Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Creation--Evolution Culture War

Book Review: Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution (HarperOne, 2008) by Karl Giberson

Karl Giberson is a physicist, a Christian and director of the Forum on Faith and Science at Gordon College. The thesis of his book is easily grasped: the controversy between "creation and evolution" is essentially not a conflict between Christian theology and natural science but a culture war between a distorted version of Christian theology (creationism) and natural science (scientism). Giberson divides his discussion between each distortion. While he presents a detailed analysis of both creationism and scientism, his position is stated with complete clarity: "We don't know anywhere near enough about evolution to infer from it that God is not the creator. And we don't know anywhere near enough about God to dismiss the idea that evolution might be part of God's creative processes. If we can embrace a bit of humility and avoid the temptation to enlarge either evolution or biblical literalism into an entire worldview, we can dismiss this controversy as the irrelevant shouting match that it is" (p. 18).
In saying that the "creation--evolution" controversy is a culture war, Giberson is saying that what is really at stake is not so much theological or scientific truth but who or what sets the agenda for American culture.
Charles Darwin's The Origins of Species was published in America in 1860 and was fairly well received. While some scientists rejected Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection on scientific grounds (like Harvard's Louis Agassiz), many Christians either saw no inherent conflict between Christianity and evolution (such as Princeton Seminary's Benjamin Warfield) or adopted means of interpreting Scripture which sought to reconcile the two. The most important of these means was the "day-age" theory, the theory which holds that each of the "days" in Genesis 1 refers to a geological epoch. In evaluating these responses, it needs to be remembered that at this point even Darwin himself recognized that his thesis that natural selection was the engine of evolution was not conclusively demonstrated. By 1875 evolution was largely accepted by scientists as a historical fact but uncertainty remained as to what caused it.
It also needs to be recognized that Darwin's work was not the principal cause of disquiet in Christian circles at the time. In 1835 David Friedrich Strauss had published his The Life of Jesus Critically Examined in which he argued that the four gospels were largely falsified portrayals of Jesus. This was the beginning of a wave of biblical scholarship (a wave which has crested but not totally receded) which argued that the New Testament tells us more about the beliefs of the early Church that it does about who Jesus actually was or what he really taught. Such a view presented an obvious threat to Protestant belief. In response, a group of Protestants published a series of tracts between 1910 and 1915 entitled The Fundamentals (eventually published together). This was the beginning of the Fundamentalist movement. As Giberson points out, however, The Fundamentals contained no attack on evolution and no attempt to argue for a literal 7 day creation process.
The initial reaction to Darwinism (as it was eventually called) was not fueled by Fundamentalism but by attempts to make Darwinism into a worldview. In the hands of the philosopher Herbert Spencer, Darwin's biological theory became "social Darwinism," the idea that in economic competition the fit deservedly triumph over the less fit--it makes no sense to help the less fortunate because they deserve the blows the economic system has dealt them. Then came the eugenics movement which was quite popular in Europe and America. Between 1900 and 1935 thirty-two states enacted legislation permitting the forced sterilization of "defective" people; some sixty thousand people were sterilized. The central notion of the eugenics program, that of "improving" the human race, was quickly seized upon and put to use in service of the cause of National Socialism (Nazism). Hitler was able to present the Final Solution as simply eugenics taken to its ultimate conclusion. Giberson comments: "Right or wrong, but mainly wrong, Darwinism has always looked much larger than biology. And today the opposition to evolution from Christians is driven by a conviction that Darwin's theory undermines traditional values and opens doors to assorted evils" (p. 69).
The current Fundamentalist opposition to evolution is actually quite recent. It essentially begins with the publication of Henry Morris' The Genesis Flood (1961). Morris is essentially the originator of young earth creationism, the view which holds that Genesis 1 presents us with a literal account of the creation of the world. The Christian opposition to evolution essentially shifted in nature. At first it was opposed as a philosophy which abetted horrible evils and destroyed all moral values; now it was opposed because it conflicted with the Bible. Giberson comments: "At the time the book appeared, most fundamentalists accepted the great age of the earth, in agreement with the scientific community. Now, half a century later, fundamentalists are largely united under the banner of young-earth creationism" (p. 132). This was an intellectual disaster in that it forced many Christians into a reading of Scripture that was simply contrary to known fact.
Giberson does not have a high opinion of Intelligent Design Theory (IDT) to which he devotes an entire chapter. His difficulty with IDT is easily stated: he argues that it has been scienfically unproductive (this is beyond dispute at this point). As a Christian, Giberson has another worry about IDT. He worries that by embracing a "God of the gaps" theology risks future disaster when what seems inexplicable now becomes explained later.
But if young-earth creationists have wrong views of science, so do many scientists and philosophers who want to turn Darwinism into a knock-down argument for their atheism. In Giberson's opinion, for figures such as Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan and Edward Wilson, Darwinism has become a "religion". Evolutionary theory now provides an "explanation" for everything, from altruism to religious belief itself. For evolutionary "fundamentalists" the central attraction of Darwinism is that negates God and establishes materialism as the only plausible worldview. As Giberson notes, most actual scientists find this way of thinking a contradiction of genuine science.
An interesting thing to note is that young-earth creationists have little contact with real science and some of the louder Darwinian "fundamentalists" have little contact with real theology. This may explain a great deal.
Michael Petty


Blogger Unknown said...

