A little background: I believe in evolution... not an evolution accomplished purely through chance, but through spiritual orchestration as well. I guess it's sort of like Intelligent Design. And, of course, I also believe in the good news of Jesus Christ. I'm not asking you to agree with me; I doubt there are may who are at this sort of intersection of science and religion. There is no pressure to read this thing. ;) But anyway, here goes:
I've long been interested in the increasing levels of organization of life over time.
In the current evolutionary model, the simplest organisms originally lived independently as single cells, each cell containing its own apparatuses for keeping itself separate from the surroundings (cell membrane), sensing what's nearby, eating, moving, etc.
Things began to change. Cells took up smaller cells to be their engines of power: chloroplasts and mitochondria. (Chloroplasts are the little green things in plant cells that generate energy from sunlight; they have their own DNA. A plant deprived of its chloroplasts will never be able to create new ones. Mitochondria are likewise the power supplies of animal cells, and likewise have their own DNA.)
And cells began to band together. Cells banded together into colonies, perhaps like algae cells that form mats or balls, sometimes surrounded by protective substances they generate together. As they did so, the demarcation between "self" versus "group" began to blur. Eventually, rather than individuals clumped together for mutual protection, there came a new whole that was greater, more complex, more capable, more powerful: the multicellular organism. Wikipedia notes that multicellularity is a direction life tends to go: it has apparently "evolved independently at least 46 times," and even: "The evolution of multicellularity from unicellular ancestors has been replicated in the laboratory, in evolution experiments using predation as the selective pressure" (link). (Here's a Science Daily article on the topic as well.)
The multicellular organisms probably had the advantage of size and robustness, and being multicellular also allowed the development of specialization among cells. Cells developed different functions: some cells were photoreceptors, some were for keeping the organism separate from the surroundings (like an outer layer of protective cells), some were for digestion, some for locomotion, etc. There were even cells for making decisions, as well as the absolutely necessary cells for making the next generation.
A mass of cells organized and working together, living, eating, reproducing... and learning. Instead of a mere carpet of algae, worms were now possible. Not just worms, but fish. Lizards. Mice. Cats. Humans! Their cells also became extra organized into complex organs. Those photoreceptors became eyes, complete with the the pupil, lens, and a big set of different types of photoreceptors. That simple digestive tract became a complex system of digestive organs, from the intestine to the liver, each one with its own unique structure and function. The organism's outer layer of protective cells became the skin, the largest organ of the human body, with its three layers and various glands. And each organ interacts with the other organs in a beneficially competitive way, pulling in blood and nutrients, producing substances used elsewhere, and so on. Cells are organized into organs, which are organized into systems, which are organized into organisms.
Then, organisms themselves became organized among themselves, usually forming groups of genetically related individuals. Ants and bees are famous for having specialized members, some workers, some warriors, some caretakers, some breeders. Crows set sentinels to stand guard while the flock eats. Wolf packs and dolphins (including orca) have leaders who direct each member to certain locations and tasks in stalking prey. And, of course, the obvious epitome of this is the human species.
Humans seem to instinctively form organized groups. The extended family unit is generally the core of the larger tribe. Our family-based human communities are so central, that even (or especially) in socially dysfunctional places like prisons or troubled urban neighborhoods, people form gangs that mimic family structures. As with our internal organs, family members and tribe members fulfill important roles, from food gathering to food preparation, defense, tool making, child care, and so on. We even include pets, livestock and plants such as corn in our groups. These organisms of different DNA are protected, valued, consumed, and carried with us wherever we go, providing food, clothing, and other services, sort of like mitochondria or chloroplasts. (And arguably other organisms like rats, lice, and microbes accompany humans everywhere, too, though not always by our choice!)
Over the course of recorded history, human groups have grown and glommed together into even more complicated units. Tribes went to war until governments were (forcibly) created to control more and more people and land. Larger and larger groups fought and won and lost to create increasingly larger kingdoms. Over the last couple thousand years, the warfare and political fighting were often quite bloody. But the net result is that we now have organized nations that are vast in scale.
