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.