Friday, 21 August 2009

A Brief Introduction to Theistic Evolution

This was written for a creationist friend in order to give them insight into views such as mine.


I’d like you to carefully drop any preconceptions that you might have about T-E and attempt to see things this way yourself (however briefly) as though trying on new shoes. Evolution must be taken as given for this to work so I will waste no time presenting evidence.

First of all, what is theistic evolution? The simplest way I have seen this stated is as ‘science and faith in harmony’, a definition which rings true for me personally. Another way to state it is that God created and continues to create through the processes which science uncovers and that the concept of a creator God is not at conflict with these findings. For the Christian theistic evolutionist this extends to the Bible, stating that it is not at odds with the theory of evolution.

Upon hearing the concept of theistic evolution many reject it outright or are confused as to what it is. One simple possible reason for confusion is the name ‘theistic evolution’ as the word ‘theist’ may even be new to those unfamiliar with theology. It can also appear to be a pious gloss on the theory of evolution and sound like the theistic aspect is secondary to the evolution aspect, thereby being distasteful to many Christians.

Alternatives have often been as misleading or confusing; evolutionary theism conjures odd thoughts; crevolution sounds daft; evolutionary creationism seems like an oxymoron to many; intelligent creation, despite being used by the Pope, gets too easily muddled with intelligent design; and Biologos, proposed by Francis Collins (who led the Human Genome Project) simply never caught on.

Other issues include the fact that harmony is often ignored in favour of conflict and the fact that with TE there is a range of beliefs, from those close to ID to those which appear more deistic.

A key issue which needs clearing up in order to fully understand where theistic evolutionists are coming from is the issue of ‘fence-sitting’. For the theistic evolutionist there simply are no fences. Instead we see two truths – God and evolution – and refuse to compartmentalise them or reject one for the other. There is only one truth and both are part of it, like overlapping circles in a Venn diagram (though one could argue that God is the paper on which the diagram is drawn and that the circle representing God is really representative of our limited understanding of Him). What we believe we are achieving is not the unholy marriage of two separate, incompatible entities; it is creating a valid image of reality, rejecting compartmentalisation as this is a human construct, the compartments do not really exist and we acknowledge this.

Before I address Scripture I will entertain one more tangent – how widespread is Christian theistic evolution? It is hard to truly discern, as many Christians have never given it any thought and even fewer understand evolution properly. Nonetheless many denominations have made it clear that they have no issue with the theory of evolution. Most prominent is Catholicism, which addressed the issue in a Papal encyclical in 1950, followed by Pope John Paul II accepting it as ‘more than a theory’ in 1996. The Anglican Church has long held a position that it is acceptable to embrace the theory of evolution and much of the Orthodox Church is the same.

It is more difficult to discern what the less hierarchical denominations which arose in America believe, though over 10,000 clergy members signed the clergy project letter stating that the theory of evolution is not at odds with Christian beliefs.

A problem perhaps is that many theologians are not qualified to speak authoritatively on something which includes a lot of science. Similarly, although it is the most widespread belief among Christian scientists, many do not feel qualified to address theological issues. I am resisting temptation to list them here.

The first place anyone attempting to study doctrine of creation is obviously Genesis. Theistic evolutionists do not reject the Genesis creation story, only certain interpretations of it. Genesis creation is read as the reason for creation, not a blow-by-blow account of what happened. We read the accounts as many religious traditions have, as stories of ‘origins’ as a means for disclosing ‘essences’. We learn of our relationship with God, of the nature of mankind, the nature of sin and our responsibilities as created beings; spiritual truths which are difficult to convey literally, instead expressed in an evocative and spiritually fruitful manner. Whether you believe God wrote the Bible or man did, allegory is always a possibility.

Right at the start, in Genesis 1, we find those words ‘In the beginning…’ and are immediately given the idea that God is the starting point of creation – the origin of all we see. Many read Gen 1.2, where the Spirit of God moved over the waters and find the waters, the Great Deep, to be a symbol of chaos, a theme found in other mythologies and the Bible (Psalm 74.13 has hints). This suggests that God brought order forth out of chaos; chaos holds no power over Him and can in fact be used by Him for greater good. This position is consistent with the world which scientific discovery presents, one in which unpredictable events at one level bring order at another.

Taken as a whole (as this is not intended as a thorough exegesis) Genesis 1 presents us with a God responsible for creating. It shows that there is intent in creation (a metaphysical claim on which evolutionary theory cannot comment) and that it has order to it. It shows that mankind has a special place in creation and that it is entrusted to us to use and to fill. We see that God is pleased with creation and we see that there is interdependence in nature – something modern science confirms (see the Gaia views of James Lovelock for example). None of these interpretations are influenced by an understanding of evolution and all are compatible with it.

