Connecting evolution and a "personal" God


(Cody Davies) #1

I was raised in a fairly traditional evangelical church and it all began to fall apart as a teenager when I saw a lot of those beliefs I was taught conflicting with science. Recently I’ve been looking into this branch of Christianity which rejects young-earth creationism while still holding onto Christianity, and I’ve found a lot to agree with.

One thing has been bothering me though about the acceptance of both Evolution and traditional Christianity/a personal God at the same time. It’s similar to my issues with, say, people who believe in the Rapture. The bible has been around for 2000 years, and yet some people believe that the book of Revelation was intended specifically for them as a coded message, while being irrelevant to hundreds of generations of bible-readers. It seems kind of self-absorbed to believe it was all intended specifically for them.

In the same way, science has been telling us that the universe is billions of years old and that humans are just one of many species over time on Earth alone. Why, then, would God be someone in any way similar to humans? The idea that billions of years were sat through in a vastly huger Universe than we can comprehend so that over a few thousand years (a tiny slice) of that eternity a “human God” who believes in human ideals like justice (which exists in the heads of humans but not in any “scientific” way) could dote on humans - that’s what I struggle to wrap my head around.

I figured this was where I would go to find people who’ve thought deeply about that question!

Thanks for the help,
-Cody


(Jon Garvey) #2

Cody

A fairly incomplete and provisional reply, to get you thinking.

Even at the start of evolutionary theory, its co-founder Alfred Russel Wallace believed that it was designed to work towards the emergence of humankind (and more generally, the emergence of rational beings). Many others too had that view of evolution as a teleological process, and you don’t hear it so much now not because it was disproven, but because it went out of fashion in favour of a secular “no rhyme or reason” approach.

Philosophically, it makes a lot of sense for the highest faculties of life - reason, imagination, consciousness and so on - to be be produced in nature by a a being who already has them. It’s less clear how they can arise from pure chance - even chance directed by natural selection. It’s not just a question of probabilities - it’s a question of intrinsic capacity. “I” can make “it” - but “it” cannot even in principle make “I”.

Lastly, the problem of vast scale is an illusion: the fact that we are a speck in the pageant of life is no more significant than that we are a speck in the universe. It’s been rightly said, regarding cosmic fine tuning, that it’s only because the universe is this big that it’s been able to produce us this small. In the same way, if God chooses to use a big process to produce a physically small result, why not, given that he has no reason to be economical?

And by the same token, an infinite God need have no less care and interest in all the other species and generations just because he takes a special interest in us. It’s just that he’s told us less about his purposes for that “vastly huger universe”.

One could say much more, but that’s a starter for 10.


(Jay Johnson) #3

Welcome, Cody. I am glad that you are continuing to seek answers. As you say, there are branches of Christianity (more than one!) that do not reject science and yet still regard the Scriptures as the word of God. In my own journey, I came to the conclusion that Reformed theology does the best job of reconciling the two, but that is not to say you cannot come to a place of intellectual “rest” within other faith traditions. There are plenty of examples here.

To start, keep in mind the limitations of science. It can tell us things about the physical universe, but it cannot answer “ultimate” questions because its very method prohibits it from even asking the questions. When it comes to God, then, science is silent not because he does not exist or is not involved in his creation, but because it prohibits itself from even addressing the question. In short, you should endeavor not to let scientific discoveries shake your faith in the slightest. They may force you to reevaluate your interpretation of Scripture, as you are doing now, but our understanding is never perfect or final in any field of study – theology included. Hold your own opinions loosely, but tightly hold onto Christ with all your heart, all your strength, and all your mind.

You are not the first to struggle with this. Men struggled with it thousands of years ago, before “science” was even an idea in someone’s head. Psalm 8 expresses the same thought:

“When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
The moon and the stars, which You have ordained,
What is man that You are mindful of him,
And the son of man that You visit him?”

