Category Archives: Environment/Nature

Evolution, Genesis, and Discipleship

I haven’t blogged about the question of how we read and understand the Genesis creation accounts in a while, though it continues to be of interest to me. Today I happened to listen to and watch a delightful moderated dialogue between Richard Dawkins, the famous biologist and outspoken atheist (to be fair, he identifies as an agnostic), and Rowan Williams, the former-but-current-in-the-video Archbishop of Canterbury, the sort of figurehead of the worldwide Anglican communion. (I don’t normally have the patience to watch anything on YouTube that’s longer than 15 minutes, but the whole discussion was 1.5 hours long and I was captivated. I must have been soothed by their English accents, particularly Williams’. Actually, it was a truly interesting exchange, and Dawkins was civil.)

Nothing particularly bloggable was said in the first hour, but just after the hour mark things got more generally interesting for a while in response to a question from the audience. Williams believes that the universe is billions of years old and that evolution, so far as we understand it, is how we got to now—at that level, he and Dawkins agree. Of course, as a Christian, Williams believes God is involved or present in this process (though in the discussion he does not explain how).

Here is a link to the portion of the video that I’m referring to (starting automatically at about 1:08:27 and you can stop listening at about 1:11:39, if you wish), but I will also include a transcript of the relevant bits below.

Moderator Anthony Kerr, quoting an audience question: “Surely if the truth is that the universe is billions of years old and life evolved, it would have been better when the Bible was written to say nothing about how humans began. Did the writers essentially get it wrong?”

Archbishop Rowan Williams: Probably [a question] for me…I can’t imagine that the biblical writers were, if you like, faced with a set of options, including telling the truth that the universe is billions of years old, and saying, “Oh, that’s too difficult.” The writers of the Bible, inspired as I believe they were, were nonetheless not inspired to do 21st century physics.

This is probably the most succinct way of explaining why we should not read the opening chapters of Genesis as a scientific textbook or manual. Williams goes on:

Williams: They were inspired to pass on to their readers what God wanted them to know—forgive the naked theology here, but I might as well come clean—and that means reading the first book of the Bible, what I look for is the basic information—this might be a different sense [of information] from what we were talking about just now: the universe depends on God, God’s freedom, humanity has a very distinctive role in that universe, and from the first measurable moment humans have made a rather conspicuous mess of that role. That’s where the Bible begins, that’s what I need to know, so to speak. And I don’t think that it makes very much sense to talk about the writers of scripture getting it wrong in the sense that there being lots of information available and they happened to get the wrong bits of it.

He goes on to say, in response to a follow-up question from Dawkins, that reading Genesis in this way is “something which isn’t just a 21st century invention, but it’s a way people have read Genesis from very early on.”

What does appear to be a 21st century invention, however, is an insistence on a strictly literal (in the sense of literal six 24 hour days of creation—a sort of reverse scientific literalism, I suppose) reading of Genesis, which I suspect is a reaction to overzealous conclusions about religion and the existence of God drawn by some from the scientific evidence.

In many respects I don’t really have a dog in this fight. I don’t know much about evolutionary theory, nor do I have detailed knowledge of the evidence, so I can’t make an independent decision about its veracity. However, the vast majority of the scientific community, as far as I’m aware, including the many Bible-believing, Jesus-loving Christian scientists among them (including personal friends), agree that the universe is very old and that we evolved, so I have to deal with that fact.

At this point I’m not sure it matters what a person believes about this question. I think a person can be just fine believing in a 6,000-year-old earth and a one-week creation; I think a person can be a fine follower of Jesus and hearer of scripture and believe the universe’s age is in the billions of years and that life evolved.

Where this question does interest me is on the level of biblical interpretation and discipleship. I’ve talked about the question of how to interpret Genesis in relation to question of its intent (as Williams addressed in the video) and genre. The question of discipleship comes up from time to time, particularly in terms of teaching our young people in preparation for higher education. What should we teach them about Genesis and science? we wonder Some think that we should teach them to defend against evolutionary theory, that we should make sure we understand the (apparent) evidence against evolution and for a young earth to prepare them when they face all the (mis?)information in university.

