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Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Does Evolution drive us to reject Evolution? One Evangelical says … Possibly?

One argument heard repeatedly from antievolutionists is that Darwin and his theory of biological evolution is to blame for so much evil (eg. Nazism, the Holocaust, Stalinism). This is as absurd (and possibly dishonest) as saying that Jesus Christ and his message of the new kingdom should be blamed for the crusades, the inquisition, and the conflict in Ireland. True, the facts can be twisted to support any of these claims. However, I believe an honest assessment of the authentic message of Christ or the theory of Darwin (rather than distorted or extended versions of them) should not come to these conclusions. Just as the violence resulting from the crusades should not be blamed on the Prince of Peace, the evils (or perceived evils) associated with Social Darwinism or Eugenics should not be blamed on Darwin’s theory of biological evolution.

Evolutionary Psychology (EP) is another stepchild of Darwin’s theory. It has received (if this is possible) even less support within the Evangelical community than the theory of biological evolution. It is an approach to psychology that attempts to explain mental and psychological traits as adaptations, i.e. as the functional products of natural selection. So for example, some EPs hypothesize that humanity’s innate religious tendencies and it's inclination to believe in God are only a result of natural selection. It’s pretty easy to see that EPs can make assumptions, employ methods, and draw conclusions that no Christian could condone. But does this mean the entire field should be ignored and rejected by Christians?

A reader pointed me to this blog post by Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In it, Mohler discusses a proposal by 2 Yale EP researchers. They claim that evolution has hardwired us to disbelieve evolution. Ie. The fact that the theory of biological evolution does not receive widespread support is more a function of our psychological makeup, rather than the perceived conflict between the scientific theory and religious beliefs. Mohler states:

This is a fascinating argument. Bloom and Weisberg [the Yale researchers] believe that the minds of children are, in effect, hard-wired to see design in nature and the world around them. The "intuitive psychology" they describe means that children infer a design in the world they experience. They assume an intelligence behind what they observe, and assume that a creative intelligence is a necessary part of any explanation of why things are as they are.

and then quotes the researchers as follows:

Just as children's intuitions about the physical world make it difficult for them to accept that the Earth is a sphere, their psychological intuitions about agency and design make it difficult for them to accept the processes of evolution.

In the discussion that follows in his post I find it interesting that both the researchers and Mohler seem to make the identical assumption: It’s either “design” or “evolution” and not both; either there is “purpose” to the universe or the “scientific theory of evolution” is true. The researchers choose evolution and Mohler chooses purpose but they both believe the choice is valid. I disagree with both of them. I see no conflict and do not think it is an either/or choice. This discussion on design or evolution will have to wait for a future post, but I would like to point out that even some Intelligent Design (ID) proponents would agree that Design and Evolution are not necessarily opposites. For example, Michael Behe, writer of Darwin’s Black Box, does not oppose common descent of life from a single source.

Later in the post, Mohler states:

The hard-wiring for design these psychologists identify as the problem may well be yet another sign of the imago Dei -- the image of God that distinguishes humanity from all other creatures

I wholeheartedly agree with this. God has created us in his own image (I believe through a gradual creation process) and part of this package is the ability, and inherent yearning, to relate to God. But Mohler then continues with:

[The Imago Dei is a] claim directly rejected by the scientific establishment.

I’m not sure I can agree with this. There are certainly large parts of the scientific establishment that a) reject the existence of the supernatural and b) believe that scientific truth is the only truth. But there are many scientists (including, I think, all Christian scientists) that would reject this statement (particularly statement b) and understand that science is quite limited in what it can positively affirm.

And then near the end, Mohler throws out this statement:

[The Yale Researchers] argument also shows once again why "theistic evolution" is an incoherent proposal.

Theistic evolution incoherent? Really? Maybe incomprehensible to some, particularly to those with specific metaphysical assumptions, but I think it’s unwise to call it incoherent. There are many clear thinking Christians, brilliant scientists, astute theologians, all with a high respect for the scriptures, that believe theistic evolution coheres very well with both their science and faith. (For example, read anything by John Polkinghorne. Is it difficult to understand the first time through? Definitely. Incoherent? Anyone who says this probably hasn’t grasped his argument and should reread him). Proponents of scientific naturalism (the idea that science embodies all truth) may not comprehend how their well-educated Christian colleagues can possibly hold to theistic evolution. Christians predisposed to reject gradual creation because of their interpretation of scripture may find it difficult to comprehend how their fellow Christians can believe in theistic evolution. However, this lack of comprehension does not make the proposal objectively incoherent.

I’m still not sure how to respond to a lot of the conclusions coming out of the field of EP. (I know even less about psychology and EP than I do about biology and biological evolution). However, I see no reason to immediately reject all conclusions that are made. Certainly, I do not think that evolutionary explanations for the development of religious impulses necessarily negate the validity of these impulses for discovering truth, nor does it contradict the fact that these religious impulses were the purpose of God’s creation. On the other hand, I reserve the right to be skeptical of conclusions about human nature without solid evidence, particularly when formulated by those who are predisposed to reject the existence of the divine, and thus humanity’s ability to relate to the divine.

