Thursday, April 16, 2009

Coming to Peace with Science

I am re-posting here thoughts I originally posted elsewhere on Dec. 20, 2008, concerning theistic evolution and the book Coming to Peace with Science, by Darrell R. Falk, a book that got a huge ball rolling in my thinking about faith and science and life.


Falk's book did three things for me.

1) It disabused me of the notion that the typical biologist's acceptance of evolution is based on either blindly following tradition in their field or a desire to escape God. On the contrary, biologists believe in evolution because the more deeply they engage in their pursuits, the more the explanatory power of evolution shines through and the more it appears inescapably the only credible explanation.

2) It removed for me the objections I previously had that evolution, in spite of its great explanatory power concerning the things we observe, is "impossible," e.g. at the level of species change or the development of something so complex as the human eye.

3) It showed that a more tranquil path is possible in dealing with matters of faith and science than my own turbulent experience has been. My faith was severely challenged when I left a Christian school and landed in a public school in 10th grade, and was hit by the double whammy of the biology class and the discovery that people weren't nearly as evil and prejudiced against truth as the Christian school had indoctrinated me to believe. Francis Schaeffer's work helped me recover a sense of the intellectual basis for Christianity, and yet I'm afraid there were aspects of his teaching which helped set me up for hard falls whenever I would come into contact again with evolutionary biology. His very insistence on a literal understanding of Genesis, as well as his casting of the whole history of Western intellectual discussion as a tendentious revolt against the authority of the Bible at the cost of despair, I think, led me to follow a kind of "script" when confrontation with evolution seemed to force me to make drastic choices. At times in my life it has appeared that I was completely given over to agnosticism and despair. At somewhat less severe times I could one day be basking in the warm presence of God, meditating on a sweet truth from Scripture, and the next day, while taking my kids to the zoo, feel all that dissipate and wonder whether any of it was really real. Falk's narrative of his own pilgrimage shows that another outcome is possible besides either being a head-stuck-in-sand fundamentalist or a spiritually and morally unhinged skeptic suffering suicidal despair. Thanks to Falk, I am no longer afraid of taking a trip to the zoo! If you ever read Falk, let me know whether you found it as convincing as I did.

Another book I found very helpful, and a good preliminary to deeper reading, was Evolution for Everyone, by David Sloan Wilson. In reading Wilson, one has to make allowance for the fact that this secular-minded writer is less adept at dealing with the religious side of these questions than he is at explaining biology. The irony is that to read his reflections and observations and heartfelt care for the created world is to witness an exuberant demonstration of what the Bible means when it says we are made in the image of God.

I think there are a number of factors that have conspired to prevent productive dialog about this issue in our society, especially among Christians. First, evolution really is counterintuitive initially, before one gets immersed in some fairly complex and detailed observations of the biological world. This opens the door for people to suspect that belief in evolution may be the result of people trying really, really hard to escape God. Second, the Enlightenment era set a genuine precedent of people who truly were about throwing off divine authority. So when Darwin came along, there were people who had long since been reveling in what they thought was a newfound freedom from God via Enlightenment philosophies, who found what they thought was scientific vindication in Darwin's theories. Christians reacted against this, rightly seeing the matter in terms of spiritual conflict, but mistakenly identifying the Darwinian biological conversation as the enemy. Many Christians retreated from intellectual engagement in general, and have even come to see faith as demanding that they close themselves off to honest exploration of these issues. Evolutionary writers, for their part, respond with curt dismissals and ridicule, failing to take adequate account of the counterintuitivity of evolution for people who have not pursued their own areas of specialized study. In all this folks on both sides of the biological knowledge divide have proven all too human slaves to the categories and patterns of reaction that have been set, not by the facts themselves, but by the unfortunate history and sequence of past intellectual and cultural conversation.

