As many Christians and atheists celebrate Darwin’s bicentenary by reflecting on the numerous and beneficial scientific discoveries and innovations since the Victorian times, including those of natural selection and the sequencing of the human genome, there is still much conflict and disharmony and misunderstandings between Christians and atheists on the issues of science and faith.
At the one extreme you have the Christians who claim that evolutionary theory is false and heretical - and at the other extreme you have the atheists attempting to replace God with a new and more ‘rewarding’ explanation for existence - ‘extreme Darwinism’ - where selection is an explanatory catch-all and can provide the basis for the ultimate expositions of existence.
I think both are emphatically wrong, and it’s about time that the nonsense being spouted from both sides is exposed, particularly bearing in mind the relative recency of this conflict. Before the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial in America in 1925, most Christian scholars, from Galileo and Newton, right back to St Augustine and Philo, saw no conflict between Christianity and science, and fought hard to champion reasoning and rationality as the supreme underpinnings of faith.
I’m sorry to have to admit this, but we do not seem to be much closer to eradicating the awful parts of Christianity in which children and adults alike are brainwashed into disregarding good scientific progress in favour of adopting a fundamentalist and hugely intransigent set of beliefs about God’s creation. As I am going to attempt to show, these beliefs are based on some of the most irrational kind of nonsense in the world today. If that comes across as shrill, you will, I hope, forgive me - it isn’t intended that way - but I think it vitally important that this very damaging behaviour is exposed and made known more than is currently the case.
Although this is a message about finding harmony between Christianity and the sciences - it is a message with so much more importance attached to it; highlighting the dangers of extremism and wilful miseducation, the importance of engaging with people in a science-orientated world, the impression Christians make in these present times and beyond, and the importance of looking beyond an overly simplified worldview as we seek to understand more about God’s creation and His intentions for us.
While the message of salvation may be simple, much of the world is not; therefore it is important that we Christians have a good cognitive purchase on the realties of nature, and the exciting ways in which living for Christ can enrich our lives far beyond our expectations. The message consists of six important sections, and we shall begin with the Bible itself.
1) Why the Bible must be interpreted correctly
In this section I want to talk about the importance of understanding God’s word correctly, the benefits of framing scripture in the most expansive context possible, and the dangers of misinterpreting or misunderstanding God’s word.
It is important to realise that correct interpretation does not just apply to the philosophical and scientific connotations, it applies to all walks of life. Many of the difficulties that arise in Bible interpretation are to do with linguistic concepts. If I said: ‘The ball that was spun round the roulette wheel landed in number 15’ - there would be very little variance in how such a statement was taken. Whereas if I said ‘The croupier is a vivacious lady’, the term ‘vivacious’ has so much variability among human minds that 50 people hearing the statement would receive quite different images and perceptions. The predicate-expression ‘is vivacious’ cannot do the same thing that ‘the ball landed in number 15’ can do - both are operating in different realms of discourse, for the term ‘vivacious’ allows the individual to allocate perceptive values as he or she chooses, often according to his or her own experience of ‘vivacious’. With this in mind, we must be careful when interpreting Bible verses or words for which we can be susceptible to truth-value allocations.
So what do I mean by truth-value allocations? Well, without interpretation there is no such thing as God’s word because when reading the Bible we always have to bring in a third thing - a common sense arbitration process to steer us in the right interpretative direction. Now clearly this form of common sense arbitration process is not the written words in the Bible nor is it the person experiencing the words, it is a standard of judgement that presides over both. Therefore let no one say to you again ‘I prefer the word of God to book X or scientific journal Y or evolutionary hypothesis Z’ because the statement itself is a non-sequitur. I think these errors of judgement are based on the absent-mindedness of some Bible readers, presuming that they can leave their own interpretation at the door because they imagine the word of God must have with it a sort of auto-correct facility aimed at misperceptions - a single underlying uniformity. It does not! It does not stand up at all without interpretation.
