Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Genetics and the Fall

Humans are curious and are continually questioning our place in the universe. We have come a long way in our understanding in a relatively short period of time. Although Yajnavalky proposed a heliocentric solar system (sun at the centre and planets orbiting around it) as early as the 9th Century BCE, it was not widely accepted until mid 17th Century CE. In those 350 years, we have gone from gazing at the planets to aiming for the planets. Presently, both NASA and Spacex are expending a significant amount of time, energy, and money on the concept of colonizing Mars. Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) did the initial research and posited the concept of a gene a little more than 150 years ago. Today, we have mapped the entire human genome and have the capability of manipulating our own genome. We may soon be able to delete defective genes and replace them with healthy ones. The same curiosity and innovation is seen in every aspect of science, engineering, social-science, philosophy, and theology. Human-kind is continually advancing in our understanding of the universe and our relationships with it.

Each of the previously mentioned disciplines does not exist in a vacuum. As advances are made in one area, other disciplines incorporate those discoveries and grow in their understanding of their own place in the conversation. Therefore, it is essential that those of us who follow Jesus continually analyze our theological understandings. God is the same yesterday, today, and forever; his word never changes; but our theological understandings must adapt as we learn from other disciplines. Indeed, the development of the concept of the heliocentric solar system represented one of those large shifts in our understanding and in our theology.

Today, genetics is changing our understanding of humans and is challenging some strongly held beliefs within our theology. As in the time of Copernicus and Galileo (as they explained the heliocentric solar system) we have a few options. We can reject recent genetic science and say it must be wrong, we can reject the Bible and our faith (as some students do when they encounter genetics in a university), or we can see how the genetic science informs our theology and adapt our understandings of our Bible.

One of the biggest questions posed to our current theology is the nature of human genetics and the evolution of man. Contemporary science tells us that the Homo genus first appeared about 1.5 to 2 million years ago while anatomically modern Homo sapiens have been on the planet less than 200,000 years. Recently, through population genetics, it has been possible to determine that the number of individuals necessary to account for the current diversity seen in the human population is in the range of 6,000 to 10,000 people. What this means is that we are not all descended from two individuals but rather from this population of at least 6,000 people.

So, theologically speaking, what does this mean for our understanding of Adam and Eve and the nature of original sin? Clearly, we did not inherit sin from Adam and Eve as if it were a gene on one of our chromosomes. Could it be that Genesis is describing something else in a poetic form? J. Richard Middleton, in a recent article suggests the following scenario.

It is therefore plausible to think that the rise of moral consciousness was a decisive development among anatomically modern Homo sapiens, which resulted from a developing awareness of God’s call to a certain (moral) form of life. It is also plausible to think that it was not long before these humans began to go against the new revelations of conscience, and thus sin was introduced into the world (and both moral consciousness and sinful resistance then spread to all Homo sapiens).… This is a faithful interpretation of Scripture, and fully consistent with evolutionary science.

Middleton is suggesting that we understand the Fall as both a development of, and a rebellion against, conscience. This makes some sense. I have heard parents sometimes say, “Oh that is something our child picked up at day-care.” When a behavior occurs in a certain population of children or adults, it can quickly sweep through the entire population. Perhaps the Genesis account is telling us of a group of people who lived together in a region at a particular time to whom God began to call. He called them out of their life as just another animal in the creation and made them the crown of his creation. He began to call them to a moral form of life and invited them into relationship with him. He bestowed upon them his image and called them adam (earth man) and eve (giver of life). God may have done this with two of the population of 6,000 -10,000 people, or he may have done this in a more general sense with the entire population. Once he had called them to the moral life, it was only a matter of time before humans would rebel against this life to which they were called and sin would spread through the entire population. God has been working with humans ever since, teaching us to follow his ways, even as we rebel against him and go our own way. There is always more for us to learn from him at every stage of the development of humans. He is still coaxing and drawing us toward himself today. We humbly look toward God knowing that we still have more questions than answers; and we keep asking the questions as we seek to find our place in the universe.

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