What the Incarnation and the Resurrection Tell Us About Creation and Evolution

It’s December 31th, and Western Christians are within the season of Christmas (my Eastern Christian brothers and sisters will celebrate it on January 7th). Christmas is the celebration of the incarnation of the Son of God into human flesh. More precisely, Christians believe that the person Jesus Christ is both true God and true man.

So this is bonkers. I believe it, but it is really bonkers. There are some who attempt to slot the Christian doctrine of the incarnation into the same category as Zeus or some other deity taking a human form, but if we take Christianity on its own terms, it’s saying something very different.

The doctrine of the incarnation is saying that the Creator of the universe, who is beyond time and space, and in fact created them himself, who is self-existing and is the very ground of being, became human. This is not a question of some really big and powerful being becoming a lesser being or disguising themselves as one, which would be at least comprehensible. This is the claim that the inventor of “being” itself became a small, vulnerable child, grew to adulthood and died, and then rose bodily from the dead. Disagree with it if you like, but recognize that it’s a separate category. The Athenians St. Paul encountered understood this, and we should too.

So what the heck does this have to do with the title of the post? It’s really common in Christian circles (and for non-Christians commenting on Christian beliefs) to take for granted that something like “scientific creationism” must be true if God is really the creator. Otherwise, if evolution is true, it is alleged that everything just sort of happens “by itself” and (as Stephen Hawking suggested in A Brief History of Time) there’s nothing left for God to do at all. And matter itself is just bumbling along for billions of years, occasionally doing something interesting by complete chance and necessity but overall just awaiting the inevitable heat death. Thus, physicist Stephen Weinberg said that “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless”, and paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson claimed “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.”

I’ve already spoken before about how it’s a huge category mistake to assume that evolution is a process that can compete with creation by God, as if a process that he was ultimately responsible for could somehow get in his way or would be less “done” by him than (say) creation ex nihilo (which is an important theological doctrine, but that’s a topic for another time). But this second assumption, that the fact that we originated physically by “natural” processes tells us that matter has no telos to speak of, is challenged by the incarnation and decisively refuted by the resurrection.

In the creation story in Genesis 1, God repeats over and over again how good everything is that he has made. By becoming human, by taking on the substance of quarks and leptons (or maybe strings or loops or twistors or whatever may underlie them), by beginning life as a blastocyst and undergoing the normal, messy, and “natural” process of human development, God reaffirms the goodness of matter and being material. And in case it wasn’t clear enough for you, Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, and the attending promise that the entire universe itself will experience a similar transformation (Revelation 21), is God’s final seal of approval.

As a much younger Christian, I used to think that if evolution were true, that it would say something negative about the nature of being physical, being biological, being human—in other words, Weinberg and Simpson would have a point. But for Christians, the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus sweeps that all aside. It really proclaims the whole question of creation or evolution (again, already a category mistake) as mostly irrelevant, at least on this score. For Christians eager to follow the science where it leads, this is a good thing.

Eucharist Against the Pandemic

We began having weekly Eucharistic services outside several weeks ago in our congregation. It has been wonderful to gather around both the Body of Christ in the form of his people as well as the Body of Christ in the form of the bread, as well as the Blood of Christ in the form of wine.

But it’s different. We practice physical distancing. We all wear masks. Hand sanitizer and masks are used by the priest in distribution of the elements. The bread itself comes in individually wrapped plastic. The wine is poured out from a flask which the individual families bring from their own homes.

Thus the central act of Christian worship, which is designed to bring us together, is necessarily being carried out with physical barriers of all kinds.

Though it grieves us, this of course is the right thing to do. The coronavirus (being a virus) does not care much for the reason we are eating and drinking. There is no promise attached to the eating and drinking of our Lord’s body and blood that the laws of physics and biology will stop working while we do so. We can still catch the virus from sharing food and drink together in close proximity, and so we take precautions.

