Today’s post is for the deeper thinkers among you, particularly those of a religious (Christian) persuasion, which I know are quite a few. I chose the title ‘Worlds Apart’ because it’s a reflection of what’s been going on in my mind for many years, bringing together convictions from Christianity and ‘Science’ that I’ve left separate for a long time. I obviously don’t believe science and faith are mutually exclusive, but some central beliefs amongst the scientifically minded have become so strongly associated with atheism/agnosticism that it is a form of reconciliation, bringing these ideas together. It has been for me, at least.
Mainly, I want to talk about the age of the earth, evolution, and, consequently, my take on interpretation of the Bible. I was going to put some pictures in here to break up all the text, but that’s just too much work! So, straight back to words we go:
As most of you know by now, I go through phases of interest in scientific/theological issues. Sometimes life is busy enough that I really don’t care whether God made the Earth in 6 days or billions of years; other times, I feel like this is an essential component of my faith (not to mention work) that I ought to get sorted. I think, for the first time in a long time – perhaps since I began studying Geology in 2003 – I’ve reached a point where it is has become more or less sorted, and that is a relief.
I recently read two books dealing with ‘Creationist issues’, but from opposite points of view. One, called ‘Dismantling the Big Bang Theory’, was clearly written from the point of view that the Bible contains a literal, 6-day description of how the universe and everything in it was made. The other book, called ‘Creation or Evolution: Do we have to choose?‘, was a much more interesting read for me, and provided the inspiration for writing this post. I’m not going to give a review of any kind for either book, I just wanted to point them out and then launch into a summary of my current thoughts and beliefs regarding these issues.
Let’s start with the age of the Earth. When I first began studying geology at Acadia, I was fresh out of high school and had never really engaged in any discussions about earth history/evolution, since my friends and I weren’t particularly into biology or geology. I arrived at uni thinking that there was no good reason to believe the earth was as old as people said it was, and that the Bible might as well be taken literally, since we could never really know. My experience at uni taught me that a whole lot of things make sense in a context of billions of years, and the evidence for this kind of time frame is very compelling. There are still bits and pieces that are difficult to resolve, and young earth creationists cling to these (in a way that strikes me as rather desperate), but overall the evidence vastly points towards a very, very ancient earth/universe, and I don’t think this perception is ever going to change. I don’t have time (or the desire) to elaborate on the supporting arguments without making this post horrendously long, but for the purpose of this post (it’s really a confession, in a way!) it will suffice to say that I’m convinced that the earth really is much older than 6000 years. If this is not the case, I think God has allowed nature to produce a very deceptive set of circumstances, which would not be in his character.
Evolution I found harder to swallow, at least on the species to species scale (sometimes referred to as macroevolution). I guess when it came down to it, the idea made me uncomfortable. But once again, there truly is overwhelming evidence pointing towards common ancestry (inheritance of genetic information) between us and, well, most of everything. The ‘Creation vs Evolution’ book I mentioned above provides lots of great examples, and is written from a Christian perspective. Most of the counter arguments, such as irreducible complexity, are misguided in my opinion, as the rate of evolution is so slow – and the functionality of proteins so flexible – that this is not really an issue. Inability to reproduce with mutated offspring (as in, “If the parents gave birth to a mutant child that was suddenly a new species, how could it every find a compatible mate?” isn’t an issue at all, since the species-to-species transition would have been so much more gradational than proponents of this mentality imagine. I think the biggest obstacle I faced when it came to accepting evolution was my own lack of imagination (and just plain ignorance), coupled with my desire for it not to be true (i.e. denial). Just because I can’t conceive of something I’ve never seen before doesn’t mean it hasn’t existed, because certainly unique creatures we’d never conceived of before have been found numerous times in the fossil record. In short, once again, I think in order to be intellectually honest with myself, I have to concede that evolution was/is reality; in so many instances it provides the most sensible context for what we observe in nature, and to date it does not have any solid (scientific) refutation.
Without having to go back too far in time, let’s just consider Australian flora and fauna; they’re so radically different from elsewhere, which I’ve only come to appreciate since moving here. The trees look, smell, and grow so differently from in North America. The animals are almost entirely different, like they’re from another world: we’ve got all kinds of things with pouches (kangaroos, koalas, wombats and tazzy devils), heaps of venomous monsters, and other things that are just so weird. Could the complete divergence of all these plant and animal species have occurred within the last 6000 years (or even less, considering post-Flood time)? Honestly, I don’t think so. And if it did, macroevolution would have had to occur at a much faster rate than that postulated by naturalists (i.e. agnostics/atheists). Could God have simply placed all these unique animals and plants in this region from the beginning? I guess he could have, but why would he do that?? Could they simply have been the only ones who migrated here following a global flood? Possibly, if you have a great imagination… but when it comes down to it, there’s no good reason to believe either of these scenarios, and surely God would have foreseen that having things turn out this way (intentionally or incidentally) would only serve to help deceive people into believing in evolution (were it false). Anyway, that’s just one simple example to consider.
