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Sunday, 23 December 2007

The Incarnation within an Evolutionary Process

The incarnation is an audacious claim. That God would become a man was considered either blasphemous or ludicrous in the 1st century. Not much has changed in that regard although it probably leans more to ludicrous than blasphemous today.

At Christmas time Christians talk a lot about “God coming as a baby” and accepting the vulnerability of an infant. But as Martin Labar points out, Christ did not come as a baby, he came as an embryo. At one point, the Creator of the universe (or the multiverse if it exists) limited himself to a single cell. How can we possibly talk about a single cell even being self-aware let alone omniscient? How does the unlimited author of life limit himself to a single building block of life? Given that Christians still have difficulty articulating this mystery after 2000 years, I’m not even going to make an attempt here.

So if we can accept that God at one point became part of the process of embryo development, one that began with a single cell, why do we have so much difficulty in accepting that God could also become part of the process of evolutionary development, one that traces its ancestry through primates, reptiles, fish, and yes, even single celled organisms. Gordon has a humorous little post that addresses just his point. In Evolution and Incarnation he states:

It should be known, and so it is my duty to tell you, that there are scientists who believe every person alive today can be traced back to a single-celled organism. And that all of us are actually the result of nature acting on this cell over time. And this first cell is believed to have gone through an explosive multi-cellular stage before taking on fish-like characteristics. Some have said that as time passed, the fish-like characteristics gave way to reptile-like characteristics. And after more time had passed, the reptile-like characteristics gave way to mammal-like characteristics. And these same folks also believe that we once had tails, and that we had smaller brains, and that we were naked and lacked the ability to effectively communicate. And to make things worse, this purely naturalistic view of humanity seems to leave no room for God to work wonderful creation miracles, or for Him to personally fashion mankind by His own hands. This so called, “scientific” view - even though science itself can’t fully explain it - simply asserts that we were fashioned by the impersonal laws of nature acting on the biological material of lower species. In short, we are a product of nature.
But Gordon is not referring to evolution; he is referring to the nine-month creation process we all experienced prior to our official birthday. The Psalmist describes this same process from a different perspective:

For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother's womb.

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.

My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place.
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,

your eyes saw my unformed body.
All the days ordained for me
were written in your book
before one of them came to be.

(Psalm 139: 13-16)

Merry Christmas.

End of Year Note:

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all my readers, particularly those that have provided feedback through comments and emails. It has been an enjoyable and stimulating experience, and I appreciate the dialogue.

I will be taking a few weeks break from blogging. A “Subscribe via email” link has been added to the right column on the blog. This will allow you to receive any new posts by email the day they are published. This also means that I can see your email address, (and so does feedburner.com which is now owned by Google) so if this concerns you, don’t subscribe. Personally, I prefer an RSS or newsreader - I now use Google Reader to follow blogs that interest me.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Polkinghorne Quotes #5: Does the Math for Evolutionary Time even Work?

The fact that evolutionary mechanisms can physically account for the complexity of life on earth seems, well frankly, mind boggling if not preposterous. And there doesn’t seem to be any mathematical model that can explain how random mutations and natural selection results in, for starters, us. Here is how Polkinghorne put it:

"Three or four billion years may seem like a pretty long time for the coming to be of life and the formation of its evolved complexity, but incredibly intricate developments have to be fitted into that period. Someone like Richard Dawkins can present persuasive pictures of how the sifting and accumulation of small differences can produce large-scale developments, but, instinctively, a physical scientist would like to see an estimate, however rough, of how many small steps take us from a slightly light-sensitive cell to a fully formed insect eye, and of approximately the number of generations required for the necessary mutations to occur. One is only looking for an order of magnitude answer, comparable in crudity to the back-of-the-envelope calculations of early cosmologists, but our biological friends tell us, without any apparent anxiety, that it just can't be done. So much of evolutionary argument seems to be that 'it's happened and so it must have happened this way".

From Science and Christian Belief, page 16

So, is Polkinghorne just another mathematician type that doubts evolution? Should he just go take a biology class? Not so fast. Check out how Polkinghorne states the same idea with one important clarification.

"One of the serious questions that many physical scientists wish to ask about a purely Darwinian account of the evolution of life is whether there has been adequate time available to accommodate the amazing variety and complexity of change involved. Three to four billion years may seem a long period, but astonishing things have to have happened, not least in the rapid development of the hominid brain in the space of only a few million years. Is the patient accumulation and sifting of small genetic differences sufficient to accomplish this? Those who ask the question are not querying the idea that natural selection has a role to play, but they simply ask whether it is by itself totally adequate as an explanation. The questioners are not looking for a gap into which to insert the finger of divine intervention, but they may just be seeking a more comprehensive and persuasive scientific account. People like Paul Davies (The Cosmic Blueprint) are very impressed with the remarkable drive to complexity present in cosmic history. Dennett occasionally refers to this time-scale problem, but it seems that neither he nor any other evolutionary reductionist is able to offer a convincing answer to it."

From Polkinghorne's 1995 review of Dennett's "Darwin's Dangerous Idea"

So come on biologists, show us the equations!! You do get marks for the right answer, but unfortunately, to pass this exam you need to write your solution out in full.

Other Polkinghorne Quotes: [Introduction] [Previous] [Next]

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Gene Duplication and the GENE project’s … Duplicity?

As funny as this cartoon is, it is also somewhat depressing, at least depressing for those of us that wish to defend the integrity of scripture (including Genesis) and the integrity of creation (one that is evidently evolving). It highlights once again that those who claim to defend the cause of Christ often show precious little evidence of the integrity Christ displayed. No point in surveying all the evidence; just find some evidence, any evidence, that will back up foregone conclusions. (Or better yet, just ignore the evidence and shout louder!).

Two Anti-Evolutionist Claims

Two claims often made by anti-evolutionists are as follows:
1. Biological evolution should not be referred to as science since it cannot be experimentally demonstrated.
2. Evolutionary mechanisms can only degrade the functionality of organisms and “result in a permanent loss of information”. (eg. See this article at AIG)

Stephen Matheson in his post on Gene Duplication shows that both of these claims are false. Reviewing a recent article in Nature, he recounts how gene duplication can result in new functionality. Commenting on the fact that this is demonstrated by real experimentation he states:

First, take note that this article is another example of a sophisticated, hypothesis-driven experimental analysis of a central evolutionary concept. Research like this is reported almost daily.
Not a very Christian Response

What is more pertinent however, is the way some Christian organizations respond to these issues. Matheson continues:
[You would] never learn this by reading the work of Reasons To Believe or the fellows of the Discovery Institute. The mis-characterization of evolutionary biology by the creationists of those organizations is a scandal, and as you might already know, my blog's main purpose is to give evangelical Christians an opportunity to explore the science that is being so carefully avoided by those critics.
As Christians we claim “Our God is Lord of all truth”. Why then are we avoiding data that doesn’t match our expectations? Are we afraid of the data or its implications? Why must Christian apologetic ministries be operated like corporate marketing departments, emphasizing data that coheres with the product they are selling, avoiding the data that demonstrates flaws in their product, and spreading FUD about competitors?

In regards to claim #2 above, Matheson remarks:

You don't need to understand sign epistasis or the structure of transcription factors to get this take-home message: evolutionary biologists are hard at work solving the problems that some prominent Christian apologists can't or won't even acknowledge. How does gene duplication lead to the formation of genes with new functions? The folks at the Discovery Institute can't even admit that it happens. Over at Reasons To Believe, they don't mention gene duplication at all, despite their fascination with "junk DNA." That's from a ministry that claims to have developed a "testable model" to explain scores of questions regarding origins.
And then the punchline (was Matheson reading the cartoon?):

This makes me mad. No matter what you think of the age of the earth or the need for creation miracles, you should be upset by Christians who mangle science to serve apologetic ends. (emphasis mine).
With friends like these, why should we even worry about what Dawkins et al are saying? How are we going to get to the point of “preaching Christ crucified” when the truth itself has been bludgeoned, bloodied, and crucified? Do we actually think the Good News of the resurrection will be considered credible when the credibility of the messenger is demonstratively unreliable?

