Thursday, 17 December 2009

Facebook statuses.

I'm not sure why yet, but this is my favourite status that I have had so far:

is up to his knees in viscous mud as a ferric smell permeates the air, watching you stand there with a comforting cup of tea, a pack of biscuits and an alluring smile on your face which has not yet been finished by your eyes. Who are you?

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

The ever-quotable C.S. Lewis

Another oldie:

Although I have no statistics to back this claim, C.S. Lewis is probably the most quoted Christian apologist of the 20th century. He crops up in diverse discussions and many Christians have assimilated his arguments almost word for word into their apologetics repertoire. Dare I admit that I am not a fan?

In his favour I will say that he has a knack with words, perhaps one of the main reasons he is quoted. He also made, and continues to make, many Christians think about their faith seriously. I have even quoted him once or twice myself. His apologetics, however, are poor. Inevitably I disagree on some points with him, as this is to be expected, but his key arguments are poorly thought out yet widely known or used.

I first encountered Lewis' apologetics through Francis Collins' book "The Language of God". Collins returned repeatedly to Lewis' Moral Law argument, which is, in my humble opinion, a misuse of the arguments. This is yet another point used as 'proof' when it is really only useful, as many arguments are, of providing internal consistency within a world-view - in this case as another inevitable emergent property in line with God's plan. Sadly, though I recommend Collins' book to thoughtful Christians, he often conflates internal consistency with proof.

Since then I cam across Lewis' other arguments, including the easily refuted trilemma - the 'mad, bad or God' argument (did he want to give atheists an easy one?). And found his comments on Satan to be circular. I tried reading "Mere Christianity" and found it more of the same - eloquently phrased floccinaucinihilipilification (yes, I am unashamedly being pretentious). Perhaps I need to read Bishop Harries writings on Lewis, as I did enjoy an article by N.T. Wright on Lewis.

Ranting aside, I did find a quote where I thought old C.S. was spot on, perhaps more so than he realised as he was not a scientist:

Nature never taught me that there exists a God of glory and infinite majesty. I had to learn that in other ways. But nature gave the word glory a meaning for me. I still do not know where else I could have found one.

This could almost be a motto of theistic evolutionists, who, like myself, did not find God by admiring the complexities of creation. Instead, many of us understand the workings of the world and for me personally it is evolution which I am a student of. To find that God is behind all this, ordaining and working through natural laws, is glorious. Nature does not show us God unless we already accept Him, and this quote testifies to that.

I found the quote in the Green Bible, though with no mention of its origin.

Francis Collins - Posterboy of TE?

I wrote this last year for a laugh and thought it might have a home here. Certainly not a scholarly piece by any means, but worth writing (especially as problems with Word are preventing me from posting a piece on ammonites):

Whenever a prominent scientist with devout faith is needed to show that modern science (or specifically evolution) and Christianity are not at odds, Francis Collins is trotted out. It is something even I am guilty of and his credentials as a geneticist are the main reason, followed closely by his passion. Is he really a valid representative once we strip away his title of 'Head of the Human Genome Project'? (I wrote this before he took his recent position)

His book, "The Language of God" was the first I read on the topic of science and faith, one I still often recommend. My faith was fresh and science had become interesting again after several stagnant (teenage) years. I loved it. Going back to it now though and I feel I was a tad naive. It does have strengths though, which is why I recommend it.

His arguments for evolution are solid, perhaps the strongest point of the book. He efficiently provides evidence for it whilst dismissing the claims of creationists and ID. He also, in my mind, successfully shows that science and faith are not irreconcilable, and does so in an easy to read style.

My first issue came at a point where I found Open Theism very interesting and persuasive. The concept of God outside of time was not one I was prepared to declare (I still occasionally have issues with it) which renders many of Collins' points useless, as he puts a lot of emphasis on it. That said, it is the position of most Christians, so not a big issue.

A more important issue came when I looked into C. S. Lewis. Collins incessantly quotes Lewis like an amorous teenager talking about their crush. Lewis has some excellent quotes, but his theology is rather limited and often cannon-fodder for intellectual atheists. Collins never considers counter arguments, he simply repeats Lewis parrot fashion. The 'poster boy' of TE (or Biologos in Collins' terminology) needs to be a free-thinker, if Collins really is one then he doesn't always come across as such.

Another issue is his dependence on anthropic fine tuning. I found it enthralling when I first encountered it, however, I have come to realise that is is not evidence of God. Instead it provides internal consistency for a theist. Sometimes Collins appears to acknowledge this; other times he harps on about it. This may be a personal nit-pick, but it is one point where he gets repetitive (which is sadly a trend in TE).

Not uncommon to evangelicals, he has an obsession with atheists. He often takes the Alister McGrath route of talking about his atheistic past as thought it makes him an authority. Oddly, I (who have never been an atheist) feel he doesn't know much about atheism, especially when he labels them fundamentalists. It appears 'know thine enemy' was lost on him, he thinks he knows them better than they know themselves.

Another point of issue is not academic by any means. He is cheesy. He likes to whip out his guitar and sing his own songs. I'm not into happy clappy stuff like this, it makes me cringe. I would not be surprised if non-Christians simply vomited at this.

In his favour though, he has brought awareness to this position. He has also recently provided the Biologos website which is proving to be a useful resource for theistic evolutionists. It is like an anti-AiG, addressing many tough questions comprehensively. It also contains the work of multiple authors, so is not simply a regurgitation of his book (though it does appear to give only him the title 'Dr' when mentioned).

There are others who would be better suited. Kenneth Miller is often mentioned, his books are often recommended by atheists too. His first book, "Finding Darwin's God" covers more topics in greater details than "The Language of God" and most criticisms of it have sounded shrill, often erecting straw men. Miller has shown to have a better grasp, though perhaps he is lesser known. Other good choices are scientists who have become theologians, Alister McGrath is perhaps the best known, but John Polkinghorne is a favourite of mine and Dennis Lamoreaux may be an excellent choice (if a 'poster-boy' is even needed that is).

Maybe I will have to simply live with the fact that the most famous proponent of TE is Francis Collins. His scientific credentials are strong, he has brought attention to the position and has passion and drive. Hopefully critics will look beyond his easily criticised positions and at those who have better thought out their views. Like me for example.....

Ammonites and Scientific Writing

I recently had to write a short piece for my tutor on the use of ammonites in palaeontology. It was a slight departure from my normal style of writing, as he prefers things to be succinct and straight to the point.

Had I been allowed to write in my usual self-indulgent style, my essay may have started something like this:

Ammonites: More Than Just a Paperweight.

The iconic fossil ammonite, elegantly simple in outward morphology, provides lucid prose for palaeontologists perusing what lays written in the rocks. Their Mesozoic ubiquity, with a characteristic evolutionary pace (which appears geologically hasty, almost eager) renders them excellent index fossils. The gradual evolution their lithified remains display is the bread and butter of biostratigraphy, facilitating dating for even shy, phlegmatic geologists.

As it stands, that is not what I wrote, here is my essay:

The Applied Palaeontology of Ammonites


The iconic ammonites are a group of cephalopods of Subclass Ammonoidea which are invaluable in their application in palaeontology. ‘Ammonites’ is the vernacular term (after Order Ammonitida) for the Mesozoic forms of Ammonoidea, a Subclass which spans approximately 325 Ma from the Devonian to the Cretaceous. The major use of ammonoids lies in biostratigraphy where they are regularly used for zoning the rocks in which they are found, particularly the Mesozoic forms which have allowed for zones to be erected equivalent to less than a million years.

