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Monday, 9 June 2008

Evolution in Public Schools: A Threat or a Challenge?

This is a guest-post by Physicist Karl Giberson, and is the eighth installment in our “Evangelicals, Evolution, and Academics” series. Karl is the author of the book Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution.

America’s evolution controversy is rooted, curiously, in her noble attempts to provide every child with a free quality education. Early in the 20th century, when public schools began to educate students beyond the 8th grade, the curriculum included impressive amounts of science. And, although evolution in textbooks like that used in the Dayton school where John Scopes taught was a minor topic, students were bringing home accounts of origins at odds with what they were learning at home and in their churches. William Jennings Bryan was the first great champion of the idea that taxpayers should not have to fund schools that undermined their values.

Evolution in the Public Schools: A Recipe for Atheism and Moral Anarchy?
The public schools have remained the primary battleground for the origins controversy, particularly in the courts where endless challenges to the teaching of evolution have been launched by local school boards from Pennsylvania to Louisiana and California. Anti-evolutionary pundits like Phillip Johnson have charged the public schools with promoting atheism in the name of science, even suggesting that evolution is responsible for widespread moral anarchy of the sort we saw at Columbine.

Johnson is joined by crusaders like Ken Ham, the late Henry Morris, John Ankerberg, the late D. James Kennedy, Anne Coulter, and others who claim, as earnestly as any Old Testament prophet, that evolution is the basis for Nazism, homosexuality, rising divorce rates, pornography, drug addiction, socialism, atheism, and every other imaginable ill. School children are supposedly being taught to think of themselves as meaningless assemblages of molecules with no more purpose or meaning to their existence than the pencils in their desks.

These hyperbolic claims should raise our eyebrows. They certainly raised mine. Having known schoolteachers for all my life, from my sainted mother, to my sister and brother-in-law, to all the teachers I had in public school, to my countless students studying to become teachers, and so on, I simply could not imagine that any public school teacher anywhere would teach any of these things. These peculiar ideas are not in the textbooks; they are not natural extensions of evolutionary theory; they are very unlikely to be a part of the worldview of the teachers—so why are Johnson and Ham claiming children are being indoctrinated with these ideas? Do they know something we do not?

Research Reveals the Rhetoric is Wrong
My intuition gave rise to a modest research project a few years ago. My student, Tim Johnson, and I looked at the public school curriculum in Quincy, Massachusetts. Quincy schools, located on the bulls-eye of America’s bluest state, are hardly restrained by local conservatism and far beyond the reach of the creationists. There is thus no reason to suspect that public schools are constrained by any pandering to the foes of evolution.

As we expected, our examination of the textbooks and teaching standards, and our interviews with teachers confirmed that evolution was being taught with thoughtful and careful consideration of the concerns of the students. Religious issues were addressed directly in the classrooms and students were assured that evolution did not rule out belief in God as Creator. No doubt the imaginary wall between church and state was repeatedly breached by Quincy’s conscientious educators.

Our study, summarized in the article “The Teaching of Evolution in Public School”, concluded that there was “no evidence that public school teachers in Quincy are exacerbating tensions with students and parents in the way that evolution is presented; indeed, most of them are expending energy in minimizing such tensions…Quincy public school teachers are appropriately sensitive to the religious backgrounds of their students.”

We concluded there was no basis whatsoever for Johnson’s charge, in "Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds", that American educators have chosen to “tell the people that all doubts about naturalistic evolution are inherently absurd … and that their silly misgivings will be allowed no hearing in public education.”

Our research suggested exactly the opposite, and I suspect that this inference could be extended to the majority of public school systems in America. Anti-evolutionary pundits like Johnson and Ham are simply wrong. They are little more than shrill demagogues pretending to fight imaginary foes and selling lots of books in the process. Quincy public schools nowhere teach students that they are the result of “a mindless evolutionary process.”

The Theological Challenge for Evangelicals
This is not to say, however, that all is well and that evolution can be comfortably harmonized with traditional religious understandings. It is one thing to note that evolution need not exclude God as creator and quite another to show exactly how creation and evolution are to be harmonized. In "Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution", published this month by HarperOne, I offers some tentative suggestions in this direction. But this harmony comes with a price that many evangelicals may be unwilling to pay—the loss of some key aspects of the traditional creation story.

I suggest in Saving Darwin that we must abandon the historicity of the Genesis creation account. Adam and Eve must not be thought of as real people or even surrogates for groups of real people; likewise the Fall must disappear from history as an event and become, instead, a partial insight into the morally ambiguous character with which evolution endowed our species. Human uniqueness is called into question and we must consider extending the imago dei, in some sense, beyond our species. These are not simple theological tasks but, if we can embrace them, I think we may be able to finally make peace with Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.

There is a lot of work to be done. Evangelical churches have typically been unwilling to confront this topic—except to run off evolutionists like Howard Van Till when they become controversial—and it will be a great effort to reorient the teaching ministry of the church to bring it into alignment with the generally accepted ideas of modern science. But only when this task has been accomplished can we declare the war in the public schools to be over.


