Understanding the creation story as a work in progress and God's ultimate purpose to be a peaceable kingdom opens the door for preachers to include in their preaching both science's contributions to the narrative and the Bible's hard truths about nature.
Can the finding of science enrich the testimonies of faith? I think so, at least sometimes. But preachers have to work at it, tease out the meanings, to allow that process of enrichment to percolate. We can do this fruitfully by invoking the metaphor of consonance advocated by Lutheran theologian Ted Peters and his associates for many years. Which means: as you listen to the Word, you also keep your ears open for voices in the sciences that might resonate with and even help you to explicate what you believe God wants you to say on any given Sunday. This promising process of consonant listening may begin, however, with an uneasy sense of conflict.
Becoming Meat Eaters
A case in point: human table fellowship and violence against, and among, animals. The book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human (Basic Books, 2009), by Harvard biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham, has caused a stir lately in some scientific circles. Wrangham argues that 1.8 million years ago humans' use of fire to cook food made it possible for their brains to grow and digestive tracts to shrink, giving rise to our evolutionary ancestor Homo erectus. Humans were freed from spending half the day chewing, like other primates, and could do other more productive things, above all using their brains to build and sustain a new kind of complex community life.
The Genesis creation texts can be read not only as a story of human origins but also as a narrative of a divine work in progress.
In all this, meat eating — violence against animals — was taken for granted. An earlier hominid, according to Wrangham, Homo habilis, had already adopted that practice a half million years before. In this sense, U.S. Americans' Thanksgiving Day turkey festivals, predicated on the killing of animals and cooking their meat and, more important, on the time we have to converse with one another, is the kind of thing that makes us the Homo sapiens we are, for better or for worse, according to this particular scientific perspective.
Contrast the picture of Adam and Eve in the garden that Martin Luther gives us in his Genesis commentary. At one point, Luther imagines that Adam and Eve enjoyed a common table with the animals. Luther is simply giving a vivid voice to the text itself (Genesis 1:29-30), which clearly assumes that "before the Fall" Adam and Eve, like the animals, were vegetarians!
Is this just another example of the popular "clash" between science and religion? On the one hand, we have a vision of what is essentially human emerging naturally via violence directed to animals (and sometimes rapacious cultivation of the land, too). On the other hand, we have a vision of what is essentially human created by God, originally, in a state of peace.
The temptation for preachers faced with such an apparent conflict is to bypass the science and fudge the violence by moving as quickly as possible to the story of the fall, in response to which the gospel of grace can then be proclaimed. But such forgetting and fudging is unfortunate, because it forecloses discovery of the enrichment that science can offer the preacher.
To this end we need to put our brains to good use, above all theologically. Many biblical interpreters read the Genesis stories of creation one-dimensionally, in a simple sequential time frame: first a narrative of God creating the world and the garden, then the fall, and finally the history of redemption. But the Genesis creation texts can also be read multidimensionally. It is possible to read the garden story not only as a story of human origins but also as a narrative of a divine work in progress. We can read it as the account of a human beginning but even more as the announcement of what God intends to be doing as the narrative unfolds (not just as a story of a human state of integrity but also as a proclamation of a divine modus operandi).
The second-century theologian Irenaeus thought of creation this way. He imagined Adam and Eve before the fall, and indeed the whole good creation, as created by God to grow. The world was created good, not perfect. Hence the Genesis creation narratives can be read as announcing the beginning of the unfolding plan of the Creator for a history with the whole creation, to lead that good creation toward its eternal perfection. Irenaeus accordingly imagined creation as being set in motion and thenceforth governed by God so that it could in due course be transfigured in glory, when the day of the new heavens and new earth, the peaceable kingdom announced by the prophets, would arrive.
Work in Progress
This kind of theological envisioning of creation history as a work in progress allows us to imagine a certain kind of natural violence in creation from the very beginning, in conjunction with the Creator's intention to work to establish a world of peace. Biological death, in this sense, is part of the good creation. All creatures are created mortal. We can even find room in this Irenaean interpretation of Genesis for the evolutionary image (of what Tennyson famously called "nature red in tooth and claw") because death is never an abstraction. It is always painfully real, sometimes excruciatingly bloody.
