Sunday, November 16, 2008

The universe, according to Beth (rather, Denis Lamoureux). Ha.

Anyone still reading my blog? I have neglected it yet again.

If you've ever wanted to know about the way I currently make sense of Creation and Evolution, as a biologist-turned-seminarian, I would like to lay that out for you in this blog entry. (Warning... this is going to be long.)

To do so, I will be summarizing a fantastic lecture I heard last week called "Evolutionary Creation," by Denis Lamoureux. Denis is a professor of "science and religion" (the first tenured Canadian prof in this field) at St. Joseph's College at the University of Alberta, and he has three doctoral degrees: dentistry, theology, and biology. This guy knows his stuff! And he delivered a killer lecture, explaining things in a way that made both the "science" and "theology" sides of me go "Yes!". For a fuller description of his view, you should read his book, called "Evolutionary Creation," even though I haven't yet (I'm waiting for it to go on sale!). The best part is that Denis used to be a staunch young-earth creationist, and set out early in his education to study how he could disprove evolution... so he knows all sides of this issue.

So here we go, a description of Evolutionary Creation (which is also sometimes known as Theistic Evolution - but like Lamoureux, I think the emphasis should go on "Creation").

In summary: "The Father, Son and Holy Spirit created the universe and life through an ordained, sustained and design-reflecting evolutionary process."


1. Evolutionary creationists assume these things as true:
- God is the Creator of the universe.
- The beautiful, intricate design of the universe points to its Creator.
- God is a personal God who has always been and still is intimately involved in creation.
- The universe was planned, and has a purpose (ie. It is teleological).
- The Bible is the Word of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit.
- There is overwhelming support for the theory of evolution. It has never been falsified (though it easily could be). It has great explanatory power (It makes sense of the world!)
- It is possible for creation and evolution to come together, for God to create using an evolutionary process.

2. How do we interpret information about the universe in the Bible? The core assumption of most young-earth creationists (whether they recognize it or not) is that of "Scientific Concordism": that God revealed scientific facts in the Bible thousands of years before their discovery by modern science. (For example, they believe that the Bible suggests that the earth is about 6000 years old, and think that this should be confirmed by our present-day geological studies.)

I do not believe in scientific concordism. Instead, I believe that when the Bible was written, the Holy Spirit explained things in a way that made sense to the people at the time. For example, most Ancient Near Eastern peoples understood the universe as consisting of three "tiers." Tier 1: the waters above the earth. Tier 2: the firmament (the hard dome of the sky, on which the sun, moon and stars are fixed). Tier 3: the waters under the earth, that come up as oceans and seas. Here's a picture.

It's easy to see how they would have thought this - you look up and you see blue, and rain falls from up there, so why not assume there is a whole sea above the sky, that drips down when God opens up "the floodgates of heaven"? But I don't think there's anyone who believes this today - no one is trying to prove that there's a vast body of water above the sky, or that the stars are fixed points on a dome. Today, we accept the findings of science about the water cycle, and the earth moving around the sun. YET the Bible does not! It speaks in terms of the ancient, three-tiered universe! Look at Genesis 1:6 - "And God said, 'Let there be an expanse between the waters, to separate water from water.'" God also fixes the sun, moon and stars in this "firmament". He doesn't seem to fret that this is not a scientifically accurate picture of creation - he doesn't try to explain the water cycle or the turning of the earth. (Also see Gen. 7, Ps. 19, Ps. 104, Job 37, Mal. 3...). God does not fret about communicating the exact mechanism of creation... It very well could have happened by evolution.

3. Does this make the Bible untrue, or make God a liar? No, it makes God a good communicator, who accommodates to the limited knowledge of his hearers, just like any parent explaining to a toddler where babies come from! God is not trying to communicate science - the message here is theological - the fact that the universe was created by a sovereign God who made it "good," that humans were made in God's image, they sinned, and faced judgment. Lamoureux calls this the "message/incident principle of hermeneutics." The "important stuff" (the inerrant, infallible message) is packaged in the ancient "creation narrative" format of the day, which is poetic in form (I've learned a lot about the literary genre of Genesis 1-11, and how this story resembles and differs from Babylon and Egypt's creation narratives. Ask me for more info if you want it.) This "story-packaging" assumes ancient science and literary features. So although creation appears complete and quick (6 days) in the Bible, the Holy Spirit may be accommodating to ancient science (like the 3-tiered universe), or this may be a literary device, to condense the story into a week. The "packaging" isn't scientifically accurate, but this doesn't contradict the inerrancy of the Bible, because the Holy Spirit didn't accidentally slip up or make mistakes... this was His intended vessel for His message. At any rate, the presence of ancient science in the Bible as the "vessel" or "packaging" for the theological message should not limit or "disprove" our science today, as we try to figure out more about how our universe works.

4. So what does this mean for the question of human origins? If Genesis 1-11 is a poetic story written to explain a theological message about life and origins, what about humans, and what about Adam and Eve? The genre suggests that Adam and Eve are characters in the story, representative of humanity, not literal human beings who existed. It's easy to see why the Hebrew people would use two "original humans" in the story - in their perception, humans certainly seem to come from humans, who come from humans, so there must have been two original humans that started everything off - the story should be about them. The evolutionary data shows a different picture of human "creation"... between 5-8 million years ago, an ancestral species diverged into "hominids" (human-like species) and the species that produced the great apes. Gradually, starting about 250 000 years ago, Homo sapiens emerged as a distinct species from the other hominids.

