Theological 10-step Guide to the Evolution Theory for Conservatives
Here is a little ten-step guide for conservative believers to start thinking seriously about the evolution theory. Since I am a theologian, this is an account that touches primarily on the theological side of things. It was prompted by the responses on a Facebook post of mine by a few good Dutch friends who did their stinking best to write in English and, who, I have no doubt, will be as little convinced of my position after reading this post as they were before. And that is ok. My acceptance of the evolution theory did not come overnight.
1. The evolution theory is not a strategy of the devil nor is it a conspiracy of evil atheists to overthrow Christianity. It is a very plausible and rather likely account of how life and species came to be, including human beings. The only resistance against evolution is not its reputation or its plausibility but a priori theological commitments that foresee grave theological consequences when the evolutionary account is admitted. Something similar was at stake when Galileo refuted the idea of a geo-centric universe. Theologians were in uproar but gradually were forced to come around.
2. Allowing a dogmatic attitude and a priori assumptions concerning the world to dominate our acceptance of science is a sure way to marginalize yourself and to make the Christian message irrelevant. Such dogmatic attitudes were prevalent in the middle ages where for instance scholastic thought as influenced by Aristotle came to certain conclusions about the world that were completely unscientific. Dogmatic philosophy (not theology in this case) precluded a proper understanding of the world. In the early modern period thinkers developed the scientific method which by way of inductive reasoning came to solid conclusion about the world. What started there gradually evolved into the scientific and industrial revolution and the technological age of today.
3. Dogmatic attitudes and apriori worldview commitments plague both religions and scientific communities for all individuals are embedded in a cultural, philosophical context and socio-cultural practices such that conservative Christians will tend to have an a priori commitment to a conservative understanding of the Bible and such that secular scientists will tend to have an apriori commitment to either an agnostic or atheistic understanding of human origins. While it is impossible to get rid of such commitments and become complete objective both parties would do well to be open-minded to divergent opinions. For secularists this means the real possibility that a god exists and for Christians it means that their view of the world might be wrong and that as a consequence their theology might be wrong.
4. Most of what is wrong with the conservative approach, however, is not so much the fact that many ideas it holds as leftovers from the premodern era are outdated, but rather that it mistakes its own theological paradigm for the truth. It is important to start recognizing that our opinions about what the Bible says are merely a theological construct on our part and not literally what the Bible teaches. It is always what we say the Bible teaches, but never really what the Bible really teaches. Part of the problem is that we often forget that the void between the Biblical text and our theology is filled by interpretation. Contrary to popular opinion interpretation is not a 7 step approach to get to the absolute meaning of Scripture, but rather a fuzzy process that leads to multiple conflicting opinions. Our interpretation of the creation story is always our interpretation of it and never more. It is therefore not sacred. It can be changed and corrected.
5. Part of a proper method of interpretation is to look at the intention of the author of a text and its genre. Genesis 1-3 is a cosmogony (an account of how the world came to be what it is now). It is also a temple text in which the divine being orders the world as a temple in order to dwell in it. In fact the hebrew word for “create,” ‘bara’h,’ does not mean ‘to create’ but ‘to separate.’ In the beginning God ‘separates’ heaven and earth. God orders (by separating) the world, so as to dwell in it (7th day of rest). This is what the author meant to convey: by making use of similar stories that were floating around in the Ancient Near East tell the story of God and world in a different way with some important corrections. God is Lord over the world, the hebrew people have somehow a very important connection with this God for they are the ones who will later travel back to the garden (promised land).
6. As such Gen 103 is a myth. It is not myth in the sense of a concocted story, but myth in the sense of the Ancient Near East. If one wanted to provide a cosmogony one had no recourse to science or historical research for such were not available. One had to use myth: a symbolic account that explains the now and provides meaning and perspective. When approaching Gen 1-3 we need to leave this human side of the text intact. By somehow labeling it as God’s Word (which indeed we rightly do so since the people of faith have since long recognized that Genesis is part of God’s Word) we should not diminish its human side and treat its contents the way muslims approach the Quran: as if it dropped out of heaven. No, it’s a human book written with whatever knowledge and tools the author had available to himself at that time. There is no secret infusion of divine knowledge that somehow magically found its way into the text.
7. Since the standard opinion of evangelicals concerning Gen 1-3 is based on a reductive approach (forgetting the human side of the book and treating it as a divine oracle) and since it absolutizes its own theology based on the text (wrong method of interpretation), they really have little to lose and lots to gain by listening to science and say: Maybe there is something we can learn from what science has learned and maybe we can use it to correct our theology or improve our interpretative models.
8. So when the author of Gen 1-3 gives a certain account of how death came to be and how sin is the culprit, we may look at that and say: we get the theological message here, but we now know more about how things really went down because we have science, more knowledge, and better tools. Yet, we realize that the author of Gen 1-3 was no dummy (in fact, the text is absolutely brilliant) and was, as far as we know, inspired by God in writing this text (after all it’s in our Bible), so we take its theological message with utter seriousness while feeling free to amend the factual account of what really happened.
9. I understand the problem some people have with death as a punishment. How is it a punishment (as per Gen 3) when it was already there right from the beginning (as per the evolution theory)? But if we realize that the author of Gen 1-3 thought deeply about death and realized that something is amiss with death since it conflicts with our yearning for eternal life, can’t we simply harmonize that with the evolution account where allegedly human beings, as they became self-conscious, gradually felt a nagging discrepancy between death and their yearning for life as inspired by their self-consciousness? They had no recollection as to what came first: death or their evil behavior as a result of their moral freedom that came with their self-consciousness. So gradually the interpretation arose that death was a punishment for their wrong-doings for indeed the moment self-consciousness arose, humans chose evil and rebelled against their creator.
10. My personal resistance to the evolution theory was always that with evolution accepted, the fall into sin was obliterated and with it the need for Christ. That is what I thought until I started seeing that evolution led to human self-consciousness and human self-consciousness led simultaneously to the possibility of moral choice, which in turn without fail led and leads to the selfish choice against the other, against God, and for the self. There has never been self-consciousness without sin. On an evolutionary account of the human race, sin becomes not only plausible, we see it around us every day of our lives. Sin suddenly makes utterly and devastatingly sense. So this is the story: humans acquired self-consciousness which meant they fell into sin, which means they are utterly depraved and in need of salvation. The evolution theory shows us how needy we are and prepares us for Christ our savior.