Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Challenges of Evangelical Evolutionism

Are evolution and evangelical Christianity compatible?  That is the ultimate question that I will be asking in future postings to this blog.  The answer, in my mind, is a resounding yes - the evidence for evolution is overwhelming, but so is my experience of God.  These two truths, then, cannot contradict one another.  There must be a harmony between them.  This harmony, however it gets worked out, is generally known as theistic evolution.

Theistic evolution can be summarized (but not fully explained) by the following set of statements:
  1. God exists.
  2. The material world exists.
  3. The material world is not self-creating – in God it ‘lives and moves and has its being’.
  4. The material world is not a product of ‘special creation’ in the sense used by Creationists.  God did not create creatures with their ‘distinctive features already intact - fish with fins and scales…’, rather, creation was unfolded according to natural laws that are ultimately sourced in God.
This ‘unfolding’ includes so-called ‘cosmic evolution’ as proposed by physicists, and ‘biological evolution’ as proposed by biologists.  Just as God does not directly cause every apple to fall, but rather allows gravity to do that work, in the same way God did not create every star, planet and species individually, but allowed natural laws to bring this about.  Or, perhaps, a better analogy: just as Christians can say, with no contradiction, that ‘God knit me together in my mother’s womb’ and ‘I am the product of embryogenesis, which unfolds according to a set genetic plan that can be studied and is understood by science’, so too can we call God ‘Creator and Sustainer of life’ while affirming the reality of evolution.

You will notice that theistic evolution is not a scientific perspective; rather, it begins with a belief in God, and then interprets scientific evidence through that lens (in much the same way that atheistic evolutionists interpret science through an atheistic lens).  You will also notice the difference between theistic evolution and deistic evolution – in theistic evolution, God does not leave the world to unfold according to its own devices, but is actively engaged in sustaining it (and, perhaps, doing some divine intervention, although that is not a necessary component of theistic evolution).  You will also note that this is a fairly broad category that could be applied to members of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and any other belief system that recognizes both evolution and something Other.

The challenge of the Christian theistic evolutionist is to discover a way to reconcile the above four points with the authority of Scripture and the nature of the Trinity.  For a Catholic, the allegorical interpretation of Scripture removes many of the roadblocks to an acceptance of evolutionary biology (as seen in Pope Pius XII’s 1950 encyclical Humani Generis, which you can access here and Pope John Paul II’s 1996 address ‘Truth Cannot Contradict Truth’, which can be read here). 

For the evangelical, however, theistic evolution presents a unique set of challenges.  When the literal and plain meaning of Scripture is set up as a foundational tenet of evangelicalism, how could one possibly harmonize evolution with the Scriptural account?  One would have to find a way of reconciling the Creation account, the uniqueness of humans, Adam and Eve and the Fall, the Noachic Flood, and the allusions to these events found throughout the Old and New Testaments, with the scientific evidence for the common ancestry of all life via evolution.  Unlike Catholics, evangelicals cannot immediately dismiss these stories as allegory-with-meaning.  They need to wrestle with the context in which these stories were written.  They need to be shown that evolution does not call God a liar, as some Creationists argue.  That evolution does not lead to atheism or immorality.  That evolution does not deny the authority of scripture that is the mainstay of evangelicalism.  Above all, they need assurance that evolution does not repudiate the necessity and reality of the Resurrection. 

These are the unique challenges faced by theistic evolutionists within the evangelical community (who, for reasons I won’t get into, prefer to call themselves evolutionary creationists, but who I will stubbornly call evangelical evolutionists, or eve for short).  Scientists and theologians who fail to address these challenges will fail to win over an anti-evolution evangelical audience.  It simply does not matter how much evidence is presented about the reality of evolution – such facts take second place to the much larger issue of the inerrancy of scripture and our place in the unfolding story of God.  I do not have firm answers to meet all of these challenges, but I hope this blog will become a place to at least acknowledge and discuss them.


chrislantz said...

I'd like to know why they prefer to be called "evolutionary creationists" rather than theistic evolutionists. Is it because of the rhetorical emphasis of the 2nd word of each phrase? Do tell!

Matthew said...

'Evolutionary creationism' was coined by Denis Lamoureux out of Edmonton. He used it in a book, and some blogs are picking up on it. And you are exactly right, it has to do with the emphasis. Dr. Lamoureux's view is that by ending 'theisitic evolutionism' with evolution, science is getting the emphasis rather than God. He also likes that his phrase emphasizes that evolutionary creationists still believe in Creation and the miraculous. I, however, do not like all of the baggage associated with 'creationism', and think 'theistic evolutionist' is just fine, with 'evangelical evolutionist' being a subcategory.

redditor said...

@"That evolution does not lead to atheism or immorality."

"immoral", is to be found negative within a given moral system

"amoral", is to be unrelated to morality

I believe you meant that evolution does not necessarily lead to amorality.

Unless you are commenting on the absurdity of the belief that an amoral reality is somehow immoral.

Matthew said...

That's an interesting thought, but no, I meant what I said. One of the arguments that Creationists pose is that evolution leads to people living immoral lifestyles. If evolution pushes someone away from Christianity and into atheism, and it causes them to commit crazy atrocities like serial killing (I'm not making this up, this was an example I heard used), then evolution is causing immoral behaviour. See, you're not coming at it from their perspective. From the Creationist point of view, there is no such thing as amorality in a God-filled universe. There are either people who live moral lives, or people who refuse to.