When the “Answers in Genesis”-sponsored Creation Museum opened near Lexington, Kentucky in June 2007 amid much fanfare, protest, and even a bit of ridicule, SoMA Review editor John Spalding wrote tongue-in-cheek that he hadn’t realized—until that moment—that there were dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden. If Ken Ham and his fellow creationists are correct, he wondered, why don’t our illustrated children’s Bibles have pictures of T-rexes happily playing in Adam’s Edenic garden?<sup>1</sup> By virtue of modern photo-enhancing software, Spalding took care of this oversight by inserting a few dinosaurs into the mix.
Humorous as Spalding’s riposte might be, this event should serve as a wake-up call to the church. Poll after poll suggests that surprising numbers of Americans take the Genesis stories of creation quite literally. This creates something of a quandary, because it runs counter to the findings of mainstream science—which accepts a very different explanation of human origins—and makes Christianity look as if it has been left behind intellectually. To many Americans it would appear that we’re left with a seemingly unsatisfactory choice: God or science?
From the time of Copernicus, if not before (Augustine recognized that literal interpretations of Genesis did not fit with the science of his own day), religion and science have often been at odds. Most Americans don’t believe in a geocentric universe, despite biblical allusions to such a reality, but they seem unable to accept the idea that we share a common ancestor with primates. As presidential candidate Mike Huckabee said in a debate, “If anybody wants to believe that they are the descendants of a primate, they are certainly welcome to do it.” He made it clear he believes otherwise, and that is a widespread sentiment among many Americans, and not just among those in conservative evangelical churches.
There is a strong providentialism permeating American life, which makes Darwin’s theories problematic. If he is correct and we are the product of chance and not design, then not only must we reject literal interpretations of Genesis, but we must also watch as humanity is dethroned as the crown of God’s creation. There is no sense of providence in such an eventuality.
As we consider the implications of Darwin’s theories, the voices that yell the loudest are the most extreme. It is either the militant fundamentalist or the militant secularist—Ken Ham and Ann Coulter or Richard Hawkins and Sam Harris. These two extremes agree on one thing: that literalism is the only legitimate religious voice, which means that one must choose between God and evolution.
There is, of course, a third option, but for some reason this voice of reason has not gotten a fair hearing. That may be because moderate and progressive clergy have not done a good job at making this option available to their congregants. The reason we have failed to do so may stem from the fact that most clergy are like me and lack a significant background in the sciences. We may feel unequal to the task, but it is a task that I believe we must be willing to undertake for the good of the church.
A good starting point in this quest to forge a middle way is to recognize that religion and science are not enemies. As Krista Tippett, author of Speaking of Faith, states so perceptively, “These conversations [with scientists] teach me that the insights of science and of theology are complementary disciplines that can mutually enrich and illuminate the deepest questions and frontiers of human life and faith.”<sup>2</sup>
If we are to engage in a fruitful conversation with science, then perhaps the best place to start is with an in-depth look at the history of the creation versus evolution debates. There is no better introduction to this history than the newly revised and expanded edition of Ronald Numbers’ The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design.<sup>3</sup> With Numbers as a guide, an examination of some of the many works of Anglican cleric and physicist John Polkinghorne should prove beneficial. Polkinghorne is a physicist turned Anglican priest who has a clear grasp of both the theological and scientific issues at hand. His works are not light reading, but they are readable. With these works as our starting point, we’re ready to explore a plethora of newly published books that should prove both interesting and enlightening.
One new book explores some of the same issues that caught the attention of Americans during the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, which pitted two of the great orators of the day—Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan—against each other, creating a historical rallying point for the debate between partisans of traditional religion and the scientific establishment that has lasted to this day. Indeed, the 2005 trial challenging the Dover, Pennsylvania school board’s decision to require high school biology teachers to discuss alternatives to evolution, including the theory known as “intelligent design,” has been called Scopes II. Although this trial may have divided a local community, it proved to be a major battle in a national conflagration. This became the great test case of the legal viability of intelligent design.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Edward Humes takes up this compelling story in his recently published book Monkey Girl. Humes sympathizes with one side in the debate, but he also offers a fair and engaging look (even if, at times, a disturbing one) at the Dover trial in its historical and social context. We meet the relevant participants, both local and outsider, including the Thomas More Law Center (financed by Dominos pizza mogul Tom Monaghan); Philip Johnson, intelligent design strategist and University of California, Berkeley law professor; his allies at the Discovery Institute (the leading intelligent design think tank); and the two leading lights of the intelligent design movement, mathematician William Dembski and biologist Michael Behe. On the other side of the battle we meet up with the ACLU and such defenders of evolution as biologist Kenneth Miller of Brown University and science educator Eugenie Scott. While the trial itself asked whether and how evolution and intelligent design could be taught in public schools, the back story is one of intrigue and deception, with much of the deception coming from the side of the intelligent design backers. At least in the minds of the author and the judge in the case, it was the defenders of evolution who had the upper hand both intellectually and legally.<sup>4</sup>
Humes’ book is intriguing and, at times, fun to read, but perhaps a more important offering is a book edited by Eugenie Scott and her colleague from the National Center for Science Education, Glenn Branch. Written primarily for science educators, administrators, and school board members, Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design is Wrong for Our Schools offers six essays that argue for the exclusion of intelligent design from the nation’s public school science classrooms, among them a brief historical account by Scott of the intelligent design movement, a legal analysis of the recent court cases by Jay Wexler, and a piece written by theologian Ted Peters and Roman Catholic biologist Martinez Hewlett.<sup>5</sup> Although these essays were written with educators rather than clergy in mind, they should be read closely by clergy and then shared with anyone involved in education at any level. Especially pertinent to the faith community is the essay by Peters and Hewlett, who argue that the Christian commitment to truth requires Christians to seek out the best science, the science that offers the most fertility for scientific discovery—and, in their opinion, that is not intelligent design, which they believe should therefore be rejected. This little book is, for the religious community, a cry
If the previous two books focus on controversies involving the relationship of faith and science education, Philip Kitcher’s Living with Darwin forces us to wrestle with the challenge Charles Darwin poses to religious faith, and Christian faith in particular. Although he is, by his own admission, a secularist, Kitcher believes, unlike Dawkins and Harris, that religion does more good than harm, and thus he writes with a great degree of sympathy for religious claims. He argues quite strongly, however, that if faith is to be anything but obscurantist it will have to accommodate itself to Darwin and evolutionary theory. This is not a book without faults, but it is a book that pushes the reader to wrestle with Darwin’s legacy, a legacy that is not apt to go away any time soon—even as religion is unlikely to be done away with in the near future. But, as Peters and Hewlett suggest, if people of faith are to seek the truth wherever it leads, they must deal credibly with Darwin.
