Writing about evolutionary theory and the Christian Church is a bit like kicking a hornets’ nest — a comparison that for clarity’s sake I must contrast with, say, kicking a bees’ nest. If I were to kick a bees’ nest, I would get stung, but at least I might get some honey out of the deal; in this case, the risk for offense is high, with very little potential payoff for me. And yet, I can’t help but say a few words on the subject.
Many people in the Church feel very strongly about evolution one way or the other. On the one hand, there are those who are outraged that anyone gives evolutionary theory the time of day. The Bible says six days, we’re obligated to believe six days, that settles it. Embracing any of the realities implied by the overwhelming evidence is the first step to becoming Unitarians. And on the other hand, there are those whose ears steam every time a Christian dares question evolution. They’re turning the whole Church into an anti-illectual laughingstock. How dare those idiots question a scientific consensus that changes every other week.
In speaking to either group, there are about a million ways I could rub salt into sensitive wounds and very few that I could salve them — which is why I’m not going to waste a lot of time here telling you what my view regarding creation vs. evolution is.
Instead of encouraging you to embrace one theory over the other, or to combine them in one specific way, I’m going to make the rather audacious claim that your view regarding creation and evolution literally does not matter (nor does mine). It’s completely irrelevant to anything, and if it’s a big hang-up for you, you need to repent and get over it.
Allow me to make my point with a metaphor: Imagine, for argument’s sake, that humanity exists only at the bottom of a deep, pitch-dark, epistemological pit. (Because, well, it does. Our knowledge, regardless of how much we extend it, will never be as extensive as our ignorance.) And at the very top, above the pit, shines the light of Truth. And it’s bright, and it’s true, but it’s infinitely high above us, and we can’t even glimpse it from where we are.
Now, how do we come into contact with Truth?
There are two possibilities: either we claw our way up from the depths of ignorance to meet it, or Truth descends into the pit to meet us. Theoretically, both are possible, and both have their downsides. We could get lost or take a wrong turn on the way to the top, or the darkness around us could mute our comprehension of the light.
What I mean is this: apparent conflicts between science and religion ultimately stem from the fact that science is based on inquiry, whereas religion is based on revelation. To engage in science is to attempt to claw our way out of the ignorance pit on our own, occasionally bumping against walls and making wrong turns. The Christian faith, however, is based on God’s direct revelation to man — Truth descending to meet us in the pit.
If we are the ones making the trek up from the bottom of the pit, we are likely to spend much of our time following dead ends, grasping at weak handholds, and fumbling around in the dark — and that’s what you see with much of the history of science. What was cutting-edge just a few decades ago is now laughable. Lamarck was cutting-edge till Darwin came along. Darwin was cutting-edge till modern genetics.
Alternatively, if Truth is to come down to us, it necessarily has to put itself in terms we can understand. We see this in the Gospel: God manifested to humankind by becoming human. No one has seen God in his full glory and lived; God’s glory must be veiled to be viewed by human eyes.
And all that is to say this: Yeah, modern biology appears to conflict with the creation narrative in Scripture; so what? Inquiry and revelation represent two independent paths between the darkness and the light; if they haven’t met up yet, that should surprise absolutely no one. Science is a discipline that’s inherently limited. Models (like evolution) are adopted based on how accurately they reflect observed phenomena and how accurately they predict future phenomena. If evolution by natural selection is an inaccurate description of reality, it will eventually be discarded. And it is guaranteed to at least be revised.
Science is a discipline with an extremely narrow focus. All phenomena described have to be isolatable, controllable, repeatable, and falsifiable. This a useful standard, because it restricts science to that which can be evidenced directly, but it is also an inherently limiting one, and in effect it eliminates supernatural explanations for everything, regardless of how accurate those explanations might be. By definition, the supernatural cannot be isolated, controlled, or repeated; it should surprise no one that science implicitly denies it.
Suppose the creation of the universe was a purely supernatural event; what would empirical evidence of that look like? The fact that so few creationists can agree on an answer to this question should be evidence enough that it’s a flawed place to start the discussion. We cannot talk meaningfully about physical evidence for supernatural phenomena, because the effects of the supernatural by definition cannot be reliably predicted.
By the same token, though, science by definition ultimately amounts to our “best guess” about what reality is — our best description, based on current evidence and current paradigms for interpreting it. In other words, if inquiry and revelation don’t (yet) match up, that should surprise no one at all.
The good news is that the Christian Church is not ultimately founded on a literal, six-day creation, and we don’t need to “prove” one to bolster our argument. The historical cornerstone of Christianity is the resurrection of Jesus Christ — an event for which the historical evidence is close to overwhelming. (Anyone who disagrees is encouraged to study history and see for yourself.)
The upshot is this: how modern biological knowledge and Biblical revelation fit together is not something anyone can know at present, nor should you presume to do so. The physical evidence says what it says, and you can’t do anything about it; the Bible says what it says, and you can’t do anything about that, either. You’re welcome to your own opinion; just know that in another generation or two, said opinion will probably be considered hilariously misguided.
Further, and more importantly, if you belong to a Christian communion with an official position on these issues, it’s your duty to submit to that position. I feel like I have a pretty decent layman’s understanding of evolution and the evidence for it, but that really doesn’t matter, even a little bit. I’m a member of the LCMS, a fellowship that insists on a fairly literal interpretation of Genesis, and I must be content to bow to this pronouncement with the knowledge that those who made it are probably more intelligent than I am, and (more importantly) were ordained by God to positions of authority over me.
Now, maybe you’re sitting there reading this and saying, “But I have to know!” If so, let me ask you a simple question: Why? Why is it so important to you to know the exact physical mechanics behind the creation of the universe? And, if they were made known to you, would you really be able to truly understand them? If your profession is in the life sciences, you need to know about evolution, because it’s the best predictive model available; otherwise, what use would you have for such “secret knowledge?” As St. Paul tells us, “Knowledge puffs up, while love builds up.”
The last bit there is key, I think. The “conservative” types would do well to remember that those who have embraced evolution intellectually aren’t necessarily looking to undermine the Gospel. Many — like Tim Keller, or, oh, I don’t know, the last few Popes — have been able to affirm the findings of science while maintaining an orthodox faith; still others can maintain a firm belief in a literal six-day creation while otherwise keeping their minds open to the (other) ideas of academic disciplines. Not everyone is a fundie or a liberal, and there’s plenty of room for Christian charity here.