New Creationist Research

If evolutionary biologists continue to make fruitful progress with their research, how does the research of anti-evolutionist organizations compare? The Institute for Creation Research (ICR) will soon be launching its GENE project on genomics. (This is the same organization that completed the RATE project on radiometric dating which I reviewed here). As an introduction to their new venture ICR states:

[Recently some] scientists gathered at ICR; those strategizing for the upcoming research initiative in genomics. Worldwide discoveries have produced a wealth of raw genomic data just crying for a creationist interpretation. The human genome was decoded a couple of years ago, and now the chimp genome is available along with others. Already dozens of creationist genomists have joined up.
Even though the research will take many years to complete, there is no mystery as to ICR's conclusion. Here is how ICR describes their plan:

The plan is to focus on analyzing the human genome, demonstrating the certainty that man and the animals have no common ancestor.
Even though the research has not started, ICR has already stated the conclusion of their research. I guess they can now begin the process of finding the right facts.


I completed the draft for this post last night, but didn’t have time to publish it. Today I noticed Matheson had posted another blog entry entitled On Folk Science and Lies. I recommend reading this post in conjunction with my own.

A pertinent question is this: If someone passionately preaches falsehoods, but they just as passionately believe they are preaching the truth, are they lying? Personally, I would answer no to this question. Since I suspect almost all anti-evolutionary creationists honestly believe they are right, I don’t think they should be accused of lying. (Thus I also strongly object to anti-evolutionary Creationists being called “Liars for Jesus”, something I have seen with some frequency). However, the anti-evolutionary Creationist “ends justifies the means” methodology is definitely a problem. Should it be called deception, duplicity, or something else? Whatever the name, it is this lack of integrity, combined with erroneous conclusions, and a dogmatic insistence that these conclusions are necessary for the gospel, that are proving lethal to the advancement of the gospel.

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Theological Implications of an Evolving Creation: Part 2: Five common Faithstoppers

Evangelicals generally reject biological evolution because the theological implications are perceived to be incompatible with the Christian faith. And it is not simply one or two tough theological nuts to crack – at times the list of irreconcilable differences seems endless. So it is understandable when Evangelicals struggle to reconcile the scientific evidence with their theology. In this post, I will briefly survey five of the most common theological challenges to evolution. Anti-evolutionists repeat all five of these challenges frequently; all five are considered “Faithstoppers” ie. Christians can (and have) used these to categorically state that “Choose this day whom you will serve” applies to the evolution / Christian faith dialogue. However, I believe that none of these five challenges demonstrate an incompatibility between evolution and Christian theology.

1) The theory of biological evolution contradicts the Genesis creation accounts. Therefore anyone who takes seriously the integrity of scripture must reject evolution.

Although this challenge is the one most frequently raised, it is also the one that is most easily reconciled. The theory of biological evolution does contradict one specific (fallible human) interpretation of the Genesis creation accounts (ie. that the days of Genesis are 7 literal 24 hour days). But this interpretation is becoming increasingly discredited. For a background on why I believe biological evolution can be completely compatible with the Genesis creation accounts, see my posts Literal or Liberal: Our only Choices for Interpreting the Bible, and Genesis 1-11: Background, Context, and Theology, as well as Gordon Glover’s post Interpreting the Genesis creation accounts in the light of ANE history.

2) The theory of evolution implies that a) there was no historical Adam and Eve, b) there is no single pair of recent ancestors from which all humanity is exclusively descended, c) therefore there was no historic instantaneous Fall or specific moment in time that corresponds to the origin of sin, d) therefore sin does not exist, and e) therefore Christ’s death is meaningless. This is incompatible with the Christian faith.

First, statement a) is clearly false and many (perhaps most) evolutionary creationists believe in a historical Adam and Eve. (See Is Genesis 1-11 Historical? Many Evolutionary Creationists say Yes.) I agree that statements b) and c) are very difficult to reconcile with traditional Christian theology. Statement c) is in fact the most difficult implication of biological evolution for me personally. However, I do not agree with the logical connection between statement c) and statements d) or e). The existence of sin has been called the “most empirically supported doctrine”. That you and I are sinners is without question. That Christ died to redeem us, and through his resurrection conquered death, is the foundation of our faith.

But Christ died because I sinned. His death was retroactively necessary because almost two millennia later I would turn away from God. This is true whether or not there ever was a historical Adam, or for that matter a historic fall. The good news is that “God will forgive you”, not that “God forgave Adam and Eve for eating the apple”. I am not making light of the problem of identifying a historic instantaneous Fall, nor of the New Testament references to Adam’s sin. I personally find this very challenging and will discuss this in future posts. I am merely saying that the good news of redemption does not necessarily hinge on positively identifying a historical instantaneous fall. That our entire faith rests on the notion of a historic instantaneous Fall is, for me anyways, categorically false.

3) The theory of evolution implies that a human is no more special than a chimp, a lizard, an ant, or bacteria. Therefore it is incompatible with humanity being created in the image of God.

I disagree with this implication. How we were created is irrelevant to the final product. That evolution implies a close connection to our animal forebears does not minimize our role in God’s eyes. We are his representatives on earth because he declared it to be the case, not because of who we are. Biological evolution does not challenge Christian views of human identity, our relationship to God, or our mandate within God’s creation. Evolution may have implications on how and when God bestowed his image on humanity so, for example, "How did humanity’s special relationship with God come about?", "How was this relationship damaged?", and "How do the spiritual & physical aspects of humanity interact, particularly in the light of modern neuroscience?" are all excellent (and difficult) questions. But our perplexity with respect to the historical narrative of the “ensoulment” of humanity should not in anyway minimize how we view ourselves in the eyes of God.

For more background on this topic, see my post: Created in God’s Image or Evolved from Apes?

4) Evolution is a process that includes an unfathomable amount of pain, death, and extinction. It is incompatible with a Loving Creator.

Theodicy is a very difficult problem for Christians. How can an all powerful, all loving God allow so much evil to exist? Why did he even allow the possibility of evil in his creation? Couldn’t an omniscient designer have done a better job? These are excellent questions but ones that, I believe, are unrelated to the process of evolution. Whether one explains the fossil record by many progressive creative acts, or the gradual creative process of evolution, the fact remains that much pain and death have occurred. Theodicy is a challenge for Christianity and theism in general, not just for evolutionary creationists.

(Note: I can very much understand the allure of YEC for Christians that struggle with the issue of theodicy. It seems to provide such a simple answer. Leaving aside the scientific evidence against YEC, and the poor scriptural interpretations used to support it, I think a closer examination of YEC’s version of theodicy provides no better solution. That too is a post for another day.)

5) Accepting the scientific evidence for evolution leads to moral relativism. It is thus a belief that is incompatible with a Christian worldview based on scriptural principles.

It is absolutely unnecessary to connect evolutionary explanations for the development of life on earth with human moral choices. Biological evolution through the process of natural selection is an explanation of how things have changed over time but provides no guidance on how humanity should act in the future. It is descriptive, not prescriptive. We can certainly gain an understanding of how God created through scientific discovery. However, for guidance on how we should relate to both our neighbour and to our God, we look to God’s revelation in the written Word and in the Word made flesh.

For more details on this, see Does Evolution lead to Moral relativism?


In summary, none of these 5 implications of biological evolution significantly add to the challenge of defending Evangelical theology. Each does seem somewhat problematic at first glance, but on closer examination provides no real reason to reject evolution.

