Pastor (Park Street Church Boston) Daniel Harrell’s new book, Nature’s Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith (Living Theology), is the book we need. Here is someone who can translate science into theology and theology into science, and do so in engaging, fun, and clear prose.
Here’s an opener: “What if, instead of getting all threatened and frightened by scientific advances, we viewed scientific advancement as new vistas for theological consideration, new mountains to explore?” (10) He concludes: “This may sound like a compromised theology. But it’s not. It is an adjusted theology, that’s nothing new” (132). And: “God is the God of both evolution and the Bible” (134).
Before we get to a basic summary of this book, let me sketch some of what has happened to me in this issue of how to affirm the orthodox faith and, at the same time, be unafraid of the discoveries of science — defeating as they do at times our treasured interpretations of the Bible. When I say this, I say it as one who remains sensitive to those who think evolution is dangerous and who believes holding on to God as Creator is fundamental for the Christian faith. But …
I learned to think and rethink what I believe from a college Bible teacher who was a rock-bottom fundamentalist and, truth be told, a modernist to boot. His constant refrain to me: base your views of what you believe about the Bible on evidence. He taught me a naked evidentialist approach to what to believe; go wherever the evidence led me.
Another Bible teacher. I took a class on the Pentateuch with him. There were four of us in the class. He asked us to read through Bernard Ramm’s A Christian’s View of Science and Faith, or something like that. I don’t remember all that much about the class but I (think I) remember Ramm’s epoch theory of the word “day” in Genesis 1 and it led me to accept an old earth and whatever date science might come up with and to expand the length of the days in Genesis 1.
The operating principle I came away with was this: “Go with the evidence, regardless of the tradition you learned.” This is a form of modernity, and one I embraced: find the evidence, examine the evidence, make up your mind so far as you are able. (At times, as in the deeper reaches of science, one has to rely on experts one trusts.) So, I did. This fundamentalist method, though, undercuts the fundamentalist view of Genesis 1-2.
My contention is this: embracing some theory of evolution is one of the logical outcomes of embracing a “go with the evidence” approach I learned from my fundamentalist Bible teachers.
Now, apply that principle to science and the Bible. Go with the evidence. Let it guide you. So, when I got to Genesis 1-11 the evidence led me to think that the interpretation of those texts, the tradition I had received that evolution is a hopper of hooey was wrong. A good long draft of Enuma Elish and Atra Hasis, two ancient texts about such matters, led me to say, “This is not about history as we would write it.” Scientists prove that either God made the world incredibly old (which makes it look like evolution) or God guided the creation of the earth through evolution. Either way you’ve got evolution. But, the first view makes God something close to a deceiver; the second one makes God a creator-by-evolution.
So, I’m quite happy to find a book about how evolution can help our faith, which is what Daniel Harrell offers us in Nature’s Witness. He introduces us to Aunt Bernice, who says all the right things for an anti-evolutionist, anti-intellectual, commonsensical Christian who thinks book learning makes a head grow too big. He also introduces us to Dave, his friend, who simply doesn’t think this concern with evolution and faith matter one bit. Harrell’s use of these characters makes the book better and more enjoyable. And funny at times. One chp takes the tack of Augustine: it’s a private conversation with God.
One of my favorite lines: “Faith allows for a perspective greater than human perception can muster, but this is never to deny the perspective that human perception can muster” (66). Or this one: “Theology’s beef is not with the things that science discovers but with the way some scientists interpret what science discovers” (83).
“As reliable witnesses of nature, we can only become more reliable witnesses to God” (137).
His new word sums it up: “Believolution.”