This has been the hardest part of "evolutionary creation" for me to figure out and accept. I have trouble letting go of the idea of a literal Adam and Eve. Why? I suppose there are two main ideas for which Adam and Eve seem crucial: the image of God, and original sin. These are two things that definitely distinguish us from chimps (even though we are 99% genetically similar to them). But if humans developed gradually, instead of being suddenly formed from clay, when did we "get" the image of God? Was it 250 000 years ago, when we diverged as Homo sapiens? Or 50 000 years ago, when we started getting a lot better at using tools? And when did original sin enter the picture?

Some evolutionary creationists respond by essentially trying to keep Adam and Eve: humans evolved gradually, but at some point, God bestowed His image on two hominids, and they were the ones who first chose to sin. Others believe there were many Adams and Eves upon which God bestowed His image, and they all sinned. These two views are called "punctiliar monogenism" and "punctiliar polygenism." Lamoureux says that holding these views is similar to accepting modern-day astronomy for the most part, but tacking on the idea of a "firmament" with "waters above" from the 3-tiered universe. It's illogical.

Instead, Lamoureux suggests a "gradual polygenism." In other words, the image of God and original sin were not suddenly bestowed, but gradually and mysteriously manifested themselves as humans developed. This may sound like a cop-out, but Lamoureux points out that "mystery" is a valid biblical category. We don't pretend to understand the mysteries of the Trinity or the Incarnation... why should we expect to figure out exactly how the image of God or original sin played out in ancient human history?

Lamoureux used an analogy that was VERY helpful for me, to show me that this could very well be gradual and mysterious: the analogy embryonic development. When you developed in your mother's womb, at what point were the image of God or original sin "imparted" to you? Was it at the moment of fertilization? Did you get half the image of God from your dad's sperm and half from your mom's egg, and half original sin from each, too? (Keep in mind that over half of fertilized eggs don't survive the first week of pregnancy.) Maybe it was bestowed on you at the 2-cell stage? Or when you started to move? Or when brain activity appeared? A punctiliar (single point in time) understanding seems arbitrary here, especially since our physical embryonic development is so gradual. God doesn't jump in and tack on a fully-developed arm; we develop gradually as part of an ordained and sustained process, one that is mysterious in many ways, especially in terms of image of God / original sin (morality). Yet we have trouble accepting that this could parallel overall human development through history...

5. What about the belief that death entered the world through sin? If we were to take Genesis as reporting scientific or historical fact, we would agree that suffering and death are the consequences of Adam and Eve's first sin. The fossil record raises a problem with this belief. It seems that many, many creatures died (and suffered) before humans ever appeared on earth. It seems that God ordained that death (possibly even suffering) would be part of his "good" (note he did not say "perfect") creation. Animals did not suddenly switch from vegetarians to carnivores after humans sinned! (This has also been something difficult for me to accept, and I'm still wrestling through the implications.)

So what do we do with the fact that Paul seems to accept that Adam & Eve were historical humans, and their sin brought physical death into the world (a "cosmic fall")? 1 Cor. 15:20, Rom. 5:12, and Rom. 8:20-22 seem to suggest this, and many people use Paul to disprove everything we've been talking about. Lamoureux calls this the "Conferment argument": If Paul believed Adam was historical, he was. If Paul believed one man and one woman sinned, bringing about a cosmic fall, then this had to have happened.

The problem is, as Lamoureux points out, there's something else Paul seems to believe, and that's our good old friend, the 3-tiered universe. See, for example, Philippians 2:10-11, where "every knee will bow... in heaven, on earth, and under the earth" - this is summing up the three tiers, in order to say "in the whole cosmos". Paul was operating with an ancient geology and astronomy. But we don't seem as eager to use the "conferment argument" here... we don't say "If Paul believed in a 3-tier universe, then it's true." So why can't we also say that Paul was operating with an ancient idea of biology, origins, and the origin of death (which logically, for Paul, can only come after the original creation of life in Adam and Eve.) This is another "vessel" / "message" passage. We can accept Paul's "message" that sin entered the world, all humans sin, God will judge sin, Jesus died for sinful humans, rose physically, and offers the hope of eternal life... but this doesn't mean we have to also unquestioningly swallow the "vessel" of a literal Adam and Eve, or that their sin caused a cosmic fall and the origin of physical death.

Ok, that's about it. I hope I explained this well. Overall, I actually think it's crediting God with a lot more power, wisdom, and intelligence to say that He crafted an evolutionary system that would eventually produce all of these beautiful and diverse creatures, including humans, without further supernatural creative intervention (though he remains intimately and providentially involved in this creation), instead of saying that he had to repeatedly intervene with further spontaneous creative acts after "getting the whole thing going."

I'm not pretending this is a perfect system of integration. I know full well that it challenges the way we usually read the Bible (the "message" and "vessel" system could get you into trouble depending on how far you push it.) I'm just saying this is what makes the most sense of everything I know of Biology and Theology, and enables me to integrate these two sides of myself. Along with Lamoureux, I think that it's shameful that an exclusively literal reading and teaching of the Bible, especially Genesis, has led so many educated Christians to abandon their faith, and has presented an insurmountable obstacle to faith for other educated people, who want to explore the God thing, but don't want to check their brains (or their understanding of science) at the door.

So, for those of you who have actually finished reading this... What do YOU think? What challenges YOU most? Is any of this helpful?