Creation and Evolution

Creation and Evolution

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 Berea College, where I teach a senior seminar entitled “Science and Faith,” is an independent liberal arts college, committed to “the cause of Christ” but non- sectarian and non-creedal. Probably 75% of the student body, who come from the mountain counties of Appalachian America, are conservative or fundamentalist Christians from Baptist, Pentecostal and Holiness traditions.

Recently, a small but active campus Christian group has been vigorously promoting the creationist ideology of the Creation Research Institute and Answers in Genesis, the Ken Ham organization located now 100 miles north of us in Northern Kentucky. Dr. Gary Parker was the featured speaker at a creationism seminar held on campus last fall term. This event has provided a “teachable moment” for many of us on the faculty, and some of this teaching has taken place on the campus electonic mail system on two public bulletin boards. One was established as a forum for exploring the relationship between faith and learning, as part of the College’s re-examination of its “Christian commitment.”

 I suspect that all of us who teach undergraduates wrestle with how to get across to the ill-informed the real meaning of creation theologically and biblically, and how it can be seen as compatible with the modern scientific world view. I offer the statement below as one teacher’s attempt to do this to a general students readership; it was originally posted on our Faith and Learning bb. I would be grateful for comments and suggestions.


 A number of Christian believers are sincere in their view that the acceptance of evolution is incompatible with belief in a creating God. Since this topic is one that is intimately involved in the question of the relationship between faith and learning, and has come up on this bulletin board, I would like to address it and help to inform the discussion on this topic. What many Christians seem not to know, and what I would like to help them to learn, is that there is a rich and fruitful development in contemporary theology, Christian and Jewish, that is seeking to understand again the meaning of creation as it is revealed in the Bible in the light of the overwhelming evidence for, and acceptance by most believers of, the modern scientific world view: that is, of a Universe characterized by cosmic evolution and the evolution of life on this planet (and perhaps on innumerable other planets throughout this vast Universe). This theological inquiry begins with the unalterable faith in God as the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe, but understands God’s creating activity as continually taking place in an evolving universe that began in the past billions of years ago and is moving toward an unknown future.

 First, a clarification. Part of the misunderstanding that exists in some Christian circles is a confusion about what “evolution” is. We must distinguish between the scientific evolutionary paradigm that is explained by various theories of how evolution takes place (e.g., neo-Darwinism); AND a naturalistic philosophy that claims that the Cosmos has always existed and evolution is a wholly natural process, and that therefore there is no God or Creator. Much of the criticism and rejection of “evolution” in some Christian circles is in fact a rejection of this philosophy confused with scientific evolution. But the SCIENTIFIC theories of evolution in no way prove or deny the possibility that this universe was created, and created by God. The truth of the matter is that science is not in the business of answering these philosophical/theological questions; it only seeks to understand and explain the universe as it now exists and how it got to be the way it is now. There is nothing in the scientific theories of evolution that deny creation. In fact, since the emergence of an evolutionary understanding of the Universe, a very large segment of the Christian community and its theologians have sought to understand Creation according to an evolutionary model. It is not “creation vs. evolution,” these theologians say, “but creation *and* evolution.”

 It is obvious that this *scientific* concept of evolution has something to say to theology, and theologians for the past 150 years have been listening. And this response to scientific theories and models is nothing new in Christian thought. At every point in the history of Christian thought, theologians have responded to the new scientific views of their times by rethinking their understanding of the creation passages in the Bible. The early Church Fathers interpreted biblical creation in the light of Plato’s cosmology. St. Thomas Aquinas and his contemporaries did this again in the 13th century, when Aristotelian science made its appearance in the West; other theologians did the same when the new cosmology of Isaac Newton became established in the 18th century. In these and other instances Christian thought has been enriched by theological reflection on scientific and cosmological models of the Creation. In our time, the contributions of Darwin, Einstein, Hubble, Plank, the creators of chaos andcomplexity theories, and the ecologists, that is, the creators of the new scientific consensus of the nature and history and structure of the universe–have been challenging and inspiring theologians to think anew the relationship of God to God’s Universe, to try to understand how God interacts with Creation.

