The Pokey Finger of God

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Evolution and Faith

August 25th, 2011 · No Comments · christianity, culture, media

Normally, this is a topic I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. I also don’t get into arguments with people who claim the world is flat, doomed to end, or cursed by demons. It’s simply not worth the bother: folks don’t come to these conclusions through logic, so logic isn’t going to dislodge them.

Evolution, like gravity or sunshine, seems to be one of those that is obvious once described and appears to impact every living thing we see on the planet. Only a great fool would deny the facts of evolution: so why are there so many people so hot to deny the reality of evolution?

Helpfully, Paula Kirby succinctly explains who is most upset by evolution, and why it upsets them. The whole piece is really good: I highly recommend it to anyone on either side of the argument. In it, she writes:

Evolution is blind, and brutal, and callous. It is not an aspiration or a blueprint to live up to (we have to create those for ourselves): it is simply what happens, the blind, inexorable forces of nature at work. An omnipotent deity who chose evolution by natural selection as the means by which to bring about the array of living creatures that populate the Earth today would be many things – but loving would not be one of them. Nor perfect. Nor compassionate. Nor merciful.

Having been raised in a liberal, Anglican environment, I heard many men and women of unquestionable and civic service who clearly articulated their belief that evolution had no impact on their faith in God, the , or the Church. I have since read many articles and books by folks who easily accept the obvious truth of evolution without the slightest drag or drain upon their faith. However, Kirby writes: “to attempt to co-opt evolution as part of a divine plan simply does not work, and suggests a highly superficial understanding of the subject.”

But this is only really true for someone who takes the Bible literally, who is unable to view the creation stories as metaphor or myth. As Kirby points out:

Evolution could not have produced a single mother and father of all future humans, so there was no Adam and no Eve. No Adam and Eve: no fall. No fall: no need for redemption. No need for redemption: no need for a redeemer. No need for a redeemer: no need for the crucifixion or the resurrection, and no need to believe in that redeemer in order to gain eternal life. And not the slightest reason to believe in eternal life in the first place.

In short, evolution is a threat to Christians who feel that it invalidates their faith. Either it describes a God unfamiliar to them — if not diametrically opposed to the one their Church teaches — or it obliterates the fundamental purpose of their faith.

Kirby’s first point, that evolution couldn’t be the tool of a loving, compassionate God, is easily disposed of through a simple theological observation. The Christian God is supposedly beyond knowledge and comprehension, so just how could we know that using evolution isn’t an act of compassion and love? Isn’t it unreasonable to expect that what we might view as cruelty and capriciousness is seen through a similar perspective by a God that sees all, and knows all.

One could even make the point that the God of the Old Testament is hardly a paragon of kindness or charity. From the destruction of the world in a flood, to tricking the Jews into slavery in Egypt or later wandering in the desert for forty years, or the near indiscriminate killing of Egyptians and Canaanites, the God of the Old Testament was a cruel, harsh master and a deadly foe. It’s not difficult to make the leap that evolution — cruel, brutal, and callous — was one of His master plans.

Redemption has problems of surprising antiquity. St. Augustine of Hippo devised the concept of Original Sin requiring redemption as a reaction to Pelagian , which held that people are inherently good, and fully capable of leading moral, productive lives outside of the Church. Conversely, Augustine insisted that people are inherently evil and incapable of self-guidance without the rites and leadership of the Church, and this was all due to the sin of Adam and Eve. This argument was never fully settled, and still comes up to this day. The need for, even the relevance of, the redemption provided through the sacrifice of the Christ, is different depending on which kind of Christianity one follows and how literally true one expects the Bible to be.

Again, if the literal truth of the Bible is insisted upon, evolution is a great wrecking ball set upon one’s faith. Kirby’s essay does an outstanding job of indicating this source of fear and distaste for evolution among American evangelicals, but it does a disservice to the greater majority of Christians who have no such problem, dismissing them as unwilling or unable to peer deeply into evolutionary theory. For those with a more nuanced view of the Bible — one that allows for poetry and mythology to occupy those pages — evolution never comes near to the fundamental or beliefs.

It is not evolution, but the theology and beliefs of a small minority of Christians under the rubric of very recently established denominations, that have a problem. Evolution is a fact, endlessly and effortlessly observed. Christianity, in general, is under no attack or even the slightest discomfort due to the scientific study of biological processes. Many Christians can, have, and will continue to be true and faithful to their traditions while accepting evolution, because it simply never intersects theology. Such Christians are neither misinformed or shallow in their thinking — neither are they looking for reasons to be upset.

On the other hand, there is a rather generous history of philosophers, theologians, and teachers who have repeatedly pointed out that the truth of the Bible is metaphorical, mythic, and poetic — who have stressed that not only is the Bible not literally true, but that grave danger comes to those who would attempt to interpret is as such. The Catholics, especially, are happy to report that it is the teachings and traditions of the Church that are the core of their beliefs. For those whose version of Christianity has abandoned the traditions and teachings of the Catholic church, who have dismissed the Apostolic tradition and set aside the art and beauty the Catholics preserved, only the Bible remains. In order for the authority of the Bible to trump the authority of Church leadership, this Bible must contain only the unquestionably literal truth.

I have a different, if harsher, explanation for why evolution threatens some Christians. Such folks hold such a vague and shallow faith that they are perpetually in danger of having their whole world view shattered by inconvenient facts. Consequently, they tend to be irrational and reactionary simply to keep their tissue-thin theology from completely disintegrating.

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