Our Animal Heritage – an introduction

A few weeks ago, I was in the shower.  And as I am wont to do in the shower, I was blabbering to God, making an abortive attempt at “listening prayer” – the practice of trying to find a meeting place with God and asking him questions.

I was particularly troubled by one question, and it was an important question.  See, I have been struggling lately to make sense of many theological things.  The past year has seen a deconstruction in which most of the theological ideas that I’ve held dear have been soundly demolished.  Ideas such as Penal Substitution, Eternal Conscious Torment (and you can tell they’re important theories because they have capital letters), hell, even such things as an inerrant Bible, a literal Adam and Eve, and even original sin have all fallen by the wayside, deconstructed into nothingness.

But such deconstruction comes with its own problems.  One of the major problems is that the evangelical/protestant doctrines are very explanatory, systematic, and self consistent.  It is easy to build a remarkably consistent theology off of a few axioms of the nature of God.  Many different Protestant sects and subsets will disagree on many things, but the axioms stay mostly the same.

But in order to have such an explanatory, self-consistent, and systematic doctrine, there is a cost.

This cost was not very apparent several hundred years ago when the natural sciences were in their infancy.  There was no theory of evolution, there was no theory of the big bang, there were barely even any natural laws – the fact that we even stayed on the ground may as well been due to divine fiat.  Because of that, the cost was not apparent at the time.  Religion stayed in the realm of religion, and science stayed in the realm of science.

This is no longer the case.

Beginning with Darwin’s theory of evolution, and extending towards the theory of the big bang, carbon dating, and all sorts of other scientific revelations, it has been clear that the systematic theology of Protestantism is on a collision course with science – if that collision has not already happened.

And the cost of such a systematic theology becomes clear.

In order to hew to such a systematic theology, in the immortal words of the theologian Adam Savage, they must say “I reject your reality and substitute it with my own”.  A literally inerrant Bible implies some very specific historic events that are either not proven to have happened, or have been proven (or nearly so) not to have happened.  The Protestant churches have put themselves into a position where you have to choose whether to believe science or religion.

Many have chosen science.  And they cannot be blamed for this choice.

Let it be said that science is at least as imperfect as systematic theology.  It is subject to bias from even the first observation, and many of its theories are, to say the least, up for debate, and some are utter claptrap.  But many of those that are in conflict with a literal, systematic translation of the Bible do not fit into that category.  It is reasonable to say that there was not a literal Adam and Eve, at least not as outlined in the book of Genesis.  It is reasonable to say there was not a literal Cain and Abel, it is reasonable to say that the earth was not created in six days – no matter how you define day.  It is reasonable to say that most of the stories in Genesis were made up from whole cloth – designed to use stories from surrounding cultures to tell the story of the One God that the ancient precursors to the Israelites had come to know.  And even if it turns out that all these things were true after all, it is still reasonable to say all of these things.  And it is reasonable to explore the implications of what would happen if these things were, indeed – at least in a literal sense – false.

It is within this framework that we return to that day in the shower, as I feel that God was speaking to me that morning.  And he said something that, as things he says tend to do, utterly rocked my theological world.  And, as God seems to conserve words, it was only one sentence.

“You need to come to terms with your animal heritage”.

It was, in fact, such a bombshell that it took me about ten seconds to realize just how profound that sentence actually was.  It ricoched throughout my theological worldview, leaving bangs and dents wherever it hit, rearranging things as it went.  It reworked the story of Jesus.  It reworked the stories in Genesis.  In a flash, it removed most, if not all, conflicts between Christianity and science, and revealed them instead as two parts of a more complete whole.  Even some of the parables of Jesus appeared to have a subtly different message when seen through this context – and even his resurrection seemed to be in a different context.  Certainly some of Paul’s writings do.

In one sense, it would be simple to stop with that one sentence.  It says all that really needs to be said.  We do, indeed, need to come to terms with our animal heritage.  And while it is not only our animal heritage that we need to come to terms with, it is the thing that several hundred years of Protestant obscuration has deliberately, and seemingly with malice aforethought, sought to utterly erase from our consciousness. Only to be replaced by a corrupted idea of a failed divine nature and an incompetent God that even now has us wracked with guilt and shame for never being able to measure up to an ideal that not only are we completely incapable of meeting, that we were, perhaps, never expected to meet in the first place.

We are God’s children.  We are also animals – or at least descended from animals.  And the sooner we deal with that fact, the sooner we will finally be able to make peace with some of the inconvenient animal behaviors that we have been trying, without success, to drive our of ourselves for hundreds of years, and not only failing at every turn, but giving ourselves anxieties and neuroses because of our inability to accomplish such a seemingly simple but, in practice, impossible, task.

Let’s explore our animal nature.  And let’s see if we can finally come to terms with it.

I think God already has.