Our vestigial past embodied in theology

The following is an excerpt from the upcoming revision of my book, The Genesis Fix: A Repair Manual for Faith in the Modern Age.

Our Vestigial Past

The basics of biology tell us that whales are mammals that live in the ocean. Though shaped like fish with fins instead of legs, we know from physical evidence inside the bodies of whales that their evolutionary ancestors once walked on land. Hidden inside the body of every modern whale species are vestiges of legs and pelvic bones. These remnant leg and pelvic bones clearly do not help a whale walk on land anymore––so we call them vestigial body parts.

Ironically human beings can provide a wonderful illustration of why whales now use fins instead of legs to swim in the water. When humans swim, we are forced to use arms, hands and feet ill-suited to the process. We rely instead on propulsive motions of arms and legs to move through the water. But if we place rubber flippers on our feet we can swim much faster, dive and turn more quickly. Essentially by using our intellect and adding the instrument of flippers to our feet, we can shortcut the evolutionary process and become better adapted to life in the water. Of course, the feet we use to walk on land are still embedded inside those rubber flippers, but for the moments they are encased inside flippers their original design as instruments for walking are vestigial. Just watch anyone try to walk in swim fins. It truly is like reverse evolution.

Humans can take an evolutionary shortcut however and dispense with flippers to instantly walk on land again. Whales are not so lucky. Their leg and pelvic bones have receded into the body where they no longer interfere with the swimming motion.

There are people who object to the idea that body parts of living things can be vestigial. They call the theory of evolution a false belief, maintaining it is too big a stretch to say that ancestors of whales once walked on land, or that the origins of living things can be explained through the apparently random process we call evolution.

Philosophical resistance to evolution theory is largely founded on religious beliefs, especially the belief system known as creationism that says God created living things in original forms unchanged since the dawn of time. In recent years creationism morphed into a pseudo-science known as Intelligent Design. But really it is better labeled an anti-science because its arguments do little to explain the origins of living things but do provide complicated objections to why evolution could never occur. Proponents of intelligent design have invented scientific-sounding terms such as “irreducible complexity” to explain why some organs and processes in living things are too complex to have evolved on their own. But if we follow the thinking behind intelligent design theory to its conclusion, we find it dead-ends at the point where true human science begins––trying to discover how things works, and why. So intelligent design theory does not work as a science, but it does serve a useful purpose in illustrating how anachronistic worldviews tend to create more confusion than clarity.

Let us consider how intelligent design theory chooses to explain the presence of essentially useless leg and pelvic bones in the body of a whale. The answer given by Intelligent Design is scientifically inconclusive––but also, it turns out–– theologically unsound. Intelligent Design says God put them there by design. It is not for us to know why. But is that really how God designed the world, or more specifically, the human mind?

This rather cynical response wears a disguise of human humility towards God when in fact it is a tremendous arrogance. And here is how we know that to be a fact. If we trace intelligent design theory back through its roots of creationism to the source of religious literalism at its foundation, we encounter a worldview that depends on an aggressive fiction––belief that the scripture is to be followed literally in every respect, including the history of our origins. But literalism as a tradition of faith was rejected by Jesus Christ who chastised the Pharisees as hypocrites (and worse, a brood of vipers!) for turning scripture into religious practices diverting spiritual devotion from God into law. Through literalism, that process is still happens today. We never seem to learn our lesson.

There is of course a reason why people persist in taking scripture literally. It appears to deliver answers in neat little packages. To say that God put useless leg and pelvic bones in a whale seems like a shortcut to truth. Such a belief does not require much thought or analysis to comprehend. There is its principal appeal. But let us turn the paradigm of literalism around for a moment. Aim it straight back at the bible to examine scripture with scripture, as theologians advise us to do. Then we shall see if the strict methodology of literal truth is applied with consistency in our practice of religious faith.

It is readily determined that we do not follow the strict letter of the law or scripture as it is presented in the bible. In fact we ignore as archaic and anachronistic all kinds of religious laws and practices laid out in the bible. Entire books could be written just about the differences between life as an ancient Israelite and life today. So let us choose just one example––the acceptance and practice of slavery––that is the most glaring difference between life in bible times and our culture today.

References and acceptance of slavery occurs with almost casual frequency in the bible. Yet we reject its existence for outright moral reasons today. Yet Leviticus 25: 44 says: “Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves.” On the issue of slavery Leviticus is far from alone in the bible. Both Old and New Testament texts bear evidence that slavery was not only tolerated but in some cases  advocated as preferable to upsetting the social order.

This is madness, of course. Yet literal belief in the value of slavery persisted well into the last century. Only 60 years ago, noted theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer could not shake his own fixation with biblical dramatics related to slavery when he wrote “The Cost of Discipleship,” an instruction manual on how to live the Christian live. But instead of conceding that society had long since rejected slavery as an acceptable tool for moral instruction, Bonhoeffer went to great lengths justifying the warped perspectives of St. Paul, whom Bonhoeffer quoted liberally on the Christian role of a slave, “No, his real meaning is that to renounce rebellion and revolution is the most appropriate way of expressing our conviction that the Christian hope is not set on this world, but on Christ and his kingdom. And so––let the slave be a slave! It is not reform the world needs, for it is already ripe for destruction. And so––let the slave be a slave!”

Bonhoeffer was later forced to admit that this worldview was dangerously in error when slavery and other forms of social bondage came to evil fruition in his own country through Hitler and Nazi Germany. Bonhoeffer ultimately chose to resist Hitler, thereby rejecting his own advice that one should “let the slave be a slave!” Eventually Bonhoeffer even participated in a plot to assassinate Hitler. That action essentially relegated his advice to “let the slave remain a slave” to the theological dump heap. It became vestigial, in a sense, to a faith focused instead on achieving social justice. That was the faith Bonhoeffer conceived as he was persecuted and imprisoned by the Nazis. His vestigial analysis of scripture was forced to evolve. He no longer adhered to this advice from St. Paul in Romans 13:  “Therefore let every soul be in subjection to the higher powers. The Christian must not be drawn to the bearers of high office: his calling is to stay below.”

There is no question that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a man of convictions. His faith cost him his life. He was hanged by Nazi Germany for resisting another literalistic brand of faith leveraging the supposed racial and cultural superiority of white Christians seeking world domination. Bonhoeffer rightly recognized that the brand of faith espoused by Hitler and the Third Reich was corrupted by lust for power. Some argue that true Christian faith could never produce such an evil, but there is no doubt Nazi Germany used the language and authority of Christianity to recruit people to its cause. Its anti-Semitism led to the execution of millions of Jews. It was a perverse form of biblical literalism that informed this anti-Semitism.

Abolishing slavery is only one of the more dramatic differences in how we manage our affairs today in comparison to people in bible times. Let us state the truth plainly: The bible is full of laws and practices we no longer use. They are now vestigial. Present but harmless. Real but relegated to a function that no longer drives our faith. Most of all, such texts should never be taken literally or used to dictate our actions and lives today. This realization should open our eyes to places in society where religion and especially literalistic forms of Christianity continue their persecutions today.

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