Monday, March 07, 2005

In the Blackboard Jungle: Creationism and Evolution

A couple of weeks ago, Blog Ally Lloydletta picked up on a post I had made about how I was taught both creationism and evolution in high school biology and asked if I could elaborate on what was taught.

First off, to establish the situation, I went to a small private Lutheran Christian high school that had a very strong emphasis on college preparation -- indeed, most of the teachers there had previously been college professors. Religion was a required component for all four years -- Bible history for the freshmen, systematic theology for sophomores (digging into the basics of Lutheran theology), comparative theology for juniors (comparing Lutheran theology to other religions), and applied theology for seniors (applying religion to real-life problems). The school also made a conscious effort to integrate religion into the majority of the curriculum; some results were rather clumsy, as was my tenth-grade geometry textbook, but most were rather striking, as was my sophomore biology.

The opening point in the discussion of evolution and creationism was simply defining the context of the Bible. First off, in the Lutheran theology, the Bible is the literal, inspired, inerrant, and infallible Word of God; however, the point of every portion of the Bible is towards the saving grace of God through Jesus Christ. As my teacher put it, every portion of Scripture is interpreted in the light of John 3:16. While the Bible contains passages of natural history and descriptions, those are not there to make it a natural history textbook -- they are there to point the way to God's saving grace, and in that context, they are literal, inspired, inerrant, and infallible.

The passages concerning Leviathan in Job 41 are a good example. People have used this description for decades to "prove" that evolution is wrong because "obviously this describes a dinosaur, which means they were around at the same time". However, that's not the point of those passages. Leviathan could be real, it could be a mythical beast used as an example, whatever -- the point being made is that God is far greater than man and beyond man's comprehension to understand, as Job reiterates in Chapter 42, and which points back to God's saving grace.

Second off was a very simple point -- not directly recognizing the divine presence or capability of intervention does not necessarily mean that one denies its presence. To explain this, my teacher went back to the Lutheran theological view of the Lord's Supper (Eucharist, Holy Communion, etc.). One of the issues that the Lutheran church has always had with the Roman Catholic Church is the concept of "transubstantiation" -- namely that, in the Eucharist, as the priest performs the rite of consecration, the bread and the wine are transformed into Christ's body and blood while retaining their "accidents" (shape, color, taste, etc.) Martin Luther's view was that this made of the sacrament a magic spell of conjuration, as if God was not there prior to its performance. In the Lutheran viewpoint, God is everywhere throughout His creation as a sustaining force; the Eucharist recognizes that fact and reveals God where He is, rather than treating the Host like a chunk of God fallen from heaven.

Third was the discussion concerning what the theory of evolution really is -- basically, at its root, that the populations of organisms change with their environments; how they do so is that those individual organisms which are better adapted to the environment have a higher tendency to survive and pass on their traits to their offspring, which increases the proportion of those traits in the population. Too often, evolution is mischaracterized as the "man came from monkeys" theory -- that is an application of the theory, not the theory itself.

Finally, to tie all these together, we looked at a particular event in the Bible that historically has been a clash point between theology and science -- Joshua 10. In this passage, it describes how Joshua prayed to God for the "sun and moon to stand still". If you interpret this directly from a strict fundamentalist viewpoint, it means that Copernicus and Galileo were wrong -- since Joshua ordered the sun and moon to stand still, it means that THEY move, not the earth. If you interpret this from a straight scientific standpoint, it means the Bible is wrong -- since observation proves that the earth moves around the sun.

However, as my teacher pointed out, both of those are extreme viewpoints that completely exclude any other forms of understanding. The point of the Bible passage is that Joshua prayed and God answered; HOW the "sun stayed still" is irrelevant to that point. The same applies on the scientific side; if you don't get hung up on the "sun stood still" part, you could logically explain it within Copernican and Galileo's theory by saying that the earth stopped rotating.

The same applies to evolution. From a creationist standpoint, denying evolution means that everything is the same as it was originally created -- which makes of the earth a static entity, in complete defiance of what can be observed. Conversely, complete denial of creationism runs headlong into the fact that the sheer magnitude of probabilities involved, as well as the gaps in the fossil record, mean that the theory of evolution as a replacement for creation is based on extrapolations of things not tangibly observed -- which is a general violation of the scientific rule that theories must be testible and based on solid evidence.

In short, as my teacher put it, creationists have tried to make of faith science, and evolutionists have tried to make of science faith. The simple fact is that we don't know, nor can we prove, how things came about. However, when one considers the basic definition of evolution, it is not incompatible with creationism -- there is nothing to say that God didn't "start" the whole process, nor does saying that evolution exists deny God (see second point above). The problem comes when you try to "stretch" either theory beyond what it actually says to prove your point. Nowhere in Genesis does it say that God created everything as-is, with no changes to ever happen; nor does the theory of evolution automatically "prove" that all species on earth are the result of millenia following a lucky chemical reaction.

Indeed, I lean towards the theory that God, as the song goes, "set time in motion"; the fact that evolution, a marvelous adaptive process that humans can barely comprehend, much less duplicate in our own "constructs" exists is proof to me of His wisdom and power in the design of things. God can "interrupt" at any time; the fact that He usually doesn't does not mean that He can't, nor does it mean that He isn't present.

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