Monday 29 June 2009

Rescuing Darwin

[A version of this article was first published in eg 22 (June 2009), a publication of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.]

My wife is adamant we first met outside the laundry at college, whereas I know it was outside the Italian restaurant on Green Lane. Of course, our disagreement on this point is friendly and poses no threat to our relationship; somewhat ironically, it’s even a source of celebration, since what really matters to both of us is that we met, not how we met. Likewise, where there are disagreements in the Christian family – over spiritual gifts, the end of the world, the nature of church leadership – it’s crucial to remember what unites us rather than stumble over matters of secondary importance.

2009 sees the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species. The milestones have provoked considerable discussion in the press, books, and TV – with many pundits giving the impression that religion (and Christianity is usually in the line of sight) is either under threat or has already been made redundant. It has also provided an opportunity for Christians to engage with others on the topic, to reflect together on what’s at stake and what’s not at stake, and remind ourselves that we have too much invested in our relationship with each other, not to mention with our Creator God, to trip up on this dispute.

As part of a larger project on Darwin, Nick Spencer of Theos (a public theology think tank) and Denis Alexander of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion have written a report – Rescuing Darwin: God and Evolution in Britain Today – in which they seek to argue that Darwinian evolution does not necessitate atheism, and that Christianity and evolution are compatible. In ‘rescuing’ Darwin from what they see as false charges, their report prompts reflection on four related areas.

The significance of Darwin
The report plots Darwin’s faith from before the Beagle expedition to the publication of Origin and beyond, and his struggles with suffering (not least personally, with the death of his eldest daughter). Although he had lost whatever Christian faith he had by the time he wrote Origin, and became an agnostic towards the end of his life, he rejected the view that evolution entails atheism. Moreover, the initial reception of his theory, though not without criticism, was generally positive, and was accepted even by leading Christian thinkers – scientists and theologians – who did not see it as a threat to faith.

Disciples of Darwin are not always faithful to him in this respect when they argue that evolution essentially equates with atheism; Darwin would not have agreed with them. When faced with the choice of ‘creation or evolution’, many Christians feel compelled to say ‘creation’, and don’t question whether they might have been subjected to a false antithesis of the ‘Who do you love – your husband or your son?’ sort.

Part of the problem is that Darwinism has been encountered wearing various philosophical, social or political outfits. Darwin himself has been hijacked for views in which humans are merely machines or collections of chemicals, accidents of a random process, subject to blind forces, with morality reduced to self-interest. It should come as no surprise that it’s not just Christians who have problems with this kind of ‘hard’ Darwinism propounded by Richard Dawkins and his ilk. According to the report, none of this reflects Darwin’s own position.

The interpretation of Scripture
The report includes a helpful section on Scripture, showing that many of the early church fathers exercised considerable flexibility in their reading of the opening chapters of Genesis, and that figurative readings have continued through church history. Even theologically conservative scholars embraced a range of opinions on the issue of evolution. B.B. Warfield (still highly esteemed and appealed to by supporters of biblical inerrancy) was happy to accept that God had guided the process, stating: ‘I do not think that there is any general statement in the Bible or any part of the account of creation, either as given in Genesis 1 and 2 or elsewhere alluded to, that need be opposed to evolution.’ Warfield’s high view of Scripture was not stymied by the possibility of evolution.

Faithfulness to Scripture requires reading it in appropriate ways. When biblical writers speak of the earth not moving (Psalm 93:1; 96:10; 104:5), we understand that has to do with God’s oversight rather than physical immovability. Interpretations of such references as evidence that the earth is at the centre of the universe, though sincerely and strongly held, were misinformed. That we now know this does not cast doubt on the authority of Scripture, but reminds us to be wise readers of it, open to correction by greater light.

We do less than justice to Genesis 1 if we make the category mistake of reading it as one thing rather than another. This may mean recognising it has been shaped as a piece of literature to show how God first forms the world (on days 1-3) and then fills the world (on days 4-6). Moreover, in its context, it engages with alternative worldviews to inculcate a particular view of God, the world, and the place of human beings in it. That it is not a scientific account of origins does not make it inferior or any less truthful. Again, none of this is to deny the inspiration of the account; it is to ask what kind of inspired account we are reading.