 Developments in the theology of creation have taken two tacks. One is to think anew about what Creation in the Bible is really about. Contemporary theologians from a variety of Chrstian traditions understand Creation in the Bible to be a THEOLOGICAL concept, not a scientific concept. Their understanding is that the sacred Biblical writers are proclaiming that the world we live in is a *created* world, created out of nothing by the God who reveals himself as its Creator, who takes delight in his creation, who brings out of nothing the universe into being through the Word, and sustains it by the power of the Spirit, gives it order and structure, and fills it with plenitude. These messages are found throughout the Old Testament in the Psalms, the prophets, the wisdom literature, and also in several key New Testament passages that proclaim Christ as the creator of the Cosmos. None of these passages are statements of science, for, Christian theologians have long asserted, the Bible does not teach science. Rather they are statements of theology. As theology they are true and valid, whatever scientific models and theories about the nature of the Unverse happen to be current. Scientific models do not cancel out theological truth; rather, they invite theological reflection on the way these timeless truths might be expressed for our time.

 This thinking anew has led to a deeper understanding of the Creation statement in the first chapter of Genesis. Against the claim that Genesis 1 is to be read and interpreted as a straightforward scientific account of how God created, modern theologians and biblical scholars, building upon thorough and careful studies of the literal and the spiritual senses of the text in the light of its own history and cosmology, recognize that the real meaning of Creation in Genesis is theological. The Creation account in Genesis chapter one exhibits an interesting pattern, as some biblical scholars have described. Genesis 1 starts with darkness and chaos, with a cosmos that is without form (“tohu” in Hebrew) and empty (“bohu” in Hebrew). What the account describes, in liturgical and formulaic language, is how tohu is given form and bohu is filled. So, the first three days are characterized by processes of *separation*: (1) light from the darkness; (2) the waters of the Deep divided to create waters above (the firmament) and waters below; and (3) earth (land) is separated out from water (seas). Then in the next three days, what has been given form is *filled*: (4) lights are called forth into the firmament and the heavens; (5) creatures into sea and sky; (6) land creatures, including humans, onto the earth. At every stage God declares Creation to be “good.” So, the theological message is clear: God’s creation is orderly, natural, structured, and inherently good, and that which God takes delight in. And human beings share in the divine image and divine task of taking care of the earthly part of the cosmos.

 When Genesis 1 is looked at as a literary schema rather than a scientific description, then one gets a deeper appreciation, I believe, of its theological message. And let me add that this literary approach to understanding the Creation text is not an invention of modern Bible scholars and theologians. The early Church Fathers who wrote on Genesis also did not take this as a scientific description. Two of the greatest minds of the early Church, Basil of Caeserea and Augustine of Hippo (4th and 5th centuries), in their commentaries on Genesis, understood that the pattern of the “six days” was to be taken as a topical pattern for setting forth of the elements of creation, not of literal days of creation. In fact both held that God created everything in an instant, time included, and that everything that has gone on since has been an unfolding of the creation (a theological concept not incompatible with “big bang” theory and evolution).

 Now, biblical scholars have long recognized that there is a cosmology in Genesis, and it is the same cosmology as the Mesopotamian neighbors of the ancient Israelites. When this cosmology is seen for what it is, when the literal sense of the Bible is recognized in its words about the cosmos, this ancient cosmology becomes clear. This Semitic model of the universe is of a circular but flat earth anchored on the Deep, so that it cannot be moved, and covered by a transparent dome called the firmament, which separates the waters of the Deep from the waters above the firmament which the ancients believed was the source of rain, snow, hail, etc. And the moveable lights like the sun and moon were between the firmament and the earth and its sea. Now this was a pretty good model of the Universe for its time. It made a lot of sense, and it is no wonder the ancient Israelites shared it with their semitic neighbors like the Mesopotamians. But there is a crucial difference between the Hebrew and the other Mesopotamian cosmologies, and the difference is THEOLOGICAL. The others believed that there were many gods who inhabited the cosmos and were expressions of its parts and forces, and that this cosmos was in constant conflict and turmoil; and that human beings were created to be slaves of the gods. How different is the Hebrew theology of creation! Only one God, creation natural not divine, peaceful, and orderly (ecological), and humankind made in God’s image!

 Genesis 1 teaches believers a valuable lesson: you can take whatever is the cosmology of your day and interpret it theologically. That is what the sacred writers of Genesis did, and they have given every age of Christian thinkers since their time a model for doing the very same thing. And this is the second tack. When we take the current scientific model of the universe, the evolving universe, and engage in theological reflection on it, we are doing just what the Bible writers did with the cosmological model of their own day. And there is a conflict in our day too.It is between those who take the current scientific world-picture and base a philosophy or ideology on it that says that there is no God, no creator, and that the universe has no purpose and is pointless. But we who believe that God is the creator can take the same scientific model and understand it in a quite different light: we can integrate it with our own theological reflections about creation. We can still proclaim, as many Christian thinkers who are both scientists or scientifically knowledgeable on the one hand, and theologians or theologically literate on the other, are proclaiming: that this universe is created by a loving and gracious God and that it is purposeful, meaningful, moral, and good.