Other Challenges

Ok, In some ways I cheated. This post dealt not with “The 5 most common challenges” but with “The 5 most common challenges that are easily addressed”. There are other implications of evolution that are not so easily addressed. These include the following:

1. Divine Action: Describing how God acts in the world in the light of an evolutionary process that provides a full physical explanation for the development of life on earth.
2. The relationship between Sin and Death.
3. The incompatibility of evolution with the New Testament references to a historical Adam, and specifically his actions related to the Fall.
4. The origin of the “Image of God” or the “ensoulment” of humanity, particularly in the light of modern neuroscience.
5. The origin of Sin

These "5 common challenges not easily addressed" are listed in ascending order of difficulty for me personally. Number 1 is simply a difficulty in articulation; with #5 I have trouble even imagining a solution.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Polkinghorne Quotes #4: The Christian God: Not Limited to nor Restricted by Edges

Theology is concerned with ontological origin and not with temporal beginning. The idea of creation has no special stake in a datable start to the universe. If Hawking is right, and quantum effects mean that the cosmos as we know it is like a kind of fuzzy space-time egg, without a singular point at which it all began, that is scientifically very interesting, but theologically insignificant. When he poses the question, “But if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary, or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?”, it would be theologically naïve to give any answer other than: “Every place – as sustainer of the self-contained space-time egg and as the ordainer of its quantum laws”. God is not a God of the edges, with a vested interest in boundaries.

Creation is not something he did fifteen billion years ago, but it is something that he is doing now.

From Science and Christian Belief, page 73

Many Christians, I think, put too much stock in the implications of scientific discoveries. Thus for example, since biological evolution seems to threaten traditional ideas of a historical instantaneous Fall, many Christians dismiss biological evolution out of hand. Rarely is it asked: “Does evolution really change our ideas of a historical instantaneous Fall?” (some evolutionary creationists say no), or “Is a re-examination of a historical instantaneous Fall helpful for our theology” (possibly yes), or even “Do I really need to definitively resolve this particular tension right now?” (maybe the best question of all).

As Christians I think we can make a similar mistake with scientific discoveries that seem to cohere nicely with orthodox Christian theology. The Big Bang, a theory proposed by a Catholic priest, is the classic example. Christians have stated that it is “proof that God created the universe”. Now, I have absolutely no reason to doubt the Big Bang theory (Simon Singh’s book on the topic is one of my favourite works of popular science). As well, I must confess to some satisfaction in knowing that the theory continues to incite strong opposition from some atheistic materialists, and that it meshes neatly with the Christian concepts of creation ex nihilo and a non-eternal universe. However, my Christian faith does not rest on the theory of the Big Bang and I disagree with the statement that the theory “proves that Christianity is true". If the scientific consensus of the ultimate fate of the universe suddenly changed from "a universe accelerating towards The Big Freeze" to "a universe entering a cycle of Big Crunches & Big Bangs (of which our instantiation may not be the first)", I do not see how that is relevant to my faith.

God is neither restricted by nor limited to the edges. We should neither search for him there, nor fear that they constrain him.

Other Polkinghorne Quotes: [Introduction] [Previous] [Next]

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Theological Implications of an Evolving Creation: Introduction

For the most part, Evangelical Christians are not anti-science Luddites attacking science and technology at every opportunity. Like everyone else we enjoy the benefits of the rapid changes in technology driven by modern science. However, when scientific theories seem to clash with our theology, we seem suspicious at best, and hostile at worst. Caution is actually a healthy approach towards any nascent scientific claim, but hostility is rarely helpful, particularly when a theory, like biological evolution, has demonstrated that it is well supported by the evidence over a long period of time.

The Relationship between Christian Theology and Science

So how should we approach science when it appears to challenge our theology? How should we view the relationship between science and theology? We do have some well-promoted options. There is Ken Ham’s approach (theology dictates science), Stephen Jay Gould’s approach (science and theology should be divorced), the “science is most true” approach (theology capitulates to science), and Richard Dawkin's approach (eliminate theology). None of these are appropriate for Evangelicals however. Scientific truth (a true description of creation) and theological truth (a true description of the Creator and his relationship to creation) cannot be in conflict.

I don’t have a completely satisfactory answer for myself as of yet but I’ll make some brief points on my own view of the relationship between theology and science.

  1. The science/faith conflict is often a result of our own imperfect understanding. Creation truth and truth about the Creator are unified, but our distorted view of either or both leads to perceived conflicts. (See Loren Haarsma's presentation Christianity as a Foundation for Science, particularly the diagram in slide 12).
  2. Theology, even good theology, cannot remain stagnant. One of the most dangerous theological approaches from my point of view (heresy alert for those looking for one) is the drive to define and document a “complete systematic theology”. I do not believe that our finite understanding of the infinite can ever be complete. Our canon may be closed, but that does not prevent God from revealing additional truth through a changeless text. Scripture may be timely (speaking to its original hearers) but it is also living and timeless.
  3. Good science can work as a goad to good theology. (See the abstract for the essay Science as Goad and Guide for Theology by George Murphy in the theology journal Dialog). In other words, scientific discoveries can sometimes, depending on the circumstances, be used as an opportunity to expand on our existing theology, or even rectify poor theology.
  4. Good theology can provide a context for doing good science. It can work as a motivation for doing science in the first place (discovering more about God’s creation) and it can shed light on the limits of science (eg. science should not and can not answer ethical questions).
  5. Many scientists, however, seem completely oblivious to the limits of science, or how their own presuppositions can blind them. Thus “scientific” conclusions are often stated as fact even when the scientific data does not necessarily support the conclusion.

Scientific Challenges to Theological Assumptions: Expected but not to be Feared

We should not be surprised when science challenges some of our theological assumptions. In fact, maybe we should expect it. As we discover more about God’s creation, and particularly the part of creation that is created in God’s image, our understanding of how God relates to that creation will undoubtedly change as well. But we should never fear these challenges. There is no guarantee that we will be able to reconcile all these challenges (at least in this life), “for we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror”. But one day we “will see God face to face” at which time all our current theological wrestling and confusion will seem not only trivial, but irrelevant. This promised resolution can give us confidence to deal with our current challenges. And one of the biggest challenges of course, is reconciling biological evolution with our theology.

The theological implications of an Evolving Creation

In a series of several short posts I would like to discuss some of the theological implications of an evolving creation. The title of this series is taken from Keith Miller’s essay of the same name that can be found here on the ASA website. Miller states that:

In the debate over the proper understanding of the Genesis account, most attention has seemed to focus on the scientific merits of various creation scenarios. What has largely been lacking in these debates is a consideration of the theological implications of these various interpretations for our understanding of the character of God, the relationship of God to His creation, and the relationship of us to the rest of creation. After all, it is to these basic issues that the Genesis account is primarily, if not exclusively, addressed.

I like Miller’s approach for two reasons. First, the emphasis is on creation, a creation that is evolving. The science of evolution can certainly be studied on its own without reference to God or his creation, but to really understand it, to understand the entire truth, we must put it in the context of the theology of creation. A discussion on an evolving creation does just that. Second, Miller views the implications of an evolving creation as opportunities, opportunities to better appreciate who God is and how he acts, how God relates to us his children, how God relates to the rest of creation, and how God wants us to act given that we are his image bearers in creation. This, I believe, is a healthy approach and one I’d like to emulate in future posts.

Surveying the Difficult Challenges First

That being said, I do realize that for many Evangelicals the implications of an evolving creation are disconcerting. I myself find some of the implications troublesome. So rather than jump right into the theological opportunities, my next post on this topic will be a brief survey of the implications Evangelicals find most troublesome.

Maybe what I should do first is solicit feedback on what others believe are the most troublesome implications. So I invite you to leave a comment or send an email stating the top-3 implications of biological evolution that you find most difficult to reconcile with Christian theology. Actually, the invitation is open to non-Evangelicals and non-Christians as well since I realize that, for many of you, the perceived difficulties between evolution and Christian theology are actually barriers to to taking the Christian faith seriously.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Polkinghorne Quotes #3: Why is the Tea Kettle Boiling?

Why is the kettle boiling? Answer#1: The kettle is boiling because the burning gas heats the water. True. Answer#2: The kettle is boiling because I want to make a cup of tea and would you like to have a cup with me? True.

There is no conflict between those two answers; they are in fact complementary. In an exactly similar way I don't have to choose between science and religion. "The universe sprang into being about fifteen billion years ago through the fiery explosion of the big bang." That is true, but it does not preclude my also saying, "The universe came into being and remains in being because of the Word of a Creator whose mind and purpose are behind all of the scientific truths that we perceive."

