Sunday, 30 August 2009
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.
Friday, 21 August 2009
One problem is how miracles are defined. The most common definition comes from David Hume as ‘a transgression of a law of nature brought about by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent’. In such a view a miracle is Divine intervention or even violation.
Hume rejects these for many reasons, one of which is that the laws of nature are uniform. Kenneth Miller states that miracles are “beyond explanation, beyond our understanding, beyond science” and that they need not make scientific sense. On the surface this seems like an evasion, but he does go on to state that “they reflect a greater reality, a spiritual reality”, a point which needs expanding on.
Christ’s miracles as interventions make little sense to someone who views God’s creative acts as in line with the natural laws He put in place. Maurice Wiles speaks of the world as a whole as a single act of God, to speak of miracles as God intervening in the world by individual acts would not work.
Another possible definition which then arises is ‘an event that is in accordance with the laws of nature but which the believer sees as being due to the action of God’. This view is plausible with many claimed miracles, but appears insufficient when explaining Christ’s miracles.
It helps to look at the reasons behind Jesus’ miracles. Jesus lived in a world which saw things very differently, where the boundaries between ‘normal’ and ‘miraculous’ were not as well defined as in our scientific age. Healers and miracles workers were common and accepted, though Jesus’ miracles appear different.
John’s Gospel refers to them as ‘signs’ (semeion), these are material events which point beyond themselves to the underlying spiritual realm. Most of the miracles were unsurprisingly acts of healing. They were signs of the coming of God’s Kingdom (an important point to remember), to awaken faith. Further insight is gained by looking at when Jesus refused to use his abilities. Jesus’ miracles often reinforced or awakened faith, as a sign of his identity; not as unequivocal proof to unbelievers, which is exactly what he refused to do when tempted in the wilderness. In Luke 9.55 James and John offered to command fire on a Samaritan village which rejected him, Jesus rebuked them, he came to save not to destroy.
When approaching miracles, God is often seen as external and the spiritual almost as ‘somewhere else’. God’s creative acts are often best seen as an expression of God’s love from within, so miracles should be no different. For many theists the material has a spiritual basis. The spiritual is as much a reality as the material. The two overlap in mysterious ways. The New Testament scholar N.T. Wright stated that “Heaven is not a place up in the sky – it is God’s dimension of what we think of as ordinary reality.” Such world views must always be remembered when addressing what is going on with miracles, for they reveal aspects of the Kingdom of Heaven and the spiritual reality.
Jesus’ miracles should be viewed from two perspectives; that of God and that of nature. If a miracle is from God it must be consistent with creation as a whole being an act of God and God’s act of creatio continua. Donald McKay summed this up by commenting that “miracles are not so much an intervention as a change in mode of divine agency”. God did not suddenly intervene; His interaction took on new form, which is further made sense of when viewed from the perspective of nature.
Miracles are often seen as a transgression of natural laws. Christians often look forward to the day when creation is made anew and infused with divine life; glimpses of which we get in Jesus’ signs. Archbishop Rowan Williams said of miracles that “There are certain moments when there is an opening in the world and divine action comes through in a fresh way.” In this sense a miracle is effectively ‘right’ and in line with natural laws, allowing God’s mode of agency to change. It takes no stretch to see how this would be achieved so effectively in Christ.
Williams further said, “A miracle is not a suspension of the laws of nature, but nature opening up to its own depths.” What bursts out is spiritual, when the material is receptive of it, as we see in Mary the mother of Jesus for example. In Mark 6.5 Jesus was unable to do anything but heal when people rejected him – they were unreceptive.
A scientifically minded Christian can and should be open to Christ’s miracles (even if they are sceptical of others). It is fitting that the love of God shone through the receptiveness of Christ in fresh and exciting ways. I shall end with a definition of miracle which Keith Ward has used:
“Miracle is a transformation of the material by the spiritual, a disclosure of the real (the spiritual) that reveals the true function of the material to manifest its spiritual basis.”
Cetacea, the order that includes whales, dolphins and porpoises, has justifiably captured the imagination for millennia, from the scourge of Jonah to Moby Dick; Monstro the Great to Free Willy; we live in awe of them. It is common knowledge that dolphins show high intelligence and that blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus) are the largest animals to ever have lived, whales break more records than this; the sperm whale (Physeter catodon) can dive for longer and deeper than any mammal (10,000 ft); blue whales and fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus) produce the loudest sound in the animal kingdom (188 decibels); male humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) produce the longest and most complex songs of any animal (up to 9 themes in half an hour, which it repeats for several days).
The plausibility of whale evolution has long been a source of fascination for scientists; and ridicule by creationists. Darwin speculated, to his own embarrassment, in the early editions of The Origin of Species:
In North America the black bear was seen by Hearne swimming for hours with widely open mouth, thus catching, like a whale, insects in the water. Even in so extreme a case as this, if the supply of insects were constant, and if better adapted competitors did not already exist in the country, I can see no difficulty in a race of bears being rendered, by natural selection, more aquatic in their structures and habits, with larger and larger mouths, till a creature was produced as monstrous as a whale.
Such speculation was justifiably rejected and whale evolution remained unsupported by tangible fossil evidence until recent decades. Who can forget Duane Gish’s comical “mer-cow” example of a half-cow, half-fish transition which he termed an “udder failure”? Bizarrely, cetaceans are still at the brunt of creationist attacks, when in actuality they present a wealth of evidence for evolution, not the supposed dearth.
First of all, is such a transition possible? Is a semi-aquatic life possible for a mammal? Visit any zoo or watch any good wildlife documentary (I recommend The Life of Mammals by David Attenborough) and you will find dozens of examples of different stages of amphibious life in extant mammals.
Mammals returning to the sea face many key problems: mammals need to keep warm, which aquatic life makes difficult; efficient movement requires different modifications to land movement; breathing air is difficult in the sea; giving live birth proves difficult under water. These obstacles have been conquered by both whales and many other mammals, but why bother? Food is often the key, and for whales in particular a niche was open; the mosasaurs, plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs of the Mesozoic had all recently gone extinct, also meaning a lack of predation.
Living mammals provide examples of different stages of aquatic adaptation. In freshwater, the Desman (Desmana moschata and Galemys pyrenaicus) is an insectivore related to moles which has developed a flexible trunk-like snout for a snorkel, long dense fur for warmth and is a very effective swimmer. It remains tied to land as it is too buoyant to dive for long and must eat what it catches on land.