Specifically, your problems relate to the doctrine of God – his infinity, his eternity, his creation of us as “image bearers” of him. If we want to involve science in the matter, it says that time itself came into being at the “big bang.” Thus, God stands outside of time. His existence is not bound by time or regulated by time. He is Lord of time just as he is Lord of all. (Actually, Christian thinkers came to this conclusion hundreds of years before science weighed in. But for the sake of argument…) When you consider God’s relationship to the created universe, it becomes evident that, as @Jon_Garvey said, the problem of scale is an illusion, whether the scale is time or distance. We have a hard time contemplating the idea of infinity, but I like Pascal’s description: “The whole visible world is only an imperceptible atom in the ample bosom of nature. No idea approaches it. We may enlarge our conceptions beyond an imaginable space; we only produce atoms in comparison with the reality of things. It is an infinite sphere, the centre of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere. In short, it is the greatest sensible mark of the almighty power of God that imagination loses itself in that thought.”

I haven’t really addressed your issue with a “human God” who reflects human ideals of justice and so forth, but rather than offering theological arguments, I’m going to approach it from a more personal angle. For me, Christianity does not bear the marks of a “man-made” religion. It does not violate reason, but exceeds it. I find many things remarkable and hard to believe in Christianity, many things I would have left out or said differently, many things that I would like to know but don’t, etc. Strangely, though, I find comfort in them. If the Bible gave only the answers that I expected or that I found agreeable, I actually would doubt its veracity.


(Dr. Ted Davis) #4

And, Cody, you’re hardly alone here. Let’s put aside (if you will allow me) the great antiquity of the Earth and think only about the enormity of the universe. Every astronomer since at least the time of Ptolemy (2nd cent AD) has realized that the Earth is a mere speck when compared with the size of the universe–regardless of how one calculated that, and regardless of the magnitude of the answer they found. Sometimes contemporary astronomers think that they, modern scientists, are the first to bring this message to the masses. That would be wrong, badly wrong. We’ve known this for at least 1900 years. Ptolemy pointed it out explicitly, and for him the entire ball of the heavens had a diameter of “only” about 20,000 times the diameter of the Earth. It’s gotten progressively larger ever since, but it’s not a modern insight at all. The great scientists who put together the modern world picture after Copernicus all knew this full well, and it didn’t bother their faith in God one little bit.

Here’s an interesting example: in the 1640s, Rene Descartes exchanged many letters with a young princess named Elizabeth: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elisabeth_of_the_Palatinate
She was a very bright woman, and she raised a number of high level questions about science and God. You might peruse them (partly paraphrased, partly translated) here: http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/descartes1643.pdf
I call attention to just two paragraphs, one from Elizabeth on the lower right of p. 30 (as internally numbered at the bottom of the page) and the other by Descartes at center left on p. 35. They hardly constitute a detailed discussion of this aspect of your question, but they do sketch the nature of that conversation with a possible answer on behalf of an infinite Creator.

My personal answer is to look to the Incarnation: I think this says a great deal more about God than it does about humanity, but surely any cosmic significance that we might have derives from the fact (as I believe it to be) that God chose to reveal Godself directly to us, not from our utterly insignificant size or location in the universe. As I say, this says more about God than it says about ourselves. I don’t think we can conclude that we are the only creatures to whom God has been revealed in such a manner–we must not be in the business of telling God what to do–but I think we can conclude that God loved us enough to take on human form and experience human suffering from the inside, as it were.

Keep thinking. But don’t expect definitive answers–not from Christians, not from atheists, not from anyone. These are deep waters and no one can claim to have plumbed the bottom. I recommend Owen Gingerich’s book, “God’s Universe,” and the final chapter, “Questions without Answers,” where he very humbly offers a Christian interpretation of the universe. The little epilogue afterward concludes by quoting Pascal, “the heart has its reasons that reason does not know.”


(Cody Davies) #5

Thanks for all the suggestions so far - it does help it all make a bit more sense. I will take a look at the recommended materials!


#6

Dear Cody

it really does amaze me that after over 100 years since Darwin and many other scientific discoveries that so many churches can remain so fundamentalist and wedded to a view of Genesis 1-3 as some kind of real history. II think that’s more in the US than in the UK.

As for a personal God, to me God is Infinite and as such is in contact with all parts of time and space at once with a knowledge and personal contact with each person and each thing. It is infinite personal relationship. Sure we can’t comprehend that. But then I can’t comprehend the vastness of the universe either.


(Roger A. Sawtelle) #7

@cosmicscotus

A big part of this pr4oblem is that the issue is not “science,” but the Bible. About 100 years ago when science was beginning to develop, some scholars began to criticize the veracity of the Bible, using “modern scientific ideas.”