So is natural selection a factor in humanity’s innate religious tendencies, in our inclination to believe in God, in our propensity to see purpose in creation? Possibly. How God brought about this inclination in humanity is not necessarily significant; that the emergence of this tendency was his purpose is significant. And returning to the original claim of the Yale researchers, does evolution play a role in the rejection of evolution? Again possibly. Certainly, if the scientific theory of evolution is tied so tightly to philosophical purposelessness, it’s going to be difficult for humanity to accept. God has created in us a heart that recognizes him (Rom 1:20), that is predisposed to respond to him, that see’s purpose in his creation. So purposeless evolution is certainly not an easy sell. But then again, I don’t think it should be. That the universe is purposeless is a lie. And as far as I’m concerned, it’s just not necessary to tie biological evolution to this lie.

Sunday, 27 May 2007

Evangelicalism: Distinctive Characteristics

This is the second of four posts that provides an overview of the history & character of Evangelicalism, its historic response to evolution, and why the discussion of evolution matters today.

So what is Evangelicalism anyways? It seems everyone has his or her own definition or understanding. As my post last Monday showed, it’s not just an outgrowth of fundamentalism. It’s also not equivalent to “Born Again Christians” as not all that wear this label can be counted as evangelicals, and many evangelicals would strongly oppose the label. It is neither a denomination nor a creed, and although there are umbrella Evangelical organizations (eg. EFC in Canada and NAE in the US), none of them speak for nor control Evangelicals. One way to describe Evangelicalism is a form of Christianity born and bread in Anglo-American modernity that possesses several distinctive characteristics. I’ll outline my view of these characteristics below.

Evangelicals share several common characteristics with other broad sections of the Christian church. First they are staunch defenders of Orthodoxy. They adhere to the “right beliefs” passed down by the early church and formalized in the Apostles and the Nicene Creeds. Second, they are thoroughly Protestant. The revolt against the Catholic Church during the Reformation is seen as a necessary cleansing, and a recovery of the character of the early church prior to its cooption into the Roman Empire under Constantine. There is some disagreement today on what relationship Evangelicals should have with the Catholic Church, but there is pretty much unanimous agreement that leaving the Catholic Church was the right action for Protestants in the 16th century.

However, there are several distinctive characteristics that give Evangelicalism its unique personality. These characteristics are not necessarily unique to Evangelicals, but I believe they a) exhibit these characteristics most strongly, and b) are the only group which strongly exhibits all four of the following characteristics in combination.

Distinctive Characteristics:

1. Biblicalism: Evangelicals place a heavy emphasis on trusting the scripture. It is not simply a holy book, it is a book of divine revelation. Besides describing the bible as divinely inspired, many Evangelicals would also use the words authoritative, infallible, and inerrant to describe scripture. Many others would like to qualify some or all of these adjectives. Some would like to drop the adjective inerrant altogether. But all would agree unequivocally that scripture has its source in God.

2. Atonement: Emphasis is placed on Jesus death on the cross and his atoning work by which humanity can be reconciled to God. Whereas other traditions would put the emphasis on God’s incarnation in Christ (eg. Eastern Orthodox) or on his resurrection (eg. Roman Catholics), it is the death of Christ that is central to Christ’s work in an Evangelical understanding.

3. Personal repentance and commitment: For Evangelicals, religious ceremonies and traditions are, at best, of minimal importance. Of more importance are a) personal repentance (some would go so far as to say this must include a conversion or born-again experience) and b) a personal commitment to follow Christ in all areas of life (ie. Christianity is not just about Sunday morning).

4. Evangelism: A commitment to tell the good news of Christ’s kingdom to others.

From my perspective, only the first characteristic (Biblicalism) initiates a significant challenge for Evangelicals when considering evolution. The other three can easily accommodate a gradual creation process. How God created does not in any way challenge our understanding that Christ died for our sins, that we need to personally repent and commit ourselves to be followers of Christ, and that we should be spreading the good news of Christ’s Kingdom to others. (You could argue that the whole discussion on the origin of sin is intimately tied to the concept of atonement. I don’t believe this is the case and think this issue requires a rethinking of the concept of “Original Sin” by all Orthodox believers, not just Evangelicals).

But the defense of the bible is very important. Actually, I should say it is essential. If our interpretation of scripture cannot accommodate the theory of evolution, we need to either abandon one or the other. For most Evangelicals I believe this is the crux of the matter. Very, very few actually have the ability or desire to look at the scientific evidence. The decision against evolution is made primarily because of the perceived conflict between scriptural truth and scientific claims. What’s the point of looking at the scientific evidence? Either we are wasting our time (ie. Examining a hypothesis that is logically impossible) or worse, we are entering a quest that could prove our faith is a sham. For this reason, I think it’s important to first discuss the theological implications of evolution, and how evolution can be reconciled with biblical truth. That is why on this blog, at least initially, I’ll be putting more emphasis on posts that deal with the theological implications of evolution rather than the scientific evidence for evolution.

It is my contention that the Creationistic belief held by many Evangelicals is not simply poor science, it is also poor theology, and employs poor biblical interpretation. In fact, rather then defending the Living Word, it constricts the message. Rather than giving the scripture its proper place as the revelation of God, it turns it into an object of idolatry more in line with a Muslim view of the Koran.

Some Recommended Further Reading:

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Some thoughts on the CRC and evolution

Update March 13, 2010: Since this post was published almost 3 years ago, there have been a few guest-posts on this site that provide much more detailed thoughts on the CRC and evolution.

