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Bringing Heaven to Earth Here and Now

A guest essay by Joan Roughgarden, author of Evolution and Christian Faith; Reflections of an Evolutionary Biologist (2006). She has been a professor of evolutionary biology at Stanford University since 1972, and is an active member at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco.

For Sunday December 2, 2007
First Sunday in Advent

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)
           Isaiah 2:1–5
           Psalm 122
           Romans 13:11–14
           Matthew 24:36–44

Let Us Beat Swords into Plowshares, by Evgeniy Vuchetich, given by the Soviet Union to the United Nations in 1959.
Let Us Beat Swords into Plowshares,
by Evgeniy Vuchetich, given by the Soviet
Union to the United Nations in 1959.

           The readings for the first Sunday in Advent are especially provocative to someone like me whose life work lies in ecology and evolutionary biology. The readings in both the Hebrew and Christian Testaments develop a vision of life in heaven, and of our prospects for ever going to heaven. My calling lies in how to make our present life, and the earth we live in day to day, as much like heaven as possible. And so the readings for this Sunday lead me to ponder why life on this earth seems so far removed from the conditions described for our life hereafter.

           In the Hebrew Testament reading, the prophet Isaiah foretells of an existence where "peoples shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; [and] nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."

           Why can't we do this now? Why must we wait for the Kingdom of Heaven to experience this vision of peace? Is there something lodged in our biology beyond our control that prevents us from attaining this vision here on earth? Or could we all just simply agree to make peace now and for ever more, and have failed to do so merely because we haven't had the will or the social institutions to accomplish this end? If war is in our biology, the prospects for peace on earth seem bleak.

           Alas, biologists tell us that conflict is indeed in our genes, and war is merely one manifestation of our essential nature. I find that theologians simply concede such scientific pronouncements and then contemplate how best to live in light of these "realities." But as a biologist, I wonder whether my colleagues are correct? Yes, of course conflict is evident throughout the natural world, but is conflict all there is to the natural world? Or, is peaceful cooperation also a biological possibility?

           Consider instead the vision of St. Paul. In his first letter to the Corinthians St. Paul teaches that through sharing the bread of holy communion and through baptism Christians become one in body. St. Paul explains that the body has many interdependent parts, and no part can quit or be kicked out. This theme of a diverse community as one organic body, with each part different from one another yet essential to the whole, runs throughout St. Paul’s teachings, and yet also runs throughout evolutionary biology and ecology today.

Farewell to Arms.

           Indeed, many species seem to live their lives exactly as St. Paul envisions. These are species in which it is hard to distinguish one individual from another. In fact, the possibility of conflict and war traces to emphasizing individualism over community. Species vary on how much individualism they exhibit. Here are just two examples.

           Mushrooms spring up from a network of tiny tubes in the ground. Nuclei, the little sacs within cells where the genes occur, shuttle back and forth through the tubes. A 2,400-acre site in eastern Oregon has had a contiguous growth of underground tubes estimated to be 2,200 years old. Imagine a single living structure 2,400 acres big, a gigantic body with millions of more-or-less autonomous parts. Or consider a "super-colony'' of the red wood ant on a coastal plain in Hokkaido, Japan which has 306 million workers and over a million queens living in 45,000 interconnected nests across a territory of 2.7 square km.

           Of course, there's still some conflict even within giant networks of mushrooms or giant colonies of ants. Maybe they haven't completely melted their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks, but they've made progress. Our species too can do better at keeping the peace, if the success at managing individualism seen in other species can be taken as a guide, and if we can fix as our goal the communitarian vision of St. Paul that we are all of one body.

           And the readings from the Christian Testament also resonate with me. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches, "Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour."

Edward Hicks (1780–1849). The Peaceable Kingdom, 1833–34. Oil on Canvas. Brooklyn Museum.
Edward Hicks (1780–1849). The Peaceable Kingdom,
1833–34. Oil on Canvas. Brooklyn Museum.

           Many in the environmental community have feared that Christians would use the tone of this passage as an excuse to avoid caring for their environment, would stand by and let the earth heat up through global warming, and passively watch the extinction of species as the forests they live in are cut. Many environmentalists fear that Christians avoid heeding their responsibility to care for their Garden of Eden, expecting that the second coming will save them just in time, yanking them from the earth into heaven just before the earth goes up in flames. It's a fact of our times that mistrust between scientists, including environmentalists, and persons of faith has never been greater.

           But let's reflect on Jesus' teaching a little more. Jesus says the second coming could be tomorrow, sure, but also could be anytime, perhaps a very long time from now. That's the point, the coming is unpredictable, like the coming of the thief at night. So, be kind and loving now, because the second coming could be tomorrow and this is your last chance to do the right thing, and be kind and loving forever, because the second coming could be an eternity from now, and this is how to make life on our own earth as near as possible to life in heaven.

For further reflection:

* In what ways does the human propensity for conflict, individualism, and competition manifest itself?
* What about our inclinations to co-operation and community?
* What tilts the scales in one direction or another?

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