It is common in some circles to extol Darwin as one who makes it possible to be a fulfilled atheist and in others to vilify him as the servant of Satan who set out to destroy the faith. The truth, of course, is much more complicated. And many influences are at play both within Darwin and the development of his thinking, and within our culture, the development of the theory of evolution, and our view of the conflict between science and faith.
In his recent book, Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution, Karl Giberson, Professor of Physics at Eastern Nazarene College and director of the Forum on Faith and Science at Gordon College, writes about the history of the interaction of ideas that led us to the present state of conflict. Gilberson’s book is not a science book, it is a history book, an attempt to provide context and a sense of perspective as we wrestle with our understanding of the faith. Giberson is an excellent writer and many of the ideas in this book are worth discussing. With this post we will begin the discussion where Giberson begins — with Darwin himself.
Darwin and His Journey
The story of Charles Darwin is familiar, he started out at Cambridge studying theology, with the intent of a career in the ministry, took a position on The Beagle as naturalist and as a companion for the Captain, and the rest is history. Darwin’s turn from faith to agnosticism and doubt is well known, documented in his writings. But his theory of evolution per se had little to do with his belief or disbelief in God and the Christian story.
Giberson makes the case that Darwin’s loss of faith had more to do with the faulty theology of the church than with the theory of evolution as an explanation for creation. Darwin was an intelligent man, a sincere family man, and an acute observer of the world around him. His own intellectual skepticism and expanding world served to undermine the God of his church as he understood it.
William Paley had extolled the virtues of God as designer, the “watchmaker” who created the world. The intelligence of God’s world, it was said, is obvious to one who looks, a creation that is exquisitely and beautifully designed. But why then does a cat torture a mouse? Why is a goose with webbed feet designed for swimming placed on dry land, far from water? Why are there flightless birds; bees who die after stinging because of the loss of their stinger; wasps who implant eggs in a caterpillar, eggs that hatch into larvae with the instinct to eat the host in a fashion that preserves its life as long as possible? None of these make much sense in a picture where each species is placed fully formed, designed by a beneficent, omnipotent creator for a purpose. All makes better sense or can make sense when the mechanism of creation is gradual evolution and competition for survival. All of these observations, and many more, are integrated into a unified whole under the umbrella of Darwinian evolution.
Darwin, in a letter to Asa Gray in 1860, quoted by Giberson (p. 35), wrote: “I cannot see, as plainly as others do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to be too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.“
But evolution had its own problems. In his autobiography Darwin reflected: “A being so powerful and so full of knowledge as a God who could create the universe is to our finite minds omnipotent and omniscient, and it revolts our understanding to suppose that his benevolence is not unbounded, for what advantage can there be in the suffering of millions of lower animals throughout almost endless time? This very old argument from existence of suffering against the existence of an intelligent first cause seems to me a strong one; whereas, as just remarked, the presence of much suffering agrees well with the view that all organic beings have been developed through variation and natural selection.“
The observation of nature and the theory of evolution shook, but did not dissolve Darwin’s faith. There was much more involved than just this – Darwin struggled with all of the doubts common to 19th century England: the veracity of the gospels, the issue of hell, the breadth of religious experience around the world, the cultural connectedness of religious experience. He ruminates on all of these in this autobiography. But his shaken faith dissolved most profoundly in his personal pain and suffering. The church preaches a good and beneficent God who cares about the fall of sparrows, the hairs on our head, and the health of our children – yet this God allowed his beloved daughter to die, took her away, at the young age of 11.
This brings us to one of the most profound or troubling questions in the church – the problem of pain. Both men and animals have lived, suffered, and died throughout the ages. But many Christians have suffered great pain through disease, human evil, systemic evil, or accident without loss of faith. Many Christians have suffered persecution and death for standing up for the way of God and the name of Christ. Any talk of Christian doctrine must wrestle with the existence of pain and suffering falling as rain on the just and the unjust.
But is evolution and natural selection part of the problem or part of the solution?
One portion of our church finds comfort in the idea that all pain and suffering and death was initiated a scant 6000 years ago by the sin of the original man. Thus we are responsible for sadistic cats and parasitic wasps. We are responsible for tsunamis, earthquakes, cyclones, and volcanoes as well as murder, mayhem, oppression and assault.
But I don’t think that this view stands in the light of the evidence – the evidence for an old earth and the existence and extinction life forms before the advent of mankind or the textual evidence of the nature of God’s revelation in scripture. Scientifically this view requires at least two assumptions that many of us are unwilling or unable to make. The first assumption is that the universe suffered at least two, perhaps more, complete revolutions in the nature of being and in the laws of physics that govern all matter. The first occurred at the fall – when death enters on the scene and creation is “cracked.” The second occurred at the time of Noah – with changes in geological process, nuclear physics, chemistry, and optics to name a few. The second assumption is that God designed the world with evidence deeply embedded to make it appear as though an old earth, evolution, and common descent are his method of creation and gave us scripture, especially Genesis, Romans 5, and 1 Cor. 15, so that we would know the truth.
Think about it. Why would God fundamentally change the laws of physics at the Fall and then again at the Flood – but leave the fallen laws intact following his single most important act in history – the death and resurrection of Jesus? This is, after all, the very intervention through which we as Christians believe that he redeemed and restored the world.
I find it much more fundamentally consistent to believe that God created gradually and through evolutionary process. That science analyzes it and scripture interprets it. That the laws of physics have not changed multiple times. That there is a purpose and a plan to creation – and that everything works together for his purpose. Parasitic wasps, sadistic cats, and web-footed land dwellers are neither accidental nor specifically designed. Death, biological death, is in some ways a part of the process of God’s design in the universe. I am not disturbed by this as Darwin was. But spiritual death, human destruction, separation from God is not a part of the design. Evil, systemic human evil, individual human evil, total depravity, are a direct result of human rebellion, human sin. Scripture relates historical events in the life, death, resurrection of Jesus and interprets those events as the pivotal work of God to redeem us, forgive us, and enable us to move forward in his plan, in his mission, and in his will.
So can “Darwin” be saved? How do we deal with the problem of pain – a beneficent, omnipotent God and yet a world where misery and oppression abound? It seems to me that our understanding here must hinge on the foundational question: What is the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ?