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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Fearfully and Wonderfully Evolved

Today in Dr. McGrath's Sunday school class, we had our "evolution weekend" conversation that was postponed from last Sunday, when he was away at the Midwest SBL meeting.

Dr. McGrath emphasized that there is nothing specifically limited to evolution that singles it out for a greater degree of conflict with a literal reading of the Bible than other scientific fields. Some examples offered include:

(1) Genetics and embryology: Psalm 139:13 says that God knit the psalmist (and presumably humans in general) together in the mother's womb. Literalists ought to be up in arms about this and opposed to the contemporary scientific understanding, since it is not merely about the origin of our species but the status of each individual as a divine creation. Yet not only is there apparently no Christian antiembryological movements, but many Christians find it comforting to believe that God does not directly cause congenital birth defects.

(2) Meteorology: Leviticus 26:4 attributes the rain directly to God, and so how can meteorologists dare to attribute it to natural phenomena such as barometric pressure and who knows what else?

(3) Astronomy and Australians: We had an entertaining discussion about the plausibility of the existence of Australians. But not only does Joshua 10:12-14 suggest a different view of the solar system than that accepted today, but it seems to involve Joshua addressing the sun and moon, which is a whole other discussion. When it comes to the movement of the earth, here we do find people who reject mainstream science on the basis of an appeal to the Bible. Passages like Psalm 104:5, Psalm 93:1 and 1 Chronicles 16:30 are pretty clear.

And so, on the one hand, a genuinely and consistently literalistic approach to the Bible would put one at odds with all science and many other fields of knowledge, and not just evolution. On the other hand, the evidence for evolution is every bit as solid as for other scientific fields. That doesn't mean that our knowledge is not growing. At times new discoveries do cause us to revise or supplement our earlier thinking. But what is striking is that, while scientists love making new discoveries that show where other great minds have been wrong, propelling the discoverer/pioneer to the front cover of science magazines, we've yet to see a young-earth creationist or proponent of intelligent design accomplish that, because they are not offering research that improves our understanding, but mere empty criticism that neither correctly identifies problems with current theory or offers genuinely helpful improvements or alternatives.

We concluded with me pointing out that those who claim that science, or more specifically evolutionary biologists, reduce human beings to a mere pile of chemicals of little value, simply misunderstand the nature of scientific analysis. Genesis 2 says humans are dirt, if one wants to talk about physical make-up. Neither religion nor science claims humans are more or less valuable because of our composition. If there is anything that makes us valuable, it is the complex arrangement of the matter that makes us up, and our capacity to relate to one another and to God, to compose and appreciate works of beauty, and in other ways transcend what might be expected of the atoms that make up our physical composition.

To use another analogy, one can accurately analyse a symphony in terms of the chemical composition of the instruments or the physical vibrations in the air. Such analyses are not scientifically incorrect. They are just different perspectives, and ones that we may well deem insufficient on their own, since it is also appropriate (perhaps necessary) to do justice to our appreciation of the symphony as beautiful. The problem, in other words, is in no way with scientific analysis, but with reductionism, that is to say, the attempt to say that humans are "nothing but" the chemicals of which we are made, or a symphony is "nothing but" vibrations. But the natural sciences claim that the analysis they offer are part of the story, not that there is nothing more to be said at other levels and from other perspectives.

Next week we'll connect up the current series with our previous topic by looking at Romans 5.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Sunday School: Genesis 1:1-2:3

Today in Dr. McGrath's Sunday school class we started a series on the creation stories. Before trying to ask how the natural sciences might cause us to reflect in new and different ways about God and our place in the universe, it is usually helpful for Christians to look first at the creation stories, and consider what they do and do not tell us. Today our focus was on the story of creation in 7 days found in Genesis 1:1-2:3. Many of the subjects we touched on are ones Dr. McGrath regularly covers in his course on the Bible, such as the similarities and differences between Genesis 1 and the Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish being a key to understanding the text.

A key point Dr. McGrath made is that no one (even if they call themselves literalists) takes the dome literally. To single out evolutionary biology as though it were more at odds with Christian faith than other realms of scientific explanation is likewise unjustified. Also mentioned was the fact that the text of Genesis 1 depicts God commanding the earth to bring forth life, rather than creating in some more direct manner.

The question of authorship came up briefly. Next time we'll discuss whether there is more than one creation story in these early chapters of Genesis.