Creation stories: PMC June 15, 2014

In the Beginning

by Bert Haverkate-Ens

This text tells a story about creation. This rock tells a story about creation. Some people would play it one way and say that paper beats rock. End of story. I could just sit right back down in my chair. But instead I am going to jump up and down on this idea that what we’re talking about here is stories. Instead of deciding whose text is more sacred, how about let’s just jump up and down on the beds for a while and hope that Mom and Dad don’t show up.

I was taught that Genesis 1 was the Truth. Then I was taught that Evolution was the Truth. Who cares? I say that they’re both just stories. In the beginning. Once upon a time. Millions and billions of years ago. Which story do you want to listen to? What does one story or the other tell you? Feel free to make some sense out of them if you can.

I’m going to mostly tell the scientific story, this morning. I hope to take some of the antagonism out of often competing Creation and Evolution stories. I’m no longer in the capital T – Truth business. Rather, I’m in the curiosity and wonder game.

In the beginning – no, wait… To begin with, I’d like us to somehow get past the primordial soup and monkeys for uncles and all those unimaginable millions of years and talk about some of the simpler aspects of the evolution story. I’d really like to see if it might be possible to avoid getting sidetracked by fruitless squabbles and to just pay more attention to the story.

Let me state for the record that I think that humans are astonishing beings. Our conscious awareness, our ability to calculate pi, all the beautiful and profound words and music we’ve produced, not to mention splitting atoms – we are indeed a remarkable species. To say that we are created in the image of God might be one way of expressing some of that, I suppose.

And certainly God has been around for a long, long time. But the big conflict over whether God is the foundation of everything that now exists or a concept that has evolved alongside humanity is just not my concern. That’s an ultimate kind of story.

It’s this other story that I think has something useful to say, one that can give us some explanations that might help us with our self-understanding as a species.

In a simplified sense, within the last few hundred years, portions of humanity have gone from mostly thinking about the world as a kerplunk! kind of place to a world that is in process. Kerplunk! may not be your first choice of words to describe the older view, but I think it is apt. And now this new worldview is one that says that with rigorous investigation we are able to discover not just that something is what it is, but how it has become what it is. It’s a ‘how’ story. ‘Why’ is still another story.

For me, it now seems obvious that the material world operates according to natural laws over time. Whatever ideas various people have about creation, I seriously doubt that God spread all those layers upon layers of rock on top of each other as if they were flavors of icing spread with a cosmic spatula. Nor do I think that God simply blinked those rocks into existence in just the way that we find them like in ‘I Dream of Jeanie.’

This scientific worldview has expanded our thinking about many of the processes we can see right in front of us going back millions – even billions – of years. And, frankly, the only alternative I can see to this massive time-frame shift in our thinking would be to blindly stick with the kerplunk! way of looking at things. Or we can honestly try to accept the story that the rocks and things are trying to tell us. If we do want to try to stay with ‘blink’ as our answer, that will pretty much mean we have to throw law and order out of the universe. Why should even gravity be a constant that we can count on or why should water freeze solid enough to walk on at precisely 32 degrees Fahrenheit if we can constantly toss ‘blink’ into our stories whenever we don’t like the direction a particular story is going?

So to me, there seems to be no good way around the idea of a ‘very, very long time.’ Just the story of limestone being made out of the settled bodies of dead sea creatures that had calcium in their skeletons who lived and died in very old seas and were then compressed into stone that’s as hard as rock must indeed be a story about a whole lot of time.

I really do think that it was a big mistake for some people to tie God’s hands to very short periods of time. Let there be light. Flip on a switch. There are other ways to tell that story too. And I also understand that it can be unsettling to think about the implications of some of science’s stories.

Perhaps we are in a transition period in human thinking – and yes, some individuals have blithely stepped out of one story into another. Nevertheless, as a species, we are still well entangled in kerplunk! kinds of thinking. Our individual lives are measured in decades. A million years is not in anyone’s direct experience. The processes we actually see are not the same thing as observing all of that inexorable change over time. We see only hints. It takes careful observation and inference before any human can imagine a coherent explanation for the present snapshot in front of us now. The universe exists in an almost unimaginable time-frame for any of us – Creationist or Scientist alike.

