Thursday, 10 September 2009

Embracing Evolution: The Benefits to Christian Faith

The theory of evolution is the most misunderstood and abused scientific theory there is. It has been constantly challenged in the scientific community, put under intense scrutiny since its inception, and passes with flying colours. It is also often attacked by the public who are not sure how valid it actually is. Many oppose it for religious reasons, despite, as I intend to show, that it is actually beneficial to Christian faith. I won’t focus on presenting evidence for it or showing how they can be reconciled, as I have written about that a lot in the past.

By seeing the world as part of an unfolding natural process we are forced to change our views of the Creator. The creative act becomes one which is not tied to the past, but instead becomes a continuous creative act, one that is ongoing and never stopped; this is known as creatio continua. It was not a one off event, but one in which God is continually present and sustaining. Embracing evolution rejects deistic views of God in favour of a continuously creating theistic God.

Followers of Intelligent Design claim that there are biological structures which could not be achieved by evolution and so required the designer, God, intervening to keep things running smoothly. This seriously diminishes the view of God. If God created all then He created the very same processes which ID proponents claim could not achieve what they were meant to. This points to an incapable designer who has to fiddle around in his invention to keep it running. Those of us who embrace evolution reject such a notion and can happily proclaim that our God got things right first time. Our God did something much cleverer than making the world; He makes the world make itself. It self perpetuates; a far more impressive view of an ingenious Deity.

Further to this, God is no longer the God of the gaps, like in ID, nor is He at odds with creation, as with YEC; He is discerned through the processes of nature, not in the gaps of current knowledge. Instead of the concept of God outside of creation, creating in an ‘external, plastic fashion’, the theory of evolution can present the view that God creates from within. Greek Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware once said, “Creation is not something upon which God acts from the exterior, but something through which God expresses God’s self from within.”

Aubrey Moore, a contemporary of Darwin, presented these insightful sentiments, “There are not, and cannot be, any Divine interpositions in nature, for God cannot interfere with Himself. His creative activity is present everywhere. There is no division of labour between God and nature, of God and law…For the Christian theologian the facts of nature are the acts of God.”

The theory of evolution teaches us that we are connected to every other living organism on this planet, from bacteria to bullfrog. The benefits of this view are often overlooked because people worry that it diminishes human value too much, completely forgetting that God made us in His image and gave us a position of responsibility, one which the theory of evolution allows us to better understand. The tree of life found in evolution shows us our connection to all life, and through it we can recognise that the body of Christ extends beyond humans through all of creation. This is a deeply Biblical theme which is often overlooked.

The story of Noah and the Ark is usually a point of contention between those who accept evolution and those who do not, to the point where we miss some hugely important messages. One is clearly personal; a key to the washing away of sins, but the other is about our relationship with creation. God chooses Noah and His family through which to do His work, a transforming act, through which the animals on the Ark are also saved. This is prophetic, showing us that we are God’s agents in saving all of life on earth. Another example is found in the entirety of the Old Testament. Israel is presented as God’s nation, through which God’s work on earth is done; just as God’s work came to us through the nation of Israel, we are to spread God’s work through all of creation.

In the Bible we find the concept of the ‘new heavens and new earth’, a vision of the future which is clearly not reserved for just humans, but for all the created order. This work began with Christ and it is through us that it will be achieved. Genesis tells us that we are responsible, we are priests of creation, and it is our duty to carry out the work that will result in the new creation. Extending the body of Christ to all creation makes our duty even clearer, Ephesians 5.28-30 states, “husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body.” We are to treat creation as a husband treats his wife.

The process of evolution has been used by theologians who embrace it as a source of insight in theodicy. A problem with the creationist view of God is that it presents a designer who created parasites and other ‘nasties’ of the world. The satirical Monty Python song “All Things Dull and Ugly” raises this point excellently, attributing poison, cancers, ulcers, spikes, sharks and more to God.

Evolution changes this view somewhat. It is a process which through mutation and selection produces diversity and new life forms, however, the same processes produce cancers and disabilities. It is part of the cost of evolution which allows for the fruitfulness of creation. Creation is seen as a free process, with God limiting Himself in order to allow the fruitful exploration of creation. Free human beings have emerged from a free creation. An act of love is an act of risk and in limiting Himself God is put in a vulnerable position, leading to the view of God not as an outsider, but suffering along with creation.

Aside from theological changes, embracing the theory of evolution brings other benefits. Christ made it clear that we are to love our neighbours, so we should endeavour to provide the best for them. The study of medicine makes use of the theory of evolution more and more, with the most obvious area being in the fight against ever-evolving bacteria and viruses. Another area of research takes place largely away from medical science, but the insights are invaluable; the study of how our body has evolved over the last 3 billion years teaches us how it was put together, which is often the first step in recognising why our body fails and thereby how we can fix it. Scientists also often test on animals, and in doing so they must pay attention to how closely related we are in order to make sure that the treatments will be suitable for humans; the theory of evolution is the foundation of this research. Embracing evolution brings benefits to medical science, a great way to show love for our neighbours.

It is also used in similar ways in agriculture. We need to know how plants will react and adapt to certain environmental conditions and how we can breed useful strains which improve standards. Improving agriculture, by embracing the theory, will provide higher quality food for our loved ones and at less of a cost.

Not only are we to be good neighbours, but we also have responsibility to creation. Conservation benefits both; we save animals and also find useful biochemicals which may provide treatments for diseases. Conservation scientists use the theory of evolution near constantly in working out how a population will react to changes and how we can save them. Understanding evolution helps us understand nature and appreciate it more, the more we appreciate it the more motivated we are to care for it and fulfil our role as priests of all creation.

In a bizarre twist, understanding the theory of evolution can make a Christian appreciate Genesis creation even more. Theistic evolutionists are often accused of ignoring Genesis, when in fact the opposite occurs. We turn to it not for a blow by blow account of history, or for a scientific account, but instead we plumb its depths for spiritual value and find a wealth of useful information. We learn of God the creator, of the order of creation, of our place within it and much, much more.

J Estlin Carpenter, a historian of religion, gave this valuable insight, “Theories [about the Bible] once ardently cherished have been overthrown. Conceptions that had exerted immense influence for centuries, can no longer be maintained. On the other hand, the true value of the Bible has been enhanced. We have ceased to ask of it what it cannot give us; we cherish al the more highly what it can.”

In conclusion, the theory of evolution can present a noble conception of God and provide insight into previously clouded areas of theology. It extends our knowledge of God’s work and enables us to better fulfil the roles which are part of being in His image. In closing I will quote Richard Dawkins, as he has been the main proponent of evolution as excluding God. I leave this as a thought to chew on; is such a view, with humans being fundamentally evil yet able to overcome it, really incompatible with traditional Christianity?

“We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism – something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.”

1 comment:

The Palaeobabbler said...

I just ran through this in my mind after posting and noticed something I felt worth mentioning. Not once have I said "embrace evolution or risk ridicule" in this post. Some have accused theistic evolutionists of embracing evolution solely to risk mocking and yet that is not mentioned at all in this post, such a thing never crossed my mind. I could have quoted Augustine and made a case for how creationism damages Christianity, but the case is strong enough without that I feel.