I was brought up as a creationist, believing in the literal truth of the Genesis stories, but as I developed an interest in rocks and fossils I began to realise that the biblical understanding was on the face of it incompatible with the scientific understanding. Rather than opt for one to the exclusion of the other I studied both science and scripture and came to what was for me a satisfactory resolution which respected both. This was not an adherence to creation science, but a deeper understanding of the Bible that allowed my scientific curiosity to run free of constraints
Can Christians Believe in Evolution?
Whether or not Christians believe in evolution is determined by how they understand biblical and religious truth.
Thirteen and Challenged by Genesis.
I have never met Richard Dawkins, and he is a few years older than I am. But sometime in our teens, in my case when I was thirteen, we each met the same problem. Both were raised in religious families, and we each took an interest in science. [I concede without dispute that he is vastly better at science than I am.] Soon evolution reared its head and there our paths forked apart. Dawkins, according to his own accounts, decided that evolution was a better explanation than the Bible was and so became a fervent atheist. I concluded that the Bible spoke through the medium of symbol and so realised that the message of the book of Genesis was primarily religious rather than scientific. My mother was initially concerned, but I soon showed her and Dad that evolution and faith were compatible. At theological college my belief in evolution went unchallenged by my superiors, though one fervent student told me that I was being sinful.
At the root of the argument between creationists and evolutionists in Christianity lie differing conceptions of religious truth. For strict Protestants there is one source of religious truth, the Bible. But even they are split between those who think that the Bible contains symbolic language to be interpreted and those who think that Scripture should be taken absolutely literally. The latter have a problem in that there are two varying accounts of the flood, one of which has Noah taking two of each animal [Genesis 6:19] and the other of which has him taking seven of the clean animals [Genesis 7:2] They cannot both be literally true.
Catholics believe that religious truth is derived from the Spirit of God in the Church. We access this truth through the Bible, which is a product of the Church , which under the guidance of the Spirit selected and assembled the materials containing the truth about Christ. But the Spirit's guidance is accessed through the tradition and the teaching authority of the Church. But of critical importance is the fact that what the Scholastics [Mediaeval Catholic thinkers] called natural philosophy [a combination of science and philosophy] was also a source of truth. The Catholic Church believes that Scripture has to be interpreted carefully and prayerfully, with the aid of scholars. Thus, as it accepts science as a source of truth, the Church has no problem with evolution. But the Catholic Church allows for differences of opinion on the matter, and there are those who still adhere to the Genesis stories.
Here also is where we differ from Dawkins. Richard supports the philosophy of Scientism, which sees science and maths as the only sources of truth. This philosophy derives from the now discredited philosophy of Logical Positivism. All Christians accept that there are sources of truth other than science, but the Catholic case, based on the Scholastic affirmation of the importance of linking faith and reason, is that all sources of truth must be given the respect due to them, and that includes both science and religion.
How Christians Should View Evolution.
A strange fact about evolutionary theory is that it has never and can never be fully proven, yet it is the only really credible theory to explain the development of life, it fits all the known facts and has no credible rivals. To fully prove it a scholar would have to examine every breeding event in the last few thousand million years and prove that natural selection fully explained it. This is impossible, for we can never know the past with certainty, yet it is the only theory for which we have any evidence at all. But we have to be aware that evolutionary theory is a theory of how living species change. It is not a theory of being which explains why things are as they are and how non-living things came about. Furthermore, it has never managed a coherent account of the jump from non-living beings to living ones. It certainly cannot explain the origins of the conscious mind, despite the fact that evolutionists have long tried to do so. So evolution as a theory works to explain the development of species, yet there is much that it does not explain.There is no reason for Christians to try to do more with a theory than it is capable of doing.
Furthermore, Darwin was a [very moral] agnostic and his philosophy of God was Deism at best. Deism believes that if there is a deity, He does not and cannot act within the world and that his role is setting up the machine that is the world and letting it work without interference. Indeed,any divine interference [note the loaded word] upsets the machine. Note that this theory is tied to the now obsolete mechanistic model of the world. But Christians are theists, who believe that God can and does act within his creation. This is not to say that they believe that every event in the process of evolution was divinely caused, but that they accept that God could have a role. In fact, unlike Muslims, who believe that God determine every event within the world, Christians believe that God has established a world that runs by its own laws, even though the world retains the capacity to be the theatre of divine action. So they can accept that natural selection is the law by which God chose to act.But Christians are not tied to natural selection, their world-view enables them to be open to other causes.