From Is Science Enough?, September, 1994 Lecture at The University of the South

The teakettle analogy is perhaps Polkinghorne’s most frequently repeated quote. Actually, since it seems to change with each repetition, it should probably be classified as something other than a quote. I’ve seen the analogy appear in many different forms, in articles and lectures by Polkinghorne himself, and in books, articles, lectures, emails, and blog entries by others (this one here substituting coffee for tea – something Polkinghorne as a good Brit probably considers heretical).

I believe that one's view of divine action is the most significant factor in demarcating Christians that accept evolution from those that do not. It is certainly more important than how one thinks of scripture as many anti-evolution Christians (probably most supporters of ID for example) do NOT interpret scripture literally. For those Christians whose model of divine action is restricted to God intervening in nature in a way that is unexplainable by natural causes, evolution will be forever troublesome. Evolutionary theory does not allow for gaps in the natural record, and the scientific evidence for this theory continues to bear fruit. However, for Christians who see God acting in and through nature, who see nature as simply a secondary cause and not as a final cause, who believe that a scientific description of an event or process does not diminish God’s active control of that event or process, evolution can be fully compatible with faith in a God who acts in this world.

Other Polkinghorne Quotes: [Introduction] [Previous] [Next]

Saturday, 24 November 2007

Weird Physics, Gravity, and doubting Evolution

At least until several years ago, I was more interested in physics than biology. The reason for this was due in part to my own academic interests (mathematics and computer science), both of which interface closely with physics. And it doesn’t hurt that my alma mater (University of Waterloo) is home to the Perimeter Institute.

Physics can be really, really weird. Anyone who doesn’t believe this has probably never cracked open a book on theoretical physics. General Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, and String Theory can make you dizzy (a good dizzy of course). Even if I just barely understand the basics, I do enjoy reading and thinking about these ideas, particularly when combined with a healthy dose of speculative science fiction. (There are those who argue that String Theory itself is speculative science fiction).

Last week The Telegraph ran an article on a physicist named Garrett Lisi who has proposed a “Grand Unified Theory” tying together all the fundamental forces of physics. (HT: Entangled States). This is something Einstein was unsuccessful in doing despite years of effort. And Lisi’s theory may not even be that weird :

… his proposal is remarkable because, by the arcane standards of particle physics, it does not require highly complex mathematics.

Even better, it does not require more than one dimension of time and three of space, when some rival theories need ten or even more spatial dimensions and other bizarre concepts. And it may even be possible to test his theory, which predicts a host of new particles, perhaps even using the new Large Hadron Collider atom smasher that will go into action near Geneva next year.
If Lisi’s theory proves correct (and many are calling it a long shot), we may finally have a better understanding of gravity, and how it relates to the other three fundamental forces. For, although just about everyone understands gravity at a basic level, no one really understands why it works the way it does.

That we don’t understand it fully is no reason to doubt the Theory of Gravity. Although initially there were those who opposed Newton’s theory on biblical grounds (after all, God held the stars in place, not gravity) very few people doubt it today. It is fascinating, however, to compare the acceptance of the Theory of Gravity with the acceptance of the Theory of Evolution, particularly when we may have better evidence for some aspects of the Theory of Evolution. Check out Gordon Glover’s post at Beyond the Firmament where he discusses this issue.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Polkinghorne Quotes #2: The Dangers of a Designer God

Speaking of those who claim to have scientifically detected intelligence behind the evolution of the universe, Polkinghorne states:

“Yet it is possible that they are being offered a gift by the Greeks, as much to be feared as to be welcomed. For the God so discerned seems but an austere and impersonal deity; the ground of a cosmic process which rolls on without obvious concern for the fate of individuals. He commands our intellectual respect but not our love; we can wonder at his works but we are not moved to trust him in our personal lives."

"The offering of a revived natural theology would have proved to be a Trojan horse for Christianity if it replaced the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ by the Great Mathematician”

From “Science and Providence”, page 4

As I mentioned in my last post, I believe that the ID movement is potentially dangerous to Christian theology because of its focus on natural theology. Polkinghorne’s Trojan horse metaphor is particularly apt. Those who use the gift of modern science as a sword to defend the faith may find that sword to be lethally double-edged.

But Polkinghorne’s warning needs to be heeded by Evolutionary Creationists (ECs) and Theistic Evolutionists (TEs) as well. Those of us that acknowledge no gaps in natural processes are often fond of pointing to the Big Bang, the fine-tuned universe, and the anthropic principle as evidence of God’s providence and design. This may indeed be so. But the initial act of speaking the universe into being is not the totality of God’s creative act; creation is not just about origins. In Denis Alexander’s words, we must be “robust theists” who acknowledge God’s ongoing and continuous creation.

ID proponents often accuse ECs of being little more than Deists ie. acknowledging a God who started the process and but who is uninvolved thereafter. This is a potentially valid criticism of the EC position if we leave no room for divine action after the initial parameter calibration for the infant universe. But that is not my position, nor is it the position of most ECs. We worship a God that is intimately involved in his ongoing creation. He is the God of the bible, the God who led the Israelites out of Egypt, the God who raised Jesus from the dead.

Other Polkinghorne Quotes: [Introduction] [Previous] [Next]

Sunday, 18 November 2007

An Evangelical Approach to Intelligent Design: Some Initial Thoughts

I have not discussed Intelligent Design (ID) on this blog outside of a few passing comments. Given that this is a blog about evangelicals and evolution, I’m sure some of you found this to be a puzzling omission, somewhat like discussing evangelicals and American politics without once mentioning Republicans. But evangelicals who do not support ID need to tread very, very carefully when stepping into the ID minefield, since voicing opposition to ID can result in being labeled a compromiser, a materialist, or even a Darwinbot.

I suspect that public awareness of ID will increase significantly in the next few months. The ID movie Expelled will be released in February 2008, and media coverage of the movement, as well as public debate on the merits of ID, may exceed the coverage and debate that surrounded the 2005 Dover trial. Last week PBS aired Judgment Day, its documentary of the trial, and the public discussion has started to heat up.

So the time is probably right for me to provide some initial thoughts on ID. I will simply make some brief statements describing my views. Comprehensive arguments supporting these statements will need to wait for future posts.

A) Statements about the ID

(Note: See my What does Evolution Mean? post for an explanation of the various definitions of evolution that I use below (eg. E3, and E4)).

1. Design and Evolution are not necessarily incompatible

Acceptance of “design” does not necessitate a rejection of evolution, nor vice-versa. Many thoughtful people accept both design and evolution. There are those who agree with the E4 definition of evolution (that evolutionary mechanisms offer a complete physical explanation for the development of life), but still see strong evidence for design in the universe. Other’s, (eg. Michael Behe and Stephen Jones), support the E3 definition for evolution (ie. common descent), but also strongly support ID. (See here http://telicthoughts.com/see-what-they-see/ for one vocal ID proponent’s comments on the compatibility of design and evolution).

2. ID movement: Opposing evolution seems to be the primary objective

Notwithstanding #1 above, it seems to me that the primary objective of most ID arguments, articles, websites, and organizations is to disseminate anti-evolution propaganda. ID is primarily a weapon used to demonstrate that biological evolution is false; positive conclusions seem secondary.

I reject this version of ID. I not only accept the evidence for evolution (both E3 and E4), but also disagree with the ID statement that design provides a better explanation for the development of life on earth. First, design and evolution are not competing origin alternatives. Second, evolution provides an excellent physical explanation for the development of life on earth.

3. Anti-ID movement: Promoting a Purposeless Universe

On the other hand, it seems that the primary objective of most ID opponents is the promotion of a purposeless universe. Anti-design arguments are used as weapons against theism in general, and Christianity in particular. There certainly are vocal ID opponents that are also Christians (eg. Ken Miller) but these voices are often drowned out by the “no design – no purpose” mantra.

I reject this type of opposition to ID. The declaration that design and purpose are logically impossible given the randomness inherent in evolution is a metaphysical statement, not a scientific statement. I also claim that this metaphysical statement is completely wrong.

