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Evolution – The Elephant in the Empty Nave

Darwin Fish

Recently I was at a show where “Christian” was synonymous with “someone-who-believes-the-universe-is-thousands-not-billions-of-years-old”. At a dinner party, when someone found out I am a Christian, I was identified with the Flat Earth Society, and it was assumed I was anti-evolution, and anti-science.

Somehow the well-financed, American-style, fundamentalist, creationist approach to the Bible and to science and evolution has won the complete monopoly of the impression people have of Christians.

I accept the Big Bang. I hold to the universe being here about 13.7 billion years. I understand us as having evolved. I believe in the Bible. I believe everything in the Bible is true – and some of it happened. I believe God made me; I believe God made me by my parents having sex. I believe God made the universe by the Big Bang, and life by evolution.

My understanding is that my position is perfectly normal amongst a large number of Christians, but this approach is so low-profile that I feel when I mention my inability to find a conflict between my faith and science that I am often regarded as unusual. And that unusualness is generally treated in a positive way! It is received as being refreshing. Many people would have listened to the Christian message and perspective better had they known that you do not need to leave your scientific understandings in the foyer before entering the church’s nave.

At the very least I want a bit more public acknowledgement by Christian leaders if their position is akin to mine. Recently a bishop acknowledged scientific assumptions similar to mine; he went on to say he hadn’t thought about it much for forty years since he came to this position, and he hadn’t talked about it for about twenty years.

We need to. We need to talk about this approach more.

Because, in a world where the scientific method is god, and evolution is used as the explanatory model for absolutely everything, the assumption regularly is that if you accept science and evolution then the Christian faith is not worth even a moment’s reflection. Evolution is the elephant in the empty nave.

Christians have a variety of approaches to the Bible, to science, and to the origin of the universe and life. And this needs to be honestly acknowledged. Young-earth creationism, Old-earth creationism, Intelligent Design, Genesis 1 days being 24 hours, Genesis 1 days being varying stretches of time – are different positions held by Christians. I want my position, that of the Big Bang and theistic evolution, to be acknowledged as a Christian approach alongside such others. My position treats both science and the Bible with respect, accepting the varying literary genres in the Biblical material, including mythological, allegorical, and etiological (“just-so”) stories (it’s a talking snake!!!). I don’t want my position to be mostly met with, “how refreshing!” I want my position to be understood as a normal, regular Christian position.

I want it noted that the Big Bang was a scientific theory postulated by a devout Christian, and that the term “Big Bang” itself was a put-down by atheists who saw it as mixing theology with science, and couldn’t cope with a universe that had a beginning ex nihilo!

Being honest and open that there are a HUGE number of Christians who see absolutely no conflict between science and faith also means being open and honest that we haven’t resolved the flow-on issues. We don’t have all the answers. The origin-of-sin and origin-of-death constructs, and Jesus’ and Paul’s apparent acceptance of the historicity of Adam and Eve will be a problem for many… Jesus as saviour (a “Second Adam”) without building that on a historical Adam who introduced sin and death into the system may need more work…

Let us at the very least have a bit more public declaration of Christian positions beyond that promoted by a limited section of Christians. All I’m asking for is a bit more public honesty! And then maybe there will be a greater possibility that those (like me) who find science makes sense will not turn off listening to a faith position without even a second thought.

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47 Responses to Evolution – The Elephant in the Empty Nave

  1. Yes to all the above, of course.

    But I also want to see theology dig itself out of rules about how not to knock people over the head with rocks, and start making meaningful statements about the rest of the universe too.

  2. I grew up understanding this to be the default position of the vast majority of Christians. The rather odd minority who believe in the creationist approach are perceived as the norm because their “funny” beliefs are ridiculed in the various national press. Especially when they try to teach them to children as the Only Truth….

    The trouble is, then, that the militant atheists seize upon their position as treat it as if it were the default, and then give it the ridicule it deserves – and unfortunately extend this to the whole of Christendom. I remember telling one of them on Twitter once that he could believe or not believe whatever he liked, but he ought to find out what it was that Christians believed in before expressing his disbelief therein!

  3. At the very least I want a bit more public acknowledgement by Christian leaders if their position is akin to mine. Recently a bishop acknowledged scientific assumptions similar to mine; he went on to say he hadn’t thought about it much for forty years since he came to this position, and he hadn’t talked about it for about twenty years.

    We need to. We need to talk about this approach more.

