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Openly Discussing Evolution, SDAs, and the UMC

Openly Discussing Evolution, SDAs, and the UMC

Credit: J_Alves
Credit: J_Alves

Evolution is one of those issues we often don’t discuss in church. There are actually quite a number of Christians who accept evolutionary theory in general or just a part of it, but quite often they just don’t want to get into the kind of acrimonious debate. Every so often (really quite rarely, all things considered) I’ll get an e-mail from someone who found my e-mail address on the list of board members for Florida Citizens for Science, and they wonder how I can be a Christian and be on that list. That is, unless they simply assert that I must not actually be a Christian. (This is a rambling post. [Which of mine aren’t?] Toward the end I do get around to referring to the SDA church in which I grew up and the UMC, where I currently hold membership.)

Now this post is more about “openly discussing” than about evolution as such. I grew up in a conservative Christian culture (the Seventh-day Adventist Church), in which it was one of the articles of our faith that we accepted the literal creation week. As a result of that, and of the resistance I met when I started to see things differently, I grew up with the impression that conservatives want to close off conversation while liberals were open. Each group was, after all, treating me in that way.

But the more I have experienced the world, the more I have observed two things:

  1. Any entrenched group will tend (or at least have a strong temptation) to exclude outlying opinions
  2. Outlying groups, especially those that actually have some traction, will tend to feel excluded even if they aren’t

The fact is that no matter how energetically we may work to be totally open, no discussion can take place on a completely unlimited field. Not all boundaries are limiting boxes.

A few years back I was teaching a Sunday School class and one of the members asked me to meet with him to discuss the future of the class. He wanted us to study eastern religions. I told him that I had no problem with the class studying eastern religions if that was what they wanted to do, but they’d have to get a different teacher. “Why?” he asked. Well, I explained, there are two reasons. First, I know very little about eastern religions. Second, I’m a Bible teacher. That’s what I do. He was quite surprised and told me that I didn’t really need to know much about eastern religions in order to teach it for the class.

That attitude is more common that you might think. On the one hand we have the idea that issues can only be discussed by a very highly qualified group of experts, and outlying opinions, those contrary to the majority position, should shut up and go away. That attitude can lead to stagnation. But on the other hand we have the view that all opinions need to have an equal place at the table, no matter how poorly supported they might be. This is another attitude that will prevent progress, this time by creating chaos and wasting time.

We live in a kind of tension between these two ideas. For example, I believe that creation vs evolution is a perfectly valid subject for discussion in the church. The debate on the interpretation of Genesis is alive and well, and carried out by highly qualified scholars in the appropriate fields. I think that there is really very little actual scientific debate on this same controversy, because I don’t see creationists doing original science that can actually challenge the various facets of evolutionary theory. I see some picking at this or that, but nothing one can get one’s teeth into. But I’m not a scientist, and I’m not qualified in any of the fields in question, so my opinion on that point isn’t particularly important.

What I think we should work toward is a creative tension between consensus and new ideas, between open discussion of all views and perhaps more productive discussion between people who are more selective. I think this sort of discussion is well served by a variety of confessional, non-confessional, and secular schools, whether the topic is religious or not. I regularly hear complaints that certain sectarian institutions should be shut down because they are too closed in their confession. I disagree. As long as those who attend know what the principles of the school are, and graduates are functional in the subjects they learn, I think that’s an appropriate way to add variety.

The problem is that “functional” is defined by too many people as “accepting what I already believe.” As an example, I hear from advocates of the historical-critical method in Bible study (and with some caveats I count myself among their number), that one isn’t “qualified” in biblical studies if one doesn’t “know” something so obvious as that there are three Isaiahs. But what if one knows that this claim is made, and knows why, but doesn’t accept it? One can be so absolutely certain of one’s scholarly conclusions that one cannot imagine an intelligent person disagreeing.

Conservatives will doubtless nod and agree, but from them I hear that if someone can’t make a good argument for the 6th century dating of Daniel, or for the Mosaic authorship of all or part of the Pentateuch, that person doesn’t really know what she or he is talking about. Or perhaps the secularly educated scholar doesn’t truly understand Calvinist theology. Or Arminianism. Whatever.

My suggestion would be that if all your knowledge comes from one source or type of source, such as all your academic ideas are those favored by the school from which you got your degree, you may be a bit narrow. And that means that the simple fact that your college is confessional on the one hand, or very secular on the other, doesn’t mean you’re ignorant or closed. Ignorance and closed-mindedness are cultivated attitudes. Especially in modern America, you have no excuse not to know how the other side thinks.

