Two weeks ago, I was invited to Berkeley Divinity School at Yale to give a couple talks on the Catechism of Creation, a teaching tool and discussion aid dealing with creation, evolution, science, and stewardship. I highly recommend the catechism and drew up some responses to preliminary questions. Those responses are posted in three sections. The first deals with the theology of creation. This one deals with science and creation. Thank you to John Hainze for the questions.
SCIENCE, REVELATION, AND THEOLOGY
Do we find science in the Bible?
Modern Science is an outgrowth of Enlightenment philosophy, so it would be incautious to read it into or out of the Bible. Having said that, I feel (as the founders of modern science felt) that curiosity and our hope for understanding the regularities of creation are very much to be found in the Bible. Genesis and many other parts of the Bible tell us that all of creation is worth exploring and that trying to understand the world falls within our vocation as stewards.
Are science and Christianity in conflict?
Some advocates of Modern Science and some Christian communities are deeply in conflict. For my own part, scripture, tradition, and reason all argue against the type of belief that cannot be challenged and changed when we encounter new truths. Beliefs that are held “dogmatically” – that is without the possibility of question – have been at the heart of most of the modern conflicts. Sometimes Christians hold them – as in the case of the six-day creation – sometimes Atheists hold them – as in the rejection of anything non-physical. I love the Anglican tradition because it rejects this kind of dogma and encourages the practice of critical inquiry into all things.
What is our scientific understanding of creation and how does it relate to the Christian understanding?
Science can tell us many amazing and detailed things about the world we find ourselves in. Its present form – the physical universe – appears to be roughly 14 billion years old and behave very regularly. Science cannot tell us whether there are any parts of creation beyond (under, over, before, after, or alongside) the physical universe, because science is limited to our interactions with physical things. We quite literally cannot see beyond roughly 13.8 billion years away in time and space. Nor can we touch the future, though we can make very good predictions, assuming things continue as they have in the past. Theologians have the task of finding meaning within the world and often use aspects of scientific knowledge to inform them about the underlying order of the cosmos and use science to make metaphors for less tangible truths.
What does Christian theology say about God as creator in light of recent science?
We continue to discover that God is bigger, more creative, and more subtle than we imagined. The physical universe is incomprehensibly large and filled with mass and forces beyond our current understanding – dark matter and dark energy. Reality at the most fundamental level looks a little fuzzy as we come to understand the strange structure of tiny events. Things we once thought were mechanical turn out to be probabilistic, existing partially in a number of different states at the same time. Life proves ridiculously complex, but also woven through with wondrous scalable regularities. Individuals are less independent than we thought, while performing a whole host of marvelous chemistries. All of these things invite us to approach God with less certainty, more curiosity, and deeper delight.
What is evolution and how does science support it?
The word “evolution” gets used in a multitude of problematic ways. When we speak of evolution in modern biology, we are usually talking about decent with modification leading to new species. I would explain it as a logical consequence of three observed properties of the living world.
One: living things pass on their traits to offspring. Children look like parents. We call this inheritance.
Two: children do not look exactly like their parents, but vary slightly from their parents and from one another. We call this variation.
Three: Some traits allow the creatures who have them to be more successful surviving and producing offspring. We call this selection.
Evolution, in the modern sense, is a recognition. If inheritance, variation, and selection occur – as we think they must – then any trait that is inherited reliably and selected for reliably will increase in frequency in a population. It will become more common in a variety or species. Warmer fur in cold climates and better eyesight in predators can be expected to develop over time (if the variation necessary for them happens).
Genetics and breeding in agriculture and horticulture as well as the laboratory give us daily support for the regularity of inheritance and variation, not only that they work but very keen details of how they work. Watching populations in the wild and under human influence allows us to document selection in action. Life, death, and reproduction are profoundly affected by the traits and behaviors of organisms. Biogeography and ecology allow us to watch the whole process in action while paleontology reveals millennia of past examples. We can trace changes in skeletons and metabolism through the ages. Better still, by growing bacteria and other short-lived organisms in the laboratory, we can record changes in populations through thousands of generations. Recent experiments have even shown us dramatic innovations in biochemistry and reproductive isolation. In other words, we have seen major transitions occur and watched new species arise.
What is a Christian response to evolution?
