Evolution and Biblical Faith: The Messiness of it all

Evolution and Biblical Faith: The Messiness of it all March 13, 2015

Old Testament scholar and preaching professor John C. Holbert joins a Patheos roundtable conversation on “Evolution and Christian Faith,” sponsored by BioLogos. Click here for more perspectives — from evangelical to atheist — on this topic.

shutterstock_1894832I would like to respond briefly to several of the videos provided by Biologos, an organization dedicated to the conviction that there need be no incompatibility between belief in the theory of evolution and belief in the tenets of the Bible. Though these videos, in the main very well done (despite some rather irritating voices used on a few of them), are aimed at persons far more conservative in their use of the Bible than I am, we progressive Christians can still learn much from these reasoned and reasonable presentations. Things have come a long way since 1925 in Tennessee and the infamous Scopes trial.

The video entitled Evolution and the Bible gave as clear and helpful an explanation of the theory of evolution as I have heard, focusing squarely on the multiple definitions of “randomness.” The argument is that evolution, or speciation, is in fact not random in the way it has often been portrayed by those threatened by it, those who are convinced that if evolution is accepted as a way of explaining how the vast multiplicity of the world’s plants and animals came to exist, God will be completely removed from the process, and acceptance of evolution will lead necessarily to atheism. The video nicely demonstrates that within the processes of evolution one finds randomness, but also discovers that species develop in ways far from random as well, ways that include DNA mutations within fixed possibilities, natural selection that means much more than that old bogey man “survival of the fittest,” but in fact survival of those “mostly fit” to their environments. For Christian, Jewish, Muslim believers, God can either be seen as creating these possibilities and allowing them to unfold (the “Deist” view) or God may be intimately involved with these processes every step of the way (an “intimate/personal” view).

I admit to finding all this talk not especially difficult for me, since I have long felt that there is inherently no contradiction between these worlds of ideas, since the Bible, for me, has nothing whatever to do with science, while science has little necessary interest in faith. I understand how my more conservative colleagues could be troubled by this sort of discussion, but I am not. I would, however, add one factor in all this that I learned now over 40 years ago in the wonderful book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), by Annie Dillard, a book that led me to the word “messiness” in my title.

When we speak of the world as created by God, we too often speak of its astonishing clock-work precision, its puzzle-piece-like unity, the incredible conviction that so many factors had to be exactly right—time, temperature, the correct stew of molecules and amino acids, etc.—to create life as we know it. Older theologians, especially Thomas Aquinas, named this the “argument from design,” claiming that the intricacies of life, human, animal, and plant, are too bound together to have occurred by happenstance only. More recent persons, arguing that the complexity of things is too astounding to believe that it all “evolved randomly” (note my comments above), often point to the human eye, and conclude that “someone must have designed this,” and for some religious types that someone is God.

However, I want to note Dillard’s meticulously poetic observations at a small Virginia creek, and suggest that really to see and notate the workings of nature more often than not leads one to wonder just who is running such a railroad anyway? Dillard watches in some sort of horror as a frog, swimming lazily on the surface of the creek is, before her very eyes, sucked dry and dead by a huge and terrible worm that lives for such as this. She witnesses thousands of an insect species drown in the creek in order that the species may survive from the few that make it across the drowning backs of its fellows. She summarizes in what I find to be one of the great passages in recent literature:

“The point of the dragonfly’s terrible lip, the giant water bug, birdsong, or the beautiful dazzle and flash of sunlighted minnows, is not that it all fits together like clockwork—for it doesn’t, particularly, not even inside the goldfish bowl—but that it all flows so freely wild, like the creek, that it all surges in such a free, fringed tangle. Freedom is the world’s water and weather, the world’s nourishment freely given, its soil and sap: and the creator loves pizzazz.”

In that grand paragraph I find what I believe to be the complementarity of science and faith. We faithful ones, whether we are scientists or not, (and I plainly am not, as any real scientist can easily conclude from my stumbling presentation of science earlier in this article), stand mute before the free wonders of the world the creator has given to us, and however we attempt to explain it, theologically sophisticated or scientifically nuanced, what rests at the bottom is that realization that the creator we worship and praise, that mystery who hides in bush and cloud, in the end loves pizzazz, every clack and buzz and whistle and roar. God is madly in love with the world, with the cosmos, and will do about anything to make it rich and myriad and fecund and wonderful. Let us have the best science, O God, and help us to think hard theologically about who you are, but, more, let us stand by the creek and witness and wonder and laugh and sing and dance. For before we can think hard, we must love hard; before we can praise with power we must be overpowered by your huge love for us.

