Fearfully and Wonderfully Evolved

Today in my Sunday school class, we had our “evolution weekend” conversation that was postponed from last Sunday, when I was away at the Midwest SBL meeting.

Many of the points that came up are ones that I’ve made before on this blog and elsewhere. For instance, I emphasized that there is nothing specifically limited to evolution that singles it out for a greater degree of conflict with a literal reading of the Bible than other scientific fields. Some examples I offered include:

(1) Genetics and embryology: Psalm 139:13 says that God knit the psalmist (and presumably humans in general) together in the mother’s womb. Literalists ought to be up in arms about this and opposed to the contemporary scientific understanding, since it is not merely about the origin of our species but the status of each individual as a divine creation. Yet not only is there no Christian antiembryological movement that I know of, but many Christians find it comforting to believe that God does not directly cause congenital birth defects.

(2) Meteorology: Leviticus 26:4 attributes the rain directly to God, and so how can meteorologists dare to attribute it to natural phenomena such as barometric pressure and who knows what else?

(3) Astronomy and Australians: We had an entertaining discussion about the plausibility of the existence of Australians. But not only does Joshua 10:12-14 suggest a different view of the solar system than that accepted today, but it seems to involve Joshua addressing the sun and moon, which is a whole other discussion. When it comes to the movement of the earth, here we do find people who reject mainstream science on the basis of an appeal to the Bible. Passages like Psalm 104:5, Psalm 93:1 and 1 Chronicles 16:30 are pretty clear.

And so, on the one hand, a genuinely and consistently literalistic approach to the Bible would put one at odds with all science and many other fields of knowledge, and not just evolution. On the other hand, the evidence for evolution is every bit as solid as for other scientific fields. That doesn’t mean that our knowledge is not growing. At times new discoveries do cause us to revise or supplement our earlier thinking. But what is striking is that, while scientists love making new discoveries that show where other great minds have been wrong, propelling the discoverer/pioneer to the front cover of science magazines, we’ve yet to see a young-earth creationist or proponent of intelligent design accomplish that, because they are not offering research that improves our understanding, but mere empty criticism that neither correctly identifies problems with current theory or offers genuinely helpful improvements or alternatives.

We concluded with me pointing out that those who claim that science, or more specifically evolutionary biologists, reduce human beings to a mere pile of chemicals of little value, simply misunderstand the nature of scientific analysis. Genesis 2 says humans are dirt, if one wants to talk about physical make-up. Neither religion nor science claims humans are more or less valuable because of our composition. If there is anything that makes us valuable, it is the complex arrangement of the matter that makes us up, and our capacity to relate to one another and to God, to compose and appreciate works of beauty, and in other ways transcend what might be expected of the atoms that make up our physical composition.

To use another analogy, one can accurately analyse a symphony in terms of the chemical composition of the instruments or the physical vibrations in the air. Such analyses are not scientifically incorrect. They are just different perspectives, and ones that we may well deem insufficient on their own, since it is also appropriate (perhaps necessary) to do justice to our appreciation of the symphony as beautiful. The problem, in other words, is in no way with scientific analysis, but with reductionism, that is to say, the attempt to say that humans are “nothing but” the chemicals of which we are made, or a symphony is “nothing but” vibrations. The natural sciences offer accurate analyses of certain aspects of things, but do not (and need not, and ought not) claim that there is nothing more to be said at other levels and from other perspectives.

Next week we’ll connect up the current series with our previous topic by looking at Romans 5.

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  • http://spiritcry.wordpress.com/ Cameron Horsburgh

    I thought I’d better weigh in and let you know that I’m pretty sure we Australians do, in fact, exist.Although it’s quite possible God just made me think I’m in Australia as a test of my faith.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    I was going to appeal to Home and Away as evidence, but wasn’t sure if that would help or harm my case. :)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17336244849636477317 John Pieret

    Genesis 2 says humans are dirt, if one wants to talk about physical make-up.Or, as Thomas Huxley put it:“It is as respectable to be a modified monkey as modified dirt.”

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    I heard it as “modified monkey” vs. “modified mud”, just that little bit more aliterative…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16623045145691355028 Reformed Baptist

    James I find it interesting that most of the quote mining you do comes from the psalms. Now, I am not the smartest chap in the world but I am pretty sure that you are raping a genre here. I do not think that you should interpret the psalms in such a wooden fashion. As for the Chronicles passage I think that it makes sense from a phenomenological perspective of an earth bound observer, the earth does not “move” unless there is an earthquake. So what perspective is the biblical author viewing things from in that specific passage?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    OK, so what do you think the psalmist “really believed” about the movability or otherwise, that is expressed through this poetry? Given the prominent use of parallelism, I’d say allowances for “poetry” (broadly defined) need to be made even in Genesis 1. But we still need to ask what beliefs about the world the author was expressing through poetry…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03089281236217906531 Scott F

    Reformed: the issue isn’t even really about what the psalmist meant, literally or poetically. The issue of concern to us, here in the 21st century, is how Fundamentalists read these passages. The psalms are quoted all the time in defense of all sorts of claims. Heck, the author of Matthew’s Gospel mines quotes with an intensity that leaves Jim in the dust.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07562402977211994270 Andrew T.

    James, I’d be interested in your perspective on a comment Victor Reppert left at my blog, suggesting that’s there’s real pro-evolutionary science pressure (but not Expelled! nonsense) at the university level. I don’t really know if it’s true, and I think it’s probably okay if it is, but it strikes me that you would know firsthand with respect to your colleagues in the science department.