Evolution and Christianity: Literally No One Cares What You (or I) Think

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.

Like, seriously.

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.

15 thoughts on “Evolution and Christianity: Literally No One Cares What You (or I) Think

  1. Please rethink the LCMS.

    Your Statement:

    “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.”

    No son – your statement is wrong:

    How can you say you believe in an old earth and still revere these YECs who are clergy in the LCMS? And then stay in this LCMS and not challenge that? Do you believe in indoctrination or do you stand for truth? Blind loyalty? Can you see the pattern with the LCMS? What else are they wrong on? Perhaps the LCMS has created more atheists than Christians over the last century because of their lack of credibility and weird interpretations (literalism) of the Holy Bible.

    • Welcome Eric, and thanks for the comment. You obviously have an axe to grind against the LCMS, and I doubt that I’m the guy to respond to it. My point in writing this was simply that an exact physical (though not metaphysical) understanding of Genesis 1-2 is (a) not possible, (b) not essential to Christian doctrine, and (c) far less important than Christian unity. Christian unity, of course, begins within the denomination, and it begins with submission to Christ by submission to clergy. I don’t recall saying that I believe in an old earth, but I certainly do feel that my particular opinion is not very important.

      Let me add that your view on church membership strikes me as particularly consumerist. I didn’t choose the LCMS after shopping around for doctrine I could buy into 100%; I belong to the LCMS because it is where God placed me. I don’t know where you got your data on “more atheists than Christians” (care to share a link?), but I can say that the LCMS played a key role in salvaging my faith, and I will happily submit to it as long as I am called to do so.

      I suppose if you want to call any of those attitudes “blind loyalty,” so be it…I call it humility. Surely you must see a degree of arrogance in thinking “I can figure out the universe on my own, and then I’ll argue with the men God placed in authority over me”? Submission doesn’t mean avoiding rational thought, but it does mean acknowledging that your own thought process is far from the sole source of Truth in the universe.

      “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” –Augustine

      • Very interesting post. I have held a similar opinion for quite awhile. I am conservatively trained (BS/MA at Liberty, MDiv, ThM at Southwestern Baptist Theological), but am now in England working on my PhD in historical theology. Evolution is a hot button issue here. Darwin was a national hero. He’s on their money. If I were to come along with my Southern Baptist handbook and drew a line in the sand saying that evolution was clearly and obviously contradictory to Scripture, I would get nowhere. Instead, I have been very open about the fact that it doesn’t matter one ounce for salvation. It is equally possible to believe that God created and allowed to evolve as it is that he created a mature earth. I personally don’t believe the evidence points towards evolution, but that is my scientific and rational response, not a religious one. It wasn’t until I came to the conclusion that I wouldn’t die on the hill of young earth creationism that I was able to actually be effective in ministry in England.

      • I’m with you there, Todd. The funny thing is, if you read the Church Fathers, very few of them insisted on literal interpretation of Genesis. Same thing with the Reformers. I always figure, if Young Earth Creationists are right, great; if they’re not right, great.

  2. Mister Luke,

    I am saying that you LCMS may think you are better than ELCA and I agree! BUT these two versions of Lutheranism are wrong and need a third moderate version reconfigured and the masses I am still a part of hope that there is an alternative in the Lutherans like the NALC/
    There is no hope for LCMS or the ELCA. A new church is called for. in the USA.

    Eric

    • Well, Eric, I’m really not a fan of tearing Christian communions down, since every communion has its problems (and will continue to do so as long as sin is a thing). That said, if someone can build a better American Lutheran church…more power to them, I suppose.

  3. I somehow missed this comment thread (though I read the original post when it was published). In case anyone is still following the thread, let me clear up some misconceptions.

    It’s true that the LCMS has adopted formal doctrinal statements that affirm a six-day creation. However, it’s not really true to say that the Synod “insists on a fairly literal interpretation of Genesis,” depending on exactly what you mean by the verb “insist.”

    The LCMS convention has adopted doctrinal statements that include “six-day creation,” but those resolutions do not change the Synod’s formal doctrinal standard, which is the Lutheran Confessions contained in the 1580 Book of Concord. The Lutheran Confessions make no statement (one way or the other) on six-day creationism. Every LCMS pastor and every LCMS congregation makes a formal subscription to the Lutheran Confessions; they do not make a subscription to the “Brief Statement” of 1932 or the “Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles” of 1973. So technically, six-day creationism is not part of our doctrinal standard.