Sea otters (Enhydra lutris) spend all of their lives at sea, using their webbed toes for efficient propulsion. To keep warm they have the densest fur of any mammal, with more hairs in one square centimetre than any human has on their head, they even blow air into it for insulation. Sea otters mate in the sea and wrap themselves in kelp to stop from floating away whilst sleeping (they remain territorial).
Sea lions (of genera Eumetopias, Zalophus, Otaria, Neophoca and Phocarctos) take things further, with paddle-like front legs and back legs which are highly effective flippers yet still allow them to clumsily move on land. They have a lot of blubber and feed their young milk which is 30% fat in order to rapidly return to sea. They still give birth on land and have external ears.
Seals (of family Phocidae) lack the external ears, making them more streamlined. Their hind legs are shorter and cannot aid walking – they have to bounce around or slide when on land to give birth. Seals can stay submerged for up to 20 minutes.
All of these examples show different stages in adapting to the sea. Further discussion on each could be given, also including the fascinating manatees, but the point here is simply that a semi aquatic life is possible and therefore can lead to a fully aquatic one. Now onto the evidence from whales, but first, hippos.
Hippos (Hippopotamus amphibius) spend most of their time in the water and have many key adaptations to such a lifestyle. Their main sensory organs (eyes, ears and nose) are all atop their head allowing them to keep the rest of the body submerged; they are also able to tightly close them underwater. Mating occurs under water and the babies are born and suckle there too, even swimming before walking. A novel hippo adaptation is the secretion of their own sunscreen to prevent sunburn. I mentioned the hippopotamus last because molecular data shows them to be the closest relative of the cetaceans.
These extant examples show that it was at least possible and the molecular data should confirm that it did happen, but that is not enough for most, the fossils need discussing. We must confirm that it did happen with the visual tangibility that only fossils can provide; DNA often seems too abstract.
First comes Indohyus, an ancient artiodactyl the size of a raccoon. Dated to 48 million years ago it is not the ancestor of whales, but has features of the ears and teeth which are shared only by modern whales. It likely resembles the ancestor of whales and was partly aquatic, as evidenced by the denser bones and isotopic extractions from the teeth.
Next we turn to the famous Pakicetus from 52 million years ago. Pakicetus lacked the diving specialisations of modern whales and had intermediate teeth between mesonychids and archaeocetes. This ancestral whale was found in river sediments bordering an ancient sea, fitting for such a transition.
In this rapid trip through fossil whales (which does no justice to the evidence and misses some recent finds including the remingtonocetids such as Kutchicetus, the protocetid Maiacetus which gave birth on land, and many more) we turn to another famous fossil, Ambulocetus. Fifty million years ago the sea lion sized Ambulocetus spent most of its time in shallow water using flippers which still had vestigial hooves. The most important feature of Ambulocetus is the spine – it was highly flexible, allowing for up and down undulations which led to the distinctive locomotive style of all cetaceans.
Many fossils show more progression, such as Dalanistes with its still fully functional limbs with webbed feet and its long snout. Both Indocetus and Rodhocetus (46.5 mya) were partly terrestrial (though very limited) and highly agile in the water. The nostrils of Rodhocetus had moved back – the start of the transition to the blowhole. Other fossils showing more progression include Takracetus and Gaviocetus (both have vestigial hind limbs) and more will undoubtedly be found.
On the whale side of the transition are Basilosaurus and Dorudon from 40 mya. Both had short necks and their blowholes were atop the skull. They also had tiny hind limbs, useless for land locomotion yet still present. These were around 2 foot long on a 50 foot whale and included all the usual hind limb bones including the patella and phalanges.
The fossils show an incredible sequence, one which stretches incredulity to doubt (I recommend looking at them and not relying on my short descriptions). This brief overview gave only a glimpse, the fossils, when studied in more detail, show how almost every unique whale feature evolved, from the blowhole to their locomotion. In almost all cases this required modification of existing traits. As fossils are discussed so often when covering whale evolution I will turn to other lines of evidence.
One of my favourite pieces of evidence for evolution is the presence of pseudogenes, and whales do not disappoint. The olfactory receptor (OR) genes are an important and fascinating group of genes, the elucidation of which won the Nobel Prize for Axel and Buck in 2004.
The OR genes originated from a single gene which has been duplicated repeatedly and altered slightly each time. Their number correlates with the strength of the sense of smell of the animal (an unusual occurrence with genes). A brief look at them in a variety of species is illuminating. Many ‘primitive’ fish have 2 sets of OR genes, lobe finned fish use only one of these sets, homologous to the set used in terrestrial animals. Fish have just a handful of OR genes, amphibians tend to have more, reptiles even more so and mammals can have over 1,000. Already a sequence has emerged.
Looking at mammals more closely, those that rely heavily on smell, such as the mouse or dog, have the full complement of OR genes, all in use. Our own sense of smell is a lot weaker, using only around 400 OR genes. We still carry around 800 OR genes – half have become pseudogenes and are inactive. This coincides with our dependence on colour vision, relying less on smell (which usually leads into another of my favourite examples of evolution).
With this information a prediction can be made. If cetaceans evolved from terrestrial mammals they should have hundreds of OR genes, though as their nose is now a blowhole they should largely be inactive. A look at the dolphin genome shows that 80% of their OR genes are inactive. They also resemble the usual mammalian OR genes. This makes proper sense only in light of the theory of evolution.
Pseudogenes are the genetic equivalent of vestigial traits, which whales also have. Whales famously have a vestigial pelvis and thigh bones which serve little to no purpose except as a pointer to their evolutionary heritage. Occasionally (1 in 500) whales have atavistic legs which protrude outside the body wall, many containing leg bones, some even having feet and toes!
The most exciting discoveries being made in current evolutionary biology come from the study of embryological development and the pathways taken. In a 24 day old spotted dolphin (Stenella attenuata) embryo there is a well developed hind limb bud, only slightly smaller than the forelimb bud. By 48 days the hind limb buds have mostly been reabsorbed whilst the forelimbs continue to develop into flippers. Baleen whales, which are toothless, develop embryonic teeth which are also reabsorbed before birth.
Another example is present in human development too. Foetal humans of around 6 months develop fine, downy hair called lanugo. Lanugo is shed around a month before birth in humans, whereas other apes retain it. Foetal whales also develop lanugo and shed it before birth. These embryonic examples hint at their descent from four-limbed, fur covered ancestors.
More detailed study has been done into the genetic basis of the embryological development of cetaceans, proving to be most illuminating.
