Update: A day ago, I posted this blog with the title, “Perfect Scripture, Perfect Belief, Perfect Answer–A Parable.” The more I thought about it, the more I realized I had come up with the perfect example of obscurity. Obscurity can be intellectually satisfying at times, but, you know, if nobody gets it, as an author, I’m not getting it either.
The controversy between science and religion over evolution has been filled with a century and a half of heated debate. It has been as contentious as any ideological issue in human history, a cultural war of biblical proportions. So I changed the title to one appropriate for Extreme Thinkover.
I got your attention, huh. I dare you to read on!
There lived a people in a time in which the sky was constantly clouded. The sun and the moon were never visible at all. They knew nothing of the stars. They were prosperous and devoted to God, who they believed had created all things. The people studied the Scripture and found great comfort in the words. For generations they taught their children that those words had been given directly to them by God, and that its description of the world was perfect.
One day a band of travelers came to the land and told of climbing to a place so high that the clouds became thin. They described the sun and the moon as having light of unimagined beauty. They claimed to have caught a glimpse of the sky by day in which there appeared a blueness beyond the clouds and by night a sprinkling of lights in velvet darkness.
The elders of the land called the people together and for many days they discussed what the travelers had told them. Opening the scriptures, they studied what God had said about the earth and sky. Daily they questioned the travelers, arguing with them, challenging them in every detail which they had reported. The travelers, excited about what they had seen, retold their story over and over, and in the debate suggested that the Scriptures did not reveal everything that was possible about the world and the sky.
These words were received with shock and dismay by the Elders and the devout. The idea that the Scriptures were not perfect in every detail was looked upon as being unthinkable. God had given the writings directly to the people so they might perfectly understand what and how to believe. And those words declared that the sky was cloudy and no other description of the sky was possible.
Finally the Elders and the people gathered to make a decision about what to do about the story the travelers were telling. A few of the faithful wanted to go with the travelers to the high place and see for themselves, but this idea was met with great consternation by the Elders and the faithful because it gave assent to the notion that the travelers might be right and that would be in direct contradiction of the Scriptures. Some left the assembly, however, and joined the travelers.
After long discussion the Elders and the faithful came to a decision. They must live their lives in such a way that there could never be the remotest chance that they would have to deal with heretical unbelievers again. So, the people began to excavate huge caverns under the hills in which to live. Being very clever, they built cities and farms to sustain themselves into the future. The Elders were pleased with this because they knew that now they could teach the scriptures perfectly that the sky was always cloudy, for in their great caverns, their “sky” would never change and they could say with complete honesty that the only sky any of the faithful had ever seen outside the cavern was cloudy. This was the word of God and it would remain perfect.
So, with great celebration the Elders and the faithful marched into their caverns and sealed the entrance, confident that they had defended their faith and their God against unspeakable heresy.
Today is the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth. This year, 2009, is the 400th anniversary of the official invention of the telescope, in 1609. 2009 is also the 30th year since my ordination to ministry.
I actually wrote the Parable in 1998, a point in time when various fundamentalist Christians were attempting to force school boards (in Kansas, if I remember accurately) to teach “scientific creationism” or “intelligent design” as scientifically equivalent alternatives to evolution in biology, geology and astronomy. Although some of those battles are still going on (Texas being in the news most recently), the higher courts have refused to rule in favor of the creationists.
That is good. The brilliance of God’s ultimate cleverness in creating the universe is not a topic for the scientific method, scrutiny and modification.
Discovering the mechanisms of that cleverness, however, is. I recommend my readers visit the website for the American Scientific Affiliation which is devoted to dialogue among people of faith regarding science and religion. The views below, although linked to ASA, are mine alone.
Scientific creationism is wrong because astronomy, astrophysics and quantum mechanics have discovered the mechanisms of the universe are very old and very large.
Intelligent design is wrong, because of not only what astronomy has taught us, but when integrated with geology and molecular biology and genomics, the mechanisms of the universe are based on explaining simplicity not complexity.
Both are wrong in insisting Biblical scripture is the final word on understanding God’s ultimate cleverness in creation, because if that is so, then every “scientific” discovery of those natural mechanisms, by which this universe operates from that cleverness, can lead to only one conclusion: God lied to us by creating a universe that we cannot perceive.
What does that leave us with? After 150 years of debate since Darwin published, Origin of Species (which, yes, I have read), the concept of evolution, of change through time, the evolution of the universe, the evolution of galaxies, the evolution of stars and solar systems, the evolution of matter and energy, the evolution of atmospheric and geological forces on our planet, correctly describes the forces and the physical nature of what we perceive.
And life? What turned on life? And did life turn on only here on Earth? Those are honest questions with no definitive answers. Yet.
But once life appeared, it participated in the evolutionary engines that run the universe. We find life folded into the evolutionary record of our planet into the past for at least 3.5 billion years. Comings and goings. Expansions and extinctions. Changes and setbacks. Life in the fossil record is always made of the same stuff. Star stuff. Carbon based life forms. From the microscopic to the huge. Complexity out of simplicity. Changing size, changing form. Cleverness out of cleverness, ever adapting. Made of star stuff; feeding on star stuff; living on star stuff. Dying. Dying?
