15 Wisdom or Folly? Understanding the Cross in an Evolutionary World

Chelsea King

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, And bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.[1]

There are some potential problems with considering the Cross emblematic of “wisdom.” Christians, including St. Paul as quoted above, have wrestled from the beginning of the tradition with the basic question: what do we make of the Cross? How do we make sense of the New Testament account that declares that the Crucified One died for the sins of humanity? If we understand this as a sacrifice, we are faced with the next question—to whom was the sacrifice offered? Did God demand this kind of sacrifice in order to redeem us? These questions have haunted and fascinated theologians for centuries.

When we move into the interdisciplinary world where theology and science, and in particular, theology and evolutionary theory, converse, figuring out what to do with the Cross becomes even more of a puzzle. Typically, theologians interested in evolutionary theory have focused on the Incarnation over the Crucifixion. In The Divine Milieu, for instance, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin explores Christ as the Alpha and Omega Point and describes all of the natural world striving towards its fulfillment in spirit.[2] Jesus is understood as the Cosmic Christ—fully encompassing all of creation in His Being. Karl Rahner also focuses his attention on the relationship between the Incarnation and evolutionary theory. For Rahner there is no “essential opposition” between matter and spirit, and matter develops and opens itself up to spirit.[3] Spirit and matter are united and realized in the person of Jesus Christ in the hypostatic union.[4] Christ is the telos of the evolutionary process—the “final cause” of evolution.

Whether or not these approaches are adequate or theologically sound is not my primary concern. What I wish to emphasize is that theological reflection is lacking when it comes to understanding the Cross in an evolutionary world. The Cross tends to be just a blip on the radar, a minor incident that happened; not all that important, almost like an inconvenient part of the larger story of salvation.[5] However, when we bypass the Cross, we are missing potentially fruitful insights about what wisdom entails. In order to demonstrate this, I first want to explore more carefully what we mean by the human niche and its relation to the rest of the created world.

The importance of niche construction theory within the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES) should not be underestimated. Niche construction theory presents biology with a philosophical shift in the way that natural selection is understood as a principle explanatory power. As the anthropologist Agustín Fuentes states, “evolutionary theory has come to a point that mandates a move away from focusing exclusively on natural selection, genetic-based fitness, and their relationships to individuals to a systems approach.”[6] Instead of viewing natural selection as the main way of explaining change, niche construction theory focuses on the “building and destroying of niches by organisms and the synergistic interactions between organisms and environments.”[7] This so-called “systems” approach allows evolutionary biologists and anthropologists to understand the interconnectedness of humans and organisms with the environment. It is a dynamic process, one that cannot be simplified or reduced to the passing on of genes. The EES suggests that we can no longer think of organisms as simply pre-programmed genetically for a preexisting environment. As the anthropologist Emily Schultz points out, niche construction theory falls under a type of relational evolutionary thinking that is, in fact, quite different from Neo-Darwinian reductionism: “Relational evolutionary thinking moves evolutionary discussion away from reductionism and sterile nature-nurture debates and promises to enable fresh approaches to a range of problems across the subfields of anthropology.”[8] Moreover, “organisms can engineer the environment in ways that affect the development and selection of their descendants as well as their own lives.”[9] Biologists are now recognizing, more so than before, that the organism has the ability to construct its niche to a certain extent and modify the environment.