    No you don’t need to talk about it at all – it is entirely irrelevant to anything that actually matters whether or not dinosaurs walked the earth 65 million years ago or died out in Noah’s flood.

    You might as well spend your time in discussion on who is going to win Master Chef 2014 or last nights episode of your favourite soap opera for all it matters in terms of the spiritual or material welfare of the people of this nation

    • We will have to agree to disagree on this, Andrei. In my experience the lack of Christians being open about these options prevents many from considering Christianity as a viable life choice. Whether that choice affects “the spiritual or material welfare of the people of this nation” is another discussion. Blessings.

  4. I hold a similar position, though I believe that God made special interventions in the evolutionary process when he sparked life itself and when he gave humankind an ability to know him that goes beyond the ability of even the most sapient of other animals. (Maybe you do, too).

    I do not hold these views, however, as a completed theoretical system of whose every point I am sure. Also, having studied the philosophy of science, I know that it is possible in principle that some bright mind might suddenly see that there is a cogent alternative way of viewing the evidence that right now so convincingly points to the universe being 13.7 billion years old and the earth 3 point some billion. Therefore, I won’t tie my theological reflections irrevocably to that structure.

    Nevertheless, right now it certainly looks to me as though those dates and the general theory of the process of the development of the universe and the earth are correct, and – like you – I do not find my belief in God or my trust in him shaken one whit.

    • Yes, that’s an important point that I hold also, Trevor: I do not “believe” in the Big Bang or evolution, I accept them. And if in future a better scientific model comes along, I will be perfectly happy to change my position about the scientific interpretation. That is how science works. I believe in God. I accept science. Blessings.

  5. Amen to that!! 😉
    I’m with you. I’m tired of having to explain that I’m not “that kind of Christian.” but I am militant about speaking out when I hear people make statements that begin, “Christians think…” or “Christians believe…” I end up saying something like, “Most of the Christians I know believe in evolution…” etc. (It’s amusing and irritating to have someone who’s not a Christian argue with me about what I believe.)

    Here in Silicon Valley, where church attendance hovers around 20% (more than Europe, but less than the American “heartland”) the mainline churches are nearly invisible and, in terms of what makes the papers, virtually non-existent.

  6. Yep – the theological equivalent of fast-food (there must be a good name for it…)is a health risk to it’s consumers, and is such an easy target for those who assume conformity of thought amongst christians.

    • Thanks, Mike. Yes, fast-food, instant-spirituality, four-spiritual-laws, everything-in-the-bible-is-one-genre Christianity is simple, attractive, addictive,… I can feel another post coming on 🙂 Blessings.

  7. You’re right, Bosco. We believers in God and the disciplines of scientific discovery need to put ourselves about more. If God is omniscient, as most Christians do believe, then to discredit all scientific achievement as necessarily anti-Christian is surely mistaken.

    There is a parallel here with those Christians who believe in the power of prayer for miracles, and who yet do not trust in modern medicine to heal. it’s all part of the ‘sola scriptura’ mind-set.

    I believe in the balance of belief in the uncaused Cause, Who has given life to all creation – even to people who can think for themselves. Scripture tells us that the Holy spirit is still searching the mind of God. How can we mere mortals, then, know it all? Scripture, tradition and Sweet Reason are all necessary for Faith to blossom.

  8. The problem of Jesus being second Adam disappears if Paul’s phrase is figurative comparison of Adam and Christ rather than a literal and historical one Romans 5:14 Adam was a figure of the one who was to come.

    • Yes, Darach, I’m sure that this is the sort of way forward. But it is not straightforward. The “just as” of verse 12 (ὥσπερ) is then not as “just as” as we normally would use “just as” 🙂 Blessings.

      • Paul seems to use ὡς and ὥσπερ throughout Romans 5:12-21. The whole passage, apart from typical Pauline digressions, is a comparison of Adam and Christ, stating at the ‘just as’ in verse 12. But if Paul is using Adam and a figurative picture to tell us more about Christ, it means we need to reexamine all the ideas built on Paul discussing Adam literally. That is probably the more difficult task.

        • Yes, Darach, comparing the science with that verse 12: death did not come into the world through sin, because of one man – death was part of the universe millions of years before sin and humans. Blessings.

          • Indeed, though I don’t think Paul could have been talking about animal death here, even if you interpret the passage literally. “death spread to all men” (not animals), “because all sinned” – but animals don’t sin so the death Paul was describing here could not affect them.

          • I do not think, Darach, that proceeding down this pathway works.

