What’s Real? What’s Important?—Evidence as "God's Word"

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"The most profound insight in the history of humankind is that we should seek to live in accord with reality. Indeed, living in harmony with reality may be accepted as a formal definition of wisdom. If we live at odds with reality (foolishly), then we will be doomed, but if live in proper relationship with reality (wisely), then we shall be saved. Humans everywhere, and at all times, have had at least a tacit understanding of this fundamental principle. What we are less in agreement about is how we should think about reality and what we should do to bring ourselves into harmony with it."  —Loyal Rue, Religion Is Not About God

As humanity's collective intelligence embodied in the new academic discipline of big history shows, the Universe began 13.7 billion years ago and, at least with respect to its upper limit, has engaged in a creative process of increasing complexity ever since: from galaxies of stars that created atoms, to oceans of molecules that brought forth the first living cell, to ecosystems of interactions that created minds, to swirling societies of minds that created culture, technology, and probing subjectivity.

The major transitions in physical, biological, and human evolution can be seen as transformations in how information regarding what's real and what's important is stored and shared in increasingly complex and efficient ways. These two questions: "What's real?" and "What's important?" — or in the words of philosopher of evolution Loyal Rue, "how things are" and "which things matter" — are the fundamental ones that not only all cultures but all life-forms have concerned themselves with. It's easy to see why. Without an accurate sense of the nature of reality and how live in right relationship to reality, you or your culture, no less than amoebas, wouldn't survive. Extinction, after all, is the norm.

All religions are mythic maps of reality. Specifically, they are maps of what's real and what's important that f­acilitate individual and social wellbeing. There's not a religion anywhere in the world that isn't a map of how things are and which things matter, which, when followed, has traditionally led to personal wholeness and social coherence. If you don't get this, you don't get religion.

So how have human beings stored and shared information about these two vital questions during our quarter million year history as Homo sapiens? And how have we done so in ways that simultaneously aligned individual and group self-interest? Only by learning and honoring how this process occurred in the past might we navigate today's challenges with the wisdom commensurate with the full experience of our ancestry. And that wisdom is much deeper and wider than the biblical writers could possibly have accessed.

Many thinkers and writers have chronicled the profound shifts in consciousness and culture catalyzed by how information has been stored and shared in increasingly efficient and accurate ways over the millennia, from orality to literacy to mathematics to science to electronics to computers, and now the internet. Most notable among those who have helped us understand the significance this process are Jesuit historian and philosopher Walter J. Ong, media ecologist Robert K. Logan, and evolutionist John Stewart. Here I will focus primarily on oral and written modes of guidance essential for the wellbeing of individuals and societies.

"God's Word" for 98% of Human History

Prior to verbal, symbolic language — that is, prior to words — information regarding the nature of reality and how to live in accord with it was stored and shared genetically and through cultural practices communicated by sounds, gestures, and behaviors.

Even when we began communicating in words, much vital information re how to survive and reproduce was still stored and shared genetically, as the recent fields of evolutionary psychology and evolutionary brain science illuminate. Getting hungry and horny happens naturally. No thinking necessary. We instinctually know how to handle the basics of safety, sustenance, and sex. We also instinctually have feelings that lead us to cooperate with kin and those who will return the favor. But beyond this, virtually everything important to know about how to thrive, given the unique constraints and opportunities afforded by any particular bioregion or cultural context, would have been stored in the minds of elders and shared via stories and rituals. These stories would naturally have reflected both our daytime and nighttime experience. Sacred tales of animals talking, gods and goddesses blessing, or of demons tempting are no more supernatural than what we do in our dreams is supernatural.

As anthropologist Benson Salem showed in the 1970s, the very notion of supernatural — in opposition to natural — is a Western invention. Only when scientific understandings of "the natural" began emerging was it deemed necessary by some to speak of "the supernatural": that which was imagined to be above or outside of nature.

