The Struggle for the Soul of Science
James says that
although they were provoked (or inspired?!) by the series Andrew wrote, they are not intended to be a point-by-point rebuttal - not least because there was much that he wrote with which I would be in full agreement. Rather, these were written to make the case for an alternative approach to science than theistic evolution - one that gives greater weight to the Bible’s record of ancient history.
We hope they will inspire further gracious discussion of this controversial topic.
The Struggle for the Soul of Science, part one: Historical Context
‘Creation versus evolution’ is most often portrayed today as naïve conspiracy theorists fighting a losing battle against common sense, fuelled by nothing more than an outdated conviction that legends in the Bible must be literally true. ‘Young Earth Creationist’ [YEC] has become synonymous with ‘Christian fundamentalist’, the sort of person who kills abortion doctors and burns Qur‘ans, who hates homosexuals and Palestinians, and wants women to be stuck at home with the children. In the other corner of the boxing ring is the Scientist, standing calmly for reason and tolerance, peace and progress, for equal rights and for positive discrimination on behalf of minorities, the disabled, gays, and women. Everyone knows who ought to win, for the sake of the rest of humanity.
Many reasons could be given for the tragic separation between Biblical values and Bible believers in Western consciousness, and it is certainly not helped by extremist elements in Christianity who entirely neglect grace in their adherence to truth. However, it seems to me that the basic problem is a failure on the part of the Church to perceive and communicate the big story of God’s dealings with the world. The ‘good news’ has become bad news, or even dangerous news, because Biblical principles like the sanctity of life, unity in diversity, and divine sovereignty in election, have been separated from the narrative that gives them all a coherent context. The Biblical narrative begins with good creation, human rebellion, and judgment in a worldwide flood, it identifies the solution for the evil in the world as the light that will come through the people of Israel and the Jewish king, and it promises a final victory that will restore peace and justice to all of creation. In the absence of any compelling presentation of this story, secular society has created its own narrative, beginning with cosmic explosion, gradual formation, and chance origin of life, denying that there is any inherent moral problem with evil and suffering in the world, and promising an ongoing self-improvement of living organisms until the eventual heat-death of the universe.
Each of these narratives presents a comprehensive worldview, theoretically down to the smallest detail, but they disagree fundamentally about the cause, meaning and purpose of the world and its inhabitants. It is common for those who prefer the secular narrative to dismiss the Biblical one as wishful thinking – the delusions of those who cannot face reality. If this were true, even militant atheists ought to have no objection to people living in their own fantasy world, finding meaning in a meaningless existence. The problem is that both narratives insist that they are not simply inventions of the human mind, but fact, based on empirical evidence and therefore objectively true whether or not people agree. Unlike all other religious handbooks, the Bible does not simply present a subjective spiritual philosophy or set of rules, but claims to report historical events accurately – a record of century upon century of experiment and objective proof for the existence, character, and intentions of the Creator God.
The rise of modern science, and the contemporaneous Age of Exploration, both depended on the theistic conviction that if all of reality was created by the same God, then the same rules ought to apply everywhere, and each new discovery would add to a truer understanding of the whole. Science began as a branch of philosophy, and those who founded the discipline had no problem with the idea of a Creator who not only had established the boundaries and processes of the natural world but also retained the ability to interact with His creation. Before long, modernism took to the stage, philosophically in the Enlightenment and technologically in the Industrial Revolution. Both developments were characterised by supreme confidence in humanity itself, whether in intellectual enquiry or in social progress. Belief in the supernatural had served its purpose, and the Bible’s message of human inadequacy and divine grace had become irrelevant, or even demeaning.
Needing an alternative explanation for the ever-increasing diversity being found in the natural world and yet the clear evidence for suffering and moral evil, rational modernists readily accepted Darwin’s ingenious combination of the theories of unguided biological evolution and uniformitarian ‘deep-time’ geology into a single narrative that let God (and man) off the hook. At the same time in Biblical studies, the German Old Testament scholar Wellhausen proposed a similarly ingenious alternative narrative for the development of ancient Israelite thought and literature, based on the popular idea of a natural evolution of religion from simple to complex forms. The Law of Moses was demoted to the status of a relatively late compilation made by moralising legalists and priests, attributed to the legendary leader Moses for maximum impact so as to justify centralising religious authority in Jerusalem. Standing against both of these stories, a face-value reading of the Bible presents historical evidence for an original divinely-ordered complexity in both the natural world and the religion of Israel, which quickly degenerated in morally ‘bad’ entropy apart from God’s gracious intervention.