Petty explains that Giberson

“worries that by embracing a "God of the gaps" theology risks future disaster when what seems inexplicable now becomes explained later.”

When Galileo explained the sun’s centrality over mankind's earth—a similar conflict emerged. But note the stark contrast between these two purported “gaps."

1)Galileo’s explanations were later found (in terms of Newtonian physics) to have “predictive power.”

2)The sun centered “theory” is clearly context specific or situationally concrete, unlike what according to

“figures such as Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan and Edward Wilson, Darwinism has become a "religion". Evolutionary theory [which] now provides an "explanation" for everything, from altruism to religious belief itself.’”

3) The notion of “survival of the fittest through adaptation” is not nearly as logically cogent and engineering-wise fruitful as Galileo’s initiatory explanation (e.g., mechanics, dynamics, and their extensions of Quantum Mechanics and Relativity, opening doors for semiconductors for computer to solar power chips, and clean nuclear power).

These two "gap theories" then have vastly differing concrete, practical efficacy. Evolutionary Theory seems comparatively ephemeral, having gigantic wiggle room for "creating shouting match[es]." This raises questions about its legitimate gap “filling” nature at the start.

August 3, 2008 at 1:53 AM  
Blogger Betty said...

It is plausible to believe in God and evolution at the same time, thus evoking all thanks and praise to God for His exquisite talent and scientific creation of all things bright and beautuful!

August 5, 2008 at 8:08 PM  

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Anglican Communion's Crisis of Authority

On the surface of things, it appears that the Anglican Communion is becoming increasingly polarized over same gender marriages and the ordination of active homosexuals. But if one looks beneath the surface one finds more profound issues such as the finality of Christ's saving work in a religiously plural world and the role of the Church is a post-Christian, relativist culture. At the center of all these issues is the theological question of authority, a question which many Anglicans seem to be not very anxious to address. Given the fact that the once in a decade Lambeth Conference, which is the Communion's most representative body and (given the fact that it is an assembly of bishops) its most authoritative body, will probably not even address the Communion's tensions, one has to wonder if the Communion has any functional structures of authority at all. And behind the question of authority there is another question, a question which Anglicans also seem anxious to avoid: What is Anglicanism?
Talking about authority in a democratic and relativist culture is never easy because the default position even of many Christians is that each person should decide what he or she believes without instruction from the Church. Quite simply, many see authority as a threat to what they cherish most which is a sense of individual autonomy.
In 1998 the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission released a document entitled The Gift of Authority. This document attempts to map out a consensus position on the issue of ecclesial authority between the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church. One of the key notions advanced here is the idea that authority is necessary to preserve the Church's integrity: "The duty of maintaining the Church in the truth is one of the essential functions of the episcopal college...The authenticity of the teaching of individual bishops is evident when this teaching is in solidarity with that of the whole episcopal college." It would be immensely valuable if the bishops now gathered at Lambeth would give this notion serious consideration.
The Anglican Communion now seems to be caught in a series of contradictions. One one hand we are told that we must preserve the Communion at all costs and on the other hand those who urge this can not say exactly what it is that holds the Communion together. One one hand those who fault the Communion's structures for not correcting errors in teaching made by certain provinces and dioceses are called "schismatic" and on the other hand the bishops who have done the most to undermine the Communion's integrity now claim that it is an unpardonable sin to boycott Lambeth in protest.
Putting aside all speculation about whether whether the Anglican Communion will survive intact for a moment, it certainly seems that the continued failure to guard the integrity of the Communion and the determination of some bishops to have no authority higher than their own so as to have complete freedom to engage in "prophetic" actions can only have the effect of undermining faith in the episcopal office, the college of bishops and the whole notion of communion. Before the word "schism" gets used too freely one has to ask the question if it is schism to depart from a ecclesiastical structure which can not even move itself to protect its own integrity? The "gift of authority" is not given to the Church simply to create a coerced or artificial unity but to teach the Truth. And apart from some acknowledgement of the Truth and commitment to keep it, the Church's teaching office and those who exercise it look rather silly.
Michael Petty


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Fr. Michael,

The tag line of "Imperial Automomy of Me" is used rather frequently to identify an attitude that is solidly anti authority. Thus, when Bishop Spong published, he could have been identified as haviing a semblence of Imperial Automomy and perhaps seen in his true light.

July 18, 2008 at 4:10 PM  

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Monday, July 7, 2008

What is Anglicanism? (Can This Question be Answered?)

Book Review: Anglicanism: A Very Short Introduction by Mark Chapman (Oxford University Press, 2006)

There are various ways of answering this question, one of which is to give a historical account of Anglicanism. This is the way chosen by Mark Chapman and the account he provides is helpful because it raises important questions.

