Saturday, 2 October 2010

Does evolution disprove God? (3)

In this entry we're finally finishing our look at the relation between evolution and belief in God. In the previous entry I argued that evolution need not be a stumbling block to believing in bare bones theism. Now I'm going to see what challenges evolution poses to specifically Christian theism. Or at least, to a Christian theism that believes the Bible to be true in everything it intends to teach. (There are a number of Christians who don't feel that their Christianity hinges on the full truthfulness of the Bible. Whether or not that position is defendable is not the focus of this entry).

So what's the problem?

When we pose the question of whether evolution and the Bible can be in accordance with each other, we need to figure out what exactly it is that the Bible teaches on these sorts of matters. I'm sure many people who tout evolution as their reason for disbelieving the Bible haven't even read the alleged problem passages, let alone studied them in depth. Now there are a few passages that might be in conflict with some aspect of the evolutionary narrative, but most see Genesis chapter 1 as the real centre of importance. Give it a read before you continue.

You can probably see quite easily why people regard the text as being incompatible with evolution. It describes creation as having taken place in 6 days not millions of years. It seems to describe an instantaneous creation of life, not a gradual process, and in fact the order of creation differs from the evolutionary timeline. And how could creation be declared good when there was animal death and suffering? Tricky ...

Take a deeper look

These sorts of ojections naturally arise from a casual reading of Genesis. But sometimes what we see as the obvious reading of a text differs radically from the author's own intended meaning for the text. Remember, the meaning of a text is set by the author's intent for it at the time of writing (see here). Often our reading of the Bible is skewed when we assume that the authors thought in basically the same ways that we do as modern westerners.

So what assumptions are we bringing to the table that might not have been shared by the author of Genesis? Well, for one, that the act of creation is about material processes. Did you notice that in verse 2 the earth is described as formless and empty? Did you notice that in verses 8-10 God didn't actually create anything material? This is because the people in this time saw creation as the establishment of functions not as the process of material moulding. The creation narrative describes how the functionless, formless, empty earth becomes suited to human living by God ordering the cosmos. John Walton brilliantly demonstrates this in his book 'The Lost World of Genesis One'.

When we realise that Genesis 1 just isn't talking about material origins, we are provided with a plausible interpretation that could eliminates our issues. Genesis isn't saying that God formed the materials of the universe in only 6 days. It isn't saying that God formed the materials of living things in only 6 days. It isn't saying that God formed the materials of livings things in a specific order. It just isn't talking about material origins. With this context in mind we can reasonable argue that when God declares creation "good", he is not making a moral statement but a statement about the universe's proper functioning.

Sorted?

We're not quite there yet. After all a critic could claim that if nothing material happened in the 6 creation days, God wouldn't really have done much of anything during that time. This might be a fair point, though a lot hinges on what we perceive as being a meaningful activity which again ties into our assumptions about what a creative act is. At the very least it should be obvious that with a text that has a cultural backdrop so far removed from our own, we cannot just read it with modern western eyes and assume we've got its message right.

During this academic year I'm going to be doing some research into what Genesis and other evolution-relevant texts are saying as the fulfillment of my elective study in the Relay program I'm involved in. My aim is to find out what a Bible-believing Christian is actually committed to in terms of evolution and the age of the earth. I shall no doubt report some of my findings later in the year.

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