4. Intelligent Design is not identical to Creationism

Intelligent Design is not identical to Creationism (at least the Creationism of the “Young Earth (YEC)” and “Flood Geology” varieties). The two are often conflated leading ID to be referred to derogatorily as Intelligent Design Creationism. I do not believe this is fair since most ID proponents do not come from a YEC heritage, do not agree with YEC ideas, and do not participate in dishonest science like the RATE project.

It is true that ID has welcomed YEC support, has turned a blind eye to gross flaws in YEC science, and has even allowed “creationism” to evolve into “intelligent design” through the transitional “cdesign proponentsists” form (see this post for an explanation). So non-specialist observers can be forgiven for equating the two. But I maintain they are not the same. I think this note from Michael Roberts to the ASA mailing list says it best.

“ID may not be an evolved version of YEC, but many of its genes have been spliced in from YEC.”
5. Attempts to Detect Design will Fail

I provisionally claim that attempts to scientifically detect “design” within the universe will be a failure. Notice what I am not denying that ID can ever make scientific claims. I am simply stating that I suspect their attempts to demonstrate design scientifically will not be successful.

B) An Evangelical Approach to ID

1. Christians should Emphasize Purpose rather the Design

Design is a tricky word, and depending on the definition, I could agree that God designed the universe. However, I think that God’s design, his plans, his processes, and his purposes, are far beyond anything we can imagine let alone expect. They do not fit our concept of design, a concept coloured by modern engineering. But God is not an engineer, and design may be an unhelpful term in defining the relationship between Creator and creation. I much prefer the word purpose. The God revealed most fully in Jesus Christ, has a purpose for the universe and for humanity. Proclaiming this purpose is our mandate.

Also note, it is clear that God has a purpose for the universe, but I do not believe this is equivalent to saying that there is purpose (or design) inherent in the universe.

2. ID: Theologically Dangerous?

My primary discomfort with the ID movement, however, is theological. It seems to elevate natural theology above God’s revelation in the incarnation and his written word. Why are we still searching for evidence of a designer? Do we not trust God or the witnesses to the resurrection? Why, like Thomas needed to see the scars in Jesus’ hands, must we see proof of God’s fingerprints in creation?

I am not saying that we should ignore God’s revelation in creation. It is part of the coherent package of knowledge that supports our Christian faith. However, it is not the foundation of our faith or knowledge. Any attempt to make natural theology the foundation of our faith is dangerous.

C) So where do I stand?

It is clear that I do not identify with the ID movement. On the other hand, I share a faith in Jesus Christ with many, many ID proponents. I also disagree with the majority of ID opponents that claim meaning is simply what we make of it, and that there is no overall purpose for creation. In a debate so thoroughly polarized, where does my view fit? Maybe like Owen Gingerich, I should describe my position as intelligent design (small I, small d) rather than identifying with the ID movement itself. However, I’m uncomfortable with even this. In fact, I’d prefer to wear the label Creationist (albeit an Evolutionary Creationist) rather than Intelligent Design Proponent. At least with creation, I am identifying with a concept that is thoroughly biblical.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Polkinghorne Quotes #1: God the Fellow-Sufferer

“God is not a spectator, but a fellow-sufferer, who has himself absorbed the full force of evil. In the lonely figure hanging in the darkness and dereliction of Calvary the Christian believes that he sees God opening his arms to embrace the bitterness of the strange world he has made. The God revealed in the vulnerability of the incarnation and in the vulnerability of creation are one. He is the crucified God, whose paradoxical power is perfected in weakness, whose self-chosen symbol is the King reigning from the gallows”

From Science and Providence, page 68

Theodicy and the "Problem of Evil" are, I believe, the most difficult intellectual problems we face as followers of Christ. And it is more than just an intellectual problem since it has led many to abandon the faith, and their trust in God. I certainly do not have great answers. However, when we finally do get a satisfactory answer, I believe that answer will include Polkinghorne’s point that God is a fellow-sufferer.

Faith is not so much about belief but trust, trust in the living God who is the foundation of our being. Questions and doubt are an integral part of faith, not its opposite. As human parents, we encourage our children to ask questions. A child that asks no questions is disintrested or worse.

So when faced with the problem of evil, in which type of God do you wish to place your trust: A “Designer God” who designed all things in their intricate detail, including things that bring pain, suffering, death, and destruction? A “Philosopher God” who answers all your questions including why there is so much pain, suffering, death, and destruction? Or a suffering God, a crucified, resurrected God who has experienced pain, suffering, and death, and in so doing has destroyed the very power of death? For me, the answer to that question is easy.

Other Polkinghorne Quotes: [Introduction] [Next]

Polkinghorne Quotes: Introduction

John Polkinghorne is one of my favourite authors. His writing is intellectually challenging, spiritually stimulating, constantly engrossing, and surprisingly humble for someone so obviously brilliant. He is completely unafraid of tackling the most difficult issues or stating his conclusions even if they risk alienting his target constituency. I find that most of his works must be reread two or three times to be fully appreciated, but I consider this a bonus as I learn something new each time; it is like getting 2 or 3 books for the price of one.

Along with Arthur Peacocke and Ian Barbour, Polkinghorne is acknowledged as one of the giants in the science-faith dialogue. He also approaches this dialogue from an evangelical perspective. Given the relative dearth of insightful evangelical thought on the interface between science and faith, we should be thankful that one of the few evangelical voices is so incredibly good. Polkinghorne has earned accolades in both of his careers, his first as a physicist and his second as an Anglican priest and theologian.

Given his impact on my own thought, I will from time-to-time be posting selected quotes from Polkinghorne on the science / faith dialogue. For some I will add a short comment of my own. For others I’ll simply let the quote speak for itself.

Published Polkinghorne Quotes:

Sunday, 11 November 2007

What is an Evangelical? Am I one? Why do I choose to wear the Label?

My objective for this site is to promote and foster a specifically evangelical dialogue on the subject of evolution. Others are certainly invited to participate, but the invitation is primarily directed to evangelicals. What are the implications of biological evolution for our specifically evangelical theology? What are the implications for our faith? Are there areas of evolutionary science that have been tainted with philosophical assumptions that contradict core evangelical beliefs? How do we distinguish between the physical evidence of God’s creation and the metaphysical assumptions so often tied to the explanations of the evidence? These are some of the questions I believe evangelicals should be discussing.

Several weeks ago I provided a brief overview of the meaning of evolution. Thus I have provided a partial definition of how I believe this dialogue should be framed. However, to understand what a specifically evangelical dialogue would look like, I should also define what evangelical means.

What is the definition of an evangelical? What is the difference between an evangelical Christian and Christians who are not evangelicals? Where and how do we draw the line? Maybe more pertinent to the discussion in this particular dialogue, what reason do I have for considering myself within the evangelical fold? And why do I even want to hold onto the label? As I’ve confessed previously, being an evangelical can be downright embarrassing given the perception of the movement in western society, perceptions often completely supported by the attitudes and actions of very broad swaths of evangelicalism that are still tainted by fundamentalism. I’ll deal with my own personal reasons for self-identifying as an evangelical later. For the definition, I’ll turn to another of my favourite authors, John Stackhouse.

Stackhouse is an evangelical historian, philosopher, and theologian. His is also the senior advisor for the Centre for Research on Canadian Evangelicalism (CRCE), an initiative of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC). In this capacity he has provided an updated definition of evangelicalism. Given how notoriously difficult it is to define evangelicalism, I applaud Stackhouse for his succinct, and I believe successful, definition. His definition shares some similarities to my own overview of evangelical distinctives where I proposed that acceptance of biological evolution does not contradict an evangelical expression of the Christian faith. This similarity is not surprising since we both utilize David Bebbington’s framework proposed in Evangelicalism in Modern Britain. However, I believe Stackhouse provides a more practical and comprehensive definition. He also includes some astute observations on how the definition should be used.