And yet our partaking in the Eucharist, after many months of fasting from it for the sake of the health of our neighbors, is now, as it always has been, a reassertion of the goodness of creation and our role as humans within it, even and especially in the midst of pandemic. The Creator-God brought order out of the watery chaos in the beginning (Genesis 1:2). He places humans in a garden paradise, tasking them to serve as priests over the creation-temple he had made, amplifying its fruitfulness, extending its flourishing over the whole earth, and gathering it all up in acts of worship back to God (Genesis 2). This will not be an easy job, as there are dark forces already in their midst (Genesis 3), and the relentless march of the increase of entropy, while a necessary feature of the world in which we live during the present age, is always working to return the order of creation back to the disorder from which it came. As we know, Adam and Eve decide to give the authority God had given them over to the forces of sin, darkness, disorder, and death, and the future of God’s creation project appears imperiled.

Christians believe that God’s answer to this predicament is Jesus. Jesus has come and succeeded where Adam failed (Romans 5:12-21). His works of healing (Matthew 8:14-16) and power over the forces of creation (Mark 4:35-41) demonstrated the wise rule over the world in which God had intended for humans to participate from the beginning. By his death, our sin and rebellion is forgiven and atoned for, and his resurrection guarantees our own resurrection (1 Corinthians 15) and the eventual healing of all creation (Romans 8:18-25, Revelation 21:1-5).

When we lift the bread and the cup in Jesus’ name, when his presence is made known in the midst of creation, when we gather the fruits of creation and offer them back to God in a “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving,” we are setting a marker that the forces of anti-creation, including the coronavirus, do not have the final say. Jesus has defeated death and that one day that victory will be spread throughout the whole world. And we then go out to anticipate this victory in the present by pushing back against the virus itself–by practicing good hygiene, wearing masks, keeping physical distance, and looking out especially for the most vulnerable. In other words, loving our neighbors as ourselves. Some of us, depending on our callings, will be pushing back in a more direct way, rushing into the places of most danger by taking care of the sick and the dying. Others are called to work on therapies and vaccines. Above all, we cover all this activity with prayer, invoking the Spirit’s work over everything we do, and bearing witness to the Good News about Jesus the entire time.

So, even in the midst of masks and sanitizer, may this be our prayer as we join in the meal the Lord gave us:

Heavenly Father,
We thank you for feeding us with the spiritual food
  of the most precious Body and Blood
  of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ;
  and for assuring us in these holy mysteries
  that we are living members of the body of your Son,
  and heirs of your eternal Kingdom.
And now, Father, send us out do to the work you have
  given us to do,
  to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.
To him, to you, and to the Holy Spirit,
  be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

Book of Common Prayer (2019)

No, the Scientists Did Not Screw Up the Coronavirus Models

The models for the coronavirus have definitely evolved for the better in the US–and the number of projected deaths has decreased. That’s good. 

The bad thing is that the immediate reaction of some is to say the scientists got it wrong and that we never should have believed them to begin with. I am not an epidemiologist, but I am a professional scientist, so I can make some general comments about modeling. 

TL;DR: The scientists did not screw this up. For the details read on. 

To oversimplify things a bit, when you make a model you have the general physical form. More specifically, how it behaves over time, expressed mathematically. Is it linear, exponential, or something more complicated? There’s a really good Medium post that goes into this in detail. But this mathematical model has all of these parameters, like how fast a virus spreads, what time the effect of social distancing overpowers the spreading of the virus, etc. And you need to select values for these parameters based on data. 

And the data are things like: how fast did it spread in other countries? How fast has it spread here already? What has been the effect of social distancing? How many people are social distancing? What does the effect of limited medical resources have on the number of deaths? And so on.

To some degree you only know these things within some range, so you need to take that into account. And in a situation like this, you need to make conservative estimates for these parameters which overestimate the number of cases/deaths, because it is far better to say “well, we ended up saving more people than we thought” than “we totally underestimated this number and now our hospitals are incapacitated.” For example, the CDC director said the other day that they made a conservative estimate about the fraction of Americans that would actually follow social distancing guidelines, which was around 50%. Apparently it’s been higher.