            I do not think that you can distinguish human and animal death in this manner: animals die because of evolution, humans die because of sin.

            Paul seemed to think that the whole creation was affected by human/Adam’s sin. Animals died because of human/Adam’s sin.

            Furthermore, following Luke’s genealogy of Jesus we can get an approximate date for Adam. And we know that humans lived (and died!) long before that date.

            Blessings.

  9. I recall my mother (in the early 50’s) explaining to, theorizing, that the Bible’s story of creation in 6 days could be harmonized with the theory of evolution (Of course I, as a kid, couldn’t really understand “theory” or “theorizing” – but who could doubt one’s mother?) simply by positing that a “day of creation” didn’t have to mean literally 24 hours. Later, of course, I was introduced (in college, during Vatican II) to a careful at that story – and the lack of logic in what occurred on each day. (If someone believes every word there is factually true, then I await the complicated mental gymnastics it would take to somehow provide the gist….

    On the other hand, I witnessed a longtime Episcopal priest’s “conversion” (apparently during one summer – maybe in 2006 or so) to disbelieving in evolution. Kind of scary! (During a time when, apparently, all those who later broke away from TEC in the US were convincing themselves of some form of “sola scriptura” it would seem.) Of course that had no effect on me – other than complete astonishment. And, truth be told, pity for this otherwise intelligent man.

    We have a friend, a guy with a Ph.D. in Engineering, whose family employs a cook who is a Jehovah’s Witness or something like that. And one day he happened to remark on something related to the age of the earth. The cook immediately corrected him. Nor argument was had. But it’s become an interesting tale within the family – devout Methodists with advanced degrees.

    Here in the States, it’s not just a fight over evolution between different groups of believers. But for many intellectuals, one’s faith (or rather lack of it) is often assumed – as if a fine education is incompatible with religious devotion. It’s almost as if one lives in a “no man’s land” – a modern desert, I suppose – if you practice your faith, OPENLY (!), while also practicing a profession, which required a great deal of study, professional research, and adherence to professional standards and so on.

    Now I’m recalling how in my senior year of high school my unwillingness to be convinced by the “proofs” of the “existence of God” prompted a nun to become concerned that I was on the road to atheism, to perdition in fact. How wrong she was! To me, God was always REAL. And these “proofs” – to me – had nothing whatsoever to do with my deep faith and trust in God’s care and concern – for me and everybody else.

    “Truth” has so many faces. And God relates to us in so many ways! And thank God for that!

    • Yes, Annabel, people will struggle to understand (and insist on not understanding) what we mean when talking about religion and spirituality. But have not the slightest problem in all other fields when speaking metaphorically and understanding that to be true but not literalistically: falling in love, feeling low, the wicket was sticky, the sun rose, the point hit me, romance was in the air… Blessings.

  10. this book by Dr. Kevin Treston, a lay RC theologian from Brisbane is worth looking at.

    Emergence For Life Not Fall From Grace: Making Sense of the Jesus Story in the Light of Evolution

    Paperback
    ISBN: 9781743240434 Mosaic Press (1 Jun 2013 PB AU)
    ASIN: 9781625643070 Wipf & Stock (Aug 9, 2013 PB US)

  11. “Paul seemed to think that the whole creation was affected by human/Adam’s sin. Animals died because of human/Adam’s sin.”

    I don’t think Paul says this at all. The nearest you get is Romans 8:20 “the creation was subjected to futility… ” but Paul never links this to the fall, instead he says it was God’s will and purpose for creation and that the reason was eschatological “…in hope”. Doesn’t Luke describe his genealogy as what people supposed?

    I think we have two issues here, (1) whether Paul interpreted Adam figuratively and his comparisons of Adam and Christ should be understood figuratively rather than literally, and (2) whether even a literal reading of what Paul says ties animal death to the fall.

    • I really appreciate this conversation, Darach. And this is exactly some of the sort of conversations that I think we Christians need to be having – and openly, like this.

      The Romans 8 text is unclear whether it is God (Satan or Adam have been provided as alternatives) who subjected creation – but I God seems most probable. But the best interpretation of Paul I can see disagrees with your position, sorry. Death and the futility of creation is the result of what you are terming “the fall”. See Bruce, F.F., Romans, pp. 168–174; in: Tasker, R.V.G., ed., Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, IVP, Leicester, UK, 1963. and Dunn, J.D.G., Romans 1–8, WBC, Word Books, Dallas, 1988.

      Many would see Paul here alluding to Gen 3:17.