Whales still have the main genes used in limb formation (Shh, the Fgfs and Hand2) though the regulation has changed. A loss of the genes would not be possible (it would hinder other areas of development) so their activation was selectively reduced. The changes have been pinpointed to the expression of Hand2, being expressed in the forelimb and not the hind, forming no zone of polarising activity (ZPA) for that limb, thus halting formation. The evidence suggests this shutting off occurred approximately 34 mya.
At the same time the limbs were lost there was a change in vertebral patterning. Hox expression (Hoxd) appears to have altered both features, effecting Shh and Hand2 expression. Not only can we observe fossils, development also shows exactly which mutations may have occurred.
Whales and other cetaceans are not only awe inspiring to observe, they also provide incredible evidence and insights into evolution. The small amount presented here scratches the surface and displays a confluence of disparate evidences from various separate disciplines which are made sense of by the theory of evolution.
References and recommended reading (in non-scientific format):
The Encyclopedia of Animals - published by Weldon Owen (2008).
The Life of Mammals (DVD) – David Attenborough (2002).
Why Evolution is True – Jerry Coyne (2009).
Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters – Donald Prothero (2007).
Hooking Leviathan By Its Past, from Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections in Natural History – Stephen Jay Gould (1995). http://www.stephenjaygould.org/ctrl/gould_leviathan.html
Your Inner Fish – Neil Shubin (2008).
The Origin of Whales and the Power of Independent Evidence: http://lsrhs.net/departments/science/faculty/bernasconib/Bio%201/Bio1%20homework/Evolution/whales.content.pdf
Inclusion of Cetaceans Within the Order Artiodactyla Based on Phylogenetic Analysis of Pancreatic Ribonuclease Genes: http://www.springerlink.com/content/467ktrklk4utdctk/
Molecular evidence for the inclusion of cetaceans within the order Artiodactyla: http://mbe.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/11/3/357
Molecular evidence from Retroposons that whales form a clade within even-toed ungulates: http://www.lacertilia.com/creationist_critiques/PDFs/Shimamura_etal_1997.pdf
Skeletons of terrestrial cetaceans and the relationship of whales to artiodactyls: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v413/n6853/abs/413277a0.html
From Land to Water: the Origin of Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises: http://www.springerlink.com/content/whn1654v74t64301/
Whales originated from aquatic artiodactyls in the Eocene epoch of India: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v450/n7173/full/nature06343.html
Fossil Evidence for the Origin of Aquatic Locomotion in Archaeocete Whales: http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/sci;263/5144/210
Vestibular evidence for the evolution of aquatic behaviour in early cetaceans: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v417/n6885/abs/417163a.html
New Protocetid Whale from the Middle Eocene of Pakistan: Birth on Land, Precocial Development, and Sexual Dimorphism: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0004366
A remarkable case of external hind limbs in a humpback whale: http://digitallibrary.amnh.org/dspace/handle/2246/4849
Limbs in whales and limblessness in other vertebrates: mechanisms of evolutionary and developmental transformation and loss: http://whitelab.biology.dal.ca/lb/Bejder%20and%20Hall.pdf
The olfactory receptor gene repertoires in secondary-adapted marine vertebrates: evidence for reduction of the functional proportions in cetaceans: http://rsbl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/3/4/428.abstract
Whale limb evolution:
Sound transmission in archaic and modern whales: Anatomical adaptations for underwater hearing: http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/114265699/abstract?CRETRY=1&SRETRY=0
Eocene evolution of whale hearing: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v430/n7001/abs/nature02720.html
The strength of science can cause positivism in its abilities, leading people instead away from God; its methodological materialist values seem to some to be a pointer to the metaphysical claim that all that is worth discovering can be found by science. Science does not invoke supernatural agency in its explanations, as expressed by Pierre Simon Laplace when he declared, “I have no need of that hypothesis” when asked where God fit into his equations. Despite Laplace being a Catholic, many Christians are worried by this apparent absence and seek signs of deus ex machina.
Such a view often leads to rejection of scientific discoveries in favour of views which can mesh (or mash) a highly active creator God with science. The main verse cited in support of such a view is Romans 1:20 where we read, “Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse.” Taken alone this verse seems to almost scream that one need only look at nature in order to find evidence of God.
A look at this verse in context is revealing, Paul proceeds to say, “For though they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.” This verse is not about proving God through nature, Paul is addressing a culture which perceived divine action regularly, his motive is to show that the One True God is the one acting and idolatry is without excuse.
Clearly Paul was addressing those who accepted divine action, not those who denied it. His statement is not a scientific one. In Isaiah 45.15 it declares, “Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Saviour.” Isaiah’s view of God is different to that of those who seek His indelible stamp on nature. This raises a question; is God an ostentatious deity who can be found through scientific evidence? Or is He a hidden creator who should by His nature appear absent from science?
To make sense of this we must turn to the place all Christians should turn in order to understand. God’s most profound revelation to mankind came in the person of Christ and the Easter mystery. Christ’s entry to the world was not one of pomp and bombast, but a humble affair said to have occurred in a lowly stable, born in a manger. Throughout Christ’s life he lived as a humble carpenter’s son, indistinguishable from the average Galilean.
Christ’s temptation in the wilderness should be most illuminating. Satan tempted Christ to start his ministry in a way which none could deny, one of triumph and fanfare. He had the power to present himself in a way which none could ignore and would cause every knee to bow and tongue confess. Christ remained humble. He chose the path to the cross, one which would go unnoticed by many and even lead to rejection and condemnation from those he loved.
Through his teachings he engaged with the every-man. To him his teachings and his love were the gifts he gave, not miracles that none could deny (John 6:26). Miracles have their place in being signs and fulfilling prophecies, but the importance we can gain from them is that they exemplify the outpouring of God’s love and can teach us more about Him.
For Christians it is the death and resurrection that is the culmination of Christ’s ministry, an act of redemption and forgiveness; the ultimate link between Creator and created. Yet again it was a subtle affair, one in which God’s presence was not conspicuous. He was taunted by onlookers at this great moment and Christ’s cries even confirmed that he wasn’t God for some. To know of this and seek God explicitly through science seems to miss the point of God’s nature. He is not a god who would leave fingerprints in the earth, but one who people of faith can find in the humblest and most unlikely of places.
With this in mind the positions of creationism and intelligent design seem empty, naïve and desperate. The view I have presented is ostensibly bleak, so it is no surprise that many still seek scientific ‘proof’ of God. Many do accept that science is accurate in not pointing to God, instead brushing away all science by embracing the Omphalos hypothesis, the idea that God created things which only look aged, many mid-process. Such a position is not satisfactory for Christians honestly engaging with science or Scripture.