Stackhouse’s definition of evangelical includes the following six criteria:

1. Orthodox and Orthoprax: Evangelicals subscribe to the main tenets—doctrinal, ethical, and liturgical—of the churches to which they belong.
2. Crucicentric: Evangelicals are Christocentric in their piety and preaching, and emphasize particularly the necessity of Christ’s salvific work on the Cross.
3. Biblicist: Evangelicals affirm the Bible as God’s Word written, true in what it says and functioning as their supreme written guide for life.
4. Conversionist: Evangelicals believe that everyone must trust Jesus as Saviour and follow him as Lord; and everyone must co-operate with God in a life of growing spiritual maturity.
5. Missional: Evangelicals actively co-operate with God in his mission of redeeming the world, and particularly in the proclamation of the gospel.
6. Transdenominational: Evangelicals gladly partner with other Christians who hold these concerns, regardless of denominational stripe, in work to advance the Kingdom of God.

The middle four criteria are slightly modified versions of Bebbington’s. The 6th criterion is adopted from George Marsden (Fundamentalism and American Culture and Evangelicalism and Modern America), while the 1st is added by Stackhouse himself, a criterion almost certainly assumed by both Bebbington and Marsden.

There are a couple of significant points to notice in this definition. First, each of the criteria is relatively broad. Doctrinal hair-splitting, so often the bane of evangelical unity, is completely absent. So, for example, in #3 there is no mention of inerrancy or even infallibility. Many evangelicals do indeed affirm the inerrancy of scripture, and most affirm its infallibility. However, since there is significant disagreement on what those terms mean, I agree that it is helpful to avoid these adjectives in the definition itself. (Interestingly the EFC’s own Statement of Faith does include infallibility, although not inerrancy. The American equivalent to the EFC, the NAE, does the same in its statement of faith).

Second, Stackhouse insists that none of these criteria are unique to evangelicals, but that evangelicals uniquely affirm all six criteria as a cohesive set.

“[This] set of criteria functions properly only as a set. There is nothing peculiarly evangelical about any of them singly, of course. It is only this set that helps scholars, pollsters, leaders and interested others “pick out” evangelicals from Christians in general or observant Christians in general or observant Protestants in general, and so on. Thus it must be employed as a set, without compromise, as in the common polling practice of counting as evangelicals those who score “highly” on some scale derived from such criteria. No, evangelicals do not compromise on any of these values: They don’t think it’s okay to fudge on the atonement or the Bible, or to neglect churchgoing, or avoid evangelism."

So these six broad in scope but mandatory criteria define evangelicalism. But why do I personally identify with the movement? Why, if I do not agree with many of the political, intellectual, and cultural beliefs associated with evangelicalism, do I wish to label myself an evangelical?

I strongly identify with evangelicals, and affirm that I am an evangelical, precisely because the six criteria defined above closely match my own view. I agree with the doctrinal consensus affirmed by the apostles, the church fathers, the reformers, and the leaders of the Great Awakenings that birthed modern evangelicalism. The cross of the incarnate, suffering God is central to redemption. God has revealed himself through scripture, and we must take seriously its claim for authority. Being a follower of Christ includes more than intellectual assent; it includes radical trust in God’s guidance. We are all called to proclaim and participate in the Kingdom of God. And we must not let denominational differences hinder this proclamation or participation. I believe all six criteria are important.

No I am not a hard-line political right-winger, anti-science, anti-intellectual, against all forms of biblical criticism, or a participant in the culture wars. But I fail to see how any of these latter characteristics, so often descriptive of evangelicals, conform to the six criteria in Stackhouse’s definition of evangelical. In many ways, I believe these characteristics conflict with our self-identifying criteria of being orthodox, crucicentric, biblical, conversionist, missional, and transdenomination Christians.

In short, I want to be called evangelical because, despite the disrepute brought on the movement by many evangelicals, its core characteristics are true and right. I do not wish to be referred to as post-evangelical because of this disrepute, just as I do not wish to be called post-Christian because Christians acting in a un-Christ like manner have sullied Christ’s name. Just as we should not let anti-evolutionary creationists prevent us from proclaiming creation, neither should we let fundamentalist evangelicals prevent us from proclaiming the evangel.

So maybe the next time I introduce myself, I’ll say, “Hi, I’m Steve, and I’m an evangelical creationist”.

Then again, maybe not.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Updated Resources

I have posted a Table of Contents for this blog. This includes links to the most important posts - you can consider it the blog FAQ. Lately I’ve found that I’m often referring readers back to my past posts. (Hopefully you don’t find this too irritating). As a (very) part-time blogger, I just don’t have the time to rearticulate the same argument numerous times. Or maybe I’m just lazy. For new readers, the table of contents is probably the place to start.

My Internet Resources page has also been updated. Notable additions include:

Finally, I’ve also updated my Selected Bibliography. This includes a list of resources that I found helpful in coming to my own conclusions on evolution and its implications for an evangelical expression of the Christian faith.

Top Posts

(Last Updated May 14, 2008)

A) The Definitions

1. Evolution: The Meaning of Evolution: A Framework for Christians
2. Evangelical: What is an Evangelical? Am I one? Why do I choose to wear the Label?
3. Dialogue: Not a definition, but the “Why”: Evangelicalism and Evolution: Why the Discussion Matters and the “How”: Dialogue, Debate, Silence, or Confrontation: How should we Approach the Topic of Evolution?

B) Scripture
Evangelicals take a very high view of scripture. The perception that evolution is incompatible with God’s revelation in scripture is at the heart of Evangelicalism’s antagonism towards the scientific theory. Here are four posts that outline why I believe the scientific theory for evolution & a high view of scripture are compatible.

1. Scripture or Science: Do we need to Choose?
2. Literal or Liberal: Our only Choices for Interpreting the Bible?
3. Gen 1-11: Background, Context, and Theology
4. An Incarnational Approach to Scripture

C) Theological and Moral Implications

The perceived implications of biological evolution seem daunting, both for Christian theology and for Christian morality. Although biological evolution does present some new challenges to theology, the extent of these challenges is clearly overblown.

1. Theological Implications of an Evolving Creation: 5 Common Faithstoppers
2. Made in the God's Image or Evolved from Apes?
3. Reconciling the Fall and Evolution
4. Does Evolution Lead to Moral Relativism?
5. Critiquing the claim that Darwinism = Racism

D) Personal Choices and Implications

Given the antagonism towards evolution within the Evangelical community, the personal choices regarding evolution can be difficult and the personal implications significant.

1. Factors Involved in the Shift Towards Evolutionary Creationism: My Story and Yours
2. When Acceptance of Evolution has Personal or Professional Repercussions
3. Would your Church allow you to Publically Support Evolution?
4. Reclaiming and Proclaiming Creation

Thursday, 1 November 2007

New Essay on Young Earth Creationism

I have previously recommended Robert Schneider’s exceptional Science and Faith essays on my brief Internet Resources page (which I acknowledge is desperately in need of an update). Schneider has now added to the series with his 8th essay entitled “Young Earth Creationism”. He provides an brief history of the movement, describes its characteristics, and offers a critique of its cultural assumptions, scientific practices, interpretation of scripture, and theology.

He then concludes with wise words on how those of us that support both the integrity of scripture and science should approach YECs:

[It] is critical for Christians like us to enter into conversation with YECs. But it must be respectful. I do not think that trading scientific arguments serves any useful purpose. There is a greater place on which to stand -- on the common ground of the Bible itself. We can help YECs, especially the youth among them, realize that there are other interpretations of the Scriptures that preserve their rightful role as messengers of revelation without cramming into them scientific concepts that they never were meant to contain. We can help them to see that modern science and the Bible are not in conflict with one another, but complement one another, that there is no contradiction between the creating Word revealed by the Rock of Ages and the record of an ancient earth revealed in the ages of rocks.
For those who want to do in depth historical research on the YEC movement, Ronald Number’s “The Creationists” will need to be consulted. For the majority though, Schneider's essay is the place to start. Excellent paper Robert.

