“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” This common ground at the opening of the book of beginnings is valued by liberals and conservatives alike. Genesis 1:1 is therefore a natural and harmonizing way to begin the introduction of The Language of Science and Faith.
The exploration of common ground continues in their introduction with an initial reflection on the beauty and wonder of creation. Our increasing awareness of the magnificence of creation has inspired curiosity leading to adventurous exploration and scientific study. In the process, layer upon layer of increasing complexity and wonder has been revealed.
Many trace this modern scientific process of investigating God’s creation back to one man—Galileo Galilei. He made what seems to us an obvious and innocuous observation that the earth appears to revolve around the sun. However, this observation presented dizzying and unsettling implications for Christians at the time. The shifting of the earth under their feet diminished for them the central importance of humanity, upset long held church positions, and contradicted supposedly clear statements in scripture.
Today as then, the question remains, are science and faith hopelessly at war? Or, are science and faith reconcilable through embracing the other’s perspective as complementary in our search for truth?
If science and faith are irreconcilable, those of us caught in the tension face an agonizing choice between rejecting much of what science has learned about creation or leaving behind the faith of our fathers. According to Giberson and Collins,
The good news is that we do not have to make this choice. The atheists are simply wrong that scientific explanations compete with our belief in creation. And those Christians who agree with them, while correct in their insistence that God is the Creator, take their claims too far when they say that believing in creation means rejecting scientific explanations for origins.
This idea is expressed through the perspective of BioLogos, a term coined by Collins in his previous book The Language of God.
BioLogos, based on John 1:1, takes the findings and theories of mainstream science seriously and understands that evolution as a scientific theory has religious implications but makes no direct statements about religion itself. In opposition to atheistic evolution, BioLogos understands the universe as a purposeful creation—a vital distinction via the perspective of faith. On the other hand, BioLogos differs from Young Earth Creationism, Old Earth Creationism and Intelligent Design in that it does not require God to intervene in the process of evolutionary creation by miraculously working outside the laws of nature. BioLogos is thus most similar to Theistic Evolution or as some prefer Evolutionary Creationism.
A growing minority of Adventists are sympathetic to the perspective expressed by BioLogos and the resulting conflict with the traditional Adventist understanding of creation has brought the relationship of faith and science into sharp distinction in our community. My understanding is that the historic Adventist position is Young Earth Creationism as expressed by Ellen White and George McCready Price. However, since the mid 20th century, the scientific dating of stars and rocks has become less controversial. As a result, most Adventists actually disagree with the historic position and are now comfortable with a form of Old Earth Creationism in which the universe was created billions of years ago with a relatively recent supernatural creation of life on earth just a few thousand years ago.
On the other hand, Darwin’s theory offers a nonsupernatural explanation for the apparent design in highly complex biological systems which requires a deep time perspective not only for the rocks, but for life itself. This dramatically different time scale and understanding of how life developed precludes a literal interpretation of Genesis 1. Because this is perceived to undermine the foundation for the Seventh-day Sabbath by some, evolution carries particularly malicious connotations for many Adventists. Therefore, evolution is occasionally referred to pejoratively as “Darwinism,” implying a slavish cult blindly following a single scientist—a mischaracterization of many Adventists.
Rather than undying support for a single man’s surmising, evolution by natural selection is now supported by countless scientific advances in multiple disciplines which Darwin could never have conceived. The authors state, or as some will see it, overstate, “There has been no scientific discovery since Darwin—not one—which has suggested that evolution is not the best explanation for the origin of species.” BioLogos is therefore proposed as a holistic explanatory scheme in order to affirm the broad based evidence for evolution and recognize it as the method for God’s creative activity while avoiding unnecessarily divisive terminology.
But, no matter what terminology we use, as far as evolution offers a natural explanation for the complexity of life and the fossil record, that particular gap in our knowledge has been closed. The problem is that gaps such as this have been and continue to be used as evidence for God’s existence. Since Christians often yield to the temptation to explain the currently inexplicable by invoking God, faith is continually set up for this sort of fall. Going all the way back to Galileo’s vision of a moving earth, each time scientific advancement has offered natural explanations for misunderstandings or gaps in our knowledge, God’s supposed sphere of influence has seemed to steadily shrink until all that remains is disinterested deism or God’s absence in atheism.
The visceral negative response toward evolution is founded largely on fears that it undermines foundational beliefs such as the existence of God or the seventh-day Sabbath. Thus, the underlying angst heightening the debate is based primarily on defending beliefs rather than searching for truth. As Adventists we have all but lost our early ethos as a Spirit-led movement and have become more focused on maintaining the ground we have already gained.
Therefore, evolution’s bad reputation is due in part to our own limitations and lack of imagination as a faith community. Since in God all things live and move and have their being, both common natural phenomena and rare supernatural occurrences may be described as part of God’s work in the world. The Sabbath provides a regular time to reflect on God as creator no matter the method. Thus, creation is not just a one time event but is more accurately seen as an ongoing process with regular Sabbath cycles to remind us that creation is continuously called forward into the future through the love of God.
Some critics also reject evolution due to a fear of Social Darwinism in which evolutionary concepts are inappropriately distorted and applied to groups of individuals in a social context. The authors point out that Darwin himself never intended his description of biological reality to be translated into social engineering. The misuse of evolutionary concepts to justify eugenics and genocide is similar to the abuse of religious language to support racism and slavery. One should not infer from the ‘is’ of slavery in the Bible and survival of the fittest organisms in nature that we therefore ‘ought’ to continue modern slavery or commit genocide.
In the post introducing this reading group it was suggested—partly tongue in cheek—that extreme atheistic evolutionists and fundamentalist young earth creationists are engaged in a struggle to annihilate one another in a peculiar twist on survival of the fittest. The point was not in any way to encourage this behavior, but rather to indicate that inflammatory, violent language and actions are a perversion from both perspectives.
Just as the highest ideal in religion is love in relationship with God and others, in nature there is an inherent relatedness and interdependence between species. Diversity is a requirement for a healthy ecosystem. In fact, when an invasive species in a given locale dominates and displaces the other organisms, the entire ecosystem is put at risk. If we as followers of Christ are not able to appreciate and foster the necessary humility and diversity for a fully functioning body of Christ on earth, the health of our entire community will be placed in jeopardy.
—Brenton Reading writes from Shawnee, KS where he lives with his wife Nola and their three children. He is a pediatric interventional radiologist and a member of the Adventist Forum board.
Here is the introductorary essay about the Summer Reading Group series on the book The Language of Science and Faith. Feel free to get the book, read it and join the discussion.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/3268