Creation versus Evolution: The Only Two Options...Right?
As a typical late twentieth-century American conservative evangelical, I spent many years thinking that the only proper and biblical Christian approach to biological evolution was to denounce it, despite my education in physiology (University of California, Berkeley) and medicine (University of California, Davis) and my ongoing vocation as clinician and research scientist.
In large segments of this branch of Christian tradition, the natural and supernatural explanations for life on Earth are seen at times as contradictory, rather than complementary. Thus, evolutionary science seems to threaten the doctrine of creation, and along with it, the intrinsic value of humanity and the moral fabric of society. With this framework of understanding, the credibility of creation is thought to be bolstered by undermining its powerful rival, evolution. Like any good convert, I gladly adopted the worldview of the church in which my early faith was nurtured. There I had been led to believe that
From this vantage point, evolutionary science and the Christian faith were situated at poles far apart from one another, fixed in irreconcilable opposition. To be faithful to one system of thought required the rejection of the other. There were only two options...or so I was taught.
Another Option: God Creates through Natural Mechanisms that Science is Now Discovering
In the early 90s, I branched out and began reading more widely, outside the confines of my first Christian tradition. This opened up a whole new world of thought to me. The education was invigorating and made me a better thinker and a better person. Among my discoveries was a new integration of religion and science, at least when approaching questions of cosmology (how the universe was formed) and geology (how the earth was shaped). In both of these arenas the scientific explanations of "how things worked" came to be assimilated into a larger theological construct by simply positing God as the ultimate cause. The Creator did it all. Science "merely" explained the means he brilliantly employed. Scientific advance then no longer needed to be seen by me as the enemy of faith. Rather, science could just as well be a happy collaborator with faith, uncovering the mysteries of how God had set about making "the heavens and the earth." Theology told us about the 'who' and 'why' of creation, and infused it with meaning and purpose. Science disclosed the 'how,' the marvelous mechanisms he put to good use. (Link here for more on understanding how science works).
Sure, for those who bring anti-theist presuppositions to the table, the discoveries of science can be used to explain God away. Yet those of us who see science through the lens of faith, science doesn't explain God away; it explains God's ways. Though I was comfortable fitting the latest scientific understanding of cosmology and geology into my theological worldview, I had not yet come to peace with the biological sciences. The issues there seemed more personal, and more far-reaching. Were humans really evolved from monkeys, as they say? Are we then to live like animals? And didn't Genesis say God made each "kind" separately? How could I shift from "creation versus evolution" to "creation via evolution" without compromising my faith and my values? Was my enculturation in this brand of conservative American evangelicalism too thorough? Were my biases too deep?
Then, not many years later, I chanced on a fictional book whose erudite protagonist had easily integrated these disciplines. He understood that the Creator had worked his biological wonders through evolutionary means. From this perspective, all truth was God's truth, and different aspects of truth, be they religious or scientific, didn't need to be played off against one another. The natural and supernatural could be friends, not foes.
When I first seriously entertained the option that God may have used biological evolution as his tool for fashioning the rich diversity of life on planet Earth, I found it an attractive option, and one consistent with my approach to other disciplines of science. But was it a viable option? I had strong prejudices against it. Weren't evolutionists by definition necessarily anti-God? And wasn't evolution as a science untenable? With these two questions in mind, I set out to examine afresh the theory of evolution and to grapple with the ways in which it might more constructively interface with my Christian faith. Fortunately, a large number of Christian authors have explained "creation by evolutionary means." These books were invaluable in my re-education. I've listed many of them here.
Evolutionary Science is Not Anti-God
After years of study, conversation, and conferences, what have I discovered? To my surprise (and relief!) I found that my presuppositions were neither necessary nor sensible. For starters, evolutionary science is not inherently atheistic. Rather, like all of science, including medicine, it seeks to provide natural explanations for the way things work. It is not suited to speak to supernatural causes or purposes. Separating "methodological naturalism" from "metaphysical naturalism" is vital to the development of a complementarian approach. Science has been successful precisely because it limits its horizons to the natural world and leaves the supernatural and metaphysical to other fields of inquiry.
Let's say I have recently developed severe right-sided lower abdominal pain. Would I want my physician to forego the search for a natural explanation, to attribute my appendicitis pain to "the stars," or "the gods," and to suggest as the treatment that I more faithfully comply with my horoscope or my religion? No. I'd prefer a CT scan and a surgical consultation. Some questions are better answered with the tools of science. When I realized that science and theology were approaching life from different angles and with different sets of questions, I became more comfortable letting them co-exist, and even complement, one another. Together I found they provided a more holistic understanding of the world around me. And from this holistic vantage point I could thank God for healing my appendicitis AND thank the surgeon whom God used to do it. A complete scientific explanation of the "natural mechanism" by which God healed my disease does not impede my song of thanksgiving to God. Describing the tool does not invalidate the tool-wielder. Thus, I can echo the words of the ancient Hebrew psalmist who sung:
This complementarian perspective, though commonplace in non-fundamentalist circles, was unknown to me early in my Christian experience. The only advocates of evolution to which I was exposed were those few (but vocal!) who misused it as a club to bludgeon the "ignorant" claims of religionists (see Giberson's Oracles of Science on our Scientism page). This provoked us religious extremists to react in kind, demonizing our scientific opponents and asserting that evolution was the root of all evil. But evolutionary science, I have learned, like the theories of plate tectonics and gravitation, is religiously silent, and therefore easily adaptable within different religious worldviews. As the fascinating history of the interaction between science and theology makes plain, evolution can be employed with equal deftness by atheists and theists alike (see our History page). This explains why scientists come in all religious varieties. Some are atheists, many agnostic, and a sizeable proportion are theistic. Up to forty percent of contemporary scientists, in fact, believe in a personal, prayer-answering God and even an afterlife (see Larson EJ, Witham L. Nature. 1997;386:435-6). It was refreshing to realize that Christian theology and contemporary science, even the biological sciences, were not incompatible as I had suspected.