Francis Collins’ recent book The Language of God has been much in the news of late, and while I have not read this book I have read several essays by Collins, including the transcript of his Time Magazine debate with Richard Dawkins. Collins is a renowned scientist, which makes his contributions noteworthy, but in his debate with Dawkins he comes across as a theological neophyte. His science is impeccable, but his theology has the ring of Sunday school to it. That he is willing to confess his faith is wonderful, but theologically he is not ready for primetime.<sup>6</sup>
A much more satisfying attempt to wrestle with faith and science is found in a set of essays by Harvard University astronomer and historian of science Owen Gingerich. God’s Universe is less an apology for faith in the age of science than it is a humble meditation given by a leading American astronomer on the possibility that a scientist can be a person of faith and retain intellectual credibility. Like Collins and Polkinghorne, Gingerich is a theistic evolutionist who is willing to confess God as Creator of the universe. He accepts the scientific datum demonstrating that we are the product of evolution and rejects intelligent design (as defined by Philip Johnson, Michael Behe, and the Discovery Institute) as an alternative scientific explanation for human origins. This rejection of intelligent design as an ideology doesn’t rule out the possibility of what he calls “small ‘d’ design.” His is, therefore, a humbler quest, one that looks to theology rather than to scientific theory for a sense of meaning and purpose in the universe. Recognizing the differences between the two disciplines, Gingerich notes that science is geared toward finding answers to questions, while religion is comfortable with the answerless questions. Science and faith are different, but they need not be enemies, he contends.<sup>7</sup>
Bruce Sanguin is a progressive Christian preacher from British Columbia who sees himself as part of what Marcus Borg calls the “emerging paradigm.” His book Darwin, Divinity, and the Dance of the Cosmos<sup>8</sup> is an apology for an “ecological Christianity” that assumes the interconnectedness of all of creation. In his reconstruction of the Christian faith, he argues that the universe itself has a consciousness and that evolution is the primary driver of its sacred story. While many creationists oppose evolution because it allegedly dethrones humanity as the crown of God’s creation, Sanguin celebrates this possibility because it affirms humanity’s connectedness with the rest of creation and paves the way for an ecologically affirming faith. Welcoming the insights of science to the formation of Christian faith, Sanguin faults modern science for de-enchanting nature. Although he’s not a fan of intelligent design theory, he does see hints of intelligence in the created order, which leads him to the conclusion that evolution is a “divine unfolding.” For him, evolution isn’t purposeless, and it’s not the survival of the fittest, either. In fact, he speaks of the evolutionary process as the survival of the “most loving.” What evolutionary theory does is provide the foundation for an ecological Christianity that affirms the interconnectedness of the universe. Unlike Collins or even Gingerich, he’s not interested in reconciling evolution with traditional theology. Instead, he sees in evolution a revelation of a new way of being Christian. While Sanguin’s interpretation of scripture and theology stretch the limits of the Christian faith, he is to be commended for thinking through a revisionist practical theology for the church.
For some Christians the choice is stark—God or evolution. For other Christians, including those of us who
have participated these past two years
in observing Evolution Sunday
(www.evolutionsunday.org), the choice is unnecessary. The question posed by the four books under consideration is the church’s ability to reconcile itself to the scientific data. The stakes are high, for the church faces the possibility of losing the ear of those who, like me, trust the evidence of science and yet are open to the possibility of a Creating God. As both Kitcher and Sanguin remind us, a church that ultimately succeeds at this quest will be one that is open to change, and of course change is at the heart of evolutionary theory. Their solutions might not, in the end, be the correct ones, but they do offer possibilities worth exploring. There is, after all, much at stake in this discussion—whether it be solutions to global warming and stem cell research, the threat of extinction and the cure for cancer, or perhaps most important from an ecclesiological perspective, the intellectual credibility of the church. Those of us who are teachers within the Christian community need reminding that if the polls are correct, we have failed in our responsibility to faithfully teach the faith.
NOTES1. John Spalding, “Daniel in the Dino’s Den,” The Revealer (http://www.therevealer.org/archives/timely_002853.php).
2. Krista Tippett, Speaking of Faith (Viking, 2007), 75.
3. Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design, expanded edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).
4. Edward Humes, Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America’s Soul (New York: Ecco Books, 2007).
5. Eugenie C. Scott and Glenn Branch, editors, Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design is Wrong for Our Schools (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006).
6. Francis S. Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (New York: Free Press, 2006) and David Van Biema, “God vs. Science,” Time, November 5, 2006.
7. Owen Gingerich, God’s Universe (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2006).
8. Bruce Sanguin, Darwin, Divinity, and the Dance of the Cosmos: An Ecological Christianity (Kelowna, BC: Copperhouse Books, 2007).