Some Thoughts on Evolution

There has been much written in the blogosphere about Sam Brownback's op-ed in the New York Times on evolution. My own view is that Brownback's views about evolution were, well, quite unscientific, and I expressed these views on this blog, and in commenting on the article at a post on Canon Kendall Harmon's website. Much to my surprise, with the exception of one or two other commentators, most of those who commented on Canon Harmon's blog were strongly supportive of Brownback's op-ed and very critical of evolution.

Now I realize that many of Canon Harmon's readers are conservative Anglicans, but they are Anglicans after all, not Baptists. I doubt that any of the commentators are early earth creationists, or that they believe that Genesis really offers a true account of the details of creation. Nonetheless, even this Anglican crowd expressed a hostility to evolution. And most public opinion polls show nearly half of all Americans reject evolution.


Now part of the explanation is that these commenters and most Americans are unfamiliar with the quite strong evidence for evolution--from the fossil record, biogeography, and most recently from genetics. All strongly support the theory that species evolve through natural selection. The recent genetic evidence is particularly compelling. As Dr. Francis Collins has repeatedly said, there is no reputable biologist or geneticist who doubts that evolution accurately described the development of species. Indeed, it is foundational to biology.

But I think that the hostility to evolution may arise from a more fundamental issue than lack of knowledge--acceptance of evolution suggests a very different view of how God acts in the world than that explained in Genesis and other bibical accounts of God's actions in the world. Under this view of God, when God wants something done, God acts directly--he creates every species directly and individually, he parts the Red Sea, and he smites Israel's enemies.

Acceptance of evolution, however, suggests that God acts in more indirect ways, and this is disturbing to anyone brought up to believe a more direct view of God's action in the world. As the Episcopal Church's Catechism of Creation describes some of the recent theological thinking about theistic evolution, evolution changes the way we should view how God operates In the World:

While theologians have proposed different models of how God acts in an evolving world, they agree that God is best understood as interacting with the world rather than intervening in it—a God intimately present in the world (as Scripture also reveals) rather than a God “out there.” According to Anglican priest and biologist Arthur Peacocke, God acts as Creator “in, with and under” the natural processes of chance and natural selection. Theologian Elizabeth Johnson writes that God uses random genetic mutations to ensure variety, resilience, novelty and freedom in the world. At the same time, the universe operates by certain natural laws or “secondary causes” by which God, the Primary Cause, ensures regularity and reliability in nature. Physicist and theologian Howard Van Till writes that God has creatively and generously given the creation all of the powers and capacities “in the beginning” that enable it to organize and transform itself into the variety of atoms, molecules, chemical elements, galaxies, stars, and planets in the universe, and species of living things on this earth.

In this evolving universe, God does not dictate the outcome of nature’s activities, but allows the world to become what it is able to become in all of its diversity: one could say that God has a purpose rather than a fixed plan, a goal rather than a blueprint. As the nineteenth-century Anglican minister Charles Kingsley put it, God has made a world that is able to make itself. Polkinghorne states that God has given the world a free process, just as God has given human beings free choice. Divine Love (1 John 4:8) frees the universe and life to develop as they are able to by using all of their divinely given powers and capacities. The universe, as Augustine of Hippo said in the fourth century, is “God’s love song.” Because God’s Love is poured out within the creation, theologian Denis Edwards asserts that “the Trinitarian God is present to every creature in its being and becoming.” These are but some of the concepts that contemporary theologians are offering to account for God’s relationship to an evolving creation.

. . .

Knowing the creation as evolving also helps us to think of God’s relationship to the cosmos in another way. In Phil. 2:5-11, Christ is said to “empty himself” of divinity and take in human form the role of a servant. The Greek word for emptying is kenosis. A kenotic theology of creation expresses the notion that the Triune God freely and graciously withdraws absolute power in order to “let the world be” (Genesis 1). A loving parent is faithful to her child, guides and protects him, but allows him to become his own self. In a comparable but more profound way, God the Divine Lover loves God’s own creation, faithfully holding it in existence, calling it to greater levels of complexity and beauty, but allowing the physical laws that govern the galaxies, and those of chance, environment, and selection that govern life, to take cosmic and biotic evolution in whatever directions the gifts given to creation permit. God’s kenosis gives the universe its freedom and opens up its future; God’s covenantal faithfulness and natural laws ensure its cohesion and regularity.

Read it all.

I find this pro-evolutionary view of God compelling. It essentially describes a God who gives free will to all creation, and explains why there can be evil and misfortune caused not merely by fallible man, but also by the rest of God's creation. And it is consistent with how God is acting in the world today. For example, God did not smite the Slavers who were moving millions of Africans to slavery. Instead, he worked through men like William Wilberforce, a devout Christian whose faith led him to wage a fight against Slavery.

Nonetheless, this view of God differs from what many of us were taught to believe. It is therefore understandable that many Christians would therefore hesitate to accept evolution.


Anonymous said…
As an atheist, I remain stupefied as to why men and women of faith continue to hold onto faith when it continues to bring them nothing but apologies with regards to the antiquated beliefs that defined their church history for hundreds of years. All the appealing things that faith brings to you is available in abundance to the faithless as well. We need not believe in anything without good reason to live productively and vigorously.

That said, I applaud you for your stand for rationality and truth with regards to life in the modern world and the science which many scorn, specifically evolution via natural selection.

If we had more like you out there fighting against medieval notions of Creation that still run rampant in the world, we'd be better off.

Chuck Blanchard said…

Thanks for commenting, and for the kind words in the last paragrpah of your comment. The answer to your first paragraph deserves a long answer than I can do justice in a comment. indeed, the answer may well be a theme of this blog.

The short answer, however, is this--its is my faith--not that of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, or the popes or theologians of the ages for that matter--that I hold. And it is a faith that has brought me peace, and that I think has made me a better person. And, as I hope to illustrate in this blog, it is a faith based in reason.

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