Ammonoid Biostratigraphy

Good index fossils need to have a wide distribution with high abundance, a high rate of evolution and be easily identified; all of which are characteristics of the ammonoids. Shortly after their first appearance in the Devonian, the ammonoids rapidly spread world-wide (House, 1981) and maintained this distribution until their demise in the K/T extinction. They are ubiquitous, particularly in Mesozoic strata, rendering them a highly effective tool for stratigraphy in the field. Although some orders, such as Order Phylloceratida, display little evolution over millions of years (Clarkson, 1998), the vast majority of ammonites show the characteristic rapid morphological change and high speciation rate preferred in index fossils. The identification of an ammonite (excluding heteromorphic ammonoids) is relatively easy, hence their iconic status, and they can easily be used to quickly identify whether the rock is Palaeozoic or Mesozoic with little inspection by an amateur.

The ammonoids display many evolutionary trends and diverse morphological characters readily identifiable in single specimens which allow for their specificity in dating rocks. Ammonoids are commonly found preserved as internal moulds which display the sutures between septa and shell. Fossils with preserved suture lines demonstrate a clear stratigraphical trend from the relatively simple Devonian and Carboniferous sutures, to the extremely complex and flamboyant Mesozoic sutures. Changes in sutures can be used to quickly differentiate between the two eras; Palaeozoic ammonoids have generally zigzagged sutures, whereas Mesozoic ammonites possessed sutures with complex lobes and saddles. Although some ammonoids do not easily fit into this trend – some Permian ammonoids have similar sutures to Mesozoic ammonites – these deviations can be identified using other morphological characters, allowing suture morphology to be utilised for high stratigraphical accuracy when studied in detail and can also be used in the study of ontogeny.

A famous example of a useful lineage of ammonites in biostratigraphy is the Jurassic Family Cardioceratidae, which spanned 20 Ma and can be traced through 28 zones and 62 subzones. They have been described in monospecific assemblages, making them easily identifiable, and they rapidly diversified, allowing for many easily observed trends and accurate dating. These include easily identified changes in the compression of the whorl, in rib shape and in the ornamentation of the keel.

During the Mesozoic, the abundance and diversity of ammonites has even allowed for accurate stratigraphy during extinctions in conjunction with other techniques (Guex et al, 2004).

Other Uses

Aside from biostratigraphy, their global distribution and rapid diversification has allowed ammonites to be used in determining the position of continents during continental drift (Kennedy et al, 1975) along with facilitating the dating of these events.


Ammonites form a group with a basic common shell plan along with a propensity for fossilisation, exceptional diversity, rapid evolutionary change and wide distribution, making them easily recognisable and one of the most useful fossil groups for application in biostratigraphy to a high degree of resolution; they are an invaluable tool for any palaeontologist studying the Palaeozoic and Mesozoic.


Clarkson, E.N.K. (1998). Invertebrate Palaeontology and Evolution (4th ed.). Oxford: Blackwell Science.

Guex, J., Bartolini, A., Atudorei, V., & Taylor, D. (2004). High-resolution ammonite and carbon isotope stratigraphy across the Triassic-Jurassic boundary at New York Canyon (Nevada) [Electronic version]. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 225(1-2), 29-41.

House, M.R. (1981). Early Ammonoids in Space and Time. In M.R. House, & J.R. Senior (Eds.), The Ammonoidea. The Evolution, Classification, Mode of Life, and Geological Usefulness of a Major Fossil Group (pp. 359-367). London: Systematics Association Special Volume No. 18, Academic Press.

Kennedy, W.J., & Cooper, M. (1975). Cretaceous ammonite distributions and the opening of the South Atlantic [Electronic version]. Journal of the Geological Society, 131(3), 283-288.

Punctuated Equilibria Explained (or PEE if you like...)

Note: there is something bizarre going on in the references which I can't seem to alter.

In 1972 a landmark paper was published in ‘Models in Paleobiology’ titled, “Punctuated Equilibria: an alternative to phyletic gradualism.” The paper, by Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge, was in many ways nothing new, yet at the same time purported to challenge many long cherished ideas in evolutionary biology. Over the years it has simultaneously been embraced and reviled by scientists, and consistently distorted by creationists.

In many ways Eldredge and Gould had simply connected the dots between different lines of evidence and come to conclusions. They took common knowledge from biostratigraphy and combined it with known models of speciation used by neontologists (those that study living organisms). Here they saw that species appeared in a geologically abrupt time and persisted unchanged for most of their duration. At the time biology and palaeontology were only beginning to overlap, so Eldredge and Gould were the first to realise that the pattern they perceived in the fossil record was exactly what should be expected if Ernst Mayr’s peripatric speciation model were applied to the fossil record.

During peripatric speciation a small group becomes peripherally isolated from the main population. Gene flow between the two populations stops, allowing the two to accumulate separate mutations. Smaller populations can evolve more rapidly, and as they are small they are unlikely to yield fossils. When the isolated group is reintroduced to he larger population, if sufficient time has passed they will no longer be able to interbreed – they have become a new species. Over geologic time this appears sudden.

So why the fuss if these were well established views? Creationist distortions aside, Gould and Eldredge were interested in some of the implications of the theory. They changed ideas of tempo and mode in evolution; they challenged the way we think of natural selection; they raised the possibility of unknown mechanisms; and often claimed to separate micro- and macro-evolution. These were strong boasts which led to years of feuding and bickering among scientists.

The punctuational aspect of ‘punk eek’ (or evolution by jerks as some used to call it) has received the most attention from detractors. It was also one of the main focuses (at first) of Gould and Eldredge, as they loudly proclaimed that Darwinian orthodoxy had been challenged. The first to protest often misunderstood. Many biologists interpreted rapid to mean saltation, where a new species is born instantly from an old one. Creationists also made this mistake and believed they had new evidence of instantaneous creation. Both were mistaken; rapid on a geological timescale means at least tens of thousands of years.

Many ‘phyletic gradualists’ rightly pointed out that a straw man of gradualism had been erected and defeated. No gradualist believes that evolution occurs at a strict pace (Dawkins 1986). Even Darwin had made comments that sound a lot like punctuated equilibria; discussing his tree diagram he said, “But I must here remark that I did not suppose that the process ever goes on so regularly as is represented in the diagram, though in itself made somewhat irregular, nor that it goes on continuously; it is far more probable that each form remains for long periods unaltered, and then again undergoes modification.”

Many biologists tried to ignore punctuated equilibria, focussing on the tempo aspects and dismissing them. An analogy using gears is apt, as evolution can change gears, even becoming so slow as to allow stasis (evolutionary biologists have words like bradytely, horotely and tachytely to describe pace). Is this dismissal valid? Not completely, but to dismiss only the attacks on gradualism evidence is needed. Gould himself (1993) acknowledged that it is a ‘complement to phyletic gradualism’ as gradualism has been documented in groups from microfossils (Macleod 1991) to mammals (Gingerich 1976, Chaline & Laurin 1986).

One of the best examples of punctuations as gradualistic was found by Stephen Jay Gould (1996). He was fortunate to find numerous shells of the Bahamian land snail Cerion, in a single mudflat, the equivalent to a single bedding plane in strata. Using geochemical methods he was able to date the shells; when put in order they showed a gradual, microevolutionary trend spanning 20,000 years.

The other main aspect of punk eek is stasis, the equilibrium aspect of the model. The authors had developed a little motto, “stasis is data” to remind themselves of the importance of this observation. One of Gould’s harshest critics, Jeffrey S. Levinton, agreed with this observation, stating, “This is…the issue of stasis, which I believe to be the legitimate problem spawned by the punctuated equilibrium model.” (1988).

