The dialogue between Christian and scientific thought has felt a little tense for some time now. I avoid the term ‘conflict’ as I don’t think that does justice to the nuance of their relationship. In some areas, conflict would certainly fit, but on occasions, Christianity has put a friendly arm around the shoulders of science, if only to show off to passers-by, ‘see, this guy is on my side!’ Science, nevertheless, keeps its hands in its pockets.
In few areas has the strain in this relationship been more evident than in the question of origins. And in particular, the origin of the human race.
I will confess from the start that scientific knowledge is not my strong point. Sure, I performed well in my science exams at school, and have picked bits up here and there through conversation or in popular articles, but I cannot speak on it with any true authority. Therefore, if you notice any inaccuracies in what I present, do not hesitate to contact me, and I will be happy to make any necessary corrections. I’m generally a lot more at home in discussions of biblical theology, so don’t worry, there will be plenty of that here.
It seems to be a part of human nature that when something comes along which threatens some of your deepest-held beliefs, it’s easiest to stick your head in the sand.
For Christianity, reality must fundamentally find its origins in the divine. The world is made by God with deliberate intent, providing profound consequences for how we see ourselves and our place within the wider universe. Scientific thought, however, has no such presupposition. At least, it shouldn't have. Science is ultimately looking for the best explanation as to why things are how they are, and is ready to discard all previous ideas for a theory which offers a more plausible account.
Naturally there would be a clash.
The first chapter of the book of Genesis provides the first of two Judeo-Christian creation accounts. At face value, it records how God spoke the world into being over the course of six days, made humanity the pinnacle and stewards of his creation, and then took a day off. In the next chapter of Genesis we meet with the second creation account in which the world was originally a barren land brought to life by God, who then forms a man from clay to cultivate this newly-founded garden with the help of his female partner. The details and emphases differ between the two accounts, but ultimately God is the active agent who brings forth order out of chaos, and life out of desolation.
The current scientific account looks somewhat different. Humans, it seems, were not always as they are today. In fact, no living species has remained unchanged throughout history. Rather, from simple beginnings, life on Earth grew to its current complex form through a (very!) long evolutionary process. Humanity is not exempt, and if we trace our lineage back far enough, we will find our remote ancestors in a bowl of primordial soup. All very humbling.
This theory of humanity’s origins posed a threat to the Christian narrative in which the very first people were created in the present form we know and love today, or as Ned Flanders from The Simpsons puts it, 'Everything is what it was and always will be; God put us here and that's that.' And there have been different responses from the faith community to this challenge.
On the one hand you will find those who simply deny it. It seems to be a part of human nature that when something comes along which threatens some of your deepest-held beliefs, it’s easiest to stick your head in the sand. This was never an option that I could hold for a couple of reasons. Firstly, if the majority of experts in a particular area are in relative agreement, it seems nothing short of arrogance to claim superior knowledge. The second reason comes from the Bible itself.
The first chapters of Genesis don’t make claims to history in the sense that we think of the term today. Scholars for the most part place the authorship of the first creation account in the time of the exile, in which Jerusalem was sacked and the people of Israel were taken hostage to Babylon. Within this climate, the Jewish declarations about their creator god Yahweh were thus not concerned with accurately recalling events of the past; rather, the intention was to promote their god above the evil gods of their captors. It was political.
Questions surrounding the origins of the universe, and the specific dates and method of creation were not likely at the forefront their mind. They wanted to prove their god could win in a fight.
For these reasons – or perhaps others – Christians are increasingly adopting the theory of ‘theistic evolution’. This more commendable approach reveals the desire to harmonize the Christian doctrine of divine creation with contemporary scientific explanations of origin. It was the position that I took for most of my Christian life; I had no reason to dismiss the conclusions of scientists, but clearly God must be the ultimate cause. If questioned, I would tend to say that God created the world and humanity, but he used evolution as his tool.
The problem? It simply doesn’t work.
There are two reasons why such a harmonization is not possible, or at least, creates a rather empty and dismal tune. The first comes from the nature of evolution itself, and the other is theological.