I’m inclined to disagree with this approach, and not  because I think that it is true that life evolved (I remain mostly agnostic about this, largely because I don’t know enough), but for two other reasons:

  1. Jesus is the heart, soul, and centre of our faith, not how we read the opening chapters of Genesis. Genesis is very important to our understanding of the faith. I love Genesis. But it’s not the centre or focal point. Jesus is.
  2. I’m convinced that training our young people against evolution will, in the long run, do more to harm their faith than grow it. If we train them with biblical scientific literalism (my term) and then they go to university and are overwhelmed with evidence in favour of evolution, it might bring them to a crisis of faith, having to choose between faith and science. It’s a choice I don’t think is necessary to make, but we may force that choice on them, depending on how we approach the issue in our teaching.

Note that this is not about whether or not evolution is true. It’s a question of whether it’s a battle that needs to be fought, of whether the Bible requires us to believe something other than what the scientific community is (purportedly?) finding out about our world and universe. It’s a question of how we understand the Bible and how we teach our kids in relation to that knowledge.

The reality is, even apart from what we’re hearing from biologists, astronomers, and physicists, the church has historically been okay with not reading Genesis as if it reflects a scientific account of our origins. I can quote (and have quoted in the past) respected and influential theologians and Christian writers through the ages—people like Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and many more from the modern age—to make this point. These men can be wrong, of course, but the point is simply that literalism of the modern sort is not something based in historical theology and interpretation. If this is indeed the case, then why turn the question of evolution into a battle for truth? It seems to me to be entirely unnecessary.

In the end, I suspect the negative reaction is to people who have taken the evidence and the capacity of science farther than it can go, exemplified by the likes of Richard Dawkins and the other so-called “New Atheists,” but also carried forward by many in the general population: namely, that all of this “proves” that God doesn’t exist (or makes it unlikely that he exists or unnecessary to believe that he does). That is perhaps a battle worth fighting. But evolution vs. Genesis? No. It’s wasted effort, as far as I’m concerned, and quite possibly spiritually disastrous.

The two worlds of the introverted pastor

I recently saw a meme about how tired we are of hearing about introverts. There’s been a lot of that going around lately, so I apologize for carrying on about it here. I do this not because it’s the thing to do, but because I’ve been reading and thinking about it lately. It has been a great exercise in understanding myself more and in identifying strengths and weaknesses.

One of my seminary professors once told our class that the majority of pastors are introverts. A useful, but shallow, definition of an introvert is someone who is energized by solitude (and its related activities) and whose strength is drained in crowds (and their related activities). Desiring solitude is not the same as shyness; an introvert is not necessarily shy, however. As I say, this is a very shallow definition of introversion and really doesn’t do justice to the nuances and spectrum of the trait. But it’ll do for now.

If my professor’s statistic is true, it’s an interesting one to consider. On the positive side, an introverted pastor is suited to the calling of preaching and teaching, which requires significant time studying in solitude. On the potentially negative side, an introverted pastor is nevertheless required to spend significant time with people. I say potentially, because to be an introvert is not to say that one doesn’t like people or spending time with them. Rather, it means that a good portion of the introverted pastor’s work is work that drains rather than energizes. I am not a pure introvert (I assume that few people, if any, are), so I find Sunday mornings, for example, both energizing and very draining.

But I’m thinking of this at the moment in terms of the introverted pastor (me) at home. At church and youth functions, I am relatively lively and energetic, making a point of interacting with people. At home, I tend to be quiet and solitary (as far as that’s possible with a wife and kids). That doesn’t mean I’m pretending at public functions, acting like something I’m really not. It just means that I’m drawing on a different part of who I am, or like a rechargeable battery, at public church functions I’m a battery plugged in and making the bunny walk and beat its drum, whereas at home I’m a battery plugged into the charger.