Stasis had previously been dismissed as a lack of data, a situation which has changed a lot since 1972. Stasis is not a lack of evolution; it is a ‘wobble’ or fluctuation around means, with no substantial change (no broader than the range of geographic variation in modern species) and no directional evolution.

There are some issues with empirical verification of stasis, though it is widely acknowledged as occurring. Fossil species are morphospecies, that is they are identified by morphology and only that which fossilises. Substantial phenotypic change can occur without being detectable in the fossil record. Similarly, neontologists often discover new species through genetic testing; practically impossible with fossils. Conversely, intraspecific variation, functional polymorphisms and ontogenic variation may all be wrongly identified as separate species. Despite these possibilities, comparisons suggest that it is not too big an issue for interpreting stasis (Jackson and Cheetham 1994) as the bias is against punk eek.

Some biologists tried to explain stasis away using stabilising selection in unchanging environments. Stabilising selection removes the extremes of a population, keeping it centred around the mean. However, this could not explain stasis through climatic change (Cronin 1985, Prothero and Heaton 1996, Prothero 1999). Many possible explanations for stasis including a homeostatic mechanism resisting selection (a controversial view of Gould’s which fit with some of his other views), habitat tracking (Eldredge), constraints (Lieberman), normalising clade selection (G. L. Williams) and turnover pulses (Vrba) have all been suggested.

Gould and Eldredge originally tried claiming that all change was focussed around speciation events, a position they later changed. Douglas Futuyma (1987) gave strong insight into what may be occurring, “In the absence of isolation, differentiation is broken down by recombination. Given reproductive isolation, however, a species can retain its distinctive complex of characters as its spatial distribution changes along with that of its habitat or niche… Although speciation does not accelerate evolution within populations, it provides morphological changes with enough permanence to be registered in the fossil record. Thus, it is plausible to expect many evolutionary changes in the fossil record to be associated with speciation.”

Palaeontologists in recent years acknowledge punctuated equilibrium as a valid model of long term occurrences, one among many including phyletic gradualism and punctuated anagenesis (Jackson and Cheetham 1999). The main ‘controversial aspects focussed on are the potential decoupling of macro and microevolution; changes in understanding of levels of selection; and the prevalence of selection.

From Futuyma’s insight it is hard to see how punctuated equilibrium could potentially split micro and macro evolution, though this was a genuine early problem. It all depends on whether speciation is caused by more than simple isolation. Punctuated equilbirum presents the possibility of species selection and species sorting, and as most change is ‘tied up’ during speciation, this form of selection gains more prominence, therefore meaning that micro changes cannot be easily extrapolated as such selection would be ignored. Modern focus on speciation is on whether natural selection or genetic drift is more dominant (recent research though is favouring natural selection) therefore raising the possibility that natural selection is not responsible for all diversity (a less common view favoured by Gould).

Gould’s statement in 1993 is still a worthy interpretation, saying, “[Punctuated equilibria’s] most important implications remain the recognition of stasis as a meaningful and predominant pattern within the history of species, and in the recasting of macroevolution as the differential success of certain species (and their descendants) within clades.”

I have hopefully presented a brief and accessible explanation of punctuated equilibria, whilst clearing up any misconceptions. ‘Punk eek’ (or ‘eck’ to some) has changed a lot in the past 3 decades, yet still manages to provoke interesting debate (which is sadly misunderstood by the lay public). Gould believed it to be a “useful extension of evolutionary theory” which can clearly be seen once understood.


Benton, M.J. & Pearson, P.N. (2001). Speciation in the fossil record. Trends in Ecology & Evolution. 16, 405-411.

Chaline, J. & Laurin, B. (1986) Phyletic gradualism in a European Plio-Pleistocene Mimomys lineade (Arvicolidae, Rodentia). Paleobiology. 12(2), 203-216.

Chaline, J., Laurin, B., Brunet-Lecomte, P. & Viriot, L. (1993) Morphological trends and rates of evolution in arvicolids (arvicolidae, rodentia): Towards a punctuated equilibria/disequilibria model. Quaternary International. 19, 27-39.

Cheetham, A.H. (2001) Evolutionary stasis vs. change. In: Briggs D.E.G. & Crowther, P.R. (eds) Palaeobiology II. pp. 137-142. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford.

Cronin, T.M. (1985) Speciation and stasis in marine ostracoda: climatic modulation of evolution. Science. 227, 60-63.

Darwin, C. R. (1872) The origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. (6th ed.) John Murray, London.

Dawkins, R. (1986) The blind watchmaker. Norton, New York.

Futuyma, D.J. (1987). On the role of species in anagenesis. The American Naturalist. 130, 465-473.

Gingerich, P.D. (1976) Paleontology and phylogeny; patterns of evolution at the species level in early Tertiary mammals. American Journal of Science. 276, 1-28.

Goodfriend, G.A. & Gould, S.J. (1996). Paleontology and chronology of two evolutionary transitions by hybridization in the Bahamian land snail Cerion. Science. 274, 1894-1897.

Gould, S.J. and Eldredge, N. (1972) Punctuated equilibria: an alternative to phyletic gradualism. In: T.J.M. Schopf, ed. Models in paleobiology. pp. 82-115. Freeman, Cooper and Co., San Francisco.

Gould, S.J. and Eldredge, N. (1993) Punctuated equilibrium comes of age. Nature 366, 223-227.

Jackson, J.B.C. & Cheetham, A.H. (1999) Tempo and mode of speciation in the sea. Trends in Ecology and Evolution. 14, 72-77.

Kellog, D.E. & Hays, J.D. (1975). Microevolutionary patterns in late Cenozoic radiolaria. Paleobiology. 1, 150-160.

Lazarus, D. (1983). Speciation in pelagic protista and its study in the planktonic microfossil record: a review. Paleobiology. 9(4), 327-340.

Lazarus, D.B. (2001) Speciation and morphological change. In: Briggs D.E.G. & Crowther, P.R. (eds) Palaeobiology II. pp. 133-137. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford.

Levinton, J. (1988). Genetics, paleontology, and macroevolution. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Macleod, N. (1991) Punctuated anagenesis and the importance of stratigraphy to paleobiology. Paleobiology. 17(2), 167-188.

Malmgren, B.A. & Kennett, J.P. (1981) Phyletic gradualism in a late Cenozoic planktonic foraminiferal lineage; DSDP Site 284, southwest Pacific. Paleobiology. 7, 230-240.

Mayr, E. (1963). Animal species and evolution. Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge, MA.

Prothero, D.R. & Heaton, T.H. (1996). Faunal stability during the Early Oligocene climatic crash. Palaeogeography, Paleoclimatology, Palaeoecology. 127, 257-283.

Prothero, D.R. (1999). Does climatic change drive mammalian evolution? GSA Today. 9, 1-7.

Sheldon, P.R. (1987). Parallel gradualistic evolution of Ordovician trilobites. Nature. 330, 561-563.

Wei, K. & Kennett, J.P. (1988). Phyletic gradualism and punctuated equilibrium in the late Neogene planktonic foraminiferal clade Globoconella. Paleobiology. 14, 345-363.


Whilst at uni I don't have the time to post anything, though now I am home for Christmas there may be an influx of posts. I have some stuff planned, mostly science, so the religious stuff will take a back seat. I may also post some stuff I wrote last year as filler. It may take time though, as it is all hand written and typing is tedious.