Think of a nation like the United States. Let's draw some quick analogies. It has a protection and defense system (the military and the police), perhaps analogous to skin, immune, and lymphatic systems. It has a controlling nerve center akin to the brain (the government) as well as centers for learning (e.g. for research and teaching). It has bloodlines of roads and railways and shipping lanes that bring food and nutrients and fuel to hungry people and empty fuel tanks. It has nerve pathways of communication that, in modern times, are based on electromagnetic information sent through the air, through telephone wires, through light pulses in cable lines, and occasionally even paper sent the slow way. The whole nation is even comprised of smaller units (the states), each with their own analogous structures, themselves comprised of smaller units such as counties, cities, and towns, which are themselves made up of organizations, corporations, groups, and families, and the crops, livestock, and pets they own. Those are of course made up of people (and other organisms), who themselves are made up of organs (or the equivalent) working together, which are made up of cells working together.
Could it be that nations are, essentially, superorganisms? Let's face it, they look an awful lot like a living, breathing creature. They consume resources, expand, get invaded, mount defensive actions, react to environmental changes. Nations are even born and can die. They may even form alliances and fight over territory until the weaker neighbors are consumed; nations change and adapt over successive generations. Today's nations are a far cry from the nations of a thousand years ago.
While the humans in charge may come and go, nations tend to have an overall temperament, outlook, and way of approaching things. Some are outgoing and at times belligerent and antagonistic. Others are proud but relatively quiet. Others are weak and withdrawn due to internal conflicts, easy prey for neaby opportunistic scavengers or even predators.
Nations aren't necessarily creatures one would like to get to know. These nation-beasts are still violent, dangerous things, prone to roll out their attack appendages to engage in intrigue and war.
But IF ... IF the nations could become harmonious creatures, beneficially competitive, cooperative for the good of the whole... we could begin to extrapolate nations uniting as organs in a single planetary world, and the planet itself become united as a vast, harmonious organism. Would it have consciousness? What over-arching thoughts and depths of consciousness might ripple across an entire world united in harmonious life and cooperation? And (intriguing question) would this process of increasing organization continue from even this to something even more incredible?
Let's backtrack for a moment. This isn't an essay about just evolution. This is an essay about Jesus and evolution.
We see the brightness of a something special looking back at us from the eyes of our friends, or even a beloved dog or cat, maybe bird, with the glint of something we like to think is love... We see there is something within the flesh that is more than just neural networks operating among the nerve cell pathways. There is something or someone conscious looking back... some would say "spirit," some would say "soul," but semantics aside, the spark of something profound is visible to those who can see.
I suspect consciousness doesn't just arise when neurons form complex enough networks; I think consciousness is overlaid over complex enough networks when a spirit (or soul, or whatever) incarnates into flesh. It takes a certain level of complexity (hardware) to handle higher levels of consciousness (software and its data). The physical must be prepared for the spiritual to arrive - but (I believe) the physical is nudged to the next step by the spiritual.
Long ago, did God whisper to an ancient mat of cells clinging to a rock: "Get yourselves ready, for I am sending an over-arching living substance to dwell in you"? As the complexity increased as commanded, as unicellular changed into multicellular, as multicellular changed into complicated creatures containing specialized internal organs, greater and more profound souls (or spirits, or whatever term one wants to use) could inhabit the organisms. Think of a majestic and fiery stallion, the living breathing animal galloping over grasslands, a soul (of some kind) overlaid on what otherwise is just muscle, blood, internal organs, bones, skin, connective tissue... all those many many many little tiny cells each doing their part, transporting oxygen, firing neural impulses, pulling bones around, and somehow the whole is so much greater than the parts.
Now, does God whisper to us: "Get yourselves ready, for I am sending an over-arching living Spirit to dwell in you"?
If we are tiny cells forming a massive proto-organism that (essentially) covers the entire Earth, then what majestic and fiery being, living, speaking, conscious, would be overlaid on what are otherwise just people, families, churches, corporations, governments, nations?
What could such a Spirit build out of so much hustle and bustle, traffic jams and industrial complexes, agricultural institutions and suburbs? A perfect organism has internal harmony. The disparate parts are no longer at war, but in balanced cooperation and healthy competition. What secret blueprints await this new physical organism?
