Saturday, April 30, 2016

Evolution and Holiness

Among the places where theism and non-theism rub against each other is the idea of altruism -- of doing good for someone when there is no perceived benefit for yourself. We theists, when you can make us stop preening about how good we are, will give credit to God's influence in our lives. We Christian theists will usually point to what Jesus referred to as the second greatest commandment of loving our neighbors as ourselves. We might also point to other places where Jesus directed us to help one another as well as anyone we encounter who might be in need -- if we have the means to do so.

Many non-theists consider helping others just as important as theists do -- some of them are better at it than some of us. They have a more difficult time saying why they do so, since they generally have neither law nor law-giver around to credit. It's certainly not impossible to ground altruistic behavior in a non-theistic worldview, but the case is usually more complex, subtle and sometimes not nearly so clear as "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." Some non-theists would say that the influence of the best of religious teaching, like that commandment, has proven its worth even if its origins are not at all supernatural. But some see no positives in religion whatsoever and want to explain altruistic behavior solely through natural means. Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene is the model for this kind of idea.

Spring Arbor University professor Matthew Nelson Hill examines the "selfish gene" model and a number of other biologically deterministic explanations for altruism and tries to see how John Wesley's model of holy living and thoughts about Christian perfection might interact with them in his first book, Evolution and Holiness.

The first section of the book surveys those deterministic explanations for altruism. Hill then sketches Wesley's model of holy living, outlined among the early Methodists in England in the 1700s, and his concept of "Christian perfection" or "being made perfect in love." Without digging into either too much here, the model of holy living relies heavily on meeting with other Christians to study, share, pray, serve and be held accountable. "Christian perfection" has little to do with flawlessness and a lot to do with being led by God instead of one's own desires and understandings. Hill finishes the book by discussing whether accepting evolutionary theory as true mandates rejecting the idea of becoming more and more altruistic and loving. He thinks it can, and isn't convinced by a lot of the deterministic explanations, seeing quite a few of them as prone to vague language and some imprecision n defining their concepts.

Evolution and Holiness is not a popular explanation or polemic, but pretty academic text with loads of footnotes and a straighforward and rather plain style. The section covering the non-theistic explanations of altruism is well-researched and densely footnoted, making it some work to get through. The sketches of Wesleyan holy living and Christian perfection aren't quite as extensively documented but explain their different subjects adequately, even if the one concerning the concept of perfection could use some fleshing out. The conclusion is interesting but seems presented in a slightly rushed and almost facile way. Evolution and Holiness is a great grapple with a couple of ideas not generally combined and offers a lot of food for thought, but it's not something that you can toss off in a couple of afternoons. Investing the time it does demand will pay off, though.

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