Unconcluding scientific postscript


(system) #1

or a reading list for losing literal belief by finding generative faith.

By Alexander Carpenter

Recently that Adventist alembic, Cliff Goldstein, called for books that make the case for evolution without turning believers into Seventh-day Dawkinians.

Caveat emptor: I am not an evolutionary biologist nor am I trained in the history of science. Any cause for getting something right here comes from my good Scientific Reasoning profs at Andrews University and any poor thinking comes from my own wandering away from the Doe/Moffit stacks. Thus, this is not a comprehensive list. Rather, I'm interested in compiling readings for a journey of history and logic that attempts to make the case that one can read the creation story in Genesis non literally without losing ones personal faith. Or the sense that Adventist beliefs are worth acting on.

1. In the London Review of Books read Terry Eagleton thrash Dawkins for his "Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching" at religion. As is often noted, one of the dangers is that people, attracted to the popularized versions of evolution and religion, find easy dichotomies. With the overwrought arguments of the literalists or the angry atheists of the world uniting to face off, it seems simple to just say either one or the other. But, in fact, that binary falls apart under Eagleton's scrutiny. If that's not enough here's Marilynne Robinson landing punches on Dawkins in Harpers (thanks Ron). Either one, the point should stick that it's not logic, but ignorance of good theology that leads to atheism.

2. I strongly recommend Stanford biology professor Joan Roughgarden's Evolution and Christian Faith, or former head of the Human Genome Project and evangelical Christian Francis Collins who believes in evolution or Harvard University astronomer and science historian Owen Gingerich's God's Universe. This should dispel the canard that there is some equality of evidence between evolutionary theory and creationism or intelligent design. Just in case there are some folks out there still watering down their creationism into intelligent design, or at least think that God runs genetic change I recommend these short, sharp essays from Natural History magazine. It even has short summaries by each paragraph for the busy people.

Behe's contention that each and every piece of a machine, mechanical or biochemical, must be assembled in its final form before anything useful can emerge is just plain wrong. Evolution produces complex biochemical machines by copying, modifying, and combining proteins previously used for other functions. Looking for examples? The systems in Behe's essay will do just fine. He writes that in the absence of "almost any" of its parts, the bacterial flagellum "does not work." But guess what? A small group of proteins from the flagellum does work without the rest of the machine -- it's used by many bacteria as a device for injecting poisons into other cells. Although the function performed by this small part when working alone is different, it nonetheless can be favored by natural selection. The key proteins that clot blood fit this pattern, too. They're actually modified versions of proteins used in the digestive system. The elegant work of Russell Doolittle has shown how evolution duplicated, retargeted, and modified these proteins to produce the vertebrate blood-clotting system.

For those who worry that belief in natural selection leads straight away from the supernatural, I recommend the engrossing critical review, "Missing Link: Alfred Russel Wallace, Charles Darwin's neglected double" in the February 12, 2007 issue of The New Yorker. Jonathan Rosen writes of the "greatest field biologist of the 19th century: "He never renounced his evolutionary theory, but instead made it the cornerstone of a theistic explanation of the universe. . .He combines both halves of the debate over the meaning of evolution, coolly articulating the materialist mechanisms by which the simplest organisms morphed into human beings while arguing that our existence offers evidence of divine agency." 3. Now if Genesis is not necessary for telling us about species, what is its nature? Read Genesis: Translation and Commentary by Robert Alter. This should establish that we're talking about poetic, not scientific language. It seems that there are several concerns that arise over the issue. One is that accepting evolution will destroy faith in the bible. Well yes, if one reads the bible as literally true. Another of the big worries is that if one gives up faith in the literal reading of the beginning of the bible, than other scripture-based beliefs will slough off like last winter's snake's skin boots. Not so. In fact, the evidence of Adventist hermeneutics suggests a carefully articulated process of setting up parameters for when to and when to not read the words as literally true. (see Lev. 11, parts of Heb, later Dan, and parts of Rev. or better yet, here's the Rio doc.) Thus it's not a matter of all or nothing. The fact is that Ellen White employed others' written words and called them God's. And so did Bible writers, redactors, and copyists. The fact is that all understanding of the inexplicable is based on indeterminacy and misappropriation.

4. But what about God's work in the world. Here I recommend Chaos and Complexity: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action edited by Robert John Russell, Nancey Murphy, and Arthur Peacocke. Particularly helpful are the essays on non-interventionist understandings of objectively special divine action.

5. But where's the meaning, the hope of in it all? Coming back full circle, Terry Eagleton has a little book out called The Meaning of Life. He writes: "The cosmos may not have been consciously designed and is almost certainly not struggling to say anything, but it is not just chaotic either." On the contrary, "its underlying laws reveal a beauty, a symmetry and economy which are capable of moving scientists to tears."

In his review of the book in the Guardian, Simon Jenkins writes: "To Eagleton, just as the meaning in a poem is a conversation between the words on the page and the mind of the reader, so answers to questions about life must convey significance beyond the realm of the individual. The exercise is not solipsistic. The search for meaning is not something people do in a vacuum, but "in dialogue with a determinate world whose laws they did not invent ... If their meanings are to be valid, they must respect this world's grain and texture." Strip down the question as much as you like, but you must give an answer that signifies to others. This must be so, and is a forceful answer to all purveyors of meaninglessness. . . .He firmly rejects liberal individualism as nihilistic, the mere assertion that the meaning of life is me. "At the point of its supreme triumph, [individualism] is struck empty." The liberation of the self from the priesthood of religion or whatever becomes a black hole into which all meaning is sucked and destroyed.Therefore, as we see in Alter, in the beginning was the created word. All we have are signs for trying to capture the ineffable. And words told in community give meaning. Perhaps the truth is not the literal meaning, but the meaning-making that we continue today. Our acts of explanation within community-- we once sat around a fire and did this and now we blog -- it's what we've always done. The alpha and the omega, God revealed is the first and last of language, our Word made flesh together.

We don't need a god who slays our enemies like our faithfathers believed, nor YHWH's demand of a visible shedding of blood to signify reconciliation, and we don't think that El controls the wind, the flu virus in our body, or the movement of the solar system. Do we still need the idea that God runs the macro-genetic mutation of species? Clearly we have more useful revelation.

Our best revelation of God lies in Jesus the Christ who changed the world by being the ultimate mutator of lives. In a world of greed-induced poverty, unnecessary military violence, environmental ignorance and difficult human relationships, I trust in a God who creates change in those who believe. Whether or not one believes in a literal creation won't change the millions of genetic shifts that just occurred, but believing in a God who literally changes lives might just save me, my relationship to other humans and the earth, and maybe even the world. And that requires the kind of faith that acts -- not to prove one true beyond doubt -- but to do the right though the heavens may fall.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/4308