As the scientific world prepares to engage society in its annual celebration of Darwin, GTN asks if and how the Church might respond. GTN acknowledges with appreciation the input of Rev Dr Russel Moffat in the creation of this article.
The "Origin of Species" by Charles Darwin is undoubtedly one of the most important books ever written, by one of the most influential thinkers in history. According to one commentator, this was the book that "dragged us all kicking and screaming into the modern world". An overstatement perhaps, but the book marked a watershed in human understanding and started a revolution in the way people think of themselves and their world. Things have never been quite the same since. Therefore it is no surprise that Charles Darwin is both remembered and honoured as a great man.
Darwin was born on the 12th of February (1809) and that date is increasingly being commemorated annually, as "Darwin Day". Events are held each year internationally on or around the 12th of February to mark and celebrate the achievements of Darwin and of Science. In the United States the vision of Secular Humanists for the occasion is that of a day of celebration, activism, and international cooperation for the promotion and advancement of science, education, and human well-being, focussed especially on science as a means for human betterment. It is seen as an opportunity to inspire people with values seen to be embodied in the life and work of Charles Darwin namely "intellectual bravery", "perpetual curiosity", and "hunger for truth".
However, there is undoubtedly an anti-religious or anti-theological agenda here too. Unfortunately, Darwinian evolution was an ideological battleground in the 19th century and still is to some extent today. The perpetuation of the historical myth of a constant war between science and religion is still being propagated in some quarters (e.g. especially by New Atheists) making this a complex and challenging topic. Their conflict model might suggest churches should best ignore Darwin Day but that may well be ill advised and unwittingly reinforce the conflict stereotype. (However, there should be no problem, in principle, with the Christian Churches to promote the idea of Darwin Day.) After all, Science does not belong to Atheism. Evolution, however defined or understood, is not the preserve of Secularists, and Darwin is not the property of Humanists. So, can Christians be involved in this? Should they be involved in this? Surely the answer is yes.
Darwin! Hero or Villain? Friend or Foe? Harmless scientist or the "Devil's Chaplain"? Well he was none of these. Rather he was a humble, gifted, troubled and likeable genius; a gentle revolutionary whose work and legacy presents the Christian Faith with both a great challenge and a great opportunity. It is important to take both of these very seriously indeed. Darwin himself was never an atheist albeit latterly he had problems with his faith mainly because of the premature death of his daughter.
There are, broadly speaking, four different Christian responses to Darwin and evolution. In simple terms these may be summarised as follows:
First, the Opposers - They exist primarily but not exclusively in the United States. Darwinian evolution is seen as the enemy of The Faith and no compromise or accommodation can be made with it in any shape or form.
Second, the Dreamers – They are at the other end of the theological spectrum. They are liberal Christians who don't know what all the fuss is about. For them, Darwinian evolution and Christianity can easily be brought together into a harmonious union as long as we don't interpret certain biblical texts too literally.
Third, the Separators - They take a Kiplingesque approach to the matter… "East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet". Here science (in general and evolution in particular) and religion are viewed as very separate and distinct disciplines which have very little to do with one another. For them there is no conflict or competition between these disciplines as they have different aims and methodologies. Unfortunately, things are rather more complicated than that.
Finally, there are the Reformers – They accept that a corollary of Monotheism is the dictum "All truth is God's Truth". Therefore, for them theology is compelled, and that is the operative word, to build a dialectical relationship with other disciplines in order to seek to form an integrated and coherent worldview. This is considered essential for the Christian faith. The specific Christian revelation needs to be applied and re-applied in every age, especially ones that have undergone major paradigm revolutions such as our contemporary world. However, this engagement can be uncomfortable, even painful, as it may necessitate a re-interpretation of older and more traditional perspectives which requires honesty and realism.
Individuals may hold a mixture of these responses but it should be recognised that although the scientific basis for Darwinian Evolution may well be further modified in the future as it already has been, it is hard to imagine it being completely replaced with a very different paradigm. That is the challenge of Darwinism and Christians need to take cognisance of it.
So, what is the opportunity?
From the beginning, the Christian faith developed a world-vision and embraced a universal message. That has meant that much of Christian history has involved creative engagement with many varied cultures, philosophies, religious ideologies and science. This in turn has shaped and moulded the Christian Church in both positive and negative ways. Nonetheless, there is no alternative to this process if the Church is to maintain its mission to the whole world. The Christian faith at its core is bold, open, and affirmative of all truth. Religion is never more unlovely than when it is defensive or reactionary. It is never more irrelevant than when it is complacent and out of touch. Carping or commentating from the side-lines is not an option for Christianity. Neither is dis-engagement from the big issues of the day. The track record of the Church in dealing with Darwin and evolution is not great. That needs to improve and acknowledging and responding to Darwin Day may be an appropriate place to start.
By failing to respond in some way, the Church may appear – externally but also to its members – weak in having nothing to say. At the very least, congregations need to be made aware that Darwin is not the threat to belief in a creator that secular exploiters of this view would have us believe.
We need to remind ourselves and others that Christianity must not be put in a Ghetto or Christians confined like Native Americans to a "Reservation". We have a Gospel to proclaim and a worldview to share. But that requires dialogue and debate with the best of contemporary thought. For too long this issue has been ignored. Now could be an opportunity for Churches to be engaged and involved with this topic whether at the level of individual congregations or collectively with others. Perhaps Darwin day can be a stimulus to be educated about the issues. Darwin's status deserves this, evolution's importance demands it and theology's integrity requires it.
First steps in responding may be fairly low key and suggestions are given below.
To introduce the subject, for example to a congregation, why not share the clips below from Programme 2 (Life and Evolution) of The God Question series?
Duration: 5 minutes
Learn about Darwin's famous voyage of discovery on HMS Beagle and what he concluded about how and why we have such diversity of species on earth.
Duration: 2 minutes
Encounter the difference between the atheist and the Christian worldviews as expressed by world renowned scientists and philosophers. Meet scholars such as Professor Ken Miller, Professor John Lennox and Dr Francis Collins who are convinced by the rational case for the mind of God being the ultimate designing power behind all natural processes.
If you opt to use only one clip the second might be the better choice. In connection with your focus on Darwin Day, the Producers of the series grant their permission to show the above clips to a church audience.
GTN promotes informed discussion about the crucially important subject of science and God. Suitably informed, participants are encouraged to form their own conclusions on the key issues.
GTN commends the view that science, properly understood, cannot be in conflict with a proper understanding of the Christian faith. Neither of these understandings is necessarily simple and it is only right for us to interrogate both as best we can.
The ultimate aim includes informing and transforming public understanding of science and God. That is more feasible to achieve when the Christian public is able and willing to participate in discussion.
GTN suggests using the Exploring the God Question series (www.thegodquestion.tv/explore). The programmes facilitate discussion and encourage evaluation of the evidence and the variety of views in matters related to God and science. Programme 2, Life and Evolution, is especially relevant to the above topic.
More information and discussion on this particular topic on can be found on the GTN forum under 'Darwin, DNA and Divinity'.