The Omphalos position does not allow us to properly study and understand God’s creation; this is distasteful to most scientifically minded Christians and does not sit well with historic Christian views. Psalm 111.2 clearly shows us that “Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them.” Adam was told to name the animals, implying he understand and study them. Traditionally there has always been a ‘two-book’ view of God’s revelation; God wrote a Book of Works (creation) and a Book of Words (Scripture).
Tertullian held this view, “Nature is schoolmistress, the soul the pupil; and whatever one has taught or the other has learned has come from God – the Teacher of the teacher.”
Augustine believed nature should be studied as a revelation of God, “Some people, in order to discover God, read books. But there is a great book: the very appearance of created things, Look above you! Look below you! Read it. God, whom you want to discover, never wrote that book with ink. Instead, He set before your eyes the things that He had made. Can you ask for a louder voice than that?”
John of Damascus stated that “The whole earth is a living icon of the face of God.”
It was most clearly stated by John Scotus Eriugena in the 9th century; “Christ wears ‘two shoes’ in the world: Scripture and nature. Both are necessary to understand the Lord, and at no stage can creation be seen as a separation of things from God.”
Aquinas declared, “Any error about creation also leads to an error about God.”
Martin Luther also held this view; “God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars.”
These traditionally held views must be ignored in order to support the idea that God made a world we cannot study. The study of creation is instead fruitful and encouraged. These views are encouraging to any seeking to engage with science.
Many Christians who reject creationism and ID will still turn to science as a signpost. Anthropic principle, the observation that the universe has certain properties which support the existence of life, is the signpost for them (see the Language of God by Francis Collins). It is an error to see the fundamental constants as this pointer. Instead they are what Christians should seek from science – a creation which is consistent with a divine creator who formed a universe which we can comprehend, one which is capable of sustaining life and itself.
So how does scientific discovery fit into a Christian view? Both Augustine and Aquinas saw God’s work in nature as working through causalities. God in this sense is never the answer to the unknowns in science; He does not fill the gaps of scientific knowledge. God is the bigger picture, a picture which science fills only a small part of, one which encompasses other disciplines such as philosophy, theology and ethics; they all contribute a small amount of understanding to the bigger picture of an infinite God.
A Christian can observe the beauty and intricacy of nature and rejoice that through their faith they can find the hidden God, seeing the unseen. God’s love extends throughout creation so we can declare with the psalmist,
“O LORD, how manifold are your works!” (Ps. 104.24)
A proper understanding of God’s relationship with creation can allow for theophany, but we must not go searching for explicit signs, they are not to be expected. Through Christ we know that His apparent absence is not something that should lead us away, but one which can bring us closer.
Christ’s death and resurrection is the perfect model to make sense of this. His resurrection is symbolic of the New Creation which is to come, when all is redeemed and made anew in Christ, but we are not yet at that point. We are between Good Friday (the Fall) and Easter Sunday (the New Creation). This is a time where God’s presence is hidden, not absent. This teaches us that science will never point explicitly at God, but it can and should hold prominence in a Christian world-view.
What is the Bible?
Whilst discussing the Bible yesterday a comment was made to me saying, "The Christians that I know don't believe anything close to what you believe." This gave me the urge to explain what the Bible is to me and I will attempt to expand on the explanation I had given to him before his comment.
The Bible is the foundation of Christian belief, containing works by numerous authors over hundreds of years written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. It is a record of the history of the ancient Hebrews and their relationship with God, the people among which Jesus was born and lived. It contains the only remaining witness to the life of Christ. It contains insight into the beliefs of early Christians and how they dealt with new circumstances.
The Bible contains books of many different genres and in many styles of writing. These books convey many different messages about God and about the religious traditions and understanding. Within Christianity there are different views as to how the Bible was written, which affects how it is understood.
The main verse consulted here is 'All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness' from 2 Timothy 3.16. There are those that hold the idea that God-breathed means God wrote the Bible through men, using them like pens to convey His words. From this view the different styles emerge in the same way that we can write with different coloured pens, yet the words stay the same. This view does not appear to be the intended meaning of the verse. When God breathed into man He gave him life, but God did not control every human action. The breath allowed for freedom, allowing the Spirit of God to flow, but did not control or dictate.
When we discuss the writing process of the Bible we often refer to them as being 'inspired'. This suggests not that God wrote it, but that God allowed for creative freedom. The Bible contains God's living word, all that is necessary to salvation. It is written in fallible human language; time bound cultural expression was used to convey timeless spiritual truth. Our language could never do Him justice, but it can allow for a window of insight into the infinite mystery and majesty that is the Lord.
The writing of the Bible is perhaps best viewed through analogy, as are many aspects of the material meeting the Divine. God's message was placed in the hearts and minds of the authors, they used their own understanding to interpret and translate it to words. Imagine the spiritual truths being set out on a pedestal, sat around are several of the world's greatest artists. Each is told to interpret the image they see and to use their favoured media to convey what they see. Like the different languages and dialects found in the Bible, the artists use different materials; there are painters, sculptors and sketch artists. Like the different styles used in the Bible, the artists use their own styles; Hieronymous Bosch would paint a very different image to Da Vinci. Each artist would be sat in a different position, seeing things from a different perspective, catching the light in different ways; in the Bible we find that many of the books are clearly the product of a particular time and culture.
In order to fully understand the subject matter we must look at all the separate views as a whole, examining the subtle differences along with the big. We must never forget the different cultures and times from which the Scriptures emerged. Both colours and words are limited, yet we use them to convey truth about the unlimited Divine. We must not elevate the Scriptures to a divine level, but instead use it as a cornerstone of our faith, turning to it for guidance and submitting ourselves to its scrutiny. We should not put it beyond our own scrutiny; for it is culturally bound in the mode it is given. Our scrutiny should inevitably give rise to an understanding which was always present, the intended message within.
Diverging Differences and Unwavering Unities
Ask a theistic evolutionist, a noble topic fraught with one key problem: there are a range of beliefs. Many theistic evolutionists have only the lowest common denominators in common; belief in God and acceptance of the theory of evolution. I will take a brief look at varied responses to different issues.
The reason behind such diversity of belief here may be denominational as various denominations have been perfectly able to accept evolutionary theory and each of course has its own doctrines. It may be due to the lack of both time since Darwin’s impact and theologians able to properly address the position. Or it may even be simple human nature.
