Monday, May 4, 2009

Evolution - Jesus the Ape God?

"The problem with the Christian church was, if God became man, man can't be a monkey. If man can be God, then man cannot possibly descend from the ape. For that betrays the concept of man worthy of deification. We have no problem with that. We are unhappy to announce that it is quite possible for man to be an animal, and we know that by looking into the behavior of the Christian church."

So says Rabbi Moshe Tendler in a mostly unremarkable - though entertaining - lecture on evolution given a number of years ago. Actually a more appropriate word for the lecture would be schizophrenic. For example, he claims that we are not Bible belt fundamentalists, and that we know how to learn pshat and not take everything in the Torah literally, yet most of the lecture is spent going over the same tired arguments that those same Bible belt fundamentalists employ against the theory of evolution (he seems to be a particular fan of irreducible complexity.) Then he states that he would be able to defend the claim that earth was 5742 years old [planted evidence??] only to say a few sentences later that the rational mind says that the earth is very old. And although he denigrates Darwin by asserting that "with almost no exception, whatever he said was false, whatever he said proved not to be true" (although the examples he gives relate primarily to the fact that there was no science of genetics at the time), he also tosses Darwin a bone by saying that he deserves a hakoras hatov (appreciative thanks) because he recognized the common denominator between man and animal which made possible the many advances of modern medical science.

While spending the majority of his 1-1/2 talk pointing out the supposed problems with the TOE, he states that there is much merit in the theory (but restricted to micro-evolution and not for macro) and nothing in it poses a religious problem to Judaism, except if one claims that evolution is "random", with God removed from the world. Natural selection is a mechanistic approach that doesn't need God. We believe that God is involved in the affairs of man.

Rabbi Tendler states more than once that the world is not 5742 years old, but that OUR world is 5742 (that is, the history of the Jewish people begins with Adam). He pays special attention to the Drush Or HaChaim by Tiferes Yisroel (1782-1860) which discussed a recently discovered mastodon, and which claimed that science finally realized what Jewish commentators had said for a long time - that there were worlds before this one, and each successive world had more advanced species. And Tendler concludes by saying that the one God that gave us the Torah gave us the truths of science and that there is nothing that science discovers that can be in opposition to Torah. We can defend the Torah from any scientific onslaught, but that we should not deny that the onslaught exists. But ultimately the only conflict is in the hearts of people, whether to accept God or not. Our role in life is not just to believe in God, but to act in such a way that others will learn to love God from our love of God.

But the purpose of this post is not to examine the merits or flaws of Rabbi Tendler's argument (yes, all the preceding was a long-winded introduction!), rather it is to examine the quote that I started with. His point was that in the 1800s there was "never a tumult" in the Jewish world regarding the TOE. He neglects to say that this claim holds true today primarily for the Modern Orthodox of which Tendler is a spokesman, for the leaders in the Chareidi / Yeshivah world are almost always as vehemently opposed to the TOE as any Christian fundamentalist. Tendler even admits that some of our schools take a razor blade to excise passages from science texts, though he neglects to add that this was an approach that his father-in-law, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, advocated since he claimed that belief in evolution is heretical.

Rabbi Tendler asserts that the Christian church has the most fundamental problem with the theory of evolution because of what it implies regarding the divinity of Jesus. And for many years I took this assertion as fact. After all, did not Spain ban the study of science in 1305 because of the fear that the nascent Renaissance (largely a result of the Christian world encountering the vastly superior Islamic culture during the Crusades) would set mens minds free from religious dogma (to paraphrase Max Dimont's Jews Gods & History)? Wasn't it well known how the Church treated the astronomical findings of Copernicus which proved that the Earth was not the center of the universe, culminating in the heresy trial of Galileo? So it was certainly reasonable to take R. Tendler's statement at face value.

I recently wrote on Francisco Ayala in the post The Christian Man's Evolution or God the Abortionist. To recap, he is an esteemed geneticist and evolutionary biologist as well as an Dominican priest, and is a proselytizer for Darwinian evolution. One curious belief of Ayala is that Darwin solved the problem of evil in the world, since natural selection explains the ruthlessness of nature which would otherwise require an intentional act of free will. (Of course, this only covers "natural evil", and not "moral evil" committed by man.) Baal Habos and Orthoprax objected to this as a valid Judeo-Christian religious claim, since it presumes a hands-off deity that left creation to its own devices. Unfortunately, I neglected to include one sentence in the original article: "He refers to science-savvy Christian theologians who present a God that is continuously engaged in the creative process through undirected natural selection." This clarifies his premise but really doesn't answer their valid objection as it seems internally contradictory. How can a deity be "continuously engaged" in an "undirected" process?

I said that I'd look into Ayala's works to see if he developed this notion in greater detail and addressed the paradox seemingly inherent in it. To date, I have only been able to check out one book of his (inter library loan is being very slow), a thin one called "Darwin and Intelligent Design". In it, he discusses the notion but does not address the obvious dilemma. So I have no answer from Ayala yet. I will, however, actually present a Jewish solution to this problem at a later time.

