Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Doubter's Guide to Faith (3): Darwin, Science versus Faith

Audio file for listening or download.

Psalm 8, excerpts (call to worship)
Ephesians 2:10 (kids)
Genesis 1:1 - 2:3 (message)

We are in the third week of our Doubter’s Guide to Faith. Our first week, we asked the question, “How can I KNOW?” and we used, alongside the Scripture, Blaise Pascal – the great philosopher, physicist, mathematician, and Christian mystic – as our tutor. Last week, we explored the experience of pain and the absence of God with John of the Cross and Mother Teresa. This week, science versus faith, with Charles Darwin. And, next week, we’ll examine evidence for faith.

One of the ancient symbols for the Christian faith is the fish. Drawn with two simple curves, it was a covert way to express a life of discipleship to Jesus in a culture that was violently opposed. Why a fish? It was an acrostic. The Greek letters for fish are the first letters of words to name Jesus, to begin prayer: Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.

In our contemporary setting, the symbol for Darwin has become a fish, with feet, just one of the missing links. And, in a humorous twist, sometimes this fish with feet is depicted swallowing the traditional Jesus fish. Alternatively, the Jesus fish is displayed swallowing the Darwin fish. Science versus faith. If you believe one, you cannot believe the other.

It’s a divisive subject. The room temperature goes up a few degrees in some of these conversations. It put York County on the map a few years ago, as the Dover School District added Intelligent Design (the latest version of Creationism) to their science program. And many uncharitable things are said and done, in the name of Jesus, by people on either side of the debate. That, to me, is most unfortunate. Jesus said that the world would know we are his disciples, not because we agree on the creation-evolution controversy but because we love one another (John 13.35).

As with the other questions we have addressed in this series, there is so much more we could talk about than we have time for. The message notes and audio will be posted online, and references will be included as well. If you want to take things further, you can pursue those references and feel free to stump me with good questions. I don’t have all the answers.

Why has this become so divisive a subject? The rhetoric is powerful. Richard Dawkins, biologist and author of The God Delusion, wrote, “Although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist” (The Blind Watchmaker, p 6, cited in Miller, p 14). Then, on the other side, there are those who dismiss evolution saying, “It’s only a theory” (see Miller, Finding, post script p 13). If you believe one, you can’t believe the other. At least, that’s what the rhetoric of the conflict would claim.

Let’s step back for a moment to Blaise Pascal and our opening question two weeks ago: How can we know? Pascal offered up three ways of knowing: doubt, reason, and faith. They are all quite effective, all very important, and – at least in Pascal’s opinion – all have their place. As followers of Jesus, we believe in resurrection, which – by scientific definition is both impossible and impossible to prove. Duh! If it is possible, it is not a God-thing! Science, however, must not simply be possible, it must also be disprovable. And to put our understanding of the Bible’s creation story into the disprovable category, as something that can be verified by the scientific method, does two unhelpful things. First, it takes the miracle out of creation. And, second, it sets us up as an adversary of the scientific process.

I do not believe that people of faith need to be adversaries of science. In fact, the strong reaction against evolutionary science among evangelical Christians did not begin until the 1920s, fifty years after Darwin’s ideas were proposed (McGrath, “Science”, 7). Again, I do not come with a pile of answers, nor do I expect us all to agree. What I want to share today comes out of my own journey, my own reaction against evolutionary science, what was for me a deeper appreciation of the Genesis text, and reading and hearing the stories of evolutionary scientists who came to faith through science.

Who am I speaking with today? I am speaking to Christian people who are afraid of evolutionary theory, who believe that it goes hand-in-hand with atheism and atheism alone. I am speaking to those who embrace evolutionary science and think it is therefore impossible to embrace Jesus Christ. To you, particularly, I would offer the testimony of scientists, the wisdom of the ancient church, and a fresh reading of the Genesis text, in hopes that you can give Jesus not only your consideration but also your trust. If you are in neither group, I imagine that you know someone, several people even, who fall in one or the other.

Charles Darwin
So, let’s start with Charles Darwin, one-time theology student, then ship’s naturalist, then leading figure of one of the most significant scientific revolutions in history. In his time, there were no examples of how to embrace evolutionary theory and hold to Christian faith. It was a struggle and a grief for him to conclude that one species could evolve into a new species; it violated what his faith had taught (Sulloway).

