In a previous post I reviewed Francis Collin’s book, The Language of God, and explained that it was instrumental in helping me form or solidify my own views on science and faith. Last week I gave a quick run through of my own story and how I came to appreciate the complexity of the faith and science issue. Here I will finish the trilogy by explaining the range of views among scientists and Christians on creation and evolution and the strengths and weaknesses of each. In doing so, I will explain my own views here. To keep things simple, I have identified four groups and will explain their positions on this controversy and the attending complexities.
This group understands the world strictly through the eyes of science without the need for a belief in the supernatural. The strength of this position is that it is clear-eyed and only believes what can be measured and verified. It is less easily fooled. I listen to a podcast called Skeptoid, and recommend it. The podcaster is a fact-seeking skeptic who must be shown the facts and is an exemplar of this worldview. He routinely debunks myths that I once thought were true. It is refreshing and a bit embarrassing to find out that something I held near and dear for many years is probably malarky. Just as a recent example, he clearly showed that the ban on plastic straws and plastic shopping bags that many believe will help the environment will do almost nothing to reduce plastic waste in the environment. It is good to have scientific skeptics like this around.
The downside is a view that has been called scientism, the idea that science alone can solve all our problems. It can’t. What the world needs is good science but also love, patience, kindness, and a whole lot more that science cannot measure and is no basis for. The other obvious downside is that most of these folks are not believers in Christ, an unfortunate oversight that misses a fuller and more joyous view of the world and a firmer foundation for moral absolutes.
Then there are things that are just complicated. Where does homosexuality come from? Is it inborn or learned? There were strong arguments on both sides up until recently. Now the scientific answer seems to be neither inborn nor learned. Science can certainly research this and other aspects of sexual behavior. For example, we have learned from carefully documented experience that one cannot unlearn gayness and that groups that try to do this are more harmful than helpful. So, science has been helpful here, but there are limits. What about this magical thing we call romance? Should you marry that sweetheart that you “love” (whatever that is), science cannot say. Sorry science. Can science help us in our huge ongoing national debate over abortion? Only so much. And then we are beyond science.
Young Earth Creationists
This is the extreme of creationist positions that take Genesis 1 and 2 literally and believe in a 7-day creation about 6,000 years ago. Few people today go this far but there are many aspects of this position that still are resident in the American population. About half of Americans do not fully accept evolution as the source of all diversity of life on earth, especially the source of humans specifically. The strength of this position is in the simple and firm belief in the straightforward reading of the Bible. These folks are firm in their faith in the God of scripture.
There are a few problems here. First is the science of the Bible. If one understands that the Bible speaks both spiritual and physical truths, then we need to take the view of nature that the Bible has and look at the world around us to check this out. We start with Genesis and find a disagreement between what science says and what the Bible says. Some folks reject all current science on the last 14 billion years and hold firmly to seven days. With that stake in the ground, let’s look elsewhere. The writers of the Bible had a firm understanding of cosmology, the ordering of the heavens and the earth. This cosmology faithfully showed up in their writings. Gen 1:6 says that God created a vault or firmament to separate the water above from the water below. The ancients understood that there was an ocean below that the sea creatures lived in and a huge ocean above a solid firmament that occasionally opened and rained on us. The Hebrew word for this firmament, raqia, comes from a word that means to be hammered out as a brass bowl. So here is my point: If a person firmly is committed to the science of a 7-day creation, then to be consistent in their beliefs, they must also firmly hold to a solid firmament with sun and stars below and an ocean above. This is the science of the Bible. Any takers? If one insists on accepting the science of Genesis 1 at face value, then one must accept the whole package.
But that was too easy. What is more challenging is all the actual science that has accumulated about the history of our universe and the history of our planet and the evolution of life. What to do about the millions of fossils that have been found? Collins directly addresses this in his book. Some folks in this creationist camp claim that these fossils were put here by God to tempt us to possibly doubt the 7-day creation. They are a test of our faith. The fossils appear old and appear to support evolution to tempt us into unbelief. As Collins asks, what sort of God is this? Is this the trustworthy God of the Bible or some devious trickster? Science is backing these folks into a corner.
This group takes a halfway position, that God created everything by evolution, but at certain key points of particular difficulty, he had to help it along with a little nudge. These folks look with true wonder, as we all should, at the marvels of creation such as the human eye. There are several parts of creation like the eye that are so complex that it is hard to imagine how they got created one piece at a time through evolution. Another example is the flagella of the bacteria. This little motorized propellor has numerous protein pieces. If any one of them was missing, then the whole thing does not work. Working backwards through evolution it is hard to imagine how it got made. This awe is something we should all share and is a strength of this perspective.
