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Evolution and Human Beings—Summer Reading Group IX

What surprised me  most about working with professional scientists is how comfortable they were with saying, “I don’t know.”   In my first few months of research, I kept asking my mentor, “Is my model correct?” and he kept telling me he did not know – I should fit it to the data, make a prediction, and test it.  At the time, I found his answer incredibly unsatisfying, and thought that at some future time I could make enough predictions to declare the model “true.”  It was only later that I realized that he was telling me that we never could know if it was “right,” only if it was better or worse at explaining experimental results. 

Giberson and Collins do not claim to have the “right” or final answers to the questions posed in  “Evolution and Human Beings”: If humans evolved, can we still be created in the image of God?  Does life have meaning and purpose?  Can this be reconciled with the story presented in Genesis?  They state, “We make no claim that the description provided here is how God created us.  Neither science nor the Bible answers that question. . . .  Our point is that the Genesis account does not tell us how God created—only that God did create and that human beings are part of God’s plan and not an accident” [italics supplied].  However, “because the Genesis account leaves the ‘how’ question unanswered, there is room for scientific insights into how God created.”

The authors wrestle with the question, “Can we be both the product of evolution and ‘created in the image of God’?”  Rather than viewing humanity as “glorious accident,” they present a range of possibilities by which God might have guided evolution, from influencing the “random” quantum events that resulted in mutations to biasing the entire system to converge on creatures very much like us.  Compared with the traditional creation narrative, they ask, could it not be equally special—and perhaps more extraordinary—that God could set into motion a chain of events, beginning with the Big Bang, that could result without obvious further intervention in human beings?  

The authors then examine the story of Adam and Eve and how it might “fit into an evolutionary history where earth is billions of years old and humans originated hundreds of thousands of years ago in Africa.”  Unsurprisingly, they find many textual and scientific problems with a literalist reading of Genesis.  Textual problems they cite range from the differing chronologies of creation in Genesis 1 and 2 to the question of where Cain’s wife came from—was she his sister, despite later commands against incest?  Furthermore, genetic evidence suggests that rather than being descended from two people, humans descended from a population of several thousand, with a total population much larger than the Biblical account implies.  For these reasons, they find a literalist interpretation of Genesis implausible, and suggest some non-literal alternatives that could harmonize with the current scientific findings: the ‘Everyman reading’ where the fall represents “every human’s individual rejection of God”; the idea that the story of Fall was written to parallel the exile of Israel from Canaan due to disobedience rather than recount the beginning of humanity; and speculation that the first chapters of Genesis instead recount the story that God came to the early humans after they had reached a certain point in evolutionary development, endowing them with the gift of his image and the ability to know and experience evil. 

Those who reject outright the authors’ thesis that evolution could be God’s method of creation will find this chapter superfluous.  But others torn between the text of Scripture and   evolution and the evidence of science will find the chapter both tantalizing in premise and frustrating in incompleteness.  While most popular writing on evolution by scientists either ignores, ridicules, or minimizes the issues that evolution poses for the traditional Christian worldview, the chapter is remarkable not so much for its content (which for the most part is nothing new), but for the fact that it even acknowledges these concerns and attempts with sensitivity to resolve them.  In some sense, the chapter is less about definitively resolving theological issues as it is a glimpse of how the authors themselves attempt to reconcile their understanding of God with knowledge about the natural world: a work in progress, not a complete theology.  

While I thought they made a good case that creation via evolution could be still be viewed as a special and intentional creation, some of the other ideas presented seemed contradictory.  For example, take their claim that “scientific evidence supports the idea that the evolutionary process did not require steady tinkering and regular intervention from God, although such intervention is not ruled out.”  However, the idea that God might influence the mutations by working through quantum uncertainty seems very much like “steady tinkering.”  And while the authors state they wish to present “scientific evidence” as supportive of a special creation of humans by God, the chapter could more accurately be described as a collection of speculations by scientists – loosely based on some current scientific ideas such as evolutionary convergence – that attempts bring scientific and religious viewpoints into harmony.

In general, I am as wary of attempts to fit a scientific story onto the Biblical text as I am of mangling the scientific process to fit current theology.  Ultimately, the narrative says what it says, and the data shows what it shows, and we can only interpret both as best we can with the knowledge we have. It is unethical to ask anything else of a scientist or theologian.  The authors themselves are quick to acknowledge that “The appeal of any of these scenarios for reconciling Genesis with the scientific account of our origins will depend on factors that are larger than our view of science or the Bible.”

Because traditional Adventist thought relies heavily on the story of the Fall and a seven-day creation, accepting a non-literal interpretation of Genesis would require a radical theological restructuring to address the importance of the Sabbath and other distinctive doctrines.  For this reason alone, I understand why most traditionalists will reject a non-literal reading.  However, I still find it a much simpler solution to read Genesis non-literally, viewing the Sabbath as a gift from God, something intrinsically good that requires no elaborate theological justifications.  While their summary of non-literal positions seemed very limited, I already leaned towards the ‘Everyman’ reading of Genesisis, though I thought the idea of viewing the story of Adam as the story of israel’s origins was an intriguing proposition.  Regardless of how we view Genesis, I still think it would be  highly unrealistic to expect to make various sources agree perfectly; for example, if I saw a data plot where all the points lay exactly on the line, I would suspect that someone made it up.  Our theories about the world are approximations that can never encompass all of reality; they are merely tools to help us better understand it.  It is better to respect the fields of science and theology and allow them to independently come to the best conclusions they can, understanding that the results are always works in progress, rather than to do injustice to one to harmonize with the other.

The question of origins is a highly controversial one because the answers we are willing to consider are so strongly influenced by our prior worldviews. Those of us tempted to be overly entrenched in our opinions would do well to consider the story of Job.  After Job loses all his wealth and family due to Satan’s wish to test his loyalty to God, his well-meaning friends visit him to discuss the reason for his suffering.   In their theology, pain was God’s punishment for sin, and if Job suffered, it was because he needed to repent – and they entreat him vigorously to do so.  Job argues with them for chapter after chapter until God finally responds and ultimately reproves the friends “because you have not spoken of me what is right” (Job 42:7).  Yet even though Job did speak of God what was right, God also makes clear that Job is both ignorant and powerless (Job 38: 2, 4, 33, 36):

Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?  …Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?  Tell me, if you understand…. Do you know the laws of the heavens?  Can you set up God’s dominion over the earth?  … Who endowed the heart with wisdom or gave understanding to the mind?

None of us can speak for God.  As tempting as it is to see our personal view of creation to be the correct one, none of us were there when God created the earth, and in the larger scheme of things, the exact details of creation are probably peripheral anyway. I think the authors put it best: “Christianity is centered on Christ, not Adam, and certainly not any particular scientific theory.  If our understanding of salvation through Christ requires only that we agree that humans are sinful and in need of salvation, then any of the discussed scenarios are adequate.”  Though discussion is valuable to sharpen each others’ thoughts and clarify our thinking, we should do so graciously and humbly, remembering that even if we can “fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and… have a faith that can move mountains,” without love we are nothing (1 Cor 13:2).  And that, ultimately, is what counts the most.

—Melinda Wong (pseudonym) is an Adventist-educated graduate student in the life sciences.   

This is the eighth essay for the Summer Reading Group series on the book The Language of Science and Faith. Feel free to get the book, read it and join the discussion. Here is the first post: What is BioLogosThe secondThe thirdThe forthThe fifthThe sixthThe seventh. The eighth.

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