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.