Turning to Genesis we find that all Christian theistic evolutionists will declare it a source of spiritual nourishment; not a textbook of science but insight into the Creator and His will for us. Go any deeper and differences may appear. Is Genesis literal or allegorical? Although I would suggest that most would read it as totally allegory, there have long been those who take the ‘day-age’ approach or the more refined ‘framework’ reading and insist that much is still literal, only requiring delicate interpretation (not the brutish approach of the YEC).
Did God choose the wording or was man inspired? There are two obvious lines of thought here, the first being simply that God chose the symbolic format of Genesis, deeming it a better way to approach the teaching of spiritual truth without getting bogged down in the likes of big bang cosmology and nucleotide synthesis. The second line of thought favours the inspiration of God, with man choosing the mode. In this view it has been seen as: purely poetic; as an intensely crafted allegory; as spiritual truth wrapped in the ‘science’ of the day; and as an anti-Mesopotamian polemic showing the might of the one true God in distinct contrast to other prevailing contemporary myths (none of these views are of course mutually exclusive).
God’s action and presence in the world is always a difficult topic and justifiably has presented many responses. There are views which border on ID, to views where God is almost deistic; there are views where God pulls the strings, to views where He tempts from the sidelines; there are views which become almost pantheistic, to the relatively recent rise in panentheism’s popularity. A point or two of concurrence here are the concepts of God ‘interacting’ with creation through natural processes as opposed to intervention, and the idea of creatio continua.
The two extremes of God’s actions present very different view. The most Deistic view has God setting the ball rolling, not needing to intervene in any processes (M. Wiles holds this view I believe). However, Christianity is theism and not deism so at the very least this view restricts God’s actions to those of Biblical narrative and of course Christ (the soul may also be an intervention, more on that later). To those holding this view God remains the eternal sustainer, but many find this unsatisfactory in describing a personal God.
A step up from this stems from St. Thomas Aquinas’ views of divine causality as present but hidden within secondary causalities. Austin Farrer described God as able ‘to work omnipotently on, in and through creaturely agencies, without either forcing them or competing with them.’ But again, such an account is weak and its vagueness makes it suitable for those hoping to rapidly dismiss the issue.
Conversely there are those who desire to see God’s action in every event in natural history. On one extreme is pantheism, the identification of God as the world, replacing divine transcendence with complete divine immanence, usually rejected as un-Biblical. On the other extreme is the idea that God guides mutations, directing evolution towards mankind (or simply sentience), a view of God which pleases some yet suggests God’s use of evolution is profligate when He seems to be doing it Himself (or even incompetent if He is intervening).
Between the two lies panentheism, another view fraught with diversity (I will address two types). In process theology God is ‘both this system and something independent of it’. God is often seen as dependent on the world (though not always) and is seen as participating in the processes of the world and being affected by them. In this view God seeks to ‘lure’ the outcome without forcing it (a God of persuasion not compulsion). This presentation has God’s plan ultimately coming to fruition without force, though John Polkinghorne chides this view by saying that ‘in reacting against a God seen as a dominating Cosmic Tyrant, process theologians appear to have settled for a Marginal Persuader.’
Another form of panentheism is gaining favour as it puts God at the heart of all without denying His transcendence. The standard definition is ‘that the Being of God includes and penetrates the whole universe, so that every part of it exists in Him, but (as against pantheism) that His Being is more than, and is not exhausted by, the universe.’ A view in which Kallistos Ware described god as expressing ‘God’s self from within’ and as ‘inexhaustibly immanent, maintaining all things in existence, animating them, making each of them a sacrament of God’s personal presence.’ To classical theists this is simply a challenge to correct over emphasis on transcendence and Polkinghorne even presents the idea of panentheism being true as an eschatological fulfilment and not a present reality.
Prevailing lines of thought hold that the openness and unpredictability found throughout nature (particularly at the quantum level) allow for interaction and direction which do not require the Divine to alter the fabric of creation. Though causality is an issue not addressed or even understood by many (and requires too much detail for now).
A point of agreement among many, if not most, theistic evolutionists is that God restricts His action to an extent in order to let the other truly be. In allowing creation to make itself independently, it allows for a loving freedom, from which free will can naturally emerge. God’s will ultimately plays out, but with a certain amount of improvisation involved.
God’s action has diverse responses and so does the problem of suffering. Evolution presents a newer challenge to theodicy, with some lines of thought seeing it as an aid to answering the question of natural ‘evil’. The past is like a graveyard; dig through the strata and you will find thousands of examples of extinction, victims of environmental change and failed evolutionary experiments abound. If God is good, as Christian claim, this needs explaining.
One response to this challenge is to dismiss it, emphasising instead the relativity of suffering. Kenneth Miller states that there are two points to keep in mind. The first being that cruelty is relative; giving examples of his enjoyment of a lobster dinner and the viciousness of his cats who keep his barn vermin free. The second point is that we cannot call evolution cruel when it simply reflects nature in its savagery. All organisms will eventually die, some will reproduce, some will not. This indifference is satisfactory for some but not for all, though it is certainly a step up from some outdated views that only human suffering matters.
This view is often complemented with an emphasis on positive aspects of evolution. There are those that like to downplay the notions of competition, death, suffering and selfishness in evolution; favouring instead the notions of cooperation, beauty, complexity and altruism. It can be pointed out that although extinction is unceasing, mankind and all other extant life forms are the current champions of evolution, the peaks of a long line of survivors. Emphasising the positive aspects of evolution is necessary but does not remove the issue.
A popular approach to the problem is to extend free will to all creation. This requires a kenotic act of self-limitation from God, allowing the world to be free and act through both chance and necessity. Much in the way God does not will the act of murder yet allows it; He also allows the processes of nature to run their course. The same processes which allow life forms to adapt also allow cancers to form. Suffering is seen as a necessary cost to allow the freedom of a fruitful exploration of possibilities for creation. The risk taken is a sacrifice of love by God. W.H.Vanstone commented that “The activity of God in creation must be precarious. It must proceed by no assured programme. Its progress, like every progress of love, must be an angular process – in which each step is a precarious step into the unknown; in which each triumph contains a new potential of tragedy, and each tragedy may be redeemed into a wider triumph.”
The ‘suffering as necessity’ approach is espoused by Keith Ward. He raises the possibility that God creates things with the capacity to frustrate God’s purpose. This point extends to the view that conflict and destruction are essential to development and creation; that struggle leads to excellence. This view is directly in line with the natural processes observed by science. He states “since all things exist ‘in Christ’, in the mind of God, the possibility of conflict, opposition, destruction and chaos may exist by necessity in the idea of any created universe containing free rational creatures.” He calls upon two Biblical principles; that God created all (Isaiah 45.7); and that God wills good (James 1:17).