You also have a variety of avenues to challenge the other side, so you don’t really have an excuse when one school or organization doesn’t like your ideas and tells you to hit the road. I may not like it. I too have an ideal academic environment, one in which serious scholars who disagree are welcomed irrespective of confessional statements. But that’s my imaginary ideal. I think I got a rather decent education from confessional schools that were closed in many ways I wish they were not. But they were nonetheless good schools.

All this blather has been leading to two links with quick opinions on my part. The first comes from a Seventh-day Adventist source, in which an SDA writer responds to some claims of supposed challenges to evolutionary theory. It’s in Spectrum Magazine, titled Dangling or Not? A Response to Chadwick and Brand. This article critiques another in which creationists see some new scientific discovery challenging the foundations of evolutionary theory. Just as I’ve been hearing all my life that the end of the world is upon us because of some recent story in the news, so I have been hearing that evolutionary science was on life support due to some new discovery. I’ve become just as jaded to both. But this story takes place in an organization that really doesn’t want to open the door to full discussion of this issue. Being an advocate of evolutionary theory in the SDA educational system is unlikely to be good for your career prospects.

On the other hand we have the UMC general conference. Now in religious terms, as I’ve said, I see creation vs evolution (though I don’t see the two in conflict), as a valid debate. Amongst the advocates against evolutionary theory is the Discovery Institute. Before you read the rest of this, you should know that I truly dislike the Discovery Institute. I think they largely make what should be scientific and theological questions into political ones. But just because I don’t like them doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be heard in the church. Yet according to this article from UM-Insight, they were denied a booth at the UMC General Conference. Why? Because they are not in accord with our social principles. Hypocrisy anyone?

I recall when I first joined a United Methodist congregation, I asked the pastor if I had to affirm the social principles. He said, “Those? We don’t pay much attention to them.” I know a number of Methodists who would object to his saying that, but what he says is very accurate. The social principles are a box that few would like to be confined in, yet that provide an excuse for many things. Advocating to change them is a recreational sport. If the GC venue was running out of space, you have to exclude someone, but this is a particularly thin excuse. There are plenty of United Methodists, though presumably a minority, who would be sympathetic to the institute’s work. Many of them live in this area. I disagree, but in the church they should have a voice.


What Creationists Could Learn from Herold Weiss

What Creationists Could Learn from Herold Weiss

creation-5We’re starting a new series of posts on the Energion Discussion Network and the current author is my friend and Energion author Dr. Herold Weiss. He’s the author of the book Creation in Scripture, the first in a series discussing creation from the point of view of those who accept the theory of evolution. That note should tell you that Dr. Weiss’s work can be controversial, as are all discussions of this topic.

I don’t happen to like the terms generally used, but it is generally somewhere between frustrating and futile to try to change language. “Creationist” has become the label of those who believe in a recent (read 6 to 10 thousand years) creation in a literal week, while “theistic evolutionist” labels those who believe God is creator but that the process of evolution is how he has chosen to diversify life here on this planet.

Dr. Weiss does something in his first post in this series that tends to annoy creationists (using the definition above). He calls their view unscriptural. The typical view of a creationist is that their view is scriptural while the theistic evolutionist has chosen to ignore the Bible in favor of evolutionary theory. No matter how strong the evidence for evolution (and they will, with few exceptions, maintain that it is weak), they would not see how it could override the Word of God. So the argument, at least as they generally present it to me, should be couched in terms of their strong convictions about scripture and the weak convictions of the theistic evolutionists, which are to be defended.

But neither I nor Dr. Weiss thinks our position is biblically weak. In fact, I did not change my view from a young earth creationist, which I was until some time during my third year in college, because I had studied evolutionary science. My science requirement was fulfilled in a chemistry class, taught, by the way, by a young earth creationist. It was in doing research for a paper that I found that I could not reconcile the biblical texts on the basis required for young earth creationism. The starting point was chronology, and it wasn’t even comparisons with archeology. It was simply looking at what must have happened between two points in the biblical story, and determining that it was beyond extremely improbable; it was impossible. And further, there was no report of some sort of miracle to connect the dots.

