best book on evolution and faith I’ve read in years (or, constructing a cathedral in your mind)

best book on evolution and faith I’ve read in years (or, constructing a cathedral in your mind) July 27, 2015

FETEI bet you thought I was going to talk about my book The Evolution of Adam.

Fooled you.


I’ve been around this block for a few years now. Generally speaking, the debate over the compatibility of evolution and Christianity, especially among evangelicals, lacks the input of scientists who not only practice their discipline but who have thought deeply and reflectively about the theological and hermeneutical implications of what they do.

Such participants would be able to speak clearly and effectively about the theologically challenging advances of scientific knowledge as well as the inadequacy of science to act as a dominating “sacred narrative.”

In other words, what is too often lacking is a hermeneutically informed engagement of the scientific process–one that is fully aware of what it has brought to the table yet mindful of its limits.

The same sort of lack–notably among evangelicals and fundamentalists–is found on the other side of the discussion, where biblical interpretation or theological constructs are held up as the most reliable “informants” for drawing conclusions about the natural world.

In other words, hermeneutics is a big deal for the science/faith discussion, which brings me to a wonderful book I recommend very highly and that deals specifically and creatively with this hermeneutical dimension, From Evolution to Eden: Making Sense of Early Genesis by Gregory J. Laughery (director of Swiss L’Abri and author of Living Hermeneutics in Motion: An Analysis and Evaluation of Paul Ricoeur’s Contribution to Biblical Hermeneutics) and George R. Diepstra (retired biology professor at Northeastern Illinois University).

These authors have added to the conversation a stimulating, nuanced, and compelling book on the interaction between science and faith, where neither “wins” over the other, Rather both areas are seen as human hermeneutical constructs that are in dialogue with each other and that do not give the false hope of a simple solution that the more common “dominance model” promises.

The goal of the book is beautifully expressed in an opening illustration (pp. vi-viii; my formatting and emphasis).

Perhaps we can turn to the artistic world, where the meaning and mysteries of life are contemplated, explored, and expressed in an effort to illuminate complexity and uncover valid directions. The great Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi [1852-1926] captures something of the spirit of our work when he says, “Those who look for the laws of Nature as a support for their new works collaborate with the creator.”

For Gaudi, it was critically important to read (interpret) both the book of nature and the biblical text to fully appreciate life. In other words, he promoted a spirit of cooperation between God and nature. The best expression of this partnership can be found in his unfinished masterpiece, la Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona. . . .  

As we approach the cathedral, we come face to face with a breathtaking array of colossal walls, spires, windows, and sculptures that appear to spring outward and upward toward the heavens. Found in this explosion of architectural angles and designs are representative scenes from the biblical narrative, including the nativity and passion. These relief sculptures are complemented by the portals of faith, hope, and charity.

Gaudi designed the outside of the basilica as a stunning display of the unfolding drama of the biblical story, a story that brings us into contact with realms beyond the world around us, realms which evade our total and complete understanding.

Upon entering the basilica, the experience continues as we are immediately struck by the presence of great stone pillars that hauntingly ascend to a cavernous ceiling. The pillars give the sense of being surrounded by a series of massive tree trunks. Once the ceiling is reached, the effect is completed by the presence of branches that form a silhouette of leaves overhead. And then as we look beyond the stone forest, shades of color dance through the pillars.

Gaudi created this effect by strategically positioning long strips of colored glass on the walls of the cathedral, as well as placing two large stained glass rose windows on either side of the head apse. When light filters through the stained glass, colors appear to bleed from one window to the next. The visitor might feel a powerful sense of transformation as the colors run the gamut from blue to green to yellow to brown and bits of red.  This sense of change intensifies as the light in the room undergoes dramatic variations in step with the time of day and the movement of clouds.

Thus, the architecture itself reflects an assortment of changes in the natural world. Through this kind of splendor inside the basilica, glimpses of sacred space are configured in all their wonder and beauty, and the interplay between nature, perception, and thoughtful expression come to a climax.

What can we learn from Gaudi?

In a sense, the basilica symbolizes our need to construct a cathedral-like place in our thinking, where beliefs drawn from both biblical and natural sources can be in dialogue. And just as the basilica reflected changes in the outside world, so must our sacred thoughts be open to changes in our understanding of the world around us. This makes the task of constructing our own cognitive cathedral of thoughts, questions, and beliefs an ongoing affair that never comes to a complete end.

Interestingly, the basilica seems to reflect this point of view. It still stands unfinished after almost one-hundred-and-fifty years of construction. These images, and the complexity they provoke, set the stage for the work that follows.

According to the authors, when either science or some form of biblical literalism becomes the dominant “informer” in the dialogue, the result is “a false sense of invincibility that unduly hastens to close the channels of dialogue and critique” (p. 19).

In other words, “war” is not the proper metaphor for the relationship between science and faith, nor should we seek some uneasy detente where each is given its closed off pasture to roam in.

Instead, the authors envision a type of engagement where the neither “side” of the discussion is delegitimized and where neither is allowed to become the overarching sacred metanarrative. The tensions between them are too real and “at best can be minimized but not eliminated” (p. 30).

Science and faith is each a “complex communicative practice” and their distinctness reflects “the spatio-temporal context of their practicingTEA communities”; and the relationship between them is not that of  “predator-prey” but symbiosis (p. 32).

The book isn’t for beginners. You’ll find some complex sentence structure here and there, and the authors are informed by philosophical/hermeneutical voices that do not always make it into street level evangelical treatments of this issue: like Paul RicoeurIan Barbour, and Wentzel Van Huyssteen.

Still, the book is readable and worth the effort. Plus–and how I wish others would follow suit–it is only 114 pages long with a nice bibliography and index.

For my tastes, their discussion of Genesis 1-3 doesn’t touch down enough in the kinds of things that might occupy biblical scholars, but then again the authors’ intention is not to address every issue and have the final word.

They aim to create pathways and trajectories to take us far from both either/or thinking or some uneasy resolution–both of which rest on an unreflective hermeneutical foundation.


[Note: Just a reminder that my blog will be moving the soon. I will keep you all posted!]


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