23 October 2008

How evolution can inspire faith

It is understandably typical for Christians to consider evolution as something that confronts and challenges faith. To say that North American evangelicals consider evolution to be largely incompatible with Christian belief is to state the painfully obvious. An evangelical who will just admit that common descent might be true is a progressive thinker, and much of the current discussion is dominated by attempts to push back on evolution by suggesting that it really isn't a completely accurate – or even minimally accurate – description of the development of life in God's world. Almost certainly because of perceived "incompatibilities," evangelical theological reflection on the implications of various scientific conclusions, specifically with regard to biblical interpretation, is regularly decried as dangerously inadequate. (Consider Peter Enns' recent review of a new book on the age of the earth by two of my most excellent colleagues. HT: David Opderbeck.) In other words, many thinking evangelicals are concerned about the lack of serious evangelical engagement of evolutionary theory.

But help is on the way. I've already mentioned Gordon Glover's wonderful Beyond the Firmament (and I reviewed it for the forthcoming issue of the Reports of the NCSE). I haven't seen Denis Lamoureux's Evolutionary Creation yet, but if it's as good as Mike Beidler says, then the landscape is looking a lot less barren. And now we have a very significant new voice in the conversation: my friend Daniel Harrell, associate minister at Park Street Church in Boston, a brilliant reformed preacher and gifted thinker whose ministry had a profound impact on myself and my family at a critical juncture in our spiritual lives. Daniel has written an excellent and interesting book on evolution and Christianity, and I give it my highest possible recommendation.