From there the question changed for me. Why is God presenting the story in this manner? (I’m ignoring here all the things I have come to believe about biblical inspiration over the years and discussing my thinking at age 20.) From there I started to ask just what it means to me that God is the creator and how that doctrine reverberates through scripture.

And this is what I think creationists can learn from Dr. Weiss. No, I’m not suggesting they will all read his book and decide to become theistic evolutionists. He isn’t even trying to make that case in the book, and I know my own views would be unlikely to change in reading one book. What he does that is important is look at how creation, and its implications, is presented in various parts of the Bible. Creationists seem to me to be hung up in Genesis 1-3, important chapters to be sure, but not the only thing in scripture on the topic. And yes, I do think these chapters are important, even foundational, even though I read them differently. And no, I’m not claiming that creationists are ignorant of all other passages. What I’m suggesting is that they are not brought into the discussion enough.

Too much of the debate about creation and evolution is concentrated on when and how and too little is focused on so what now?.

I think it would be great if we spent more time on the third question. Yes, we’d still disagree on when and how, and we’d still argue that both of those questions impact the answer to the third, but we might have a chance to shed a bit more light. I think Dr. Weiss has facilitated that.

Would I Publish a Creationist Book?

Would I Publish a Creationist Book?

creation-5I’ve been promoting the creation book set from my company, Energion Publications. The authors of this set of books all support the theory of evolution. In fact, the contribution made by these books, I think, is that they are talking about how we should live in light of a belief that the “how” of creation, at least with respect to life, is by means of biological evolution. (This could have been a post over on the Energion company site, but since it’s also so much about my own beliefs, I thought I’d post it here.)

Here’s a clip:

Herold Weiss is a biblical scholar and is talking about creation and creationism from the biblical and theological point of view. It was his book Creation in Scripture that got the book set started.

“For creationism I have no use.” I publish that. I’m also a known advocate of excluding creationism from the public school classroom. I’m a board member of Florida Citizens for Science. So we know where I stand on the issue. I’m a theistic evolutionist, though I don’t like that term.

So would I publish a creationist book?

Short answer: Yes.

Now for the longer answer.

I’m often asked this question by people who wonder just how far to the liberal side of the spectrum I’ll go in terms of publishing. In this case, considering how strongly I’m identified with one side of the issue, we have the opposite question.

The easy way to figure out the general answer to this question is to read the company’s short doctrinal statement. As you read that statement, remember several things:

  • Energion Publications is not a church. Nobody is asked to sign or affirm this statement
  • We judge manuscripts, not authors. I have been asked about things an author said on his web site and whether they “fit.” That’s not my concern.
  • There are many issues of definition in even that short doctrinal statement. For example, amongst our authors we have quite a number of definitions of what the word “inspired” means with relation to scripture.
  • It does provide a general guide to let us focus on an audience

Having said that, if a book falls within that statement, we’ll consider it. Does creationism fall within those parameters? Absolutely.

So the longer answer is again, yes. But remember that this openness to publish covers a large number of other issues as well.

Why are all our books on creation written by those who accept theistic evolution? Again, a simple answer. Those are the ones that were submitted and accepted.

Aha! A snag! What our hypothetical questioner would probably like to know is whether this manuscript, the one he or she has in hand, expending from days to decades, would be considered for publication and what its chances would be. Would the fact that I have a firm position on the issue prejudice me against that manuscript?

Without doubt my beliefs influence what I do. But one of my beliefs is that the best thing to do with theological disagreements is to discuss them, entering into genuine dialogue. I consider creationism to be a very live theological debate and one on which we should be having dialogue in the church. I think actual dialogue on this subject is rather rare, but I’m ready to promote it.

In fact, I see myself as a publisher in the role of an advocate for advocacy. So if I publish a book on creationism I will also put every effort into marketing it.

That doesn’t mean that I will bend over backwards to accept the first manuscript on the topic that I get. I have been studying this subject since I first learned to read, and so I have a very good feel for the literature.

Let me provide an example. Dr. Kurt Wise, who earned his PhD under Stephen Jay Gould at Harvard, is a creationist. He wrote the book Faith, Form, and Time. The link provided is to my review. It’s a good book. I disagree with practically every word in it. I don’t see those two statements as contradictory. I consider it the best statement of a Christian creationism as is available for a popular audience. Wise starts from the premise that Genesis teaches a young earth and a literal creation week, so we must follow from that point and discover the science that proves God right. I disagree with that premise.