C. David Parsons said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Steve Martin said...

David Parsons: Your comment was deleted because it seemed to be a long cut&paste from your website and did not interact with Karl's post at all. You are free of course to share opposing viewpoints when they are relavent to the post at hand, but we are not looking for spam. thanks.

dopderbeck said...

First, on the "study" of public education: it seems to me that you can't draw any grand conclusions from a sample size of one school district in one town. My brother is a public school teacher, and the anectdotal evidence I have from him is that the science faculty are indeed hostile to any kind of religious belief.

Second, I think it's disastrous to assert that Christian theology "must" do the things you suggest. It seems to me that you're promoting a "warfare" view of faith and science from the "other side" of the aisle. The epistemology behind this seems jumbled as well. Why does theology not have a place the table in dialectical relationship with science?

Personally, I've been all over the map in trying to consider faith-science questions. I wish it were possible to make the kind of peace that you're suggesting. I wish I could simply identify as a theistic evolutionist. But this sort of thing is the reason I can't.

Our basic Christian story, at some point, is either true or it's not. I'll read the book, but it seems to me that these "musts" pass into the place where Christianity, not just "evangelical" Christianity, would have to be regarded as simply not true.

Mike Gene said...

Hi Karl,

It would seem to me that you share a basic agreement with the Creationists and ID Movement in arguing that acceptance of evolution not only entails some rather radical changes in core elements of Christian theology, but also in our social/political outlook. For example, “Extending the imago dei, in some sense, beyond our species,” takes one right into the animal rights camp and raises the question whether biologists are immoral for experimenting on other species.

Cliff Martin said...

My beliefs about evolution predispose me agree with Giberson, however ...

My initial response to the "study" in a Massachusetts school was the same as dopderbeck's. I would very much like to think that Giberson's extrapolation to "the majority of public school systems in America" is correct, but I doubt it. His painting of Quincy as a "blue state" hot-bed of progressivism ignores the fact that Massachusetts is also a hot-bed of Roman Catholicism, which has long been open to theistic evolution. I suggest that almost any school district in a West Coast state would yield very different results.

Giberson correctly notes that the harmonizing of Christian faith with evolution as a theological challenge for evangelicals. But I don't think his approach (tossing not only the details but also the essential spiritual truths of the Fall) will fly in evangelical circles. I find the selling of evolutionary science to my evangelical friends a daunting task even when I leave open the possibility of a literal Adam and Eve.

Gordon J. Glover said...

The modern mind likes to stuff narratives like the Garden of Eden story into predetermined categories like, "hostorical" or "literal" or "allegorical" etc. But I'm not convinced that ancient Near-Eastern modes of thinking demanded that sort of textual resolution - especially when discussing the ancient cosmogonies that played such a vital role in determining the identity of an culture, the character of the gods, and how everyday things like wickedness, death, decay and pain-in-childbirth happened upon us.

21st Century Western christians are very good at compartmentalizing our epistemology, but "history", "theology" and "science" were not really different categories of thought in Hebrew culture. When we moderns attempt to separate them, it forces us to make unfair judgements about the text. It is far more helpful to adopt a Hebrew mindset than it is to disect the story according to modern categories. I believe something gets lost when we do this.

The Garden of Eden narrative may have very well been a "non-historical" divinely inspired context - a cosmogonic "framework" from which to hang ultimate truths about God, Man, Sin and the promise that the "seed of the woman" will crush the "seed of the serpent" at his coming - so that finite man can relate to them. But I'm not too sure how far we can really alaborate on that idea without straying outside the bounds of evangelicalism. Of course, I'm always willing to test the waters!

I'm realy looking forward to this book, but in my discussions with a variety of folks on this issue, I've never found it helpful to make those kinds of theological demands - providing I'm correctly understanding what you're asking. My follow-up book to BTF, which is still probably a year out, also addresses these issues, so I am very interested in what you have to say. Thanks again for the contribution, Karl.

BTW, I read "Worlds Apart" a few years back and really enjoyed it.

Walt Carpenter said...

I think the bigger challenge is to convince Evangelicals that Mr. Gilberson is in fact a Christian. If you mythologize Genesis why not also John 3:16?

bobxxxx said...

Thanks for deleting the spam from C. David Parsons. He puts the same spam everywhere on the internet. I'm sick of seeing it.

"As we expected, our examination of the textbooks and teaching standards, and our interviews with teachers confirmed that evolution was being taught with thoughtful and careful consideration of the concerns of the students. Religious issues were addressed directly in the classrooms and students were assured that evolution did not rule out belief in God as Creator."

It's too bad biology teachers have to waste valuable class time accommodating students who have been brainwashed to believe in ancient creation myths. There wouldn't be any religious issues if there were no religions. Religions are good for nothing but getting in the way of science education and scientific progress.

There are Christians who are pro-science and they don't attack science education like other Christians do. That's great. They're on my side. Unfortunately I think they are still part of the problem. The Christian extremists who are constantly fighting science use the moderate Christians as evidence their Christian beliefs are normal. But there's nothing normal about any Christian belief. For example the Resurrection belief is pure insanity.