Monday, 14 September 2009

Clarification of Terminology

I figured it might be useful to give a brief 'glossary' of some common terms, especially those which are similar, and of alternatives too. Some of these I have used in my writing here and others may just be helpful.


Theistic Evolution:
I won't bother to define this, as I talk about it a lot. Instead I shall briefly discuss alternatives.

Theistic Evolution is the most common name for this position, favoured by most scientists and theologians who support it. However, it runs the risk of relegating the theistic aspect to being simply tacked on to the theory of evolution instead of emphasising it.

Christian Darwinism is a term which is usually used to refer to early Christian proponents of Darwin's theories. In connection with world views Darwinism is often considered a pejorative term for theists, making it a difficult title to adopt.

Evolutionary Creationism is favoured by many proponents as it puts emphasis on the belief in a Creator whilst clearly stating that evolution is the method. The risk with this term is that creationism is often only used to refer to the young earth variety.

BioLogos is a term coined by Francis Collins. This is short for Bios through Logos, or life through the Word. It is a bold attempt by Collins, but so far the term has only been embraced by the website of the foundation which is proving to be a good resource. As the other titles can be used as titles, how would we apply BioLogos? We surely can't call ourselves BioLogists! BioLogians is a bit cumbersome. Perhaps we are only proponents of it or believers.

Many other suggestions have arisen, though usually variations on the others. Evolutionary theism is still not quite right and of course something like 'crevolution' would be plain ridiculous.

Evolutionary Christianity is a term from Michael Dowd (who also has bizarre terms like crea-THEIST and cre-ATHEIST). It appears to abandon many Biblical teachings for insight from evolution. For a review of his book look here.

Intelligent Creation is a very misleading term. It is another name for theistic evolution, though could also be used for deistic views too. Keith Ward gives a good explanation of it here, but the words used conjure to mind the ideas of creationism and Intelligent Design rather than an acceptance of evolution as the methods of God.

Other world-views:

Intelligent Design can be another misleading term as it essentially has two meanings. The most common, ID, is the concept that there are biological systems which could not be achieved by evolution by natural selection and so required a designer to step in. Intelligent design as a philosophical view can also mean the same as intelligent creation; that there is an intelligent mind behind the creative processes found by science.

Young Earth Creationism (YEC) should not need defining, though I was tempted to link to the first chapter of Genesis and tell you to read in a dry fashion as though it is a historical and scientific description of an event some 6-10,000 years ago.

Old Earth Creationism (OEC) comes in two flavours, Progressive Creation and Gap Theory. Both views maintain that they take Genesis literally whilst accepting the scientific age of the earth. Progressive creationism takes the day-age approach and claims that the days of Genesis are not literal days and instead represent thousands or millions of years. Gap theorists believe that there are indeterminate gaps during Genesis creation which allows for such long times.

Not a term I use for just anyone who accepts evolution, except when talking about theistic evolutionists. If I use this term it will only refer to those who study or have studied the theory of evolution professionally. Stephen Jay Gould would therefore be considered an evolutionist.

Methodological materialism:
This is the viewpoint scientists use in approaching their scientific studies. It is not to be muddled with metaphysical materialism. It uses materialism as the most effective (and only logical) model of study of the natural world. I believe such a view is supported by a Biblical understanding of creation.

Metaphysical/philosophical materialism:
This is the belief that only matter exists and that science is the only method of discovery. Scientism is a term often employed by apologists in reference to this position, but it is one I do not like. It paints science in a negative light and contradicts the point it is trying to make; surely a proponent of scientism is a scientist - which is what they are claiming is not true by coining the term.


Natural Theology starts from the natural world in order to come to revelation or understanding of God. There can be seen to be two variations of natural theology. There is the evidence approach, in which the natural world is seen as evidence of God. This has been found throughout Christianity and all teleological and cosmological arguments are types of natural theology. The ID movement and YEC embrace natural theology as its main proof and predictably I reject this form of natural theology. The second form is descriptive instead of deductive. It looks to nature to tell us about God, often citing examples such as cosmological fine tuning and the presence of beautiful aspects of creation such as music, as insight insight into the creator. Richard Swinburne is an ardent supporter of natural theology and I need to read Alister McGrath's recent work on it.

Theology of Nature is a similar term with a very different meaning. Theology of nature starts with belief in God and works outwards, trying to understand creation in terms of theism. I use it personally as covering all aspects of God's involvement in creation, from start to finish. This is the area I explore the most in my writing.

Theological Cosmology is a term used by Alejandro Garcia-Rivera in a book due out soon. I have not quite grasped yet what the term means, though he does say it is neither natural theology nor theology of nature, but more like Augustine's City of God. From what I can tell it is very concerned with 'the Garden of God', the new creation, which I have always included in theology of nature. Perhaps I am missing something....

Creation Theology is concerned with our relationship with creation. It is deeply involved with care of the creation and what the Bible has to say about it. For further reading I recommend the Green Bible, and you can help out here if you wish.

Theology of Creation (yes, I know this may be getting confusing) refers only to theology around how God created. It is a key aspect of theology of nature and probably the most discussed. The earlier definitions from theistic evolution to YEC are mainly concerned with how God created.

Synonymous terms:

Chance and Necessity:
I often use these terms as I first realised they applied to theistic evolution after reading John Polkinghorne's work. I intend to avoid going stale by using other terms.

Chance can be easily swapped with terms like dynamic, freedom and flexibility.

can easily be swapped with lawfulness, stability and orderliness.

Opportunity is another term which goes well with these and can easily be swapped with fertility or fruitfulness.

That is all for now. Phew!

A Prayer for the Creator

Dear Lord,

It is written that You are love (1 John 4.8) and we are also told how love behaves. We know that you are the Creator of all and that your love is expressed from within in its entirety.

It is written that love is patient; which we see in Your works. You had the patience to wait for us, Your waiting displays hope and expectation. To choose to wait is an act of compassion and dedication, as we find in the gradually unfolding processes of Your acts of creation.

It is written that love is kind; Your kindness gave us freedom to act, freedom to be. You gave this not just to us, but to all of the created order. You hold Yourself back in order to allow us to proceed in our ways. Your kindness gives meaning to all.

It is written that love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude; You do not force Yourself upon us but are always there to be found. You are the hidden God (Isaiah 45.15) who is seen in the face of Christ.

It is written that love does not insist on its own way; Your methods are full of fertility. Your creation is dynamic and lawful, allowing for opportunity to be explored. The fruitfulness of creation is displayed all around, with chaos kept at bay by Your lawful order.

It is written that love is not irritable or resentful; our presence confirms this. When I see what we have done to Your creation I can only imagine the pain we cause You, yet You persist with us, You trust us. We bring death and destruction to creation, but no irritation to our loving Creator.

It is written that love does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth; the truth comes in many forms and You have gifted us with Your book of Works. We should praise the insights of those who endeavour to understand the workings of Your creation, for it can become a hymn of adoration.

It is written that love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things; You are there alongside us, alongside all of creation, suffering when we suffer, hearing every groan of creation. Throughout this You have put Your hope in us, the transformation of creation which started with Christ is in our hands and You are there with us.

Father, as a hopeful priest of Your creation, I offer what I can of creation up to You in thanksgiving, may You bless all and may all be in communion with You. May we truly be in Your image as we go out into the world.