So as time goes on and you get better and more data, the model changes, because you change the parameters and the uncertainty hopefully gets smaller. Also, you might be able to make improvements to the mathematical form of the model with more information. It doesn’t mean the scientists screwed up–it means that we had incomplete information before and now we have more information. Scientists, like all of us, are not perfect, and make mistakes, but that doesn’t appear to be what happened here. 

What seems very likely is that without any social distancing at all–it is highly probable that millions would have died here, our medical system would have been overtaxed, and you would have ended up with an economy in the toilet anyway. 

So the essence of it is that what we are doing is hard, but it is working. We need to get a plan going to get back to work, which will include massive amounts of testing, but in the meantime, let’s keep this up. I know it’s easy for me to say. It is definitely much harder for many people than it has been for me, since I didn’t lose a job or a business. But I know that millions of people who are medically vulnerable, and our front-line medical workers, firefighters, police, grocery workers, pharmacists, and many others who are keeping our country going in spite of the danger of getting very sick are very grateful.

A Coronavirus Litany

I had a post about prayer some time back which ended with a litany for the coronavirus. I’ve updated and expanded it, and I think it’s worth praying again.

That our leaders at every level may make wise decisions informed by science, medicine, common sense, and compassion, let us pray to the Lord.

Lord, have mercy.

That our medical professionals may be protected from sickness and have everything needed to treat those who are ill, let us pray to the Lord.

Lord, have mercy.

That we may be mindful especially of those most vulnerable, including the elderly and the immunocompromised, let us pray to the Lord.

Lord, have mercy.

That those who contract the virus or any other illness remember to stay at home if possible, get rest, and have plenty of fluids, and that they may have a speedy recovery, let us pray to the Lord.

Lord, have mercy.

That those who have lost their jobs or means of income may receive help from others for their daily needs, and that they may be able to return to their jobs quickly or find other employment, let us pray to the Lord.

Lord, have mercy.

That those who employ others may be able to find every means possible to keep their workers, let us pray to the Lord.

Lord, have mercy.

That scientists working on therapies or vaccines may be given insight into the workings of nature, let us pray to the Lord.

Lord, have mercy.

That the family and friends of those who are deceased from the virus may be comforted with love from God and neighbor, let us pray to the Lord.

Lord, have mercy.

That we may all remember to wash our hands frequently, stay in our homes as much as possible, and otherwise keep prudent physical distance from others, in order to protect and safeguard the health of our neighbors, let us pray to the Lord.

Lord, have mercy.

That we may have patience and compassion for our children, and renewed appreciation for their teachers, let us pray to the Lord.

Lord, have mercy.

That we may be moved to look out for our neighbors, and help them in the spirit of Christ, let us pray to the Lord.

Lord, have mercy.

That we may make the best use of our time at home to renew relationships, let us pray to the Lord.

Lord, have mercy.

That the course of the virus may be slowed and stopped in all the world, let us pray to the Lord.

Lord, have mercy.

Help, save, comfort, and defend us, gracious Lord.


Prayer and the Coronavirus

This past week, a stir was created about the following tweet of this photo:

I’m not interested in either supporting or attacking the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak in the context of this post. Similarly, though photo-ops of politicians praying is always a little dicey (though see David French’s take on this), I’m also not interested here in the question of why the photo was taken.

For me the real issue of interest is why a photo of politicians and others tasked to respond to the outbreak bowed in prayer should mean we are “screwed.” To be fair, it’s not a secret that the GOP doesn’t have the greatest track record on issues of science policy. If that’s your beef then I cannot argue otherwise.

But here the issue seems to be that they were praying in the first place. The implication is that there would be no science-based medical response, only prayers. Again, maybe the administration’s response will turn out to be flawed—or maybe it already is—but prayer isn’t the reason.

Lots of people these days seem to think that Christians just pray whenever something goes wrong and then sit around waiting for God to do something. Caveat again—sometimes promises of prayers do sound very hollow, especially when coming out of the mouths of politicians who are ostensibly in a position to enact policy to solve problems.