The written word, including those found in the Bible, is open to cognitive interpretation as soon as it is read - there are both right and wrong interpretations which can lead to a good and faithful understanding as God intended or they can lead to unhelpful revision and internal restrictions - that is, changes to important concepts to accord with the self’s personal partisans and psychological and emotional convictions - instead of understanding it as God intended it to be understood.
Our understanding of God’s word correctly involves a positive degree of common sense; that is, our willingness to allow patient reasoning and interpretative discernment in our conceptual schemes. Access to the interworkings of the self’s mind is a privilege that only the self can have; that is to say, one cannot have direct access to another mind. Therefore, the consequences of a man’s biblical assumptions are that he will not find satisfactory analyses without recourse to common sense and knowledge of sound interpretation.
Furthermore, too many Christians seem to be guilty of separating the Bible from its earthly (and thus creational) context - a context providing the frame of interpretation - the Bible and the created world in which we live, including our own psychology and reasoning, form one seamless body of revelation. One should not unwisely demarcate concrete boundaries between the set of created objects that God uses to resource revelation to His creatures. Of course, the Bible is the only word of God we have, but it is not just the word of God separate from the revelatory process by which God communicates through our cognition. To put it another way, you have to have a basic idea of music before you can attempt Beethoven’s Autumn Sonata. Until people realise that the word of God is unintelligible outside its earthly context, and that it is precisely the earthly context that provides the frame of interpretation, there will always be mistakes in interpretation and false dichotomies between the Bible and other things in creation.
Now of course, if a man is diligently studying the Bible he can expect to be guided by the Holy Spirit as he attempts to interpret it, but without his interpretation the Bible will remain a material object - just written words on paper. Therefore it is important that we have established first off that no man can sensibly throw in ‘I prefer the word of God to Darwin any day’, as many anti-evolutionists do, for they are merely making a statement about their own psychology - they are the custodian of their own personal interpretation; an interpretation which is often way off the mark to begin with.
Can you imagine what would happen if upon learning that the moon has no natural light, that it merely reflected the sun’s light, a man opposed this on the grounds that the book of Genesis says the earth is governed by two great lights (Genesis 1:16)? You would say that his interpretation needs redressing, not our knowledge of the sun and moon. Whenever you interpret a verse in the Bible you are made accountable by underwritten rationality, therefore to claim automatic assent to the word without recourse to self-criticism is to be guilty of overlooking the most important aspect of understanding God’s word. Moreover, one’s perception of the Bible itself is caught up in the vast nexus of complex feelings, knowledge, emotions, information and experiences that make up the cumulative mass of each person’s selfhood - and given that through selfhood one is using non-biblical resources as a toolkit for interpretation, one cannot remain consistent if one is saying that only biblical resources are reliable or relevant.
Therefore to separate scriptural analysis from the world in which that analysis is made is to be guilty of drawing a false distinction. As Bertrand Russell once said: “The observer, when he seems to himself to be observing a stone, is really observing the effects of the stone upon himself.” Of course, most of the Bible will be perspicuous to the great majority of Christians, but only if they understand it as it is meant to be understood.
1b) A warning
Be careful of those that accuse you of betraying the faith or of being a heretic when things like the above are said. What is implied in that is a) a proud assertion of dedication and commitment, with b) an implied accusation of a compromising of faith directed at those who do not take this minimal sum viewpoint. If you attempt to remove all human views from the word of God you end up with nothing but confusion (as is the case with many of the cults). When we read the Bible our mind is doing very complex things, and the Spirit guides us in interpreting the Bible in the right way - in ways which help us grow and serve God best. The real and centrally thematic meaning at the heart of the story of, say, the Prodigal Son does not change (nor was it intended to) - but every individual that reads it applies its resonance in a very different way - receiving it into the self in a way which conveys God’s love through every collected facet of human experience. The same is true of most other passages. No doubt the words which convey the tenderness shown by Christ to the adulterer (John 8:3-11) would be received differently by a woman who had once committed adultery and repented, than a woman who had been monogamous all her life - but the message is pretty clear for all to see. The principal point in all this is that in order to understand the Bible properly, one must use sound reasoning when interpreting God’s word, and make sure that His word is being seen as God intended it to be seen.