Thursday, 10 September 2009

Embracing Evolution: The Benefits to Christian Faith

The theory of evolution is the most misunderstood and abused scientific theory there is. It has been constantly challenged in the scientific community, put under intense scrutiny since its inception, and passes with flying colours. It is also often attacked by the public who are not sure how valid it actually is. Many oppose it for religious reasons, despite, as I intend to show, that it is actually beneficial to Christian faith. I won’t focus on presenting evidence for it or showing how they can be reconciled, as I have written about that a lot in the past.

By seeing the world as part of an unfolding natural process we are forced to change our views of the Creator. The creative act becomes one which is not tied to the past, but instead becomes a continuous creative act, one that is ongoing and never stopped; this is known as creatio continua. It was not a one off event, but one in which God is continually present and sustaining. Embracing evolution rejects deistic views of God in favour of a continuously creating theistic God.

Followers of Intelligent Design claim that there are biological structures which could not be achieved by evolution and so required the designer, God, intervening to keep things running smoothly. This seriously diminishes the view of God. If God created all then He created the very same processes which ID proponents claim could not achieve what they were meant to. This points to an incapable designer who has to fiddle around in his invention to keep it running. Those of us who embrace evolution reject such a notion and can happily proclaim that our God got things right first time. Our God did something much cleverer than making the world; He makes the world make itself. It self perpetuates; a far more impressive view of an ingenious Deity.

Further to this, God is no longer the God of the gaps, like in ID, nor is He at odds with creation, as with YEC; He is discerned through the processes of nature, not in the gaps of current knowledge. Instead of the concept of God outside of creation, creating in an ‘external, plastic fashion’, the theory of evolution can present the view that God creates from within. Greek Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware once said, “Creation is not something upon which God acts from the exterior, but something through which God expresses God’s self from within.”

Aubrey Moore, a contemporary of Darwin, presented these insightful sentiments, “There are not, and cannot be, any Divine interpositions in nature, for God cannot interfere with Himself. His creative activity is present everywhere. There is no division of labour between God and nature, of God and law…For the Christian theologian the facts of nature are the acts of God.”

The theory of evolution teaches us that we are connected to every other living organism on this planet, from bacteria to bullfrog. The benefits of this view are often overlooked because people worry that it diminishes human value too much, completely forgetting that God made us in His image and gave us a position of responsibility, one which the theory of evolution allows us to better understand. The tree of life found in evolution shows us our connection to all life, and through it we can recognise that the body of Christ extends beyond humans through all of creation. This is a deeply Biblical theme which is often overlooked.

The story of Noah and the Ark is usually a point of contention between those who accept evolution and those who do not, to the point where we miss some hugely important messages. One is clearly personal; a key to the washing away of sins, but the other is about our relationship with creation. God chooses Noah and His family through which to do His work, a transforming act, through which the animals on the Ark are also saved. This is prophetic, showing us that we are God’s agents in saving all of life on earth. Another example is found in the entirety of the Old Testament. Israel is presented as God’s nation, through which God’s work on earth is done; just as God’s work came to us through the nation of Israel, we are to spread God’s work through all of creation.

In the Bible we find the concept of the ‘new heavens and new earth’, a vision of the future which is clearly not reserved for just humans, but for all the created order. This work began with Christ and it is through us that it will be achieved. Genesis tells us that we are responsible, we are priests of creation, and it is our duty to carry out the work that will result in the new creation. Extending the body of Christ to all creation makes our duty even clearer, Ephesians 5.28-30 states, “husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body.” We are to treat creation as a husband treats his wife.

The process of evolution has been used by theologians who embrace it as a source of insight in theodicy. A problem with the creationist view of God is that it presents a designer who created parasites and other ‘nasties’ of the world. The satirical Monty Python song “All Things Dull and Ugly” raises this point excellently, attributing poison, cancers, ulcers, spikes, sharks and more to God.

Evolution changes this view somewhat. It is a process which through mutation and selection produces diversity and new life forms, however, the same processes produce cancers and disabilities. It is part of the cost of evolution which allows for the fruitfulness of creation. Creation is seen as a free process, with God limiting Himself in order to allow the fruitful exploration of creation. Free human beings have emerged from a free creation. An act of love is an act of risk and in limiting Himself God is put in a vulnerable position, leading to the view of God not as an outsider, but suffering along with creation.

Aside from theological changes, embracing the theory of evolution brings other benefits. Christ made it clear that we are to love our neighbours, so we should endeavour to provide the best for them. The study of medicine makes use of the theory of evolution more and more, with the most obvious area being in the fight against ever-evolving bacteria and viruses. Another area of research takes place largely away from medical science, but the insights are invaluable; the study of how our body has evolved over the last 3 billion years teaches us how it was put together, which is often the first step in recognising why our body fails and thereby how we can fix it. Scientists also often test on animals, and in doing so they must pay attention to how closely related we are in order to make sure that the treatments will be suitable for humans; the theory of evolution is the foundation of this research. Embracing evolution brings benefits to medical science, a great way to show love for our neighbours.

It is also used in similar ways in agriculture. We need to know how plants will react and adapt to certain environmental conditions and how we can breed useful strains which improve standards. Improving agriculture, by embracing the theory, will provide higher quality food for our loved ones and at less of a cost.

Not only are we to be good neighbours, but we also have responsibility to creation. Conservation benefits both; we save animals and also find useful biochemicals which may provide treatments for diseases. Conservation scientists use the theory of evolution near constantly in working out how a population will react to changes and how we can save them. Understanding evolution helps us understand nature and appreciate it more, the more we appreciate it the more motivated we are to care for it and fulfil our role as priests of all creation.

In a bizarre twist, understanding the theory of evolution can make a Christian appreciate Genesis creation even more. Theistic evolutionists are often accused of ignoring Genesis, when in fact the opposite occurs. We turn to it not for a blow by blow account of history, or for a scientific account, but instead we plumb its depths for spiritual value and find a wealth of useful information. We learn of God the creator, of the order of creation, of our place within it and much, much more.

J Estlin Carpenter, a historian of religion, gave this valuable insight, “Theories [about the Bible] once ardently cherished have been overthrown. Conceptions that had exerted immense influence for centuries, can no longer be maintained. On the other hand, the true value of the Bible has been enhanced. We have ceased to ask of it what it cannot give us; we cherish al the more highly what it can.”

In conclusion, the theory of evolution can present a noble conception of God and provide insight into previously clouded areas of theology. It extends our knowledge of God’s work and enables us to better fulfil the roles which are part of being in His image. In closing I will quote Richard Dawkins, as he has been the main proponent of evolution as excluding God. I leave this as a thought to chew on; is such a view, with humans being fundamentally evil yet able to overcome it, really incompatible with traditional Christianity?

“We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism – something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.”


The Bishop of Pontefract recently sent an email out to everyone who had travelled to Taizé with him this summer asking for some of us to submit writing about Taizé to be put up on the Wakefield Diocese website. Unsurprisingly I wrote something immediately to send in. It can be found here, where you can see a great picture of the group (sans moi) with the Archbishop of York and also read someone else's input. Here is my contribution:

Going on a ‘pilgrimage of trust’ to an ecumenical community of dedicated brothers can sound very daunting to a young Christian and trying to explain how amazing it is to visit is often fraught with difficulty. It truly is a place you need to visit to understand as it is often quite paradoxical. When people ask questions they tend to somehow instinctively hit on the negatives, which for someone who has been are bizarrely not negative at all. “What is the food like?” “Very basic” “Can you drink?” “One weak beer per day” “Are there showers?” “Yes, but very unpredictable” “Where do you sleep?” “In a tent, often on rough ground” (I got a beautifully placed stone this year, right in the middle of my back and pointing upwards). One friend quipped that it sounded like a concentration camp, which is surprisingly similar to Brother Paolo’s remarks that it is like an upper class refugee camp. These seem like insurmountable obstacles to fun and enjoyment, yet every year thousands upon thousands of young people of all walks of life make this pilgrimage and find it worthwhile, often wanting to come again. I’ve now been six times and fully recommend it, so what is there to it?