The United States is way behind the rest of the Western world in the acceptance of important scientific facts like evolution. The best solution for this disgraceful ignorance is somehow finding a way to rid America of Christianity. While I appreciate the moderate Christians who support science, I still think their religion has got to go.

Karl W. said...

Let me offer a few rejoinders to those who have responded to my blog.

Firstly, I understand that one cannot extrapolate from Quincy schools to all the United States. Nevertheless, in the absence of anything other than anecdotes, which are notoriously selective and partisan, our project at least offers actual data. We need more widespread research in this area, of course, but my instincts all tell me that there are no public schools anywhere telling children they are meaningless assemblages of molecules. I think that Ham and Johnson are way off base in getting Christians into hysterics about the way that evolution is taught. They don’t have data from even one school district.

As for the slippery slope that leads from Genesis 1:1 to John 3:16, I can only say that life is lived on that slippery slope. We don’t interpret the psalms literally, or demand that all of Jesus parables be about actual people. The question is: “What kind of literature is found in the first few chapters of Genesis?” Religion scholars from Augustine to Alister McGrath have found ample textual evidence for non-literal readings of Genesis. The demand that it be read as literal history is a recent development and owes more to Whitcomb and Morris’s classic of creationism, The Genesis Flood, than it does to Moses or whoever wrote the early chapters of Genesis. I don’t think Christians need to believe in talking snakes, or that all the animals in the world were named by Adam in a garden somewhere in Iraq. And, speaking of gardens in Iraq, a literal reading of Genesis suggests that the garden is still there, guarded by an angel with a flaming sword. (Perhaps that is the real reason why Bush was so eager to invade.)

As for the species question, I have to say that it gives me pause. I have a theologically sophisticated colleague who is vegetarian precisely because of the ambiguity about animal rights. I think there is a moral dimension to how we treat animals. I touch on this briefly in Saving Darwin. There are no easy answers, of course, but we should at least be aware that God may indeed love animals and our exploitation of them for our own pleasure may someday come to be seen in the same harsh light as the 19th century racism that was embraced by most Christians.

James F said...

Let me preface this by thanking Steve (both of them), Keith, Dennis, Rick, and Karl for this series. It has been both enlightening and encouraging and I look forward to more.

Although my personal experience is anecdotal, I must say that I never encountered hostility to religion in high school (or college) science classes in the New Jersey public education system. I've heard of science teachers teaching creationism, but not atheism. Hostility to creationism I can understand, or at least exasperation with it, and I think that the latter would be a fair characterization of my high school biology teacher's feelings. It's a tall order to deal effectively with anti-scientific viewpoints in a high school science class. I compare it to the difficulty in teaching science to a student who believes, for religious reasons, that the Sun orbits the Earth. There are exactly as many peer-reviewed scientific research papers refuting that the Earth orbits the Sun as there are refuting common descent of organisms (zero). One cannot force someone to accept an established scientific concept, but to pretend that there is scientific evidence to support a non-scientific concept is patently dishonest. By the same token, science must be taught with a neutral philosophy of methodological naturalism instead of one of philosophical naturalism. Not only is it illogical to conflate theology with science, but also it is illegal under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to inculcate a specific religious view (or an atheistic view). Ultimately, a personal admission of rejection of science is the honest course of action for the creationist, albeit a very unfortunate and unnecessary one.

Jimpithecus said...

Karl, thank you for your post. It is an idea that I have wondered about for some time. Here in Tennessee, as with many other areas of the south, evolution is simply not emphasized in the public schools. For home schoolers, such as my wife and I, the problem is worse. My wife and I were continually frustrated by what we saw were good curriculums (curricula?) in other areas of study that, when it came to science, swallowed the Young earth creationist' arguments hook, line and sinker. I will probably have to write my own biological science curriculum when my children come "of age." I have also wondered about this question from the opposite end of the spectrum: what if YEC supporters got their way and their arguments really were taught in a mainstream public school science class? I have long thought that such a scenario would have a devastating effect on the faith of your average child/adolescent, who would then see their cherished stories crushed flat. Sorry to prattle on a bit but your article got me thinking.

Looney said...

Well, I grew up in Tennessee not far from where the Scopes Trial was held. They taught us about evolution and that the Earth was one million years old. Otherwise, the science and math education was a sick joke. Fortunately, I was self-motivated and they put me on independent study, so that I was able to compete in R&D here in Silicon Valley.

My challenge is that America's government school education in science and math remains a sick joke, but this is covered up by the fact that the large percentage of America's researchers and engineers completed their high school education (and frequently their undergraduate degrees) overseas.

Overseas, evolution is taught, but it is secondary to engineering (i.e. the profession of intelligent design - which doesn't exist according to science). In the US, Darwin is a god, so the emphasis is far greater here. It really doesn't matter here if the children are functionally illiterate and can't pass the high school exit exam. No one will complain, unless we try to tell them that Darwin was wrong. Then the theologians will howl.

Steve Martin said...

(Note: In this comment, I’m going to reply briefly to several points in Karl’s post and the comments above. I will provide my own perspective & questions to Karl on his very provocative conclusion in a follow-up comment).

