Evolution and Christianity?

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Perhaps one of the greatest issues for Christians during the 20th and 21st centuries has been trying to integrate evolutionary theories with Christian theology or, alternatively, trying to rationally disregard the theory of evolution so as not to have to integrate it with theology at all. A couple of years ago I would have waded into this debate all guns blazing, a convinced creationist. I was sure that I was armed with all the arguments against evolution that I would ever need. Recently, I’ve started to tread more carefully. I don’t think this issue is simple at all, and though I’m no longer taking any science subjects, I’ve grown more uncomfortable with the idea that the weight of evidence from scientific disciplines can be ignored or explained away. My mission now is to look at all the angles of this debate that I can, with the goal of eventually arriving at a reasoned, rational belief that sits well with the evidence from the scientific community, whilst remaining consistent with sound Christian theology.

The purpose of this post is to introduce the issue to my blog and to allow me to set out, in brief, the ideas on the matter that I have just read in John Polkinghorne’s book, Science and Religion in Quest of Truth. Polkinghorne is a particle physicist, with an MA in mathematics (from Cambridge) and a PhD in physics. As an Anglican priest, he also happens to be the only ordained member in the Royal Society. It is fairly clear that he has the qualifications that allow him to talk with some authority on science and religion. In the book that I am reading, he takes a broad sweep of all the sciences, from quantum physics to psychology, but it is his section of evolution and theism that I want to zero in on in this post. I know that he is not a biologist, but it is evident in the book that he understands the philosophy and methodology within science, and, as a member of the Royal Society, I would imagine that he has a fair amount of contact with biologists who are qualified to talk about evolution. So, without further ado, I will write down a summary of what he has written on the topic.

The premise of the book which provides the framework for this section is this: science and religion should be in conversation; they both deal with fundamentally different questions, but the insights of both should be combined in order to understand the world we live in as best we can.

The first point to make is that the idea of evolution clearly encourages thinking of creation as involving an unfolding process and not simply as a single initiating act.

Polkinghorne goes on to argue that this actually fits the idea of the involved, theistic God than that single initiating act (I’ll just say creationism from now on), which he argues can just as easily support the idea of the detached God of deism. The God involved in evolution would be a God who was involved in the ‘whole show’ of the natural world, not just that so-called first cause. Polkinghorne goes on to warn readers about the two extremes which Christians can fall into. The first extreme is the ‘deistic Spectator’ and the second is the ‘Cosmic Tyrant’. The former describes the God who sets natural processes in order then leaves the world and watched things unfold; the latter describes the God who controls everything in creation and leaves no room for free will or second order creation (where created things have the freedom to experiment in their own creation of new life). Polkinghorne argues that the Christian God of love, who allows His creatures freedom whilst still demonstrating ‘interactive concern’ for them fits comfortably with theology and evolutionary science.

 

We saw that genetic mutation has been not only the engine driving the remarkable 3.5 billion year history of the development of terrestrial life but also a source of malignancy.’

Polkinghorne’s writing now moves onto the problem of evil and how evolutional theory can help Christians make sense of it, arguing essentially that in a world where God allows his creatures the freedom of reproduction as they see fit, there are going to be bad mutations as well as good ones. The evidence from biology actually shows that there are many, many more bad mutations occurring than helpful ones. Before continuing on the subject, Polkinghorne steps back to clarify the concept of an ‘almighty’ God, arguing that:

Nothing restricts God from the outside, but there are internal constraints arising from divine consistency. God can do what God wills, but that will can only be what is in accord with the divine nature itself. The rational God cannot decree that 2+2=5.

From here, Polkinghorne asserts the view that a God of love must allow humans some free will and that this is preferable to a world of ‘perfectly programmed automata’. He doesn’t mention this, but another viewpoint is that a controlling God could somehow cause humans to be evil as well…though on the face of it, that’s hard to reconcile with the Biblical character of God.

Polkinghorne returns to the original issue of physical evil (disease etc.), saying that this is part of the package, the flip-side to useful mutations. He illustrates this with the analogy of tectonic plates: the plates have to move to allow the circulation of essential mineral, but that tectonic movement also causes earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. He argues that by the nature of the freedom God has given us, we cannot escape from the possibility of negative mutations if we want to accept the benefits.

Two theological concepts are important in the discussion of the doctrine of creation. The first is the recognition we have been exploring that the act of creation is an act of self-limitation on the part of the Creator in bringing into being creatures who are truly other and who are truly allowed to be and to make themselves..The second concept is the idea of theistic evolution, accepting all that science can tell us about cosmic and terrestrial history, but setting the story in the context of the unfolding of God’s purposes.

Polkinghorne will expand upon these points in later stages of the book which are beyond the scope of this post to summarise, so I can’t go into much detail now. There is very little I can say on the first point, but the second can be clarified a little. Polkinghorne says that the view of theistic evolution allows Christians to accept that the natural world generally proceeds in an organised, predictable way, whilst still remaining open to the possibility of God’s action either through interference (cutting across the grain of nature, as in the miracle of turning water into wine) or through natural processes (going with the grain of nature, as in the parting of the Red Sea).

