Bringing the Real World to Genesis: Why Evolution is an Idea that Won’t Die—VI

In the previous articles of this sub-series I have explored biology through the eyes of science, and from this exercise it is now possible to distill several points that have important implications. First, while many Adventists express hostility to the term “evolution,” it really means nothing more than “change,” and change in and of itself is neither good nor bad—it just is. Second, I hope we have learned that the term “evolution” is an umbrella expression that covers many possible discussions, each coming with varying degrees of scientific validation that range from a more speculative analogue approach to the much more definitive quantitative methods. With this in mind, there is wisdom to be found in avoiding discussions that are marked by sweeping characterizations. Third, I have presented evidence for a natural mechanism by which biology self-modifies. This evidence includes natural selection and mutations with the resulting possibility of common descent. Finally, on the matter of “origins” there is nothing in science that diminishes a key idea that flows out of Genesis—namely that God is “creator of heaven and earth…. and all that in them is.” Irrespective of where the data eventually takes us, each of these topics offers point-in-time guidance in how we frame our position. Familiarity with this range of subject matter can assist both readers and institutions in avoiding potential landmines that in the future might otherwise come to haunt us.

The gift that science has delivered to all of us is an intimate understanding of our universe—an understanding that inspires awe. Yet as magnificently effective as science has been in elevating our knowledge of the cosmos on so many levels, it is difficult not to miss its greatest weakness, namely its inability to speak to the core issues of purpose and meaning. The grandest of mysteries in science discussed in the last article, the question of biological origins, involves the search for how inorganic matter transformed into the stuff of organic matter—matter that contains information of specified complexity. Up to this point methodological naturalism has been unable to resolve this existential puzzle, leaving a grand unknown that takes us naturally to the question of purpose. Philosopher Alan Watts speaks eloquently to the dilemma of secularism:   

By all outward appearances our life is a spark of light between one eternal darkness and another. Nor is the interval between these two nights an unclouded day, for the more we are able to feel pleasure, the more we are vulnerable to pain—and, whether in background or foreground, the pain is always with us. We have been accustomed to make this existence worthwhile by the belief that there is more than the outward appearance—that we live for a future beyond this life here. For the outward appearance does not seem to make sense. If living is to end in pain, incompleteness, and nothingness, it seems a cruel and futile experience for beings who are born to reason, hope, create, and love. Man, as a being of sense, wants his life to make sense, and he has found it hard to believe that it does so unless there is more than what he senses—unless there is an eternal order and an eternal life behind the uncertain and momentary experience of life-and-death.   [1]

Alan Watts was not intentionally attempting to advance the theological enterprise with these words, yet he powerfully articulates the reason why it is an endeavor of such significance to humans for it has the capacity to take us places that science alone is unable to go. Undoubtedly, one of the unique qualities of our contemporary age is that by drawing on theistic presuppositions, science enables us to understand more deeply the details of the Divine creative process. Science has uncovered many of the secrets of atomic structure as well as the DNA code of life, and when all of this is combined with the discovery that our universe is expanding it has afforded us a glimpse of Genesis—of “beginnings”—from a very different and highly modified perspective. For us, Genesis can be recognized as describing the birth of a dynamic cosmos, along with incomprehensible complexity. We now have some sense of the early moments of the universe we reside in, how it has evolved, and in detail that goes much further than the Genesis record as previous generations have understood it.

These insights have been rendered possible through the discovery that the natural order is governed by regularities that can be studied, analyzed and codified. What these regularities mean in practical terms is that we have a method of projecting processes now operating and can make reliable predictions about future events (the most obvious being—the sun will come up tomorrow). We also now have the capacity to trace processes back in time to learn a great deal about the past. These regularities are distilled to laws of nature, and ultimately mathematics.

So, while some believers think in terms of divine magic when reading, “God spoke and it was so,” the regularities discussed above have led others to conclude that perhaps this ancient phrasing is really the primitive version of what today we would refer to as God operating on the basis of natural law—law that can be observed by way of predictable patterns. To acknowledge this reality allows for biblical narrative to convey poetically certain things that the ancient world could describe in no other way than it did.

A while back I picked up a book entitled, Is God a Mathematician? The book does not directly answer the question represented in its title, but the author, Mario Livio, a physicist, sort of marinates in the apparent omnipresent and omnipotent powers of mathematics. He notes that in Galileo’s view, and that of many others who have come after him, mathematics seems to be the language of the universe, offering breathtaking effectiveness at describing nature—from the motion of the planets to the makeup of matter. Simply put, the universe has an astonishing amount of mathematical logic behind it.

Why should this be?

Well, for those who contemplate a Creator of the universal order, would it be unreasonable to think in terms of a Creator who operates through such laws of logic? Is it possible that the universe was initiated from the outset with the mathematical parameters built into the equation that could have generated the information rich code of life? Or was life created by more specific fiat action? These are fundamental considerations that, for believers, will ultimately intersect with interpretations of Genesis—interpretations that can influence whether data will be considered on some of these matters. In the end, it may be helpful to recognize that a variety of views on beginnings can enrich discussions, as well as be the source of sublime contemplations—contemplations that may afford a purposeful and meaningful life.

So we bring this sub-series to a close by reflecting on its main goal. That goal has been to take an honest look at evolutionary science, identifying those areas commonly regarded as part of the body of scientific knowledge, but also to identify more speculative areas of vulnerability. I hope that I have conveyed enough data that in spite of these provisional aspects, it will be evident to readers that the scientific study of evolution is not a mere baseless set of ideas cooked up by godless scientists. We can confidently assume that in time some of the more speculative aspects of current scientific thinking will require modification in certain particulars. This might well be a possible context for rehabilitating aspects of nineteenth century views regarding beginnings that currently appear to be very inadequate. In any event there is nothing wrong in maintaining optimism that in due course some of these issues can be resolved in a satisfactory way.

In closing perhaps a word is in order for those who have found this set of discussions on evolution challenging to a worldview dictated by a literal reading of Genesis. More than anything this series has been intent upon listening to the data, and underscoring the importance of humility in these matters. In the midst of conflict between traditional views of beginnings and contrary data, more than ever, this may be a time when there is a need to live with ambiguity over against dogmatism. Certainly, history has laid bare the utter impoverishment of proceeding in a manner that is poorly connected to the real world. In the end we get the reality that is—not the one we were handed by tradition, nor the one that we may wish for. Most importantly, even as we discover aspects of our universe that are different than we perhaps previously assumed, it is still possible to entertain hope in a God of love. In the final analysis that is the domain of faith—but a faith that is responsive to the data found in the real world.

Jan M. Long, J.D., M.H.A., works for the County of Riverside, California. Previous articles in Jan M. Long's curated series "Bringing the Real World to Genesis" can be found here.


Art: Josh Keyes, Descent, acrylic on panel, 2011

[1]Alan W. Watt, The Wisdom of Insecurity, Pantheon Books, (1951), p. 13.


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Sat, 10/25/2014 | Los Angeles Adventist Forum
October Adventist Forum
Ronald E. Osborn, Ph.D., A 2014-2016 Mellon Postdoctoral Fell ow in the Peace and Justice Program at Wellesley College (Boston), and a 2 015 Fullbright Scholar to Burma/Myanmar, Formerly an Adjunct Faculty Membe r in the Dept. of International Relations at USC, and in the Honors Progra m at UCLA. Topic: "Death Before the Fall?: A Conversation with Ronald Osbor n."

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