I’d like to throw out a few (maybe somewhat random) thoughts on the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) and evolution.
  • It is my perception that those with CRC upbringings find the topic of evolution less threatening to their faith. There is often tension, but not nearly as significant as the tension in Evangelicals with other backgrounds. I believe the reason for this is that the CRC has virtually no ties to the American Fundamentalist controversies in the early 20th century. Maybe someone who knows more about CRC history can comment.
  • It is also my perception that a significant number of CRC academics are involved in the evolution / faith discussion. However, the CRC still officially rejects evolution. This was the decision of the 1991 CRC Synod. Overtures to have this changed have been rejected. The church’s official position on creation states “The clear teaching of Scripture and the confessions rules out holding views that support the reality of evolutionary forebears of the human race”. See: http://www.crcna.org/pages/positions_creation.cfm.
  • Some really great science / faith resources can be found on Loren Haarsma’s (Physics Prof at Calvin College) web page at: http://www.calvin.edu/~lhaarsma/scifaith.html

Monday, 21 May 2007

Evangelicalism: Not simply "Toned down Fundamentalism"

This is the first of four posts that provides an overview of the history & character of Evangelicalism, its historic response to evolution, and why the discussion of evolution matters today.

Being an Evangelical can be embarrassing. After all, the popular impression, fueled somewhat by the media, is that Evangelicals are simply those Christians that are a) political right-wingers and b) anti-intellectual and anti-science. And the media can uncover and recount enough stories and sound bites to reinforce this impression.

Those with just enough understanding of Evangelical history to be dangerous would describe it this way:

  • Fundamentalism is a reactionary Protestant movement born in the early 20th century in the southern US. Its two defining characteristics were anti-evolutionism (with the Scopes Monkey trial in 1925 being the critical event) and anti-communism.
  • After WWII, the Fundamentalists redefined themselves as Evangelicals, toned down their rhetoric, and shifted their message to “being born-again”. However, this “kinder, gentler” Fundamentalism is still right wing and anti-science (and anti-evolution) at heart.

This characterization is wrong at so many levels that it’s difficult to know where to start. I certainly can’t untangle all these knots in a few blog entries. What I would like to address are the incorrect assumptions that 1) Evangelicalism is simply an outgrowth of Fundamentalism, 2) anti-evolutionism is inherent in Evangelicalism because of its characteristics, and 3) from the beginning Evangelicals were uniformly hostile to evolution. This post will deal with the first assumption.

The roots of Anglo-American Evangelicalism lie in the 18th century “Great Awakening”. Starting around 1730 great revivals swept through British and American churches led by evangelists like John Wesley, George Whitefield, and Jonathan Edwards. The emphasis of these revivals was personal repentance, Christ’s forgiveness, and conversion to a new life. What Wesley, Whitefield, and Edwards preached against was “dead religion”, an outward appearance of religion without true inner repentance.

Although new denominations were formed because of the Great Awakening (eg. Methodists), the revival also affected most protestant churches. People were encouraged to repent and commit their lives to Christ, but were not necessarily encouraged to abandon their denominational allegiance. Thus, unlike many other revolutions in the church and in Christian theology, the key result was not the formation of a new breakaway group of Christians that forged a new path on their own. Rather, these new ideas permeated virtually all protestant denominations. Even today, more than 250 years after the Great Awakening, most protestant denominations have an Evangelical component.

Fundamentalism on the other hand, was born in the early 20th century in the US. Between 1910 and 1915, a prominent group of Evangelicals published “The Fundamentals”, a series of books that outlined foundational doctrines for Christianity. This was meant to be a defense of the Christian faith, and especially of the scriptures, against modern theology and biblical criticism. Although the books themselves were measured in tone, they served as a rallying cry after WWII when conservative Evangelicals voiced militant opposition to modern theology, the cultural changes that modernism endorsed, and modern scientific ideas, particularly evolution. This resulted in schisms in several denominations between poles that were now termed “Liberal” and “Fundamentalist”.

The defining moment of Fundamentalism’s birth was the “Scopes Monkey Trial”. In 1924, a public school teacher named John Scopes was charged in Tennessee with teaching evolution, something that was forbidden by state law. Although the Fundamentalists won the legal war, they were widely ridiculed in the press and wider society, and thus lost the public relations war. This event was influential in the Fundamentalists sharp withdrawal from society. Whereas Evangelicals had always participated in wider culture and had been part of the American establishment, Fundamentalists now separated themselves from what they saw as “an ungodly society”.

Around 1950 the moderate evangelical voice reemerged under the leadership of the likes of Billy Graham. Rather than separating themselves from the wider culture, with a focus only on a defense of the bible, these Evangelicals again emphasized telling the good news of Christ’s kingdom. No longer were they content to sit on the sidelines. If they needed to work with “Liberal churches” to promote the gospel, so be it.

The above is obviously an extremely short summary of Evangelical and Fundamentalist history; many important themes have not even been touched, and some of my statements should probably be more nuanced. However, the key points are these.

  • The birth of Evangelicalism preceded the birth of Fundamentalism by almost 200 years. Thus it is not correct to call it the progeny of Fundamentalism.
  • Whereas Evangelicalism was primarily a positive movement (promoting the gospel), Fundamentalism was primarily a negative movement (against modern biblical interpretation and scientific theories that contradicted the bible). While Evangelicalism wanted to engage the wider culture, Fundamentalism wanted to withdraw from the wider culture.
  • The Evangelical reemergence in the mid-20th century was not simply a maturing or modification of Fundamentalism. Rather, it was a rediscovery of its character prior to the onset of Fundamentalism.