The term “environment” can and ought to be interpreted broadly. It can be as simple as a particular physical ecosystem (worms in the soil, for example), but when speaking of the human sphere, it can refer to culture and religion. This broader understanding of “environment” is what is sometimes referred to as the “biocultural perspective.”[10] What this perspective tells us is that both the historical and current social contexts can “affect genetic and other biological patterns.”[11] This affects various developmental outcomes, which then feed back into the system. This feedback implies that particular socioeconomic environments can have effects on the development of human beings. The term “biosocial inheritance” refers to the social “adversity or advantage that is transmitted across generations through mechanisms both biological and social in nature.”[12] In other words, the age-old dichotomy between the “biological” and “social” can no longer be maintained. By seeing and understanding organisms through a more holistic lens, we can begin to recognize that everything plays some kind of role in the development and flourishing of an organism. Tim Ingold offers a very intriguing and compelling argument on this point, stating that we must expand what we mean by “biology” if we are to rid ourselves of this unnecessary dichotomy. Ingold notes that for Charles Darwin and those who came after him, the evolution of species “in nature was also evolution out of it, in so far as it progressively liberated the mind from the promptings of innate disposition.”[13] Nature is something that is separate from “us” and absolutely separate from our culture. The notion that there is something innate comes from a tendency to “transpose, into the organism, a set of abstract specifications derived from our external observation of them.”[14] It became easy for people to associate biology with genetics and refer to culture as something entirely distinct. As Ingold states, “the very notion of biology has come to stand in for the belief that at the heart of every organism there lies an essential specification that is fixed from the start and remains unchanged throughout its lifetime.”[15] Crucially, what these findings reveal is that human beings are not separate from nature, and thus the very notion that they ought to have “dominion” over the earth is wrongheaded and dangerous. It ignores the fact that human beings are deeply embedded in the lives of other organisms and vice versa. The human niche does not operate in a vacuum; human beings have evolved side by side with other species and have constructed niches which have impacted their own evolution and that of other species’ evolution.

While human beings are clearly deeply connected to the environment, it is also true that they have evolved certain capacities that have allowed them to be the “ultimate-niche constructors.”[16] The capacity for human reason and symbolic thought, along with the capacity for cooperation and thinking within a group, has allowed the human being to flourish in a variety of important ways. As both Celia Deane-Drummond and Agustín Fuentes write, “for humans, even early ones, their social relationships, landscapes, and the biotic and abiotic elements they encounter are embedded in an experiential reality that is infused with a consistent potential for meaning derived from more than the material substance and context at hand.”[17]

But of course, the story of humanity is no fairy tale (neither for our own species, for others, and for the planet). For along with these capacities for cooperation and empathy are capacities for violence, war, genocide, and ecological destruction. This darker side of humanity, while not its only side, has fascinated many anthropologists. Are human beings basically violent, aggressive, and “warlike,” or are they cooperative, peaceful, and altruistic? Fuentes challenges this static vision of the human person and states: “anything we might term human nature is complex and it might be more fruitful to envision multiple human natures.[18] The human being is dynamic and develops certain capacities that do not determine, but rather open up, potential realities and create new trajectories. New kinds of questions begin to emerge in anthropology when we begin to consider the human being as dynamic. What kinds of trajectories has the human being taken? What kinds of capacities have evolved over time? What can the archeological record reveal to us about who we have been, who we are, and potentially who we will become?

Learning through imitation allows the human being to create new worlds together in community, ponder about the past and imagine things that do not exist. One may suggest that this is where the propensity towards the religious emerges.[19] Of course, the formation of language, imagination, and other symbolic capacities is important for passing on traditions and ideas, but it is also where certain concepts come to the forefront. Human beings have the capacity to form distinctions and identities within a group. While this seems like a rather neutral notion, the formation of identities, particularly group identities, may be a precondition for war.[20] This is not to say that identity formation directly causes something akin to war among human beings, but it is surely a factor that enables intergroup violence to take place. As Brian Ferguson states:

Comparing situations around the world, several sets of circumstances appear again and again in the record before, or as, war developed. Rather than the cause of war, they may be thought of as preconditions that make its inception or intensification more likely. These preconditions are not independent, and many causal linkages connect one or another. But with several of them put together, the stage is set for whatever spark that finally starts the fire.[21]

These circumstances include a sedentary lifestyle, an increase in population density, and especially pertinent to this paper, the formation of group identities. This encourages “a shift from homicide targeted at specific individuals, to the more warlike ‘any of them will do.’”[22]

War between humans is not the only “dark” side of being human. Our capacity to make distinctions between each other and form collective identities is the same capacity that allows us to make an even greater distinction between ourselves and our nature, which can then lead to assumptions that we are here to pillage the natural world, doing whatever we please. We are deeply embedded in a world of greed and consumerism, and here in the United States, the mentality of individualism pervades our culture. This state of mind has led our species to become quite successful and has arguably given us a certain capacity for “wisdom” understood as pattern-making, which has further enabled us to outcompete other species. But this success has come at a great cost to other creatures, the planet, and humanity. I think that the understanding of Christ Crucified in Christian theology directly confronts this so-called wisdom, overturning it entirely. From the perspective of Christian faith, God challenges human wisdom through the Cross. What appears to be completely foolish is, scripture informs us, divine wisdom. What is this wisdom? Instead of power and might, we are confronted with weakness.[23] And it is in that weakness that power and strength are properly understood.

