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Sunday, 17 February 2008

Beware of Paradigms that begin with "E"

This morning our pastor’s message was entitled “The Story we Live By”. He told us that the Christian worldview was radically different from the worldview of modern culture. Those of us that profess to follow Christ will find ourselves fundamentally at odds with prevailing wisdom, or find ourselves fundamentally at odds with Christ’s radical teaching. He challenged us to rethink how and why we live the way we do: The meta-physical narrative of the “E” paradigm was simply not a story that Christians could subscribe too or live by.

For me, this was a sermon that spoke close to home. What exactly do I put first in my life? What paradigm drives my intellectual and spiritual growth? Am I blinded by the spirit of my own time? More importantly: How do I make choices in life – where exactly do I put my faith? Am I, like so many of those around me, a thrall to the “E” Paradigm?

This has been a big month for Evangelical leaders speaking out against an Evolutionary Paradigm. Last week I critiqued Tony Campolo’s warning. This week Chuck Colson added his voice against “Evolutionary Foolishness” (HT: Cliff) and Albert Mohler argued (yet again) that Christianity and evolution are irreconcilable. But my Pastor was not joining this chorus. Instead he was identifying a way of thinking much, much more pertinent to our culture, a disease that has affected nearly all of us: The Economic Paradigm.

For those of us that are rich (and, if you are reading this on the internet, you almost certainly qualify as a rich), how do we reconcile the fact that so much of our energy is expended appeasing the “God of Economics”? How do we reconcile Christ’s teachings with our own preoccupation with material things? How do we (in the West) live with the fact that much of the injustice in the world is due to economic systems that prop up our own lifestyle? It makes you think, or at least it should. It makes me think.

An economic paradigm has two chief (not necessarily bad) concerns: generating prosperity and distributing this prosperity. The two most notorious economic paradigms are of course capitalism and communism. Capitalism is pretty good at addressing the first concern (generating prosperity) at the expense of intolerable disparity in the distribution of this prosperity. Communism is very good at the equitable distribution of prosperity (at least theoretically) but generates no prosperity to distribute (ie. you end up with an equitable distribution of poverty). But both of these paradigms share the same assumption: that money is “a good way to keep score”. And, as my pastor noted, “Jesus thought money was a very bad way of keeping score”.

So for those that are concerned that Evolutionary Creationists like myself have been duped by the “Spirit of the Age”, and are bowing to the “God of Evolution”, I will say this. You are correct in warning us of the dangers in serving any God but the God revealed in scripture. You are correct that we need to carefully and critically consider scientific concepts that are often bundled with philosophical ideas alien to the gospel. You are correct that we do not always have good answers to tough theological problems raised by biological evolution.

But you are absolutely wrong to accuse us of abandoning the gospel. We haven’t. We don’t. We won’t. We too see the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as central to the good news. However, we also believe (unlike the vast majority of our Evangelical brothers and sisters) that God’s creation was accomplished through the gradual process of evolution. And before you offer to extract the “evolutionary paradigm” mite from my eye, maybe you should consider the “economic paradigm” log in your own.

And while you are at it, maybe you can help me with the same log in mine.

I’ll conclude this post with the conclusion of my post on Evolution and Morality:

Making an Evolutionary Paradigm (however it is defined) foundational for defining truth, making choices, and finding purpose is unacceptable for Christians. Our primary paradigm must be Christ-centered and biblically guided. If this approach is trumped by any other paradigm, whether a Democratic Paradigm, a Capitalist Paradigm, or an Evolutionary Paradigm, we have committed idolatry. Christians can of course hold democratic political ideas, capitalistic economic ideas, and evolutionary scientific ideas, but these ideas need to be secondary to, informed by, and measured against our primary paradigm, which is faith in Jesus Christ.


Peter Parslow said...

"unlike the vast majority of our Evangelical brothers and sisters"

do you have any statistics to support that, or are you just resignedly accepting the creationists assumption? (that they are the majority amongst evangelical Christians)

Cliff Martin said...

Peter, it may be different in the U.K (in fact, it is different!) and evolution, I'm told, is more acceptable among Canadians (where Steve lives). But here in the States, a majority of people in general, inside and outside the church, reject evolution. The statistics I've seen suggest that only 40 or 41% of the population of the U.S. accepts evolutionary science. I can assure you from my experience, inside the evangelical church, that number would be less than 5%. I belong to a somewhat free-thinking non-denominational network of believers. As an evolutionist in this group, I am practically alone among hundreds. Hopefully, that is changing.

Steve Martin said...

Cliff: I think you are right that biological evolution is accepted more widely in Canada than the US. Part of the reason is that Evangelicals are the primary force behind anti-evolutionism and the Evangelical population in Canada is much smaller proportionately. (It is unclear how big the Evangelical population is – for eg: see this EFC report: http://files.efc-canada.net/min/rc/cft/V01I02/Evangelicals_Canadian_Census.pdf ).