So what can we conclude about the relationship between Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism and why does it matter? The popular impression that Fundamentalism is either equivalent to, or the root of, Evangelicalism is wrong. However, it is clear that the early 20th century Fundamentalist phase still influences Evangelicalism. In “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind”, historian Mark Noll refers to this phase as “The Intellectual Disaster of Fundamentalism”. I would agree that the influence has been primarily negative. At best, Fundamentalism was an extreme phase from which Evangelicals eventually emerged. At worst, fundamentalism is a cancer from which we are still trying to recover. The recent interest in “Creation Science” by Evangelicals leads me to believe that we have not completely rid ourselves of this disorder.

Recommended Further Reading:

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Scripture or Science: Do we have to Choose?

What an awful choice. Do we actually have to choose between believing scientific claims and trusting in the bible? Can we trust the evidence readily apparent from our collective five senses? Or should we instead believe the knowledge provided by God through the divinely inspired authors of the scriptures? Is it really God’s word or the credibility of Science?

For many Evangelicals, “Scripture or Science” is not only a legitimate question, it is THE critical question with respect to science, and not actually a tough call to make. “No apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the Scriptural record,” affirms the statement of faith of the most prominent YEC organization “Answers in Genesis (AIG)”. They state unequivocally that our confidence must be placed in the knowledge provided by scripture, not that given by science. History, it is claimed, has spanned less than 10,000 years from the time of Adam to the present, and if atheistic scientists have different answers, they are severely mistaken or probably lying. The dating mechanisms used by scientists are fallible; the bible is not. Evolution is a wild theory built on extrapolations from only a few fossilized bones, and is synonymous with the term “missing link” because of its inability to demonstrate even a single change from one species to another over time. Science indeed may have some answers, but the typical Evangelical attitude is to treat it with suspicion.

However, we live in a world where the results of science are obvious and widespread. In the past few centuries western civilization has been revolutionized by breakthroughs in physics, chemistry, medicine, industrial engineering, and electronics to the point that day-to-day life would be virtually unrecognizable by even our great-grandparents. Although the benefits of the technology based on these scientific breakthroughs are sometimes debatable, there is no question that science “gets a lot of things right”. This causes tension for Evangelicals who have been told to “trust the bible over science”. If science “gets it right” so often (eg. we can put a man on the moon, perform heart transplants, clone sheep, and build nuclear power plants), why do entire fields of academia like anthropology and biology get it so wrong? What if they aren’t wrong? What if it is bible that is wrong?

This tension was very real for me growing up in a conservative Evangelical culture. I certainly felt apprehension as I approached high school courses in history and biology that taught ancient hominid development and evolutionary theory. What I learned was that science and early human history were something to be feared, something dangerous to faith, and something to be avoided. After those initial courses, I registered for no more classes in history or biology.

My intellectual and spiritual journey out of this fear has been circuitous and complicated. Maybe all journeys are. Now, more than 25 years after my first introduction to evolution, I no longer fear either history or science. In fact, I relish opportunities to immerse myself in both. And I do not believe I’ve had to abandon scripture to accept scientific consensus.

What I have concluded is that the choice between science and scripture is not only a false choice, it is a heretical choice, a choice that God hates. Far from defending the integrity of creation, I believe this “science or scripture” choice diminishes and demeans creation. God has revealed himself to us in both the book of his works (creation) and the book of his word (scripture). He wants us to understand both. We do not defend God by placing one book in opposition to the other. By doing this we are challenging his trustworthiness.

Evangelicals that compare fallible human scientific conclusions with the infallible word of God miss a significant point. Not only do fallible humans interpret scientific facts, they also interpret the bible. Just as fallible humans can misinterpret the evidence of creation, so too fallible humans can misinterpret the scriptures. God is the ultimate author of both creation and scripture and so the two books will be consistent and will not provide contradictory guidance. However, since humans interpret both of God’s books, using the tools of science and philosophy to interpret creation, and using the tools of theology and hermeneutics to understand scripture, there is the potential for conflict between a human understanding of the two books. It is the filters we use to perceive the truth that results in discord, and not an inherent disharmony between the two truths.

Part of our problem, I believe, is the Evangelical tendency to insist that everything must be simple, clear, and understandable. Unfortunately the bible is sometimes complex, ambiguous, and very difficult to understand. It was set in a culture that as foreign to us as ours would be to the ancient Hebrews. Thus, we have to deal with many seemingly contradictory concepts even when dealing only with the book of scripture. In the past, Christians have been able to resist the urge to ignore or abandon difficult scriptures that seem to contradict others. We may not completely understand God’s revelation in scripture, but that does not diminish its stature as God’s word.

For example, in the 2nd century, Marcion insisted that the Christian canon should not include the Hebrew Scriptures (the Christian Old Testament). He could not reconcile the God of love, compassion, and sacrifice revealed in Jesus Christ with the Hebrew God who, for example, ordered the genocide of the Canaanites in the days of Joshua. Later, during the reformation, Luther considered excluding the book of James from his New Testament since he felt it contradicted the theology of justification by grace alone. Christians resisted both of these urges and today our canon includes an eclectic group of writings, writings that sometimes seem to contradict each other, but all of which we maintain is God’s word. Why then do we insist that the evidence of God’s creation must be immediately discounted whenever it seems to contradict a possibly fallible interpretation of Genesis?