Part of what I have already described is part of the fun, as odd as that sounds, they are only ostensibly negative. Taizé takes us back to basics in many ways, whilst there we appreciate the beauty in life from the perspective of a simpler mode de vie. We spend so much time tied to our material lives: constantly texting; obsessively checking Facebook; watching too much television; yet in Taizé we find we have everything we need without these incessant distractions. It is refreshing not needing beer for a good time, something many often need to realise - myself included. Living for a week without a proper bed or shower helps us appreciate it more when we return to it; Taizé can help us discover that these things truly are luxuries we do not need. This is often an unnoticeable part of the Taizé experience which lasts for longer than the week there. Could you imagine eating every meal with just a spoon and considering it normal?

The biggest parts of the Taizé experience are, in my mind, relationship and discovery. In Taizé you can really discover yourself, whether through silent reflection or through communing with others. Taizé’s most beautiful paradox is that on the one hand it is a place where you can go and be at complete peace if you wish; if you want it you can find it, in church, down by the source or by going into silence (if you dare). On the other hand it is a place where you can socialise with thousands of young people from all over the planet, singing, dancing, chatting, laughing and much more. Taizé is one of the few places in the world where young people from warring countries have been known to get along and laugh together. The opportunities for making friends in Taizé are endless and from every continent too, though Antarctica may have to be missed out; I thought I saw a penguin once but it was just a visiting nun. The coach journey, discussion groups and visiting Oyak are all great places to make new friends and learn about diverse cultures.

In Taizé the days have structure and everything flows well. There are three church services per day (optional but recommended) and they allow for deep reflection. The chants are beautiful and simple, and I would be surprised if someone came away without a favourite (unless like me they have several favourites which they can’t choose between). There are no sermons to endure, just short Bible verses and psalms. Silence is at the heart of the service and is the perfect time to reflect or to simply open yourself up. Whilst there you can also opt to do a job, ranging from washing the pots to washing toilets; keeping people quiet in church to keeping people quiet late at night; there is something for everyone. Work is usually seen as something to grumble at, I know I’m guilty of a lot of grumbling, but in Taizé it just does not seem like a bad thing at all, quite the opposite in fact. Mundane jobs become fun and feeling part of something bigger needs to be felt by everyone from time to time. Taizé works so well because everyone contributes and gets into the community spirit.

Through forging new relationships and through self discovery Taizé can be an incredible experience. It also allows for us to discover more of God too. Church gives us the time to reflect and open ourselves to Him if we wish, but nobody is pushing. The Taizé community allows you to go along at your own pace, never pushing or dragging, but offering a guiding hand where it is wanted. Discussion groups can vary from dealing with tough questions about faith, to simply having fun and playing games with people of differing backgrounds. It is a place where you can feel safe even if the Bible intimidates you as you will not have it thrown at you or forced down your throat; if you do want to plumb its depths then Taizé can be the perfect place to do so.

I always come back from Taizé feeling refreshed both emotionally and spiritually, and want to share it with everyone I meet. This year I found myself in the odd position where so many amazing things had occurred whilst there that I struggled to say anything about it to my friends and family! It was beyond words and I get something new from it every year; burdens are lifted and my mind is often more clear and focussed. Taizé is a deeply personal experience which unusually can be shared with others; they will find it to be an amazing place too, even if their reasons are different. This has been a description of my own views on Taizé, something I like to try to put into words and often struggle to do. I can only recommend visiting, if you haven’t already, as I guarantee you will benefit. Hopefully my words can at the very least get people wondering.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Nonsense poetry

Today, whilst gardening, I got the inspiration to write some poems which either make no sense or no obvious sense. With most of my 'art' I love when people look for meaning and even when people find unintended meaning. Yet with poetry I seem to desire the opposite. Some are either pretentious or ironically pretentious; I haven't yet decided. Judge for yourself:

Antithalian Apocatastasis

A panoply of crescendos sound the alarms,
Magniloquence interred.
Scholars and saints malevolently disarmed,
Perpetuation incipient.
Virulent perversion deified,
Apotheosis complete.
Putrefaction of souls fortified,
Sheol for the masses.
Apocalyptic signs in breakfast cereals,
Conflagration praised.
Elected supremacists gain life ethereal,
Abacinate the convoluted.
The end is nigh, all sinners die!
The end is nigh!

Misanthropy Veiled in Amorous Rhetoric

Deserved denigration, denied
Noetic rumination, denied
Veracious tergiversation, denied
Je t'aime, ik hou van jouw, nakupenda!
It's good to be alive?

Aroynt Apocalyptic Ariolaters!

Apotropaic intentions auspicated,
Amanuenses venerated,
Arcifinious ignorance propagated,
Acidulous dissent eradicated,


A bit of a change, I wrote this over a year ago I think. I don't like reading it any more, but others might appreciate it, who knows? Enjoy:

The first signs of possible change came when the fingers went numb. This was hardly seen as an obstacle for normal life as typing became only slightly clumsier and writing does not come from the fingertips. These signs were easily ignored and left to progress at their will. When the fingers became sore the ignorance continued, thoughts such as “I will see a doctor if it gets any worse” permeated the mind and self-diagnosis of over-working cold hands became almost dogmatic. It is easy to convince oneself that it couldn’t be anything serious, after all, serious things don’t creep up on you right? They surely always make themselves noticed right away or they would not be serious n’est-ce pas?

Typing had now become very stiff and laboured, writing became illegible and any attempt at drawing could be no more complicated than a stickman at best. The thought of picking up any instrument became a laughable affair, if you have that sort of sense of humour, most of us would simply wince. Of course, excuses can be made to get out of almost anything, though eyebrows are likely to be raised when you refuse to shake hands in church because you have oil on your hands. There are times where we all like to think ourselves as warriors, battling to triumph over adversity, safe in the knowledge that old adages such as ‘God helps those who help themselves’ may somehow prove true.

By now it was no longer just the body which was affected; the mind was starting to go too. The doors were kept firmly shut, work was quit and all appointments and plans cancelled. Luckily it is easier to be reclusive in this day and age with such revolutions as internet shopping available to even those with dysfunctional digits. So what if mundane tasks were no longer achievable, such as fastening buttons on clothing? So what if hobbies are no longer manageable as they require use of the hands? So what if a social life is impossible when hiding from the world? So what if painkillers do nothing to numb the intense agony that clings to your most useful limbs as though they have become one in the same? As long as you can make decisions it’s not the end of the world right?

Life had become a repetitive nightmare, with pain being the most constant aspect. Frustration had performed a spectacular coup d’état on the mind, overthrowing a pleasant blend of truly democratic emotions. Something had to be done. Changes were needed. They had to be drastic. Time was running out. What to do? Increasing the dosage of painkillers was achieving nothing, creams and lotions were more painful to apply than beneficial, even after the immense feat of removing the packaging and lid. A rash decision had to be made and one particular risk sprang to mind, determination to end this all kicked in and thoughts were put into action.

