I had the privilege last week of attending the first public conference held by BioLogos. This was in Grand Rapids and featured a number of fascinating speakers – Scot McKnight, John Walton, Ard Louis, Ted Davis, Len Vander Zee … a New Testament scholar, an Old Testament scholar, a scientist, a historian of science, and a pastor … and there were more perspectives as well. Many of the plenary lectures (audio and video) and contributed talks (audio only) will be available on the BioLogos website. I will point out some of my favorites when these come online.
At this conference I picked up a new book Laying Down Arms to Heal the Creation-Evolution Divide and had the opportunity to meet (all too briefly) the author, Gary N. Fugle of Butte College in Oroville, near Chico California. Gary was a Biology Professor (now retired) at Butte College and is a Christian who, as he says in his introduction (p. 5), has immersed himself in studying the Bible, has lead home fellowships and Bible studies, and regularly leads worship services at his church as a speaker and musician. He has been involved over the years in SBC and nondenominational congregations and for many years now in a PCA congregation.
Gary Fugle’s book is a call for Christians to lay down arms and think about the creation-evolution questions carefully and reasonably. He classifies his position as evolutionary creation. As a biologist (Ph.D. from UC Santa Barbara) he finds the evidence for biological evolution overwhelming. As a Christian he has found himself (as have so many of us) on the front lines of a cultural battle. His book works through what he sees as some of the most significant issues in six sections:
- The Journey
- Why Should You Care?
- What Are We Talking About?
II. Real Issues for Christians
- What Can the Natural World Tell Us?
- God Wouldn’t Do It That Way
- Foundational Views in Christian Faith
III. The Collision of Ideas
- The Face of Science
- It’s Only a Theory
- Design in Nature
- The Pursuit of God and Science
IV. The Value of Biological Evolution
- Living Architecture
- The Fossil Narrative, Gaps, and Hard Work
- Where on Earth
- The New Frontier
- How Did That Happen?
V. Reading the Bible With Evolution in Mind
- Reconciling Scripture and Evolutionary Theory
- Creation over Six Days
- Adam, Eve, and Original Sin
- The Biblical Flood
VI. Maintaining Perspective
- Christian Faith and Science
Over the course of the next few months I intend to post on each of these sections, starting today with the introduction.
Gary begins his book with a little of his own story. Although his mother attended church, he began, even in elementary school, staying at home with his father instead. Church simply wasn’t all that exciting. In college biology fascinated him and he “found particular satisfaction in the evolutionary concepts that pervaded many of my classes as I saw they had the power to explain so much about the complexities of nature.” (p. 4) But in graduate school his worldview began to change through a general dissatisfaction with a purely mechanical viewpoint.
My idealistic sense of our capacity to know and understand was slowly deflated by my observation of an all-too-frail and fallible (read human) nature found in even the greatest minds within my discipline. I became increasingly disenchanted with my mechanistic view of life and its inability to encompass all that I had experienced. My heart softened to a larger realm of possibilities. In my early years of college I was far from neutral toward Christians; I rejected them as weak, anti-intellectuals who stood in direct opposition to my way of thought. But when the timing was right, the message of Jesus and a God that is bigger than all I know and understand became oddly appealing. (p. 4)
This testimony is far from unusual. My background is different than Gary’s, and my story took a few different turns, but ultimately I did not and could not walk away from the faith of my youth because the “nothing buttery” of a naturalist, mechanical view of life is deeply unsatisfactory. It doesn’t seem to mesh with the evidence. Gary talks (p. 18) about the transcendent experience of sitting by a mountain lake on a windless morning. The same experience can come on a lake in the far-from-mountainous Cuyuna iron ranges in Minnesota. (The pictures above are the windless lake. The churned water is not polluted – but the color of the iron range.) Now this experience of transcendence doesn’t lead inevitably to Christian faith, but it does open the door. It also means that Christians who hold vocally and polemically to an anti-evolution, and especially to a young earth, perspective are slamming shut a door for reaching people in our culture.
People are often surprised at how few Americans actually take a fully atheistic view. The truth is that the vast majority of individuals seek out spiritual realities and that many religious perspectives can be compatible with evolutionary theory. Most students and scientists with whom I have spoken are very aware of the association of young-earth creationism with the Christian faith and they will flatly reject Christianity on this basis. On the other hand, many find an appeal in the approach offered in this book that communicates the joys of Christianity while also allowing an open-minded view of evolutionary processes. (p. 11)
This is, in Gary Fugle’s view and in mine, an evangelistic mission.
Defining Terms. The definition of terms is incredibly important. Too often we talk past each other because we think we know what the other means by key terms. Creationist and evolutionist are such terms. The third chapter of this book, What Are We Talking About?, focuses on the definition of terms. Fugle starts by defining creationist:
A creationist is someone who believes God is the sovereign Creator of the universe. (p. 23)
By this definition all Christians are creationists – an important point to remember. Now Fugle realizes that this isn’t the common definition at work in our world and won’t use the word creationist in this sense in the book. But it would help the discussion if we all get this straight. All Christians believe in an intelligent designer God who created the world and all that is in it.
Fugle introduces the term spontaneous creation to refer to both Young Earth Creation (YEC) and Old Earth (progressive) Creation (OEC) views.
The defining feature of these views is the belief that God instantly created life forms and/or complex structures from within his unique character and attributes (i.e. “spontaneously” = arising from internal forces or causes – Webster’s Dictionary). Although spontaneous creationists vary in their understanding of the earth’s are and how much evolutionary change may have occurred, they are united by a belief that the history of life on earth involved significant independent origins of biological form by God’s direct and instantaneous involvement outside of normal biological processes. (p. 25)
This is contrasted with evolutionary creation – “any view that suggests that God utilized the modifying and molding processes of evolution over the very long periods of time to create the vast diversity of life on earth.” (p. 25) This will range from an almost deistic view that God started the process to a much more active view of God at work in the evolution of the diversity of life. But those holding this view tend to agree that the work of God in evolutionary creation is not directly detectable in scientific investigation.
On the scientific side there is mechanistic or naturalistic evolution where natural processes alone are thought to be at work in the world. There is nothing but that which can be investigated scientifically. This is contrasted with theistic evolution where the science is the same, but in place of the philosophical commitment to naturalism we have a theological and philosophical commitment to the reality of God as Creator in some fashion. (Of course there could be other possibilities of spiritualistic evolution in other religious traditions, but here we are concerned with Christian belief.)
Theistic evolution and evolutionary creation are, for all intents and purposes, the same. Evolutionary creation emphasis the united view (with spontaneous creationists) that God is the creator. Theistic evolution emphasizes the scientific consensus that evolution accounts for the diversity of life. Thus there are three major views: Spontaneous creation (both YEC and OEC), Evolutionary Creation/Theistic Evolution, and Materialistic Evolution/ Philosophical Naturalism/ Materialism. All of these views can be nuanced and further divided, but most people fall into one of the three categories.
Fugle also points out that it is important to distinguish between the robust debate surrounding the mechanisms of evolution and the “fact” of evolution found in many related lines of evidence (fossil record, genetic, embryonic). It is also important to separate the questions surrounding the origin of life from the evolution of the diversity of life once the first single cellular organisms are formed. Lack of knowledge about the origin of life does not undermine the strength of the evolutionary evidence for subsequent formation of the diversity of life we see around us.
Does Fugle’s distinction between spontaneous creation and evolutionary creation make sense? Is this the major divide?
What role does the sense of wonder and dissatisfaction with a strictly material view of the world play in the acceptance of the Christian message?
Is this an evangelistic issue?
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net