One issue raised by many which stems from Gen 1:26 is that God created humankind in ‘his image’, ‘how can this be reconciled with evolution which states that we have the same evolutionary origins as other life forms?’ they may ask. The answer is simple, John 4:24 states “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” We see His ‘image’, His ‘likeness’ as spiritual, which can mean many things. It can mean that we have been chosen out of all creation by God, perhaps endowed with a soul, given a connection to God which could only have been forged by the Creator Himself. To many it speaks of our sentient attributes which set us apart from other animals and enable us to commune with God; our ability to think abstractly and our morals for example. Some see it as giving us responsibilities which were previously God’s, such as our role in having power over creation, perhaps even as co-creators. All of these stay true to the statement that we are in His image, and all are compatible with evolutionary theory.

The second creation story expands on some of the themes found in Gen 1 whilst presenting some new concepts. Again we are shown an interdependent creation over which we have responsibility. Further to this we find that humankind is of one flesh and are here for mutual aid. The second story also presents the tree of knowledge, symbolising the ability to choose obedience to God. One of the brothers of the Taizé community summed up the story of the tree of knowledge by saying, “Today this story still speaks to us about trust in god as the source of life, about mistrust and suspicion leading to a break with God and to division among human beings.” With this in mind both Genesis 2 and 3 become powerfully symbolic of our egoistic nature and tendency to choose our own ways over God, the source of life. It symbolises our ability to choose or deny what God puts in front of us, ultimately to follow or deny Him.

The creation stories have presented us with the concept of man as both material and capable of being raised to the spiritual in a relationship forged out of love. A reading compatible with evolution, fully embracing the spiritual messages, taking the text as a whole. But talk of creation does not end with Genesis, so whilst I move on to other issues I will try to refer to other areas of Scripture.

The most common issues raised are admittedly difficult to address and centre around one thing in particular: death. Evolution undeniably uses death constructively and many see conflict with the declaration in Romans 5:12 that death is the result of sin which came into the world through one man. Approaching these issues is not easy and as death can be a personal topic I may not satisfy with my responses, but I will try.

The book of the Wisdom of Solomon (perhaps ironically) captures the view many Christians have of death, “because God made not death; neither delighteth he when the living perish: for he created all things that they might have being: and the generative powers of the world are healthsome, and there is no poison of destruction in them”. Yet evolution presents a world in which the creation of life utilises the process of death; death is indeed a requirement for the process of evolution to take place. One response to this is to perhaps try to diminish the emphasis of death as inherently bad, pointing to the relativity of death and the fact that many of us take great pleasure in consuming the flesh of once living animals. A better approach may be to view creation holistically to see what sense we can make of death.

If we take creation as a whole, as a creation from which we evolved and emerged, we can start to see where death enters the picture for a theistic evolutionist. We are free beings, able to do both good and evil, able to act according to our nature and will. If we emerged from creation it is no stretch to suggest that all of creation has such freedom even if it is lacking sentience and will. This view of creation is dynamic and free, where the processes which bring forth life also bring death. There is a line of thought here in which conflict and destruction are essential to development, that striving against struggles can achieve excellence. This indeed may possibly be perceived as very good.

This view becomes more complete when we look elsewhere in the Bible; in the book of Job and when we look at Christ, for it was often said that nothing in creation is comprehensible outside of Christ. Within the book of Job we find that God’s primary intention was not suffering for Job, but that He gives Satan permission to act. In Isaiah 45:7 we even find this statement from God, “I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe, I the LORD do all these things.” It is in the new creation, of which Christi is the first (Col 1:18) that these forces will be fully restrained and defeated. Looking to the cross we see that humanity was created for life and resurrection, bringing more beauty to Christ’s words, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11: 25.26)

The second ‘death’ issue that is frequently brought against evolution is the concept of death being the result of sin and not preceding it. This requires a very different line of thought to that of the average literalist. A way to approach this problem is to acknowledge that there are at least two types of death – the biological and the spiritual. Spiritual death can be seen in two senses; in one sense it could mean Hell and the second death, though this may be seen as inconsistent with ancient Hebrew thought (though in line with being brought about by sin). In the second sense it is a turning from God’s ways, a rejection of the source of life; this sort of death is not instantaneous and is certainly the result of sin.

Whilst spiritual and biological death are logically separable, they are not so in our experiences. We must therefore keep in mind that those first in God’s image had not experienced spiritual death until they sinned and that biological death is in our nature, much as sin is. A more optimistic view of death may be necessary to accompany this understanding of spiritual and biological death, which St. Francis of Assisi captured beautifully in a verse of his Canticle of the Creatures:

Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death,
From whom no one living can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin.
Blessed are those whom death will find in Your most holy will,
For the second death shall do them no harm.

Another issue often raised is based on what may be seen as catchphrases or slogans of evolution, “survival of the fittest” or “nature red in tooth and claw” how can these possibly be reconciled with a God of love? Many view these statements as the entire view of evolution, but this is not so. Firstly, ‘fittest’ does not mean strongest and toughest, but instead ‘best suited to the current environment’ which can often mean being smaller and better at hiding. Biologist Joan Roughgarden prefers to rename ‘natural selection’, which overemphasises competition, to ‘natural breeding’, removing the negative connotations. She is also one of many who emphasise the many non-competitive aspects of evolution. There are abundant examples of cooperation taking precedence over competition and some major steps in evolution have taken place because of it. Key examples include the bacterial swapping of genes; the endosymbiosis which resulted in the origin of eukaryotic cells; the evolution of multicellularity, requiring several individuals to act as one unit; right through to the interdependent ecosystems we see today. Cooperation is not the exception to the rule in evolution yet tends to be underemphasised. The presence of competition leads us back to the concept of struggles leading to excellence.

