Wednesday, August 16, 2006


Once upon a time, people thought that the sun revolved around the earth. This was CLEARLY the biblical worldview: The Bible talks repeatedly about the sun "rising" and "going down" (Ps. 104, and others). God makes the sun stand still for Joshua (Joshua 10). The earth has a "foundation" (Job 9,38). (A lengthy summary of the biblical cosmology can be found here.)

But in the late 15th century, a few obnoxious fellows begin pushing an evil, contra-biblical cosmology: the heliocentric model, wherein the earth revolves around the sun! The Catholic church forced Gallileo to recant, but the genie was out of the bottle. Eventually the heliocentric model of the solar system overtook the geocentric, and most people stopped worrying about the conflicts between modern astronomy and the biblical text.

A few centuries later, this guy named Charles Darwin showed up, and things got all messy again. Seems that Darwin had this theory that organisms evolved over time as a result of random mutation, environmental pressures, and other factors. Birds seemed to have evolved from reptiles, and (gasp) humans from primates. This was CLEARLY against the biblical worldview, which described God as a creator-God who fashioned the earth and all its species in six literal days.

Sadly, the inquisitors of Gallileo's day have come and gone, and the church has much less power to control what people say. So this "evolution" idea has gotten out, and scientists have been free to investigate it, both by looking at the fossil record and in the evolution of microorganisms. Oddly enough, most have decided that evolutionary theory is the best way to explain this evidence. On the other hand, many Christians continue to reject evolutionary theory because they think it conflicts with the biblical worldview. Some even go so far as to insist that you can't be both a Christian and a "Darwinist".

For a while, I was opposed to that approach. I thought of evolution like heliocentrism: as a discription of the natural world that in no way compromises the Bible, because the Bible is about theology, not biology or cosmology. But now, I'm starting to think that there may be actual theological issues implicit in evolutionary biology.

With heliocentric cosmology, the major theological issue was the primacy of humankind in God's creation. It wasn't too much of a stretch to suppose that an omnipresent God could have created an immense universe, but still be intimately involved with the people on a single planet.

Evolution, on the other hand, seems to present some major challenges to our traditional theology. For example:

  • Evolution calls into question God's status as creator-god. The God of evolution sounds a lot like the watchmaker that the deists talk about: one who creates the universe, and then simply lets it run. This threatens the idea of a God who is intimately involved with humanity.

  • If we accept evolutionary theory, we can no longer "prove" the existence of God using the argument from design. A bird's wings are complicated but that doesn't mean anyone designed them. Complex systems are just as likely to arise from blind chance as they are to have been created ex nihilo by a benevolent creator God.

  • If the crowning glory of creation is humankind, why would a good God muck about with evolution? Millions of years of species competing for dominance, going extinct in evolutionary dead-ends, and all that sort of thing ... seems like a lot of pain when God could just poof humans into existence.

So there you go. Big theological issues. No way to reconcile evolutionary biology and Christian theology. You can be a Christian or a Darwinist, but not both.

I'm right about this one, so don't argue with me.

I mean it.


Connor said...

"This threatens the idea of a God who is intimately involved with humanity."

I think this is the main theological issue created not only by evolution but any theories of science. The question is what does "intimately involved" mean. I have Christian friends who see just about everything that happens (usually as long as it is good) as something that God is causing. Others seem to be more sceptical of this idea even though many try to believe it.

I've never witnessed and I don't know anyone (maybe I do?) who has ever witnessed the kind of "intimate involvement" presented in the bible. I've been raised to see God's actions in other less obvious ways. So the man who becomes a Christian and kicks his heroin habit presents us with a miracle of God, but of course that Buddhist who kicked the heroin habit just got lucky.

Shane said...

See, I think you are mixing apples and oranges here. It seems like you say at first, “Wow, the Biblical cosmology was proven scientifically wrong.” Even though you admit Scripture isn’t trying to answer those questions. Then you say “Darwin’s cosmology sounds something like a Deistic worldview, and we think that idea is correct now, so that means Deists must also be right in their interpretation of the way God acts in the world now.” That’s like saying Yajnavalkya was right about his cosmology so we ought to be in the business of denying all the little bits of knowledge so that we can obtain Knowledge itself.