There are two main aspects of the Cross I want to draw our attention to: first, it is a message of salvation, and, second, a way of imitation. Both aspects enable us to see what divine “wisdom” means in the evolutionary world that I have been describing. I will begin with the notion of salvation. The Christian tradition has tended to affirm that Christ comes to die for the sins of humanity and humanity alone.[24] If the Cross is understood as the way sins are forgiven, then it makes some sense to focus exclusively on human beings and their salvation. We hardly want to attribute sin to non-humans. I am inclined to believe that sins committed by human beings are quite different in kind and degree than any “sins” that non-human creatures might commit. However, if human beings are closely connected to the environment and to non-human niches, we can see how salvation can be applied universally. If the human being is not understood as separate from the rest of the environment, then the salvation of the human being must necessarily extend to all of creation. While non-human creatures do not need forgiveness for their sins, they most assuredly do need healing. And it is through the suffering of Christ that those wounds are healed.[25] On the Cross, we see one who is suffering. The theologian Jürgen Moltmann puts forward a seemingly compelling connection: love necessarily entails suffering of some kind, and since God is love, God must be capable of suffering.[26] Moltmann’s desire to claim that God suffers is motivated by his awareness of the suffering of the world. According to Moltmann, Christ suffers willingly on account of his mission and his preaching.[27] It is not something that Christ does because he needs to appease an angry God. Christ’s sufferings should not be viewed as the archetype of suffering that exists in the world. Moltmann’s insistence on the suffering of God is not meant to be a glorification or validation of innocent suffering, but to reveal Christ’s suffering with others. In a mystical sense, the wounds of Christ heal the wounds of those that have been abandoned and abused. I think that this formulation speaks directly to the biocultural perspective—Christ does not simply come to redeem human beings, but because of our connection to the rest of the world, Christ’s redemptive power expands to all creation. Focusing on the Cross allows us to attend to the suffering in the world in a way that a singular focus on the Incarnation does not do. The “wisdom” here is that of God—it is a wisdom that tells us that God does not abandon his creation, even though creation itself has rebelled in some way against the Creator, creating false dichotomies and divides that allow for violence to occur. Wisdom here is understood as forgiveness and healing. Wisdom means sitting with the ones who suffer on account of sin—with those who are complicit and with those who suffer its consequences.

Now, what would it mean for us to imitate the Cross? To follow in Christ’s footsteps? This is the second aspect of the Cross—a way of imitation and discipleship. On the Cross, Christ offers himself in self-sacrifice. Here, the only way to defeat evil is to allow it to take Him over entirely. Power is not defeated by (conventional) power. The radical claim of the Christian faith is that it is in weakness and love that evil is finally defeated. If Christians are to follow this example fully, it means cultivating a greater care and concern for our fellow human beings, for the world in which we live, and questioning our assumptions about what is “right and good.” In his encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis exemplifies this calling and offers a fairly rigorous critique of capitalism, ecological destruction, and human greed.[28] The wisdom here is one that counters common notions of power and control. It is a wisdom that is not obvious, but it is also a wisdom that speaks to what it means to be properly human. Following the Crucified One means living out our capacity for compassion, altruism, cooperation, and self-sacrifice. It means living out fully the human niche—as it was intended by the Creator.

CHELSEA KING is a Ph.D. candidate in systematic theology at the University of Notre Dame. Her main area of interest is in theological anthropology, with a focus on how evolutionary theory has challenged, enriched, and complicated our understanding of sin and salvation. In particular, she is interested in the theological category of sacrifice as understood from both historical and contemporary perspectives. She has incorporated the thought of Rene Girard into her work on sacrifice and hopes to continue to develop and draw from Girard’s mimetic theory. She also has served as the Editor-in-Chief of Lumen et Vita, the graduate theological journal of Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry. She was also a Graduate Student Scholar on the Human Distinctiveness project.