I believe the Christian response to evolution should be the same as the Christian response to gravity. It is a regularity of God’s world that we observe and work with. Like gravity, the increase in entropy, and the force of splitting atoms, it reveals ways in which the universe has been, is, and can be unfriendly to humans. The world is bigger than we are and that always troubles us. And yet the Christian response, as we find in Job, is to accept that we are not the Creator while constantly pestering the creator and creation for better answers. Like the widow and the unjust judge (Luke 18), we don’t get stuck on the question of why or whether it is fair. We move straight toward trying to reach a better outcome.
What about humans being formed in the image of God?
The Bible tells us we are made in the image and likeness of God. The writers of the Catechism of Creation emphasize that this means we have the ability to enter into relationships with God, neighbor, and creation. I agree, but would add that the question reveals our interest and perhaps insecurity about our relationship with God. Do we have a special place in God’s heart? Do we have a unique role as the primary power under God and over creation? I still struggle with those questions and think they present important areas to explore, theologically. At the same time, I think we can move forward in the knowledge that God loves us specifically – but not exclusively – and we must always act for the good of all.
What are creationism and intelligent design?
Creationism and Intelligent Design are interesting and potentially useful theological positions, but when framed as scientific hypotheses have failed to meet our standards.
The Biblical notion that God created the heavens and the earth has long been called Creationism. It reminds us of our place within the world that God has made good. The late 19th century doctrines of young earth creationism and special creationism strike me as irresponsible attempts to impose scientific concepts on Genesis. Young Earth Creationists believe that God made the world in six 24-hour periods, six to ten thousand years ago. Fossils, radioisotope data, geological formations, and astronomical observations are all inconsistent with the idea and I do not think God would be so unkind as to leave us all those false leads. Special Creationists hold that God made all kinds of living things in their present form by an instantaneous act of will. They deny that populations change through time, or at least that they undergo large-scale changes. Over the last 100 years we’ve documented cases of exactly these large-scale changes in the biochemistry, anatomy, and behavior of organisms. We’ve watched populations change in significant ways, taking on new function and responding with entirely novel behaviors. Those observations make special creationism seem like a bad perspective. For at least 1600 years Christians have said that the Bible must be interpreted in light of our best understanding of the world. Augustine of Hippo and Basil of Caesarea, both highly influential fourth century theologians, argued that we must look at scripture this way and not try to impose preconceived notions about what the Bible is trying to tell us in any given place.
The Bible tells us that the heavens declare the glory of God. Christians have long believed that we may know God through the Creation and that we may understand God’s purposes better – if not fully – through the works of God’s hands. William Paley made such an argument forcefully and persuasively in the 18th century. He claimed that complex creations revealed a complex creator. Some philosophers went on to make the scientific claim that God could only made these things directly and instantaneously. They denied that evolution by natural selection was sufficient to explain the intricacy and specificity of living things. I find this objectionable, theologically because it claims to limit the manner in which God may act. I find it objectionable scientifically because it makes no testable predictions. It simply denies that some things may arise through natural selection. Now that we’ve seen similar things arise, we can say that intelligent design, already ambiguous as a scientific doctrine, does not fit with the data.
In both cases, it concerns me that good theological doctrines – God created and bears greater depth and majesty than the world has yet revealed – have been weakened so that they may be used as bad scientific theories. I want to abandon the theories so we can return to the older doctrines.
What is the Episcopal Church position on evolution, creationism and intelligent design?
The Episcopal Church has not taken an official position on evolution, creationism, and intelligent design and has members with a variety of positions. I would guess the majority of Episcopalians see evolution as a useful scientific doctrine and have found the modern versions of creationism and intelligent design unconvincing. In 1982, our legislature, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church affirmed our belief that God can create in any manner, rejected dogmatic interpretations of creationism, and encouraged the humble search for truth in science and theology.
Can awareness of evolution enhance spiritual life?
Any true insight into creation aids the spiritual life, just as any truly nutritious food aids the physical life, so long as we encounter it at the right time and place. Sometimes we are full and sometimes we are sick and need to be careful. With that caveat, I find evolution to be a great way of thinking concretely about the mysteries of physical life. How do we relate to others? How are we fed and how are we fed upon? What other goals might God have in the world besides human flourishing? What prejudices may we have as a result of our evolutionary history rather than of our own will or God’s will for us? I find all of those fruitful and engaging questions.