Conservative Protestants felt threatened by these claims, because they held to Luther’s sola scriptura view of Christianity. To “protect” the Bible from the claims of science they declared that the Bible was verbally inspired by God and later “inerrant.” They made the Bible into absolute truth, which it is not. Only God can be Absolute, and Jesus demonstrated that God is not Absolute…

Liberal Christianity has been also harmed by these claims against the Bible. We really need a better understanding of how and why the Bible is true and how and why science is true. When we understand how God reveals Godself through the Bible and Nature, that is science, these issues will recede. Instead we debate science or the Bible as if this is the real problem.


(Christy Hemphill) #8

Is it the “created in his image” part you are having a hard time reconciling with evolutionary processes?

You might find this blog series helpful: http://biologos.org/blogs/archive/what-does-image-of-god-mean-part-1/

In this view of “image bearers” it is not that humans are like God in essence, but in certain capabilities, and for this reason they are given a vocation as God’s vice-regents.

I think good food for thought on this topic is found not in thinking about the creation of humans, but in thinking about the Incarnation. We might never get to the answer of “why humans,” but we can affirm the uniqueness of humans in creation because of the fact that God united himself with the human species in the Incarnation. And it is a permanent thing. Jesus rules the world as a glorified human being.

One idea I have found question I have found interesting to reflect on is the question of whether the Incarnation was part of God’s divine plan before human sin was ever an issue. (Sometimes those crazy Calvinists come up with interesting stuff :wink: ) Was it predestined purely for redemption, or did God always plan from the foundation of the world to unite himself with his creation in order to usher in the firstfruits of the New Creation? I tend to think the Incarnation was more than just redemption. God being human wasn’t a temporary measure that was abandoned once sin was dealt with. God is still intimately connected with his creation through Jesus, who has permanently entered creation.


(Cody Davies) #9

Well, since it’s been brought up a couple of times in this thread and is relevant, the scientific/historical reasoning for believing in the incarnation/redirection is an area I would be interested in seeing resources for also. I read (well, listened to, since it was the audiobook version) The Language of God by Francis Collins recently, and I came out of it feeling that he’d made a solid case for a creator God but that he hadn’t discussed the resurrection or the Bible in the same scientifically grounded terms.

That’s part of why I’m curious about the arguments about a “Personal God” in particular, because I’m willing to accept “theistic evolution” as a rational theory but it’s that next step to “why the Christian God in particular” that I’m currently exploring.


(Christy Hemphill) #10

I don’t think the evidence for the Incarnation/Resurrection is to be found in science. It is found in the testimony of changed lives and the experience of believers. Even if science could prove beyond a doubt that Jesus physically rose from the dead, no scientific or logical investigation is ever going to prove that Jesus’ death and resurrection take away sin and reconcile humanity to God. The apologetic resources aimed at establishing the historicity of the Resurrection can only get you to accept the validity of a historic fact. They can’t prove the theological import. At some point, you have to admit your faith doesn’t rest on valid arguments for a personal God, it rests on an encounter with a personal God.


#11

@Cody, just wanted to post to say that I think this is an excellent and well-stated question! Thanks for starting the discussion. The vast continuum of life, time, and space has been a challenge for me as well. I’ve appreciated reading through the responses here.


(George Brooks) #12

@Cody

The way I look at this problem is, ironically, based on the Genesis creation story.

The first three days of creation … there isn’t even a Sun to mark “days”. So… if the creation story can actually dither around with God taking an unknown day to forge massive slices of creation … instead of just creating it all in a single day … or even a single moment …

… then who are we to object to millions of years for a God where time really has no meaning?


(GJDS) #13

A couple of thoughts: (1) It is not fashionable these days, but the Universe testifies to the Glory and magnificence of God Himself - we try to negate (or minimise) this by constructing human gods to suit our vanity and self-delusions, and then decide against a magnificent creation before us. (2) We delude ourselves into believing that God’s mercy and justice are simply human ideals, and this self-deception negates a central message of the Gospel, that of rebirth (or re-creation) of humans given to sin and death, into those reborn and living in Christ. The latter has more to do with creation than science and such could possibly address.


(system) #14

This topic was automatically closed 6 days after the last reply. New replies are no longer allowed.