I wish I could go into those topics more, but Polkinghorne expands them into a section each (‘Divine Providence’ and ‘Miracles’) so I really can’t do them justice now. I hope that if nothing else, I have provided some food for thought. Please feel free to leave comments with your own views on this, as I know that evolutionary theory is a very controversial topic in Christian circles. Please be aware that I am not saying that this post reflects my own belief, but Polkinghorne certainly makes an interesting case, and I am willing to consider his views as I would consider any other similarly well-reasoned work. I have to say that the only section of this that I think could have been explained better is the part about physical evil, though I wouldn’t be surprised if a biologist could explain why negative mutations are necessary in the evolutionary process. On the whole, I was intrigued by this, and could post Polkinghorne’s thoughts on time, miracles, free will etc. because he attempts to grapple with a lot of huge issues in the world of science and religion. If you’re interested in these topics, give this book a go.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. YOUNGEARTH says:

    The theory of evolution has done nothing to advance science. It only a foreign religion that has managed to embed itself under the guise of science crying like a newborn for attention to every nuance or new idea it discovers. Remove every word from every journal ever published that says “millions of years” or “billions of years” or “evolution” and guess what? Mankind would have still invented the T.V., radio, and satellites. Using real science man would have continued to invent cars, airplanes, and rocket ships using his advance understanding of materials science, mathematics, physics, electronics, and communications. There still would be computers, the internet, and iPhones. Evolution produces nothing and it achieves nothing. Evolution is the primitive idolatry of our day and just as detestable as it always was to the Sovereign Lord who created the Heaven, Earth, and all life in 144 hours.

    1. bengarry says:

      Thank you for posting your views. I’m not arguing with you, so don’t take this the wrong way, but could you just clarify your position on evidence for an old earth/universe such as the fossil record and red shift? Also, I personally think that it’s a bit strong to call evolution idolatry. I know that for some scientists, evolution and other sciences are the most important thing in their lives, but every Christian I know who believes in evolution does not worship it in any way and holds that Jesus is the Lord of their life and the resurrected Son of God. As I said, I’m not trying to shout you down, I’m just raising a couple of points in response.

  2. Hey Ben

    Great to see you diving into a topic that is so dear to me. I have done extensive research into all sides of the arguments and hope I have landed on a rational position, that keeps the Word of God as the infallible truth, while considering scientific endeavour. I have included parts of your blog with my comments underneath. I hear your disclaimer that these views are not your own, so please don’t feel my comments are an attack on you (but some of his arguments are very weak)!

    Evolution and Christianity?

    “Recently, I’ve started to tread more carefully… the weight of evidence from scientific …”
    It’s very important when assessing the ‘weight’ of scientific evidence, to understand the philosophies driving the research. Most science is not as unbiased as the scientists would claim (see following).

    “My mission now is to look at all the angles of this debate that I can … whilst remaining consistent with sound Christian theology.”
    Unfortunately there never will be a rational scientific belief that sits well with theology, until those conducting research abandon presuppositions such a philosophical naturalism, materialism and uniformitarianism, all of which are fundamentally atheistic.

    “The first point to make is that the idea of evolution clearly encourages thinking of creation as involving an unfolding process and not simply as a single initiating act.”
    The Bible sees creation as an unfolding process that took place over a set, not indefinite, time period. The Bible never claims God’s involvement was limited to a single initiating act (this is a classic straw man, by misrepresenting ‘creationism’ he has created an easy target for his argument), but creation does begin and end, we are not currently in a moment of creation, but God continues to sustain the world He made, and be involved with it.

    “Polkinghorne goes on … creationism … can just as easily support the idea of the detached God of deism.”
    A belief in a creator God who made the world in 6 days is completely incompatible with deism, which believes he made the world and left it alone. Deism fundamentally holds to the belief that God is only known through observation of the material world, not by special revelation. However, the only reason 6 day creation is recorded in scripture is because God didn’t leave the world alone and kept revealing Himself again and again to speak to and interact with people, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and in this case Moses, to whom He gave Genesis 1, by special revelation.

    “The God involved in evolution … not just that so-called first cause.”
    The ‘God’ involved in evolution would also be a god who used pain, death, disease and decay to bring about life. A view of God totally incompatible with Genesis or any other part of scripture. And the Bible never treats God as a first cause only, Colossians tells us God continues to sustain all things by the word of His power.

    “Polkinghorne goes on to warn … ‘deistic Spectator’”
    Deism is not a Christian belief, it dates from the Enlightenment, and has been fought by the church for over 200 years. It was the introduction of Deism, following the French Revolution, that paved the way for Erasmus Dawin, and his grandson, Charles Darwin, who were both deists, to bring evolution to the world. Deism was only one step away from atheism, most evolutionists have now made that leap. Richard Dawkins credits Darwin with making it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.

