Evolutionary thoughts

Vincent Heeringa
Sunday, 3 February 2008

A sermon to Cityside February 3 2008
By Vincent Heeringa

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

I guess it makes sense that the opening sentence of the Bible should generate as much conflict as it does comfort. There’s no gentle introduction, scene setting or whimsy. Not even a “Once upon there was this god”.  The sentence is an unequivocable set of theological assertions that:

    a)    there is a beginning
    b)    there is a God
    c)    and that God created pretty much everything we know

There’s so much content in that first sentence that you could almost create a whole religion around it. And if you were Dutch Reformed you could create a splinter group before you even got the full stop.

I am fascinated by the creation story. As an entrepreneur working in the creative media business, I find it convenient that our God is described, before anything else, as a creator. I especially it that the original mission of mankind is go forth and multiply. It’s such a treat when your religion makes it holy to have sex and make a profit.

But Genesis is not all fun. As a former biochemistry student, biology teacher, science writer and one time recipient of a Sceptic’s Society Award the Genesis account of creation is problematic, idiotic and at times embarrassing.

I spent many years trying to defend a literal six day creation story in front of mocking atheists from the Rationalists Club. There are enough gaps in the evidence for evolution for an eager young evangelical to sound plausible and scientific yet retain faith in a literal account of creation. But it’s a tough exercise and it’s getting harder all the time, as the fossil record, even in the last 10 years continues to throw up transitional forms, whether its prehistoric crocodiles in south America or hominids in Africa. Despite hammering at the edges of the theory, no opponent of evolution has really stuck a significant blow. In fact it’s the reverse. As with climate change, the evidence is overwhelming. Economist John Maynard Keynes is famous for saying "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

Well as a mature adult I did change my mind. I have long since given up the fruitless task of reading Genesis 1 and 2 as a scientific account of our origins. Not only is it indefensible from a scientific point of view, it is also an assault on the prime reason for the story, that is, as a religious allegory that teaches us about the meaning, purpose and true cause of our being alive here in 2008. In such a stance I am hardly alone. Roman Catholics, Anglicans and I amazed to discover even a Calvanist stalwart as BB Warfield, a former principal of Princeton University, have read Genesis as a book about the meaning of things, not the science of things.

Genesis has been reborn for me as an exciting part of the Bible. I don’t read it with a sense of dread about how bad the science is. Lately I have been turning my thoughts, for what they’re worth, to two questions:

    1.    What does it mean to be human, that is, in the image God?
    2.    Where is God in evolution?

If we are indeed hominids, sharing the same primate ancestors as chimpanzees and apes, then how are we any more divine than say Judy from Daktari?   Did God zap a homo sapien brute living near the Euphrates with a bolt of lightening that suddenly made him stand up and say “My name is Adam.” Did God create Adam and Eve as single examples of a separate species? There is evidence from genetics that we humans share one female ancestor - called Eve by scientists just to tease us, I’m sure.

This intervention, this miracle, of God reaching into time and space to create two unique animals is possible. We may believe in science but surely we must allow God the power to overrule and intervene. If we don’t how do we account for the resurrection? Or is that an allegory too? That’s a question for another day perhaps.

But is it necessary for Adam and Eve to be actual singular figures to stay true to the meaning of Genesis? No. Just as the days of creation are an allegorical and theological interpretation of the creation process, then so are Adam and Eve interpretations of human awakening. They are representative forms of the first men and women who experienced a gradual awakening, an evolution of awareness of homo sapien’s difference from the rest of the animal kingdom. Think of it being like the process of becoming an adult – there’s not one moment when it occurs, and maybe for some it never does. But one day you realise that heck, the belly’s growing, the hair’s receding, the 20 year-olds look like kids and the latest music just sounds like rubbish.

Evolution as a metaphor is close to the natural order of things – when we grow we change from one thing to another, but we also stay the same. Apart from Damascus Road conversions there’s little in our lives that represent revolution. Evoution is the order of things. The Greeks had a hideous time trying to explain this stuff – that is how one thing can be another and yet still be the same thing.

The good news so do we. The evidence for evolution is clear, but the mechanics of it are not. Darwin’s proposal “survival of the fittest” doesn’t explain everything. For one thing it’s a tautology – it simply describes a associative not a causative relationship 9n other words, what came first the fit or the survival?). Its rival theory “punctuated equilibrium” has its problems too, because again it describes what the fossil records shows (slow burn punctuated by an explosion of change) but not how it happens. And there’s the much bigger problem that evolution is the story of improvement over time. Yet we know that mutations are usually harmful and the law of entropy tells us that nature tends toward chaos not order.

In response some Christian scientists have proposed the idea of intelligent design – that God has somehow embedded a blueprint in nature and at times intervened to create complex items such as eyes and wings. This theory, much opposed by many other scientists, sounds at times like the God of Gaps – that is, if we can’t explain it then it must be God. I hate the God of the Gaps; it is idiotic and demeaning to God. The Greeks didn’t understand lightening and said it was Zeus throwing down fire. We now know that lightening is static electricity building up in the clouds. Christians used to think mental illness was demonic forces.

No, we need to do better than the God of the Gaps when finding a role for God in evolution. I know that God’s work must not be reduced to just being the prime mover at the beginning, and not as a piecemeal interventionist when it comes to explaining complex forms. The Bible says that the he has the whole world in his hands, and by him and through him and to him are all things. I think we owe God a little more respect.

Perhaps one way to understand evolution is to reverse the language and call it creation – that is, the universe and life is in constant state of creation, that God is its driving force and its intelligence. Could it be that in evolution we don’t lose the God of the bible but actually take another step towards understanding his glory. Evolution as the story of redemption.

I plan to continue my reading and discussion of this topic and plan to report back soon – that is if it’s of any interest. In the meantime I found this quote that summarises my thinking to date.

Everything exists in God.  All we can perceive is the activity of nature, but with faith we can see God at work.  The tiniest particle of matter and the smallest moment of time contain something of God's concealed activity.  God hides behind the curtain of his creation's business.

From Abandonment to Divine Providence
Jean-Pierre de Caussade (1675-1751)

Also for those who are interested there is a heap of discussion online. Here’s the best site I have found so far.