Sunday, February 12, 2012


(a portion of this next section first appeared here)

A mystery is a problem that encroaches upon itself because the questioner becomes the object of the question. Getting to Mars is a problem. Falling in love is a mystery.

--Gabriel Marcel

I love that quote. It reminds me that getting to Mars is a problem, a science and engineering problem. Mysteries, however, are different. Whether it’s the science of spirituality, the afterlife and consciousness, or how man was birthed on this planet, science tries to solve mysteries, as well. Yet, mysteries may sometimes be more elusive. We don’t really solve mysteries, we resolve them. Solutions of problems may require active work, whereas resolutions often warrant an explanation that dissipates the tension. One of the biggest mysteries today is a simple question: How did we get here?

Often, this question has been housed within a theoscientific debate about evolution. The most recent micro-debate inside this dialogue is the question of Adam and Eve. Scientific evidence is pointing to confounding possibilities that challenge a literal understanding of Adam and Eve as recorded in the Torah and Old Testament.

First, the scientifically matrilineal tracking of our earliest traceable, female ancestor and the scientifically patrilineal tracking of our earliest traceable, male ancestor do not arrive at the same point in time. Science has found two ways to track our ancestors. We can use the DNA in the mitochondria (passed in tact from a mother to her offspring) of cells of a person to connect a person to her mother, then to the mother’s mother, and through this process eventually to the mother of all humans, a woman we will call mitochondrial Eve. Science dates this woman to about 200,000 years ago. There is another group of genetic anthropologists that use markers on the Y-chromosome (since it is passed in tact from father to son) to trace our patrilineal heritage to the first man, our forefather, someone we will call Y-chromosomal Adam. Science roughly dates this person living between 142,000 or 60,000 years ago, depending on which measurement you use.

So our first conundrum is that science has inferred an Adam and an Eve.

There’s only one problem.

They lived at least 60,000 years apart.

However, this doesn’t have to be a contradiction to the Adam and Eve story, yet, since mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam only represent the most recent common ancestors (MRCA) of living humans through unbroken lines. The emphasis on unbroken lines is important because it’s possible we have an earlier male ancestor who had sons and somewhere along the way, one generation of sons had no male children to pass his Y-chromosomal DNA intact to someone living today. The same could be true of mitochondrial Eve and her daughter’s daughters. Additionally, the age of Y-chromosomal Adam can change if increased Y-chromosomal sampling uncovers new, very different Y-chromosomes or Y-chromosomes with very different mutations requiring an older MRCA.

So, that may not be a problem, but what happens when you pick a couple that lived together, say 140,000 years ago, and name them our progenitors? That couple could not have produced all contemporary human beings on their own. Scientists say that we should have less genetic diversity than we actually have, if we came from only two people. The genetic diversity, today, leads scientists to infer that all contemporary humans probably came from a small group of first humans (around 10,000) in order to display the genetic diversity that we do.

The June 2011 issue of Christianity Today contained an article, “The Search for the Historical Adam” about this controversy. NPR also wrote a story on this topic, seemingly presenting only two sides. Since then there have been many responses and blogs to these stories which highlight the preponderance of complex and nuanced views in between the extremes.

Some people like Tim Keller, C. John Collins, and an editorial writer in Christianity Today, believe that if there is no historical Adam, then the gospel doesn’t exist or make sense. Though David Lose disagrees, I love a diversity of views. What has bothered me more is the number of men such as former and current seminary professors John Walton, Pete Enns, Bruce Waltke, and Tremper Longman III, who all resigned or were fired because of their interpretation of the Bible and Genesis 1-3. Karl Giberson, a former Physics professor at Eastern Nazarene College experienced a similar situation for his views, and Calvin college professor John Schneider took early retirement due to controversy related to his views on the lack of a historical Adam or Eve.

Doubt has many roles. Even if a scientist, in one instance, uses doubt to cast a shadow on a particular theory or another person’s conclusion, still, fundamental to science and the scientific method as it is practiced today, is not to sit comfortably in doubt, but to seek answers to questions, to uncover answers to doubts, to discover answers to conundrums. Faith is different, of course. So the firings and retirements and calls of “heretic” scare me. We sometimes forget that God is mystery and a life of faith is one that is lived in the tension of never fully knowing. We often do a disservice in our faith communities when we use a scientific approach, regarding answers, in issues of faith.

I was watching a Christian documentary called “Furious Love” which contained an interview of Dutch pastor/missionary Jan Sjoerd Pasterkamp who quoted a Dutch church historian as saying “We have dozens of Protestant denominations and Christian groups because, to the Dutch person, truth is more important than unity.” By truth he meant dogmatic views and doctrine, or more importantly “my” interpretation of scriptures. And I admit it’s hard; we’re not just divided about doctrinal issues, but we’re even divided about what is fundamental to being a Christian, Jew, or Muslim. That’s why people like Rob Bell can write a book like “Love Wins” and be labeled a non-Christian. Of course this dividing truth is the factual, scientific kind of truth because the truth to which the Judeo-Christian tradition points is not factual, scientific truth but transformative truth. In that way the truth of faith is love. So you can be divided and confused about scientific knowledge and yet have unity based on a different kind of knowledge—love.

I’ve experienced that science and faith have a commonality: what you believe is not as important as how you believe. There are climate scientists who do not believe global warming is caused by man. Though they are in the vast minority, they are scientists not because of what they believe, but rather because of how they believe or practice. They arrive at their conclusions based on the scientific method and their concluding judgment. Likewise, though in the minority, there are atheist scientists who do not support the theory of evolution. It’s not their belief that makes them scientists. No, they are scientists because they use the scientific method and judgment in arriving at their belief.

Faith is similar. A life of faith is not so much a set of beliefs. Rather, faith is the transformative experience that opens you up to belief. Faith isn’t really believing the right things, as it is more about an experience that allows you to breathe and believe in the right way—a belief predicated on love. Faith is the love-forming experience that allows you to believe and doubt in the aftermath of that experience. In this way, Peter Rollins would say that orthodoxy is (mis)understood no longer as right (ortho) belief (doxy), but, read from right to left, now as “believing in the right way.”

Though scientists may accuse another scientist of being a pseudo-scientist, in my small experience, such accusations tend to happen less in science than in faith. As long as you can defend your view, you’re still a scientist; you simply disagree, even if it is within a heated debate. What I long for is more of the same in faith circles. If faith is predicated on love, and unity is one aspect of love, we are failing in the love department. In my faith communities, I’ve seen growing unity across linguistic, national, and sociocultural differences, but where is the unity across theological differences? Are we not called to that, in love? Or in faith, is what you believe more important than how you believe?

As much as I describe faith a certain way theoretically, I am fully cognizant that I am simultaneously trying to push the practice of faith in that direction, for us to realize it as it is. Science seeks understanding. However, to use a word Brian McLaren coined, I long for the days when people of faith linger in mysteries instead of answers we don’t have and, in unity, seek “wonderstanding.”

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