greek word for “soul” (psyche) also means “butterfly.”
* John C. Greene, The Death of Adam (Iowa State Univ. Press, 1959), p. 88.
** Personal conversation.