2) Broadening our Christian horizons
The birth of Christ was never meant to retard these thoughts of ‘comfortable positions’, it was always His intention to magnify them to the point where one could only seek comfort in the truth. The Christ came from abstraction to earthly reality at the moment of the virgin conception, but He never ceased to be the ultimate truth (John 14:6). He came to glorify our souls not to suppress them - in fact, He came so that we might have a full life (John 10:10).
Those who refuse to explore the realms of science and philosophy are the ones whose lamp is placed under a bowl (Matthew 5:15). The reality of science and philosophy is that the abstractions become realities the moment they are realised as facts. The same is true of almost all situations. The Bible is the word of God, but those who fail to see Him operating in science, in philosophy and in psychology fail to see Him operating in history, and thus fail to see some of His real glory.
We must not be uncomfortable with the mysterious radiance that rests upon Christianity - we must not be disquieted by seemingly contradictory science - they ought to be there if the mystery is to be realised over time. What a dull creation it would be if we knew everything in the inceptive stages of living. No, the big picture is being revealed to us. We already have an idea what the whole thing is going to look like from the Christ that is already in us. But we are, at present, focusing on the details, we are adding bits to the mystery. And those who miss the point - that science and philosophy are two of the strongest lenses with which we make our observations - miss the point about God’s plan for us. There is much in the world that is false and misleading - but even the mountains look blue from the distance. The real harmony of Heaven and earth is the glory of Christ told through the world and through creation itself. And it is here that abstraction becomes real by becoming facts.
One idea I like very much, and tend to agree with, is Leibniz’s ‘The best of all possible worlds’ idea, in which he argues that a perfect, omnipotent, omniscient, all-loving and rational God must choose the best of all possible worlds for His creation, and that God has done just that with the complexity of the human personality and with the external world we see around us. Although we have a world in which lots of bad things accompany lots of good things, this world does give the appearance of being the most interesting and enriching that God could have created.
Given the rich tapestry of diversity, the dialectic between the very big and the very small and between the very simple and the very complex, the vast nexus of possibility and potentiality, and the stupendous myriad of emotional variety and exciting diversity found in love, grace, kindness, friendship, familial bonds, charity, togetherness, fortitude and the various multiplicity of human endeavour available to human minds - I tend towards the view that God has created the most fascinating of all possible worlds. That being the case, it is easy to see why Christianity and science are not only compatible, but complimentary.
3) The harmony of Christianity and science
The harmony between Christianity and science progresses on the basis that when we discover new information about our world and our universe we embrace it and alter our perception of the cosmic blueprint to accord with fresh knowledge and innovation – a bit like completing a jigsaw piece by piece. It is when the opposite happens that problems begin; that is, when Christians think they already know the blueprint and reject new innovations and fresh knowledge, willfully keeping themselves fixed in the dark ages. Equally many atheists take a very myopic view of what the Christian faith is, and resort to straw man caricatures as they attempt to justify their unbelief. It is much to hope that this false dichotomy will be exposed with greater ubiquity than is presently the case.
The subject of evolution, that is, evolution in the sense that humans are thought to have evolved from other species, has caused controversy in many Christian circles (and a few atheistic circles too). In this set of messages I want to state my case for why I think science deserves to be paid far greater regard than some Christians are willing to pay it, and also to establish both the importance of scientific enquiry as well as emphasising the importance that Christians avoid taking irrational fundamentalist views on such subjects.
I am not alone in my frustrations with the church’s poor record on the subject of science, and am very keen to do all I can to show as many people as possible that Christianity and science are not just compatible, they are complimentary; in fact, I’ll go further and say that those who overlook or disregard the qualities and benefits of science and the quintessence of nature deny themselves an important part of God’s story told through creation.
