A CENTURY ago, Friedrich Nietzsche authoritatively proclaimed that God was dead. In a way, he was right; theism had finally been dethroned as the metaphysical foundation of Western society. But his bold obituary didn’t dance over the body as much as it urgently searched for a replacement. All men need a horizon, Nietzsche said, and God gave us one. Now that he’s gone, we had better find a new horizon, and quickly. Yet what is this new horizon? Is God still around, or did we really kill him?
Modernity’s answers have revolved around one man’s gargantuan contribution to modern science. Whether you see him as messiah or pariah, Charles Darwin is indisputably the most important scientist of the last 200 years, if only because he forged the sword that slew God himself. Darwinism gave secularists a castle to defend, and by consequence, a castle for theists to attack. Yet by the mid-20th century, it was painfully clear that the walls of Jericho had yet to fall, despite multiple uncoordinated assaults by William Jennings Bryan and other proto-fundamentalists. Secular, naturalistic humanism had become dominant in academia, and its metaphysical conclusions were seeping into the rest of Western society.
Since then, both trenches have solidified their “either-or” mentality at the foundation of their belief. The creationist side portends that evolution is a straw castle sustained by a massive secular humanist propaganda effort, and has no real scientific proof behind it. (The emphatic phrase “no scientific evidence” is thrown around in these circles with astonishing recklessness.) Creationists remain divided over which creation theory to defend (young-earth? old-earth? day age?), but they are united in the belief that evolution is secularism’s one ring of power, and if it is destroyed all the philosophical fortresses built by evolution will crumble.
In the other trench, secular humanists are all too happy to perpetuate the divide between faith and science, because it confirms their own conviction that the two have nothing to do with each other. As the suspiciously vitriolic Encyclopedia Britannica puts it: “Darwin did two things; he showed that evolution was in fact contradicting the scriptural legends of creation and that its cause, natural selection, was automatic, with no room for divine guidance or design.” Militant secularist writers like Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens have wielded Darwinism like a battle-axe, smashing through any faith in a power greater than chance and chemicals. In 1989, Dawkins wrote that anyone who disbelieves evolution is “ignorant, stupid or insane.”
Nobody likes to be called an idiot, but some Christians have taken the low road by name-calling back. John Morris and other creationists wildly blame evolution for “fascism, racism, Marxism, Social Darwinism, and Imperialism.” To believe in evolution is to essentially condose these monstrosities. What Morris doesn’t seem to realize is that the dogma preached by the high priests of secular humanism has little to do with the science they employ. Darwin never explained the origin of life, the beginning of the universe, the creation of matter, the moral law, or anything outside the realm of science. Modern secular humanism is a metaphysical interpretation based on Darwin’s theory, not an essential part of Darwinism. Evolution proves nothing about the existence (or non-existence) of God.
That creationists attack the science more fervently than the dogma is baffling. To borrow an analogy from Howard Van Till, a theistic evolutionist: when Copernicus suggested the earth revolved around the sun, pagan sun worship made a brief comeback in Europe. The religious establishment took this as further license to demonize the heliocentric theory, and support the silly, unscientific, and unbiblical idea that the earth is the center of the universe. But the real target should never have been heliocentrism, but instead heliotheism. By confusing these two, the church did great damage to Christianity’s reputation. I fear we are making the same mistake with evolution.
The persistence of what Van Till calls “episodic creationism”—any belief that creation occurred in seven actual “episodes”—threatens to further widen the gap between science and the Christian faith. Episodic creationism assumes that whatever interpretation of Genesis 1 makes most sense to modern readers is the right one. When scripture speaks of days, mornings, and evenings, it must mean days and weeks in the same way we experience them. It simplistically assumes God always creates as we do—paints a while, and stands back to look. By insisting on literal episodes of ex nihilo creation, it discounts the overwhelming scientific evidence that nature does most of the creating on its own.
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Along with a growing number in Christendom and beyond, I find the hubris behind such literal readings of Genesis frustrating. On what grounds have we decided that God only works in ways we understand? Where in the Bible does God claim to only speak in words we can comprehend scientifically? Genesis 1, according to many Old Testament scholars, was written as a response to contemporary creation myths full of weak and capricious deities. Amidst that tumult, the Genesis creation account affirmed that God is always in control and what he created is good. If that’s the case—and it seems very likely—we should proceed with extreme caution when trying to understand science through the writings of an ancient culture that looked at life poetically, not scientifically.
The irony of episodic creationism is painfully obvious. In order to combat a worldview that puts God into a box, it simply manufactures its own box in which to stow him—a box that feels more right to us, according to the way we see the world. Even more ironically, episodic creationism plays right into secularists’ hands by describing a creative process where God and science are only united when God is giving nature another shove in the right direction. This loose bond between the divine and the natural is exactly the kind of theology secularists love, because a distant God is an irrelevant God.
Modern creationists make the same charges against theistic evolution. Alvin Plantinga, a leading champion of creationism, writes: “[Theistic evolution] is a semideistic view of God and his workings: he starts everything off and sits back to watch it develop.” But again, this assumes the truth of a theology where God only creates through episodic acts. If you adjust the theological lens the picture changes. For instance, it’s been two thousand years since the last universally accepted miraculous act of God, but no Christian thinks that God has been taking a vacation since then. We understand divine presence and care over creation as an omnipresent phenomenon, even though God rarely shows up in scientifically measurable ways. It makes little sense to call theistic evolution “Deistic” simply because we can’t measure the precise size of God’s footprint on the creation process.
Theistic evolution describes a God who created a universe with a “robust foundational economy,” to borrow again from Van Till. God poured his creative energy and his love into creation, forming a universe so good and so gifted that it had the ability to grow, develop, and improve without his constant correction. And where was God during the millions of years before Adam? He was there the whole time, involved in a wonderful, incomprehensible dance with his creation; sustaining and growing it until it was for him to imbue man with his nature.
The greatest irony of the evolution debate is that the sword that killed God should have been a death blow to secularism instead. Evolution shows our creator to be majestic, purposeful, and ingenious beyond any of our imaginations. By rejecting evolution, Christians jettison their best opportunity to unite faith and reason. For those who wish to restore Christianity’s place in the public square, no task should be more important. As 19th century theologian Benjamin Warfield put it: “Let us, then, cultivate an attitude of courage as over against the investigations of the day … None should be more quick to discern truth, more hospitable to receive it, more loyal to follow it, whithersoever it leads.”
A version of this article originally appeared in The Gadfly, an independent magazine of politics, philosophy, and economics at The King’s College in New York .
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