Thursday, February 12, 2009

happy birthday Charles Darwin!


This year—today in fact—marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. (Today’s also Abraham Lincoln’s and The Ring Community Church’s birthdays!) On top of Darwin’s own birth, this year also marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of his On the Origin of Species. Needless to say, this is a big year in the world of Darwinism—you may have noticed the emphasis on him lately in periodicals like Scientific American and National Geographic reflecting that.

If you’ve been reading wardrobe for a while, then you might have seen my previous posts on these topics… if you haven’t, then check out "Augustine, science, and truth" and "And this is your opinion of me?" They cover different aspects of the topic and lay out my views on all of this pretty clearly.
Still, I can’t help but revisit the topic one last time today, and maybe this can be my ‘last word.’

When people ask me what my opinion of Evolution is, I always start like this: “I’m not a science person. I’m just not that good at it. So when it comes to evaluating scientic theories, I always defer to the judgments of the experts. They know this stuff infinitely better than I do.”
That seems like common sense to me… yet, not surprisingly, some people don’t take it well.
Once we move into the area of looking at scripture, I start to have an opinion.

on the one hand
This discussion is not about what scripture says. That’s easy: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth;” “through Him all things were made, and without Him nothing was made that was made.”
This discussion is about how we want to interpret what scripture says. If you want to disagree, because you know that the literal reading is the only way to go, then I’d ask you where you got the idea that the bread and wine only represent Jesus’s body and blood. Because the Word that spoke all things into existence doesn’t say anything about “represents”, He says “is.”
How we want to interpret what scripture says is the question.

Scripture itself only gives us so much guidance on how to interpret scripture. Yes, Paul does advocate the use of allegorical interpretation in Galatians 4. This is what the 3rd century theologian Origen grabs onto when he suggests of the accounts of Genesis 1-3 that: "these are figurative expressions which indicate certain mysteries through a semblance of history and not through actual events."
You have to keep in mind, though, that Paul doesn’t seem to be talking specifically about an ‘allegorical-at-the-expense-of-literal’ reading.

Jesus gives us another, more important, insight into how scripture can be interpreted. When he walked the Emmaus road with two disciples in John 24, Jesus “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” All of the scriptures are going to testify about Christ. (As Father Stephen at Glory to God for All Things recently noted, "it is... true that within the writings of the Fathers there can be a variety of opinion on a number of Scriptural matters. The essential agreement is their testimony to Christ. Genesis is about Christ. Exodus is about Christ, and so forth." Read any other way, he says, and the scripture will just be 'interesting books.')

Beyond this, however, we’re left with very little guidance in scripture on interpreting scripture... it certainly doesn't say anywhere that we must read it all literally. 
What we do have are the Holy Spirit of God who will lead us into all truth and our own faculties.

on the other hand
Interestingly, it seems that a similar misunderstanding is taking place on the other end of this controversy, with the sciences.

The real problem with Darwinism is not in the conclusions that the scientists are drawing about the agents of natural selection or the time that this has taken.
Rather, the problem is non-scientific, philosophical assumptions that some are making. They see the evidence amassing for their theory and they say “Aha! Finally! Evolution has proved that there is no God!”
This thought simply doesn’t make any sense.

Science draws conclusions through models, experimentation, and observation of evidence (you know, the scientific method?)... and all of this applied to natural phenomena. There are several popular mistakes which ignore this simple reality.
One is that we see scientists—or at least this is the popular conception—who, when faced with a lack of evidence for some kind of god, conclude that (and this is all labeled as ‘Science concludes that’) there is no god. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of and abuse of the scientific method: science draws conclusions based on evidence, NOT on a lack thereof. There would have to be evidence against a god’s existing, not just a lack of evidence for it before science could have a say. Thankfully (I suppose we count our blessings here), men like Richard Dawkins understand this: he admits that there may be some ‘god’ out there, he simply rejects all of the prominent monotheistic conceptions of it and assumes the title “atheist.” Many, however, would not join in Dawkins’s admission.

Another great misconception here concerns the Judeo-Christian God Himself.
Again, science investigates natural phenomena… and our God is supernatural. He is not a part of creation, available for experimentation and observation. He is outside of creation, somehow giving being to everything that is (Acts 17:28). Science simply cannot weigh on such a Being. There is no common ground from which science may work—excepting miracles, which cannot be repeated and observed, and the Incarnation of Jesus, who has now ascended into Heaven. (John Polkinghorne, a respected particle physicist and an Anglican priest, has written pretty extensively on scientific understandings of such things.)
When scientists begin to advocate materialism--that is, the idea that nothing exists except observable matter and its movements and modifications--they have stopped speaking as scientists and begun to speak as philosophers.