In his Origin of Species, Darwin included three quotes on the front page. The final one, from Francis Bacon, reads, “Let no man ... think or maintain, that a man can search too far or be too well-studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works; ... but rather let men endeavor an endless progress ... in both” (cited in Miller, xii). And, at the end of the book, Darwin concludes his presentation of evolutionary theory with this final sentence:

There is grandeur in this view of life; with its several powers having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that ... from so simple a beginning endless forms most wonderful and most beautiful have been, and are being, evolved (cited in Miller, 292).

Kenneth Miller, a witness for evolutionary science in the Dover School Board case, a biologist at Brown University, describes himself as “a person of faith” precisely “because of evolution” (19). He says, provocatively, “I believe in Darwin’s God” (292).

Creation science
Creation science – and intelligent design – describes itself as science. It raises a number of interesting and important questions. As to the age of the earth, it lifts up the question of apparent age. Did God make the first man and woman as infants or mature adults? Couldn’t the earth have been created with an apparent geological age that is greater than its actual age? Paleontology will retort, however, that fossils are found in all the geological eras, and ask if the earth, then, was created with an apparent age including fossils of organisms that never lived.

And, as an alternative to the ice age, creation science suggests that the great extinction of dinosaurs and the erosion and sedimentary effects of the ice age actually occurred because of the Flood and the ensuing climate change. Then, I want to ask a question of the biblical text: Were there no dinosaurs on the ark? Or, if there were, how did they fit? I love dinosaurs!

Creationists ask important questions of science. Where are the missing links and why are they missing? While scientists keep finding more of these fossil links, the mapping of genomes is viewed as much more conclusive evidence for shared ancestors (Collins, Q). Evolution actually does not teach that humans evolved from apes, just that we share a common ancestor (though that may not be much comfort!).

What about pure statistical probability? That the precisely necessary conditions existed in the primordial soup, that the correct proteins formed, that the proteins combined with others, that actual functioning parts of single cell organisms would develop. How could a purely random process result in such order and complexity when, we are told in the Laws of Thermodynamics, that the universe tends to become more and more chaotic and disorganized over time? Evolutionary science responds with two answers: (1) TIME – millions and millions of years – and, (2) limits to a purely random process, what Darwin called “natural selection”, nature’s own forces tending toward the developmental end of fitness for survival.

Creation science describes itself as science. Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier, this takes miracle out of creation and subjects one’s faith to the scientific method and its potential to disprove.

I suggest that the approach of Benjamin Warfield would be superior. He was a leading advocate of the idea of the Bible’s inerrancy, yet he concluded, in response to Darwinism, that “any conflict between the actual facts revealed in nature and the biblical texts should lead the responsible [interpreter] not to reject a scientific account of nature nor to doubt the truth of Scripture, but to seek a better interpretation of Scripture in the light of these facts” (McGrath, “Science”, 9).

Francis Collins, the head of the Human Genome Project, and a “born again Christian” (Duncan) quotes Augustine, interpreting Genesis 1,500 years before Darwin:
In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines this position, we fall with it (Q lecture; see also McGrath, “Augustine”).
Alister McGrath, who went from atheism to faith in Jesus, who has doctorates from Oxford in both molecular biophysics and in theology, describes it this way, “God created a universe that was deliberately designed to develop and evolve. The blueprint for that evolution is not arbitrary, but is programmed into the very fabric of creation” (McGrath, “Science”, 10).

Reading Genesis
We get so focused on the polarities of this debate – God or Darwin, there can be only one! – that we fail to read the creation story in Genesis 1 with respect for the nature of the story itself. It is not a scientific text. It does not address the fundamental forces that bind the universe together, it does not explain photosynthesis or digestion, it does not speak about the shared genetic material between humans and other primates. If we give all our energy to demonstrating that the Bible’s creation account is a scientific treatise, we run into a number of difficulties in the text, such as the creation of light before the creation of the sun and stars, and we put everything else the story contains at risk in a debate the text was not designed to support.