If you can send me a manuscript that is as good as that one (good luck!) I’m bound to publish it. And there are lots of other manuscripts that would be good. For example, looked at from the point of systematic theology, how does a young earth or a literal creation week (or both) fit into a doctrinal pattern? What other pillars of the faith lean on those concepts? One could write some excellent systematic theology in that area, and consequently argue with our existing volume, Creation: The Christian Doctrine, which argues that those are not important. It happens I agree with the latter book, but that won’t prevent me publishing a rebuttal!

Now if I had a category for science, which I don’t, I would require that material in it be reviewed by qualified scientists. That would be another matter. I don’t think modern creationism has yet earned a place at the scientific table, and I’m not the one to offer that place. It must be offered by scientists who are active in their disciplines. I’d have a team of them as readers if I were a science publisher. But the biblical, religious, and theological debate is very relevant and active.

For those who are interested, I didn’t become convinced that the earth wasn’t young or that the creation week wasn’t literal by studying biology. In fact, I never took a college course in biology. I’m not going to judge one’s biological pretensions. Well, unless they violate elementary principles, that is. It was through study of the scriptural material that I became convinced it was not possible that God was intended to provide either the “how” of creation or the timeline of earth’s history.

There’s a great deal of open territory for studying biblical studies and theology involved in that!

I can’t help but finish with some pictures that illustrate how thoroughly indoctrinated a creationist I was. These are pictures of the “Eden to Eden Timeline.” You can see in the second image that we were taught that the date of creation was 3957 BC, a correction of the more common 4004 BC. Students added pictures and colored maps as we worked our way through the Bible, entirely guided by this timeline.

Eden to Eden Timeline
The title indicates the topic. It starts with creation and ends with recreation. Everything is on a timeline, though the time of the final events is left open.
Eden to Eden Timline - Antediluvian Period
You can see the date of creation represented here and also the proposed date for the end of this period with the flood.
Timeline - Antediluvian period
This shows how the timeline spread out. I did this outside by the fence, so it’s a bit scraggly. In our classroom we had the whole thing stretched out around the wall. Click on it for high resolution.
Energion Google Hangout on Air Tonight – Creation and Christianity

Energion Google Hangout on Air Tonight – Creation and Christianity

creation-5Tonight at 7:00 pm central time for the weekly Energion Google Hangout on Air I’ll be moderating a panel of four authors. You can find the event information on our Google+ page.

The participants are:

This event is not a debate about creation and evolution. While I vary the content from hangout to hangout, I avoid outright debates. Each of these authors accepts the theory of evolution but also believes that God is the creator. Dr. Herold Weiss started the series, which also includes Creation: The Christian Doctrine by Dr. Edward W. H. Vick, who is unavailable for this panel. What I have asked them to do for this panel is talk about how their beliefs about creation impact the way the read scripture, teach, worship, and live.

The YouTube embed to view the event is below. If you want to ask questions of the panel using the Q&A App, you’ll need to sign into Google+. There should be a link on the YouTube viewer at the time the event starts for you to do so.


Adrian Warnock – Evolutionary Spectrum

Adrian Warnock – Evolutionary Spectrum

I always find it interesting when Adrian Warnock produces a spectrum on some topic. I almost always disagree with some point on the spectrum, but the exercise is worthwhile. After all, if I produce a spectrum, there will doubtless be people who disagree at some point.

This time Adrian has produced a spectrum on beliefs regarding evolution. I think it generally covers the ground. At the same time, I think it skips over the majority of theistic evolutionists.

The reason may seem subtle, but I think it’s important. Adrian divides the theistic evolutionists between “passive” and “active” equating the latter with intelligent design. I have a couple of problems with that. First, I think natural laws are an expression of God’s will. That a law continues unchanged, or a process functions and finishes (if finishing is appropriate) does not mean that God is less active than when (or if) there is some sort of intervention. Thus God is not less active when he designs a process that works without active intervention than he is with something that requires him to step in from time to time.

Secondly, I think there is a problem with the concepts of intervention, active, and passive. God is. God is infinite (or something close enough we can’t tell the difference). In any case, in terms of interacting with the universe, God doesn’t have to prioritize. He isn’t less active one place than another. So the idea of God being active or passive is an effect of human perception. A process that continues consistently does not appear to require action by God, while one that varies or changes direction is more likely to seem to require such intervention.

Resurrection seems interventionist. Birth and death seems natural. To us.