It's called Nature's Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith, and you can buy it at Amazon or CBD right now. I read it a few months ago and blurbed it, and sometime in the next few months I hope to review it here. In the meantime, look for occasional comments and quotes. But for now, here's an excerpt from the Introduction, presented with permission from the publisher. In fact, this is the bulk of the Introduction, but the final paragraph is the paragraph I would have chosen to capture the essence of Daniel's approach and his project.
Walking across the Boston Common one cold winter’s eve, I was approached by a gentleman, somewhat agitated, who recognized me from church. “Are you the minister who’s writing the book on evolution?” This didn’t sound good. “Uh, ... yes?” I replied, bracing myself. “Do you believe in the word of God? Do you believe that God created the heavens and the earth in six days, like the Bible says?” His articulation was semiautomatic—as was his tone. I assured him that yes, I believed the Bible says that God created the heavens and the earth in six days. I also believe that rivers clap their hands and that mountains sing (Ps 98:9) because the Bible says that too. But I don’t think that the Bible means six twenty-four-hour days any more than I believe that the Bible means that rivers have literal hands. He worried that I suffered from delusion (which as far as I am concerned is never outside the realm of possibility). However, I reminded him that there are two types of delusion. There is the delusion that believes something that is not true, and there is the delusion that fails to believe something that is true. If evolution is an accurate description of the emergence of life, as science attests, then believing it alongside the Bible should pose no threat. There’s no need to fear any honest search for truth because in the end, all honest searches for truth inevitably lead back to God. Historically, religious faith, particularly Christianity, served as the loom onto which the discoveries of science were woven. It was within a Christian theological framework that scientific disclosure found its transcendent meaning. Descartes, Bacon, Galileo, Kepler and Newton, believers all, saw their work not as replacements for faith, but as extensions of it. The idea was that the best of science and the best of theology concerted to give human beings deeper insight into the workings of the universe and, subsequently, into the divine character. Scientific discovery was received with gratitude to the Almighty for the wonder of his creation. Scientists, alongside the psalmist, would proclaim, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Ps 19:1 NIV). The balance between faith and science (or reason) was established in the Middle Ages by Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas, building on Augustine, established a delicate equilibrium between theology (reasoning down from faith) and philosophy, analogous to science (reasoning up from sensory data). Aquinas, unlike the Reformers who would follow, taught that human senses and rational faculties, as made by God, were competent for understanding reality, albeit from a limited standpoint. The limits were filled in by theology. Aquinas asserted that God acted through “secondary causes,” creating the world according to his laws and then giving nature room to unfold in accordance with God’s laws. Whatever was good science was good as far as God is concerned; science simply described what God had already done. However, if God operated mostly behind the scenes as the prime cause, then it wasn’t long before people started wondering whether he was there at all. In time, reliance upon divine revelation gave way to human reason in its Enlightenment form, and soon the supernatural was rendered superfluous. As science advanced, Christians reacted by retreating into a sort of Manichean dualism whereby science was demonized and faith grew reliant on a super-supernatural world where any ordinary explanation raised suspicion. With battle lines so starkly drawn, scientists were left to assume that any move toward Christian faith was akin to committing intellectual suicide. Conversely, the faithful relied on science for their medicine or the weather forecast, but much more than that was to attempt spiritual suicide. Let a spark of evolution in the door and you were liable to catch the whole house on fire. The controversy between Christian faith and evolution is exacerbated by increasing mounds of scientific data that lend weight to evolution. Paleontology, biochemistry, cosmology, physics, genetics—you name the discipline—each regularly puts forth newly discovered evidence in support of Darwin’s simple idea of descent with modification. While some people of faith choose to keep their doors closed, shutting out science is not necessary. Christian faith by definition defies human conceptions of reality (1 Cor 3:19). Its claims are grounded in extraordinary events that defy scientific explanation (most importantly the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus). But God is not only present where science is silent; he remains present even where science speaks loudest. The expansiveness of the universe, the beauty and complexity of organic life and the remarkable makeup of human consciousness—naturally explicable occurrences—are also interpreted by Christians as manifestations of God (Rom 1:20). Christianity consistently asserts that all truth is God’s truth, implying that faith and science, despite differences when it comes to explaining why, nevertheless should agree in regard to what is. Why bother talking about God if God has no relation to observable reality? An avalanche of books has been devoted to the controversy between Christianity and evolution. Don’t expect a contribution to that debate here. There are plenty of other places where that conversation occurs. Instead, I’d like to look at Christian faith in the face of evolution as essentially true as most scientists assert. Now I know that just because a particular theory makes sense of the way something could have happened, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it actually happened that way. But if evolution truly provides an accurate description of life on earth, and things did happen the way evolution describes, how might we rethink the way we think about what the Bible says? To rethink what we think about the Bible is not to rewrite Scripture, nor is it to capitulate to Christianity’s detractors. Instead, rethinking and reworking our theology in light of accurate data results in a more dependable and resilient theology. To be a serious Christian is to seek truth and find it as revealed by God both in Scripture and in nature. If God is the maker of heaven and earth, as we believe, then the heavens and earth, as science describes them, have something to say about God. Natural selection need not imply godless selection. To be reliable witnesses of creation can’t help but make us more reliable witnesses to the Creator.
I hope you're intrigued. Go buy the book—you'll love it—then look for occasional conversations here about some of Daniel's ideas.

Steve Matheson, Calvin College


Unknown said...

Just added to my list of books to buy. Thanks for the recommendation.

John Farrell said...

Same here.

Btw, Steve, I for one who love to read more some day from you about that 'critical juncture in our spiritual lives.'


Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for the book mention, and the link to another. I'll check those two out.

Cliff Martin said...

Thank you for this introduction to a book that might hopefully lead us into the next stage of the discussion. Harrell is attempting to take the church beyond the origins debate to thinking about the wonderfully elegant confluence of Christian theology and evolution. My experience went like this. First, I became "open to the possibility" of Darwinism. Then, thinking suppositionally, I put the pieces of a Biblical Christian Evolution paradigm together. Finally, I was able to accept the overwhelming evidence for evolution, because I had already worked through the theology. If Harrell is successful in taking Christians through such a process, he will be far more successful than those of us who occasionally beat on the church with the club of evolution. That is, if any besides Evolutionary Creationists read it! Let us hope.

Anonymous said...

I am intrigued! Thank you for sharing. By the way, I have also read Gordon Glover's book "Beyond the Firmament" and highly recommend it as well.

Anonymous said...

There seems to be a missing image on Peter Enns' site where you link to his review, but if you scroll down the content is there.