Re: the fact that the study on teaching evolution was confined to a single county (and maybe one that is not necessarily that representative). Maybe, as David and Cliff have indicated, we should be careful not to extrapolate these results. But I agree with Karl on this one. The results of one careful research study must carry more weight than all the anecdotal evidence.

Cliff, Mike: Yes, I agree that these kinds of investigations / claims can make it even more difficult for those of us that are EC / TE. (And we definitely don't need any more difficulties :-) )However, I don’t think that this should stop us from asking the tough questions.

Jim: Note that essay #10 in this series by Douglas Hayworth is on teaching science (particularly evolution) in a homeschool setting.

Bobxxxx: Are you the same person as the Bobc who commented a few months back? It sure sounds like it :-). I’m not exactly sure why you continue to leave these type of comments – it doesn’t look like you are really looking for a dialogue here. You may want to review various comments left by other atheists like (among others) Tom and Rbh over the last few months. Both probably share your perspective on most issues; however they are able to interact directly with the post & other comments (and in a respectful manner to boot) rather than simply lobbing grenades.

Walt: In a previous post to you, I believe I addressed the claim that questioning the historicity of Gen 1-11 (or Job or Jonah for that matter) means we may as well question the historicity of the resurrection, or even theological truths like John 3:16. (If I didn’t address this to you, I apologize – I’ve answered this quite a number of times and sometimes forget what I said to whom). In short, I do not believe this is a supportable claim; the resurrection is a historical (as well as theological!) truth. Some of the OT literature clearly provides theological truth, but not necessarily historical “truth”. I don’t want to debate this particular point here, but this is a very well accepted position by many Christians, including many Evangelicals. (And no, we don’t all agree on individual passage interpretations). The main point is that questioning someone’s faith because they do not agree with your particular interpretation is (at least) uncharitable.

Walt Carpenter said...


If you deny the historicity of Genesis 1-11 then you may be able to claim you're a Christian but certainly not an Evangelical. The Evangelical theological Society has adopted the Chicago Statements which affirms the historicity of Genesis. Just admit that you believe that Scripture contains error and I will then fully understand your position. But don't couch your beliefs as Evangelical Christianity. It is beneath you to refuse to be transparent.

Steve Martin said...

First, I’d like to thank you for the addressing these (very controversial) issues in your conclusion. Frankly, I think we often dance around the implications of evolution. Certainly, we as Evangelicals have hardly started the difficult theological work required. (And it is very telling that scientists, and not theologians, are leading the theological discussion). So again, thanks.

Now to my questions. You state that three changes must occur.
1. We must abandon thinking of Adam and Eve as real people or even surrogates for groups of real people
2. The Fall must disappear from history as an event and become, instead, a partial insight into the morally ambiguous character with which evolution endowed our species
3. We must consider extending the imago dei, in some sense, beyond our species

Of course, the majority of Evangelicals would strenuously claim that we must NOT do any of the above, and to do so would mean the abandonment of orthodox Christianity. My main question: I agree that the “must not”s are probably too strong. But why “must” we do any of these? Can we not live with the tension between the theological and scientific claims while further work proceeds? So, for example, in #1 I agree that there can be no single human couple from which all humanity is uniquely descended. However, there are theological models (eg. federal headship) where either a single couple Adam and Eve represent us, or even a small group of hominids (surrogates?) represent us. Must we abandon these theological solutions as well? (Maybe you address this more fully in your book).

So my answer to #1 would be neither “must” or “must not”. Ie. Our faith does not fall with the loss of the historicity of A&E. However, I’m uncomfortable stating baldly (like Denis Lamoureux) that “Adam and Eve are not historical figures”.

All: I kicked off a discussion on Karl's post this morning on the ASA list this morning so there is a parallel discussion going on there – some great comments. (But keep the comments / questions coming here too :-) ).

I’d like to highlight the response of Ted Davis (who will be concluding this series). Outstanding. It is the longest response in the thread but I highly recommend it.

Actually, just ignore everything I said above and read Ted's response - that is what I really mean to say :-).

Steve Martin said...

Hi Walt,
First, the ETS does not necessarily speak for all of Evangelicalism. (It certainly isn't our pope .. and the Chicago Statement is not our canon). I use John Stackhouse's definition of Evangelicalism.

But, more importantly, even those within the ETS that affirm inerrancy, do not necessarily affirm Gen 1-11 historicity like you'd like them to affirm. Peter Enns is an officer of the ETS, and his view of of both Gen 1-11 and innerrancy is considerably nuanced. Check out the last few posts on his blog.

Steve Ranney said...

re a historical Adam and Eve and the fall, I read a long time ago in something written by Davis Young an even longer time ago abou that issue, so it isn't anything new.

"Adam and Eve did not live earlier than around 8000 B.C., that is, roughly 10,000 years ago but evidence of humans is much older ... The fossil record of anatomically modern humans, however, extends at least 100,000 years before the present." (The Antiquity and the Unity of the Human Race Revisited, Davis Young)

I think he was getting the 8000BC date from the culture suggested by Cain and Abel with husbandry, etc.

RBH said...

I'm finding the ASA discussion very interesting. Let me comment on what seems to be a slightly peripheral question, #3 on the list of three "musts," that

Human uniqueness is called into question and we must consider extending the imago dei, in some sense, beyond our species.

