By now you have surely heard that Charles Darwin turns 200 today. Happy Birthday! In honor of that fact, Darwin articles in various media outlets are currently a dime a dozen. Some good, some pretty bad, many just standard boilerplate.
Here’s one that caught my eye, from The Times of London. It was written by Cormac Murphy-O’Connor and extols the virtues of blending faith with science. Let’s have a look.
Towards the end of his life Darwin wrote: “It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist and an evolutionist.” The science opens me not only to puzzles and to questions about the world I live in; it leads me to marvel at its complexity. Here, I find science is a good friend to my faith. It also calls me to a journey of learning and understanding. One of the things that mars our culture is the fracture between faith and science. It impoverishes our inquiry into the realities that make up our life and world. This is a false opposition.
Common sentiments to be sure, but I wish people who raise this issue would spell out precisely how our culture is marred by the fracture between faith and science. How does faith enrich our inquiries into the realities of our world beyond what the methods of science already provide? It is nice that Murphy-O’Connor’s faith calls him on a journey of learning and understanding. All too often. however, faith is used as an excuse for pretending that answers are known before the investigation begins.
If we see the two as fundamentally opposed — science endangering and undermining faith, or faith obstructing knowledge — then distortions are produced on both sides. For example, some Christians argue for “Young Earth Creationism” or Intelligent Design as an alternative to evolutionary theory. Creationism is the belief that the biblical stories of Creation as described in the Book of Genesis are literally true.
Well, I certainly like the tacit admission that faith and knowledge are perfectly distinct. As for distortions, that only follows if you believe that religious faith is not a viable way of learning about the natural world. I certainly have no problem with that, but many people are not satisfied with so circumspect a view of religion.
Is genuine Christianity obliged to adopt any of these positions? No, it is not. Belief in creation is not equivalent to any one of them. It is a mistake to treat the theology of creation in the Book of Genesis as a scientific textbook. It does unfold a profound and valid truth about the world in which we live, its order and purpose. The Book of Genesis speaks about the relationship between God and creation and especially about the place of humanity in that relationship. That wonderful narrative of creation offers us a first vision of an “ecology of holiness” in which every material and living thing has a place and its creativity is consecrated in goodness by God. The account of creation in Genesis is pointing us beyond the question “how?” to the question “why?” Ultimately, science as well as faith must come to that most fundamental of all questions: the question of meaning and purpose.
Oh dear. That’s a really bad paragraph.
First off, this canard about treating Genesis as a science textbook really must go. The young-Earthers do not claim that it is. They claim simply that it is inerrant on any topic it treats, and that includes the occasional statement relevant to science.
Next, Murphy-O’Connor has no basis for describing it as a mistake to interpret Genesis as the young-Earthers do. He is welcome to say that he does not like their interpretation or that one can be a good Christiian while accepting a different view of Genesis, but calling it a mistake implies there is an unambiguous fact of the matter regarding the proper interpretation of Genesis. There is not. Furthermore, the young-Earth interpretation has a long and honored tradition within the church, both Catholic and Protestant. It is not some twentieth-century aberration of American Protestantism, contrary to what is often reported.
Murphy-O’Connor then tells us that Genesis is a wonderful narrative that tells us much about the relationship between God and His creation. It describes a profound and valid truth, he says. But surely the relationship between God and creation could have been illuminated without describing an utterly fictitious sequence of events. Profound and valid truths are more easily gleaned when they are not embedded within a story that could hardly be more wrong when viewed from a modern scientific standpoint.
As for where Genesis points us, it seems clear that it pointed a great many smart people into some very wrong ideas. Augustine may have been willing to countenance a non-literal interpretation of certain parts of Genesis, but he was quite adamant that the Earth was on the order of 6,000 years old. Likewise for St. Basil, James Ussher, Martin Luther and John Calvin, to name just a few of the top of my head. The Genesis narrative only has the effect of pointing towards “why” if the story is true. Since the events it describes did not, in fact, occur, I’d say we take our directions from more reliable sources.
Skipping ahead a bit:
Are humans only to be comprehended in purely materialist ways? Is there not something that exceeds this and makes it an inadequate description of human life? Is there not something in us that speaks of transcendence, that hints at being not only matter but also spirit? We are part of an evolutionary process; but we are also free agents; able to influence its future direction. Science gives us immense power, but we need to use all our material and spiritual resources to use that power for the good of all creation.
My answers to those first three questions are Yes, No and No. I answer that way because my understanding of the relevant science make those the most plausible answers. But even if I am wrong, I would like to know how Murphy-O’Connor presumes to seek better answers. How does he recommend we investigate that hypothetical something or other exceeds materialistic understandings of humanity? I’m not optimistic he has a compelling answer.
The anniversary of Darwin’s birth is an invitation to renew the conversation between science and faith. Christianity can contribute to the progress of science, not only by encouraging scientists in the search for truth, but by inviting them to consider these wider questions that go to the heart of our common and necessary search for understanding.
Permit me to demur. Christianity has nothing to contribute to the progress of science. Scientists are doing just fine in their search for truth without the encourgements and invitations of those committed to an outmoded and antiquated view of the world. I would note, further, that the many conflicts between science and Christianity in the past argue against the cozy view Murphy-O’Connor is promoting. A great many Christians are not as ready as Murphy-O’Connor to cede to scientists the right to make pronouncements about how nature works.
There is a bit more to Murphy-O’Connor’s essay so go have a look. Mostly, though, I really do not understand people who think this way. If faith is willing to abandon entirely the right to hold forth on matter of fact about the natural world, then perhaps we can speak of reconciling faith and science. And if it is willing to make so great a concession, then I fail to see what scientists have to learn from it.