I would argue that Scripture does not have a unified cosmology. Genesis 1 and 2 are two different accounts of the same event. One depicts God as universe creator, placing stars in the sky-bowl and taking a break at the end after making his masterpiece, a human. The other shows God making human being mud pies in his back yard. (The most common place for a garden in the Ancient Near East was behind the king’s palace.) Job and other texts offer still another view. In the same way there has never been an orthodox theory of atonement, there isn’t an orthodox cosmology but rather a system of heterodox expressions.

Cosmology as a genre of literature is myth. That does not mean it is not true. Many people believe myths never really happened, but that they express truths so mysterious and fundamental to existence they can only be told in the story of myth. Many different ancient near Eastern cultures had creation stories. Some were about battles, others were about sex. Still others were sexy battles. But each one answered theological and anthropological questions to form the identity of the people who told and heard the stories. These are best read in contrast to one another rather than independently, otherwise you never see the nuance in the character of God.

Galileo and Darwin’s explanations of the universe are not cosmological. At best it is materialistic and empirical. Maybe a better question is “What is an adequate Christian cosmology in light of the last 500 years of scientific study?” To answer that question I think you have to ask what qualities of God need to be reflected in the myth, and then sculpt the story around the common assumptions about the world people currently hold.

Matthew said...

connor said...
"I think this is the main theological issue created not only by evolution but any theories of science. The question is what does "intimately involved" mean."

Nod. I hoped you would have something to say about this one.

I read something about this a long time ago, suggesting that a "god of the gaps" theology will constantly get beaten down by science, because it only sees God in the things that we can't yet explain scientifically. The article suggested that the better approach is a kind of pantheism, wherein we claim that God is present in every (good) thing: that we find God in the everyday miracle of rainwater into grapes into wine.

I'm not sure what I think about that. What about you?

shane said...
"Maybe a better question is 'What is an adequate Christian cosmology in light of the last 500 years of scientific study?'"

So you think that we should attempt to express our cosmology as myth - in narrative form - instead of empirically?

That sounds interesting, although I still am wondering what to tell my kid when he asks if God made people, or if they evolved.

What do you think the modern creation story would look like? How about a Reader's digest version?

shane said...

I dunno, this is just off the top of my head:

In the beginning was God. And God said to itself, “Let’s try something here.” So God created a moment, when the entire universe, planet and sun (and a few things like nebula which were neither,) living and nonliving (and a few things like viruses which were neither), male and female (and a few things that were neither,) the essence of all things, was in the exact same spot. For one moment all parts of the universe was with God, and knew God, and was in harmony with all the other parts of the universe. And God appreciated the community of it all. Then there was a great explosion as God spread the parts of the heavens and worlds apart. And God said, “The universe is good, there are many different things, lots of potential for community, but there is not one thing in the universe that is like me. When I look at the universe I ought to see something that is like me, since I made it and all.” So God found one spot in one ocean of one planet in one solar system in one galaxy in one reality and said, “There are billions upon billions of places I have made, but this one place is special. I am going to do something important here.” . . .

It sounds like a Max Lucado story to me, but you get the picture. I am trying to incorporate the idea of Big Bang, and life starting on Earth soemwhere in the ocean, with the idea God is creator and particularly interested in human beings, because they are unique. It is fun to write one. . .everyone should try.

Connor said...

"suggested that the better approach is a kind of pantheism"

May I suggest panentheism as ascribed to by many in the Orthodox tradition (at least according to wikipedia!) Search for panentheism, scroll down to Orthodox church.

I'll have to come back with my opinion later once I have time to think. Shane, if you can combine Max Lucado's writing style with themes of "sexy battles" then I think you will be rich.

connor said...

Also check out, interesting site I stumbled upon. I'm sure it has stuff about this post somewhere.

crystal said...

Hi Matthew,

panentheism ... that's what got Matthew Fox kicked out of the Dominican Order :-). It is an element of the Orthodox theology, I think.

George Coyne is a Jesuit priest and an astronomer. He's director of the Vatican Observatory and has written some stuff about evolution. Here's one of them at the Tablet (cached) - here

An interesting site about religion and science is Counterbalance

Jason & Nicole said...

Good post, Matthew. You write well. I don't experience personal tension between biological and theological findings, though. I agree with the essay by Coyne to which Crystal provided a link. Thanks, Crystal. Infinite wonder! That's all I can say. Well, actually I can say a little more. ;-)

I believe what the Bible says . . . but I don't always know/understand what it's saying . . . and I have often falsely assumed (though innocently) that life--whether evolutionary or instantaneous--exists apart from God. The truth is that if God removes his spirit, all flesh dies completely . . . whether there are leftovers or not.

Job 34:13-15 “Who gave [God] charge over the earth and who laid on him the whole world? If he should take back his spirit to himself, and gather to himself his breath, all flesh would perish together, and all mortals return to dust.”

Connor said...

I think "god of the gaps" theology is definitely a dead end. Even if something seeems unsolvable who is to say it won't be in the future. I don't like the idea of claiming that God is present in every (good) thing either. I would go with the idea that everything depends on God. Not in the designer type of thought where we exist therefore something created us, but that our existance is always dependent on God. It appears to me that God has also granted some autonomy to us (maybe some animals to?). I think this somewhat helps get past the idea of evil existing in existance if existance is dependent upon God.

Of course the question with evolution and God is whether God guided it along or whether it happened within his creation? Random mutations, unguided process. People need to understand that what 'random' means is very open to debate within the sciences. Randomness vs. unpredictability. I am myself quite confused by it.

There is also the question of whether or not God intervened within the process (broke what we consider natural laws). Of course science cannot determine such a thing and if it did happen it can only bring down theories but not build new ones.

I leave it at that for now.

/t. said...

what if
god made
man and all but
man did not know
god and so
man was as an animal and
man spent a long time evolving and
god said
man will know me and so
god gave
man an eternal soul -- like
god -- in His image

man evolved and
god made
man and there is no disagreement

faith & science aren't supposed to disagree, are they?

Jeff Wilhite said...

The Genesis account of creation is ineffective at expressing to me, personally, what it means for God to be Creator of the universe. Any creative act involves wrestling with a medium, working the raw materials in such a way that something useful or expressive emerges that was not originally there. I use the word 'create' to apply to people like painters and sculptors and potters and architects and software developers. Creation implies making choices and design decisions about the tiniest details of whatever is being created.

The person who commissions a painting would not be considered the creator of the painting; rather, the creator is the one who mixes and applies the paints, carefully constructing each element of the work as he sees fit.

The God who creates by saying "Let there be light" is not creating in any sense of the word I am aware of. The Genesis account makes it sound like God is either a powerful warlock summoning some mystical powers of the universe to do his bidding, or a project manager giving orders to his lackeys to actually do the creative work. God says "Let there be light", but who actually makes the light?

This greatly disturbed me until my experience in computer programming illustrated to me that the acts of command and creation can be one and the same. Technically, a computer programmer only gives commands to a computer that carries out the task, but the entire creative act lies in the commands themselves. The computer doesn't get to make any design decisions.

So, it seems to me that the Genesis account relates a very simplified version of creation. Surely God didn't really just say the divine equivalent of "Let there be light". Surely that is just a high-level description of what God really did which was to exactly define the intended physical properties of light using the low-level components of the universe that he had already created in Genesis 1:1.

Furthermore, I perceive all creative acts to be progressive or iterative by nature. No painter sees the full painting in detail in his head before he begins the work. The painting evolves and develops and changes as he goes. The later stages of the work necessarily build upon the earlier stages. This is the case in the visual arts or in music composition or in architecture or in software design. I can certainly think of no creative act for which the final product is fully understood and developed the instant the project begins.

I expect that God, in His role as Creator of the universe, must have crafted matter and life in the same way. I find it very likely that before making a human, God first had to figure out how to make a single cell. The various stages in the evolutionary process consist of God "figuring out" how to do new and clever things with this stuff called life. “Blasphemy!” you say. How could God possibly be required to “figure something out”. Doesn’t God already know everything? Well, certainly God knows everything there is to know about the things He created because He made them. But I find no reason at all to deprive a being of the “omniscient” label just because he doesn’t fully understand something he hasn’t yet created.

This understanding of God’s role as creator also answers for me that meta-question: "Why did God create the universe?" Well, maybe, like many of us who were made in his image, he just likes to create for the sake of creating.

Aidan said...

Bible cosmology there was only one real crack pot who went along with that who was an obscure monk, The earth and universe have been more or less known to be round since the time Socrates played full back.
The sun was also "known" to orbit the earth an idea started with the ancient greeks, with was unrealated to christianity, or its predecessors.