[It seems the effects of such all too human factors may be observed even in the biological conversation among convinced evolutionists. As we know, to leave a genetic legacy one must both stay alive and find a mate to successfully reproduce with. Evolution thus speaks about two kinds of "selection": selection for survival, and sexual selection. Yet for over a century after Darwin, the great bulk of attention was devoted to survival selection, even though Darwin himself made sexual selection his primary research interest, and was reviled on that account by his contemporaries. Geoffrey Miller, in his book The Mating Mind, argues that the relative neglect of sexual selection research until the revival of interest in Darwin's favorite topic exploded in very recent decades was due to an antipathy in the Victorian mindset against the notion that sexual selection is driven primarily by the woman's sexual choices in most species.]

We fear exploring evolution because we feel that something vital is at stake. But if our faith is built upon what really turns out to be very creaturely "props," don't be surprised if God in his providence allows those props to be knocked out from under you. Should you find yourself in that position (as I suspect most people will as they dig deeper into evolutionary biology), my advice would be: 1) don't panic; 2) explore freely and honestly, acknowledging that a fear of doing so cannot possibly be the fruit of faith that comes from God; and 3) trust that a sovereign God will catch you and establish you on more solid footing, even if some of your current understandings are changed.

There really aren't many options when confronted with the evidence for evolution: You can ignore it, in which case you will have little of any use to say to others who don't take this path. You can live with tension, maintaining apparently contradictory beliefs. Or you can seek to resolve the tension from the scientific and/or biblical ends. I am finding that the scientific end doesn't really budge, rumors to the contrary from the creation science and ID camps notwithstanding. Reading Falk and Wilson will show you why I've come to that conclusion. But I think there is a lot more room to move on the biblical end than either liberals or conservatives have acknowledged, and one can explore this without doing injustice to Scripture and without having to surrender a very high view of its divine origin and authority. (I'm afraid there are people on both sides who have a vested interest in maintaining the notion that this is not possible, such as the atheist Richard Dawkins who presumes to batter faith out of people with the cudgel of evolution, and certain Christians whose careers have built around calling an increasingly marginalized Christian community to hold the fort against the conspiratorial forces of godless evolutionary science.)

The two main issues that arise are the historical intent of biblical texts, and the theological question of the origin and nature of human sin and culpability. On the question of the historical intent of biblical narratives, I think the first thing that needs to be said about understanding biblical literature, especially the Old Testament, is that ANY pronouncements about genre and intent are to be entertained with a grain of salt, as coming from competent scholars who disagree with one another and who are all separated from the texts by a great deal of temporal and cultural distance. To stand against the solid consensus of the overwhelming majority of scientists concerning evolution just seems to me to be hanging an awful lot on one minority opinion (the literalist reading of Genesis) among scholars in a field where tentative conclusions are the norm and there is relatively little consensus.

Further, I think it is far from obvious that literal readings of biblical narratives are always the most in accord with the authors' original intent. In regard to the "days" of Genesis, the writings of the late Meredith Kline, Henri Blocher, and Rowland Ward long ago convinced me that the literal 24-7 view is not the most defensible interpretation on exegetical grounds. Kline, however, was a literalist concerning Genesis 2:4 and thereafter. He believed that details such as the instantaneous special creation of Adam from the dust of the earth, the fashioning of Eve from Adam's rib, a literal forbidden fruit, and temptation by Satan taking the form of a serpent, were all intended as literal history. I must say, I've read Kline, Longman, Dillard, Waltke, etc., and while they all admirably defend the point that highly stylized and even lately written texts can conceivably be historical in intent and result, they seem to assume that literal historical intent is the default position in reading biblical narratives, an assumption I think they fail to establish. The parallels with ancient Middle Eastern creation and flood stories demands some kind of accounting, and the answer that Kline, Longman, etc. give is that the non-biblical stories are pagan corruptions of a true history that was faithfully preserved in the biblical accounts. Again, I agree this is possible, but is it established? To my mind (and apparently to that of innumerable scholars) it seems at least equally likely that all these cultures used a shared mythological idiom to express (and debate) such matters as the meaning of life, the basis for a king's rule, and the basis for the social order (Genesis's contribution being that Yahweh alone is the rightful king, and so we had therefore better respect one another as his fellow subjects). Such a nonliteral understanding, if it accords with the original author's intent, in no way impinges on divine inspiration and authority--God is free to use any genre he pleases, and he generally uses those which are common currency in the cultural milieu of the audiences he is addressing. So what keeps conservative scholars, who are intimately acquainted with all the surviving ancient Near Eastern literature, from affirming the general consensus of their colleagues? From what I can gather, they insist that a nonhistorical interpretation cannot be squared with the divine inspiration of NT authors who seem, in those scholars' minds, to be referring to the events of Genesis as historical. To that I would respond that it is far from obvious that Jesus or Paul or any of the NT writers even care about the question of literal historical intent of the older narratives they have in mind. The most that I think can be established with certainty is that they believed the Old Testament speaks truly and reliably (whether literally or metaphorically) to the human predicament, and that the literally crucified, buried, and risen Christ is the solution to that very real predicament.