Consider this: even scientists who don’t bat an eye at light-years and nanoseconds also share the same kind of mind with all of the rest of us. That means whether it’s a creationist or an evolutionist walking alone on a dark night, when they hear a rustling in the bushes their unconscious brain will tell their heart to pick up its pace – the hackles on the back of their neck might stiffen.

In basic terms, the story of evolution is that humans are directly related to all of the other species. For all of our rationality, we all are likely to act in that moment as if something might be out there in the darkness – something about to make us part of a food chain.

A story about a process of humans becoming and not just being just fits better for me. It’s not so difficult for me (now, after some time and study) to trace that instinctive reaction to run away back to something that is more complex than kerplunk! thinking.

But if any of us thought hard about it,  it should unsettle all of us – or at least make us wonder -to really consider that we share DNA sequences – the chemical coding you still can’t see with your naked eye but which determines so many of your physical characteristics – with a cat or an amoeba. That we might indeed be related to each other – to every other species – through long processes of change and long periods of time is really not so easily fathomable.

Each of us are born with a brain that has some of the instincts we see in other animals all around us and also with longings for ultimate answers. That should be unmistakable. It was to many people long before Darwin came along. Now there are some new stories.

And oh, the different stories we humans have told over the years. Some of those stories are simply wrong. So think about our brain again: it is not a smooth crystal sphere the size and taste of a peach, nor is it a cube of metal and silicon. A kerplunk! creator could just as easily have decided upon on any design at all. But instead we have this folded, complicated, fleshy organ in our skulls that bears similarities to the brains of other creatures.

And now look at us. Our individual human lives turn out to be more process than kerplunk. We are born over a process of months; then we have a mate to find; children to beget; maybe we’d just like to go out for pizza and a movie. And now just look at all of us again, spread out over the planet: we human beings haven’t yet sorted everything out. Many of our problems becomes quite acute when I don’t like the way your tribe looks or thinks.

Science will in fact undo some stories – religious and otherwise – stories that have been around for a long time – because the new stories will turn out to be better stories – better explanations. I’m also quite sure that many God stories will also stick around.

But I’m pretty sure that reality won’t be undone by the different stories we humans tell. But however we got here, humans are unfortunately prone to take their own tribe’s stories much too seriously.

And where does all this discord come from?

The Genesis side broadly says our confusion comes from original sin. Evolution suggests that it’s something that was passed down from our mother’s and our father’s side – from way, way, way back. There are some nuanced differences in the accounting, of course.

It’s not that I am simply saying that you should just believe everything. Some stories do make more sense than others. Some tellers of stories have worked harder and more carefully at looking at life and the material world in the working out of their stories. That should count for something.  But at least people should be careful about simply excluding a story or parts of a story because of the way that it has gotten bundled in with certain other stories – stories that might leave you quite naturally unsettled. That goes for Genesis or for Evolution.

I Dream of Jeanie – blink, kerplunk! – however you want to dress it up – many of the stories we have told each other about God over the years will turn out to have been fairy tales. I, personally, will still enjoy a good fairy tale for what it has to tell me. But I wouldn’t read fairy tales to help me to do cutting edge medical research or just drill for oil.

And even if you don’t particularly care for that scientific hit, The Theory of Evolution, you’re going to want to pay attention to stories about long periods of time and processes that led to intricate relationships between a vast array of creatures through the many generations of life on the Earth.

Whoever wrote the whole book of life and however far back it goes to mark the very, very beginning of everything, not everything in the universe can be rationally believed. That cuts several ways. But this, for me is important, neither Genesis nor Darwin says that humans made themselves. We humans are not God, whichever story you prefer. You can argue about ultimate origins if you want to, but I think that everyone should still look carefully at stories about processes and change over time. That is the core of what the evolution story means. It’s about processes and relationships and change over time. The heavens and the earth, you might say.

I think that people too often want to explain everything for all time. But really, I have left out almost everything in what I have said here. But as I said in the beginning, people, we’re just jumping up and down on the beds here. And have you heard the some of those new stories that start with, ‘Let there be light?’ Those stories really do make me wonder.