      When it comes to Luke’s genealogy, “as was thought” ὡς ἐνομίζετο Luke 3:23 applies only to Joseph. In any case we can produce Biblical genealogies that go back to Adam and so give an approximate dating for him about 6,000 years ago.

      The overarching point is the attempt to make the Bible conform to current scientific understanding is IMO mistaken. I think we need to be honest: the Bible is sometimes/often erroneous in history, science, etc.

      Blessings.

      • Yes it is a really important discussion for the church to have. I don’t have a problem with Paul’s prescientific views, we can see his view of a three tiered universe in Phil 2:10. We could take an accommodationist approach to Paul’s view of Adam, though I think it would be harder to convince people that all the tradition and theology built on a literal Adam that Paul simply got it wrong. But I don’t think we need to, not if Paul really was speaking figuratively about Adam.

        I think Paul is pretty clearly referring to God Romans 8, the ‘in hope’ as Bruce points out, also Rom 8:20 where Paul says the subjection to vanity was not the will of creation or a creature, which would seem to exclude both Satan and Adam’s own wilful decision.

        I agree Gen 3:17 is an obvious parallel to make, though Paul would be pushing the text way beyond the seeming application to women in labour. There is another passage we may have missed that is a much closer fit and it is specifically describing creation, not the fall -to use the traditional term 🙂 It is Psalm 90:2 “Before the mountains were born, before You gave birth to the earth and the world, from eternity to eternity, You are God.” The word for giving birth is to writhe in labour pains.

        If Luke only meant the Joseph part was supposed, wouldn’t have indicated when he switched back to genuine genealogy. But the real issue there is how Luke was interpreting the OT genealogies

      • The question of animal death begs the question, is Paul talking about death on the physical level, which every animal, plant and even single-celled organisms are subject to, or is he talking about permanent death? We believe, as Christians, that we will be raised from death – death has no more dominion over us. But we know that our bodies are going to die….

        • Thanks, Annabel. I think, once again, we are trying to press the Bible for scientific information it did not have. They had no idea there were single-celled organisms. They did not use the same word for plants as animals and humans (which are called nephesh). Plants are never said to die – they may wither, but that’s it. They are not saved on the Ark. Blessings.

  12. A further note. Only this morning on the Episcopal Cafe website there was a refence to a CS Lewis Legacy lecture given at Missouri College, Missouri By the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katherine Jefferts Schori on science, creation and meaning. She is a former scientist. The full text of lecture is well worth reading. It can be accessed through the Daily Episcopalian or the college website.
    I was not really aware of this College where Winston Churchill gave his Iron Curtain Speech and has a Wren Church of Mary Magdalene re-erected on its grounds. Its motto is simple “Religio et Scientia’.

  13. Having read it again I can only stress how important this is and i would like to see it followed up on this site.

  14. Well, a very good and frank discussion, thanks, Bosco.
    However, once we begin mythologizing scripture when it doesn’t line up with our understanding of scientific facts, we start down a path we may not intend to walk.

    Did St. Luke made a mistake with his genealogy of Jesus Christ? Should it have originated from Seth, not Adam? Is the claim being made Seth actually existed but Adam did not, and the word Adam is a term for mankind as a whole, not of a literal person. Is the whole genealogy suspect? What has the Church and the Fathers traditionally taught? I’ll stick with the revelation despite the problems it brings.

    • Thanks, Michael. I’ll also stick with the revelation. But I am not convinced that science and history are revealed. So I am comfortable with the revelation being correct while some of the science and history are mistaken.

      Furthermore, in the Genesis text, I’m not convinced that I am “mythologizing” the texts. I think the texts are not understood as historical by the authors in the contemporary way we would require of historical material.

      The separating into a binary choice: revelation or science is the very split I am arguing against.

      Blessings.

  15. Thank you for this post, which a friend shared on Facebook. I’m weighing in because I’m a secondary school RS teacher who covers this exact topic in the GCSE. I really do take the time to try and emphasise just how commonplace the belief in theistic evolutionism is, but come revision time you’d be amazed how many students have reverted back to the default belief that all Christians are young Earth creationists. If it’s OK with you, could I refer students to this blog as part of their revision in the next few weeks? These are such intelligent discussions and I know they will benefit. Many thanks.

    • Thanks, Katja. I’d be delighted if you referred your students to this. And I know exactly what you mean about people’s presupposition reverting to this default position as if my approach is somehow a forgettable aberration. Blessings.

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