It ought to be remembered that the Catholic Right, at least many of its members, once decreed that ‘geometry is the work of the devil’ and ‘mathematics should be banished as the author of all heresies’. Galileo was tried before a Roman inquisition in 1633 and was forced to curse his own work, work which (along with Copernicus before him) included the advocacy and re-establishment of a heliocentric system of thought upon which we have based analyses of our solar system and beyond (it was originally proposed as early as the 3rd-c BC by Aristarchus). It took over 350 years for the Catholic Church to apologise. Give it 50 years and I would hazard a guess that there will be enough evidence to galvanise the church into apologising to evolutionists in the same way that Galileo was offered a posthumous apology.
Is this the sort of behaviour that Christians want to be associated with? Unfortunately the tainted past of the Catholic Right, or at least the stultifying intransigence that is still pervasive in many Christian circles, still emits an unpleasant odour in the world today, and, because of it, causes many atheists to view the Christian faith with ridicule and disdain. To take a rational view of science means that you very often incur the wrath of the Christian fundamentalists. And as I have just said, you will find people accusing you of ‘preferring the word of science to the word of God’.
I find it incredible and if the truth be known deeply saddening that there are still people that believe dinosaurs and humans walked the earth together and that our planet is only a few thousand years old (instead of the 4.6 billion years that we know it to be).
It is not good to have zeal without knowledge, nor to be hasty and miss the way.
To me this verse describes Young Earth Creationism - it is pure devotional water being carried in rusty containers that make up those with zeal but no knowledge. The desire for faithfulness to God is sometimes admirable but then again a great many of the Jehovah’s Witnesses can claim the same level of devotional fervour - what is important is whether the facts are right - therefore we cannot seek merit on devotion alone, we must be sure we are speaking wisely and, as the book of Proverbs says, we must not have zeal without knowledge. And regarding this topic, we have touched on something very important and pertinent, for we never seem to meet very many Christians who are comfortable with the admission that they do not know very much about science and do not feel qualified to comment on the subject of evolution - you almost always find one of two situations; either the Christian has proficient knowledge of the sciences and happily accepts that evolution is true, or he knows hardly anything about science and (as is usually the case) rejects evolution in favour of a very intransigent form of fideism (that is, placing an excessive emphasis on faith instead of the capacity of the intellect).
Moreover, it is worth pointing out that a very clear pattern exists for all to see - you will find that the more a person knows about the biological sciences the more he or she accepts evolution as true. Please do not misunderstand me, I have no major problem with any Christian who wishes to avoid the often divisive subject of evolution and focus on living a simple and dedicated Christian life (although I think such a man would be missing out on many of the wonders of nature) - the problem I have is with those who attack subjects they know nothing about and accuse the Christians that do have an interest in them of heresy or of betraying the faith in some way - it is here that I find the problem lies.
I have said before that much of the antipathy towards evolutionary theory is a psychological objection. I think part of the problem is that people have an irrational attitude towards it because they think it is trying to claim ground that really belongs to Christians. But that is, of course, not so. How rational do you think it is that so many religious people hope to stand vindicated by awaiting proof that science has a fundamental inability to explain the world? The more one explores scientific understanding the more one will understand about the world and the more he or she will learn about the intricate and wonderful possibilities or innovation in God’s creation.
I should like to warn you that just as you will find many sceptics who point to the plasticity of human faith as a strong reason why they themselves do not have such faith; it is just as true that many people are put off by Christianity when they see Christians propagating anti-science nonsense around the world.
If you have not ingested the point, I should like to remind you once again that the church’s record on this is pretty poor, and perhaps one might like to be a little more modest in criticising as I remind you that long before Darwin was confronted with the opprobrium of the masses, the church persecuted for a short time anyone who said the earth was not flat because they thought it contradicted the ‘four corners of the earth’ verse (Revelation 7:1). Even when better astronomers came along and provided conclusive evidence that the earth was not flat, they met with the opprobrium of many church members. As I have said a moment ago, the same thing happened when Galileo dispelled the myth that the earth was at the centre of the universe - the church persecuted him, claiming that his postulation implies that we were not central in God’s creation. I am sad to say there are many more examples I could bring to your attention, but I hope the point has been made - to any sensible mind Christianity and science are perfectly compatible.
4) What has caused this false dichotomy?
