The infirmities of the existing Christian narrative
According to traditional Christianity, the history of the universe supposedly boils down to this:
- Humans once lived in blissful union with a loving God, but then they willfully disobeyed him, imagining that they knew better than he.
- So the loving God cast humans into a cruel world of suffering and death.
- One nation, Israel, accepted God's call to be his chosen people. The Israelites declared that they would worship God and follow his law no matter what. (That's what the loving God wanted all of humanity to do.)
- But Israel didn't do such a great job of it. The loving God therefore allowed Israel to be conquered by a series of oppressive empires.
- In a backwater corner of the latest of those empires, the loving God became a man, Jesus, born to a virgin of Israel.
- This Jesus voluntarily died an agonizing death, not simply because he got cross-wise with the forces of the empire, but because such a brutal course of action was how the loving God wanted to reconcile humanity to himself.
- Jesus' mission of reconciliation having been accomplished, he was raised from the dead, following which he ascended into heaven.
- Since then, humanity has basically been marking time, waiting for Jesus' triumphant return.
This is not a satisfying narrative, nor even a credible one. As the courtroom lawyers say, it assumes too many facts not in evidence. It ignores too many observations of how the universe God wrought actually works. It treats all other history as more or less irrelevant. (See the posts listed in the right-hand column for more analysis.)
Small wonder that in general, the more education people have, the less likely they are to believe this traditional Christian narrative.
A better account of the universe's history: Helping the Creator to organize a universe
It's no sin for us to look for a better explanation of the extant evidence. When we do so, we don't claim we're smarter than our spiritual forebears, any more than today's physicians claim that they're smarter than Hippocrates or Galen; instead, we're building on the foundations that they bequeathed to us.
So here's another version of the narrative, one that does seem to fit the available evidence:
• It appears that for at least 13.7 billion years, a Creator has been organizing, or if you will, cultivating, what we perceive as our universe (along with who knows what else), using the laws of nature and the matter and energy resulting from the so-called Big Bang in a process of ongoing evolution.
[In an earlier version, I referred to this as the Creator's cultivation of a vast, fertile ‘farm.']
• As part of that project, the Creator appears to have been growing a series of helpers — us — to assist with his organizational work; we've also gotten to share in the enjoyment of the fruits of that work. As Lutheran theologian Philip Hefner puts it, we are "created co-creators."
• We don't have explicit instructions from the Creator about how exactly we're supposed to help organize the universe. Various people and groups have claimed otherwise; none of them has offered a credible case.
• Over tens of thousands of years, though, we have developed — through trial and error and perhaps even some divine inspiration, and often at terrible cost — reasonable notions of how to make ourselves more happy and productive as 'helpers,' in ways that can be sustained over time and scaled up as our numbers increase.
• Our collective historical experience suggests that we do best at making ourselves more happy and productive when we follow two core practices:
- Facing the facts, that is, dealing with the reality that the Creator has actually wrought, instead of pretending that life is the way we think it ought to be; and
- Seeking long-term happiness for others as we do for ourselves.
• These two core practices are entirely consistent with the Christianity that Jesus actually preached (as distinct from the strange doctrines his later followers came up with). We can think of them as paraphrases of the Great Commandment and Summary of the Law — love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself — which Jesus stressed would lead to eternal life; see, e.g., Luke 10.25-37.
It's not unrealistic to think that when we follow these two core practices — when we face the facts, while seeking the best for others as for ourselves — we contribute an infinitesimal bit to the Creator's ongoing work of organizing his, and our, universe.
To what ultimate end? It's impossible to know.
But we're not without reason to think that life in the material universe that we perceive is not all there is.
In any case, if past historical trends are any indication, in the very, very long run the end result is likely to be unimaginably wonderful.