 Here are just a few of those theologians: you will find books and articles by most of them in the Hutchins Library if you want to look further into their ideas: John Polkinghorne (Anglican priest and mathematical physicist);

  •  Arthur Peacocke (Anglican priest and biologist; founder of the Society of Ordained Scientists);
  •  Nancy Murphey (Church of the Bretheran minister and theologian);
  •  Robert Russell (United Church of Christ minister and physicist; founder and director of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences);
  •  Langdon Gilkey (Theologian and Bible scholar);
  •  Lloyd Bailey (Bible scholar and professor of Hebrew);
  •  Jurgen Moltmann (Evangelical theologian);
  •  Karl Rahner (Roman Catholic priest and theologian);
  •  Ernan McMullen (Roman Catholic priest, philosopher and physicist);
  •  John Cobb (Presbyterian theologian working in process theology);
  •  Willem Drees (Reformed Church of Holland, physicist);
  •  Ted Peters (Lutheran theologian in the field of bioethics);
  •  Philip Hefner (Lutheran minister and theologian; director of the Chicago Center for Religion and Science);
  •  Sally McFague (Feminist theologian at Vanderbilt Divinity School).

 I’ve given these names to help readers realize how intimately involved these people (most of them ordained ministers) are in the life of the Church, in learning, and in constructing for Christian people a theology of creation for our new scientific age.

 Well, if evolution and an evolutionary cosmos doesn’t rule out God as you say, Schneider, then how does God interact with God’s universe? A good question. A question that these and other theologians was been reflecting upon in recent years. Let me mention a few lines of thought these theologians are following, with the understanding that these lines of inquiry are incomplete–new theological expressions of God’s interaction with the world do not pop up overnight complete–but are being seen as fruitful. Here’s a few:

 GOD AS PERSUASIVE LOVER: if God is love, as we believe, and the nature of love is to call forth from the beloved the fullness of the beloved’s being, then God can be understood to relate to the Universe God created as a lover to his beloved. Lovers do not coerce, rather they persuade. God, in this theological model, allows the Universe to freely come into being, respecting the independence God has given all of Creation. All of creation has “free will” so to speak. Such a view of God and the cosmos makes theological sense of an evolutionary world-view. God says, “Let there be” but does not dictate the forms that will come into existence, instead God allows the potential that chance and the inherent organizational properties of matter (that God built into matter) to be realized in the infinite variety of ways both inanimate and animate matter have evolved in the cosmos. The old theological model of a divine determinism gives away to a still biblically valid model of the God who allows indeterminism as the natural process of coming into being.

 THE “KENOTIC” GOD: In Philippians 2:5-11, Christ is described as “emptying himself of divinity”–the Greek word is kenosis. This biblical metaphor is applied to God’s relationship to the world (for, in Christian theology, Christ is the Word through whom God creates). For the universe to be distinct from its Creator, it must have its own internal “self-coherence” or autonomy. God “voluntarily” withdraws or witholds divine power to let the universe be and become itself. Thus, Creation is an expression not of divine might but of divine humility–the humility that every lover shows toward the beloved. Creation co- operates with God, so to speak, in the creative process. Divine Love invites the world into being and continually challenges it to higher levels of complexity. The universe is not God’s robot but the object of God’s intimate love and joy as it comes more and more into being in its evolution. The creation is in a co- creating partnership with its Creator.

 GOD AND THE UNIVERSE AS PROCESS: related to the first and second models, in process theology, God and the universe develop together, so to speak. God as transcendent stand outside of the universe God creates, but God as Immanent is intimately involved as Lover calling the universe into being and knowing the Universe as it becomes known. (This complementary model of God as both transcendent and immanent has ancient roots in Christian theology.)

 None of these models *explain* just how God interacts with the cosmos, but there is work in that area of theology also. Some theologians are suggesting that God interacts directly in the processes of nature on the quantum level. But whatever theological models emerge of God’s relationship to and interaction with the Universe, they will be no different in one respect from ancient models such as God as Craftsman, or Monarch, or Molder of Clay; that is, they like the ancient models will be metaphorical. Because, metaphor is the only language we can use to speak of God. God in the final analysis is ineffable, beyond the power of words to capture God’s nature and activities. God remains eternally shrouded in mystery, where, when all is said and done, we must encounter God. And that is biblical, too.

 This seems like a good place to end this set of reflections on God and Creation and the modern evolutionary world-picture. Your comments and questions are welcome. I shall be happy to pursue further any of the topics I’ve raised in this note with anyone, here on Faith and Learning, or privately.