In the shed outside was a set of rarely used tools, neglected and left eagerly awaiting to be used on even the most tedious of tasks still somehow retaining their original polish. If you entered the shed you would swear you could hear excited murmurs as they watched to see who you picked. Today the saw was seemingly in luck, removed from its resting place for the first time in what must have seemed like a decade to such an underused piece of equipment. If it knew what it was going to be used for it would have tried to have hidden itself under the lawnmower or behind the rake.

As the right arm was the least functional the saw was brandished in the left, its shiny surface reflecting an expression of anxiety mingled with a maniacal, determined glare. Just below the right elbow the first mark was made, the saw’s teeth sliced effortlessly through the flesh tainting its polished sheen with the stain of blood. The left arm drew back and forth clumsily, making the job take far longer than intended. Blood was spewing forth rapidly as the pain surpassed the previous agony. With a sickening crunch the saw hit bone and the sawing halted. The effort was too grand, but the determination surpassed it. As the sawing recommenced, the world started to blur, the pain subsided slightly and actions repeated as though they required no brain to power them, they simply had their own momentum.

After the last of the bone had been sawn through, the limb hung limp. Dangling flesh was difficult to continue sawing through and any rational mind would have found another method, but as is probably obvious, rationality was nowhere to be found. As the blood rushed out of the arm as though in a race to leave the body, the last of the flesh was hacked off until only a ragged stump remained. Before realisation could kick in that the job was only half complete with no means to finish it, the whole world went black and consciousness left the body.

It took a while before the remains were found; being a recluse can be quite risky as it leaves nobody to pick up the pieces. Whoever was unfortunate enough to find it would have probably been incredibly baffled by the horrific scene lying before their eyes. I do not envy them.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

The Christian Response to Darwin

The common view of Darwin’s impact appears to be that his theories caused enormous problems for Christians, problems they have not recovered from since. This perception places science against the Christian faith with Charles Darwin waving the banner triumphantly. What did actually occur at this time?

What Darwin’s theories did do was refute the design arguments of William Paley. Paley’s ‘Natural Theology’ was a big influence on Darwin and was perhaps one of the cornerstones of his faith when he was a Christian. Paley’s views were popular, but not without Christian opposition, the most prominent being John Henry Newman who considered it a liability and a false gospel. With this in mind The Origin of Species could clearly only be a death blow to Paleyist apologetics. Recent trends in the study of geology had already been accepted by the Christian majority who were well aware of non-literal interpretations of Genesis.

Before Darwin there had already been many adjustments by theologians of Paley’s arguments. Some saw gaps in the design arguments which Darwin’s theories later filled, whereas others focussed on laws based on the approach of Aquinas centuries earlier. With the stage seemingly set for Christians to quite easily accept Darwin’s theories, how did they react?

The Anglican/British Response

The first Christian response came six days before the publication of The Origin. Darwin had sent an advance copy to Revd Charles Kingsley who instantly approved, stating that it is “Just as noble a conception of Deity, to believe that He created primal forms capable of self-development…as to believe that He required a fresh act of intervention to supply the lacunas which He Himself had made.”

The publication of The Origin brought evolution by natural selection to the attention of both the public and the growing scientific community. The initial response was mixed, both in religious and scientific circles. Darwin’s friend Leonard Jenyns believed that humans must have been created separately from animals otherwise he could not make sense of Gen: 2.7 and 2.21-22 (note that this is not strict adherence to a literal Genesis).

In 1860, just 7 months after publication, came the infamous debate between the Bishop of Oxford, “Soapy Sam” Wilberforce, and “Darwin’s Bulldog”, Thomas H. Huxley. The popular retelling shows a triumph of scientist over dusty old bishop with a well known backhanded quip from Huxley, contrary to what historians have found.
Wilberforce was there not just because he was a bishop, but because he had been a Vice-President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Wilberforce even emphasised that, “we have no sympathy with those who object to any facts or alleged facts in nature, or to any inference logically deduced from them, because they believe them to contradict what it appears to them is taught by Revelation.”

Wilberforce critiqued Darwin on mainly scientific grounds and Darwin (who did not attend) found his critique to be “uncommonly clever; it picks out with skill all the most conjectural parts, and brings forward well all the difficulties.” One attendee of the Oxford meeting, Henry Baker Tristam, had been persuaded by The Origin but then ‘de-converted’ based on the strength of Wilberforce’s scientific arguments.

The meeting was far from a triumph of science over religion, as popularly depicted, but instead a scientific debate with very vocal and worthy opponents.

Frederick Temple, later to become Archbishop of Canterbury, gave the official sermon at the Oxford meeting, where he argued that God’s activities are discerned throughout the laws of nature, not in gaps of current knowledge. He espoused such positive views throughout his later occupation of the position of Archbishop of Canterbury.

Aubrey Moore argued that, “There are not, and cannot be, any Divine interpositions in nature, for God cannot interfere with Himself. His creative activity is present everywhere. There is no division of labour between God and nature, or God and law…For the Christian theologian the facts of nature are the acts of God.” Very modern sounding thoughts from a contemporary of Darwin.

Darwinism was not only accepted, it also brought benefits for some theologians. For Kingsley evolution brought greater nobility and a wider view of God. Moore Expressed the view that Darwin had done a service to Christianity by expelling a false deity, a semi-deistic travesty.

There was of course some opposition. A minority clung to ‘Scriptural’ ideas or Paley’s arguments, though the biggest faith opposition came from the refusal to accept that humans had evolved from ‘lesser forms’. The majority of Christian rejection was scientific, with many rejecting natural selection and favouring instead mechanisms like inherent drive (it was not until the mid 20th century that natural selection was finally favoured by the majority).

Ironically, Huxley rejected natural selection, as he believed it gave too much weight to random chance, which would give way to a deity; random chance is now one of the arguments used by creationists against theistic evolution!

The ‘war’ between science and religion at the time was very different to popular perception. During the 19th century the province of discovery of the natural world belonged to clergy members. These were being replaced by professional scientists – and that is where the tensions were. It was about power, not uncomfortable facts.

The American Response

America (second only to Turkey by percentage) is the home of modern dissent to Darwin’s theories. It may be surprising that the response to Darwin by American Christians was positive, even more so that it was mainly Christian scientists who spread the theory.

Darwin communicated with Asa Gray frequently, often debating and discussing evolution and design. In Darwin’s theories Asa Grey found comfort in the idea that life was interconnected and evolution’s explanations of the existence of pain as necessary for the evolution of human beings. James McCosh and Alexander Winchell were both prominent scientists and devout Christians who promoted the theories professionally.

George Wright, a theologian and geologist, believed, “that Darwin’s work actually allies itself with the Reformed faith in discouraging romantic, sentimental, and optimistic interpretations of nature.” James Dana, another Christian geologist, commented, “it is not atheism to believe in a development theory, if it be admitted at the same time that Nature exists by the will and continued act of God.”

According to the American historian George Marsden, “with the exception of Harvard’s Louis Agassiz, virtually every American Protestant zoologist and botanist accepted some form of evolution by the early 1870s.” The British historian James Moore concurs, “with but few exceptions the leading Christian thinkers in Great Britain and America came to terms quite readily with Darwinism and evolution.”

These days fundamentalism is synonymous with evolution denial; unlike the early fundamentalists who had a range of beliefs. The term ‘fundamentalism’ with regards to Christianity is derived from a series of publications between 1912 and 1917 titled ‘the Fundamentals’, designed to counteract liberal theology. Some, such as Dyson Hague, opposed evolution, however, many accepted it. George Wright was a contributor and the influential Benjamin Warfield called himself a “Darwinian of the purest water.”