Is evolution too random for God to use? It is no more random than the events of history, which often hinged on particular individual acts and choices, history would often be vastly rewritten if a small outcome was altered. Most Christians would accept this premise without seeing God’s will as hindered; the same should apply to evolutionary contingency. An example closer to home is our own life; if my parents did not meet, or met under different circumstances, I may not exist. My father produced billions of sperm with different gene combinations, yet I am the product of just one of them. We readily acknowledge this randomness yet reconcile it with ease to our view of God having a plan.

Many prominent atheists declare evolution as supporting the absence of God. They claim that if God exists He has been reduced to the periphery, doing nothing more than setting the ball rolling. The most obvious response to this is that there is the spiritual creative act when we are made in His image and the various interventions, not least coming as Christ, but this view leaves God absent for 13 billion years, and so needs expanding upon. One problem is an overemphasis on God’s transcendence and intervention, a very limited view of God’s action. God is indeed transcendent, but He is also immanent, present in all creation. God does indeed intervene, but this view is limited to particular events, we should instead expand this and state that God interacts with creation. This expanded view of God’s presence and action allows us to think of God’s love and will being continually expressed through natural processes and not confined to specific events.

Uniting this view with evolution brings forth the Biblical concept of creation continua and is consistent with God’s timeless sustaining, with all life hanging on His creative word. Evolution is ongoing and “The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth, He does not faint or grow weary” (Isaiah 40.28). The two concepts appear to go well. We can look to Psalm 104, verses 29-30 for more insight, “When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.”

However, there is an aspect of ‘absence’ in this view. God allows creation to be truly ‘other’, to function in a material fashion, to have enough independence to truly be free. It is being allowed to make itself, to explore God-given fruitfulness, discovering its potentialities. There is an open-ness where God is in control yet allows for ‘improvisation’. This is a kenotic act of self-limitation – a loving gift of freedom to all creation.

One view of continuing creation was espoused by none other than Ronald A. Fisher, one of the most important evolutionary biologists of the 20th century. “To the traditionally religious man, the essential novelty introduced by the theory of the evolution of organic life, is that creation was not all finished a while ago, but is still in progress, in the midst of an incredible duration. In the language of Genesis we are living in the sixth day, probably rather early in the morning, and the Divine Artist has not yet stood back from his work, and declared it to be “very good.” Perhaps that can only be when God’s very imperfect image has become more competent to manage the affairs of the planet of which he is in control.”

Two final issues to clarify (though there are of course more, one’s work is never done) can be dealt with briefly. The first is the concept that evolution presents a world without meaning. This is an atheistic metaphysical claim which does not deny us the justification to do the opposite and claim that there it meaning from God’s desires. The other is the Biblical concept of reproducing after the ‘kind’, which many see as at odds with evolution. This is a misconception which flies in the face of cladistics where the daughter clade is always a part of the parent clade.

With some major issues out of the way can we enrich our Christian worldview with an understanding of evolution? As we have already seen, embracing evolution can be fruitful; it has aided theodicy by explaining naturally occurring ‘evil’ (the processes which create diversity also create disease), if our freedom is applied to all creation; it provides an interplay of cooperation and struggle – necessary for growth and understanding; and it has expanded our view of God’s continuing creative act, His eternal sustaining, and His Divine letting be of a self-perpetuating creation.

We may add to this that our material connection through the evolutionary tree of life expands the body of Christ to all of living creation. This takes us back to the interdependence of all life and points forward to the new creation, where all of creation is preserved. It brings forth the possibility that we are to treat creation how men should treat their wives as in Ephesians 5.28-30. Evolution enriches our role of ‘stewards’ or ‘priests’ of creation, a role not to be taken lightly for God deemed it ‘good’.

To round of this discussion of evolution’s compatibility with Scripture I will turn to something which needs repeating every time this subject arises. The principles of chance and necessity in evolution are valuable principles in a Christian worldview. A God of love gives His creation freedom to explore possibilities, as is shown in the evolutionary principle of chance (the happenstance of mutation). A reliable God gives His creation order and has desire for creation, as is shown in the evolutionary principle of necessity (provided by an orderly universe, physical constraints and of course natural selection). We believe God is both loving and reliable, so what better way to create?

Hopefully I have given insight into the compatibility of the theory of evolution and a Scripture based Christianity. I have barely scratched the surface and many points could be expanded on enormously, but I feel I have covered enough ‘bases’ to begin to remove any doubts and misconceptions about this harmony which is sadly seen as unholy to many.


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