While Dawkins might be commended on some grounds, he and his ilk have by and large contributed to this popular myth, not only that the Christian God and science are waging war on each other, but also just that science can say anything about this God. 

I'm afraid the two most vocal members of this debate both need to stop talking and readdress some basics.

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As Alister McGrath noted in his Christianity’s Dangerous Idea, a history of Protestantism, there have always been important Protestant positions accommodating natural selection—for example, J. I. Packer didn’t see that anything “in the first chapters of Genesis or elsewhere, bears on the biological theory of evolution one way or the other”—yet, McGrath goes on, “Creationist writers have attempted to suppress or dismiss this prominent section of the evangelical movement, often insisting that an openly anti-evolution stance is an essential element of evangelical identity.” 
Unfortunately, I think that this has proven, far and away, to be the loudest voice among all those in evangelicalism who have something to say about Darwin.
Ultimately this stance results in an estrangement between said evangelicals and the scientific community. This is a very dangerous position for the church to find itself in. As a Roman Catholic Cardinal, Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, recently wrote in the Times: "One of the things that mars our culture is the fracture between faith and science. It impoverishes our inquiry into the realities that make up our life and world." A perfectly legitimate source of almost limitless knowledge on God’s creation is being unnecessarily discounted because a very vocal and driven movement has decided to cling to one particular interpretation of Genesis… and as the sciences’ position becomes more clearly broadcast, a disillusionment with the scriptures and the church, from within and without, ensues. This is precisely what Saint Augustine hoped to avoid when he wrote in On the Literal Meaning of Genesis (a book defending the literal interpretation): 
Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scriptures, talking nonsense on these [scientific] topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is... that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?
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I appreciate the Creationist’s intentions. I really do. 
They want to take scripture seriously. There’s nothing more central to the heart of their arguments than that. Well Origen took scripture seriously too—heck, after he read Matthew 19:12, he castrated himself. C. S. Lewis and J. I. Packer took scripture seriously. And I take scripture seriously too… which is precisely why I cannot support Creationism. 
Instead, the scripture needs a new kind of defender: that person who will defend the reputation of the Bible from the detractors that Creationism—granted, just one among many ideas the world will attack, and one of the few that is rightly attacked—has been collecting for us. The world will not take such a Bible as theirs seriously, nor will they take seriously the historical gospel message of our Lord that is rooted in the scripture. The Church cannot lose these battles for diverting all of our resources to another front that is best abandoned anyways. (I just recently recognized the tremendous blessing of people like Francis Collins, who are out in the world battling the mistakes of a Richard Dawkins, yet without neglecting all the truths that the sciences having been pointing us towards.)
We have to calmly, reasonably, and faithfully exegete the scriptures and take that message--which in the end is only ever the message of Jesus Christ, whose life, death and resurrection can restore life to all of the broken, fallen images of God roaming this planet--to the world. This is the hill we ought to die on, and the message that the world ought to hate us for. 
Every other topic is a footnote to the gospel, to God's great reconciling work. So, while "in matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision, even in such as we may find treated in Holy Scripture, different interpretations are sometimes possible without prejudice to the faith we have received", our banner must not be about 6 days or (God forbid) humans riding dinosaurs, but that "in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep."

Oh yeah, and happy birthday, Mr. Darwin. 

2 comments:

Bill said...

I am pleased that you hold this view, Nance. It's a curious matter to me that the church has set itself up in direct opposition to Evolution; strange that that it professes that a belief in God and a belief in that theory are mutually exclusive.

It's always reminiscent to me of the fall of the geocentric model of the universe, a scientific viewpoint that the church attached itself to and was found to be erroneous.

As you said so well, it is also interesting to see proponents of Evolution hailing the theory as a proof of the UNexistence of God, which, as you pointed out, is simply not scientific. All this smacks of scientists and Christians reinforcing their previously held beliefs with questionable research practices.

Stephen Hawking, on the subject of God, has allegedly said that he knows enough to know that he doesn't know enough to know.

Anonymous said...

There are even Christian professors at Wheaton College, the school where Rev. Billy Graham received his BA in Anthropology, who accept evolutionary creation. They believe that God the Father spoke and Jesus used evolution to create. It was not a mindless task as Darwin believed.

Charles E. Miller, Jr. BA, MA