Peter: A recent Newsweek poll (http://www.ncseweb.org/resources/news/2007/US/20_a_new_creationismevolution_po_4_4_2007.asp)
found that 73% of Evangelical Americans believed that “God created humans pretty much in the present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so”. I couldn’t find any data on how many of the remaining 27% opposed evolution but I suspect that a majority of this 27% are OEC, not EC / TE.

re: Cliff's query on the UK: I suspect that UK Evangelicals are more tolerant of EC / TE than North American Evangelicals as, for the most part, you missed the whole fundamentalist catastrophe in the early 20th century. It is no coincidence that a disproportionate number of prominent Evangelical TE’s are from the UK (eg. McGrath, Polkinghorne, Alexander, Conway Morris).

Anonymous said...

Nice post! I'm not so sure that the criticism of Colson's little article is warranted, though. In that article, Colson criticizes what TE's would call "evolutionism" -- the notion that evolution provides an Explanation of Everything," including morality. I agree with Colson that evolution cannot fully account for morality and altruism and that the "image of God" implies something "more" in human nature than evolutionary theory can supply -- something that is beyond the competence of science to explain. I might disagree with Colson about the basic facts of biological evolution, but I think he is right about sociobiology.

Anonymous said...


Maybe I’m missing the point of your post but my comments are in a different direction that the others so far. I’m more interested in your Economic Paradigm concerns. I don’t quite agree with the statement “But both of these paradigms share the same assumption: that money is ‘a good way to keep score’.” I wouldn’t use the word “assumption”. The use of money to facilitate trade, whether in a capitalistic society or communistic, is necessary from the point of view of efficiency. (I can tell you that it would be really inconvenient if people started paying their electricity bills with wheat and chickens.) I also wouldn’t use the phrase “keep score” which implies winners and losers. It’s more of a way of keeping track, basically accounting (which I am currently studying). If we didn’t keep track (of our dollars or chickens), there would be chaos. I will agree that in both extremes, people will use wealth (number of dollars or number of chickens) as a way of keeping score which is not good or necessary. But this is a problem with people, not with capitalism or communism or any other economic paradigm.

Whether we live in a capitalistic or communistic society is irrelevant – the question is what is our motivation when we make a decision about how we generate or how we spend (distribute) our wealth? Are we motivated by greed? Trying to keep up with our neighbours? Are we being good stewards of what has been entrusted to us? Should I contribute more towards my retirement savings or give more to charity? If I give everything away, won’t I become a burden to others? But if I save everything for my retirement, am I not putting my trust in myself rather than God? Does my purchase of consumer goods (TVs, computers, toys, etc) contribute to the distribution of my wealth by providing employment for people all over the world? Perhaps it’s not the most effective way of distributing wealth, but is handing over cash better? (Give a donation to country and they eat for a week, stimulate their economy and they will eat for a lifetime?) These are tough questions. And they apply no matter what Economic paradigm you use. The temptation to love/worship money/wealth affects both the rich and the poor. It’s easy for both groups to fall into the trap of putting the accumulation of money (wealth) as the priority in their lives. Just take a look at who buys lottery tickets. Even people who should know better (like former Prime Ministers) act differently when someone hands them an envelope full of cash.

God has gifted some of us with the ability to generate wealth, provide employment for others, and improve the quality of life for people in areas of the world where they might not otherwise have opportunities. If they do this with the right motivation, then the log is not in their eye but perhaps in ours if we look on them with envy.


Steve Martin said...

Hi David:
I read Colson’s post again in light of your comments and I agree with your assessment re: Colson’s critique of evolutionism as a theory of everything. However, I have two concerns with Colson’s post (and a lot of other critiques of evolution by Christians).

1. These critics are not careful in distinguishing between different definitions of evolution and Darwinism. I am pretty sure that most of Colson’s readers would, from this article, conclude that “evolution” and/or “Darwinism” is one large package: ie. accept it all or none of it. This is an incorrect dichotomy as I posted. And this care in “defining the evolution we critique” is something I am personally striving for – maybe not always successfully.

2. I suspect that many of those like Colson that attack evolution are aware of the different definitions or aspects of evolution. However, they have absolutely no desire or intention of raising this because it doesn’t help their cause. Ie. They are picking the “worst” definition of evolution possible to critique (and the most ridiculous implications proposed eg. Pinker’s) and hope that this will taint all evolutionary ideas, including the science of biological evolution (eg. common descent). At best, this a good debating technique (ie. define a strawman) but a poor way to build understanding or dialogue. At worst, this is dishonest.

Hi Jac:
My main point re: “money being a good way to keep score” is that it assumes that “winning” is about acquiring (usually a lot of) material wealth – it doesn’t matter if you keep score with Canadian Dollars, Mexican Pesos, chickens, or jellybeans. It is this focus on material wealth rather than spiritual wealth that I believe is the problem. Again, Christians can hold capitalist economic principles, but they should not view everything (eg. relationships with family, friends, neighbours) through a capitalistic lens or paradigm. (And yes, your note on envy is bang-on – it’s the same problem – putting the focus on material rather the spiritual wealth). Capitalism can be a useful tool if exploited properly. Same with biological evolution.