The confident optimism of ‘enlightened’ humanism was shattered in the twentieth century by the awful experiences of two world wars, weapons of mass destruction, and the brutal oppression of whole populations by atheistic regimes in Russia, Germany, China and elsewhere. Imperialist powers gradually surrendered to national demands for self-determination, and humanity once again put its trust in its own ability to rebuild a peaceful world, through the establishment of the United Nations. During a long period of peace and cooperation for mutual prosperity, huge advances were made in technology and knowledge of the natural world. Even so, greed at the heart of human institutions has tipped the world at the start of this century yet again into environmental, economic and political upheaval, and from the immoral sexual revolution a generation ago we now reap the bitter fruit of social breakdown. Few seem to recognise that the two opposing narratives and worldviews lie at the heart of these troubles. The secular story remains confident that life will continue to improve for those species/nations/cultures who are most fit to survive, since the ‘selfish gene’ alone is able to overcome the entropy which afflicts everything else around us. Suffering caused by this struggle for survival may be regrettable, but it always been necessary for evolutionary advancement. The Biblical story, however, insists that unless humanity recognises its inadequacy and turns to the Creator for help, the entire earth will soon suffer the consequences of our selfishness.
The conflict between these two worldviews, therefore, is of utmost importance. The ‘old earth – evolution’ and the ‘young earth – creation’ stories have far bigger implications than an annoying scientific sideshow in Bible-belt America might lead one to expect. Again, it must be emphasised that the Biblical and secular worldviews both claim to be empirical, based on actual evidence and therefore open to rational investigation. The dominant secular worldview descended from Darwin has been very successful in summoning the fields of technology and the natural sciences as expert witnesses in support of its truth claims. As such, ‘Science’ itself is presented as the opponent of the Biblical record of the world’s origins, masquerading for secular naturalism and ‘scientism’. When challenged by those holding stubbornly to the Biblical worldview, it is perfectly happy to cross-examine the witness of the Bible, confident that the historical-critical successors of Wellhausen will freely deny the reliability of its testimony.
Within British evangelical Christianity, there has for many years been a strong desire to resist the monopoly of atheistic secularism within the natural sciences and technology. Followers of Jesus, who have clear personal experience and evidence for God’s existence, object to the propaganda that ‘faith’ is the equivalent of ‘blind unquestioning conviction in spite of all evidence to the contrary’. They want to defend their right to be scientists while also treating the Bible as trustworthy and believing that Jesus really did rise again from the dead. In order to make this case, an increasing number of evangelicals have decided that cutting off the first eleven chapters of Genesis from Biblical history is a small price to pay for reconciliation with mainstream secular scholarship. These stories are the hardest to defend as accurate history, because doing so would require global evidence, and the intellectual establishment has already made up its mind about which story will be used to explain this evidence. To help their argument, it is not difficult to find scholars of the Old Testament who are prepared to speak of these chapters using terms such as ‘myth’ or ‘poetry’, which allows them to be read as ‘truth’ in a more spiritualised or metaphorical way. Indeed, Old Testament scholarship tends to treat not just the first eleven chapters of the Bible this way, but the first six to ten books as a whole. After all, these Christian scholars might say, our faith is based on the historical fact of the resurrection of Jesus, not on the global Flood or parting of the Red Sea.
I recognise that simplifying such complicated matters for rhetorical effect runs the risk of offending any who would want to place themselves somewhere on a spectrum instead. I have no desire to accuse anyone of ignorance, malice, cowardice, or unbelief, whether they be atheists or people of faith. Nor do I wish to stand in the Young Earth Creationist corner and ‘take on’ Science, conforming to the stereotypes promoted by the media and the likes of Dawkins. I am not attempting to convince people that the Bible is inerrant, literal down to the last detail, of unquestionable authority, and therefore able to ‘trump’ all scientific evidence. On the contrary, this is about much more than a ‘defence of the Bible’; it is about defending science itself. In the seven posts that follow, therefore, I hope to present for a diverse audience various reasons for reconsidering a genuinely Judaeo-Christian scientific approach to the secular ‘old earth – evolution’ narrative about the world.
First, of course, it will be necessary to address the scientific evidence (in two posts); no-one should be expected to pay further attention if all the evidence does indeed support the secular narrative. The fourth post will venture into the arena of philosophy, challenging naturalism in the scientific method. The fifth and sixth posts will then turn to territory more familiar to me, analysis of the Biblical material, considering both the relevant texts in Genesis and their necessary theological and practical implications. The seventh post will conclude with a Biblical approach to intellectual conflict – how believers ought to respond whenever the Bible does in fact contradict mainstream academic opinion. Finally an eighth post will distil the essence of all the preceding posts into a parable, a deliberately fictional story that might serve to illuminate our present situation.