The nature of science
The rise of modern science was nursed in the arms of a Christian worldview. Although it has become a victim of the sacred-secular divide, science and religion need not be seen as rival descriptions of the way the world works. Christians may work in science, as elsewhere, serving Christ through their research, seeing it as part of their discipleship to explore God’s world on behalf of others. Christians need not fear careful, honest scientific investigation, and we all benefit from its results. But we also recognise the limits of science – that where it might be helpful in answering the ‘how’ questions, it might not be the most appropriate place to look for answers to the ‘why’ questions, particularly if those questions relate to ultimate issues of identity, purpose and hope.

Christians of all people should know that human experience is larger than science alone can describe, and will be cautious of scientism, where science itself becomes a belief system, where evolution is elevated from a theory (albeit in the technical sense of a coherent, well-ordered model that explains some part of the natural world) to an all-encompassing worldview.

The report maintains that we do not have to choose between ‘creation’ or ‘evolution’, since the two words describe different but complementary levels of discourse. Just as the Christian historian may acknowledge the ‘natural’ cause of an event in history and not thereby deny God’s providential oversight of history, so the Christian scientist might affirm God’s sovereignty in evolutionary history. The one form of explanation is complemented and completed, not necessarily contradicted, by other forms of explanation.

The doctrine of creation
Of course, significant questions about evolution remain, not least from a Christian perspective. The authors of the report try to answer charges that evolution is too wasteful, depends on chance, and involves suffering and death – arguing that these aren’t as problematic as has sometimes been claimed. But issues like this rightly stay on the agenda for debate.

Christians will want to set that discussion in a wider context of an affirmation that creation is not an accident of nature, but an act of God the Creator (however the mechanism of creation is understood). Along with creation goes an understanding of God’s providence, that he is the one who oversees and directs the created order. From a broader biblical perspective, creation and providence are not so much a claim about the processes by which the universe came into being, and more a claim about how everything depends on God, and of his commitment to restore it when it goes awry. It reminds us that though we are creatures of the earth, we are made in his image, and thus live differently in the world and in relation with others as a result. And reflection on creation leads us, as it does throughout Scripture, to praise and worship of our great God.

Further reading

Denis Alexander, God and Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? (Oxford: Monarch, 2008).
A sustained case for a complementary reading of the ‘book’ of God’s word and the ‘book’ of God’s works.

R.J. Berry and T.A. Noble (eds.), Darwin, Creation and the Fall: Theological Challenges (Nottingham: Apollos, 2009).
A collection of essays from key scholars exploring the interface between science and theology.

C. John Collins, Genesis 1-4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2006).
A careful and reverent exposition of Genesis 1-4.

Daniel M. Harrell, Nature’s Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith (Nashville: Abingdon, 2008).
An engaging study of how we might rethink our theology and what the Bible says if evolution accurately describes how life came about.

Andrew S. Kulikovsky, Creation, Fall, Restoration: A Biblical Theology of Creation (Fearn: Mentor, 2009).
An interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis as a ‘straightforward historical account of the creation of the universe’.

Ernest Lucas, Can We Believe Genesis Today? The Bible and the Questions of Science, 3rd edn. (Leicester: IVP, 2005).
Very helpful on issues of interpreting the early chapters of Genesis.

Mark Pallen, The Rough Guide to Evolution (London: Rough Guides, 2009).
An accessible, well-illustrated treatment from a secular, scientific perspective.

Nick Spencer, Darwin and God (London: SPCK, 2009).
Seeks to clear misconceptions about Darwin’s religious views by telling Darwin’s story, drawing on his autobiography as well as manuscripts, notebooks and letters.

David Wilkinson, The Message of Creation (Leicester: IVP, 2002).
Reflection on biblical passages looking at the beginning of creation, the songs of creation, the Lord of creation, the lessons of creation, and the fulfilment of creation.

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