Creation and evolution. Why do we have to choose? I think that, with integrity, we don’t have to; it’s perfectly possible to accept both. This is my sermon on Faith and Evolution as part of our sermon series on Questions of Faith.
One, rather old, book that I found helpful when writing this was R J Berry’s Adam and the Ape. It’s out of print and out of date in parts, but it’s well written, to the point and still mostly accurate. A more up-to-date and comprehensive book about these subjects is Creation or Evolution by Denis Alexander, which is excellent. I’ve blogged elsewhere about Simon Conway Morris, who is a great example of someone who holds these things together. I’ve also included within the sermon a few links to some other relevant blogposts I’ve written.
About 200 years ago, an archdeacon, William Paley, argued that plants and animals were so clearly designed that they were evidence of a creator. Less than 50 years later Charles Darwin came up with his understanding of evolution, which explained how things could be designed whether or not there was a creator. And so the arguments over evolution have raged ever since.
And that’s why we’re looking at Faith and Evolution as part of our sermon series on Questions of Faith. For some people this is a crucial topic, for others it’s not something that you’ve thought about or perhaps even wanted to think about. But, it is one of those topics that, even if it’s not an issue for you, might be an issue for someone you know. And, it helps us to think about parts of the Bible, like those we heard today, more clearly.
Darwin’s understanding of evolution was one of the things that did lead to him losing his faith. Partly, that was because his faith was based on Paley’s flawed arguments about theology. But, actually, the main thing that made him an agnostic was the question that we looked at last week, the question of suffering. Unlike some of his supporters, Darwin did also believe that it was perfectly possible to remain a Christian and accept his findings. But, there were supporters then, and there are supporters now, who thought that you couldn’t accept evolution and Christianity.
Making a choice?
The most famous supporter today who thinks this is Richard Dawkins. Dawkins has sought to persuade people that God doesn’t exist and uses evolution as part of his argument about why they shouldn’t believe in God. Dawkins is one of the leading members of what is called the New Atheism. And he and the other New Atheists have written many books and made many programmes on their belief that evolution and science in general leads to atheism. That’s their belief. It’s not actually part of the science. But it’s one of the reasons why we need to think about these issues, so that we can explain why the science doesn’t have to make anyone an atheist!
I became a Christian when I was about 15 or 16 and started attending the church youth group. It was a great group and really helped me in many ways. One of the things that the leaders were convinced about was that it wasn’t possible to be a Christian and accept evolution. They spent quite a lot of time talking about this and got in people from organisations who also believed this. And of course one of the places where these understandings clash is in the readings that we heard this morning, particularly the one from Genesis. But, both readings talk about the world, everything we see, being created by God. Both Genesis and the reading from John tell us about God’s involvement in the world, and in its creation. These passages tell us about God’s intimate care and involvement in creation, and tell us about the power and love of the one who caused them to be.
I believe, as do many Christians, that it is perfectly possible to believe in both the science and God, in both evolution and God’s creation. So, I and many Christians take what those early chapters of Genesis says very seriously, but don’t believe that they tell us how God created the world or how the other things in them happened. I believe that they tell us the importance of what happened.
Now, one of the most unhelpful thing about the youth group I went to was the leader’s insistence that there was only one way of understanding Genesis, that to be a Christian you really had to have to share their interpretation of it. So, before I go any further, I want to make this very clear: Christians through the ages have had a wide variety of understandings of how Genesis should be understood. Christians have always disagreed over how Genesis should be interpreted. There has never been agreement over exactly what Genesis means and how it should be understood. It is perfectly possible to believe all sorts of different things about Genesis and still remain a faithful Christian.
What does Genesis mean?
Many of the early theologians didn’t think that Genesis should be taken literally. Listen to Origen, a theologian writing in AD225. He wrote: “I do not think anyone will doubt that these are figurative expressions which indicate certain mysteries through writing that resembles history”. And he wasn’t alone. Long before the scientists caught up with them, the early Christians were saying that these accounts told us the importance of creation and what happened, but not the way in which it happened. And, long before the arguments over evolution, Christians were unfortunately being rude about anyone who didn’t agree with them, including Origen.
So, I want to learn from what previous Christians have done and failed to do. I want to work out what God is telling us through Genesis and other passages, I want to get us to think about what Genesis means for us. The part before the reading we heard tells us about God’s creation of the world, leading up to the creation of humanity, as we heard.
