The Tortuous and Torturous Path of Evolution

HarrellWhat about death?

The next few chapters of Daniel Harrell’s book, Nature’s Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith, looks at the theological questions raised by the possibility of evolutionary creation.

Providence. He considers the question of providence and introduces some categories. There is ordinary providence (the everyday workings of the “natural” world), extraordinary providence (as when God employs the wind or the locusts), and supernatural providence (resurrection being a prime example). The latter is an out-breaking of God’s future in the present. None of these are outside of the nature of God – he is equally active and equally consistent with his nature in the natural, the extraordinary, and the supernatural.

Thinking Too Much. Evolutionary creation sees God’s action and providence in the “natural” process of evolutionary change. But, unless you don’t think to much (and Harrell admits that he thinks too much), it is not enough to simply say regarding creation that science tells us how and the Bible tells us who and why. This may be true, in fact, I am convinced that it is true, — but it is not enough. Harrell puts it like this:

The scientific evidence is too strong in evolution’s favor to reasonably deny its occurrence. You can refuse to believe it, but that still won’t make it untrue, any more that denying God exists proves that he doesn’t exist. The overwhelming evidence in favor of evolution has led plenty of Christians to suggest that the Bible tells the who and why of creation (the primal or final cause), leaving evolution to describe the how (the secondary or efficient cause). And that works as long as you don’t think about it too much. This is my problem. I think too much. Theology teaches me that the character of creation reflects the character of the Creator – God’s beauty and order and goodness and purposefulness. But as soon as you start thinking about what an evolving creation truly reveals – namely, cruelty and disorder and indifference and randomness – you can’t help but wonder about that faith and about the God to whom that faith points. (p. 46)

Evolution is both tortuous and torturous … or so it has been described.

Of course Harrell doesn’t leave us hanging here. In the next sections of Ch. 3 (What Happens When I Think Too Much) and in Ch. 4 (E-Harmony) he works through many of the issues involved in understanding an evolutionary creation. He wanders through a discussion of faith, randomness, purpose, heaven, love, and the image of God.

E-Harmony. Harrell discusses what he calls ‘E-Harmony’, the way faith and science integrate, in the context of a conversation with a friend, Dave, who is content (especially when peckish) to deny and ignore the possibility and the questions of evolutionary creation. But we need to face the facts – not ignore them or fiddle with them to match what we already believe. Here Harrell looks at interpretations and data and the power and limitations of reductionist thinking. An example he doesn’t use, but I as a chemist find useful. … One can explain in exquisite detail the properties of hydrogen and of oxygen atoms in isolation. The equations are really quite simple (if one doesn’t dig too deeply into the nucleus). But one can’t derive the properties of the water molecule simply from the isolated atoms, one must consider the influence of each on the others. Likewise one cannot derive the properties of liquid water from a single isolated molecule – one must consider how the molecules interact and the influence this interaction has on the properties of the individual molecules. The elementary equations remain simple (if unsolvable) but because of interactions the system is immensely complex. And it only gets worse. Harrell (he has a Ph.D. in developmental psychology after all … and as a pastor he works with people) looks at the complexities of nutrition and human society to explore both the power and limitations of reductionist thinking.

Interpretation. Harrell has a good introduction to the problem of interpretation. “A fruitful dialog between faith and evolution requires a particular kind of relationship between knowledge (“the way we know”) and reality (“the way things are”). (p. 62) Is objectivity a pipe dream with reality unknowable aside from one’s interpretation? … or is there a reality and objectivity (at least when averaging over a large enough group) possible?

Reality itself does not depend upon our ability to know it. While perceptual capacity and personal bias clearly are factors when it comes to making sense of reality, they are not determinants of the reality itself. God was there before anybody believed in him. Evolution occurred before Darwin boarded The Beagle and sailed to the Galapagos Islands. God is not a product of faith any more than evolution is a product of science. So to say that God and evolution are at odds is an interpretative statement, not one that the realities themselves dictate since both existed together before interpretation was possible. (p.63)

And a bit further down the page:

Reality exists independent of me. But knowledge of reality is never independent of me. We have to be honest with our own biases and proclivities. … My belief in God affects my view of nature. My beliefs about nature effect my belief in God because I believe God reveals himself in nature, and this makes evolution part of God’s revelation. Therefore to study evolution is to further understand God. And what I understand about God helps me to better understand evolution. Christian theology doesn’t have to submit to accurate scientific findings, only to account for them. Authentic faith strives to believe in what is rather in than in what we wish was. All truth is God’s truth, however you look at is and whether you like it or not.

God is infinite and independent reality. Even when we know everything we can know about him, there will still be infinitely more to know. That is what makes theology so interesting. Every time we think we have God figured out, some new experience or new realization comes along that unmasks our convictions as idols in need of breaking. (p. 63)

We want God to be simple and straightforward, our faith an acknowledgment of solving the equation – connecting the dots. But there is nothing in human experience, and nothing within Scripture, that indicates that this is reality.

Death. One of the things that evolution requires us to rethink (or at least many of us to rethink) is the role of death in God’s good creation. I’ll end this post with two brief video clips where Daniel Harrell reflects on the question of death. In this first clip he gives a perspective on death and evolution.

God does many things in ways we would not expect, and in ways we would not if we were God. After all, who really understands either crucifixion and resurrection? And yet this is, we believe, God’s method for transforming his creation and bringing the Kingdom of God, in an already/not yet paradox. For 2000 years Christians have still died.

And in this clip … Harrell elaborates a bit more on making sense of death.

If Adam had not sinned would he not still have died? In some sense at least the answer is yes. Even John Calvin (no liberal Bible denier he) thought that Adam would have moved from earthly existence to the world to come. The Garden was not the intended end for mankind.

These clips are short – no final answers, and not even Harrell’s complete thoughts on the questions. And yet they make good conversation starters to begin to think through the question.

What is the relationship between what we know and the way we know?

Is death a big problem for evolutionary creation?

Do Daniel Harrell’s thoughts on this make any headway? Where would you agree or disagree.

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