What evangelicals fight about: creation
The second bone of contention in the much abused skeleton of Evangelical thought is creation. Dickinson and Buckeridge (for the background see What evangelicals fight about: atonement) list the options: ‘Three main opposing views with hot and sometimes harsh debate between supporters of six-day creationism, intelligent design and theistic evolution.’ To be honest, I am rather uninformed about this whole issue, and what I have to say will probably seem naïve and misguided. But I think that there are options available to us in a postmodern framework which, if we could just extract ourselves from beneath the suffocating weight of the interminable modern debate, could prove re-invigorating for the missional work of the church.
It seems to me that at one level this is simply a debate about the coherence of a scientific theory. In order to be vindicated both creationism and intelligent design (if it is anything more than just a metaphor for theistic evolution) must eventually demonstrate that purely naturalistic accounts of evolution are flawed, are not fully able to make sense of the data. Politics and prejudice will be major factors: as long as it remains as much a cultural controversy as a scientific one, we should not expect this to be a fair-minded and reasonable investigation of the evidence. But the fundamental problem as I see it is that as a matter of science the debate over evolution is extremely complex and rarely stands still for very long. So, on the one hand, it is very difficult to know whether we have got the facts and arguments right; and on the other, we can never be sure that we will be dealing with the same facts and arguments, from whichever side of the debate, tomorrow. In that respect, and at that level, I don’t see the point in getting too upset about the whole thing; I think it can be set apart from the basic calling of the church.
In my view, in a postmodern world, it would be much more interesting to explore how we might tell different stories about human origins without getting into an unseemly fight over it. The theory of evolution has a lot of empirical data going for it, but in the end, because the process cannot be observed or replicated or put to practical use, it remains essentially a marvellous, tumultuous story that is being told about life. As someone who believes that life is a gift of God, I can derive great intellectual satisfaction and even an inspiration for worship from a story of such extraordinary intrigue and intricacy. For good reasons or bad it doesn’t greatly bother me that the story appears to exclude God from the process. Many of the stories that we tell about the world exclude God from the process: stories about the emergence of agriculture, the history of China, the discovery of penicillin, the life-cycle of the earthworm, the deforestation of Borneo, and so on.
But there is also something about my experience of the world that means I cannot help but construct narratives of purpose and design. At one end of the scale this is expressed as superstition or animism; but within a theistic worldview we are not the less bound to seek meaning in the circumstances – indeed, in the very fact – of our existence. It’s probably asking for trouble to lock this perspective too tightly into any particular scientific analysis. It has always seemed rather arbitrary and hazardous to pick on some peculiar feature of living creatures and trumpet it as empirical evidence that the whole thing has been designed and couldn’t possibly have existed otherwise. It will only be a matter of time before some new argument or piece of information is thrust in our faces to spite us. But ‘intelligent design’ still seems to me a potent and perhaps even necessary story to tell about human existence.
Finally, I want to be able to exploit the ‘mythical’ power of the biblical creation narratives – to be able to say, ‘This is what happened, this is what God did’ – without being accused of bigotry or stupidity. There are clearly issues of genre and intention that must be allowed to inform our understanding of these primitive texts. What questions were they seeking to answer? What other narratives were they in competition with? But this sort of literary and theological contextualization ought to lead us to more appropriate ways of retelling the biblical creation story, not in crude, misplaced conflict with the theory of evolution but as an alternative to the deep mythical narratives that shape our culture, that give meaning and direction to its fundamental projects, including the scientific project.
This argument has been clumsily and inexpertly made. But whether or not I have done justice to the three different positions, I think that the church as a prophetic, story-telling community is primarily called not to settle what is essentially a scientific debate but to tell good stories, as stories, about the creator God. This should not be regarded as a trivial activity: we should learn to tell each of these stories well, as experts, as people with a passionate grasp of their intrinsic power and quite distinct functions. But I think it would be a good witness to the importance of an integrated worldview if we could learn to tell them imaginatively and good-naturedly as mutually interpretive stories not as competing theories.
Next up: Emerging church