Friday, January 1, 2010

Unto the least of these

St. Augustine warned Christians against becoming so attached to a particular interpretation of Genesis that, if that interpretation is discredited, the faith itself is brought into question:
In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines our position, we too fall with it.
Marilynne Robinson wrote that "Creationism is the best thing that could have happened to Darwinism" — because it gives more credibility to the arguments of Darwinist ideologues than they deserve. By "Darwinist ideologues" I do not mean those who have concluded that the earth is very old or that species developed through natural selection, but rather the adherents of what amounts to an alternative religion. A distinction needs to be made between scientific study of origins and the arguments of the New Atheists and their disreputable antecedents. From the first chapter of Marilynne Robinson's The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought [1998]:
.... What, precisely, this theory called Darwinism really is, is itself an interesting question. The popular shorthand version of it is "the survival of the fittest." This is a phrase coined by the so-called Social Darwinist, Herbert Spencer, in work published before the appearance of the Origin of Species and adopted—with acknowledgment of Spencer as the source—in later editions of Darwin's book. There is an apparent tautology in the phrase. Since Darwinian (and, of course, Spencerian) fitness is proved by survival, one could as well call the principle at work "the survival of survivors." This is not, strictly speaking, tautological, if the point is to bless things as they are, insofar as they are a matter of life and death. (The words "competition" and "struggle" are grossly euphemistic, since what is being described in Thomas Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population [1798], the winnowing that inspired Darwin, was the withholding of very meager sustenance from those who would die without it. Nothing more heroic was called for than closing one's hand, or turning one's back, both of them familiar and congenial exercises in Darwin's time, and both of them what Spencer was commending when he coined this phrase.) ....

.... Creationism is the best thing that could have happened to Darwinism, the caricature of religion that has seemed to justify Darwinist contempt for the whole of religion. Creationism has tended to obscure the fact that religion—precisely as the hope of the powerless and the mitigator of the abuse of the weak—has indeed come under determined attack by people who have claimed the authority of science, and that Darwin's work was quite rightly seized upon by antireligionists who had other fish to fry than the mere demystification of cosmogony. I am speaking, as I know it is rude to do, of the Social Darwinists, the eugenicists, the Imperialists, the Scientific Socialists who showed such firmness in reshaping civilization in Eastern Europe, China, Cambodia, and elsewhere, and, yes, of the Nazis. Darwin influenced the nationalist writer Heinrich von Treitschke and the biologist Ernst Haeckel, who influenced Hitler and also the milieu in which he flourished.

If there is felt to be a missing link between Darwinism and these distinctive phenomena of modern history, it is because we pretend that only Darwin's most presentable book would have had circulation and impact. Reading The Descent of Man, one finds Darwin the obsessive taxonomist marveling that Hindus, who are apparently so unlike Europeans, are in fact also Aryans, while Jews, who look just like Europeans, are in fact Asiatics. This sort of language is a reminder of the kind of thinking that was going on in Europe at that time, which Darwin's cheerful interest in the extermination of races, and his insistence on ranking races in terms of their nearness to the apes, could only have abetted. ....

It does bear mentioning in this context that the full title of his first book is On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. However generously this title is interpreted, clearly it does not assume that biological systems evolve by chance and not design, as Darwin is always said to have done. It clearly implies that whatever is is right, and—even less tenably—that whatever is is the product of raw struggle, and—still less tenably—that there is a teleology behind it all, one which favors and preserves. Darwinists seem unable to refrain from theology, as the supplanters of it. The old God may have let the rain fall on the just and the unjust alike, but this new god is more implacable in his judgments, and very straightforward, killing off those who die, to state the matter baldly. What need of this theology except to imply that there is wisdom and blessing and meaning in "selection," which the phenomenon itself does not by any means imply? ....

Darwinism is harsh and crude in its practical consequences, in a degree that sets it apart from all other respectable scientific hypotheses; not coincidentally, it had its origins in polemics against the poor, and against the irksome burden of extending charity to them—a burden laid on the back of Europe by Christianity. The Judeo-Christian ethic of charity derives from the assertion that human beings are made in the image of God, that is, that reverence is owed to human beings simply as such, and also that their misery or neglect or destruction is not, for God, a matter of indifference, or of merely compassionate interest, but is something in the nature of sacrilege. Granting that the standards of conduct implied by this assertion have rarely been acknowledged, let alone met, a standard is not diminished or discredited by the fact that it is seldom or never realized, and, especially, a religious imperative is not less powerful in its claims on any individual even if the whole world excepting him or her is of one mind in ignoring it and always has been. To be free of God the Creator is to be free of the religious ethic implied in the Genesis narrative of Creation. Charity was the shadow of a gesture toward acknowledging the obligations of human beings to one another, thus conceived. .... [more]
Several months ago Christianity Today reviewed Gary B. Ferngren's Medicine and Health Care in Early Christianity describing the difference early Christianity made for those toward whom the ancient pagans — like the eugenicists and Social Darwinists — felt no compassion:
.... When an epidemic struck in the ancient world, pagan city officials offered gifts to the gods but nothing for their suffering citizens. Even in healthy times, those who had no one to care for them, or whose care placed too great a burden on the family, were left out to die.

Christians found this intolerable, and they set about to take care of these people and others similarly afflicted. They did so because, Ferngren writes, "Early Christian philanthropy was informed by the theological concept of the imago Dei, that humans were created in the image of God."

This led not only to a belief in the responsibility to aid others and the inherent worth of every human being, but also to a belief in the sacredness of the body itself. "It was to save the body that Christ took on flesh in the Incarnation. Not only the soul, which in traditional pagan thought was eternal, but the composite of body and soul, which constituted man, was to be resurrected."

The idea of imago Dei also led to a redefinition of the idea of the poor. Rights in a city or society were given to members, and all members received benefits. Those outside were offered none. Christianity, in addition to seeing all people as "neighbors," developed a special consideration for the poor. Just as God demonstrated in the Incarnation his solidarity with those who suffer, so the members of his "body" must demonstrate their solidarity with the suffering poor. .... [more]
Most of today's disciples of Darwin are as altruistic as any religious believer, but their altruism is a legacy from a Christian heritage — not a logical inference from their ideology.

Thanks to Justin Taylor for the Robinson reference, and Gene Veith for the reference to the book review.

The Death of Adam, The Health Care Debate, Early Church Style | Christianity Today | A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction