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Thank God for Evolution 00:00:0000:00:00

Thank God for Evolution

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I am not going to give an apology for evolution as a scientific theory. Rather, I am wondering if the normal way of discussing evolutionary science within conservative Christianity has blinded us to certain fruitful uses of the theory.

Hip-hop and blues artist Micah Bournes has a provocative spoken word poem called, “Thank God for Evolution.” It tackles head on the myth of progress that often saturates our human understanding of the world around us. Part of the artistic beauty is found in Bournes juxtaposing two intellectual tensions throughout the poem. First is the vivid illustration of the failures of evolutionary science to overcome human depravity. Nothing in the science requires a higher moral standard. In fact, Bournes suggests evolution perpetuates the very atrocities we find unconscionable. Evolution cannot overcome original sin. The second juxtaposition is more subtle, but clearly illustrated. Bournes, a confessing Christian, rightly plays with the ideas of evolutionary theory to affirm the biblical narrative of a radically fallen world and the absolute need of God to step into time and space, rescuing us from ourselves. The concept of evolution becomes a teaching tool rather than a topic for cultural division in the hands of Bournes. He redirects a contentious cultural topic in the right way: toward our need for Jesus’ redemption. Thank God for evolution.

Bournes is attacking a false notion of progress. His repurposing of scientific culture might have even broader apologetic implications. Bournes is doing here what is called a negative apologetic. A negative apologetic is any defensive move that answers challenges to the Christian faith. Evolutionary theory and moral progress are often considered problems for Christians from a materialistic worldview. Bournes’ poem could serve as a negative apologetic via his exposing the inconsistency between a popular conception of moral progress and evolutionary theory. Could evolutionary theory contribute to a positive apologetic? Positive apologetics are offensive means of building a case for Christ. Could evolutionary theory, broadly understood, provide any sort of bridge to a case for Christ? Could we thank God for evolution apologetically? I claim we can.

Now, before anyone gets too worked up about this line of thinking, let me clarify my intent. I am not going to give an apology for evolution as a scientific theory. Rather, I am wondering if the normal way of discussing evolutionary science within conservative Christianity has blinded us to certain fruitful uses of the theory. Is it possible for a confessional Christian to thank God for evolution?

What is the normal way of speaking about evolution? If you browse any of the popular literature for conservative Christian denominations, like my own denomination, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS), you’ll soon run across the name Ken Ham and his organization Answers in Genesis (AiG) or the Discovery Institute (DI) out of Seattle. AiG is a young-earth creationist society and the DI is a public policy think tank well known for their advocacy of Intelligent Design. Both groups promote conflict between evolutionary biology and what Scripture indicates is the biological history of life. One must be careful not to implicate DI and Intelligent Design as promoting Bible-based science. They are not. They are groups attempting to, according to the practice of normal science, detect intelligent design in nature.

Yet AiG and Intelligent Design are often put to apologetic use against evolutionary materialism, and therefore often serve as a negative apologetic for Christians. Both provide resources to challenge the prevailing evolutionary paradigm in biology and the oft-accompanied philosophical materialism. Unfortunately, this is not working as well as one might have thought for Christians. The Pew Research Center found that 64 percent of Mainline Protestants polled believe in some form of human evolution. 50 percent of the more conservative Evangelical Tradition Lutherans (LCMS, WELS, & Other) to which I associate also believe in some version of human evolution. If you click on the link and search around you can get specific denominational breakdowns of the data.

Questions surely need to be asked of this study. However, my aim is to speculate on whether the topic of evolution might provide resources for a positive apologetic. I raise the Pew data because it may be that a positive apologetic from evolution may even be valuable internally. In the specific case of the Evangelical Tradition Lutherans, 50 percent is quite a large number of folks at odds with an official church position (c.f., LCMS on Creation and WELS statement on Creation). This is a catechetical problem, but perhaps a positive apologetic might help anchor those 50 percent (and maybe others) within our churches for further conversation. Moreover, with the staggering rates at which children move from their family faith during college, perhaps a positive apologetic regarding evolutionary theory might act to counter this alarming trend.

Crucial to a positive apologetic is noticing a key assumption about evolutionary theory that aligns well with Christian intellectual sensibilities. Evolutionary theory is committed to a robust sense of history. What I mean by this statement is that evolutionary theory is devoted to a real and knowable history. History is not some sort of construct or ideologically infused entity (e.g., Hegel, Marx, Kant, Kierkegaard etc.). The evolutionary biologist is committed to sifting solid historical evidence in order to make claims about common descent. The Christian may be troubled with a concept such as common descent, but this unease should not overshadow the powerful ally we might have in the methodological presuppositions of the evolutionary biologist in committing to a knowable and true history.

Think about a paleontologist as he attempts to ascertain the cause of the great dinosaur extinction. The scientist must reconstruct as accurate a picture of history as possible, weighing the evidence of certain scenarios against each other. How different is this when one investigates the nature of the resurrection. Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Did somebody steal the body? Did Jesus really die on the cross? These questions are addressed in the same fashion as the paleontologist. The main difference is that Christians are dealing with a history a few thousand years old while the evolutionary biologist is working with tens of thousands, to hundreds of thousands, to millions of years.

But what of the more molecular biological sciences, do they commit to a robust view of history? While I was at Florida State, I had the privilege of working on an interdisciplinary project between the biology and philosophy departments funded by the National Science Foundation. My team was looking into the philosophy and biology of altruism and the phenomenon of group selection in biology. We replicated a classic experiment often assumed to illustrate group selection using a different biological system, slime molds. In a petri dish we cultivated the slime molds, then starved them to make them “bloom,” chopped them up, and ran them through a machine to locate and counted certain gene sequences that were irradiated or marked by a chemical tracer. It was a lot of fun. However, not much history was happening as I dutifully tended to the petri dishes. Of course, history was happening, but nothing that seems to imply that same apologetic significance as that of the paleontologist. Except for the fact that slime molds has a life history and an evolutionary history. It is part of a certain family, genus, and species.

I am not going to give an apology for evolution as a scientific theory. Rather, I am wondering if the normal way of discussing evolutionary science within conservative Christianity has blinded us to certain fruitful uses of the theory.

The most common method of classification of these families, genus and species of organisms is known as Cladistics. This method looks for genetic similarity between organisms to distinguish clades (groups) from one another. Cladistics asserts the groupings we see today all share various common ancestors, with most groups being defined in relation to their most recent common ancestor. The details of these relationships are not important, but what is important is the fact that even molecular biologists are committed to these recent common ancestors when they choose a system such as slime molds to study. This evolutionary history is important and robust for a more laboratory-based biologist in the same way that Rome’s history is an important aspect of Christian history even if one does not regularly recognize it as such.

This commitment to historical robustness and truth in evolutionary biology is an important general feature of the theory. It is a feature, moreover, that Christians can use in order to promote a robust sense of history against those sectors of culture seeking to degrade or abuse history as knowable on its own terms. Much like Bournes’ poem, evolution can teach us something if we put aside the standard negative story.

But it gets better. Earlier I compared the difference between the amount of historical time an evolutionary biologist and a historian of biblical Christianity must account. While their approach is the same, one must infer that it is easier to get a handle on two thousand years of history versus ten thousand (or millions of) years of history. This poses a dilemma for the evolutionary atheist, for if one summarily dismisses the Christian New Testament, then they must also dismiss the entire evolutionary historical narrative. Or, in a positive fashion, if you accept the evolutionary historical narrative, then you must take serious the New Testament historical narrative.

*When engaging in positive apologetics, we need not worry about the age of the Earth, the status of humanity in the biological sciences, design inferences, historical or non-historical Adams, and a host of other problems that arise from the current state of the biological sciences, and trust that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life and the author and perfecter of our faith. In doing so, one realizes that our faith begins in the middle of the Bible. It may seem counterintuitive, but Christians begin and end with Jesus, NOT the beginning of created time or from the eternal outside of time. Once we stand in the shade of the cross, we can confidently look back to the beginning and glimpse the eternal. From the dying, yet victorious cry from the cross, “It is finished,” we may be able to see Christ working through the biological sciences bringing outsiders and reminding insiders where our security and salvation are anchored. If we remove a few cognitive planks from our own eyes, we may even better serve our evolutionary neighbor. Thank God for evolution indeed!

“See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Col. 2:8).

“Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of your time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Col. 4:5-6, ESV).

*This conclusion paragraph has been updated. Special thanks to Matt Cochran for the additional clarification brought to these concluding remarks.