Tuesday, June 10, 2008

#38. Exodus

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Where did the idea of evolution come from in the first place?

I said in post #37 (What's Next) that the concept of evolution didn't originate with Darwin but with the Bible and I acknowledged that "it's a big claim-- not one that people still living in the context of a static worldview can hear easily or take seriously." Biblical fundamentalists, with their strong sense of conflict between the Bible and scientific evolution, simply can't imagine it.

But for those who aren't closed to the evolutionary worldview, the understanding that it has its origins in the history of the Jews can help us to make much better sense of the Second Axial Period which western culture and all humanity is currently experiencing.


To start with, it's important to be aware that Charles Darwin did not invent the idea of biological evolution. What he did was discover the mechanism by which it works. He called that mechanism "natural selection."

Almost everyone knows of Darwin's famous five-year voyage around the world on the HMS Beagle and about his observations in the Galapagos Islands off the coast of South America. It was there that he gathered much of the evidence for his understanding of natural selection. Less well known is the fact that a contemporary of Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, came up with the same mechanism for biological evolution from his work in Southeast Asia and the island of New Guinea.

But the idea of evolution is much older than Wallace and Darwin. Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, for example, was aware of it, and many earlier scientists, long before Erasmus Darwin's time, saw glimpses of it. An excellent brief summary of the history of the dawning of the idea of evolution in the world of science is available in the June 2008 issue of Smithsonian magazine, "On the Origin of a Theory."

I've quoted Teilhard de Chardin many times in this blog about the fact that the transition from a static to a dynamic worldview is the greatest change in human consciousness since consciousness first appeared on Earth several million years ago. And I've shared some thoughts about this truly immense transition in human consciousness in several recent posts: aspects 1 & 2 in post #35; aspects 3 & 4 in #36.

The question here is where did that breakthrough first occur? What occasioned the beginning of the immense change from a static to a dynamic understanding of the world?


The answer is the event known in the Bible as the Exodus. As strange as it may seem to many, the dynamic-evolutionary worldview of contemporary science first entered into the consciousness of western culture as a result of the Great Escape from Egypt.

The Exodus happened around 1400 BCE. (Bible scholars and historians debate the exact date. The importance of the Exodus event is demonstrated by the enormous amount of effort that has gone into trying to determine its exact date. You can check out some of the numerous web sites for more than you ever wanted to know about how scholars go about dating an event of the distant past!)

The Great Escape from Egypt was essentially a revolt against slavery. A group of Egyptian slaves, focused around a leader we know as Moses, revolted against their degrading political and social conditions. They escaped, crossing the Red Sea (Sea of Reeds) "with dry feet" and wandered in the Sinai desert for many years; it was there that they forged their unique spirituality and eventually came to recognize themselves as a nation, the "people" known today as the Jews.

The Exodus event was not only the beginning of the Hebrew nation but also the start of the western religious tradition. It was the context out of which Jesus and the early Christian tradition appeared, and along with Greek metaphysics it is one of the two major sources of western culture.


The Great Escape is still celebrated each year at the full moon in spring. Telling its story is the central part of the Passover Seder. It's told in response to the well-known question asked by the youngest child, "Why is this night different from all other nights?"

The end of the story always includes what scholars say is the oldest recorded song in the Bible, the song of "Meriam the prophetess, Aaron's sister, and all the women who followed her, singing and dancing with tambourines."

Sing to the Lord,
for he is highly exalted,
horse and its rider
he has hurled into the sea.
(Exodus 15, 19-21.)

A longer version, called the Song of Moses, is given in Exodus 15, 1-18.

We sing of the Lord!
God, covered with glory!
Horse and rider thrown into the sea...
“The Lord” is God’s name.

What comes next is especially important:

God’s right hand is majestic in power,
God’s right hand shatters the enemy,
Great is God’s splendor...
"The Lord" will be king for ever more!

It's difficult today to understand how important those words are. They express the realization that something new happened: the Hebrews' God did something new. And it's with that insight that humanity began to move out of the static worldview of the Neolithic cultural period that had previously prevailed for many thousands of years.