Commenters on the ASA list seem to be interpreting that as meaning some sort of slide into the animal rights movement, or some such, and are summarily dismissing it. I don't think it means that. Let me explain why.

I've recently been thinking about that precise question, stimulated by a Christian's claim to me that as an atheist I must feel very alone, very isolated, since I am cut off from God. I'm drafting a longer response (since atheists face that and similar questions all the time), but I'll post a longish extract from my first rough draft here. I suspect (with no atheistic irony whatsoever) that it may capture something of what Karl means.

Alone in the Universe? Not me.

A common remark I hear from Christians and other religionists is that an atheist must feel very alone, very isolated. Not a chance.

Late every night, rain or shine, I walk my big dogs, Sherlock and Watson, usually between 1:00 am and 3:00 am. I live out in the country on 3.5 acres, and while there is some light pollution, the meadow up on the north end of the place is shielded by trees and there's a good view of the north and east sky from overhead to the horizon. When it's clear the stars are bright. The Great Bear circles around its smaller sibling with Polaris at the end of its handle. Depending on the time of year Casseopia swims in the Milky Way. Thousands of stars, occasionally with a meteor, the moon, or some planets.

And every night that I see the stars I think -- consciously think -- that I am made of star stuff, to steal Carl Sagan's phrase. Every atom in my body heavier than helium (and virtually all the helium, too) was manufactured in stars by the fusion reactions that produce their heat and light. At the end of those stars' lives the heavy elements -- carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and so on -- were flung into space when the stars went nova. Later, another star and its planets -- our solar system -- condensed out of the clouds of elements generated in those earlier stars and in the end, after millennia of chemical and biological evolution, those elements made me and my dogs.

So I am literally part of the universe: I am made of elements manufactured in stars. And I am aware of that fact every night when I walk my dogs.

And then there are my dogs, Sherlock and Watson. Both are strays -- they chose us, coming to the house out in the country without identification. In spite of our best efforts to find them, their previous owners never appeared, and so Sherlock and Watson have stayed with us.

Sherlock is a Doberman/Rottweiler cross, the best-natured dog I've ever had. Watson is a setter/something cross, and a goofball. Sherlock was in very good shape when he showed up, with a brand-new collar but no ID. Watson was full grown but was starving to death -- he weighed just 40 pounds and every bone in his body was visible. Now they're both around 70 pounds, sleek and healthy.

And they are my cousins. That's a fact of biology: My dogs are my cousins. Many times removed, of course, but we are family in more than the pet/master sense: we're "blood" relatives. So when I walk them up north every night, we're a genuine family walking together, three cousins, all of us made from the same star stuff. And I am consciously aware of that fact every night.

How much more connected can I get? I am directly connected to the physical universe, made of atoms manufactured in stars, and I am an integral part of the family of all life, cousin to everything that lives.

I'm not sure that's what Karl means, but it sure does get rid of any feelings of being isolated that I might have.

Cliff Martin said...


I'm inspired! And every word of your eloquent recounting of connectedness to the cosmos and all living things is something atheists and (informed) theists can share. For me, there is something very refreshing in sharing with you your awe and appreciation of transcendence (can I use that word?). While I conceive of Something beyond what you see, but I can certainly share all that you describe. In fact, I would enjoy such an early morning walk with you.

Thanks for sharing something so personal.

~ Cliff

RBH said...

Sure, you'd be welcome, cousin. :)

(BTW, as a long-time -- since 1973 -- volunteer firefighter, I approve of your business!)

Karl W. said...

I conclude Saving Darwin with my version of a “midnight walk with dogs.” In my version it is an annual canoe ride with my daughter to the beaver dam on a lake where I have a cabin. I concur completely with this viewpoint and I think we, Christians and atheists alike, should bow humbly in reverence before the deep truth that we are connected to the cosmos. I quite Joni Mitchell on this: “We are stardust, we are Golden. We are billion year old carbon.”

This insight owes much to Darwin and I like to think that Darwin did not “lower us” to the level of the animals, but raised the animals up closer to our level. The meaningful relationships we can have with dogs, the birds at our feeders, even the babbling streams and stoic forests all offer us something rich. I wish so much that evangelical theology was addressing these features of our experience, instead of arguing endlessly about inerrancy.

I did not intend for so much attention to be focused on my choice of the word “must” for I am fine with leaving some mystery in all this. But I think that conservative Christianity is so removed from science that we should be careful insisting on positions that were rejected long ago by scientists. Human beings are impossibly older than the Genesis story permits; they came from Africa, not the middle east; and they are not as distinct from animals as we used to think. We need to take those insights on board and deal with them, not keep inventing convoluted ad hoc hypotheses to preserve their historicity at the cost of credibility.

Christianity is about God’s revelation in Christ, not Adam and Eve.

steve r said...

Karl . . . I have a question re: your hermeneutics on Genesis. You seem to suggest that a non-literal reading of Genesis demands a non-historical understanding (maybe I'm misreading you here). Is it possible that a text could be non-literal (in that it uses metaphorical imagery) and yet still be historical (in the sense that it is describing events that actually happened)?