Copernicus (who was also a catholic) brought the idea of a heliocentric universe, this was not discredited, and was praised for its predictive power. Galieo is always portrayed in this light that he is a heor amoungst rampant aristotilianism which sadly is not the case. There is evidence to indicate that heliocentric universe wasn't the true reason for his facing the inquisition.

In terms of teleology, which is flawed to begin with.. one of my posts on the topic.
Teleology can still be tied into a creator, as a guide,

I am not a christain by the way i am very happy as an agnostic.

Samuel said...

The Bible and Science can be complimentary and help us further our knowledge of where we came from. I have a problem when Science rejects the Bible and when hardline Christians oppose Science and interpret the Creation account literally.

We all have our versions. The ancients were more liberal with the Creation account. I prefer Genesis 1 to 2 and I loved Shane's version... You just need to interpret it for yourself and go back to its original meaning.

Shane also expressed that the genre of the Creation account was Myth. Science explains the formation of the universe focusing on the universe, Genesis focusing on man. We are not supplied with much information. Yet the phases of the creation account are similar to the "findings" of Science, aren't they? Light, dry land, vegetation, life in the water, the fish, the birds, the animals and humans. What about the theory of Evolution? Well, I guess there was some evolution, and when conscience entered the creature, it became the "first" man? I have no idea! And maybe God deems we know enough as it is, and the miracle of life is still not understood by anyone honest enough to admit it. The theory of Evolution is being questioned by scientists all around the world.

To me the saddest thing about this theory is that as he believes he comes from the beast, the Man lost sight that he holds a spark of the Divine inside. He then turns into a beast again, as he is persuaded he's nothing more than an animal that came into existence by chance.

Once again, the ancients accepted variations in the telling of the creation of our world and of the human race, and I don't think we should close our eyes to other accounts from other faiths or from Science, as long as we don't make these accounts weight any more than Genesis.

connor said...

Samuel said "To me the saddest thing about this theory is that as he believes he comes from the beast, the Man lost sight that he holds a spark of the Divine inside."

Maybe the problem isn't the theory but peoples theology. Darwin himself was terrified at what he found and thought of never revealing it. Today thousands of Christians attending college endure a similar terrifying experience.

Matthew said...

Wow, lots of interesting comments.

I'm still thinking, and trying to come up with a helpful response.

Basically, I'm having a hard time with the question: "why does it rain?"

Connor said...

One of my favorite bands, Cursive, is coming out with a new album. Here is a great song from that album.

Before we ever saw straight, we were grasping at straws
A debate was born, picket lines were drawn
There was this big bang once, now we’re learning to use our thumbs

We need a purpose in life, a survival guide
We need explanations for how we arrived
There was this big bang once, now we’re standing on our own two feet
There was this big bang once, we’ve been sharpening up our teeth

They say there was this big bang once, but the clergyman doesn’t agree, oh no
There was this big bang once, but it don’t jive with Adam and Eve
Original sin, idyllic garden
Some talking snake giving apples away
What would that snake say if he could only see us today?
Ha ha ha!

There was this big bang once, we were left here to fill in the blanks
There was this big bang once, now we’re aimlessly drifting in space
We’re gonna need an explanation for rational thought
And what it meant and the weight of our hearts
In a world of entropy, why can’t we just simply be?
And don’t feed me lies, intelligent design

There was this big bang once, why are we raptured on our knees?

Darius said...

Have you read anything by Teillehard de Chardin? OK, I totally spelled it wrong, except the last name. But he was a Catholic theologian who put evolution at the center of his theology.

In any case, denying facts, it seems to me, is seldom if ever a good position to be in. (Or, in this case, as you say, a theory that's a strong one and takes account of the existing facts well - I mean, gravity's a theory too...)

And doesn't the idea of process theology resolve the problems for people who believe in a Creator-God? The basic idea, as I recall, is that God has to take creation through a process to get from earth to heaven; that God's not omnipotent in the sense of a magician; that even the Creator has to work with the properties of the stuff she/he created.

So things like evolution, and the risks associated with higher levels of consciousness and intelligence, say the possibility of a Hitler, are all part of the process.

And of course there's the risks of great wealth and priviledge teaming up with lower levels of consciousness and intelligence, but this would tend more toward politics than theology...