With suffering being seen as necessary, the concept of God as the Great Companion in suffering comes forward. Prevalent in process thought, but not exclusive to it, God’s participation in suffering comes from His love, His divine sacrifice in allowing creation to be. If suffering is indeed a necessity to allow emergence in evolution, then God is not indifferent but must allow it.
To extend many of these views (which are not inherently mutually exclusive) the concept of the fall is not missing from theistic evolutionary thought. It does however take on a different form in that it is not tied to a specific moment when Eve and Adam ate of the tree, but instead to our material nature and that which pervades the creation from which we emerged. A material world is a fallen world, one which is not of the same essence as God and can thereby be free. Fallen man can truly choose God.
A similar view which I recently came across (and have admittedly not fully grasped) puts nature in rebellion against God, akin to and possibly orchestrated by God’s fallen angel Satan. My first reaction is to wonder at the root of causality in which such a limited spiritual being can bring about death and suffering to such a degree, but I must read more before dismissal (espoused by Charles Foster).
One approach to God not creating death is to point to Biblical instances where God commands it – killing of firstborns, Sodom and Gomorrah etc.
In rounding off the lengthy dialogue on suffering it should be mentioned that as Christians we often make sense of it in light of the Easter sacrifice. Ultimately all suffering will be conquered and the new creation will prevail.
Another issue to address is the contingency of evolution. A popular response is that it allows for fruitful exploration of possibility in a free creation through the interplay of chance and necessity. In this view contingency is to be embraced and one may point to historical contingency where God is not seen as absent by most theists. On one end of the spectrum lies the previously mentioned view that God guides mutation, erasing the need for any further explanation of contingency – it simply isn’t real – but raising other theological issues.
A recent view, almost an extension of anthropic principle, is based on the work of Simon Conway Morris. He has written extensively on the prevalence of convergence in evolution, arguing that constraint is so pervasive that the evolution of sentience is almost inevitable (made more so by the extent of the universe in some views). In this, he and others perceive hints of Divine desire, even to the point of appearing to talk of some things existing outside of nature, with nature discovering them. Song is one example and it is talked of as though there is a Platonic form acting as a template (consciousness may be another example).
‘In God’s image’ is viewed as spiritual by most Christians, theistic evolutionists especially, but the details differ. In its most naturalistic form, the belief goes that God does not even intervene here, that instead what we may refer to as the ‘soul’ is another emergent property of evolution; our capacities to contemplate our existence and to acknowledge the Creator for example. Being in His image simply means our abilities which mirror God’s, brought about by evolution. A more ‘interventionalist’ view sees many of these capacities arising through evolution, but that our link to God is not material and must therefore come by the grace of God. In this context the work of God and evolution are mutual, with ‘His image’ representing both natural attributes and our divine link. This view required God to step in at some point in history (viewed as in line with Genesis narrative).
Some, possibly many, take this further and credit evolution with the physical, giving the mind to God. Moral attributes and sentience coming straight from God; the body from evolution. The most directly creative view of God in theistic evolution is found mostly in Islam but also in Christianity occasionally. This view credits evolution for all of life’s diversity but humans were made directly by God. This view comes mostly from the way God’s action differs in the creation accounts when forming mankind. Some will even suggest that the Eden story was true and that this world, where evolution was taking place, was where Adam and Eve were sent.
Among scientifically minded theologians a relatively recent idea has arisen where Christ is viewed in evolutionary terms. This view is more common among those who emphasise Christ’s humanity, seeing him as the ‘new emergent’, a new stage both in evolution and in God’s activity. It presents a continuous view between mankind and Jesus, with Jesus unveiling a new possibility for mankind. This position of course can undermine Christ’s divinity (something many would wish not to do).
Science and theology
A point of discussion which is not often addressed by theistic evolutionists is the relationship between science and theology. I will use Ian Barbour’s categories of conflict, independence, dialogue and integration.
Conflict is unanimously rejected amongst proponents of TE. It results in the complete dominance of one discipline over another, rubbishing the harmony theistic evolutionists seek. Choosing the claims of science over theology leads to atheism; antithetical to the theistic beliefs held. Choosing the claims of faith over science leads to creationism (YEC); antithetical to the scientific sensibilities held. Conflict of science and theology is therefore not plausible for TE.
Independence is a position held by some and was most notably termed NOMA by Stephen Jay Gould. Placing the two disciplines in separate compartments is an ostensibly wise tactic, until claims are made by each side which address the same issue, ruining the illusion.
Dialogue is a more tenable position, often termed POMA – partially overlapping magisterium. For the theistic evolutionist science and theology can inform each other. Religion must listen to what science tells us about the physical world; science is offered a deeper, more personal account of reality in which its findings have a home.
Integration attempts a greater merging of science and theology. Normally one of the disciplines is accommodated by the other, potentially threatening its explanatory power. In practice this often results in the obsequiousness of theology to science due to its power in explaining natural phenomena so acutely; theology had no similar boast.
I hope I have clarified some issue of difference amongst Christians who accept the ‘theistic evolutionist’ label whilst highlighting some key common ground. I have quite possibly missed out some key views (I know I glossed over some orthodox views of God’s action almost to the point of omitting them) and may have misrepresented or not done justice to some positions. I apologise if I have done so and will happily accept correction or addition.
I’d like you to carefully drop any preconceptions that you might have about T-E and attempt to see things this way yourself (however briefly) as though trying on new shoes. Evolution must be taken as given for this to work so I will waste no time presenting evidence.
First of all, what is theistic evolution? The simplest way I have seen this stated is as ‘science and faith in harmony’, a definition which rings true for me personally. Another way to state it is that God created and continues to create through the processes which science uncovers and that the concept of a creator God is not at conflict with these findings. For the Christian theistic evolutionist this extends to the Bible, stating that it is not at odds with the theory of evolution.
Upon hearing the concept of theistic evolution many reject it outright or are confused as to what it is. One simple possible reason for confusion is the name ‘theistic evolution’ as the word ‘theist’ may even be new to those unfamiliar with theology. It can also appear to be a pious gloss on the theory of evolution and sound like the theistic aspect is secondary to the evolution aspect, thereby being distasteful to many Christians.
Alternatives have often been as misleading or confusing; evolutionary theism conjures odd thoughts; crevolution sounds daft; evolutionary creationism seems like an oxymoron to many; intelligent creation, despite being used by the Pope, gets too easily muddled with intelligent design; and Biologos, proposed by Francis Collins (who led the Human Genome Project) simply never caught on.