The evolution of a new life-form seems “special” and perhaps to require intervention. The continued life of a single creature does not. To us.

I just don’t think there’s a real difference from God’s point of view, insofar as one can catch God’s point of view (not very far, I fear). My breath stops without God (Psalm 104:29-30). Gravity stops without God. When all of this works, it appears not to require God’s intervention.

I’m probably writing this too quickly (it’s Sunday morning), to be clear, but my point is simply that God is active whether the process he is using operates consistently and without identified points of intervention or whether (as in intelligent design) there are points at which God intervenes in some special way.

Otherwise, I love the spectrum. I’m glad Adrian included the ruin and restoration folks, who are often forgotten. I’m also glad he distinguished some nuances such as young earth/old universe, and “the earth is young but appears old” vs. “the earth is young and would appear that way if you got the science right.” (My descriptions, not Adrian’s.)


Of Creation, Evolution, and Worship

Of Creation, Evolution, and Worship

There are few topics that get Christians more angry at one another than the subject of evolution. Those who accept a young earth (or young age for the universe) tend to think that those who accept the theory of evolution do it simply because they lack the faith to believe the Bible. To them, this is the first step toward rejecting Christianity and becoming an atheist. Those who accept the theory of evolution often think the young earthers are ignorant, perhaps willfully so. (All of this ignores the broad sweep of views between young earth creationism and a purely materialistic view of origins. There are many nuances on the line between the two. But that is a subject for another blog post.)

I disagree with both those viewpoints. Irrespective of my own beliefs (and I’ll get to those in a moment), I have met too many dedicated Christian believers whose faith is nurtured by Scripture and also accept evolutionary science to imagine that acceptance of evolution is necessarily the first step on the road to unbelief. I have also met too many intelligent and capable individuals who accept a young earth to believe that they are all ignorant or stupid. As a matter of principle, I never want to imagine someone is stupid because of their view on a single issue, nor do I want to think them immoral because of their view on one moral issue. Someone who is intelligent, competent, and functional, and yet believes something I find ridiculous, does not thereby become generally stupid.

As an example, my dad was a doctor (MD), and an excellent one. Yet he believed in a young earth and a literal creation week his entire life. I’m not going to go down the route of believing that he was somehow less capable of carrying out his profession in a competent fashion, which he did all his life, because of one issue. There’s the family connection there, but I know a number of other people in similar situations.

In spite of this, I  am not arguing a middle of the road position. I have a firm position on creation and evolution. I was raised with young earth creationist literature. I devoured the literature written by George McCready Price and Frank Lewis Marsh, icons of my Seventh-day Adventist upbringing, as well as many others. I did not begin to doubt this view because of studying science. In fact, I changed my position through a study of Scripture. It all started when I wrote a college paper examining the text of the genealogies of Genesis 5 & 11 and looking at the resulting chronology. Archeology did enter into it, as I looked at the dating of events that would be required to match that chronology, but characteristics of the text itself first suggested that we did not have literal history there. Nothing I have studied since has changed my mind on that point.

9781938434723mBut I’ve written on this subject many times before. Just try typing “evolution” in the search box. I’m writing this because I’ve just sent a book off to the printer titled Worshiping with Charles Darwin. That’s a provocative title. Carol Everhart Roper designed a provocative cover to go with it. That was intentional. It’s not actually the most controversial book I’ve published, even on this topic, but I’ve focused on the controversy. That’s marketing, but it also comes from conviction.

I look at this from two perspectives. First, as a Christian and a church member, I believe that this is a non-essential. That God is creator is an essential. How God created is not. I think we should have tolerance and respect in the church on this issue. But my belief in tolerance and respect does not mean that I don’t have a firm position on the issue myself. I believe that God is the creator of heaven and earth and that through the study of the world by the methods of the natural sciences we can learn how creation was accomplished and how the physical world functions. I believe we are in error both in theology and in science when we try to impose our theology on the findings of science. It’s bad theology because to claim that what we learn from the natural world is not reliable we make God a liar. It’s bad science because it imposes a conclusion prior to the data.