What I’ve wondered about it when the two worlds collide: when someone from the church or a one of my youth is over for non-“official” reasons. What does is it like for them to experience me recharging at home—not very talkative, reading, keeping to myself? Can those two “sides” of me coexist in their minds? Should I plug the battery back into the bunny when people come by? Sometimes I do, but not always.

It’s one reason I think understanding personality can be very important in communities like the church. We live in a world in which extroversion is generally assumed to be the ideal (see Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain). Misunderstandings can occur when we don’t understand how people are wired, or more specifically, how each person is wired in a unique way. Our expectations of others can easily be shaped by either the ideal or dominant personality within a community (and extroversion is by nature dominant).

Something I’ve been pondering.

Strange ideas in Algonquin Park.

I realize that hindsight is, as they say, 20/20, and I don’t want to adopt that annoying “we are are so much more advanced now” attitude, but this sort of thing nevertheless makes me shake my head in frustration and disbelief:

“In the early days government officials were unsure of what [Algonquin Park] should be that they sent one James Wilson north to make suggestions. He was head of Niagara Falls’ very tame Queen Victoria Park and, perhaps in keeping with his station, quickly recommended the eradication of the common loon — now a commonly recognized symbol of the Canadian wilderness — on the grounds that the bird was consuming the fish that would attract American sportsmen. The park’s first superintendent made a similar recommendation — that all bears and fox “be destroyed without mercy” so that people would have no fear of coming to the park. George Bartlett, the walrus-moustached bureaucrat who became superintendent in 1899, felt the same way about wolves and encouraged early rangers to shoot them on sight and leave poison out for them. (Today, the “wolf howl” is the most popular tourist attraction the park has to offer.)” ~ Roy MacGregor, Northern Light: The Enduring Mystery of Tom Thomson and the Woman Who Loved Him, 53.

On a semi-related note, I’ve always thought that Park Ranger would be a cool job to have.

Supernova

I have loads of reading to do with a theology class I’m taking (in San Diego!) at the beginning of February, which is precisely why I’ve started reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything again. Because that’s what I do when there are things to get done: distract myself with other things.

I came across this in a passage about supernovae and it ground my brain to a halt:

The question that naturally occurs is “What would it be like if a star exploded nearby?” Our nearest stellar neighbour…is Alpha Centauri, 4.3 light years away. I had imagined that if there were an explosion there we would have 4.3 years to watch the light of this magnificent event spreading across the sky, as if tipped from a giant can. What would it be like if we had four years and four months to watch an inescapable doom advancing toward us, knowing that when it finally arrived it would blow the skin right off our bones? Would people still go to work? Would farmers still plant crops? Would anyone deliver them to the stores?

Weeks later, back in the town in New Hampshire where I live, I put these questions to John Thorstenson, an astronomer at Dartmouth College. “Oh no,” he said, laughing. “The news of such an event travels out at the speed of light, but so does the destructiveness, so you’d learn about it and die from it in the same instant” (36).

What?

So it takes 4.3 years to reach us, moving through 4.3 light years of space in that time–that is, moving from A to B and covering the distance between–but we would never see it approaching. I imagined it, much like Bryson, rather like watching a ball approach one’s face from a distance. Not so.

Instead, it would kind of be like the running scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, except without the extended approach–Sir Lancelot would simply appear suddenly at the gate and kill the guards without warning.

I understand that (as far as we know) light is the fastest thing in the universe and we wouldn’t see the event until it reached us, meaning that as soon as we saw the event it would have arrived. Conceptually I get it. But it nevertheless boggles my mind–I can’t “see” it in my imagination.

Fishing at a neglected historical site.

The mouth of the irresistibly-named Rat River, which forms the meandering southern boundary of the Providence campus as it flows toward the Red River of rebellion and flood fame, lies about 20kms northwest of Otterburne. Dixie had heard that someone had caught some fish at the mouth and since it was nearby I planned to try fishing there with Olivia. That plan was waylaid by a brief but painful bout of strep throat. Today, however, was the day.

