Out of Ur – a blog from Leadership Journal at Christianity Today – provides an opportunity to comment on areas at the intersection of “faithful ministry and popular culture”. The issue tackled just recently in a post Is Evolution a Must Win Issue? was evolution and the age of the earth (HT RE). The post builds on the recent comments by Pat Robertson regarding the age of the earth. The clip is short – and available on YouTube in a couple of different versions. One is linked below.
Now the comments by Robertson do not really address evolution per se. The issue he addresses is limited to age of the earth, and to the presence of animal life and death prior to the appearance of humans. An old earth progressive creation position is entirely compatible with Robertson’s comments. But his comments do reflect an open position that pulls away from young earth creationism. In fact, Robertson suggests that a young earth is a rather destructive and untenable position; and I agree with him here. The dinosaur fossils (the one above from Colorado not South Dakota) are real and are very old (230 million years to 65 million years old).
The Out of Ur blog goes on to pose a wider question drawing on a broader range of incidents:
Why are both Christian politicians and media figures abandoning evolution as an issue in the culture war? It may be too soon to say for certain, but perhaps losing ground both politically and culturally is causing some Christians to be more discerning about which battles are really worth fighting.
The blog then points to an article Rubio and the Age-of-Earth Question by Dr. Joshua Swamidass, a professor in the Laboratory and Genomic Medicine Division at Washington University in St. Louis, published in the Wall Street Journal. I clip a few choice bits out of Swamidass’s article – but you can read the whole at the link above.
As a Christian and career scientist, I see the episode as an opportunity for both Republicans and evangelicals to establish a more coherent policy on evolution, creation and science, for two reasons.
First, the age of the Earth and the rejection of evolution aren’t core Christian beliefs. Neither appears in the Nicene or Apostle’s Creed. Nor did Jesus teach them. Historical Christianity has not focused on how God created the universe, but on how God saves humanity through Jesus’ death and resurrection.
The second reason that Republicans, including evangelicals, need to come up with a more coherent stance regarding the “age of the Earth” question—which journalists will always be happy to ask—is that there is simply no controversy in the scientific world about the age of the Earth or evolution. Evidence points to a 4.5-billion-year-old planet.
The evidence for evolution is just as strong. …
The evolution debate is not a scientific controversy, but a theological controversy about a non-central Christian doctrine. … The “good news” is how God saves us. Not how he created us. And it is through persuasion rather than force that he brings us to knowledge of Jesus.
Frankly I don’t really care one whit if the Republicans (or the Democrats for that matter) get their act together on this issue. Nothing of importance to me is tied up with political identity – absolutely nothing. But I do care deeply about the church and the future of the church as the body of Christ. Not only is the age of the earth battle not worth fighting – it is a battle that cannot be won. Arguing for a young earth is as ineffective as arguing that F≠ma, that energy is not conserved, or that a ball thrown into the air will not fall along an easily calculated path.
Some of the evolution questions are slightly more complicated. Even here it is clear that the data supports evolution, but it is also clear that some scientists push the data into a realm of philosophical materialism or ontological naturalism unwarranted by the data alone. In a book I have begun reading, and will probably post on sometime soon, Evolution and Belief, Confessions of a Religious Paleontologist, Robert Asher notes that “the line between methodological and philosophical naturalism can be subtle and is frequently crossed, often by those who conflate agency and cause.” (p. 17) We can reject philosophical naturalism without rejecting the demonstrable conclusions of mainstream science. There are strands here that we need to pull apart and examine.
It is also clear that the theological questions surrounding the nature of mankind and the origin of sin will require a great deal of time and effort to think through the possibilities and their ramifications. This is an activity that the church must take seriously. But it is not a scientific question – all science can do is provide some information concerning the viability of some possibilities given the nature of the world God has created.
We will certainly come back to these issues soon. But for today we can look at a “simple” (ha!) question.
What are the must win issues and why?
Is “evolution” (i.e. refuting evolution) a must win issue?
By the way – I don’t think proving evolution is a “must win” issue. I think we have to go with the data. To date the data is overwhelmingly in support of an old earth, progressive development of life, and of many of the mechanisms used to describe the material path of evolution. Our understanding of the evolutionary process itself continues to evolve. But I do think the question is a scientific question, not a theological question. And as such it is important (even, perhaps, a “must win” issue) for the church to focus on the right questions and the right battles.
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net