Thus I would be called a theistic evolutionist, though I object to the label. I am a theist, in that I believe in God. But my theism is not a characteristic of my acceptance of the findings of evolutionary science. Though I am strictly an amateur in any scientific endeavors, I do not modify the findings of science by saying “and God.” This is not because I do not see God in the natural world. It is rather because I see God everywhere in the natural world and not more so in one place or another. I do not see God more in my cat’s purr than I do in a pencil falling. Both things result from God. Science tells me how. Science does not discover God at some specific point. Science is studying God through studying God’s handiwork. But science does not improve its study of the handiwork by trying to pretend to find God at some specific point. That is why I don’t like linking the word “theist” to “evolutionist.”

But I also object to the word “evolutionist.” Evolution is not my philosophy. It is not my religion. It is not an article of my religious faith, though the fearless pursuit of accurate knowledge is. I am not an evolutionist any more than I am a gravitationist. I believe that gravity functions as science describes. I believe that evolution functions as science describes. I believe we will discover more about how each of these works. Neither gravity nor evolution is an object of my faith or trust. My trust in science is based on the method, a method that has proven functional repeatedly. It is not a matter of perfection either. Science will produce new results and alter previous understandings. But it has proven effective at correcting its own errors.

Now people who believe what I do about evolutionary science have tended either to keep quiet in church or to simply say that we believe the Bible teaches that God is the creator and the how doesn’t matter. I don’t agree with these approaches. What I think we need to do is think about how the discoveries of natural science impact what we believe about God and how they change how we tell the story of God the creator. Genesis 1 & 2 told the story to the ancients. We can listen in to that story and learn theology and generate our own liturgy. But I think to tell the story as faithfully as it was told so long ago we need to tell the story of the creator in the light of what we know about cosmology and origins. Belief that God has used evolution as the means of diversifying life here on earth, and presumably elsewhere in the universe, is not a withdrawal from an area of faith. Rather, it is a new look at the expanding story of God and our knowledge and experience of God. We need to tell that story faithfully and vigorously.

And this brings me back to the title of this recently released book. We could pretend that the discussion doesn’t matter, but that would not be faithful to the search for truth or to the integrity of the way we proclaim the gospel. I know of people for whom this issue has been a stumbling block. It’s time to talk about it openly. We’ve been arguing about it vigorously, but that’s not what I mean. We need to start looking at the implications and talking about how we tell the story of the gospel faithfully in the world God created and is creating. I think that is something worth celebrating.

Bob Cornwall has taken up one part of that task. I hope the conversation continues to grow.

Careful Where You Point Your Bible

Careful Where You Point Your Bible

At the beginning of the month I wrote a post about pointing texts at yourself first. I think it’s important to do so both in order to avoid misinterpretation or unbalanced emphasis, but also because in communicating the message you will do better in expressing something that has convicted you first. The temptation, of course, is to major on the texts that don’t get under my own skin, but which tell other people what they need to change. But I think that’s a dangerous course of action.

Coincidentally, I received some e-mails shortly after I posted that. The person in question was not responding to my post, but rather to my position on Bible versions (he is KJV-Only) and on the creation/evolution controversy (he’s a young earth creationist). Though I do reserve the right to post e-mails that are sent to me, I’m going to leave this individual anonymous.

We went through one exchange of e-mails, i.e. he e-mailed me to tell me I was wrong, though providing nothing but his own statements to back that up, and then I responded to that e-mail. I mentioned that I would normally carry on a private correspondence on a topic such as this only through one exchange, but that I’d be delighted to carry on the discussion in public. That’s my policy when someone’s question isn’t personal or at least unique. I also gave a few references dealing with why I hold the positions I do, though again, these are all available through my various web sites.

Having engaged in all of several paragraphs of communication, he then quoted 2 Peter 3:3-7 at me (and I use the preposition deliberately) and extracted from it the following terms:

“there shall come … scoffers … willingly …ignorant” (I couldn’t say it any better.)

Now admittedly my views on creation and evolution are somewhat controversial, but being called “willingly ignorant” by a KJV-Only advocate is, shall we say, special.

And herewith ends another example of how not to communicate!

Book: Thank God for Evolution

Book: Thank God for Evolution

Dowd, Michael. Thank God for Evolution. New York: Plume, 2007. 380 pages + front and back matter. ISBN: 978-0-452-29534-6.  (All numbers in parentheses are page numbers from this edition of the book.)

I was interested in this book from the moment I saw the title, not because I immediately expected to agree, but because it, along with its blurbs and description, takes a celebratory approach to evolution. My own position is that evolution is a fact and a valid theory, but it requires some theological work to deal with that. So a book that claims that evolution is not only compatible with Christianity, but something that Christians should thank God for, sounds pretty challenging to me.