Note, however: this accent on the mortality of all creatures and the pain and suffering that is given with the reality of death in the good creation isn't an imposition of some alien, nonbiblical idea. The Bible itself knows about the world of nature as a world of violence. Job celebrated the sometimes bloodcurdling alienness and the magnificence of the wild beasts (see chapters 38-40). The psalmist imagined the lions roaring for their prey, "seeking their food from God" (Psalm 104:21). The heirs of Noah, that great caretaker of creation, the protector of the species, who contemplated the rainbow promise of cosmic peace, were given permission by God to eat meat, judiciously and respectfully, to be sure (Genesis 9:1-5), but to kill animals for food nevertheless. Something of this kind of vision of the blood-spilling wildness of nature more generally is probably also reflected in Paul's classic witness to the whole creation "groaning in travail" (Romans 8:22ff, Revised Standard Version).
Would we have noticed such texts and been eager to assess their import had we not been listening also to the voices of scientists like Richard Wrangham? Probably not. Examples of this kind of enrichment of our hearing of the Word and of our subsequent theological reflection, informed by the consonance of Word and science, could be multiplied.
But this biblical and theological engagement with violence in nature is not the whole story. The Bible, as Luther taught us, is the cradle of Christ, and Christ, we confess, was sent by God, according to biblical testimony, as the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6), who is to usher in the end days when "the wolf shall live with the lamb" (Isaiah 11:6) and the violence of death will be no more (Isaiah 25:7-8).
Such a construal of the vision of faith thus begins multidimensionally with the reality of violence against and among animals, on the one hand, and with the presupposition, on the other hand, that the ultimate purpose of God, who is working from the very beginning and throughout the whole sweep of creation history, is to bring into being a peaceable kingdom for all things, with Jesus the one who inaugurates that new kingdom, once and for all. This multidimensional vision of faith — violence in the good creation in conjunction with the will of the Creator for peace on earth — then ends one-dimensionally with the narrative of the final triumph of God's peaceable kingdom, when all violence in nature will have been overcome.
Human sin disrupts that divine history with creation enormously, beginning with the first emergence of human life as we know it, presumably in the hearts and with the deeds of the first Homo sapiens. Of the destructive powers of human sin, biblical witnesses have been well aware, from the fratricide of Cain to the thousands of crucifixions wrought by Caesar and his legions. Called forth by God at some obscure point in evolutionary history to be a different kind of animal, a peace-loving animal, Homo sapiens became by that particular divine calling Homo religiosus. But humans passionately and pervasively rejected the calling to live a life of peace with God and with every creature.
The Bible itself knows about the world of nature as a world of violence.
We who were and are brought into being according to the image of the self-giving God in the midst of evolutionary history, as no other animals have been, chose a way of life that was self-aggrandizing, not self-giving. We consciously internalized and compulsively exacerbated the patterns of violence inherent in the world of nature from the very beginning. The violence of nature, often pushed to unnatural extremes in human history, thus became our modus vivendi, which in fact was a modus mortis, a way of death pursued only for the sake of power over others. With our historic fall, violence thus became our way of life, against God, against one another, and against virtually every other earthly creature of nature. But that is another story.
The story here is this. Faith can learn from evolutionary science about the sometimes alienating ways of God in the good creation and its history with God. In this sense, faith learns that the ways of God are sometimes dramatically not our ways, as faith stands in awe before the mysteries of God's sometimes violent creativity in the world of nature, from alpha to omega. From the very beginning God saw the violence of nature and it was good. From the time of the emergence of Homo religiosus, however, God saw the violence wrought by human sin and judged it evil. And all along, God was working — struggling, cajoling, persuading, inspiring, guiding, patiently enduring, even dying — to maximize peace in this world and to consummate peace in the world to come, through Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace.
Such a vision of violence in nature and sinful violence in human history, and the divine remedy for every kind of violence revealed and established in the person and work of Christ, is exciting to contemplate — and to preach. What the world needs now, desperately, is this gospel of global peace! And we can thank some voices of the sciences for helping us to proclaim that gospel more clearly and more compellingly than we otherwise might have done.
That such homiletical explorations may lead some parishioners to ask questions — about humans' relationships with animals, for example — is to be expected. Doesn't this theological approach to creation history strongly suggest that Christians especially — we who are called to be peacemakers and a light to the world — should aim to be vegetarians or at least to eschew violence with animals whenever possible, following the example of St. Francis? Are we whom Jesus called friends not liberated by that friendship, in the spirit of Luther's image of our primal humanity, also to befriend our animal kin, to aspire in some metaphorical but profound sense to enjoy a common table with them in peace? Perhaps. But that's another sermon for another Sunday.
Paul Santmire is a retired ELCA theologian and pastor, known for his writings in ecological theology for more than four decades. His most recent book is Ritualizing Nature: Renewing Christian Liturgy in a Time of Crisis (Fortress Press, 2008).
This article appeared in the November / December 2009 issue of Lutheran Partners (vol. 25, no. 6).