But even though I affirm the strong likelihood of nonhistorical intent in regard to SOME biblical narratives, I am not convinced of the view of the most extreme critics that practically EVERY narrative in the Bible, including those about the death and resurrection of Christ, are nonhistorical. Now I have to admit that all of these scholars, liberal and conservative, are way, way out of my league. I simply lack their expertise. Yet when I read stories in the Bible, I cannot avoid the fact that one alarmingly simple criterion seems to handle this whole question of historicity quite nicely--the criterion of whether the events being written about are contemporary with the human author, or not. That is to say, when a biblical author is writing about the distant and mysterious past, or the distant and mysterious future, metaphor or myth or something other than literal history is reasonably to be expected. When a biblical author is writing about events that have occurred in his own lifetime, it is reasonable to expect literal history. Applying this criterion to a variety of texts, the conclusions I draw are confirmed by the overall feel and particular characteristics of the texts themselves. For example, when I read John's post-resurrection narratives, with Jesus's threefold restoration of Peter, the count of 153 fish, and the clearing up of what Jesus really said about how long John might live, it has the feel of matter-of-fact stories based on eyewitness testimony, shared among a community of dearly loved friends who were very close to the original events. But when I read of a tree of life, whether in Genesis, Ezekiel, or Revelation, I get the sense that something very important and real is being discussed by means of metaphor.

To sum up this matter, there are those who, like Bultmann, deny ANY historical moorings to the Christian faith, and there are the conservative evangelical scholars like Waltke, Pratt, etc. who see virtually all biblical narratives as literal history. Finally, there are those like C.S. Lewis who discern varied genres with varying degrees of historical intent in the biblical narratives, and who see the incarnation, death, and resurrection as the historical linchpin of the Christian faith. Not that my amateur opinion counts for much, but just to report where I am personally, my gut sense very strongly inclines to the latter. And it must be insisted that all the reasons for this point of view--the ancient Near Eastern parallels, the evident differences of genre among various biblical texts--were no creation of Charles Darwin; it may just be that many have been moved to pay more attention to these realities in the wake of the Darwinian controversy.

Now let me share a few thoughts about the second major issue that exposure to the evidence for evolution raises for Christians: the origin of human sin and the validity of ascribing culpability to it. If we have come to be what we are by means of a process of physical evolution, how can we be blamed for moral failings? Indeed, what is the basis for believing in the reality of "right" and "wrong"? Now I have to say that atheistic evolutionists have a lot harder problem speaking of "ought" than theistic evolutionists. But one thing that kept me from finding theistic evolution a satisfying solution for many years was my difficulty in reconciling, e.g., how murder or adultery could be "wrong" given the abundant behavioral analogs in other species and our supposed ancestors.

