Evolution as Witness

We at the Evangelical Portal would like to highlight quality books that seek to advance important discussions within the Christian community. Daniel Harrell is a minister at Park Street Church in Boston. He holds a Ph.D. in psychology from Boston College, and published "Living the Law-Virtually" at Patheos in April. Below is the Introduction to his new book, Nature's Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith, posted with the permission of Abingdon Press.

Walking across the Boston Common one cold winter's eve, I was approached by a gentleman, somewhat agitated, who recognized me from church.

"Are you the minister who's writing the book on evolution?"

This didn't sound good. "Uh, ... yes?" I replied, bracing myself.

"Do you believe in the word of God? Do you believe that God created the heavens and the earth in six days, like the Bible says?" His articulation was semiautomatic-as was his tone.

I assured him that yes, I believed the Bible says that God created the heavens and the earth in six days. I also believe that rivers clap their hands and that mountains sing (Ps. 98:9) because the Bible says that too. But I don't think that the Bible means six twenty-four-hour days any more than I believe that the Bible means that rivers have literal hands.

He worried that I suffered from delusion (which as far as I am concerned is never outside the realm of possibility). However, I reminded him that there are two types of delusion. There is the delusion that believes something that is not true, and there is the delusion that fails to believe something that is true. If evolution is an accurate description of the emergence of life, as science attests, then believing it alongside the Bible should pose no threat. There's no need to fear any honest search for truth because in the end, all honest searches for truth inevitably lead back to God.

Historically, religious faith, particularly Christianity, served as the loom onto which the discoveries of science were woven. It was within a Christian theological framework that scientific disclosure found its transcendent meaning. Descartes, Bacon, Galileo, Kepler and Newton, believers all, saw their work not as replacements for faith, but as extensions of it. The idea was that the best of science and the best of theology concerted to give human beings deeper insight into the workings of the universe and, subsequently, into the divine character. Scientific discovery was received with gratitude to the Almighty for the wonder of his creation. Scientists, alongside the psalmist, would proclaim, "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands" (Ps. 19:1 NIV).

The balance between faith and science (or reason) was established in the Middle Ages by Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas, building on Augustine, established a delicate equilibrium between theology (reasoning down from faith) and philosophy, analogous to science (reasoning up from sensory data). Aquinas, unlike the Reformers who would follow, taught that human senses and rational faculties, as made by God, were competent for understanding reality, albeit from a limited standpoint. The limits were filled in by theology. Aquinas asserted that God acted through "secondary causes," creating the world according to his laws and then giving nature room to unfold in accordance with God's laws. Whatever was good science was good as far as God is concerned; science simply described what God had already done.

However, if God operated mostly behind the scenes as the prime cause, then it wasn't long before people started wondering whether he was there at all. In time, reliance upon divine revelation gave way to human reason in its Enlightenment form, and soon the supernatural was rendered superfluous. As science advanced, Christians reacted by retreating into a sort of Manichean dualism whereby science was demonized and faith grew reliant on a super-supernatural world where any ordinary explanation raised suspicion. With battle lines so starkly drawn, scientists were left to assume that any move toward Christian faith was akin to committing intellectual suicide. Conversely, the faithful relied on science for their medicine or the weather forecast, but much more than that was to attempt spiritual suicide. Let a spark of evolution in the door and you were liable to catch the whole house on fire.

The controversy between Christian faith and evolution is exacerbated by increasing mounds of scientific data that lend weight to evolution. Paleontology, biochemistry, cosmology, physics, genetics -- you name the discipline -- each regularly puts forth newly discovered evidence in support of Darwin's simple idea of descent with modification. While some people of faith choose to keep their doors closed, shutting out science is not necessary. Christian faith by definition defies human conceptions of reality (1 Cor. 3:19). Its claims are grounded in extraordinary events that defy scientific explanation (most importantly the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus). But God is not only present where science is silent; he remains present even where science speaks loudest. The expansiveness of the universe, the beauty and complexity of organic life and the remarkable makeup of human consciousness -- naturally explicable occurrences -- are also interpreted by Christians as manifestations of God (Rom. 1:20). Christianity consistently asserts that all truth is God's truth, implying that faith and science, despite differences when it comes to explaining why, nevertheless should agree in regard to what is. Why bother talking about God if God has no relation to observable reality?

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