At a foundational level, evolution simply doesn’t require God. The process takes place through random mutations which provide a creature with either a greater or lesser chance of survival. The lucky creatures get to pass on their benefits to the next generation, while the unlucky ones are less likely to have kids. The key word here is random. Nature itself dictates the shape of the various species over the course of a very long time. If there were a deity actively involved in the process, you’d have to conclude that they weren’t quite sure what they were doing; they would be at best indecisive, while more likely passive and impotent. They may as well not be there.
Perhaps evolution actually seems like quite a neat fit for a god whose ‘plan A’ to resolve the evil in this world was to drown all but a single family in a worldwide flood and start again from scratch.
The theological consideration is similar, but looks more to the character of the god who would use evolution as its creative tool. As well as being random, evolution is also cruel. It is estimated that the vast majority of species that have ever existed became extinct, with only a low single-figure percentage remaining. History is typically written by the victors, and so evolution also boasts of its successful creatures which were stronger, smarter, and ultimately more adaptable than their competitors. However, that leaves an incredible amount of life that never made it to the podium. These beings would have spent their entire existences struggling against a cruel and inhospitable environment, and living at the mercy of those who saw them as dinner.
As a natural process, we can acknowledge the cruelty and wastefulness of evolution as simply the way things are. There’s no one to blame; it simply is what it is. However, if the claim arises that it was a method used by a divine being to bring about its desired result, you then have a troublesome character on your hands.
Perhaps evolution actually seems like quite a neat fit for a god whose ‘plan A’ to resolve the evil in this world was to drown all but a single family in a worldwide flood and start again from scratch. After all, ‘cruel’ and ‘wasteful’ are the perfect words to describe such an endeavor. Rather than the god who works in mysterious ways that we’re often told about, a better picture may be a frustrated writer throwing ball after ball of scrunched up paper into the bin. While kicking a puppy. However, most Christians would probably like to minimize this depiction of God in favour of the more kind and loving picture built up in the person of Jesus.
Christians find great comfort and challenge in Jesus’ ‘Sermon on the Mount’, presented in the early chapters of Matthew’s Gospel. Apparently Gandhi also drew great inspiration from this teaching. The sermon opens with what are known as the ‘Beatitudes’ which outline the upside-down nature of the Kingdom of God in which the first shall be last and the might of the world is overthrown by non-violent resistance. One particular verse states that, ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth’ (Matthew 5.5), a sentiment which has surely given hope to the downtrodden over many centuries.
Nevertheless, it is certainly not a description of evolution, in which it is in fact the strongest and most adaptable who inherit the earth. The meek are left in the dust.
And so while the evolutionary theory seems perfectly compatible with the description of God in the Old Testament – after all, genocide is its second nature – it’s far more difficult to reconcile with the values upheld by the person of Jesus, who Christians generally regard as the most accurate representation of God.
No matter how much I wanted to harmonize my Christian beliefs with the scientific explanations of origin, they just wouldn’t fit. One of them had to go.
I began to realise that it was not a contest between the divine and scientific theories, but simply between two human concepts.
At first the obvious choice was evolution. After all, scientific theories change, but God’s word does not. And it may be that in another fifty to a hundred years another theory would emerge which would be more compatible with scripture. I would rather stick to the God I knew and leave questions of origin in the box of the unknown. It didn’t really affect my day-to-day after all.
But then my picture of God started to unravel for a multitude of reasons. After my process of deconstruction was well under way, the dialogue between Christianity and scientific thought once again reared its head, though I found myself approaching it from a different perspective this time. It started to make more sense. Rather than continue to bury my head in the sand and ignore the conflict, I realised that there could be no compatibility, not because evolution needed updating – though there is also room for adaption to new discoveries – but rather because the God I thought I knew no longer made sense.
I began to realise that it was not a contest between the divine and scientific theories, but simply between two human concepts. However, one offered a more convincing explanation for the world I find myself in.
One of the shortcomings of the Christian tradition is its incapacity to accommodate evolution. By this I mean not only the scientific theory, but its own evolution. As a human system which emerged two millennia ago in a world very different to our own, it may be that it will have to adapt in a far more radical way if it wishes to survive.
Only time will tell.