Why the Battle Rages
There need be no battle between science and religion. Rather, the confrontation lies between some creationists who misunderstand science (as I once did) and some scientists who have made evolution into a comprehensive metaphysical 'secular religion.' Thus it is not creation and evolution that are are at odds, but their totalitarian counterparts--anti-scientific Creationism and anti-religious Evolutionism, whose fiery advocates are staunch incompatibilists. Neither can tolerate the "absurd" claims of the other, nor can they envision any sort of peaceable co-existence, much less some kind of integration. The clear lines of separation have been drawn; the impregnable defenses have been built; the battle plans are set. "The enemy must be defeated!" is the battle cry heard from both camps. No wonder that those of us in the middle--the tens of thousands of happy complementarians, considered boring by the controversy-seeking press--appear to the extremists as anomalies, wildly inconsistent and irredeemably compromised. Distinguishing science from antireligious Scientism and creation from antiscientific Creationism was a critical step in getting this former pugilist to untie his boxing gloves and step out of the ring. And now, as a recovered boxer, I wonder if I can help deliver a few bloodied bodies from further needless trauma.
You will find the irenic complementarian paradigm embraced and explained by many scientists and theologians in the pages that follow, starting with the next page, Complementary Disciplines.
Evolutionary Science is Not in Doubt
And what about the claim made by some creationists that biological evolution is "only a theory," and one in crisis at that? It didn't take much reading for me to learn that evolution is one of the most well-established and widely endorsed facts of contemporary science. And the more recent DNA evidence cinches the case.
When scientists employ the term "theory" we don't mean "hunch" or "guess." According to the National Academy of Sciences, a scientific theory is "a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses." So when scientists talk about the theory of evolution--or the atomic theory or the theory of relativity, for that matter--they are not expressing reservations about its truth. To the contrary, the multiple layers of corroborating evidence in its favor are extensive, and, for me, were compelling. Evolutionary theory is as solidly validated as germ theory, which is why both are accepted by 99% of biologists. Like me not long ago, the few (but vocal!) dissenters often have some ulterior motive for wanting to dismiss or discount the evidence. And I bet that if I still felt that evolution was inherently anti-God and nothing but an ungrounded, pseudo-scientific fabrication that was threatening to undo the moral fabric of the universe, as some aver, I'd probably also try to come up with creative ways to explain evolution away. Fortunately, I found that "evolution as a science" (as opposed to "Evolutionism") poses no threat to either my Christian faith or its moral and social outworking. Since my migration to the Complementary Model I have continued to participate in the Christian community in both church and academic settings.
Genesis and Evolution
Some think that evolutionary science is incompatible with the creation account of early Genesis. A reading of the Scripture, however, in its historical context, reveals otherwise. Our sections on Genesis 1 (starting here) will explain how God employed the ancient science-of-the-day to communicate unique theological claims.
A Growing Movement
Am I alone in this discovery? Far from it! There is a large, world-wide community of Christians in science and scientifically-minded theologians that not only explores the nexus between science and theology, but celebrates it. Even here in the United States, 25% of evangelicals accept evolutionary theory and about 50% of Christians in mainline denominations (see our page What Churches Have to Say). For them--no, now I can say, for us--evolution is not opposed to creation, but is accepted as the best current understanding of the method our endlessly resourceful Creator has chosen to fashion this good, beautiful, and amazingly integrated world. Some refer to this complementary model as "theistic" evolution. I think the qualifier is unnecessary. After all, do we need to relabel the science of cardiac medicine "theistic cardiology" whenever someone incorporates it into their theistic worldview? I don't think so (cf. Glover. Theistic Evolution. 2007.pdf). On the following pages you'll find online resources and books by various Christian authors exploring what it means for God to create through evolutionary means. And since February of 2009 I've been giving a Power Point presentation on this topic to various church groups around Northern California. Let me know if your group might be interested.
Come Explore the Nexus
It’s been an intriguing and exciting investigation for me. Much has been learned. And I know that more, far more, awaits me. The resources you'll encounter on the following pages are those that helped guide me out of the world of polarized and polemic (and often pointless) debate to a place of congenial and constructive dialogue.
Enjoy the journey!