But flying in our dreams (no matter how real it may feel in the moment) really isn't super-natural; it's just what reality is like in the dream state. Ancient stories of miraculous deeds, superhuman feats, and otherworldly agents and events aren't supernatural either. They are pre-natural. Such explanations came into being long before natural, factual understandings were even possible. (Imagine living 500 years ago and, without using supernatural-sounding language, trying to explain epilepsy, serious infection, how the Himalayas came into existence, or how the sun moves across the sky. Good luck!) As I wrote in the preface of Thank God for Evolution:

How was the world made? Why do earthquakes, tornados, and other bad things happen? Why must we die? And why do different peoples answer these questions in different ways? The big questions that children have always asked and will continue to ask cannot be answered by the powers of human perception alone. Ancient cultures gave so-called supernatural answers to these questions, but those answers were not truly supernatural—they were pre-natural. Prior to advances in technology and scientific ways of testing truth claims, factual answers were simply unavailable. It was not just difficult to understand infection before microscopes brought bacteria into focus; it was impossible. Without an evolutionary worldview, it is similarly impossible to understand ourselves, our world, and what is required for humanity to survive. For religious leaders today to rely on pre-natural answers puts them at odds not only with science but with one another — dangerously so. Their resistance, however, does make sense. Until scientific discoveries are fleshed into the life-giving forms of beauty and goodness (as well as truth and utility), scriptural literalism will command power and influence.

Scripture That Doesn't Evolve Can Become Deadly

"A mistake in our understanding of Creation will result in a mistake in our understanding of God." —St. Thomas Aquinas

When writing first developed (only during the last 5,000 years — 2% of our existence as humans), it was first used to record debts and agreements and only later to communicate information regarding how things are and which things matter.

There are two essential things to remember about storing and sharing information re what's real and what's important via the written word...

First, is the fact that all ancient understandings of the nature of reality and how to live in right relationship to it were passed on orally, from teller to listener to teller to listener long before they were committed to writing. More, they were always being tweaked and embellished along the way — simply because that's the way our brains work. It's impossible not to do this. The children's game of telephone powerfully illustrates this point.

Even in what we Christians refer to as the "New Testament," meaning-filled stories of Jesus life, teachings, death, and resurrection, as well as stories of the birth and development of the early church, were tweaked and embellished and passed on orally for decades before being written down. The early church leaders in the 2nd and 3rd centuries sought to alleviate concerns about the accuracy of these stories by invoking the Holy Spirit as ensuring faithful transmission. But it makes a world of difference whether one has an unnatural or natural understanding of this process. Originally, the phrase "Holy Spirit" pointed to "sacred wind" and "breath of God" — not a supernatural spook or otherworldly being that miraculously made sure nothing normal and natural took place.

The second vital thing to remember about the advent of literacy is the sobering fact that, when any culture becomes overly enamored of the magical powers of scratches on parchment, for the very first time in life's several billion-year process of sharing information from one generation to the next, such information will mightily resist being modified and adapted to changing conditions and improved understandings. As I wrote in Chapter 1 of Thank God for Evolution:

Imagine parents, grandparents, and respected elders telling stories to the young about who they are, where they came from, why they are here, what really matters, and how to lead honorable, fulfilled lives. Orally transmitted stories would evolve over time as conditions changed and as generations faced new challenges. Yes, these stories would evolve — until (and if!) they were written down and declared to be the unchanging revelation of God. When a story becomes scripture, it ceases to evolve.

Transforming how we individually and collectively think about "scripture", "divine guidance", and "God's word" may be the single most important thing that religious institutions can concern themselves with in the coming decades. Why? Because widespread failure to honor evidence as divine guidance exacts a severe toll on individuals, families, and our world.

By thinking of revelation as fossilized in ancient texts, we inevitably...

  • • trivialize God and gospel;
  • • balkanize religion and bastardize science;
  • • desacralize nature;
  • • blaspheme death;
  • • fail our children and grandchildren;
  • • deny individuals and families access to the most important saving wisdom for overcoming personal and interpersonal challenges;
  • • and blind ourselves from seeing our way out of the global integrity crisis.

In contrast, embracing scientific, historical, and cross-cultural evidence as "God's word"...

  • • REALizes God and gospel;
  • • reconciles science and religion;
  • • resacralizes nature;
  • • drastically shifts how we see death;
  • • inspires our children and grandchildren;
  • • gives individuals and families access to the most important saving wisdom for overcoming personal and interpersonal challenges;
  • • and offers a clear and realistically hopeful path forward, individually and collectively.

I'll say more about all this (taking one pair at a time and providing examples) in my next seven blog posts.