Friday, October 14, 2011

IRONMEN Session 2: Evolution and Christianity

Two posters from my days at Campus for Christ

     In my last post, I had detailed the opening talk by John Neufeld at the IRONMEN Adventure Weekend in Whistler, on the topic of wisdom and its necessity in understanding the conflict of the Christian faith with other worldviews. It was a great talk that laid a foundation for understanding the next two topics that he would talk about, the second one of which I will be detailing in this post - Evolution and Christianity, which we had the privilege of listening to at Milestones restaurant after dinner.

Pastor John delivering his talk at Milestone's Restaurant after dinner

     I think the fundamental question that Pastor John wished to address, and indeed the thrust of Session 2 could basically be stated as follows:

"Is the idea of subscribing to theistic evolution a viable option for Christians? If not, then how can we apply wisdom in approaching the challenge that this worldview presents to the Christian faith?"

     In his opening statements, Pastor John referenced some observations by Dr. David Berlinski, a postdoctoral in mathematics and molecular biology at Columbia University and among other notable achievements - an author, lecturer and agnostic - in an opening statement between evolution and intelligent design:

"The Darwinian theory of evolution is the last of the great 29th century mystery religions, following Freudianism and Marxism into the nether regions, and I am quite sure that Freud, Marx and Darwin are commiserating one with the other in the dark dungeon where discarded gods gather. The problem facing us at the beginning of the 21st century, with a magnificent body of theoretical accomplishments....that when it comes to the large body of global issues that Darwin's theory is intended to address....Random selection is known to be inadequate - especially when it comes to the overwhelming complexities of living forms."

     Dr.  Berlinski pointed out that some major mathematicians simply discount it - the fact that we cannot set up a computer schema to actually show the mechanism whereby it works. He said that workable mechanisms for evolutionary biology are missing - that we cannot point out the amount of changes needed to move from one species to another, neither the process whereby they change. He suggested that Darwinian theory places us into a kind of straight jacket, that does not allow the flexibility to consider the emergence of various theories. Thus evolutionary biology as the grand theory explaining everything continues to bind the discussion in only one direction.

     With that laid down, the question that Pastor John presented to our consideration was one that I myself had been pondering for some years:

A. Is Theistic Evolution a Viable Option?

     Theistic Evolution [1] can be summarised as the view that posits that there is one God, who created using evolution as a process or mechanism to bring about the world and universe as described in the creation account of Genesis, the first book of the Bible. Thus, God basically employs a procedure where He sets up the system and allows random mutation to occur, and evolution to happen.

      A major example of a proponent of this worldview would be Francis Collins [2], the American physican-geneticist and Director of the National Institutes of Health, who is better known for his leadership of the Human Genome Project.

     With that in mind, we proceeded to the next point of consideration - what was to be held in the 'closed fist', ''guarded hand' and 'open hand' in approaching this matter? For a detailing of the idea of the closed fist, guarded hand and open hand, see my last post 'IRONMEN Session 1: Wisdom and the Conflict of Worldviews'.

B. Things In the "Closed Fist"

  1. God created the world and God is distinct from it. This is rejecting the idea of "God" presented by Baruch Spinoza as being nature itself [3]
  2. God is directly involved in the creation. This rejects the worldview postulated by Deism, which must be rejected if we affirm the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
  3. God created, "ex-nihilo" (out of nothing). This implies that we also deny the eternal nature of matter and the physical world, i.e. that this universe will go on forever. It means that we accept that this phsical world and universe will come to an end at some point.
  4. God's world was originally good, and therefore, is different from the corrupted world in which we now live. This is something that evolutionary biology, including the idea of theistic evolution, cannot say - that the world was originally good.
  5. Romans 5:12 - that sin came into the world through one man, and death - through him (that is, his fall from grace) spread to all men - death reigned from Adam to the present. Hence the story of redemption is redemption from a world cursed by Adamic sin.
  6. God's character is revealed (his glory) as he deals with the corruption of his good creation - by providing redemption through Jesus. The entire biblical drama is based on this single premise. Thus, until we recognize that paradise was "lost", we cannot speak of paradise being "regained". Theistic evolution does not provide for this senario either.
  7. According to Romans 1, creation speaks of the Creator in such a way that it is impossible to deny his existence.
     With these points clearly laid out, we were led to raise the question with regard to the topic of evolutionary biology - when we encounter the word "evolution", we must ask ourselves the question, "what exactly are we talking about?"

C. Definition of Evolution

  1. Micro-evolution - refers to small scale changes within a species allowing it to adapt to its environment. Everyone agrees on this. An example cited is the Hedylepta, a butterfly in Hawaii found only on the Hawaiian islands, and a species that eats only bananas. The point of interest is that bananas were first brought to the Hawaiian Islands only about 1000 years ago - indicating that the species evolved within that time.  
  2. Macro-evolution - refers to large scale changes occurring over vast period of time into the formation of new species. It refers to a universal common descent - the idea that all organisms descended from a common ancestry - solely through unguided, purposeless material processes such as natural selection, random variation, mutation, etc. - and this accounts for the appearance of design.
  3. Those who hold to the idea of evolution resist the idea of Intelligent Design (ID) [4]. Francis Collins is an example of those who argue against this. It should also be noted that people in the ID movement are only making the case that evolution cannot account for the current scale of biological reality.
  4. Evolution or ID essentially presents a system of origins that leaves open belief in a Creator, but does not need it. Essentially, it is atheism, subscribing to a philosophy of materialism.
     Having said all that, Pastor John raised some of the questions that occur to Christians who hold to the creation account of Genesis 1 and 2, which I myself have been searching for answers to.

D. Problems for Those Who Believe Genesis 1-2

  1. The age of the Earth. This deals with the question of the Old Earth vs. Young Earth Theory.
  2. The fossil record. If death occurred because of Adam's sin, how do we explain the evidence of death & extinctions of species that we see in the geological and fossil record?
  3. Meticulous Sovereignty or Deism? The Bible teaches that God is meticulously involved in His creation. For example, the book of Colossians says: "For by Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities - all things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all thing, and in Him all things hold together." - Col. 1:16-17, ESV
  4. The problems with science class
      With these points in our heads for consideration - the non-viablility of theistic evolution as an option, the non-negotiable aspects of biblical thought and doctrine that must be held in the "closed fist", the two scales of evolution that could be defined and the questions in the mind of the believer, Pastor John proceeded to lead us through a detailed study of the first two chapters of Genesis, which are outlined below.

Bible Study
  1. Genesis 1:1. Creation is therefore out of nothing. Creation is also therefore not eternal as it is in Bhuddism. But that raises the question - what is the age of the universe?
  2. Genesis 1:2. Uses the term "formless and void". In Hebrew, it is transliterated by the term "togu va bogu", meaning without purpose, a howling wasteland. How long was the earth "togu va bogu"? Moses (who wrote the book of Genesis) is silent on this issue. One way of reading Genesis 1:1-2 is in the style of a newspaper headline - the opening sentence being the summary, followed by more detail. Alternately, it could be read sequentially - that God created the Cosmos in Gen. 1:1, and then shifts focus to creation account on Earth.
  3. Day 1 (Genesis 1:3-5) - One of the questions raised relates to the described order of creation - how is there "light" without the sun? Day 1 describes God bringing light into being, but then Day 4 talks about the creation of the sun and stars. So what "light" is Day 1 talking about if the sun and stars were not created yet? This seeming contradiction in account can be resolved if we understand the description of conditions and changes as seen from the perspective of an observer standing on the surface of the earth. Thus, Day 1 might be referring to the clearing of interplanetary debris, so that light could penetrate. Day 4 would then be referring to the ordering of already existing sources of light.
  4. Day 2 - Genesis 1:6-8. Creation of dry land.
  5. Day 3 - Genesis 1:9-13. Creation of vegetation. From our previous discussion on the differences between micro and macro-evolution, we take this to mean creation of all organisms in their mature form.
  6. Day 4 - Genesis 1:14-19. Creation of the luminaries. From the assumptions of the perspective adopted on Day 1, we can take this to be the creation of a transparent atmosphere, so that the sun, moon, stars etc. become visible.
  7. Day 5 - Genesis 1:20-23. Creation of sea animals.
  8. Day 6 - Genesis 1:24-31. Creation of land animals and then creation of man.
     With this reading and study of the creation account and deductions laid out, Pastor John noted that it still left some outstanding questions, and proceeded to walk us through them.

E. Outstanding Questions
  1. The day/age question. The first question to ask is - is this a closed, guarded or open hand question? In interpreting the Hebrew, this could be read literally as 6 24-hour periods of time, or alternately, can also refer to an extended period of time. Both might be possible, and it is not necessary to divide as believers over this.
  2. Arguments for 6 literal days. The arguments note first of all that each day ends with a morning, and an evening pattern. Secondly, they note that in Exodus 20:11, God specifies 6 days of work, followed by a day of rest, patterning His methodology of creation
  3. Arguments for 6 long periods. These arguments point to the 6th day as being crowded with events, and unable to fit in 24 hours - the creation of species, the creation of Adam, the naming of species by Adam and finally, the creation of Eve. Secondly they note that the formula of morning passed and evening came doesn't work the other way around. Thirdly, they point to the verse of 2 Peter 3:8: 8 "But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day."
  4. Thus, there are problems that both sides need to address, and one might seem to be convinced if reading one side only.
  5. Conclusion: The question of the age of the earth is a very different question than the question of evolution.  
     I am still pondering over these points that Pastor John put forward, even as I type this post. However, he proceeded to bring his talk to an even more interesting point of focus and which became very personal - what do and do we not learn from nature about God and ourselves?

F. What Does Nature Teach All People? From Romans 1:
  1.  That there is a Creator. Creation lives and breathes the testimony of a Creator.
  2. That we owe God an infinite debt of gratitude. Our Creator has provided us with abundance, even in a fallen world.
  3. That our gratitude has not been in keeping with his kindness.
  4. That we have substituted our knowledge of him with idols - gods that are fed and taken care of.
  5. That we are therefore guilty as ingrates.
  6. That we should seek mercy
G. What Nature Does Not Teach Us
  1. Whether the God who exists is cruel  or kind
  2. Whether the God who exists will bring us mercy
  3. The need of Special Revelation through the Bible and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
     This was an incredible talk and evening as Pastor John brought things to a close. I don't think I will ever forget it, and am still pondering these points as I type them out. See you in the next post, where I wind up this series with detailing the final session - Christian Faith and Homosexuality. See you then!

- The Wisdom Seeker