Just Passing on a Meme

Right. I give Stephen Matheson the coveted PEDEBA award for October, and what do I get in return? An infection. Stephen has tagged me with an evolving blog meme. Go to Pharyngula for an overview of this meme's origin. The rules are as follows:

There are a set of questions below that are all of the form, "The best [subgenre] [medium] in [genre] is...". Copy the questions, and before answering them, you may modify them in a limited way, carrying out no more than two of these operations:
  • You can leave them exactly as is.
  • You can delete any one question.
  • You can mutate either the genre, medium, or subgenre of any one question. For instance, you could change "The best time travel novel in SF/Fantasy is..." to "The best time travel novel in Westerns is...", or "The best time travel movie in SF/Fantasy is...", or "The best romance novel in SF/Fantasy is...".
  • You can add a completely new question of your choice to the end of the list, as long as it is still in the form "The best [subgenre] [medium] in [genre] is...".
  • You must have at least one question in your set, or you've gone extinct, and you must be able to answer it yourself, or you're not viable.

Then answer your possibly mutant set of questions. Please do include a link back to the blog you got them from, to simplify tracing the ancestry, and include these instructions. Finally, pass it along to any number of your fellow bloggers. Remember, though, your success as a Darwinian replicator is going to be measured by the propagation of your variants, which is going to be a function of both the interest your well-honed questions generate and the number of successful attempts at reproducing them.

My Ancestors:

My great-great-great-great-grandparent is Metamagician and the Hellfire Club.
My great-great-great-grandparent is Flying Trilobite
My great-great-grandparent is A Blog Around the Clock
My great-grandparent is The Anterior Commissure
My grandparent is Laelaps
My parent is Quintessence of Dust

My Questions (and Answers):

  1. The best scary movie in sociopolitical dystopias is: Children of Men
  2. The best sexy song in pop rock is: “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” by the Barenaked Ladies covering Bruce Cockburn
  3. The best classical story in Historical Fiction is: “I, Claudius” by Robert Graves
  4. The best book appealing to both children and adults in Science Fiction is: Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

(Ok, I think I bent the rules a bit).

The Ongoing Infection:

The intent of my blog was to interact with other evangelicals grappling with the evolution / faith issue. This has been rewarding. However, it has also been stimulating interacting with those who may not share my evangelical perspective. So in the spirit of sharing, I’m passing on this infection to 4 of these bloggers, bloggers who range from "I might be an Evangelical depending on your definition" to "I am definitely not an Evangelical":

  1. James at Exploring our Matrix
  2. Stephen at Emerging from Babel
  3. Martin at Sun and Shield
  4. Henry at Threads from Henry’s Web

Sunday, 28 October 2007

What Does Evolution Mean? A Framework for Christians

Much of the confusion in the evolution debate lies in the meaning of the word “evolution”. Since it can have several different meanings, and even the scientific definition of evolution can include several distinct components, it is not surprising that many confusing and confused arguments are articulated. Certainly the conversation is very difficult when conversation partners discussing evolution do not share the same definition, conflate several of the definitions, or elevate one component of evolution to be descriptive of the whole.

Dr. Allan Harvey has provided a simple overview of the various meanings of evolution. Harvey, a fellow ASA member, recently taught a 6-part course on “Science and Nature in Christian perspective” at his conservative Presbyterian church in Boulder Colorado, and the 5th essay in the series is on evolution. (Note: The entire course looks outstanding. It is presented in clear non-technical terms, and Harvey includes wise counsel on how Christians who accept the integrity of scripture should approach science. For anyone beginning this journey, I highly recommend reading through the entire series)

Harvey provides a framework that includes 6 meanings for the word evolution, and remarks on both the scientific certainty and compatibility with the Christian faith for each definition. These six meanings are:

E1. Change over time
E2. Common ancestry
E3. Evolutionary mechanisms (genetic variation, natural selection).
E4. The ability for these Evolutionary mechanisms to account (physically) for common descent.
E5. Origin of life (chemical evolution)
E6. Evolutionism

I have grouped these meanings into three categories: those meanings for which the scientific evidence is overwhelming and thus enjoy an extremely high degree of certainty (E1, E2, and E3), those definitions that are less certain based on the scientific evidence (E4 and E5), and those definitions whose conclusions are based on metaphysical assumptions rather than the scientific evidence(E6).

Evolution Meanings Group#1: Extremely high degree of scientific certainty

Harvey’s first three meanings for evolution (E1 – E3) are all extremely well supported by the scientific evidence. There is also, in Harvey’s view, no incompatibility between these meanings and the Christian Faith.

E-1) Change over time. This is the most basic meaning of the English word “evolution,” simply meaning that something changes with the passage of time. For example, we might talk about the evolution of popular music, or the evolution of stars. With regard to living things, this simply says that things are different than they were in the past (there used to be dinosaurs; now there aren’t). Almost nobody denies this meaning.
The only opposition to E1 is in the time available for changes to occur. Young Earth Creationists (YEC) would disagree with the scientific consensus of cosmological evolution (formation of the cosmos eg. stars) because of the billions of years required for this process.

E-2) Common ancestry. This is central to what scientists usually mean by “evolution.” Common ancestry (or common descent) means that life has branched out, so dogs and wolves are distant cousins, dogs and cats are more distant cousins, and if you go back far enough dogs and fish, or dogs and trees, had a common ancestor. You can put humans in the family tree as well – related to chimpanzees, more distant from other mammals, and so forth.
As I’ve commented earlier here, a shared ancestry with non-human life does not contradict the biblical claim of humanity’s creation in the image of God. As well, as Harvey points out in his 3rd essay, and as I’ve commented here, common descent does not compromise the integrity of scripture. In fact, many of the leaders in the Intelligent Design (ID) movement (eg. Michael Behe, author of The Edge of Evolution) also support common descent, even though ID is often described as anti-evolution.

E-3) Evolutionary mechanisms (genetic variation, natural selection). This refers to specific natural mechanisms (first proposed by Darwin, although in a primitive way because genetics was not yet understood) that cause species to change. Genetic variation is the fact that (due to mixing of parental genes and to mutations) children have different genes and different traits. Natural selection refers to the fact that the traits will make some children more likely to survive and pass their genes on to future generations.
Note that in recent years even YEC organizations have started backing away from their opposition to the mechanism of natural selection (see here and here). They have also admitted that natural selection can lead to new species, and that “in fact, rapid speciation is an important part of the creation model”.

Evolution Meanings Group#2: Less Scientific Certainty

Harvey’s 4th and 5th meanings of evolution enjoy less scientific certainty (in fact, there is very little current evidence for E5). These definitions have historically experienced aggressive opposition from Christians (certainly more than E1-E3), but Harvey does not believe this needs to be the case.

E-4) Mechanisms (E-3) account (physically) for common descent. This is typically what scientists mean by “the theory of evolution.” We know these mechanisms produce changes in species, but do they account for all the evolution (in the E-2 sense) that has happened through the history of life on Earth? Most biologists, including most Christians working in these areas, would say “yes,” but it is certainly not as 100% established as the previous meanings.

I believe E4 is the meaning that sharply divides Christians who identify themselves as Theistic Evolutionists (TE) or Evolutionary Creationists (EC) from those who are anti-evolutionists, particularly those that are supporters of ID. Harvey’s 4th essay called “Natural Theology or a Theology of Nature” explains briefly why E4 should not really cause any conflict for Christians.

E-5) Origin of life (chemical evolution). The theory of evolution is only an explanation for the development of life from other life. How life began in the first place is a different question, but people have proposed somewhat similar theories (the technical term is ambiogenesis) of how that happened. That is an area where there is much room for doubt; some people see it as an insurmountable problem, while others think science is coming closer to good explanations.
E5 is the meaning that really sparks derision among anti-evolutionists. And the lack of evidence for E5 is often used to discount the validity of E2 through E4. It is still an open question whether a “natural” origin of life theory that is supported by the scientific evidence is 3 years away, 30 years away, 300 years away, or is practically impossible. The important point is that Christians need not oppose E5 for the same reasons that E4 need not be opposed.

Evolution Meanings Group#3: Definitions based on metaphysical assumptions

Harvey’s final meaning for evolution (E6) is unrelated to science.