For some time the best solution that I could come up with was to posit a fall with retroactive consequences. That is to say, I proposed that while Adam and Eve may have been biologically descended from nonhuman ancestors, the special environment in which they were placed and/or the strength of their relationship with God prevented whatever force inherited traits exerted upon Adam and Eve from being experienced by them as temptation to violate God's standards. When they chose to disobey, the whole history of death and pain and suffering became their past, as a fitting consequence of their sin. The fall, on this understanding, had retroactive consequences for all creation, just as the work of Christ had retroactive saving consequences for the saints who came before his advent. So now, ejected from the garden of Eden, and with their relationship with God severed, the tempting force of biologically inherited traits became operative, confirming them in the sad direction they had freely chosen. Some years ago I wrote up this thesis in a few pieces that I sent out to a handful of professors and cyber contacts who regularly discuss faith and science issues. Years later, I found that none other than William Dembski of ID fame is espousing the same view in his article at An Orthodox priest also seems to be arguing the same or a similar thesis in his article at

But despite such credentialed and venerable confirmation, I've come to reject my former hypothesis as nearly hopelessly convoluted. Even when I first wrote it up, I put it forth as a possible though admittedly awkward solution. Of course it would never have satisfied a literalist concerning Genesis 2 and 3. But it was intended to address the concerns of those who, like Henri Blocher, interpret Genesis 2 and 3 nonliterally but as nevertheless describing a real historical break with God on the part of the first human pair. (Blocher believes Paul's discussion of the sin of the first and last Adam in Romans 5 necessitates attributing a decisive historical fall from grace to the first male human, but he believes the narrative in Genesis 2 and 3 is not a strictly literal genre.)

I now very tentatively favor what to my mind is a much simpler solution. Simply put, culpable moral failure represents the discrepancy between the ethical behavior of which we are capable, and the behavior which we actually do. The origins and nature of this culpable moral failure, of this break with God and man, may be shrouded in mystery, but they are adequately described in accommodated mythological language for our benefit. Christ is the answer, the basis for our pardon for real culpability, and the means by which we come into greater conformity with God's will for our lives.

On this understanding, somewhere in the evolution of humanity it became possible to act for the common good, and God has declared that such behavior befits a species that reflects his own character. For example, rather than kill the infant offspring of a rival sire, which the males in some primate species do because it gives his own progeny with the same female a greater share of maternal attention and resources, and thus increases the likelihood of leaving a genetic legacy through that lineage, it is possible and desirable and now mandatory for humans to organize themselves and cooperate to mutual advantage. The happiness of God's creatures assumes greater importance than the maximization of genetic legacy at any cost. The last 6 of the Ten Commandments each address this matter, and enjoin win-win rather than I-win-you-lose behaviors among all humans. But our failures in that area are due to a broken relationship with God, which the first 4 of the Ten Commandments address. When we put ourselves and our own interests above God and the stipulations of our creator for how we should relate to our fellow creatures, we tend to be blind servants of the principle of the maximization of genetic legacy at any cost. We raid neighboring tribes so that our progeny will flourish and multiply, rather than theirs. We kill, lie, commit adultery, etc., and all of these things have rationales and cross-species analogs in regard to "evolutionary strategy." The females of many species (including in many species of birds which until recently were thought to be monogamous) pretend to be "faithful," as it were, to the male that is providing resources, but seek covert insemination by stronger or more attractive males, so as to procure resources and ensure traits in their progeny that will best equip them to survive and successfully mate and reproduce. (Now none of this is "consciously" motivated, though the whole concept of "consciousness" is a very complex and debated topic among evolutionary biologists.) But men and women are called to the more cooperative relationships that are summed up in biblical ethics, which, if practiced consistently, would provide plenty enough resources for everybody, and which maximize human happiness rather than the pointless unconscious "goal" of leaving the largest possible genetic legacy.

An exhaustive accounting of the evolutionary means by which God created us, and the reasons for his choosing those means, may be forever inaccessible to us, even though the reality of those means has become accessible to scientific investigation. But the MEANING of our lives is made clear to us both by the innate sense of God that he has somehow instilled in us, and by the special revelation he has given concerning his Son that comprises the entire Bible. It is perhaps no surprise that God would refrain from including a complex and detailed discussion of our evolutionary origins, but would instead adopt the mythological idiom of the cultural milieu of the people through whom he chose to bring forth the Messiah, to communicate what we need to know about our predicament, and to prepare us to receive the revelation of the answer to that predicament in Christ. It is certainly God's prerrogative to choose the languages and cultural idioms though which to reveal himself, and, if evolution is true, it is hard to imagine a clearer or more effective communication to achieve the ends for which Genesis was intended than what we in fact read in Genesis.