Then the next few chapters tell us about what a mess humans make of all that they’ve been given. They reject their relationship with God and try to do things their own way, which leads to chaos, death and destruction. And so God launches a rescue plan, to restore his relationship with humans that they have broken. Jesus is the climax of that rescue plan, and it is through his death and resurrection that we can be brought back into God’s family.
The reading itself tells us that we are all made in the image of God, we are made as God’s representative here on earth, to carry on his work of creation, and to care for all that he has created. Some people have misunderstood the command to rule over everything as a license to take what we want. I think that’s because we have a distorted view of what leadership is like. But, God shows us what leadership is like. God creates, giving generously to others. God sends us his son to bring us back to him. God send us his Spirit, to help us in our walk with him. Throughout the Bible, rulers are condemned when they fail to use their power to help the poor and the weak and the needy. This is what truly ruling over creation is meant to be, us showing God’s rule in the world.
Genesis is more concerned with the Creator than with creation. It is God who speaks, God who sees that is work is good, God who puts his image into humanity, and sees that his work is very good. Very good notice, not perfect. Not incapable of being made better. And that was our job, as creations made in the image of God, as God’s representatives on earth. The fact that we haven’t is our fault, not God’s.
Science and Genesis
Genesis tells us all this, whatever we think about the science of it. And on the science side, there are Christians who challenge the scientific consensus, who seek to show that the science behind geology and biology are wrong. So, you get a variety of groups who try and reinterpret the science, arguing that the earth is only a few thousand years old, or that there are certain features of animals and humans that are so complex that they couldn’t have evolved, or whatever else. Most scientists don’t find these arguments very convincing. One of the problems with William Paley’s 200 year old arguments were that they were blown apart by Darwin. When that sort of thing happens, when the science is shown to be wrong, people can then go on to doubt the Bible and God as well, as Darwin did.
So, you can get into an argument with people about why they’re wrong about evolution. You can spend a long time arguing about whether the science is right or not. But, when you’re arguing about the science, you’re not talking about God. Whatever you think I’d suggest that you can, with integrity, say to anyone who asks that you can accept modern science, without accepting the interpretation that Dawkins puts on it. Dawkins claims that in evolution he sees “nothing but blind pitiless indifference”. But, you can accept evolution, without accepting this interpretation. Dawkins’ problem is that he’s forgotten where the science ends and where his atheism begins. Instead, you can accept evolution and accept the account of Genesis that all people are made in the image of God, are made to have a relationship with him, are made for the adventure of journeying with him, have an exciting, challenging purpose for our lives through him.
Because Dawkins has forgotten where the science ends and his atheistic interpretation begins it can be hard to work out what is accepted science and what is just his theory. That’s the same for quite a few atheists writing about these things. But, there are also Christians writing about these things. There are Christians who are professors of genetics, evolution, biology, and similar, who can put together their scientific understanding of evolution, including the evolution of humans, with their beliefs in a Creator God. I’m a member of the Society of Ordained Scientists, who are a group of ordained ministers who have also got some sort of background in science. These are people who lead others in worship of their Creator and who think that how God created things is through evolution.
Theology and evolution
An understanding of evolution also, I think, helps us understand some of the problems with suffering that we wrestle with. Many of the problems with natural disasters are because of plate tectonics, which cause earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis. But, these also allow our planet to grow and flourish in ways which, science tells us, wouldn’t be possible without them.
Many of the problems with illness are about how things have evolved, while cancer is due to the mutations, necessary for change and development. I think that this can make sense of an understanding of a universe where the Creator made things make themselves, where a Creator gave the great gift of freedom to the whole of his creation, and who always planned to intervene again in his creation. But, because of our free will rejection of our Creator, he “subjected creation to frustration” as we heard in the reading from Romans 8 last week.
As I said last week, I know that one sermon isn’t going to be enough to think about all these things for everyone. So, to explore some of these questions a bit more, to talk about some of our struggles and doubts that we might have, I’d like to invite you to a discussion group at the Vicarage tomorrow night. Unless, of course, you all turn up, in which case it’ll be in the Church Hall! So, come to the Vicarage at 7:30pm Monday and we’ll take it from there. You’re very welcome.
At the time of Darwin many Christians fairly quickly came to accept that evolution was how God had chosen to create life and humanity. The author, and Christian, Charles Kingsley wrote that Darwin had showed that “God did not just make the world. He did something more wonderful still; he made the world make itself.” We see the freedom that God gave to us, and God gave to the whole of his creation. And God’s promise is that, through Jesus, not just us, but the whole of his creation will be brought into his kingdom. Let us celebrate that, let us proclaim that, and let us ensure that our differences and arguments over secondary issues don’t get in the way. Amen.