Steve Martin said...

RBH, Cliff: If two firefighers walk in the forest, does anybody hear the station bell? (I’ve got this line running through my head to the tune of Bruce Cockburn’s “If a tree falls” :-) )

Steve R: Most Christian scholars who maintain that Adam & Eve are historical figures, place them in this Neolithic period. The problem, of course, is that humanity was very human prior to this and even had religious rites. If Adam and Eve are pushed further back in history (to the point where religino started), they are no longer Neolithic and defending the “historicity” of Gen 1-4 becomes even more problematic.

Karl: Getting to Steve R’s & my previous question re: historicity of early Gen (say 2-11), and your qualification on your use of “must”, I THINK you are saying not that:
A) “Adam and Eve are definitely not historical figures” (something I have heard others say), but that

B) “Making the historicity of Gen 2-11 the point, or even an important part of the point, is dangerous / wrong. Sure, it is possible that the stories share some resemblance to historical figures (like what Dick Fischer is doing), but that is a) doubtful and b) irrelevant.”

Ok. That is putting a lot of words in your mouth. Actually, sorry, B) is actually MY position. I shouldn’t assume it is your position. But I’d be interested in your response.

All: Re: the image of God and relationship to animals. I certainly don’ t have all the answers, but here is what I said in my own Image of God post last year:

I believe that evangelical opposition to evolution from pre-existing animals has just as much to do with pride as with a desire to defend traditional interpretations of scripture. We focus more on our spiritual characteristics than our creaturely characteristics. In other words, we view ourselves as closer to God (because we share a spiritual dimension) than to animals (with whom we share the characteristic of being creatures of God). This is the same type of pride that Moses warned the Israelites about:

“It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the LORD set his heart on you and chose you--for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh, king of Egypt (Deut. 7:7-8).

The Israelites were “The Chosen” because God chose them, not for any inherent quality they possessed. And this bundle of molecules, genes, cells, and organs we call ourselves is the image of God because he bestowed it upon us, not because it is a particularly noteworthy bunch of molecules, genes, cells, or organs. As Jesus indicated, God could easily have called on other parts of creation to serve and worship him. (Luke 3:8, Luke 19:40).

Gordon J. Glover said...

All of this talk about the "historicity" or "non-historicity" of Genesis overlooks a very important point: the modern literary genre of "historical record" didn't exist during Old Testament times.

The purpose of history and historical narrative in the ANE was not to chronical the factual material details of actual events, but to create a narrative of events that, when properly interpreted, contributed to the identity of a culture.

The "events" that make up the narrative could have been actual, or loosely based on actual events, or fabricated, or borrowed from pagan stories, or rearranged chronilogicaly to strengthen a specific point, etc...

You can easily see this by comparing Chronicles with Judges to see how the two kingdoms interpreted and explained similar historical events, or how the NT authors interpreted and applied the OT (re: Inns I&I). These things would not qualify as "historical" according to modern literary categories.

Once we start asking questions about the "historicity" of Genesis, we have stepped out of the Hebrew mindset -- where the primary function of narrative is to contribute to the identity of a culture and explain the role of diety in human events -- and into the mindset of a 21st century post-enlightenment western person -- where history is recounted primarily to chronicle factual events as accurrately as possible to preserve a detailed record of human events for future generations. This is relatively modern invention.

Once we do this, we are sure to bring unrealistic expectations to the biblical text -- which cuases us to miss the point of it or read things into it that the authors never inteded.

Keith Miller said...

My very brief response to the list given by Karl:

1. We must abandon thinking of Adam and Eve as real people or even surrogates for groups of real people
2. The Fall must disappear from history as an event and become, instead, a partial insight into the morally ambiguous character with which evolution endowed our species
3. We must consider extending the imago dei, in some sense, beyond our species

The comments below were posted to the ASA listserve as well.

1) I do not think that the paleontological or anthropological record can resolve this question. The evidence for the descent of humans and the apes from a common ancestor argues against the special creation of Adam and Eve as physical beings. It would also argue against Adam as the genealogical ancestor of all modern humans. However, it does not exclude them from being historical individuals. I would argue that the historicity of Adam and Eve is a theological and hermeneutical question, not a scientific one. It seems to me that there is a scriptural basis for seeing Adam as a representative federal head of humanity. However, this is certainly not the only way to understand Adam.

2) I see the "Fall" as a symbolic account (this does not necessarily mean completely non-historical) of the rejection of God's will and purpose, and the deliberate attempt to place our own will first. This act of disobedience occurred with the first spiritually aware individuals, and characterizes the state of all humanity. We each receive the penalty of sin because we sin.

I do not see the "Fall" as being a fall from original perfection, but rather as a loss of innocence with the conscious awareness of, and desire to commit, evil.

3) As I have stated in various contexts in the past, my understanding of the image of God is that it is relational. It concerns our relationship with God, with Creation, and with each other. The "Fall" resulted in the distortion of all of those relationships (we are 'bent" to use C.S. Lewis' metaphor). The image of God does not have to do with our physical bodies or our mental capacities -- it has to do with the nature of our covenant relationship to God. Humans are uniquely in God's image in our special covenant relationship to God.