For Evangelicals, it is not a question about which of the two books we should read, but how we read them and in which order. Even though God’s revelation through his creation was initiated prior to his revelation through the scriptures, it is the bible that precedes creation from a theological point of view: that is, it provides a more direct revelation of God, his character and his plan. Nature should be read as a sequel to scripture. What we discover there should be put in the context of the theological framework we build from a careful reading of the scriptures. Sometimes we may need to wrestle with our interpretation of specific scriptures based on our findings in God’s creation. However, a theology built on nature must be dependent on a theology built from scripture, and not the other way around.

For example, we hear interpreters of science claim that creation has no purpose, that humanity’s existence is but an accident, and that nature demonstrates that the creator is cruel. If we only read the book of nature, this could be a reasonable conclusion. However, by first reading the scriptures, we understand that God is good, his creation is good, he has a purpose for creation, and humanity was created to be a steward of creation. We can thus conclude that although the data behind the scientific claims may be correct, the philosophical interpretations and extrapolations are not.

There are times however, when evidence from God’s creation can help highlight poor biblical interpretation. For example, the scientific evidence for an extremely old universe and earth is overwhelming. What then should we do with interpretations of scripture that claim the universe and earth were created less than 10,000 years ago? Some creationists have argued that the universe only appears to be old. Thus its “apparent age” is much older than its real age. The problem with this strategy is that it is difficult to determine where “apparentness” begins and ends. What is real, and what is only apparent? Is it only astronomical findings (age of the universe) and geological findings (age of the earth) that are “apparent”? What about human history? Can we trust anything that history tells us of past human cultures? Did God somehow mess with time at some point in the past? How do we know anything that science tells us is true? For example, maybe the Earth only appears to be round but is actually flat.

The logical inference of “apparent age” completely contradicts what we know of God and his creation. Creation is real, not some “Matrix-like” illusion. He is a loving God that has made a good, orderly, and understandable creation; he is not a deceiver that has created some type of prank on humanity. His revelation, whether by creation or his word, is not something that is secret, available to only the chosen few who understand what is real, “Gnostics” with a monopoly on true knowledge. His revelation is for all, whether that be the message of redemption in scripture, or the message of creation. Thus, in this instance, the book of God’s works should guide us to look more closely at his word in Genesis. Just as creation provides the possibility for unbelievers to acquire some knowledge of God (Rom 1:20), we need in humility to accept that God, through his creation, can also guide Christians to rethink erroneous assumptions about scripture.

So this choice, science or scripture, is completely unnecessary. In fact, we need to honour both scripture and science since they both come from God. If we study science with discernment & integrity, and study the scriptures with the same level of discernment and integrity, I believe we can find harmony. Unfortunately, the interpretation of both is often done without the required level of discernment or integrity, and perceived contradictions result. Sometimes agreement is found only because the interpretation of both is abused. But that is a post for another day.

Friday, 11 May 2007

What to expect from this Blog

The Blog welcome note outlines my objectives for the blog, but I should also provide an explanation on how I expect this conversation to work. First of all I don’t intend to post three times a day like many other blogs. I simply don’t have the time for this and, anyways, the topic is hardly conducive to light banter. For me at least, some of this stuff is really difficult to work through and I need time to formulate these articles. I’ll probably post a longish article once a week or so. In between, I may also provide some quick smaller posts on interesting items I’ve read or links to interesting stories and websites.

Conversation necessarily goes both ways. So I am looking forward to your feedback, either through comments on the site, private emails, or face-to-face conversations. However, many of you, for various reasons, may not wish to actively engage in conversation and would rather simply listen; others may not even wish to go that far. I respect that. For those of you that know me personally, I am not going to force anything. On the topic of Science and Faith, I will not be initiating the conversation beyond what is posted in this blog. Of course, I’m always happy to converse should you initiate a discussion.

For those who do wish to participate, I’m interested to hear your thoughts. What topics would you like to see discussed? What are the most significant questions you have in regards to science and faith? Is the science / faith dialogue a big deal for you personally or something less important? I do have somewhat of a plan for topics that I will cover, but I’m open to suggestions for changing the order or focus.

Some topics that I’m planning to write about include:

  • What is an Evangelical anyways? I’m almost embarrassed by the term because of, among other things, the connotations of right-wing politics and anti-intellectualism. I’ll provide an overview of the Evangelical movement (at least from my point of view. Hint: it’s not “just toned down fundamentalism”) and why I think it’s important to retain the name even if it is somewhat tarnished.
  • Why I believe the topic of evolution is important for Evangelicals. Why we should neither “just ignore those American Fundies and get on with it”, nor “just ignore science and focus on more important things”.
  • What are the various creationist positions?: Confused with all the different types of Creationists? I’ll discuss the spectrum of Christian views on how to reconcile scripture and science. Positions include flat-earth (This belief still exists!), geocentricism, YEC, various OEC theories (day-age, gap theory, progressive creationism), and different flavours of ID and TE.
  • False Dichotomies: Continuing on the theme of Wednesday’s post that we don’t need to choose between creation or evolution.
  • Why I’m very uncomfortable with the Intelligent Design movement: ID has enjoyed huge support among Evangelicals, and significant coverage in both the Christian and secular media since its inception 15 years ago. How can I possibly not support a movement that is trying to demonstrate the natural world infers an intelligent designer?
  • The Scientific Evidence: Some brief overviews of the scientific evidence for an ancient creation, as well as evidence for evolution from the fossils, geographic distribution, and genetics with pointers to links on the web for further reading.
  • Challenges to Evolution: An overview of some of the challenges to evolutionary theory. And here I don’t mean the bogus arguments put forward by anti-evolutionary organizations. There are still some very big unanswered questions that most serious evolutionary scientists will readily admit.
  • Sin, Death, and Evil: A series of posts on the relationship between sin, death, and evil. Ultimately a discussion on theodicy. Ie. If God is all-powerful, all knowing, and perfectly good, why does evil exist? And “Adam and Eve ate the apple so Tsunami’s happen” just doesn’t cut it. This is actually the biggie for me.