Other issues include the fact that harmony is often ignored in favour of conflict and the fact that with TE there is a range of beliefs, from those close to ID to those which appear more deistic.
A key issue which needs clearing up in order to fully understand where theistic evolutionists are coming from is the issue of ‘fence-sitting’. For the theistic evolutionist there simply are no fences. Instead we see two truths – God and evolution – and refuse to compartmentalise them or reject one for the other. There is only one truth and both are part of it, like overlapping circles in a Venn diagram (though one could argue that God is the paper on which the diagram is drawn and that the circle representing God is really representative of our limited understanding of Him). What we believe we are achieving is not the unholy marriage of two separate, incompatible entities; it is creating a valid image of reality, rejecting compartmentalisation as this is a human construct, the compartments do not really exist and we acknowledge this.
Before I address Scripture I will entertain one more tangent – how widespread is Christian theistic evolution? It is hard to truly discern, as many Christians have never given it any thought and even fewer understand evolution properly. Nonetheless many denominations have made it clear that they have no issue with the theory of evolution. Most prominent is Catholicism, which addressed the issue in a Papal encyclical in 1950, followed by Pope John Paul II accepting it as ‘more than a theory’ in 1996. The Anglican Church has long held a position that it is acceptable to embrace the theory of evolution and much of the Orthodox Church is the same.
It is more difficult to discern what the less hierarchical denominations which arose in
A problem perhaps is that many theologians are not qualified to speak authoritatively on something which includes a lot of science. Similarly, although it is the most widespread belief among Christian scientists, many do not feel qualified to address theological issues. I am resisting temptation to list them here.
The first place anyone attempting to study doctrine of creation is obviously Genesis. Theistic evolutionists do not reject the Genesis creation story, only certain interpretations of it. Genesis creation is read as the reason for creation, not a blow-by-blow account of what happened. We read the accounts as many religious traditions have, as stories of ‘origins’ as a means for disclosing ‘essences’. We learn of our relationship with God, of the nature of mankind, the nature of sin and our responsibilities as created beings; spiritual truths which are difficult to convey literally, instead expressed in an evocative and spiritually fruitful manner. Whether you believe God wrote the Bible or man did, allegory is always a possibility.
Right at the start, in Genesis 1, we find those words ‘In the beginning…’ and are immediately given the idea that God is the starting point of creation – the origin of all we see. Many read Gen 1.2, where the Spirit of God moved over the waters and find the waters, the Great Deep, to be a symbol of chaos, a theme found in other mythologies and the Bible (Psalm 74.13 has hints). This suggests that God brought order forth out of chaos; chaos holds no power over Him and can in fact be used by Him for greater good. This position is consistent with the world which scientific discovery presents, one in which unpredictable events at one level bring order at another.
Taken as a whole (as this is not intended as a thorough exegesis) Genesis 1 presents us with a God responsible for creating. It shows that there is intent in creation (a metaphysical claim on which evolutionary theory cannot comment) and that it has order to it. It shows that mankind has a special place in creation and that it is entrusted to us to use and to fill. We see that God is pleased with creation and we see that there is interdependence in nature – something modern science confirms (see the Gaia views of James Lovelock for example). None of these interpretations are influenced by an understanding of evolution and all are compatible with it.
One issue raised by many which stems from Gen 1:26 is that God created humankind in ‘his image’, ‘how can this be reconciled with evolution which states that we have the same evolutionary origins as other life forms?’ they may ask. The answer is simple, John 4:24 states “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” We see His ‘image’, His ‘likeness’ as spiritual, which can mean many things. It can mean that we have been chosen out of all creation by God, perhaps endowed with a soul, given a connection to God which could only have been forged by the Creator Himself. To many it speaks of our sentient attributes which set us apart from other animals and enable us to commune with God; our ability to think abstractly and our morals for example. Some see it as giving us responsibilities which were previously God’s, such as our role in having power over creation, perhaps even as co-creators. All of these stay true to the statement that we are in His image, and all are compatible with evolutionary theory.
The second creation story expands on some of the themes found in Gen 1 whilst presenting some new concepts. Again we are shown an interdependent creation over which we have responsibility. Further to this we find that humankind is of one flesh and are here for mutual aid. The second story also presents the tree of knowledge, symbolising the ability to choose obedience to God. One of the brothers of the Taizé community summed up the story of the tree of knowledge by saying, “Today this story still speaks to us about trust in god as the source of life, about mistrust and suspicion leading to a break with God and to division among human beings.” With this in mind both Genesis 2 and 3 become powerfully symbolic of our egoistic nature and tendency to choose our own ways over God, the source of life. It symbolises our ability to choose or deny what God puts in front of us, ultimately to follow or deny Him.
The creation stories have presented us with the concept of man as both material and capable of being raised to the spiritual in a relationship forged out of love. A reading compatible with evolution, fully embracing the spiritual messages, taking the text as a whole. But talk of creation does not end with Genesis, so whilst I move on to other issues I will try to refer to other areas of Scripture.
The most common issues raised are admittedly difficult to address and centre around one thing in particular: death. Evolution undeniably uses death constructively and many see conflict with the declaration in Romans 5:12 that death is the result of sin which came into the world through one man. Approaching these issues is not easy and as death can be a personal topic I may not satisfy with my responses, but I will try.
The book of the Wisdom of Solomon (perhaps ironically) captures the view many Christians have of death, “because God made not death; neither delighteth he when the living perish: for he created all things that they might have being: and the generative powers of the world are healthsome, and there is no poison of destruction in them”. Yet evolution presents a world in which the creation of life utilises the process of death; death is indeed a requirement for the process of evolution to take place. One response to this is to perhaps try to diminish the emphasis of death as inherently bad, pointing to the relativity of death and the fact that many of us take great pleasure in consuming the flesh of once living animals. A better approach may be to view creation holistically to see what sense we can make of death.
If we take creation as a whole, as a creation from which we evolved and emerged, we can start to see where death enters the picture for a theistic evolutionist. We are free beings, able to do both good and evil, able to act according to our nature and will. If we emerged from creation it is no stretch to suggest that all of creation has such freedom even if it is lacking sentience and will. This view of creation is dynamic and free, where the processes which bring forth life also bring death. There is a line of thought here in which conflict and destruction are essential to development, that striving against struggles can achieve excellence. This indeed may possibly be perceived as very good.