However, the genomics age has changed all of that, just as Francis Collins has taught us. In his book, he showed how easily through evolutionary time, a gene can get duplicated into two copies of the same gene. Now one copy carries on the original task and the second copy is free to slowly evolve into some new task. As we look at the proteins in the flagella, we can clearly see the genetic trail of these duplications and mutations and new functions. No mystery left here for a needed Godly nudge.
The real problem is what we call the god-of-the-gaps problem. These folks point out problems or gaps they see in evolution. They say that we can’t figure out how evolution did this and so it must be God, or an Intelligent Designer, in their words. The trouble is that science is very good at solving these problems and closing these gaps. Scientists have largely solved and closed the gaps on the flagella story. Another gap that has been an issue for some time are the gaps in the fossil record. In the past, we could see the evolution of the horse from older and smaller dog-like creators up to larger more recent creators like the horse. But there were large gaps in the record for many years that were embarrassing to paleontologists. However, in the last couple of decades an explosion of fossils has come to light and most of the gaps have been filled. Another one was the so-called missing link in the human fossil record. More recently, this gap has been filled with so many hominid fossil species that this gap has turned into a forest. One gets the impression that across East Africa a million years ago these creatures must have been constantly stumbling over each other.
This is the camp that Francis Collins and I occupy. This group accepts evolution and all of science as a reasonable method for an increasing understanding of the physical world. We are Christians who understand scripture to speak in different styles from different times with a clear and consistent message of the goodness of God and of his creation. Genesis 1 and 2 tells us that God spoke an orderly universe into existence and all of animal and plant life into an amazing and intricate existence in their times. It is now clear that evolution is the tool that God used to do it.
The strength of this approach is that it accepts each book of God, the book of God’s physical creation and the book of God’s word for the purpose for which they were each intended, the first to display God’s glory in creation, the second to tell us about who God is and how to live. There are some complications to this approach. I have given them some thought, and I want to explain them a bit.
The question arises as to who Adam was and whether he actually existed as a real historical man. Some will say that God created Adam in real time to look exactly like the homo sapiens that existed at the time but gave him a soul and a conscience. This would, of course, be impossible to prove scientifically and some would argue that it is unnecessary to the tale told in Genesis. C.S. Lewis calls some of these biblical stories true myths meaning that the truth in them is true even if the story is not from real life. But Jesus and Paul both refer to Adam. This is a bit awkward if Jesus himself is referring to someone that is from a story. For me this comes to the serious question of Jesus’s humanity. Was he a real first century man or just God dressed up as a man? Here is a funny question to ask yourself. Did Jesus know about the Periodic Table of Elements? I suspect not. In which case, would his knowledge of Adam have been any different from others of his century? I think not. Does it lessen my faith if I doubt the physical existence of Adam? As a 21st century man myself, I can sit through a sermon on the sins of Adam and the redemption in Christ and take seriously the lessons invoked without needing to firmly answer the question of Adam’s actual existence. The true myth of Adam and Eve helps me understand who God is and what he requires of me.
Another complication of possibly throwing out Adam is how to understand the rest of the apparent history of the Bible. If Adam is a myth, then what about Enoch, or Noah, or Abraham, or Moses, or David? This can be unnerving and a bit awkward and a bit complicated. I am speaking a bit irreverently here and I am sure that some thoughtful theologian has given this some effort. I am only pointing out that involving evolution to the point of removing Adam creates other problems. To me, these are complications that I am willing to live with rather than choose one of the other options above with even more difficult complications that question the science.
Can you or I live with complications and questions that do not have easy answers? I would contend that this is part of what it means to be an adult Christian. Do you want to take your faith out of Sunday School and apply it to the real world, then it is going to get complicated. Ask Dietrich Bonhoeffer or C. Everett Koop or Francis Collins. While definitely not putting myself in the same category as these men, I would definitely like to know how to vote in these divisive times, or how to relate to my LGBTQ neighbor, or whether to contribute to a political candidate, or write a blog on some controversial issue. How then shall we live? We work out our salvation with fear and trembling. And prayer. It’s complicated.
One thought on “Personal Reflection on the Language of God- Part 2”
Thoughtful post and arguments, Marty. This might begin to explain where Cain found a wife and where the “land of Nod” came from among other mysteries. You once taught me that many Bible truths (like faith and works) were at tension with one another yet could co-exist.