Then, us. You. Me. All of us. Apparently late in the process. No, not late, just recent. Recent by the way we regard the universe.
Now, that’s clever. We regard the universe. Even if life is seeded throughout the billions of galaxies we can now see with our telescopes, as common as ants are here, there is nothing apparent in the structure of the universe that predicts one species of that life would be able to regard the universe. We can think about thinking. That self-awareness that there is “I” and “Not I” and I can tell the difference, and here’s the really clever part, “I” can think about what “Not I” means. Okay, I know I’m beginning to sound like Martin Buber.
What then, do I believe about creation? First, I believe that God did not lie to us and create us unable to accurately perceive the universe he created for us. Second, being Ultimately Clever, I believe God expects us to pay attention to the universe he created, since through whatever mechanism embodied in his Word, we have the consciousness to believe in God and ask the question, where did we come from?
In the contemporary debate over creation and evolution, a new perspective is emerging in this century and a half old debate. The term (which, I don’t find all that attractive, but it will do for now) is “theistic evolution.”
The most articulate proponent of theistic evolution is Dr. Francis Collins, former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute. Dr. Collins and his team mapped the human genome, and revolutionized our understanding of both life and human life in particular. I share his comments from a Time Magazine interview, February 12, 2009, reprinted on the website, Beliefnet.com:
I see no conflict in what the Bible tells me about God and what science tells me about nature. Like St. Augustine in A.D. 400, I do not find the wording of Genesis 1 and 2 to suggest a scientific textbook but a powerful and poetic description of God’s intentions in creating the universe. The mechanism of creation is left unspecified. If God, who is all powerful and who is not limited by space and time, chose to use the mechanism of evolution to create you and me, who are we to say that wasn’t an absolutely elegant plan? And if God has now given us the intelligence and the opportunity to discover his methods, that is something to celebrate.
I lead the Human Genome Project, which has now revealed all of the 3 billion letters of our own DNA instruction book. I am also a Christian. For me scientific discovery is also an occasion of worship.
Nearly all working biologists accept that the principles of variation and natural selection explain how multiple species evolved from a common ancestor over very long periods of time. I find no compelling examples that this process is insufficient to explain the rich variety of life forms present on this planet. While no one could claim yet to have ferreted out every detail of how evolution works, I do not see any significant “gaps” in the progressive development of life’s complex structures that would require divine intervention. In any case, efforts to insert God into the gaps of contemporary human understanding of nature have not fared well in the past, and we should be careful not to do that now.
Science’s tools will never prove or disprove God’s existence. For me the fundamental answers about the meaning of life come not from science but from a consideration of the origins of our uniquely human sense of right and wrong, and from the historical record of Christ’s life on Earth.
The parable I wrote in 1998, ended with the Elders and the faithful closing themselves up in the great caverns they had constructed to protect their absolute beliefs from ever being challenged again. What I failed to do was write the ending to those who followed the travelers:
The travelers led the faithful remnant to the place where they had seen the clouds part. They mostly walked in silence. The faithful had doubts they had chosen the right path. Some wondered if they returned to the place they had lived if the Elders would let them in again. A few turned back. A few saw a road to a place that looked promising, where the land was rich with food and water, and they took that way. Those who remained with the travelers read daily from their scriptures and pondered the stories. Each night they asked the travelers questions about how such a thing could be. The travelers shared what they knew and admitted what they did not. Each morning they walked higher into the wilderness.
They arrived at the place, a small plateau, late in the afternoon and made camp. The sky was cloudy. Below them in the distance they could see a blanket of clouds covering the land from which they had journeyed. But the sky above them was solid grey. That night around the fire, the faithful questioned the travelers hard and long. Had they been deceived? Had they given up their very lives for a lie? The travelers’ urging for patience, that they too had been at the place for some time before they saw the sky, was little consolation. Weary from their trek, they agreed to wait, to rest a week, as was their custom, and if nothing happened they would leave.
The first two days, the rains came. The whole party sat huddled, chilled in their tents, trying to nurse their fires to keep burning for a little relief from the wet. Few words were spoken. The faithful and the travelers kept to themselves, the mood dismal, the day, gloomy.
Then the wind came up, strong, biting, whipping at the tents and all had to scramble to secure them from being ripped from the lines and blown over the edge of the plateau. The gusts seemed to grow stronger with every passing minute. One tent caught fire from embers blown into it. Faithful and travelers alike rushed to beat it out and rescue the people caught inside.
Without warning, the wind calmed. They stamped on the burning tent to kill the flames. And then, a brilliant flash erupted, driving everyone face down into the mud. For an eternity, it seemed, blinding silence. The smell of smoke gone. A growing warmth upon their backs.
The voice of one traveler broke the silence, “The sky, look at the light in the sky!”