This view becomes more complete when we look elsewhere in the Bible; in the book of Job and when we look at Christ, for it was often said that nothing in creation is comprehensible outside of Christ. Within the book of Job we find that God’s primary intention was not suffering for Job, but that He gives Satan permission to act. In Isaiah 45:7 we even find this statement from God, “I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe, I the LORD do all these things.” It is in the new creation, of which Christi is the first (
The second ‘death’ issue that is frequently brought against evolution is the concept of death being the result of sin and not preceding it. This requires a very different line of thought to that of the average literalist. A way to approach this problem is to acknowledge that there are at least two types of death – the biological and the spiritual. Spiritual death can be seen in two senses; in one sense it could mean Hell and the second death, though this may be seen as inconsistent with ancient Hebrew thought (though in line with being brought about by sin). In the second sense it is a turning from God’s ways, a rejection of the source of life; this sort of death is not instantaneous and is certainly the result of sin.
Whilst spiritual and biological death are logically separable, they are not so in our experiences. We must therefore keep in mind that those first in God’s image had not experienced spiritual death until they sinned and that biological death is in our nature, much as sin is. A more optimistic view of death may be necessary to accompany this understanding of spiritual and biological death, which St. Francis of
Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death,
From whom no one living can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin.
Blessed are those whom death will find in Your most holy will,
For the second death shall do them no harm.
Another issue often raised is based on what may be seen as catchphrases or slogans of evolution, “survival of the fittest” or “nature red in tooth and claw” how can these possibly be reconciled with a God of love? Many view these statements as the entire view of evolution, but this is not so. Firstly, ‘fittest’ does not mean strongest and toughest, but instead ‘best suited to the current environment’ which can often mean being smaller and better at hiding. Biologist Joan Roughgarden prefers to rename ‘natural selection’, which overemphasises competition, to ‘natural breeding’, removing the negative connotations. She is also one of many who emphasise the many non-competitive aspects of evolution. There are abundant examples of cooperation taking precedence over competition and some major steps in evolution have taken place because of it. Key examples include the bacterial swapping of genes; the endosymbiosis which resulted in the origin of eukaryotic cells; the evolution of multicellularity, requiring several individuals to act as one unit; right through to the interdependent ecosystems we see today. Cooperation is not the exception to the rule in evolution yet tends to be underemphasised. The presence of competition leads us back to the concept of struggles leading to excellence.
Is evolution too random for God to use? It is no more random than the events of history, which often hinged on particular individual acts and choices, history would often be vastly rewritten if a small outcome was altered. Most Christians would accept this premise without seeing God’s will as hindered; the same should apply to evolutionary contingency. An example closer to home is our own life; if my parents did not meet, or met under different circumstances, I may not exist. My father produced billions of sperm with different gene combinations, yet I am the product of just one of them. We readily acknowledge this randomness yet reconcile it with ease to our view of God having a plan.
Many prominent atheists declare evolution as supporting the absence of God. They claim that if God exists He has been reduced to the periphery, doing nothing more than setting the ball rolling. The most obvious response to this is that there is the spiritual creative act when we are made in His image and the various interventions, not least coming as Christ, but this view leaves God absent for 13 billion years, and so needs expanding upon. One problem is an overemphasis on God’s transcendence and intervention, a very limited view of God’s action. God is indeed transcendent, but He is also immanent, present in all creation. God does indeed intervene, but this view is limited to particular events, we should instead expand this and state that God interacts with creation. This expanded view of God’s presence and action allows us to think of God’s love and will being continually expressed through natural processes and not confined to specific events.
Uniting this view with evolution brings forth the Biblical concept of creation continua and is consistent with God’s timeless sustaining, with all life hanging on His creative word. Evolution is ongoing and “The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth, He does not faint or grow weary” (Isaiah 40.28). The two concepts appear to go well. We can look to Psalm 104, verses 29-30 for more insight, “When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.”
However, there is an aspect of ‘absence’ in this view. God allows creation to be truly ‘other’, to function in a material fashion, to have enough independence to truly be free. It is being allowed to make itself, to explore God-given fruitfulness, discovering its potentialities. There is an open-ness where God is in control yet allows for ‘improvisation’. This is a kenotic act of self-limitation – a loving gift of freedom to all creation.
One view of continuing creation was espoused by none other than Ronald A. Fisher, one of the most important evolutionary biologists of the 20th century. “To the traditionally religious man, the essential novelty introduced by the theory of the evolution of organic life, is that creation was not all finished a while ago, but is still in progress, in the midst of an incredible duration. In the language of Genesis we are living in the sixth day, probably rather early in the morning, and the Divine Artist has not yet stood back from his work, and declared it to be “very good.” Perhaps that can only be when God’s very imperfect image has become more competent to manage the affairs of the planet of which he is in control.”
Two final issues to clarify (though there are of course more, one’s work is never done) can be dealt with briefly. The first is the concept that evolution presents a world without meaning. This is an atheistic metaphysical claim which does not deny us the justification to do the opposite and claim that there it meaning from God’s desires. The other is the Biblical concept of reproducing after the ‘kind’, which many see as at odds with evolution. This is a misconception which flies in the face of cladistics where the daughter clade is always a part of the parent clade.
With some major issues out of the way can we enrich our Christian worldview with an understanding of evolution? As we have already seen, embracing evolution can be fruitful; it has aided theodicy by explaining naturally occurring ‘evil’ (the processes which create diversity also create disease), if our freedom is applied to all creation; it provides an interplay of cooperation and struggle – necessary for growth and understanding; and it has expanded our view of God’s continuing creative act, His eternal sustaining, and His Divine letting be of a self-perpetuating creation.
We may add to this that our material connection through the evolutionary tree of life expands the body of Christ to all of living creation. This takes us back to the interdependence of all life and points forward to the new creation, where all of creation is preserved. It brings forth the possibility that we are to treat creation how men should treat their wives as in Ephesians 5.28-30. Evolution enriches our role of ‘stewards’ or ‘priests’ of creation, a role not to be taken lightly for God deemed it ‘good’.
To round of this discussion of evolution’s compatibility with Scripture I will turn to something which needs repeating every time this subject arises. The principles of chance and necessity in evolution are valuable principles in a Christian worldview. A God of love gives His creation freedom to explore possibilities, as is shown in the evolutionary principle of chance (the happenstance of mutation). A reliable God gives His creation order and has desire for creation, as is shown in the evolutionary principle of necessity (provided by an orderly universe, physical constraints and of course natural selection). We believe God is both loving and reliable, so what better way to create?
Hopefully I have given insight into the compatibility of the theory of evolution and a Scripture based Christianity. I have barely scratched the surface and many points could be expanded on enormously, but I feel I have covered enough ‘bases’ to begin to remove any doubts and misconceptions about this harmony which is sadly seen as unholy to many.