Photo credit: Shutterstock / James E. Knopf

MLPPT_JohnCHolbert_bio-2John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX. Holbert’s popular column, “Opening the Old Testament,” is published every Monday on the Progressive Christian Channel at Patheos.

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12 responses to “Evolution and Biblical Faith: The Messiness of it all”

  1. I suppose, Deborah, that religious belief that allows one to believe in evolution is very much better than religious belief in the silly story of creation contained in the bible, but I don’t really see why one would need religious belief at all, especially a religious belief that is grounded upon a book that is nothing but a collection of myths, fables, and lies – i.e. the bible.

  2. Your article reminds me of the wonderful poem “Pied Beauty” by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

    GLORY be to God for dappled things—
    For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
    For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
    Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
    Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;

    And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

    All things counter, original, spare, strange;
    Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
    With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
    He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

    Praise him.

  3. I’ve noticed that people who give themselves descriptive names are usually inaccurate. Your post was malicious, and any sensible atheist would recognize your description of the Bible as a childish, stereotyped insult. You don’t have to believe it to be the word of God to see more in it than you do.

  4. Well excuse me uglyk2, perhaps I’ve been reading a different bible than you. The one I’ve read – many, many times – pretty much begins with the grand wizard killing nearly every man, woman, and child on the earth because they didn’t quite turn out like he wanted and then ends with most people being thrown into a lake of fire to be tortured for ever and ever for not believing in the right religion. In between there are commands from the same God to commit genocide, to kill brides who don’t bleed on their wedding night, and to kill children who disrespect their parents. I hope you understand how I could come to a different conclusion than you about the bible I’m familiar with, which couldn’t possibly be the same one you’re reading.

  5. You’re not doing atheism any favors with your stunning lack of tact. You’ve gone and poisoned the whole discussion.

  6. To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose.

    Deborah’s post was beautiful and very positive. As an atheist, I might have opinions about the relevance and accuracy of certain portions of the bible, which I gladly discuss at appropriate times and places.

    Deborah, Here and now let me say I enjoyed your post and I’m glad we share common ground about the beauty of our world and the wonders of science.

  7. There are many atheist blogs where these views are shared and openly discussed. There are many religious blogs with posts trashing atheists where pushback is fair game. To respond to gentleness and inclusiveness with blunt criticism is unnecessary and rude.

    I wouldn’t go onto a blog devoted to decadent desserts and pontificate about the evil of refined sugar, no matter how right I think I am.

  8. And if you want to sing it in worship, there’s this. Scientists should notice some resonances, including the randomness (here “chance”) of Deborah’s article.

    1. In chaos and nothingness, you of unnameable Name
    spoke into the emptiness, fanning dark energy’s flame.
    Your Spirit was hovering, racing and shaping the birth
    of galaxy clusters, of sun and the moon and the earth.

    2. Your voice pierced the darkness, your Word blazed your light on the world;
    whole continents drifted while aeons and ages unfurled;
    and coaxing the DNA helix to double and bind,
    your Spirit breathed origin to every species and kind.

    3. O Lord, where were we when you laid the foundations of earth?
    When morning stars harmonised song, when the oceans burst forth?
    When you played your dice, when you planned that through chance life evolved?
    In mere mortal span, still your mysteries remain unresolved.

    4. So where then is wisdom, and can understanding be found?
    Yet heavens are voicing your glory: in Christ is their crown.
    Invisible God, given visible image, you came,
    breathed order and life: Jesus Christ, Name above every name.

    Transcendent and immanent, God ever three, ever one:
    we praise you and worship you, Father and Spirit and Son.

    © David Lee, 2012


  9. “You’ve gone and poisoned the whole discussion.” I have, well, please forgive me for stating the obvious. I mean, we’re talking about a creation story where the almighty couldn’t get things to turn out the way he wanted – just how is that possible? – we’re talking about talking snakes, talking donkeys, virgin births of a god/’man, said god/man turning water to wine and walking on water, and folks believing that a few words from a priest can turn wine and crackers into the flesh and blood of a 2,000 years dead Jew.

  10. Every atheist site I go to welcomes harsh appraisal from believers. And really, gentleness and inclusiveness? Is that what you would call my being called malicious and childish? Maybe you should grow a thicker skin.

  11. Tact my left foot. I made a few comments about a damn book and I get you and ugluK making personal attacks on me. How about trying a little damn tack yourself?