I look forward to your input.

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

"Is it farther to Vancouver or by Bus?” and other silly questions

Come on. Make a choice. This is a simple black and white question. It’s one or the other. Either it’s farther to Vancouver or it’s farther by Bus. Quit asking qualifying questions like: “Are we starting this journey in Toronto or Victoria?” or “What is the distance via rail vs. the distance via the highway”. And don’t tell me the question itself is ridiculous. That would only demonstrate you do not trust Bus travel. Stop pulling out your map of Canada. Do you actually trust that map designed by the anti-bus association? Do you even believe in the authoritative King James bus route map? Maybe you aren’t a real bus rider after all?

In the Evangelical community the choice is almost always framed as evolution or creation – one or the other. Either God created life in all its diversity, or life came into being via the mindless, purposeless mechanisms of evolution. It’s a choice between the authority of the bible (God created) and the authority of the scientific community (life evolved). Unfortunately, this is the way the choice is also framed by the popular media. Hardly a week goes by without the appearance of a “Creation versus Evolution” article in a major newspaper or magazine.

This, in my view, is an entirely false dichotomy. Creation and evolution are not mutually exclusive concepts. On the question of origins, creation answers the “who” and the “why” of the formation of life, and of humanity in particular. It was God who created the universe, earth, life, and a spiritual species called humanity, a unique species to love him, worship him, and care for his creation. Evolution on the other hand (along with cosmology and geology) is a scientific framework based on the evidence that describes the “when” and the “how” of God’s creation. Apparently God is content to take a very, very long time to complete his work, and to utilize a method that, by modern engineering standards, seems wasteful and inefficient.

Evolution does raise many legitimate questions for orthodox Christians who take seriously the authority of scripture. How can the billions of years required by evolution be reconciled with the chronology in Genesis? If evolution explains the mechanisms so well, is there room for God in the process? Did he just start things off and disappear? If God slowly molded us in his image, using pre-existing creatures, at what point in history does this image occur? How does the central story of the fall fit into the story of evolution? If countless creatures lived and died, and if a multitude of species went extinct long before the arrival of humans, how can we seriously connect human sin as the root cause of pain and death? How does evolution fit in with our eschatological hope of resurrection? These are tough questions and ones we must wrestle with.

However, just because evolutionary theory provides details of the “how” and “when” of human origins, this does not mean we need to abandon our answers to “who” and “why”. We may need to reevaluate some of our ideas connecting the “who” and the “how”, but assenting to creation does not automatically imply a “no” to evolution. Agreeing with evolutionary theory does not automatically imply a “no” to creation. The answer to one is independent from the other. To insist that the mechanism of evolution is equivalent to the absence of God is illogical, as silly as forcing a choice between a destination and a mode of transportation.

Over the coming months in this blog, I’ll be examining some related choices that have been articulated by some Evangelicals, choices I believe are also false dichotomies. These include the following:

  • Scripture or Science: we must trust the infallible word of God or a fallible scientific interpretation of nature
  • Literal or Liberal: Scripture must be interpreted literally or we must accept a “Liberal” view of scripture that eliminates the divine as its source.
  • Design or Evolution: Either God in his sovereignty designed the universe, the earth, and life in all its diversity, or it came into being via mindless and purposeless evolution through blind chance.
  • Anti-evolution or Pro-atheism: We must either vigorously oppose all types of evolutionary origin explanations, or support godless naturalistic explanations for origins, and thus reject God as the source of creation.
  • God’s Image or Primate progeny: Either God made us in his image, or we evolved from apes.
  • Intervention or Absence: Either God’s actions must be described as an intervention in his creation, or he is absent from creation.

I believe all of these choices are flawed. None of us need face these theological catch-22s. I firmly believe that Evangelicals can support the scientific model of evolution, and remain faithful to the message of creation in scripture.

This is not simply mushy relativism, avoiding the hard choices, having our cake and eating it too. For Evangelical Christians, there are real choices. Do we acknowledge that scripture is God’s divine revelation to humanity? Do we trust it? Do we acknowledge the God of Love who is also the creator and sustainer of the universe? Maybe most importantly, do we believe, despite what modern science states is possible, that the resurrection is real, that it is the reason for our hope both for the present and the future? For me, overwhelming evidence that Christ did not rise from the dead would dramatically affect my faith; overwhelming evidence that creation is ancient and that humanity is the product of evolution has not detracted from my faith at all. In many ways it has enhanced it.

And if I ever go to Vancouver by bus, I’ll let you know how far it is.

Friday, 4 May 2007

Welcome to the Dialogue

Dialogue rarely describes the relationship between evangelicals and evolutionary science. Perhaps debate, condemnation, or mocking, but rarely dialogue. And the lack of dialogue and propensity to condemn and mock goes both ways. Evangelicals condemn evolutionary science as atheistic; evolutionists mock evangelicals as being little better than medieval religious nutcases. Prominent evangelicals will debate evolution, but as in most debates, there is little real listening. It’s all about scoring points and winning the argument.

So it can be a bewildering experience for thoughtful evangelicals trying to determine the credibility of the theory of evolution. On the one hand, the scientific community, almost unanimously, considers it to be an undeniable fact. The evidence is deemed as compelling as other obvious scientific facts like gravity and heliocentricism. On the other hand, Young Earth Creationist (YEC) organizations (largely Evangelical in outlook) boldly claim that there is absolutely no evidence to support evolution, or that the evidence is either fabricated or grossly misinterpreted. Even more disconcerting is the fact that the shrillest voices on both sides of the debate agree that evolution has huge religious implications. “Evolution is true, and its clear implication is that there is no God”, says one atheistic evolutionist. “The acceptance of evolution means denying the Word of God” counters YEC.

Since the choice is framed as either "Evolution or God", its no wonder that most Evangelicals shy away from talking or thinking about evolution. Theistic Evolutionism (TE) seems more like an oxymoron rather than a legitimate position on origins. This was my own perspective growing up in a conservative Evangelical culture. And although I became less dogmatic about my opposition to evolution as I entered adulthood, it was not something I thought much about. That is, until a few years ago when it became obvious that my 9-year old son was starting to have questions about science and faith, questions I myself had faced when I was younger but was maybe too afraid to discuss, or to investigate too deeply. Thus started a quest to investigate "the truth" of evolution and its implication for my faith. Sometimes courage to face our fears comes not because we are courageous, but because the alternative is deemed even worse.

Now, several years into this quest, one thing is eminently clear: I was immensely na├»ve to think that I could answer all my questions one way or another regarding the interaction of evolution and the Christian Faith – at least in this lifetime. Indeed, as soon as one question is answered, two more seem to pop out of the woodwork. As well, this type of investigation requires specialization in biology, geology, genetics, biochemistry, paleontology, anthropology, theology, history, history of science, philosophy, philosophy of science, and biblical studies to name but a few of the disciplines. Even brilliant academics with doctorates in 2 or 3 of the disciplines need to “trust the experts” in fields in which they are unfamiliar. I am, at the very best, a rank amateur in only of few of these disciplines; in most I am virtually illiterate. It’s clear that I will never be able to completely close the book on this quest.

However, I have come to some broad conclusions. The first is that biological evolution, including common descent of humans from pre-existing animals, is the framework that best matches current scientific evidence for describing how life developed on earth. Second, and more importantly, I believe that the idea of God creating through evolution is compatible with the Christian faith, an Evangelical expression of this faith, a faith that does not compromise the divine inspiration and authority of the scriptures, and is in fact theologically more satisfying than creation without evolution.

For many Evangelicals these are heady, if not heretical, conclusions. I disagree. Neither do I believe my Evangelical card should be confiscated because of them. (Although frankly, at times, I feel like voluntarily turning it in. That’s a different story). I am certainly not alone. There is a growing chorus of evangelicals who accept the science of evolution, and feel that this in no way compromises their biblical faith, nor is it the first step on the slippery slope to liberalism. Although YEC and Intelligent Design (ID) proponents tend to drown these voices out, it is likely that this discussion will become more prominent in the near future; and more heated. It’s still unclear whether mainstream evangelicalism will ever accept the possibility that TE proponents can even legitimately use the label Evangelical.

And that brings us to the reason for this blog – a dialogue. The current relationship between evolution and evangelicalism can best be characterized as warfare. I believe that ending this warfare will be good for science, and much more importantly, good for the gospel. Our Christian commission is to tell the good news of Christ’s resurrection, his present and coming kingdom, his new creation. The evangel in evangelicalism should remind us of this everyday. And I strongly believe that our misguided war on science in general and evolution in particular is hurting the gospel; it is preventing many from hearing and responding to the good news. And it is causing some who have heard and believed to now doubt whether it is good news at all. Dialogue is the first step towards a ceasefire.

As many of you know, I have been writing an essay on evolution and its implications for my faith. This is now on hold. I believe that this blog is a more appropriate communication vehicle than an essay. There are two reasons for this. 1) Since I am still in mid-journey, a blog allows me to share thoughts, ideas, and conclusions even if those ideas and conclusions are not fully formed. There is also no requirement to connect all the ideas into a coherent story. 2) A blog invites comments, criticism, corrections, and conversation. Not only will this enhance my own understanding, but also it will make the spiritual and intellectual journey much more satisfying.

I welcome you to join the conversation.

PS: Note on comments. You are free to provide comments and/or questions on the posts online (see comments link at bottom of each post), but be aware that right now this is open to the public (ie. anyone can read and comment on any posts). To limit this I think I'd need all readers of the blog to signup for a gmail account - I'd prefer not to do this. However, I realize that some of you may be involved in Christian organizations that would not appreciate one of its leaders or members being involved in this type of discussion. If this is the case, you can email your comments to me privately and I promise to respect your confidentiality. Alternatively, you can post giving only your first name or even a pseudonym.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Perspectives on an Evolving Creation: A Review of Keith Miller's collection of essays

For most evangelicals wanting a friendly introduction to evolution from an evangelical perspective, one of the books I reviewed yesterday is adequate. However, I suspect that many readers grappling with both the science and the faith implications of biological evolution will need much more. I highly recommend Perspectives on an Evolving Creation edited by Keith Miller. This is collection of more than 20 essays written by primarily evangelical specialists including cosmologists, biologists, biochemists, anthropologists, geologists, historians, theologians, philosophers, and psychologists.

