There are two extremes in how Christians respond to the possible theological implications of evolutionary theory once they are convinced that the theory of evolution is valid. The first is to claim that there are no implications whatsoever. This is represented by the statement: “The Bible tells us that God created; science tells us how he did it.” The second is to grab evolutionary theory and run with it, extracting implications about God all over the place.
The weakness of the first option, in my view, is that evolution does have implications for theology. Mass extinctions don’t go well with the idea that God created the world, put it in the care of humanity, and expected humanity to exercise responsible dominion over it. I’m not saying the two notions can’t be reconciled, but one has to stop at thing, at the very least.
The weakness of the second option is the same as for those who draw philosophical implications from evolutionary theory. What is may not be the same as what ought to be. What we observe may not be a sufficient sample of God’s activity to allow us to extrapolate large amounts about his character.
My inclination, nonetheless, is to the second option. Evolutionary theory has profoundly influenced elements of my theology, including my views of death, of the directness of God’s care and intervention, of the nature of the fall, and even of redemption. I don’t say they are altered to the point of being unrecognizable, though a critic or two might say so, but I don’t think the same thing about them as I did when I was a young earth creationist.
Is cautious iconoclasm an oxymoron? Perhaps. Some people claim my self identification as a “passionate moderate” is as well. What good is language if you can’t play with it? (Don’t answer that!)
Steve Martin posts about the problem of death as God’s tool for Christian theology. Let me note that Steve’s blog is a great source of information on theological controversies related to evolution and a great source for theistic evolutionists or evolutionary creationists.
But I have a bit of a problem with something he quotes. He’s blogging on the book Paradigms on Pilgrimage, which I must surely get my hands on. Here I’m just responding to the single point, represented by this quote, which is Martin’s summary:
It is not primarily evolutionary mechanisms like genetic mutations, or even natural selection, which is the problem. It is in fact, the limited amount of resources available to Gods creatures.
(You can read more extended quotes in the post cited above.)
I’m afraid I really don’t get this one. It’s a nice way of talking around the point, but the fact is that if there wasn’t a differential in the rates of survival, new mutations would not become fixed in the population. (Perhaps some of my more scientifically inclined readers can correct me on this.) Yes, it is the variation that allows creatures to survive changing environments, but it is the limitation of resources, and the changing environments that cause one set of characteristics to persist rather than another.
In other words, death is a tool, whether inflicted by falling logs, lack of food, or changing environment. You can name the tool something else, but the same thing still occurs. If God was as concerned with the death of creatures as I believed he was when I was a young earth creationist (sparrows falling, though note that the scriptures just say God sees, not that he prevents), then he could not use this mechanism.
It seems dangerous to me to try to brush past the implications, and on first glance this looks like an effort to do so, or at least an attempt to frame the issue in a more favorable light. The wording sounds nicer, but the creatures are still dying, and evolution would not occur if they didn’t. Similarly, I think, one could look at a hurricane as the cause of new life, and in fact such “disasters” have a role to play in the environment. But looking at them that way doesn’t cause them to leave less death behind.