All Christians believe that God is the ultimate creator of the world, but some believe that since the creation He works through evolution
Thus Christians can give qualified acceptance to the theory of evolution, accepting, as I do, that it explains much, but not asking it to explain too much and being critical [where appropriate] of its philosophical foundations.
The Significance of the Theory
Let us return to Professor Dawkins and inquire what the theory of evolution means to him. It is central to his thinking about the world, the linchpin that holds his philosophy together and it is at the centre of his life project, the theory for which he gave up his teenage Christian faith. Without it his world-view crumbles. For some evolutionists evolution takes the place of God. In fact they regard it is the means by which they were finally able to push God out, so they hold to it with a kind of religious fervour. Without it,they fear, God will return. The theory has become a religious creed and Darwin is its prophet.It is worth noting that Darwin did not understand himself in these terms, but that did not prevent him from being regarded as a kind of guru by those who rely on evolution to push out God.
For Christians evolution is a theory that explains the way in which the world works, but it is not the centre of their thought. The Christian world-view does not rely on the truth of evolution, and so were the theory be disproved tomorrow Christian faith would not collapse; but were it to be conclusively proven Christianity would not be augmented.
Christians are also free of the dominance of ethical and political systems that draw their force from evolution. Predatory capitalism relied on the principle of survival of the fittest, which was derived from Darwinism via Spencer, and this reliance on the aggressive side of human nature was taken up by Naziism, which used it to underpin its theory of racial superiority and its eugenic policies. Evolutionary ethics, which attempt to justify and explain virtues in terms of their evolutionary advantage have no force in Christianity, for even though there may be some weight in some of the evolutionary ethics' explanatory power, Christians ultimately derive their ethics from God, so all other ethical theories are subordinate to the significance of the deity.
The idea of a God who works through natural causes, which are known as secondary causes [as distinct from God, the prime cause] fits well into the Christian world-view, and was a tenet of the thought of Thomas Aquinas. God works in time, so Christians believe, which is why Christ came at the appointed time and why his second coming is not yet. In John 5:17 Jesus says "My Father goes on working and so do I" [Jerusalem Bible.] This suggests that divine action does not happen in a flash, but unfolds over time. In Romans 8:22 St Paul speaks of creation groaning in birth pangs, suggesting that creation is a work in progress, which is consistent with the view that divine action works in time, a position compatible with evolution.
Evolution is not a threat to Christianity, but a concept that can be useful to Christian thinkers as they explore theological issues. Christians must not be trapped in a rigid and excessively literal interpretation of the Bible. It does no good for Christianity in the modern world.
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The problem of steps intermediate between species is a puzzle.We can find evidence of sequence,but knowing that you have found all intermediate steps is impossible. It may be that species make evolutionary process in jumps rather than in gradual change. Teilhard de Chardin spoke of the problem of identifying the original member of a species.
A British billion is a thousand million.
I found the age of the oldest rocks given as 4.5 thousand million years in a BBC video, while we say 4.5 billion. Is the thousand million for billion common in the U. K.?
As a scientist I have encountered a student with fundamentalist views who objected to what I was teaching on the age of the earth, 4.5 billion years or older. As a Catholic I have no conflict. As for evolution, this challenges fundamentalists even more than the age of the Earth, et for the same reason. The earth was not, as Genesis indicates, created in just six days, with all species of the day created at the same time. However, I am concerned that, as species evolved, there are not some remnants of creatures between the steps evolution would have taken. I am not certain species should jump from one form to another, rather evolve slowly over time.
One nice aspect of evolution is that can we ever declare a species extinct, for if it evolved once could it not do so again? There might be hope for the dinosaurs..
I need to add that evolution is not my specialty, for physics and biology are completely different fields. But I know several biologists, also Catholics, and have discussed this with them.