The early pages of the book set some pretty high standards. In the “Author’s Promises” Dowd makes some very strong promises, claiming that he is bringing forth a new form of Christianity. For example, speaking to “devoutly committed Christians” he says that “. . . whether you consider yourself conservative, moderate, or liberal, my promise to you is that the sacred evolutionary perspective offered here will enrich your faith and inspire you in ways that believers in the past could only dream of” (xxvi). He also expects that his exposition will be enriching to atheists and freethinkers, amongst many others. That’s a tall order, and if you read the complete section of author’s promises, you’ll find the mission gets even more daunting.

I was reading this book along with my Sunday School class, and I tried to look at it in two ways. First, I wanted to see how much it challenged my thinking and made me reconsider things I already believe. Second, I wanted to see how well it fulfilled the author’s own stated mission.

So how does he go about his task? He divides his presentation into five sections:

  1. The Holy Trajectory of Evolution
  2. Reality is Speaking
  3. The Gospel According to Evolution
  4. Evolutionary Spirituality
  5. A “God-Glorifying” Future

The first section lays out the view of evolution that underlies the rest of the book. I would summarize this by saying it’s a very directed and goal-oriented view of evolution. The evolutionary process is not just natural laws being laws; it is a process that is leading the universe, and of course our world, to ever greater heights. The second section attempts to relate the concept of revelation with science, and deals, in a sense, with epistemology. The third section attempts to restate basic Christian doctrines in terms of evolutionary theory. The fourth expands this into a more general spirituality, including presenting some ideas of spiritual disciplines. In fact, the fourth section goes so far as to discuss speaking in tongues and relating it to this evolutionary spirituality. The fifth section, to be honest, started to feel rather redundant, but I’d summarize it by saying that it restates the evolution of the entire universe such that it is leading to the fulfillment of the dreams of an American 21st century liberal. Many of these dreams are not at all bad–the question that remains is whether evolution is inevitably pushing in that direction.

As usual, let me state the positives of this book. I’m afraid my reaction is not all that positive, so this is harder than usual. The author’s style is engaging, though I must temper that note by noting that it seems redundant from time to time. The section of spiritual disciplines and some on evolutionary psychology were interesting, though understandably a bit basic. I’m not sorry I read the book, but it doesn’t go onto any of my “you ought to read this” lists.

There are a some things this book is not. It is not an outline of evolutionary theory. There are some basic descriptions of evolutionary processes, but nothing that I find challenging, and I am not trained in any of the natural sciences. (I should note, however, that I’ve been reading books on creation and evolution since I was about 10 years old.) It is not a deep book of theology. While it runs through a number of theological concepts, the major contribution, in my view, was in redefining terms. It does not deal extensively with scripture. If you want to look at how to interpret scripture in the light of the principles expressed here, your guidance is limited to telling you not to take the Bible literally, and to look for revelation of God in the ongoing, evolutionary story of the universe around you.

Before I discuss the success of this book at attaining its stated goals, I want to write a note on accommodationism. Accommodationism is the view that science and religion can be accommodated and need not conflict. The problem with this is that it doesn’t define “religion” and “science.” My religion and mainstream science can be accommodated, but let’s say someone believes that the only way to faithfully read Genesis 1 & 2 is as historical narrative description the creation of the world, then that particular form of religion and mainstream science cannot be accommodated.

I might want to suggest that this view of Genesis 1 & 2 is less important or less essential, but it’s not my place to tell others what about their belief system is essential. I can suggest, but obviously the decision is theirs. I cannot claim to have accommodated their faith to science unless, in the process, I have respected what they regard as important.

Similarly one must define what one means by science. I see science as a way of studying the natural world. If something is supernatural, it can only be observed by science as (and if) it impacts the natural world in a measurable way. So I don’t understand science as the one and only way to know. Yet there are those who do. If one believes science is the one and only way to know, then accommodation with religion will again be impossible.

Thus accommodationism itself tends to become a scientific and religious position on its own, rather than a reconciliation of other positions. In accommodating science and religion, proponents often alter the components in ways that will not be acceptable to adherents of the supposedly accommodated views.

Note that I distinguish a form of political accommodationism, in which proponents of the teaching of evolutionary theory work together even though their positions on religious and philosophical issues may differ greatly. This is simply agreement on certain goals, something much different, in my view.