It is God, rather than our biological history, that defines the purpose and meaning of our lives. And who is to say that our lives are not so meaningful that audiences of spiritual creatures, angels and demons, cannot be anxiously following the story? Certainly science cannot say this cannot be so. Science cannot make any comment whatsoever on the meaning or ultimate significance of anything. Nor can it be expected to be of much help in understanding spiritual beings whose actions are closely wrapped up in matters of human meaning. And who can say that miracles, that is, marked departures from the way things usually work, cannot occur? Certainly scientists cannot say such things cannot occur. But historical investigation coupled with literary sensitivity can discern credible eyewitness reports that such things have indeed occurred.

Some evolutionary thinkers, and some opponents of the theory of evolution, may object that universal moral standards cannot be validated given the VARIATION in human genes and circumstances. But practically all evolutionary biologists, to my knowledge, are agreed that a number of very signicant traits are universally shared among all individuals in our species, in spite of variation in the degree to which those traits are present and in spite of uncertainty as to the long-term future of those traits' incidence in our distant progeny. And it must be kept in mind that the Bible was written to people occupying only a minute fraction of history. I don't believe there is sufficient reason to doubt that all human beings over the past few thousand years are sufficiently like one another, in constitution, in cultural circumstances, etc. for certain ethical norms to be able to be universally applied. There is certainly a pattern to be discerned in the ethical norms of the Bible--they all favor win-win as opposed to I-win-you-lose strategies of life. As to exceptions, or variations in individual culpability due to varitions in genetic or cultural or other circumstances, the Bible itself gives sufficient scope to that, simply by informing us that it is God alone who knows our hearts and is able to judge, and that judgment will vary according to circumstances that an all-knowing God knows completely.

The Bible gives God's pronouncement concerning the meaning of our lifes for us right now. The last few thousand years may be only a sliver of time out of all the time that has occurred, but it is the sliver that matters to us, and it is a sliver that matters to our angelic observers and to God himself. Science is incapable of saying this cannot be so, and, again, I believe our innate awareness of God and the revelation of Scripture tell us clearly that it IS so. And if our lives have a meaning that God has declared to us, and that our biological history cannot really make much comment on, who is to say that we are not destined for a future physical reality that has some sort of inscrutable continuity with our present lives but which is also radically different and beyond our ability to conceive, a window to which has been given us in the resurrection of Christ? Science cannot say it cannot be so, yet Christ, as proclaimed by his apostles, and foretold by the prophets who prepared the way for him, has declared and demonstrated that it IS so.

Perhaps the tentative solutions I have arrived at satisfy you, or intrigue you, or leave you scratching your head, or disappoint you. (Sherry, I'm particularly interested in what you might have to say, given that you actually have a background in the scientific end of the subject matter.) I suspect that in any case these matters that have exercised us so greatly over the past century and a half will sooner or later become the subject of a settled consensus, and our agonized wrestlings will become a distant memory to future generations, just as we find it difficult to relate to the agonies of those who quarreled and groped for answers in the time of Copernicus.

In the meantime, I'm afraid our generation of Christians will be judged as among the lowest and most decadent in the history of the church, on account of our having broken faith with God and our fellow human beings in the intellectual as well as social realms. We have not faced up to the evidence that has been presented us, choosing instead to take refuge in an obstinate intellectual ghetto. How can we prove them wrong if we do not even read? David N. Stamos, in his book Evolution and the Big Questions: Sex, Race, Religion, and Other Matters writes: "Ask [anyone who thinks evolution is just a theory] what books by evolutionary biologists they have read.... Invariably the answers are lame." I think it's way past time that we rise to Stamos's challenge. All the while we have thought people believed evolution because they wanted to escape God's authority, we have just ignored the evidence presented in God's book of nature, showing that we are among the most close-minded and tendentious people currently inhabiting the planet. And we have turned a blind eye to the pressing needs of our fellow human beings in an age of pervasive injustice, economic dislocation, and environmental peril.