But more intriguingly, what powerful, tremendous Intelligence could settle over a unified and purified people? What over-arching knowledge, power, and thought would pour forth from a being so vast?
What if God has been waiting patiently for the little cells to decide for themselves they are ready to take the next step, to allow themselves to be brought together and organized for the purpose of forming something greater?
What if that unifying presence is divine?
Take a look at these Scripture verses, written in an era presumably well before broad societal awareness of the progression of organization:
"Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.... But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things...." (John 14:23 and 14:26 excerpts, showing an spiritual overlay on each person as a guide and teacher)
"Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body - whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free - and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.... But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it." (1 Corinthians 12-14 and 24-27 showing a body analogy)
"...speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of Him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work." (Ephesians 4:15-16 excerpt also showing the body analogy)
"...may all the peoples praise you. May the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you rule the peoples with equity and guide the nations of the earth." (Psalm 67:3-4 excerpt showing emphasis on all people and entire nations being led by God)
To me, this all suggests that Jesus Himself is the next step of evolution. We often talk of the "Body of Christ"; it dovetails neatly into the progression of life on Earth!
Is this part of what it means for Jesus to dwell within a person? For the Holy Spirit to take up residence? Could we be like little cells, individual tiny sparks of divinely created life, organized into organs of specialty and activity, now at long last ready to be inspired, led, put together into a large body fit for the real soul, the real spirit, of the Person large enough to occupy and operate such a thing - and not just large enough, but good enough, kind enough, loving enough, worthy enough?
We "cells" are not being called to prepare the way to become part of a mere devouring beasts like our war-prone nations currently seem to be; no, we are being called to prepare the way for the incarnation of the Son of God: a far more vast and extensive Incarnation than the last one, a far different Second Coming, and one that will at last bring peace (eventually).
How long has God waited? Waiting outside time and space (yeah I know waiting is a function of time existing, so that's not quite accurate), observing the progress of the universe(s) and our species, but eager for us to invite Him in of our own free will. Finally, we are conscious enough to understand. Finally, we are conscious enough to work willingly. Finally, the Gospel is being preached in the right spirit of love and reconciliation with God. Finally, the groundwork has been laid, the foundation established, and God is preparing us for the next step.
Until now, all has been war. Cells devouring each other. Animals devouring each other. Humans fighting each other, tribes wiping each other out, petty kingdoms absorbing each other until only the large nations remain, and nation fighting nation. Yes, there may be more war, because so far all biological and social transformations seem always met by powerful, opposing reactions, almost like Newton's third law of physics. But in the end, when the key steps have taken place, when all cells now identify themselves as belonging to the same Body, and the Spirit overtakes the flesh and settles down to govern, then, at long last, there will be peace - and not just peace, but a completely new life form on Earth, as unrecognizable as horses galloping across grassy plains are to primordial slime-covered rocks.
This evolution starts with us. Individuals receive Jesus and the unifying Holy Spirit. Communities will become the early second Incarnation, the Body of Christ. Then nations. Then the planet, with nations as contributing organs. And now, I'll extrapolate further. Spiritual reality, which includes telepathy (which I assume is faster-than-light), would suggest that physical limitations like distance thereby do not really apply. Planets and star systems could become living, singing, talking cells within a vast, cosmic Body, growing from every galaxy, galactic cluster, super cluster, and colonizing the physical universe until all is a super-super-superorganism of intelligence beyond comprehension! Whose intelligence? The Intelligence that crafted it all in the first place.
Jesus said that "...I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you" (John 14:10). So, yes, the Creator Himeself is in the Being who now incarnates across the universe. Then, at last, all will be One.
But that's still far away. We're still in the 21st Century, a world of nations and wars and dogs and cats on a small planet. But we're looking at the next step. What is the next step?
It starts with each cell individually deciding to be part of the next step. The next step that is incredibly, wondrously, awesomely divine. It starts with us.
"...he made known to us the mystery of his will... to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillments - to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ." (Ephesians 1:9-10)