Karl W. said...

Since much of the discussion has centered on questions surrounding the historicity of Genesis, let me post an excerpt from Saving Darwin. This passage, which appears in an autobiographical chapter at the beginning, describes my slide down the slippery slope from creation to evolution. I highlight the issues as questions, rather than answers, since that is how I experiences it. The passage begins with the abandonment of the young earth, the most indefensible of all the creationist claims.

A billion-year-old earth demands that we reinterpret “the fall.” As long as Adam and Eve appeared in the same week as everything else, it was at least possible that their
“sin” brought unintended death and suffering into the world. But now it ap-
pears that death and suffering had been present for a billion years with entire
species going extinct long before humans appeared. Why would God cre-
ate species only to have them go extinct long before Adam even had time to
name them? Was this the same God who would later preserve every species
on the planet by having Noah build an ark to rescue them from the fl ood? If
extinction was normal, why did we need an ark? What, exactly, were the im-
plications of the fall?
The acceptance of an ancient earth brings other troubles. If we take the
geological record seriously, we confront fossils of what look like humans in
rock strata more than a hundred thousand years old. And these fossils look
as if they belong to a species that evolved from similar, earlier species. If we
line up all these species in historical order, we have what certainly looks
like a compelling narrative of human evolution from subhuman ancestors.
Where in this history do we place Adam and Eve? No logical place appears
in the unbroken sequence of human evolution for the famous residents of
the Garden of Eden. And where, exactly, was the Garden of Eden? The
Genesis story says that God placed an angel at the entrance to keep people
out, which certainly implies that it was to continue even after Adam and Eve
were expelled. We have no record of God closing it down. If God didn’t de-
stroy Eden, where is it now?
Doubts about the historicity of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden
make it hard to read the creation stories without asking additional difficult
questions. And fundamentalists in the midst of their theological breakdowns
look in vain to contemporary biblical scholarship for help. Al Truesdale, my
freshman Bible professor, had offered many helpful suggestions just a year
earlier, bless his heart, but I had rejected all of them. They now came rush-
ing back to haunt me. I found myself in an uncomfortable alternate reality
that was a strange and darkened mirror image of the fundamentalist world I
had inhabited for my entire life.
Fundamentalists find a satisfying harmony between science, as they un-
derstand it, and the Bible, as they interpret it. Their “science” is scientific
creationism, which gathers evidence for the Genesis creation story. Their
approach to the Bible is biblical literalism, which reads the text in the sim-
plest way possible. These approaches reinforce each other and make the
whole greater than the sum of the parts. But real science, which I was study-
ing in college, and contemporary biblical scholarship, which religion majors
were studying, conspire in such a way that the whole becomes less than the
parts. The Genesis story of creation loses all contact with natural history
and starts to look strangely like an old-fashioned fairy tale that might teach a
lesson, but certainly makes no claim to historicity.
I learned, for example, that the word we translate as “Adam” in our Eng-
lish Bibles simply means “man” in Hebrew. And “Eve” means “woman.” I
began to wonder how an old story about a guy named “Man” in a magical
garden who had a mate named “Woman” made from one of his ribs could
ever be mistaken for actual history. And yet this was exactly what I had be-
lieved just one year earlier. Talking snakes, visits from God in the evening,
naming the animals—the story takes on such a different character the mo-
ment one applies even the most basic literary analysis.

Stephen Douglas said...

Great discussion, guys! This is my kind of topic - but between the recent comments by Karl, Gordon, and Keith, I have nothing I could add. I can't wait to read your book, Karl!

(I would point out, though, that "Eve" doesn't mean "woman" but "life". Is there something I'm missing? Your point still stands, but this just stood out to my nitpickiness.)

steve r said...


I read with interest the excerpt from your book. I'm jumping into this discussion a bit late in the game . . . I'd like to press you a bit on a presupposition regarding hermeneutics (again, correct me if I'm wrong here). You seem to be saying that either a person has to take a literalistic view of the early chapters of Genesis (e.g., talking snakes) or else it's a fairy tale with no claim to historicity. Is it not possible that the early chapters of Genesis are written in highly stylized language (and therefore meant to be taken metaphorically) AND still reflect something that actually happened?

I guess different people in different disciplines see different things "at stake" in this type of discussion. As a pastor, I am most concerned about theological integrity and the implications for preaching and the local church. A scientist might be most intent on preserving scientific and academic integrity. Ultimately I would agree that there is nothing incompatible between the two.

Gordon J. Glover said...

Karl wrote: "And where, exactly, was the Garden of Eden? The Genesis story says that God placed an angel at the entrance to keep people out, which certainly implies that it was to continue even after Adam and Eve
were expelled. We have no record of God closing it down. If God didn’t destroy Eden, where is it now?"

That's a great point! Very similar to the "watery canopy" of genesis from which the flood waters came. In addition to this structure being literally higher than the celstial bodies, Moses tell us that the rain started and stop by God "opening" and "closing" the windows of heaven, but nothing is mentioned about the upper waters disappearing alltogether. In fact, God closed the windows of heaven to keep the remaining waters from falling, and both the Psalmist and Job, who clearly lived after the flood, refer to the 'waters above the heavens' as if they still exist. Where are they now? Martin Luther insisted that we still believe in them, should we?

