Monday, December 9, 2013

Why Recognizing My Apeness Makes Me Better at Worship: Or How Evolution Can Help Create a Christian Framework of Ontological Distance

Note: the next two posts[1] are exercises in experimental theology.  They should not be taken very seriously.  But part of what I tried to do by getting graduate degrees from top ecology and theology programs[2] was to try to think carefully about the interaction between theological and physical anthropology.  So I have been doing some work on that.  It is experimental which means it has a high probability of being wrong.  But there are not a lot of people thinking carefully about this, so I figured I’d give it a shot.

Evolutionary skeptics[3] often will say things like:
‘You can’t really believe that you are essentially just a trousered ape can you?’ 

But the thing is…I can, easily. [4]  I sometimes see a very distinct apeishness in myself and my species.[5]  But the surprising thing is that I often find self assessing as a ‘trousered ape’ can be spiritually helpful in at least two ways.

1.     Increasing Perceived Ontological Distance Between Ourselves and God

The constant human conceit is to underestimate the ontological distance between God and people.[6]  Those of us who actually recognize God’s existence often project him simply as a remarkable[7], invisible person with a few super powers.  But perceiving human ontology and culture as closer to the animals than to God, creates a helpful head space for apprehension of the otherness of God, a thing we call holiness.  And fleeting apprehensions of holiness is at the heart of the thing we call worship.

2.     Decreasing the Perceived Ontological Distance Between Ourselves and Other People

 Apprehending the holiness of God is the primary tool in Christian faith and practice to help us take ourselves less seriously.  But the surprising byproduct is that it leads to taking other people more seriously, and investing ourselves in their lives and needs, something we call ‘love’. 

Considering ourselves better than other humans is the second pervasive human conceit.  We are constantly overvaluing our preferences and overestimating our advantages over other people.  Self evaluation in light of the holiness of God (from any set of anthropological assumptions) ‘flattens’ the relative distance between humans. 

But what if we entertained the hypothesis that humans are ‘a chosen tribe[8] of apes[9]’ that God made his ‘image bearers,’ creating a strange species of ‘half way creatures’ with ontological moorings in the material and spiritual realms he rules.  That helps us see ourselves as more like the other half-way-apes, and makes us less likely to place ourselves above them.  Even if I am the most talented and important monkey[10] (which I am not, I only think I am) it is still hard to take that too seriously, or feel too much pride about that relatively modest accomplishment. 

Bonus Idea: It helps me take the rest of creation more seriously

Finally, I think the real Christian concern about evolution is that by decreasing the ontological distance between us and the rest of creation we open the door to injustice and the loss of human dignity.  But part of that is because we have lost a sense that we are care takers of creation, not consumers of creation.  We fear seeing each other as part of God’s biological creation because we treat that creation so poorly. 

We are unique among creation as self conscious ‘care taking’ instances of God’s makings.  But we are not the only part of creation with value and dignity.  The problem may not be that we think too low of humans, but that we think too low of the rest of creation.  The answer might not be to elevate human dignity far above the rest of creation, but to elevate the dignity of creation in general, so that a modestly elevated human dignity is something untouchable.

Recognizing our ontological proximity to animals (which is fundamentally how the evolutionary narrative ‘challenges’ Christianity) helps me take myself less seriously and helps me take God more seriously.  It helps short circuit the two human conceits (that God is kind of like me and other people aren’t).  That is not a bad thing.

This post was written while listening to Thrice (and while I was supposed to be working on other things[11]).

[1] And, including the last one, makes kind of a trilogy of human apeness.
[2] I have a graduate degree in ecology from UC Davis and in theology from Wheaton.
[3] I’m not ever really sure how to describe my fellow Christians who do not buy the evolutionary narrative. Pejoratives are silly.  Many of them are kind, intelligent, and frankly wonderful.  Many of them are more kind and intelligent than I am.  So pejoratives are out.  Fundamentalist doesn’t work because many of them are evangelicals (and if you don’t know the difference, maybe you should pause before throwing those words around, especially as pejoratives).  But Creationist doesn’t work either, because I believe that God created the earth and cosmos through a portfolio of direct and indirect agency.  So the word ‘creationist’ doesn’t distinguish my position from theirs.  So, essentially, the only difference is that I think the evidence supports the evolutionary narrative and they do not.  It is an evaluation of a data set, not a reflection of our character.  So I’ll go with Evolutionary Skeptics.
[4] I mean, have you met me?  I’m ridiculous.
[5] Yesterday I took my kids to a restaurant and fox news was playing in the background.*  The silent talking heads were wearing ties and $300 haircuts and were very animated about something.  But all I saw was silly apes throwing poo.
* We are in Mississippi for 6 weeks.  This would never happen where I live in CA.  But I often have the same experience with CNN or MSNBC.
[6] This is partly God’s fault because he insists on a very close relational distance to us (you know, with all that love and access and incarnation stuff), and we mistake relational distance with ontological distance.  Christianity isn’t an immanence or a transcendence religion.  It insists on both.  Ontologically transcendent and relationally immanent.  But we can mistake relational familiarity with ontological proximity, which throws our worship and life out of calibration.
[7] Or more often, an unremarkable one.
[8] Does ‘choosing a tribe for a special purpose’ sound like the kind of thing that the Christian God might do? (cough-Hebrews-cough). 
[9] I have another post almost complete which is a though experiment that posits that our apeness has nothing to do with our status as the image bearers of God; that God could have ensouled dinosaurs instead of apes just as easily as he could have ‘chosen’ the Hittites instead of the Hebrews to be his people of purpose.  I’ll try to run it next.
[10] I KNOW…it is just such a superior word for the purposes of taking myself less seriously.  Also, monkeys are cuter.  By the way, chimp culture has all of the worst aspects of human culture (murder, war, sex trafficking*).  (And I know, bonobos are more peaceful, ape hippies, but I also think that is oversold). The more I learn about ape culture the more I believe that the fall was the  process of God giving us back over to our ‘appetite for apeness,’ which left us not only as half way creatures ontologically but also ‘morally.’  
*Genetic studies show that alpha males consolidate power by ‘buying’ allegiance from secondary males by granting them sexual encounters with tribe females.  The barter sex with the females under their power for male allegiance to consolidate their power.  Seriously, I haven’t been able to fancifully linger by the Chimps at the zoo since I learned about this.  Like the vampires in the Buffyverse, they are like humans but without souls.  (And yes, I am aware about the recent science on ape morality – I may even do a post on it sometime – but it demonstrates a pro-sociality that is economically justifiable, not any sort of altruism which is still the great and gorgeous human inefficiency…and, I believe, part of what Genesis calls ‘the image of God.’)
[11] But that is how most blog content happens.  It starts as a footnote in my preaching or fiction or scholarship and proves to speculative or experimental or odd to be useful there.

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