Does all this make God unnecessary? Not necessarily. I think there’s still something to the fact that nature ‘appears’ to have a purpose and a design. Our existence alone points to the will/action of something. The physical process of evolution doesn’t preclude God’s involvement in initiating, upholding, or whatever it is he did in the beginning and does “in the background” now. The way I see it, we are studying his world, the work of his hands, and whatever can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt is likely true, and therefore a reflection of his characteristics. Evolution is incredibly cool, and that’s what made it most difficult for me when I encountered it in first year uni. I thought it was going to be easy to discard, but once I began to understand it, I didn’t want to discard it; it’s so clever and elegant, and effective, and truly beautiful.
But does all this mean that I believe death existed before the fall?
Well yes… but let’s face it, if God made this world, death is here now, and as such he is already responsible for it. He would have foreseen the coming of physical death when he created it, either as a result of sin or as a part of the process of life, and he chose to create in spite of it. In that sense, death is a part of the created order, no matter which way you look at it. I don’t see God as being any better for stalling the entrance of death into his creation until the moment of the fall.
I guess that brings us to more Biblical interpretation. What about Adam and Eve, and Noah’s flood, and all the stories (particularly) in Genesis 1-12? Well, it’s hard for me to admit this (because I don’t know how my friends and others who respect my opinion will take it), but I’d have to say I think they’re mainly allegorical, kind of like Jesus’ parables. I’ve read these chapters so many times over the last few years, and they’re just weird. The stories are presented strangely, and they just don’t strike me as historical transcripts. Was eating fruit really all it took to attain the knowledge of good and evil? And a snake had to tell people about that? I think they are probably stories that were invented (or perhaps modified) to convey messages, understand origins, establish connections with God, describe his characteristics, etc.
All of this is what I find easiest to believe, all things considered. This raises questions regarding redemption (Jesus’ role, pretty pivotal to Christianity), authority of scripture, drawing limits (“when do I interpret literally and when figuratively?”), etc. I certainly don’t have answers to all the issues, but nobody does. Most young earth creationists would likely argue that I’m putting “science” above God’s word, but that’s not how I see it, because I understand that there are different motives behind the writing of each. I hope I’m right, but God will be my judge in the end. The way I see it, I’m acknowledging truth wherever it is found, with the understanding that all truth must be compatible with God.
I’m not willing to abandon belief in God. I think Christian community is the best there is in the world. In the Newfrontiers churches I’ve been involved with, I’ve found people who are genuinely trying to work it all out, openly and in spite of their doubts and flaws. I’ve always prayed, always relied on God through hard times and thanked him for good ones. I believe he’s directed my steps through life and I trust him to continue doing so. I like to pray. I believe God is fundamentally good, in spite of my inability to understand all the decisions he’s made (or that he’s allowed to be made). I trust his authority, although sometimes tenuously.
All the young earth creationist literature I’ve read leaves me unimpressed, like the author is pointing at blemishes on the surface of a generally beautiful and complete picture. The evidence is vastly in favour of an old earth and in the gradual evolution of life upon it; if it wasn’t, there wouldn’t be so many people embracing it! I say we redeem these findings as God’s own tools and methods, since they are a part of his creation (what isn’t?). All scientific discovery that is (reasonably) irrefutable should be incorporated gladly into our understanding of God’s works, since surely there will be nothing that truly contradicts him. If some individuals have chosen to harness evolution in support of their faith (or lack thereof), that doesn’t mean they have exclusive rights to it. People are always anxious to say, “hey, this could support what I already believe if I just present it this way!” (Christians do it all the time, too).
The founders of evolution and other “old earth” theories did not set out to undermine religion in some kind of vast, sinister conspiracy. They meticulously compiled data and used their God-given reasoning ability to try and understand the physical origins of life and Earth as we know it. They’ve had to be creative and exercise interpretive skills at times, but only to the extent that most of us can agree with them. When the evidence is as strong as it is for evolution and an old earth, enough to result in nearly universal agreement among experts across many disciplines, it must be acknowledged that some authority is warranted.
Anyway, now you know a bit more about what goes on in my head. It’s a relief to share this, and I welcome anyone else’s thoughts on the matter. I don’t welcome pointless, unsupported tirades about whether religion is true or false or whatever, but I would like to hear a bit about others’ personal experiences working through this stuff. Have you wrestled with these issues? Are you still?
I hope my honesty doesn’t compromise any position I hold in your hearts, or in any church setting – let the discussion begin!