But that is not the kind of story it is. It is what I call a “campfire story”. Imagine all the kids of the ancient village gathered around the campfire calling out to the village story teller, “Tell us a story.”
“What story?”
“The one about the flood!” And he tells the story of the flood.
“The one with the talking snake!” And he tells the story of the original sin.
“The one with the beginning!” And he “begins with the very beginning”:

And the kids know the responses. They love the story, they’ve been joining the refrain as long as they can remember.
“And God saw that it was ... good”
“And there was ... evening and morning, the 1st day”
To describe a campfire story like this one as either true or false in every scientific detail misses the nature of the story. The story is designed to tell us true things at the basis of who we are, at the basis of what the world is, at the basis of who God is.

The story tells us the truth about time and work. Every day begins with evening, begins with rest. And the climax of the week is not creation but cessation, cessation of labor, “Sabbath”. Sabbath is the greatest thing God creates in this story, and Jesus tells us that it was made for us (Mark 2.27). The daily cycle beginning with rest, and the weekly cycle climaxing in rest are a powerful spiritual antidote to our frantic and addictive work. Life, success, provision does not depend on our labors. We need to learn to trust.

The story tells us the truth about created things, about material things, about what science calls “matter”. “And God saw that it was GOOD.” But we have such a mixed up way of relating to stuff. We treat material things as if our life depended on them – when they and us receive their existence from God. We treat sexuality as unclean, when God says it is good. We litter and pollute, and when we talk about environmentalism, we forget to do so beginning with this refrain, “And God saw that it was good”. “For everything created by God is good,” Paul writes (1 Timothy 4.4), and Genesis tells us that it is the job of humankind to care for this good creation (Genesis 1.26).

The story tells us the truth about human beings. We are made “in the image of God”. What amazing and wonderful dignity! Imagine if we all truly believed that, just that one point in biblical theology? How that would change our self-acceptance issues! How that would affect our prejudices! How that would alter the way we take responsibility for the rest of creation! One implication of this doctrine, “made in the image of God”, is radical equality in the human race. Our own Declaration of Independence takes up the theme, “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” “Fourscore and seven years” later, President Abraham Lincoln quoted those lines to claim that slave and free are created equal. Sometime later, folks figured out that even women were included. All they needed to do, though, is read Genesis, “In the image of God he created them, male and female he created them” (1.27). This single theme is the bedrock of human equality and human rights in the American democracy, but we forget that its roots are in the Creation story.

The story tells us the truth about God’s Word. It is “living and active” (Hebrews 4.12). The LORD speaks the world into existence, just as Scripture itself is God-breathed (2 Timothy 3.16, “inspired” is, literally, “God-breathed”). The Creation, therefore, has a story to tell, a story of God at work, “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19.1). And, as Scripture is God-breathed, yet shows the clear fingerprints of human authorship (3 different languages, different writing styles, and even grammatical errors), so the Creation shows both the clear fingerprints of God and the unmistakable signs of physical laws and genetic inheritance and chemical properties. Remember Charles Darwin quoting Bacon on “the book of God’s word and the book of God’s works”?

Now, if all we are interested in finding in this text in Genesis is a response to the questions of science, then we totally miss the most important things it is trying to communicate. Like all Scripture, it’s about God and us. It is about God’s design and purpose for us as human beings in space and time. It’s about God speaking worlds into existence, and God speaking into our world. Whatever your personal conclusions on evolution and faith, let us not miss these truths.

If you are a Christian who has been afraid of evolutionary theory and a link to atheism, I hope you see that it is possible for others to follow Jesus and affirm evolution. For you who embrace evolutionary science and believe it is incompatible with Christian faith, I hope you find in this a fresh alternative.

“Let no man ... think or maintain, that a man can search too far or be too well-studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works; ... but rather let men endeavor an endless progress ... in both.”

“Let there be . . . light.”

Resources:Francis Collins. 2008. “The Language of God.” Lecture at Q conference.

David Ewing Duncan. 20 February 2007. “The Discover Interview: Francis Collins.” Discover Magazine.

Alister McGrath. 2009. “Science and Faith at Odds?” A Q short/Fermi project.

Alister McGrath. 8 May 2009. “Augustine’s Origin of Species.” Christianity Today.

Kenneth R. Miller. 1999. Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground between God and Evolution. New York: Harper Perennial.

Frank J. Sulloway. December 2005. “The Evolution of Charles Darwin.” Smithsonian.

R. L. Wysong. 1976. The Creation-Evolution Controversy. Midland, MI: Inquiry Press. (A creation science text)

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