According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Our eschatological ethos is to love. To stand with those who are oppressed. To stand against those who are oppressing. It is that simple. Love is our only calling and Christian Hope. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – anon
Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – anon
Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson
We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord
Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Biologos - How Are Christianity and Evolution Compatible?

Charles Darwin's Glad Reception Amongst British and American Churches

How Are Christianity and Evolution Compatible?

June 2, 2014

Asking whether evolution is compatible with Christianity is a bit like asking whether playing baseball is compatible with being American or playing cricket compatible with being British.

The very first written response to Darwin’s famous book On the Origin of Species [1859] was from an Anglican priest and was so positive in tone that Darwin quoted from it in the second edition of the Origin.

The priest was the Rev. Charles Kingsley and on November 18th, 1859, six days before the publication of the Origin, he was thanking Darwin for his kind gift of an advance copy, writing that:

All I have seen of it awes me’, commenting that it is ‘just as noble a conception of Deity, to believe that He created primal forms capable of to believe that He required a fresh act of intervention to supply the lacunas [gaps] which He Himself had made’.

Since 1859 most Christians have been equally happy to incorporate evolution within their biblical understanding of creation. Yes there was some opposition at the beginning, as there is for any radically new theory, but the most influential church leaders soon realized that Kingsley was right. The idea that evolution was greeted with general horror by the Church is a myth.

The British historian James Moore comments that:

with but few exceptions the leading Christian thinkers in Great Britain and America came to terms quite readily with Darwinism and evolution’,

and, the American historian George Marsden reports that:

‘…with the exception of Harvard’s Louis Agassiz, virtually every American Protestant zoologist and botanist accepted some form of evolution by the early 1870s’.

One of those biologists was Asa Gray, professor of natural history at Harvard and a committed Christian, who was Darwin’s long-term correspondent and confidante, helping to organize the publication of the Origin of Species in America.

Some Christian theologians were particularly welcoming in their response to evolution. One such was the Rev. Aubrey Moore, a scientist-priest at the University of Oxford who was Curator of the Oxford Botanical Gardens. Moore claimed that there was a special affinity between Darwinism and Christian theology, remarking that ‘Darwinism appeared, and, under the guise of a foe, did the work of a friend’. The reason for this affinity, claimed Moore, was based on the intimate involvement of God in his creation as revealed in Christian theology, for:

There are not, and cannot be, any Divine interpositions in nature, for God cannot interfere with Himself. His creative activity is present everywhere. There is no division of labour between God and nature, or God and law… For the Christian theologian the facts of nature are the acts of God.

In contrast to the robustly theistic views expressed by Kingsley and Moore, Darwin himself was a deist (see here and here) when he wrote the Origin, meaning that he believed in a God who started life at the beginning, but who after that had no direct involvement with it. This is clear from the very last poetic sentence of the Origin, quoted here from its sixth and last edition (1872):

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Darwin eventually became an agnostic in later life, but was never an atheist, maintaining that indeed it was possible to be ‘an ardent Theist and an Evolutionist’.

Contemporary Evolution and the Church Today

Given that Darwin’s Christian contemporaries largely embraced evolution, how is it that today, 150 years later, many American Christians reject his theory?

First, it should be noted that evolution is still widely accepted by the Christian community in Europe.

Second, it is an unfortunate fact that evolution since Darwin has become infested with different ideological agendas that have nothing to do with the biological theory itself. For example, some have sought to invest evolution with an atheistic agenda, so Christians who naturally reject atheism are in danger of throwing out the baby with the bath water.

Third, a sizable segment of the American Church has adopted a literalistic stance towards the interpretation of the Bible. Reacting against the inroads of liberal theology into its ranks in the earlier decades of the 20th century, many American Christians started reading Biblical texts, such as Genesis 1-3, in a highly literalistic manner, as if it were teaching science rather than theology. Such modernistic handling of ancient texts inevitably leads to a clash with science.

Once we return to a more traditional way of interpreting the Bible, assisted by the early Church Fathers, then any possible clash between science and Biblical texts simply vaporizes.

Augustine, for example, wrote a commentary between AD 401 and AD 415 entitled The Literal Interpretation of Genesis. The twenty-first century reader coming to this volume expecting to find the term ‘literal’ interpreted in terms of strict creation chronology and days of 24 hours, is in for a surprise. Instead Augustine read Genesis 1 as a theological literary text written in highly figurative language. Other Church Fathers (such as Origen, 3rd century) did likewise, as did Jewish commentators like Philo of Alexandria in the 1st century.

The biblical creation theology of the early Church Fathers, mediated to the European Church by great theological scholars such as Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, provides a framework within which evolution can comfortably be accommodated. The Christian understanding of God creating is very different from human types of creating. God as creator in the Christian view is the ground and source of all existence. Anything that exists, be it the laws of physics, mathematics, quantum fluctuations, Higgs bosons or the processes of evolution are therefore, ipso facto, aspects of this created order. When human beings make things, they work with already existing material to produce something new. The human act of creating is not the complete cause of what is produced; but God's creative act is the complete cause of what is produced.

So speaking of God as the ‘creator’ of the evolutionary process is not some attempt to smuggle ‘God language’ into a scientific description, as if God were some ‘extra component’ without which the scientific theory would be incomplete. Far from it, for then such a concept of ‘God’ would no longer be the creator God of Christian theology. Rather the existence of the created order is more like the on-going drama on the TV screen – remove the production studio and the transmitter and the screen would go blank.

The biblical writers underline this point by employing the past, present and future tense when speaking of creation. God is immanent in the created order, an insight with a Christological focus in the New Testament, where John insists in the prologue to his Gospel that “Through him [Jesus the Word] all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” and the Apostle Paul makes the astounding claim that not only by Christ have all things been created, but also that in Christ “all things hold together”.

It was such reflections that led 19th century theologians like Aubrey Moore to celebrate Darwin’s theory because, in their view, it helped to move theology away from the deistic notion of God the distant law-giver to the idea central to Christian theism of the creator God actively involved in upholding and sustaining the complete created order in which the evolutionary process is a contingent feature.

This is the evolutionary process which, as a matter of fact, provides the best explanation for the origins of all the biological diversity on this planet. Taken overall it is a tightly constrained process. The late Stephen Jay Gould likened evolutionary history to a drunk lurching around on the side-walk, but the point about a side-walk is that it’s a very constrained space. In the phenomenon known as ‘convergence’ the evolutionary process keeps finding the same adaptive solutions again and again in independent evolutionary lineages. Replay the tape of life again and it’s very likely that the diversity of life-forms would end up looking rather similar. There are only so many ways of being alive on planet earth. A pattern of order and constraint is rather consistent with a God who has intentions and purposes for the evolutionary process.

Does the fact of evolution raise challenging theological questions for Christian faith? Of course. For example, when did humans first become responsible to God for their actions? How should Christians understand the doctrine of the Fall in the light of evolution? And what about the problem of pain and suffering? No-one pretends that such questions have simple answers, and I have written a book that tackles them in some detail (Creation or Evolution – Do We Have to Choose? Oxford: Monarch, 2008). Understanding evolution is a help rather than a hindrance on that last question. There are necessary costs in the existence of carbon-based life and all living things, including us, play our part in sharing the burden of those costs. Biological existence, with all its rich diversity, is a costly existence.

“Nature is what God does” wrote Augustine in his commentary on Genesis. We exist within God’s created order and the evolutionary process is a key feature of that order, essential for our existence. That means a lot more than mere ‘compatibility’. And the good news is the future tense of creation. The best is yet to come.

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