But this fundamentally misunderstands what the vast majority of Christians, both now and through the centuries, have believed about what prayer actually does. Prayer is not a substitute for action. Rather, it is a preparation for it and often a summons to it. Conversely, those who pray and then do not respond to the evils of the world with action are not behaving biblically. Prayer and action are supposed to go hand-in-glove.

Prayer is fundamentally about orienting ourselves in relationship to God. Part of that is indeed asking him to protect us from all manner of ills and enemies, including viruses. But we know that protection usually comes about because of medicine and experienced doctors and surgeons, which though of proximate human origin are ultimately good gifts from the Creator. As a Christian, I do believe that God can heal people without such intervention, but we are not enjoined by Scripture to expect such a thing automatically. So, the vast majority of Christians both pray and seek the best medical attention they have available—and there is no cognitive dissonance necessary. Most prayers for healing even begin with words such as “guide the hands of the doctors and the nurses” or something similar.

So I am happy for our leaders to pray in a situation like this—but then they need to get moving, with God’s help at their backs, to mobilize the scientific and medical communities to combat the spread of this virus. To do otherwise would be irresponsible, including in the eyes of God.

Responses like the above tweet are not just ill-conceived—they perpetuate the perceived war between science and religion and help to convince religious people that scientists and science are against them. Whether you believe in God and prayer or not, since people who do are not going away, it’s better to not drive this wedge further. Better to let those of us who are scientists in religious communities try to educate our brothers and sisters better in the proper relationship between science and their faith.

So, in liturgical fashion, let us pray for a resolution to the coronavirus outbreak:

That our leaders may make wise decisions informed by science, medicine, and common sense,
let us pray to the Lord.

That our medical professionals may be kept from sickness and have everything needed to treat the ill, let us pray to the Lord.

That those who contract the virus remember to stay at home, get rest, and have plenty of fluids, and that they may have a speedy recovery, let us pray to the Lord.

That the family and friends of those who are deceased from the virus may be comforted with love from God and neighbor, let us pray to the Lord.

That we may all remember to wash our hands and keep prudent distance from others, in order to protect and safeguard the health of our neighbors, let us pray to the Lord.

Help, save, comfort, and defend us, gracious Lord.

The Objectivity of Baptism

This is a long quote, but a great one, showing that the Christian’s assurance of God’s favor should not be directed to their own internal feelings or good works but Christ himself, and that we have a personal, objective reminder of that in this world:

The subjective access which we have to our own histories, then, does not provide a platform from which we may leap to certainty about ourselves. We cannot claim that the final meaning of our lives is luminous to us by introspection. There is a place for certainty, for the ‘assurance’ upon which Calvinist Christians have insisted so rightly, but it is founded not on introspection but on faith in the objective word of God. In examining the apparent meaning of our past lives, we have to confess its ambiguity, its failure to give clear expression to the reality which must shape it. Therefore we continually turn back from these appearances of ourselves to the reality itself…

In contrast to the hiddenness of the formative moment we are given a public sign that keeps it before our minds and prevents our ignoring it, as we can so easily ignore what is hidden about other people. The sign is baptism. It is a ritual, and therefore liable to the loss of significance which can befall any ritual when it is taken out of its proper context of understanding. It is a sign, and therefore distinct from the reality to which it points. Nevertheless, a ritual sign is the only appropriate way for the hidden moment of conversion to take public form; for without such a form the reality, given from outside man’s sphere of activity, lying beyond the scope of even his religious capabilities, will be in danger of confusion with the merely human acts of repentance of belief which it produces. Neither an individual’s belief, nor his love for God, nor his appearance of repentance and moral seriousness, however impressive it may be, can assure us of the redemptive presence of Christ. Only the sign itself, because it is given by Christ, can give a public assurance that God’s redemptive grace is active in the world and that this person too will encounter it, so entitling us to read the indications in the candidate’s subjective and active life hopefully, as evidence of the Spirit’s activity. Baptism does not point to the high moments of devotion or to the sustained achievements of moral fibre of which the human spirit is capable, but to the formative moment in which the whole of a person’s life, past and future, is taken up and pronounced upon by God in the ‘Yes’ that he has spoken and will speak in Christ.

Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order, 2nd Ed., pp. 258-259

Ashes to ashes, stardust to stardust

Painting by Julian Fałat, 1881

In the Western Christian calendar, today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the season of Lent. Lent is the 40-day season of reflection and repentance before the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday.

This evening, my wife and son and I will go to an Ash Wednesday service at our church, where we will enter in darkness and silence, sing somber songs, and hear this call:

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent: by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and alms-giving; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.

2019 Book of Common Prayer

After readings and prayers, we will present ourselves at the front for the imposition of ashes on our foreheads in the sign of the cross. The ashes symbolize our mortality. For each of us, the priest says:

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

These words are from Genesis 3, after Adam and Eve had fallen into sin, and God pronounces the sentence of death upon them as punishment. In Genesis 2, God made human beings from the dust of the earth. There was nothing bad in God’s eyes about our being made from dust. He made us that way, after all. But it does remind us of how finite and dependent we are.

Since we are made of the dust of the earth, the Bible is teaching (though not in a scientific way) that we are made of the same stuff as the rest of creation. Science fills out the details of this picture by revealing that we ourselves, all life on Earth, the Earth itself, the other planets in our Solar System, the Sun, and all other stars are made of atoms, which are made of electrons, protons, and neutrons. The latter two are made still further of quarks. We don’t yet know if this hierarchy goes down further. We also don’t know what makes up the mysterious substance called “dark matter”, which makes up some 90% of the matter in the universe. Nevertheless, we have well-founded suspicions that all of these forms of matter are unified in a single physical description somehow.

But where did the atoms come from? Well, firstly there is hydrogen, just one proton and one electron. It was formed in the first few minutes after the Big Bang, along with helium and a smattering of other elements. But in order for life’s chemistry to work, we need heavier elements, like carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, etc. These were formed billions of years later in the centers of stars by nuclear fusion. In one form or another, when these stars died, they released these elements out into space, which mixed into clouds of gas, which under the relentless pull of gravity became new stars and planets. Eventually, some of these elements formed the Earth. And some of them ended up in you and me. As astronomer Carl Sagan rightly said in his book Cosmos, “we are made of star stuff.”

The periodic table of the elements, colored by cosmic origin. The human figure at right shows the proportion of elements which originated from various processes. (Credit: NASA/CXC/K. Divona)

What a crazy thought. The seemingly ordinary atoms which make up you and me were forged in the fiery furnaces of the Big Bang, the interiors of stars, and stellar explosions. We are made of stardust. Because of our humanity, we are a lot more than that, but we are stardust all the same.

From stardust you are, and to stardust you shall return.

There is thus something inherently cosmic about our existence and our finiteness. In God’s plan, there was also something very good about it. He intended to sustain us from the beginning against the decay inherent in a good cosmos that yet still needed consummation and final completion. That’s what the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden was for. But because of human sin, we are separated from the presence of God, and return to disordered stardust at the end of our lives.

If the story I have told isn’t strange enough, it gets even more incredible. The Bible teaches that God himself became part of our finite existence. In the first chapter of his Gospel, St. John says “the Word became flesh” in the person of Jesus Christ. Flesh made from dust. The Word became dust.

The Word became stardust.

Though he lived a life without sin, Jesus returned to the stardust from which he came in his death on the cross. The Bible teaches that this death was the atoning sacrifice for sin and the defeat of the evil powers that array themselves against God and humanity. 40 days from now, on Easter we will celebrate the resurrection of Jesus into new bodily life. Life breathed back into dead stardust, but this time for all eternity.

Thus Jesus’ resurrection is more than only the guarantee of our own resurrection as we trust in his promise, though of course it is certainly this first. It is also God’s final stamp of approval on creation itself, the re-pronouncement of “very good” upon its existence. The redemption of humans is thus in this sense connected to the redemption of the entire cosmos. The very use of the ashes themselves in the Ash Wednesday rite also symbolizes this, as the ordinary (star-)dust of the earth is used to communicate a spiritual truth in a profoundly physical way.

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made, and you forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.