    It’s worth mentioning here that the Synod’s doctrinal statements (1932 and 1973) on these matters explicitly subordinate themselves as authorities to the Scriptures and to the Lutheran Confessions; and they specifically state that they are not irreformable but instead express the “current position” of the Synod. If they can be shown to be in error (by the standard of Scripture and the Confessions), or a better doctrinal formulation can be made, these doctrinal statements can be amended or repealed.

    Finally, as a practical matter the LCMS does not “insist on” six-day creationism as a doctrinal standard for lay persons. When a lay person joins an LCMS congregation (whether by confirmation or by transferring from another congregation), he is not required to subscribe to the 1932 or 1973 doctrinal statements, or even to the Lutheran Confessions themselves. He is required to affirm that the Bible is the Word of God and to commit to the teachings of the Lutheran Church “as contained in the Small Catechism of Martin Luther.” Needless to say, the Small Catechism is silent on the issue of six-day creationism.

    I am not a believer in six-day creationism myself. I have been a Missouri-Synod Lutheran for over 20 years, and I serve as an elder in an LCMS congregation. No one has ever “insisted” that I believe in creationism, and if anyone ever tried to “insist,” I am confident that I could demonstrate that my position on Genesis is not only permissible according to the Confessions, but is in fact the orthodox interpretation.

    • Well said, and I do appreciate your added perspective (being that, at the end of the day, I’m just a layman who’s officially been Lutheran for all of a year, despite having Luther’s catechism thoroughly pounded into my head as a child). 🙂

      My main point here — which hopefully didn’t get completely lost in my verbosity — is that those who think they’ve got it “figured out” should spend less time creating their own religion and more time submitting to the one they’ve already got. If that doesn’t require a specific position on Genesis 1-2, then okay.

  4. I appreciated reading your point of view. The seeming inconsistencies between science and religion have at times been an issue for me with regard to questioning my faith. In recent years I have come to think about things in much the same way you seem to have and have come to the conclusion that science and religion are not mutually exclusive. It’s nice to see that I’m not out there on my own with this train of thought.

    • Thanks, Brian. As Chris points out a couple comments above, the “six literal days” understanding is not the traditionally orthodox one (none of the Church Fathers that I’m aware of taught it). In general, I’ve found that seeming conflicts between science and Christian theology can generally be explained by a poor understanding of one or both.

  5. Luke, thanks for sharing your thoughts, you dirty Lutheran.

    This coincides with a line of thinking I’ve been wandering down for a few years now. I live in the South and grew up Southern Baptist, so you can probably guess where I’ve historically fallen on the topic. I still lean that way, but much less dogmatically. I think it finally took getting to know some really good Christian people who believe much differently to broaden my thinking and bring me to the point where I feel like it doesn’t matter that much what someone’s view is on this subject (that was actually kind of a big step for me, given my background).

    Anyway, my main reason for posting was to ask for some references on your assertion that “the “six literal days” understanding is not the traditionally orthodox one”. I’d just like to read more about that.

    • Hi Steven,

      This link provides a pretty good overview of the many variations of how the Church Fathers understood Genesis 1-2:

      http://www.catholic.com/tracts/creation-and-genesis

      Within the list you’ll see positions varying from a literal six-day reading to the assertion that it took thousands of years to the insistence that it happened outside time, in an instant.

      Young-earth creationism is an idea that exists only in reaction to Darwin. I can sort-of understand why the Church has reacted to Darwin so extremely, as evolution implies a mechanistic understanding of nature. But then, so does most scientific theory — and it seems to me that such an effective mechanism implies an effective engineer.

      At the end of the day, I figure, if the young-earth creationists are right, then great; and if they’re not right, then great. I’ll preach Jesus Christ either way. 🙂

  6. The conflict between science and faith has always struck me as a bit ludicrous. Each of these has a basic core question inherent to them that, to me anyways, can make them quite complimentary. Science asks from the world “How do things happen?”, whereas religion asks “Why do things happen?”. One can guide the other, and both are tools for our understanding of this wonderfully complicated reality we live in. Personally, I see science as a way to maybe catch the faintest glimpse into the mind of God. I find it a bit presumptuous when people claim to know God’s plan…just look at the magnificent scale and depth and complicated simplicity in everything. Why not have evolution as an expression of God’s will?

    Our understanding of the world will always be flawed, that’s the human condition. But it’s also in our nature to learn. That’s there for a reason.

    • I just have to say, I love your comment. It’s so simple, and yet so eloquent, and perfectly sums up, really, everything that needs to be said on these subjects. Thanks for sharing!

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