17 November 2007

Belief, evolution, evil, and me

My recent post on the so-called problem of evil has generated some interesting comments that are worth addressing in a separate post. The comments raise questions of a somewhat personal nature, but because I write as a Christian, I think the issues are fair game.

One commenter, Ron, addresses the "compatibility" of God and suffering, and reads Scott Carson to be claiming that we must either blame humans for the whole mess, or dismiss suffering as unimportant since "the body is just a physical shell." I think Scott's answer is bigger than that, and would point Ron to some of Scott's more recent articles, but Ron's remarks do raise the question of what I think of suffering and the "problem of evil."

And Paul wonders why I believe any of Christianity, after correctly noting that I don't think that evolution or the problem of evil poses "a threat to Christians."

First evolution (i.e., common descent, and specifically shared ancestry between humans and other creatures). In my view, evolution as a scientific explanation is no more a threat to Christian belief than any other scientific explanation. (My favorite comparisons would involve embryonic development, where natural explanation is ubiquitous, largely uncontroversial, and contradicted by certain readings of certain biblical passages.) If evolution is a special problem for Christians, the problem is not in the explanation, but in the historical narrative. I don't consider that a "threat" to Christian belief, but I do think it's a problem worth working on. Perhaps by the end of this post it will be clear why I'm not threatened by the historical narrative issue.

Let me explain a little more about why I think evolutionary theory is no different from other science in its potential to undermine belief. Science, to me, is the rational exploration of God's creation. This ongoing exploration has enabled humans to assemble reliable explanations for innumerable phenomena of interest: sunrise and sunset, moonlight, weather, growth and development of plants and animals, causation of various diseases. Some of these are phenomena for which biblical writers offered "explanations" that are either incorrect (on a plain reading) or are not natural explanations at all. In my view, various "scientific" accounts in the Bible are easily seen to be folk science or, more generously, what John Calvin called "accommodation." This fact about scripture was known to many Christians long before anyone even dreamed of an ancient earth or common descent. Evolution came very late to that game, and it seems to me that those who claim to reject faith upon reading in Genesis about the "two great lights" in "the vault of the sky" are on better footing than those who reject Christianity because evolution falsifies "each according to its kind."

Furthermore, in case this isn't already obvious, I reject any implication that natural explanation even addresses divine action or agency. Psalms 104 and 139 famously deal with biological phenomena of great interest to biologists, including predation and human embryonic development, and assign causation to God using some of the same Hebrew words used in more fantastic contexts in Genesis. More to the point, Paul in Colossians 1 seems to identify Christ as the source of essentially all natural causation: "For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together." And so I find distinctions between natural and supernatural causation to be pedantic at best, dangerous at worst. God works in the world. I'm curious about how he does it, and I happen to believe that much of this work can be understood.

The problem with evolution, as I've noted before, is that the history of human sin (i.e., the fall) does not fit clearly as a historical narrative. And while I concede that this is a problem, I don't see how it's a deal-breaker for Christian belief (or for my belief, anyway). Before I explain why, let me turn to the problem of evil.

It seems to me that the problem of evil, as typically presented, reduces to something like this: "If I were God, I would do X. God doesn't do X. This is a problem."

Don't like that paraphrase? How about this one: "God must be good. If he's good, he should do good things. And he should stop bad things. I have determined that he doesn't always do good things and/or stop bad things. This is a problem."

I haven't written the problem in those ways so that I can convince unbelievers that the problem is silly or that they are stupid for wrestling with it. I wrote it like that to illustrate how I, as a believer, see the "problem." My faith doesn't start with moral reasoning or other judgments and end with God, like this: "I have determined that God does good things, therefore I will believe in Him." Indeed, that kind of talk is antithetical to my Reformed perspective. I start with my belief. I start with an act of grace, leading to belief. I start with God: "completely wise, just, and good" as the Belgic Confession puts it. And, noting that biblical authors -- and Jesus himself -- did not seem to fret about the "problem of evil," I conclude that the existence of suffering is, in fact, "compatible" with God's character and existence. The alternative, that I would judge God's actions, is an absurdity to me as a believer.

And this leads me to Paul's question: why do I believe? He offers me these choices: "Do you believe it because you are convinced by some reasoning or does it just resonate with you?" It's not the former, so I guess it's the "resonate" thing. I can't really say why I believe; I attribute my faith to an act of God himself, in good Calvinist fashion. But I can offer this additional observation regarding "what makes me tick": I see my faith and my reading of scripture as radiating out from the life of Jesus. His incarnation, life, death, and ascension are The Story. I don't start at the beginning, with the ancient Near Eastern cosmology, then work my way through till I get to Pentecost. I really do focus on Jesus, the Alpha and the Omega.

As I explained before, my emphasis on Christ's preeminence makes the academic issue of Adam's actual home address a mere curiosity. And natural evil? Well, among other things, his incarnation accomplished this: he didn't make our suffering go away; he entered into it with us. That might not be what I "want," or what I would do, but it's so very different from the sterile Hobson's choice that standard "problem of evil" formulations present.

All right, sorry that went on so long. My intent was to be open about my belief, and the perspectives that underlie my thoughts on this blog. Now back to some hard science.

Please review my Rules and policies before posting a comment. Note that comments are closed after a month. If you would like to get in touch with me, visit the About page for contact details, including an anonymous comment form that works all the time.

blog comments powered by Disqus