    “…and the second is the ‘Cosmic Tyrant’…”
    Once again a straw man argument. I have never yet met a believer, who believes God is a cosmic Tyrant. The idea of ‘free will’, even if tempered with a dose of predestination, is found in all orthodox christianity, otherwise sin would be impossible, or an act of God (as you mention later).

    “… Malignancy … [then] ‘Two theological concepts … creatures who are truly other and who are truly allowed to be and to make themselves.'”
    The idea that God created a world with inevitable, built-in malignancy, is against everything Genesis and the rest of scripture teaches us. The idea that this was a limitation He placed on Himself is flawed. He is not limited, He is only patient. Malignancy, the Bible clearly teaches, is a product of sin, not God’s perfect creation. The wages of sin are death, hense the need for Jesus death. Theistic Evolution, even if it claims to, leaves no room or reason for Adam, sin, or Jesus’ substitutionary sacrifice. (Incidentally, human reproduction is not creating life, scripture is clear, all life comes from God. He is the Author of Life. To argue we create life would be a great argument in support of abortions. What we start we can finish. But what God starts only God may finish)

    “The second concept is the idea of theistic evolution, accepting all that science can tell us about cosmic and terrestrial history, but setting the story in the context of the unfolding of God’s purposes”
    This a dangerous concept, accepting all science uncritically. Science is far from perfect or unbiased. The things scientists believed 25 years ago are already wrong, why sacrifice 2000 years of unchanged theology for a theory yet to be nailed down.

    “… theistic evolution allows Christians to accept that the natural world … still remaining open to the possibility of God’s action …”
    God involving Himself in creation is never Biblically ‘interference’, for everything still belongs to Him.

    “…though I wouldn’t be surprised if a biologist could explain why negative mutations are necessary in the evolutionary process.”
    The evolutionary process is so far from being proven. While some variation within kinds has been observed, Evolution on a scale required for God to have used it as a mechanism for creation has never been observed. Negative mutations are a product of the fall, and the fact that all of creation is perishing.

    I hope you will find my comments helpful. I don’t wish to sound closed minded, but in the words of GK Chesterton, “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” My stance is to agree with the Bible first, and then science wherever it agrees.

    “Virtually every form of theological liberalism arises from an attempt to rescue Christian theology from what is perceived to be an intellectual embarrassment – whether the virgin conception of Christ, the historicity of the miracles recorded in the Bible, or, in our immediate context, the inerrancy of Scripture and the Bible’s account of creation.”
    Dr R Albert Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, No Pass from Theological Responsibility – The BioLogos Conundrum, 2010

    “Whenever ‘science’ and the Bible are in conflict, it is always the Bible that, in one manner or another, must give way. We are not told that ‘science’ should correct its answers in light of Scripture. Always it is the other way around. Yet this is really surprising, for the answers which scientists have provided have frequently changed with the passing of time. The ‘authoritative’ answers of pre-Copernican scientists are no longer acceptable; nor, for that matter, are many of the views of twenty-five years ago.”
    Edward J Young, Days of Genesis, 1963

    “A slavish genuflection to the latest trends in academia seduces our leaders into conformity. One apologist once described this pattern as the ‘treason of the intellectuals’. If the secular establishment ridicules such tenets as the inspiration of the Bible, then insecure Christian professors, desperate to be accepted by their peers, quickly flee from orthodoxy, dragging the colleges, seminaries, and ultimately the churches with them. It is a weighty price to pay for academic recognition.”
    R.C. Sproul, Evangelical Lap Dogs, 2002

    1. bengarry says:

      Thanks Adam, that’s a fantastic unpacking of the ideas that I’m trying to come to grips with. One of my main problems as I wrote the post and read the book was that the attitude always seemed to be that the theology has to fit the science. ALthough it seems logical to me that the real scientific explanation and the real theological explanation will end up being perfectly compatible with each other, I was unsure as to why it had to be theology that compromised when science was assumed to be almost infallible.

      I also recognise that scientific naturalism and empiricism are products of the Enlightenment period, coming from the minds of thinkers who were desperate to be rational in everything they said. I saw a paraphrase of a quote from an Enlightenment thinker, Comte, yesterday (in a sociology lesson, oddly enough) in which he said that religious thinking has given way to metaphysical thinking which, in turn, has given was to scientific thinking. I believe that this is an example of a gross misuse of science bordering on idolatry, as the first comment on this post mentioned. That leads to the conclusion that the Enlightenment thinkers weren’t all as objective and rational as they liked to believe they were.

      I also firmly believe that God has an explanation for the creation of the world and why current evidence appears to contradict what is written in the Bible, but I know that it’s unlikely that I’m going to find that out before I meet him face to face. Even so, I can’t help being intrigued by this topic and wanting to examine it in every way I can.

      Thank you for commenting, would you mind if I copied your comment into a blog post? It was a great response and I want to be able to represent your side of the argument on my blog as well, but it won’t be so easily seen if it stays at the bottom of this post.

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