E-6) Evolutionism. I use that term to refer to a meaning that is not science at all, but rather an ideology that sometimes masquerades as science. This starts with the philosophical position that natural explanations exclude God (the “God of the Gaps” error discussed in Chapter 4). Since science has produced these natural explanations for life, those with this ideology claim to have pushed God out of the picture. Of course these metaphysical conclusions are not science in any way – those who advocate this meaning are simply pushing atheistic philosophy, and it is wrong to try to claim it is a result of science.

This meaning for evolution is obviously not something that can ever be accepted by a Christian. But this is the meaning that both Christian anti-evolutionists and “evangelistic anti-theist” atheists push to the forefront. They conflate evolution meanings E2 through E5 with E6, and thus state that TEs and ECs are supporting atheism, materialism, or moral relativism (anti-evolutionist claims) or are deluded and cowardly for not following the scientific evidence to its logical conclusion (anti-theist claim).


I really like how Harvey categorizes the various definitions of evolution. They are helpful both for Christians trying to understand evolution, and for those of us that are frequently engaged in the evolution / faith dialogue. I am planning to use these definitions in my own conversations. Hopefully this will allow all of us to hone in on the salient issues more quickly, and avoid talking past each other. Ok, maybe that's overly optimist, but it can't hurt to try.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Theodicy and Evolution

The problem of evil has haunted humanity from ancient times and it is a frequent topic in the ancient scriptures (eg. Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes). Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do the wicked seem to prosper, oblivious to, or unfazed by, the pain and sorrow they are causing? How can an all powerful, all loving, all knowing God allow evil to exist? Traditional theology states that evil originated with human sin / rebellion. However, this view is impossible to reconcile with the evidence of modern science, and it is not even clear that this is a good theological statement. So where does evil originate? If God is all-powerful and all knowing, why did he not prevent it? Is the benefit of “free-will” actually worth the price of evil?

This is the problem of theodicy, and it still perplexes modern Christians today. It perplexes me. Over the centuries, Christians have provided many lines of reasoning to address the theodicy issue. However, no single argument has captured Christian minds, probably because none comes without its flaws.

Those who wish to expose Christianity as a sham delight in highlighting the problem of evil. For atheists it is a good strategy since, in my opinion, it is their best (and maybe only good) argument. The other arguments frequently put forward (eg. “I can’t see any evidence for God, therefore he doesn’t exist.”, “There are lots of errors in the bible, therefore Christianity must be wrong”, and “The scientific evidence supports evolution, so God didn’t create the world”) pale in comparison. But theodicy is very difficult, and I suspect that a debate limited only to theodicy would prove very uncomfortable for any Christian.

Opponents of evolution like to state that, since it demonstrates “nature red in tooth and claw”, evolution makes the problem of evil even worse. After all, how could a loving creator be so inefficient and allow so much death and destruction? But is this so? I really don’t see how evolution increases the theodicy difficulty. It adds details to the process of how we have been created, but is irrelevant to the central problem of long eons of death and extinction. Whether one explains the fossil record by many progressive creative acts, or the gradual creative process of evolution, the fact remains that much pain and death have occurred.

I certainly do not have a complete answer to the problem of evil. So rather than articulate a partial solution to the puzzle, I’ll simply provide some pointers to resources I’ve found helpful so far:

  1. Probably the closest thing I’ve found to a satisfactory answer is John Polkinghorne’s “Free Process Theodicy”. The best place I’ve seen this outlined is in “Science and Providence: God’s Interaction with the World” pages 59-68. (I do not have a link to a good overview on the net – can anyone help me here?)
  2. William Dembski has an interesting article entitled “Christian Theodicy in Light of Genesis and Modern Science”. I am not very comfortable with Dembski’s solution but it is a well reasoned and consistent proposal. I would like to hear the opinions of others on this. For some reason, I haven’t seen much discussion on this paper. This is odd since, to me, it seems much more interesting than some of the other things Dembski has written.
  3. Since sin and evil are so intertwined in Christian theology, I’d also like to point to an excellent article on the origin of sin by George Murphy entitled “Roads to Paradise and Perdition: Christ, Evolution, and Original Sin”.
  4. I’ve previously mentioned Cliff Martin’s series on the relationship of entropy to evil. Cliff has just posted the second part of his “Theodicy: A New Approach”. If you are interested in discussing the question of theodicy, I highly recommend you visit his blog, as it is indeed (I think) a new approach. My suggestion is to read the following posts in order:
Finally, I have put “The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami?” by David Bentley Hart on my “To read” list after seeing two shining reviews (here by Cliff and here by Chris Tilling).

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Posts of the Month Awards – October 2007

I know that the last time I did something like this was almost 2 months ago, that mid-month is a silly time to be passing out monthly awards, and that some of the posts in contention were actually published late last month. But when PEDEBA (The Panel of “an Evangelical Dialogue on Evolution” Blog Authors) reaches consensus, it acts immediately. So on with the show.

A) Post of the Month Award

*** “Sympathy for the Devil’s Chaplin” by Stephen Matheson (Part-one here and Part-two here):

After much heated debate, PEDEBA unanimously chose Matheson’s two-part series on Richard Dawkins. Matheson gives credit where credit is due. He also apologizes (sort of) for referring to Dawkins as “The Idiot”, highly recommends (some of) his writings, and points out areas where Christian critics have been unfair to the Professor with the Overlong Title. Looks like I’ll have to put Dawkins book “The Extended Phenotype” on my “To Read” list. So many good books, so little time …

B) Honourable Mention

In Chronological Order ...

1) “Theisms, Creationisms, and Evolutionisms: An Exercise in Definition” by Henry Neufeld

Henry Neufeld is a prolific blogger (Ok, just about anyone is prolific compared to my once-a-week-or-so postings) and Evolution-ID-creation is a frequent topic for Henry. I always appreciate his perspective, even when I don’t agree with it. This post provides a good overview of some of the pertinent definitions in the evolution debate. It also references (in the comments) a good discussion on ID’s relationship to YEC at Sun and Shield, the blog of Martin Labar who occasionally comments here on "An Evangelical Dialogue on Evolution".

2) “Biblical Literalism: Fast Track to Atheism” and the “The Evolutionist Conspiracy” by James McGrath

Two good posts in one day (where does he find the time??), the first on the fact that biblical literalism can lead to a loss of faith (as I’ve commented before here) and the second on the myth of the evolution conspiracy.

3) “Randomness in Nature” by Gordon Glover

Gordon Glover, author of Beyond the Firmament, addresses a reader's question on randomness in evolution and how this can be consistent with God’s providence.

4) “The Gift is not like the Trespass” by Stephen Matheson.

Matheson comments on Paul’s argument in Romans 5 comparing Adam's sin and Christ's redemptive work. A very interesting take for those struggling with the issue of the (seemingly) required historicity of Adam.

5) “The Clergy Letter Project: Pastors for Evolution” by Vance McAllister

McAllister points out that many Christian clergy have signed an open letter stating that there is no conflict between the Christian faith and evolution.

C) The Not so Fine Print

PEDEBA deliberated for many hours making these very difficult choices. The Panel’s decision is final. Those who voice their disagreement or disapproval will not be considered for future awards until they submit an essay entitled “How I convinced Richard Dawkins and Ken Ham to agree on just about everything”.

Cliff Martin’s very interesting series on "Entropy and Theodicy" at Outside the Box was originally nominated for consideration. However, it was discovered that Cliff is the 5th cousin of one of the PEDEBA panel members and was thus ruled ineligible for the award. The PEDEBA committee on nepotism, despotism, and endofNOMAtism is currently considering a challenge to this ruling but was unable to reach a decision prior to the randomly selected award deadline.

Award winners receive a significant cash prize of 10% of the revenue generated from "An Evangelical Dialogue on Evolution" during the month in which their post appeared. More significantly, the cash prize is in Canadian Dollars. For my American winners: No, that is not monopoly money, and yes it is worth much more than that boring green stuff you try to sluff off on us. (I have been waiting YEARS to say that!)