 References

[1] 1 Corinthians 1:18–19, New King James Version (Thomas Nelson, 1982). Subsequent scriptural quotations are also from this edition.
[2] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ, The Divine Milieu, translated by Bernard Wall (New York: HarperCollins, 1960).
[3] Karl Rahner, “The Unity of Spirit and Matter in the Christian Understanding of Faith,” Theological Investigations 6 (London: Darton Longman & Todd, 1969).
[4] Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith, translated by William V. Dych (New York: Seabury, 1978), 18.
[5] To name just a few theologians who tend to bypass discussion of the Cross: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Karl Rahner, and John Haught. Celia Deane-Drummond tackles this very issue, arguing that this tendency to overlook the Cross has to do with a wider marginalization of Christology within these contemporary theological conversations (Christ and Evolution: Wonder and Wisdom [Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009]).
[6] Agustín Fuentes, “The Extended Evolutionary Synthesis, Ethnography, and the Human Niche: Toward an Integrated Anthropology,” Current Anthropology 57.13 (2016): S14.
[7] Agustín Fuentes, “Cooperation, Conflict and Niche Construction in the Genus Homo,” in War, Peace, and Human Nature: The Convergence of Cultural and Evolutionary Views, edited by Douglas P. Fry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 78–94, as quoted in Celia Deane-Drummond, The Wisdom of the Liminal: Evolution and Other Animals in Human Becoming (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014), 221.
[8] Emily Schultz, “Resolving the Anti-Antievolutionism Dilemma: A Brief for Relational Evolutionary Thinking in Anthropology,” American Anthropologist 11.2 (2009): 236.
[9] Ibid., 237.
[10] M.K. Hoke and T. McDade, “Biosocial Inheritance: A Framework for the Study of the Intergenerational Transmission of Health Disparities,” Annals of Anthropological Practice 38.2 (2015): 187.
[11] Fuentes, “The Extended Evolutionary Synthesis,” S15.
[12] Hoke and McDade, “Biosocial Intelligence,” 194.
[13] Tim Ingold, “Beyond Biology and Culture: The Meaning of Evolution in a Relational World,” Social Anthropology 12.2 (2004): 210.
[14] Ibid., 215.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Agustín Fuentes, “Humans as Niche Constructors, as Primates, and with Primates: Synergies for Anthropology in the Anthropocene,” Cambridge Anthropology 30 (2012): 140–44.
[17] Celia Deane-Drummond and Agustín Fuentes, “Human Being and Becoming: Situating Theological Anthropology in Interspecies Relationships in an Evolutionary Context,” Philosophy, Theology, and the Sciences 1.2 (2014): 256.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid.
[20] While the evidence for war is difficult to discern in the archeological record, the very first signs of warlike activity thus far occurred 12,000–10,000 BC at Jebel Sahaba, Sudan, where bodies were found with embedded projectiles. See R. Brian Ferguson, “War Before History,” in The Ancient World at War, edited by Philip de Souza (London: Thames and Hudson, 2008), 15–27.
[21] Ibid., 24.
[22] Ibid.
[23] 2 Corinthians 12:9: “And he said unto me, ‘My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.’”
[24] By “Christian tradition” I am referring to both scripture and reflection of scripture by certain theologians such as Augustine of Hippo, Irenaeus of Lyons, Athanasius of Alexandria, and Thomas Aquinas. There are of course theologians who have attempted to expand their understanding of salvation to include other non-human creatures (for example, Maximus the Confessor and Francis of Assisi) but none have attempted to argue that the Cross is salvific for non-human creatures in the same way it is for human beings.
[25] 1 Peter 2:23-24: “Who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously; who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed.”
[26] Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015), 332.
[27] Ibid., 65–6.
[28] Francis, Laudato si’, encyclical, May 24, 2015.

Bibliography

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