James Orr insisted that Genesis was not a scientific text and argued that “evolution is coming to be recognized as but a new name for ‘creation’, only that the creative power now works from within, instead of, as in the old conception, in an external, plastic fashion.”


It was not until the 1920s that Christian opposition began to build up in America, albeit from old earth creationists at first. It grew from political ideals, not science, as evolution had been abused to fit every ‘ism’ imaginable. This gave rise to YEC views in the ‘60s which continue to be believed by large amounts of Christians. Bizarrely YEC views are anti-science yet influenced by the idea that science is the most reliable source of knowledge; therefore they believe that theology and Genesis are more reliable if considered scientific.

Perhaps they should keep in mind the words of the Oxford historian of religion, J Estlin Carpenter, “Theories [about the Bible] once ardently cherished have been overthrown. Conceptions that had exerted immense influence for centuries, can no longer be maintained. On the other hand, the true value of the Bible has been enhanced. We have ceased to ask of it what it cannot five us; we cherish all the more highly what it can.”


Modern views would have us believe that the default position for Christians in face of evolution was and should be young earth creation, a view which is clearly false. Just as the Christian contemporaries of Darwin reacted admirably, so should we. Darwinism should be embraced now more than ever, as the evidence is far more powerful and convincing.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Genesis Creation for the 21st Century

In this century the understanding of how to read the Genesis creation stories divides Christianity. We make the mistake of reading it with modern minds, minds which often elevate scientific truth above all other forms of expressing truth. This causes many to reject Genesis as unscientific, whereas some also place Genesis as the ultimate scientific authority. Both of these result from an inability to properly appreciate that Genesis must be understood in light of its historical context – as a product of the ancient Hebrews.

Starting from the text alone, as many prefer, we can look at the language used and what we find is that it describes things as people see them. One example of this is that ‘God made the two great lights’ (Gen 1.16 NRSV) something we know to be factually incorrect – the Moon is not a light, nor is the Sun a particularly large star (many are bigger).

Many theologians throughout history have acknowledged this point. St. Augustine said, “Perhaps Sacred Scripture in its customary style is speaking with the limitations of human language in addressing men of limited understanding.” He even stated, “The narrative of the inspired writer brings matter down to the capacity of children.” John Calvin made similar remarks, saying, “For, to my mind, this is a certain principle, that nothing is here treated of but the visible form of the world. He who would learn astronomy and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere. Here the Spirit of God would reach all men without exception and therefore….the history of creation…is the book of the unlearned.”

It should be clear from the text alone that Genesis is a theological account of creation, accessible to all, but not a mere scientific description. The structure of Genesis 1 should reinforce this point. The first 3 days contain acts of separation; the second 3 days contain parallel acts of filling the spaces.

Throughout the history of both Christianity and Judaism the creation accounts have been read as symbolic (in varying degrees) by many scholars. Early Jewish commentaries on Genesis favoured symbolic readings, seeing the creation as instantaneous instead (a view Augustine later espoused). Philo, a prominent Jewish scholar, was a contemporary of Jesus and Paul (let us not forget that Jesus was a Jew). He explained how the days of creation, the image of God, Adam and Eve, and the garden of Eden were all symbolic, describing them as “no mythical fictions…but modes of making ideas visible.”

Genesis creation was read as an extended figure of speech, though this did give rise to the Alexandrian school perhaps over-allegorising Scripture at times. Origen is known for considering every part of Scripture to be allegorical; ironically he believed this because he believed every word was chosen by the Holy Spirit (the position of most modern literalists). Below is a paraphrased example of an allegorical interpretation of the first day from Augustine (he considered many possibilities).

“The light which God created on the first day is the spiritual creation, which became light by the reflection of God’s glory – The darkness, which God divided from the light, represents the still soul without God’s light.”

He goes on to describe the firmament as Scriptures, a shield for protection; the sea as the human race, the land as the good soul; the plants are works of mercy and charity; the lights are wisdom and knowledge; the creatures are signs and sacraments; winged things are teachers; and so on.

The Reformers reacted against excessive allegorisation, favouring instead the literal, though even then their interpretations did not match modern ones (seeing them instead as adapted to common usage).

Historical and cultural context is important for interpretation; Genesis must be viewed in light of contemporary understanding. In this light the account becomes theological polemic. It was designed to refute other common beliefs and mythologies, and glorify the one true God.

The modern Christian mind does not have to contend with polytheistic beliefs, but the early Hebrews did. Contemporary myths started with ‘theogony’, explaining where the gods came from. Genesis instead starts with God already existing – a clear contrast for those in the ancient Near East.

Another example is found in the word choice. The Hebrew words for Sun and Moon were not used (v16) instead they are referred to as greater and lesser lights. The Hebrew words for Sun and Moon were also the names of contemporary pagan gods, whose followers often worshipped the celestial bodies. The ancient Hebrews were often tempted to do the same (Deuteronomy 4.19 and 17.2-3). The Genesis narrative undermines their divinity and even shows us that we do not serve these ‘gods’, but these ‘lights’ serve us as light sources and calendar markers.

An important message for the ancient Hebrews was that God did not need to defeat sea monsters (which sometimes symbolised chaos) in order to create, as many contemporary gods did. He created the sea monsters (the word ‘bara’ is used only with the heavens and earth, with mankind and with sea creatures). Many more references to this are made throughout the Bible (e.g. Leviathan) as the Bible uses the same material but in a different theological context.

Another message worth mentioning is the position of humanity. In Mesopotamian creation stories the humans are made to be the slaves of gods, an afterthought made to build temples and bring sacrifices. In contrast the Genesis narrative shows that man is the conclusion of creation, made in God’s image and given a position of responsibility.

Many more examples of this type can be given to show the mythological nature of Genesis, but this can become too esoteric unless we apply it to ourselves. It is often not worthwhile to learn of other interpretations unless we can apply them, so how can we read Genesis 1-3?

We can find truth in the allegorical readings of the early church; Augustine saw the likeness of God symbolising the gift of reason by which to understand God’s truth – a reading which still rings true. He also saw God’s rest as symbolic of the rest we shall take in eternity when our work in the world is done.

We can also raise our hands in agreement with the ancient Hebrew polemic reading. There is one God, creator of all, over whom chaos holds no sway. The order of creation is permanent and all chaos will one day be vanquished. Humans have a prime place and responsibility in creation. These messages contain eternal truth.

We can go further, reading each creation story as a sacred poem (though the actual Hebrew poetry starts in Gen 1.27). The first account speaks of order and reliability in an interconnected creation; the second is more about our relationships with each other and with God. The first two chapters are a celebration of the goodness of creation; chapters 3 and 4 introduce sin, evil and suffering. The sins introduced here are our own sins (not trusting God, lying, projection of faults, not taking responsibility etc.) the Genesis creation accounts are about us!

We can therefore read Genesis as a theological narrative about God and as a story about ourselves. It can speak to us as an ancient Hebrew anti-mythical polemic, as a deep symbolic allegory, as a personal sacred poem, as theological essences elevating meaning over fact, and as a pointer towards the need for Christ. It was never a scientific treatise and should never be read as such, this is a categorical error which rejects fruitful textual analysis and diminishes spiritual insight into one impoverished dimension.

Genesis is just as relevant to Christians today as it was when first compiled. Let us read it as truth seekers instead of reducing it to a point of contention as it has in recent years. If taken absolutely literally the creation accounts become reduced to a historical account deep in the past. Read symbolically and it contains depths which we can constantly explore and discover more from; truly the living word of God.