Seeing Genesis as non-historical should not be so unfamilar to moderns. Are we ever confused that perhaps the Grand Canyon was formed by John Bunyan's axe as it dragged accorss the desert floor? Should we teach that the northern lakes are the footprints of a giant lumberjack, or the effect of glacial recession after the last ice-age? Yet, neither do we reject these cultural narratives because they are a-historical. The point of them is not to teach earth science, but to illustrate the strength and vitality of the American Frontiersman who 'conquered' the wild west.

In ANE times, mythology was the medium of choice for communicating this type of cosmic and cultural information. What else would we expect God to write? An encylopedia of earth history? That surely would have been left in desert!

Steve Martin said...

steve r:
Just to clarify, you are different than Steve Ranney right? If you are new, Welcome. You'll find a whole bunch of steve's dropping in on this blog (at least 4 regulars).

Karl: Thanks again for your post and your participation. I hope your book generates as much discussion.

All: The next post in the series by Gordon Glover is now up. See: Why Evolution should be taught in Christian Schools.

Tom said...

Well, you leave for a couple of days and it's hard to get a word in edge-wise! What I appreciate about Karl's ideas is that they are proposals that give way to discussion and, God willing, solutions. I'd like to see people stick their necks out more with ideas.

Tom said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Karl W. said...

I want to thank Steve and everyone who engaged my posting on this blog. This was an animated and civil conversation, not always the case for this topic.

One poster commented that they were glad I “stuck my neck out.” I did this deliberately with Saving Darwin, my book that came out this week, but I don’t know what the result will be. So far, people are interested in engaging the topic. But there are also large constituencies that are aggressively hostile to such ideas. One such constituency is trying to get Richard Colling fired from Olivet. Not long ago Darrel Falk at Point Loma was under attack. And we all know the Van Til story. The president at Eastern Nazarene is supportive, but has taken time to write a letter to the trustees discouraging them from getting alarmed at what they might hear.

The issue is politically complex because most of us with the time and opportunity to dig seriously into these topics are professors at Christian Colleges and all those colleges get at least some of their support from militant fundamentalists who see people like me as the enemy of their faith. And, in some sense, I am the enemy of their particular understanding of Christianity.

I plan to reflect on these things a bit more going forward. If you are interested, you are welcome to stop by www.scienceandreligiontoday.blogspot.com.

K-Funk said...

I think the criticism of Phillip Johnson is off-base.

It's been a while since I've read his books, but I don't think he's claiming that teachers literally tell students, "You are meaningless assemblages of molecules."

Rather, his charge is that students are being taught certain 'facts' FROM WHICH THE STUDENTS INEVITABLY CONCLUDE that they are meaningless assemblages of molecules.

I'm sympathetic to the plight of theistic evolutionists. (I myself haven't taken a definitive stand on the issue.) But I don't think it's helpful to impute bad faith on the part of well-meaning Christians who disagree, just as I don't think it's helpful for anti-evolutionists to imply that theistic evolutionists aren't really Christians.

K-Funk said...

I also must point out that I have serious issues with the research methodology employed in the study.

If you only looked at one school district, you can't just assume that those results are representative of the nation as a whole. As another commenter mentioned, perhaps Quincy (although a "blue" area) is sympathetic to Catholicism.

Also, interviews with teachers aren't necessarily a good way to get information because people have a tendency to tell questioners what they want to hear.

Anonymous said...

Having gone to a public school for all of my education up through twelfth grade, I am definitely not a stranger to the old earth evolutionist versus young earth creationist debate. I have been raised to look at the earth as being only several thousand years old, and creationism is how I was raised. But regardless of my schema and past environment, there is something to be said for, at the very least, the church trying to be a little bit more open-minded. I hate the fact that the Church of Christ is unwilling to deal with current movements and issues (like evolution) and simply tries to bash and condemn anyone who doesn't sympathize with them. I remember going to a Sunday School class when I was in tenth grade taught by a leader in the church on evolution. It was all about how it was impossible, and that Intelligent Design is clearly correct. Now regardless of what I believe, the fact that my church was having a Sunday school class just on this topic says a few things. First, they were not open to discussion and thought "This is the way it is". Second, they realize the threat of the topic and what it could do to peoples faith and needed to address it. And lastly, they were doing it when I was an underclassman in high school! Clearly I've been sympathetic towards that view ever since. It's definitely an issue today in the tension-filled relationship between church and state, and it's a shame both sides can't be a little more open to some sort of reconciliation or, at the very least, a middle ground.

Anonymous said...

I am a Christian and I believe in creationism and I am not sure how much of the evolution theory I believe. I am currently researching both the creationism and evolutionary theories. The topic of evolution can be a very delicate subject in the church, as the topic of creation can raise debate in the public schools where evolution is taught. Personally I do not think these two topics will ever be able to be intertwined together, however, I do believe that individuals from both sides of the argument need to be more considerate others believes and not just bash them because they do not agree.