This is a big question, and it has to be said, much of what has caused this false dichotomy between Christianity and science has been due to imprudent Bible interpretations, particularly many questionable interpretations of the first chapter in Genesis. Given that it is perfectly obvious that the Bible is not a book of science, it is easy to see the fragility that underlies the Christians that disregard science - and it is a glaring error to make any attempt to distil scientific or proto-human anthropological knowledge from the Bible, or, for that matter, ascribe an unequivocal or even general age either to man or to the earth. It seems to me very obvious that the real nature of the first parts of Genesis is a declaration that God has no opposition in creation; that He is the one and only Supreme God, without peer or competition, and that His word is supreme. When God said in Genesis that we were created in His image, it seems certain that He was referring to something transcendent of physical anatomy. The framework of the first week in Genesis probably refers to the consonance of order and beauty of God’s creation, and the message is that the universe is ordered and good because of God. Science advances and progresses on the basis of order in the universe and our capacity to discern it, so Christianity, far from attacking science, actually sits perfectly harmoniously with it.
We live in the finite present, but God lives in the eternal realm. He describes Himself to Moses as “I AM”, with no allusion to past, present or future. The fundamental concern of the Bible is not to explain how God created the world, but to encourage and invite the reader to have a relationship with the Creator of the world (Romans 15:4). Therefore, I think we must be cautious about getting too worked up with a supposed stratification between science and God’s word - for in my view, the confusion only starts when either one is misunderstood or misinterpreted, or when the essence of either is retarded.
Regarding timescales, we know that days to us are not necessarily days to God (2 Peter 3:8) - and that He created over six days and rested on the seventh day, which conveys a pattern for us to live our lives that way. The literary medium through which God inspires the message of creation in early Genesis seems to have been written closer to a hymn or story, and certainly should not be viewed as scientific commentary. If early Genesis is understood correctly then the view of the Bible and science can be held together in a complimentary view - it is only human misinterpretations that create this false dichotomy which causes so much divide and irrationality.
It seems to me quite easy to reconcile the theory of evolution with the book of Genesis. It should not be forgotten that all of the precious things that God has created are never instantaneous - each one (creation, friendship, love, reproduction, Christian growth, and the incarnation, to name but six) takes time to develop.
5) Did God create man instantaneously from the ground?
The LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. Genesis 2:7
I wonder if what makes us think that God’s account of creating man ‘from the dust’ implies something instantaneous is more of a psychological objection that a philosophical one. Has it never occurred to those that think this way to ask why God should make a special case for man when every other precious thing takes time to grow or develop or blossom? Perhaps an answer to this problem is that He did not create man instantly; that is, perhaps He thought, as He seems to have done with all other precious things, that He would gradually perfect the process over time. It seems more likely that if we are to understand God’s methods of progressive development in His beautiful creation, we might find that the answer lies in a slightly different interpretation of the ‘from the dust’ verse in Genesis. I think there is a quite straightforward explanation of how gradual evolution over millions of years could produce creatures that were ‘made in God’s image’, and it probably goes something like this.
For many millions of years God gradually perfected life, in cellular form and in more developed forms, knowing all the time that every step of gradual evolutionary progression was itself a step closer to the physical creatures that would be the instrument or vehicle of humanity - able to be imparted with the glorious Spirit of God through the ‘dust’ - the image of Himself into man. Now this creature might easily have been the result of a long evolutionary process -certainly in cellular form it could be aptly characterised as being a cousin of the frog, the elephant, the ape, and of every other living animal. The long evolutionary process eventuated in this creature having all the bodily parts necessary to receive God’s glorious Spirit. Its brain had evolved to a level sufficient to receive Divine reason; it was an unbelievably complex being that had the properties whereby logical discernment and rational thought could be incarnated.
Similar creatures that evolved from the same branch certainly would have been around for many tens of thousands of years, themselves capable of adapting to their environment. They may even have had enough cranial capacity to create things that their descendants would later find (tools, artefacts, drawing, symbols, etc - all of which have, in fact, been found) - and they may even have been living a life under the supervision of God that was able to produce the kind of intrinsic pleasure that such a primitive existence would elicit. But its physical and psychical systems meant that it remained primitive - a proto-human - nothing that could be compared to what we are.