The theme of this book can be summarized by a sentence which appears in the first chapter: "One of the most important problems in Anglicanism continues to be the search for authority" (p. 3). The question of authority is a deeply theological one and finally comes down to this: How does the Church maintain her integrity and discern truth from falsehood? Some Anglicans have thought that a lack of clarity on this point is a positive virtue but in light of the Anglican Communion's current instability this view is becoming more and more difficult to indulge in.
The Anglican understanding of authority begins with Henry VIII's reformation of the English church. Here we need to avoid the stereotypes of Henry "creating" a church for the sole purpose of granting him a divorce. Henry appears to have had a genuine desire to reform the church in England and what he envisioned was a relationship between church and crown very similar to that which existed in the Byzantine Empire: the Church of England would be the Church in England under a Christan monarchy. Henry envisioned a Christendom made up of national churches presided over by consecrated monarchs. The major figures of the English Reformation, Thomas Cranmer and Richard Hooker, agreed with this view and vigorously defended it. Chapman characterizes this view, correctly I think, as "Caesaro-papalism," meaning that the offices of prince and pope were combined and then exercised by successive monarchs. This understanding of Anglicanism remained viable (in England, at least) until 1689 when the Toleration Act allowed freedom to Trinitarian Protestants (not to Roman Catholics). With the Royal Supremacy of 1534 the English church was no longer defined by its communion with Rome but defined by the crown but this created a huge potential problem: the supreme authority of Scripture in the church became, as Chapman notes, a "legal fiction" in that what Scripture meant and how it was to be applied was now determined by the Crown.
It is a mistake to say, as has been said, that Henry VIII "invented" the Church of England since most of what came to define Anglicanism came after his death in 1547. It was during the reigns of his son Edward VI (1547-1553) and his daughter Elizabeth I (1558-1603) that what we now call Anglicanism really came into existence. Four things were key to the formation of this identity: (1) The Book of Common Prayer: Cranmer's Prayer Book of 1549 and 1552 and the Elizabethan Prayer Book of 1559 gave definition to Anglican worship and piety. (2) The Thirty-Nine Articles: Issued in their final form in 1571, these theological statements did not set out a complete body of doctrine but established the general theological parameters of Anglicanism. (3) The Episcopacy: There was pressure on the Church of England to abolish episcopal government and adopt a Presbyterian system. These pressures were resisted and the threefold order of ministry that had arisen in the early Church (bishop, priest, deacon) were retained. (4) Self-consciously Anglican theology: During the reign of Elizabeth I a self-consciously Anglican form of theology emerges in the persons of Bishop John Jewel and Richard Hooker: what is disavowed here is both Roman Catholicism and radical Calvinism and radical Protestantism.
There is a school of thinking which looks back on all this and draws the conclusion that Anglicanism is essentially a compromise movement, a safe middle ground between extremes and that compromise and moderation are its core principles. Such a view overlooks what actually happened. Each successive Prayer Book was established by an Act of Uniformity of Parliament meaning that it was the only legal liturgy in the kingdom. Neither Elizabeth I nor her successor James I (1603-1625) showed the slightest tolerance of Roman Catholics or Puritans (radical Protestants) and would not abide even hints about establishing a Presbyterian church in England. The notion that Anglicanism was built simply on tolerance, moderation and compromise would have struck Hooker and Jewel as quite wide of the mark; they saw Anglicanism as a theological position not as comfortable muddle.
As Chapman notes, the future difficulties of Anglicanism could be seen in two important developments. First, the development of parties within the Church of England and, second, the expansion of Anglicanism beyond England. During the 18th century Anglicanism went through an identity crisis as three distinct ecclesiastical parties developed, each adopting distinct identities. The Evangelical party took as its reference point the English Reformation and tended toward Calvinism. The Anglo-Catholic party took as its reference point the early Church and was patristic in its theological orientation. The Broad Church party aimed at what amounted to a least common denominator Protestantism. What might hold these three divergent tendencies together? What might Anglicanism be if all three claimed to represent true Anglicanism?
The expansion of Anglicanism beyond England, first to America and then to India and Australia, also posed challenges. Henry VIII's original vision was a series of national churches presided over by a Christian prince but this vision simply could not be applied to any of these places (particularly not to the newly independent United States). It is not surprising, therefore, to note that the Anglican Communion is a fairly late development, the first Lambeth Conference being held in 1867. The Communion's understanding of how its 38 provinces are related to one another, what it believes and what sources of belief it draws upon to make decisions still have not solidified. As late as 2004 the Communion's Windsor Report reflected on how provincial autonomy might be balanced with the obligations of communion. Chapman suggests that there is way for the Anglican Communion to survive despite current problems: the Communion must accept "diversity" and "comprehensiveness" and understand "itself more as a way of muddling through to the truth than a set of definitive judgments" (p. 144). Such a view does not strike me as being very heroic nor can I see that such an entity would really be a communion at all.
Michael Petty


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