What Michael Dowd has done, in my opinion, is to create an accommodationist religious position, with some prejudice to both Christianity and evolution. It’s hard to say which takes the bigger beating, though I think Christianity in any orthodox form comes in for the worst treatment.

Evolutionary theory, it seems to me, loses as well, by being presented as a teleological process. It is a very optimistic view, which essentially holds that all the competition and death and suffering of biological evolution leads ultimately and (almost) inevitably to cooperation, enlightenment, peace, and joy. It’s not that I disagree with the kinds of goals that Dowd expresses. His hopes are very attractive. I actually wish I could believe they are as inevitable as he seems to think. I just don’t think it’s so.

Christianity comes in for redefinition. All the words are there, but they come into new meanings. You can claim that resurrection or eternal life means coming back as some sort of stardust (97-100), but that’s not what it means to most Christian believers, and I suspect you’re not going to find that many who want to exchange one view for the other. Similarly, the “realization” of various miracles (Appendix B, 357-370) is going to fall flat for most evangelical or orthodox Christians.

In fact, I would say that if you being this book as an orthodox or evangelical Christian, and substantially accept what it teaches, you will no longer be recognizable as a Christian, except in vocabulary. You’ll use some of the words that Christians use, but you will not mean the same thing. I try not to tell other people whether they can call themselves Christian; I believe God can deal with the labels issue. But these changes in vocabulary are so radical that they really no longer appear to relate to the same religion.

In a sidebar titled “Realizing ‘the Centrality of the Cross'” (210) there is a great illustration of what I’m saying. In describing the traditional Christian understanding of this phrase Dowd says that “. . . it is often taken to mean that only Christians who believe that God’s Son suffered and died on teh cross for their sins will ascend to a place somewhere outside the universe called heaven. Everyone else will be tortured forevere in hell. . . .” In its place, evolutionary Christianity would say that this refers to “vertical integrity,” or “getting complete with the past and being responsible for the future . . .” and “horizontal integrity,” “being in right relationship with my nested world.”

Now the vertical and horizontal components do form a sort of cross, but the only connection between those two views is in the vocabulary. Further, the orthodox position could be stated much better, and would subsume integrity, though in quite a different way. I do like the concepts of horizontal and vertical integrity, but they are not the essence of “the centrality of the cross.”

The main purpose for which I could recommend this book would be in order to understand this evolutionary Christianity movement. Many of the theological positions would be better studied from writers expressing theological positions such as process theology or panentheism. I rate the book three stars out of five.

I believe that both Kenneth Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God and Richard Colling’s Random Designer provide a better presentation of ways to reconcile Christianity with evolution.

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Evolution and Continuous Upward Progress

Evolution and Continuous Upward Progress

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Image via Wikipedia-Perhaps not so much with this upward progress

Peter Kirk has written a post titled The Gospel is not incompatible with theistic evolution, in which he responds to an article by Dr. David Shackelford. Peter’s response covers most of the ground.

I wanted to add something here, however, regarding “continuous upward progress,” which Dr. Shackelford, as quoted by Peter, says is “demanded” by most “versions of evolution.” I’m in the dark about what he means by “versions,” unless he’s referring to popular conceptions, and especially social evolution.

For example, an evolutionary view of the early Christian church would have the church “progressing” toward greater order and organization, thus the pastoral epistles must be later than other writings because they refer to such greater organization. On the other hand, if the progress is not so steady, nor unidirectional. I’m no church historian, but I’ve often wondered if the progress toward greater structure was not faster amongst those coming from Judaism with synagogue traditions than for Gentile Christians. All this begs the question of what is “progress” and more particular what is “upward progress.”

But the biological theory of evolution teaches no such thing. Though there is, I believe, a general trend toward greater variety, simply because there are more creatures to be varied, even that trend is not inevitable, and one can question whether a trend toward greater variety would be “upward progress” in general.

The tendency of biological evolution is toward suitability for some ecological niche (stated loosely–I’m no biologist), and depending on how you look at it, the tendency could be distinctly downward, for example, when a population of fish living in a cave lose their eyesight. The tendency can be terminal when a population fails to adapt to environmental changes.

For certain periods of time and using certain defintions of “upward” (people who use this term usually mean upward as leading toward us humans), you will find “upward progress” in evolution, but there is nothing about the theory, nor is there general evidence in the record, to suggest that evolution demands upward progress.


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