Saturday, January 12, 2008

[THO] Evolution

I'm reading Mayr's "What Evolution Is" and I'm realizing that despite being a book for non-biologists, there is a lot of technical language to get through. It is tough slogging. I have Baum's "Amazing Church" as a sort of comfort food to read in tandem, but the book on Evolution is the starting point for a course I asked for. It got me thinking about what are the legitimate responses to evolution. I'm careful not to call it a theory because I think that for someone taking natural sciences seriously the idea of theory just muddies the water - you either believe it based on the overwhelming evidence or you reject because of another set of overwhelming evidence (although not the sort of evidence that would ever fly in a scientific arena).

There are three real responses I can see, I would venture to say that each has its own validity (even when we disagree with other positions) but the more important thing is to understand our stance including the limitations and opportunities that stance brings. I'm thinking this is a better way to go than to debate whether or not evolution is a reality. And I would again cautiously note that differentiation between interspecial and special evolution is irrelevant - I'm talking here about a full on understanding that life all evolves from a common base and that the movement towards complexity, as a branching, is a life process of our planet. In light of that understanding of evolution here are the options for a person of faith:

a) One can reject the evidence for evolution in favour of a creationist stand point. This does not at all imply that other approaches have to forfeit or compromise a belief in a Creator. This response says that the literal reading of our creation story is more valid than the witness of the earth to its own processes. This position presents a definite and clear bias towards any evidence that is presented - if it supports the thesis it is embraced/acknowledged and if it defies the thesis then it is rejected/ignored and even sometimes discredited falsely. I've read a lot of this position in the past and it can be sensational and also quite intellectually dishonest. Not that this is the intention of the proponents, but it is the reality of where they have invested their time and energy. Another drawback is that it creates an antagonism between the creationists and the world/Earth as well as an antagonism between creationists and scientists. On the other hand it is a paradigm that will always take seriously the need for a Creator, as people of faith this is incredibly attractive. But it is also a product of embracing enlightenment reasoning (and "common sense") as a mode of ascertaining truth. This unlikely bedfellow in Christianity has meant the crippling of religious imagination.

b) One can develop a notion of God in the gaps. This is a trick we can play on the scriptures, we can read evolution into the gaps that exist in the creation stories. I remember a physicist friend who had become a Christian and had concluded that God created the earth complete with the evidence trail for evolution, although he had no idea why God would do such a thing. But for him it was the only way to reconcile to overwhelming bodies of evidence. In this way he is really tricking himself. Trick is the unfortunate word here, I do not mean that in a bad way. We preachers do this all the time - when we are not careful that is - and it is not bad. When we read scripture we need to take into consideration the other ways that reality is revealed. But this position places the two descriptions of reality in conflict with each other - meaning they bash it out until something sort of makes sense. The bias is still in favour of a Creator, but there is a willingness to compromise on the less clear aspects of scripture to make sense of the evidences.

c) One can take evolution on its own terms. The Copernican revolution really upset a balance that once existed between the "book of revelation" (i.e. the Bible) and the "book of nature". This position has a distinctly different relationship to scripture. That relationship is often skewed by enlightenment thinking, but if we were to extract a 'best of' scenario, then we might find a restoration of the medieval synthesis. For people of faith, evolution does not preclude God's involvement with creation, but it does colour how that involvment is seen. I'm not convinced that the ways that this colours seeing divine action are all good. But some are quite helpful. What is the bias is that scripture does not trump science. There are two ways I see this done:

c.1) First there is a notion of compartmentalization. I'm hopeful that this will fade (my own bias). The notion that science is scientific knowledge seperate and apart from religion which is religious knowledge. Both are valid and should be kept seperate. What this leaves is little more than the tricks of b). A creationist will get antsy because this says that there is another truth. In reality this is too passive a position - I think the creationists who critique this are right in that it fails to recognize that God is either God of all or God is not God at all. If God indeed created then there is something of God in creation so that creation reveals the Creator.

c.2) A better option is the notion of a divine mileau. That God who created all is also intimately involved in all creation. Teilhard de Chardin troubled the world with this notion, but at least he took both evolution and the Bible seriously. Thomas Berry is someone in this line of thinking that has really impressed me as well. Here the bias is that the Bible is not teaching us the science of creation - but that doesn't mean its insights are wrong. The Bible reveals the divine relationship between creation and Creator. It is not that God works through evolution as in working through the gaps - rather God is drawing life in a particular direction. Ricoeur talks about this in "Thinking Biblically" as a trajectory towards freedom found in a Adamic myth.

I should say that there is also an option to reject faith altogether. But I'm not really good at that option. I like what my friend Katherine says on her facebook profile - for religion she wrote she is a failed atheist. But I'm certain there are many who out of frustration with the above possibilities default to an atheism (not that I would say by any means that all atheists are so because of this issue). My reason for posting this is that I really believe we need more understanding of each others positions in this issue. I've seen so much fighting over evolution that it sickens me. I am convinced that there are great women and men of faith in all three positions.


knsheppard said...

Interesting post, Frank. A few questions:

So I take it you reject Stephen J. Gould's "non-overlapping magisterium"?

And what if you are someone who thinks the impact of evolution has been perhaps overstated in comparison with the "background" changes, in a Wittgensteinian sense of that term, in moral philosophy and cultural practice?

One of Freedom said...

I think there is a sense where I agree with Gould personally. But I am suspicious of neatly dividing the disciplines. I still see this as a form of C.1 Compartmentalization. I'm trying hard not to reject any of the means of dialogue between science and religion - provided there is a degree of charity between proponents of such positions and between scientists and the religious.

Now, what I'm concerned with is taking evolution seriously. Which doesn't mean simply accepting it as a fact and moving on. Rather it is engaging with it in a number of forms, with keen interest in how it shapes theology. So definitely to propose that it might be overstated (and it is easy to see how that could happen in such a polarized climate as North America) is actually quite a helpful area of exploration.

I'm just getting into this, I'm sure my ideas will evolve over the semester. My first take, as you can probably tell, is more pastoral. Unfortunately it is likely clear where I land in personally.

knsheppard said...

I would reject rigid disciplinarian boundaries too; but I'm not convinced this is a discipline thing, like sociology vs. psychology, but rather something like a paradigm thing. This might allow for greater flexibility and nuance in treating the interconnectedness of their respective histories - especially in the West.

One of Freedom said...

Yeah. There needs to be room to recognize how the paradigms bleed into each other. For instance, a type A literalist tradition has to recognize that these biases come with it to any examination of the biological world. Likewise, there needs to be a recognition in the various forms of type C that the particular view of evolution colours any religious hermeneutics as well.

knsheppard said...

So in coming to terms with science and faith is it a disciplinary or paradigm thing? I'm entirely sure myself. There may be other perspectives worth considering that I'm unaware of. Perhaps a "broader views" might help us come to terms with the debate, like a philosophical anthropology? (Tracing the mental horizons involved, and noting the trajectories, informing us of how and why the explanations given at any one point come to be convincing for us.)

One of Freedom said...

Hmmm. I think it has to happen within disciplines and the choice to create a healthy discourse between science and faith is definitely a paradigm.

But what I'm concerned with is that regardless of your paradigm (whether it excludes science from the conversation or not) there needs to be a movement towards charity. And I'm definitely of the opinion that if your paradigm excludes science from the conversation (either through manipulation or chosing to ignore science) then we need to grow up and lose this silly notion that God somehow needs us to come to God's defence. But that is another post.

The full syllabus came and so we are really only getting into the categories of the science/religion dialogue towards the second half. The first half is spent with some theologians who take evolution seriously from the get go - Teilhard de Chardin and Thomas Berry.