The Neolithic Age is a period of human cultural history that's both familiar and unfamiliar to most of us. It was the age of the Great Mother, when humans first become farmers rather than hunter-gatherers and human life was centered on the life-giving world of plants.

The discovery of agriculture began about ten thousand years ago with the (probably accidental) discovery that food-bearing plants will sprout from intentionally planted seeds. Those plants grow to bear edible fruit and vegetables. And more seeds.

While those plants die off at the end of the growing season, their seeds can be planted at the beginning of the next growing season and will sprout again to produce new food-bearing plants.

This experience of the life-death-life-death of the Earth's vegetation, repeated over and over, exerted a tremendous influence on human consciousness. It prevailed in people's mind for countless generations. A familiar biblical expression of it is recorded in the Book of Ecclesiastes: "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun."

This same attitude is expressed by people today when they respond, "Same old, same old," to "What's new?"

The phases of the moon, dying and returning to life every 28 days, also fit this "same old, same old" pattern.

When the new moon first appears, it grows larger each night until it reaches its fullness. That glorious full moon fades quickly, however, and the moon eventually disappears completely. But it returns again three days later, so that every month ("moonth") is a death-resurrection-death-resurrection story-- just like the plant cycle.

Life-death, life-death, life-death: it goes round and round and round. Nothing really new ever happens. In the static agricultural world of the Neolithic period, there is, indeed, "nothing new under the sun."

It was the reflections of the Jewish people on the Great Escape from Egypt which opened the mind of humanity to the dynamic view of the world. But it hasn't been an easy transition; it's taken humanity more than three thousand years to catch on to it. As Teilhard says, "We're just coming out of the Neolithic Age."


So this is what I meant when I said (back in post #37, in response to the comment of a reader who referred to "the bible stories about God, Christ and the Holy Spirit") that those stories are about the same thing that science is about. The idea of evolution comes "not from Darwin but from the Bible."

That dynamic worldview was developed by later biblical writers, especially the authors of the Hebrew Bible's Wisdom Literature. And it was continued into early Christian times by New Testament authors such as John the evangelist and the apostle Paul and by those writers of the first few centuries of the Christian era known as the Fathers of the Church.

Irenaeus of Lyons and Maximus the Confessor are good examples. They understood Jesus and the early Christian communities in that same dynamic context expressed in the Wisdom Literature. I hope to talk about the developmental mind of both the Hebrew and the early Christian writers in a future post.


As I mentioned back in post #21 (Struggling with Words), the dynamic-developmental worldview was lost to western culture during the Dark Ages and eventually replaced by the static perspectives of the ancient Greeks. But it began to be recovered once again by the work of scholars and scientists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Scholars in areas such as biblical, liturgical and patristic studies began to recover it on the religious side, while researchers in astronomy, physics, evolutionary biology and cultural anthropology-- and most recently in the area of neuroscience-- did the same on the science side.

With my life-long interest in science and religion I find it delightful that enshrined in the sacred writings of the Jews and early Christians is nothing less than the evolutionary worldview which modern science has been uncovering since the time of Darwin.

As I said in post #21, "Theologians have not only recovered the inner core of the Judeo-Christian tradition which had been lost to western civilization after the Dark Ages but also have moved forward to include the best values of the modern world; those values especially include an appreciation of the universe as developmental and of persons as central to the cosmic process."

In our day, science and religion converge in humanity's efforts at self-understanding. We can see far better than previous generations that human history and humanity's cultural development are the continuation on our planet of biological and cosmic evolution. The essence of the Immense Transition is our awareness both that it is one single process and that we "Earthlings" are at the center of it.

But it's to the biblical mind that we owe the initial change from the static worldview of the Neolithic-agricultural period to the dynamic-evolutionary perspectives of the modern world.

And that began with the Great Escape from Egypt.


1 comment:

Sam said...

While trying to eliminate numerous spam comments, I inadvertently deleted all comments at the END of the posts up until #90. BUT... they are still preserved in the collections of comments found in posts #32, #67 and #83.

One set of comments, however-- for posts #84 to #89-- has been completely lost. If you happen to have copied any of them, I'd much appreciate your sending a copy to me so I can restore them. Thanks.