Sunday, September 21, 2008

Is evolution the biggest challenge Christian theology faces?

In recent posts I have touched on the question of evolution. The other day I happened - as one does - when listening randomly to the radio while travelling, to hit on an interview with a scientist who was talking about interesting things about the history of the earth. That is, interesting things about what happened millions, billions and zillions of years ago, when the dinosaurs died, hot lava covered the earth, the atmosphere consisted of nitrogen, and so forth - ok, those details are slightly made up, but here's the point: when the earth is recognised as very very old, and as having housed various phases of life forms, of which humanity is the zenith of just the latest phase, it makes me think!

I think, for example, of what all this means about who God is and how God works. Was the phase with the dinosaurs, for example, an experimental phase, a necessary next step on the way to the culmination in which humanity finally represents God's image satisfactorily? In pottery terms, as Jeremiah might say, the hundreds of millions of years which went before Adam and Eve represent a whole lot of clay shapes on the wheel which get thrown and rethrown until the perfect pot is formed. Thinking like this is very uncomfortable for well-formed biblical theologians because Genesis 1 sets out God's stall as the perfect creator who creates 'good' things at the beginning of creation, and not towards its end.

Or, was God more subtle than being a frustrated, but slowly improving potter? Did God set out on a creational journey in which at the beginning ("big bang") God knew what the "end" (humanity made in God's image) would be, but allowed for variation and flexibility in the process, delighting in things turning up in an unpredictable manner (the platypus, for example)! Here God is like a cook who knows just what kind of master dish is going to be produced but cannot help playing around with the ingredients on the way, creating side dishes and dainty treats, and having fun rather than frustration in the process. This kind of imagery for who God is and how God has created is more coherent with Genesis 1 and 2.

Now, rather than a very long post continually refining coherency between Genesis and the science of evolution and ancient geology and cosmology, I will just make a few observations to wrap up.

(1) Evolution really does challenge the biblical account, not just of 'creation' but of 'the Creator'.

(2) No wonder 'creationists' (in the sense of six-day earth creationists) work very hard to uphold a literal reading of Genesis 1 and 2. If they succeed they have met the challenge. End of story.

(3) Those of us who are not creationists in that sense (but are creationists in the sense of believing that God is the Creator, did created the world, and has imbued the world with purpose and meaning) have an ongoing challenge to reshape our reading of Genesis with each new development in the scientific picture of the history of the universe and life within it.

(4) Since the whole of theology flows out of our understanding of the 'genesis' of life, including its 'fall' as well as its 'creation', the alternative account provided by science (especially when that account is told by Dawkins and his ilk, "this is the science, it means there is no god, gods, or God") is a very big challenge. These days I wonder if it's immensity is only just being recognised - like an iceberg whose visible peak above the sea's surface entrances us and lulls us so that only late in the piece do we wake up to its actual size.

(5) All of which just might, but might not put into perspective the challenge we think we face within the Anglican Communion.

POSTSCRIPT: for proof of evolution, consider the case of the blind salamanders, as put by Christopher Hitchens.


Steve Martin said...

Hi Peter from another Evangelical Anglican - from Canada. Some very brief comments. Although most Evangelicals would agree with your assessment of evolution, there are quite a few of us that disagree with your #1: that evolution does challege both the theology of creation and a Creator. You may want to read one of the many works of either John Polkinghorne or Alister McGrath (both Evangelical Anglicans - from the UK) who support an Evolutionary Creationist (EC) position. (McGrath in particular has done a great job refuting Dawkins' nonsense - see for eg. his book "Dawkins God"). My blog An Evangelical Dialogue on Evolution also promotes and Evangelical EC perspective.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Steve
I quite agree that the challenge of evolution to the theology of creation and the Creator can be met ... though perhaps with continuing debate about the most satisfactory meeting of that challenge. Nevertheless my point is that we may miss the enormity of the challenge - for example (which I did not adduce) that evolution offers a simpler idea for 'the person in the street' to grasp than the idea of a God who has the power to create instantaneously but chooses an almost infinitely slower process etc. In short: we Christians meet the challenge in a manner which upholds our Christian faith ... but have we lost something in respect of the apologetic task of persuading people of the rationality of Christianity?

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