What happened next was probably the next biggest and most significant event since creation itself, for here is where the events in Genesis 2 begin to take place; here is where the man, so described because he is about to be made in God’s image is, in the sense of Spiritual impartation, brought up from the dust. I suppose it must be the case that the only part of this impartation that could not have been progressive was the point where the primitive creature changes from what he is to what God makes him in His image. At the time that God imparted Himself into man, the second most significant event after creation had occurred (the third would be the incarnation). The newness of man, the blessing conferred upon him from providence was part of the plan even before the first big bang and the first stellar collision.
Therefore I see no reason why the moment that God chose to put Himself into man should cause difficulties in the domain of scientific theory and evolutionary theory. The (presumably instant) change on both the psychology and the physiology of this proto-man was the first instance of God ‘creating’ man in the sense that man was made in His image. The first man, one that could recognise the self in a way which required Divinely installed rationale, is the first instance of his human consciousness, for the possession itself was God’s great gift to him - his reason, emotional feelings, cognisance and spiritual awareness, were to be the very things that could bless him and bring him into God’s eternal realm. This proto-human, after many years of evolution, had now become the combination of spirit and flesh to which St Paul referred in his epistles. This explanation seems to me to be the most sensible - it allows us to harmonise science with the Biblical account and, as far as I can see, leaves us with no difficulties in reconciling the two.
Of course, it is equally possible (although I do not necessarily think equally likely) that this long drawn out evolutionary process occurred in other creatures - a process which brought about more advanced creatures such as apes - and that the moment when God creates man He creates him as a creature entirely separate from any other; that is to say, the creation of man was an event entirely separate from the long chain of evolutionary history, and that man himself bears no relation to any other creature*. For me this seems like a superfluous argument, the purposes of which seem to offer psychological assurance for those who contend that it is true. But the point remains that if either one is true, the theory of evolution is a satisfactory explanation of the history of physiological activity on this planet over billions of years.
* I have difficulties with this possibility, which I will cover later in the series.
6) Bridging the gap
At the heart of the real beauty of enquiry and the beneficial nature of good scientific and philosophical thinking is the insistence that we do not commit to something that we cannot be sure is right - and if we can’t be sure - we go with the best evidence available to us. In other words, good science and good philosophy demand that we assent to theories when good evidence supports them. The same is true of studies of the Christian faith; thus rational thinking allows us to see both in the proper context, and reason shows us how mutually complementary they are. Christ frequently showed that the Old Testament contained deeper meaning, and those who get caught up in debates which seem to be solely designed to offer psychological consolation are missing the opportunity to see the deeper meaning, and the eternally rewarding profundities that creation (including philosophy and science) have to offer us.
Adam becoming the first man was almost certainty not a ‘physiological’ first, but a ‘spiritual’ first. This to me is why there is no dichotomy between Christianity and evolutionary theory. The first man is the first time that the power of God and the Spirit of God were breathed into physical man. The word did not simply become flesh with Christ, He became flesh by imparting His Spirit into all of us; thus explaining our reason, our emotions and our inner-hunger to be reunited with Him. The Word made all things; faith is the substance where a man can recognise himself as one of God’s creatures.
To close this message, I would like to encourage those that know about and embrace science to continue to engage with those who continually rubbish it or feel threatened by it or hastily reject it through defensiveness; for we live in a world in which ignorance of science and technology makes one seem rather discordant. If that applies to you, I should like to say, don’t be afraid of science or any area of academia - God did not create such a stupendous world so that we would remain ignorant and ascetic and primitive - He gave us this glorious creation, and encourages us to paint the clearest picture possible as we become blessed with the enrichment of knowledge and discovery to accompany our wisdom in putting Christ first in everything we do; for as long as we put our Lord first, we can feel privileged to have such an amazing world to learn from and explore - and in doing so we can be so much more equipped to change it for the better, with both our knowledge of Christ and our knowledge of the world He created.
More next week.