How has evolution, particularly human evolution changed our understanding of what it is to be human, of human uniqueness, of human possibility? Does a theistic perspective on evolution, which engages such matters as the imago dei, the belief that we are created ‘in the image of God,’ affect these issues? Do our understandings of physical and cultural evolution affect, in turn, our understanding of such matters as purposive activity, moral responsibility and altruism?
Similarly, how do we reconcile hominid evolution with creation, fall, sin, soul and other theological concepts of importance throughout much of the history of Christianity? Or are these really different categories? How might a theistic evolutionary perspective help or hinder our ability to engage Christian theology with the data and theories of paleoanthropology, evolutionary psychology, and indeed, primatology and human genetics?
This is the second of two workshops on the theme Is Theistic Evolution Viable? convened in honor of the 80th birthday year of Owen Gingerich. The first workshop covered the theme broadly, and one of its conclusions was that questions surrounding what it is to be human, and the connections between scientific and theological anthropology, were not just among the most complicated but also the most pressing issues for a second workshop.
There are many Christians who believe that some form of theistic evolution is the only viable alternative to the seemingly endless head on confrontation between creation science (which usually includes the rejection of evolutionary biology, often both common descent and biological speciation) and atheistic evolutionism (the use of evolutionary biology as a basis for denying the existence of God). Theistic evolution and the closely related evolutionary creationism come in many forms, some more convincing than others. But they have in common holding two important ideas together which other perspectives consider incompatible First that God is responsible for the origin of all that is, and, through ongoing creative activity is the source of what we see around us in the world today. And second that all life today has descended, through the cluster of processes we call evolution, from a common ancestor perhaps around three billion years ago. All life forms, including humans.
These two ideas are often held together by the suggestion that God created a set of natural processes and now works (in part) through them. That is, God has brought into being all the life forms we see today, and he has done it through evolution. Or, some might put it the other way round, evolution is real and of immense importance, but has in some (not always carefully-specified) sense been guided by the Creator.
But if many of us think this closely-related suite of ideas constitutes the only viable alternative either to creationism or to ‘purely natural’ evolutionism, there are many others who do not believe it viable at all. And there is a third, perhaps much larger group, that may concede theistic evolution as a theoretical possibility but who for one reason or another do not find it convincing. What could it mean, people in this group might reasonably ask, to say evolution is how God works, that is any different from describing evolution as we do any other biological process? As suggested by the title, it is this problem – why so many people believe theistic evolution is not viable – that is the core of the overall project. And study of what is known of our own evolution and nature which engages theology is one potentially fruitful way of digging deeper into this question.
Theistic evolution is meant as a way of reconciling evolutionary biology with biblically-serious Christian faith without dismissing or even distorting, either. Within the broad spectrum of faith-science models it occupies what adherents see as a moderate, non-sensationalist middle ground, and successfully reconciles otherwise disparate ideas such as –
• biological facts and Biblical statements,
• the importance of physical processes with the existence of meaning and purpose, and
• belief in a universe of laws and processes with a God who answers prayer.
It is not merely the idea that one and the same person can accept theism and evolution without going crazy. It is meant to reconcile an orthodox Christianity with evolutionary biology and all the cognate scientific disciplines – from geology to evolutionary psychology. But what does this really mean when we move beyond vague, if heartwarming, assurances that the two are not in conflict? Do we look at evolution differently? Do we view theology or Biblical exegesis differently?
The very fact of going beyond the simple starting point of “I am a Christian and I believe in evolution” to asking what kind of evolution are we talking about if God is involved in the affairs of the world as more than just a prime mover, raises a wide range of difficult questions, as well as serious criticism. And is that inevitably to distort evolution and indeed the autonomy of the scientific enterprise? For some anything that would count as “theistic evolution” would not be evolution at all.
Not surprisingly, critics argue that far from being the best of both worlds, theistic evolution either fails to appreciate what science has learned about the integrity of material processes or fails to understand the real implications of believing in the God of the Prophets and Apostles. If evolution is defined, as some scientists do, as the origin of species by natural selection and other physical processes alone, then theistic evolution is – by definition – nonsense; either life as we know it came about through random or physically pre-determined natural processes alone or by the hand of God, and never the twain shall meet.
From the other side of the fence, so to speak, theistic evolution is critiqued for not using a sufficiently straight-forward reading of Genesis, for muddling the concepts of the fall, sin and grace, for attaching itself to ‘bad science’ that will soon pass away, and – since some creationists also believe that evolution is, by definition, a random, “godless” process leading to meaningless accidents – theistic evolution is critiqued as much for attaching theism to evolution as for attaching evolution to theism.
The purpose of the first workshop, held June 2-4, 2010 at the Mohonk Mountain House, was to explore the broad question of whether or not theistic evolution is a viable and useful option for understanding how the living world came to be as we see it today. We concentrated on the following major questions, and in some cases (especially concerning the first) it was determined, among other things, that the question itself might not make as much sense as it seems at first.
• In what ways would evolution differ if it is theistic rather than purely natural? Is it just a matter of how we view what is going on, or should we expect the course of evolutionary history to look different?
• How might God actually work when engaged in creation through evolution? A theistic evolutionist might say that we know from experience that God rarely answers prayers directly, doing so more often through other people. Similarly it is reasonable that he works through his creatures in other contexts as well. But this would be more convincing for skeptics if we had a better sense of how God might or could work through evolution. Doesn’t a ‘model’ like this interfere, they would ask, with the integrity of either divine action or scientific experiment or both?
• What does theistic evolution imply about what it is to be human? How do we reconcile hominid evolution with creation, fall, sin, soul and imago dei – or are these simply different categories? There are many serious Christians who are willing to accept evolution but who find it difficult to accept that humans came to be by evolutionary processes alone? This question has been with us since Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer of natural selection, began to argue as early as the 1860s that selection cannot account for our higher faculties. What can – what should – a theistic evolution perspective contribute to answering these difficult questions?
• Theistic evolution is not a new suggestion, and to many of us it is the best available option for those who wish to accept both orthodox Christian faith and biological evolution. But if it is so reasonable and important, why does it remain a marginal minority position compared to creation science and Intelligent Design on the one hand, and standard and naturalistic evolutionism on the other? We will thus explore not just the philosophical, theological and scientific case for the position and for answering critics, but also the question of how the position can be adapted to answering the questions a wider range o f people actually ask. We explored not just dissemination in the usual sense of which journal we want to publish in (important though that certainly is) but also how our refined model of theistic evolution can be the leverage point for substantial and enduring culture change.
The current workshop is meant to build on the first with a special focus on the third topic above. Approximately one third of the participants to gather now were a part of the first workshop. In addition, we have organized the sessions of this workshop based on ideas generated during the first meeting.