The entire second section (chapters 6-13) on the scientific evidence and theory is particularly good. Chapter 6 surveys the evidence for an ancient universe; Chapter 7 for an ancient earth. Chapter 8 reviews the evidence in the fossil record for common descent. This is of particular interest to evangelicals who have been repeatedly told that there "are no transitional fossils". Chapter 9 deals with the fact that most body forms appear "instantaneously" in the fossil record during the Cambrian epoch around 500 million years ago. Some anti-evolutionists have interpreted this “Cambrian Explosion” as evidence for special creation rather than continuous, gradual creation.. Chapters 10 and 11 deal specifically with the evidence for human evolution, while chapter 12 surveys the evidence for evolution from biochemistry. Chapter 13 is a direct rebuttal of Intelligent Design proponents who claim that the random, chance mechanisms of Darwinian evolution could not have resulted in earths amazingly complex organisms.

I found three essays in the third section on "Theological Implications" particularly helpful. In Chapter 14 Howard Van Til considers the implications of a universe that is capable of "creating itself". He argues that this in no way implies atheism and refers to it as a "Generously Gifted Creation". In Chapter 16 George Murphy examines the implications of evolution in the light of the crucified incarnate God. Finally, in chapter 20, Robin Collins proposes how evolution can be reconciled with the doctrine of Original Sin. (Frankly, this is an issue with which I still struggle).

Chapter 5 may be the best of the book. In "Does Science Exclude God? Natural Law, Chance, Miracles and Scientific practice" Loren Haarsma tackles some of the toughest questions regarding the interaction between evolutionary evidence and faith. He demonstrates that "Chance" in evolution is not an alternative explanation for God, that science (and evolution) is not intrinsically atheistic, that science does not exclude miracles, and that scientific explanations do not imply the absence of divine action. And he does it while writing one of the most readable, accessible chapters in the book.

Minor disappointment with the book: There was no index at all. Even books targeted to the general reader (eg. Falk & Collins books reviewed yesterday) have at least short indexes. Not sure why this more academic volume does not. Also, I would definitely have liked to see a bibliography or at least a "recommended further reading list".

In summary: There are very, very few books published that cover the intellectual ground like "Perspectives on an Evolving Creation". When you have a very limited choice, its fortunate when one of those choices is so good. I heartily recommend it.

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Evolution and Faith from an Evangelical Perspective: Recommended Introductory Books

1. The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief by Francis Collins

Collins is probably the most prominent Evangelical scientist today. As the Director of National Human Genome Research Institute, he lead the team that mapped and sequenced all the human DNA, arguably the greatest scientific breakthrough of the century. Collins grew up as an atheist and only encountered God in his mid-twenties as a medical intern. CS Lewis’s Mere Christianity was very influential in his spiritual formation.

Evolution was not something he ever questioned either prior to or after his conversion. “The Language of God” is not a defense of evolution per se – Collins primary objective is to show how scientific findings support belief in God. However, biological evolution is an integral part of this worldview that supports his theism. As such he rejects the findings of both the YEC and ID movements.

This book can function as a very readable introduction to evolution for evangelical Christians, or as an introduction to the Christian faith to those that are comfortable with the science, but unfamiliar with Christianity.

2. Coming to Peace with Science by Darryl Falk

Darryl Falk grew up in an Evangelical home but was always fascinated by natural science. This book documents his struggle, even from an early age, with the seeming contradictions being taught in science class and those taught in church. His objective is to present, as gently as possible, the evidence for evolution to an evangelical audience that is predisposed to be hostile to evolution. In fact, he for the most part avoids the use of the word evolution, and instead substitutes the phrase “gradual creation”. This book is not nearly as popular as Collins book but I liked it better for the simple reason that it spoke so directly to my own experience.

One small quibble with this one: although Falk provides an excellent analysis of evolutionary evidence and theological implications, he virtually ignores the topic of human evolution until one short section in his conclusion. I understand why he does this given the sensitively of this topic for evangelicals (after all, the evolution of single celled creatures into multi-celled creatures does not raise the same types of questions as that of human evolution). Still, this can be frustrating for those that want to grapple with the central problem head on.

3. God and Evolution: A Faith-Based Understanding by David Wilcox

Wilcox is a biologist who has long maintained that creation and evolution are not mutually exclusive. This book outlines his ideas on the integration of his science and his Christian faith. Of particular note are the excellent sections on human evolution. Unlike Falk, Wilcox does not shy away from the subject. He is a specialist in hominid evolution and covers the topic well.

4. “Evolutionary Creation: An Evangelical Approach to Evolution”, by Denis Lamoureux

Ok. I haven’t read this yet .... its still not published. Denis is a Canadian biologist at University of Albert who teach Science and Religion courses. You can view an outline of his forthcoming book at: http://www.ualberta.ca/~dlamoure/3EvoCrBk.htm. He also has some excellent online material on his web page, in particular, his essay “Evolutionary Creation” at http://www.ualberta.ca/~dlamoure/3EvoCr.htm .