Nevertheless, the book does clearly demonstrate that Rabbi Tendler is as wrong in his assertions regarding the Church's objection as he is with many other erroneous claims made throughout the lecture. Examples that Ayala quotes include:
  • Gregory of Nyssa, a 4th century Church father, maintained that many plant and animal species were not created directly by God. Rather, only their potentiality was created and that natural processes later brought about their emergence.
  • Theologians in the middle ages considered the possibility of species changing via natural processes, such as Thomas Aquinas who believed that spontaneous generation was not incompatible with Christian faith.
  • 19th century Protestant theologians such as Charles Hodge (1874) claimed that denial of design in nature is denial of God (and not for the reason that Tendler suggests). Yet others granted evolution as a mechanism of divine intelligence.
  • Of course, the 20th century has seen the widest acceptance of the theory of evolution by prominent Catholic Church authorities, including the big kahunas. Pope Pius XII acknowledged the compatibility of evolution with the Christian faith, and John Paul II in 1996 objected to people using the Bible as containing scientific statements adding that evolution is no longer a mere hypothesis but a theory with significant arguments.
Aubrey Moore, in 1891, wrote that "Darwinism appeared, and under the guise of a foe, did the work of a friend". Wiki describes him as "the clergyman who more than any other man was responsible for breaking down the antagonisms towards Evolution then widely felt in the English Church". So while there was some antagonism towards the theory, it appears that Rabbi Tendler is 100 years out of date in his claims.

But there can be no debate regarding Tendler's statement that the history of the Christian Church shows us that man can indeed be an animal. After the audience laughter had subsided, Rabbi Tendler next words were "I say that under the roof that houses the holocaust center."


Daniel said...

Christian emuna in Jesus, is no different than Chabad emuna in the Rebbe. Christians don’t believe Jesus the physical and frail man with limitations was G-d. They see it as G-d placing His full essence within Jesus. They see Jesus as a tzadik who emptied himself of all ego and all self will, so that only G-d’s essence was left, becoming one with G-d, the same as Chabad see the Rebbe. The only difference is that Chabad are Jews and follow Torah, and Christians are gentiles and have no obligation. Need proof? Here’s a little:

"one can't ask a question from the problem of intermediary, since this [the Rebbe] is the very essence and existence (of HaShem that HaShem has) enclothed in a body - ("Atzmus u'mehus alein vi er hat zich areingeshtalt in a guf"

He [Jesus] is the form of the invisible G-d… it was the Father's good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him (Colossians 1:15)

the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His [Jesus] glory (John 1:14)

Frum Heretic said...

The post has nothing to do with the Christian view of Jesus nor the Lubavitch view of the rebbe, both of which are much more varied and complex than the oversimplification that you presented in your comment.

Daniel said...

I realize my post is a bit out of step with the topic. However, I was merely attempting to point out the flawed tendency for Judaism to scoff at Christianity and its beliefs (e.g. your opening Tendler quote), while often looking the other way with Chabad’s almost identical “kosher chrisitan” beliefs. The simplicity of my comment was intentional not meant to be a comprehensive exegesis of each perspective.

Frum Heretic said...

OK, then stay tuned for an upcoming post on the futility of polemics.

Baal Habos said...

FH, I'm reading Carl Sagan's "The varieties of scientific experience". In it he discusses the pre-Socratic notion that the following statements cannot all possible be true:
A - evil exists
B - God is benevolent
C - God is omnipotent
D - God is omniscient.

Lately just about the only reading that I consider honest is of the scientific and skeptical nature. It is the only reading that says "this is what I know", and everything else is at best a maybe.

Ach - it's all very depressing.

Anonymous said...

"How can a deity be "continuously engaged" in an "undirected" process?"

I'll try to give a possible way to understand it. According to the mystical conception of "God" the natural world is not separate from God, rather the world we experience is just a lower realm within the greater Godhead. With this understanding evolution can be explained as how God acts continuously. And yet, it is undirected, in the sense that it wasn't set up up prior to the process itself, because the process is God acting and not the result of a prior plan

Baal Habos said...

>And yet, it is undirected, in the sense that it wasn't set up up prior to the process itself, because the process is God acting and not the result of a prior plan

I interpret what you say as follows: "And yet, it is random because the process is God acting."

Sorry, this makes no sense to me.

Can you please re-state.

Anonymous said...


I was talking about directed or undirected, not necessarily random.

I'll give you a moshol. One day a farmer notices his horse has wondered outside the barn. The farmer wants his horse to be in the barn so he directs it back. This is a case of directed action because the farmer acts with intention to fulfill a desire or want. An example of an undirected action would be how your digestive system works. It doesn't know or care about digestion. It just acts. Note that your digestive system doesn't act randomly

Now, the question about God acting randomly is a separate question. This was the debate between Einstein and Neil Bohr regarding Quantum physics.
Einstein: "God doesn't play dice with the universe"
Bohr: "don't tell God what to do!"

When evolution talks about "random" mutations, are these in fact truly random, or are they just unexpected and unpredictable by our limited intelligence?

Baal Habos said...

Gamzoo, you're right. Random is of course the wrong word; I'm sure random mutations are not really random. But my question still stands.

I interpret what you say as follows: "And yet, it is undirected because the process is God acting."

It still needs to be rephrased.

Anonymous said...


rereading my original statement, it probably doesn't make much sense. I'll try again. God can be continuously engaged with creation but the world runs undirected.

Let's say the world needs God's "light" or consciousness to exist. Without God's continuous "shefa" the world would cease to exist immediately. That doesn't necessary imply that God is directing how creation unfolds.

I'll give you another moshol. When you have a dream, you are the God of the dream. Without your consciousness, no dream can occur. However, you are not directing the dream. The dream unfolds in unexpected ways. That's why we can have nightmares or pleasurable dreams, since we don't know what comes next and therefore we can be surprised for good or bad.

Kent said...

Charles Hodge's commentaries are currently available for pre-order from Logos Bible Software. I thought you might be interested!

Charles Hodge Commentary Collection (4 Vols.)