Google maps’ satellite view indicated that access to the mouth of the Rat River was a short gravel road off one of the main highways. The map didn’t indicate anything topographically or otherwise significant, but in fact there is a gate there indicating that we would be entering Mennonite Memorial Landing Site.

The gate.

I thought it wasn’t much more than a reasonably well-kept nature area until I noticed the marble monolith standing some way back in the forest.

The Monolith.

On it was engraved this significant historical information:

THIS IS THE SITE OF THE FIRST LANDING OF MENNONITE SETTLERS IN CANADA. ON 1 AUGUST 1874, THE “INTERNATIONAL,” A STEAM-POWERED RIVER BOAT, LANDED HERE WITH THE FIRST CONTINGENT OF 65 MENNONITE FAMILIES. BETWEEN 1874 AND 1880 SOME 7000 MENNONITES CAME TO MANITOBA FROM GERMAN-SPEAKING COLONIES IN SOUTH RUSSIA (UKRAINE). THE MAJORITY ARRIVED AT THIS SPOT… (read full text here)

How about that? If that isn’t a significant historical site, I don’t know what is. But why isn’t it on the map? Why isn’t there any signage on the highway nearby? How many Manitoba Mennonites know that it all started here?

All of this is on the Red River floodplain. You pass through treeline fifty yards deep, in which the monolith marking the site’s historic significance stands. The other side opens up into clay covered in fresh vegetation–the water on the Red River rises high in the spring even in non-flood years such as this one. The boot-sucking shore of the river is littered with old cans, broken beer bottles, recently gorged-on watermelon husks, and other detritus. It’s a shame that such a significant point of interest is treated more like a dump for those fishing there. But it’s otherwise a beautiful spot (and great company)!

The scenery.

The smile.

(The Red River is about 30 feet to the right. It didn’t occur to me until now to take a photograph facing west to the place where the two rivers meet!)

But I’m not writing this piece of faux travel literature to bore you! No, I say, it was a monumental day in the Vandersluys household!

So Olivia and I came here to go fishing together. We made our way down the dirty, sticky shore. There were a couple of men already fishing. They spoke in a foreign language. As we approached, I assumed it would be German, but it sounded more like Ukrainian. We moved off to our own corner of the shore, farther into the mouth.

The men were casting their lines and letting their poles sit on forked branches jammed into the clay on the shore. I couldn’t tell what they were using for lures, but I felt conspicuously wrong in taking my standard cast-and-reel approach. They brought in a fish each as we were setting up. The caught a couple more while Olivia did some practice casting with a de-hooked weighted lure and I cast-and-reeled my generic rubbery/wormy lure. I kept spying on them to see what they were using. I couldn’t tell. Looked like fresh bait–chicken livers, maybe?

Olivia was ready to fish with a real hook. I asked her which hook and rubbery lure thing she wanted (you can tell I’m a fisherman, right?). She picked what she thought were the brightest and best colours. Away she went. One of the other guys had switched his lure to a large spoon/floating-fish kind of lure.

I cast out my line a couple of times. Then I hear splashing and–what do you know!–Olivia has a little jack on her line! Huzzah!

The catch.

Closeup of the fish and the lure:

The fish and the lure.

The other guys noticed. A friend of theirs who must have been fishing around the bend came and I think took a picture. I slipped and slided around the shore trying to get a quick picture of Olivia with the fish so that I could unhook it and let it go before it died. I got the picture and the fish jumped off the line on its own!

A good morning with Olivia.

(Here’s my first time fishing with Madeline and Luke. Here’s Luke’s first catch, several years later. Madeline is due to catch her first fish this summer, I think.)

A stop-motion walk across the Appalachian Trail

Those who have read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America Along the Appalachian Trail (it’s one of my favourite books, though when I read it the subtitle was slightly different) might appreciate the following video. It’s the Appalachian Trail (which Bryson hikes in the book) in 4 minutes:

(via BoingBoing)

Perhaps it’s time for me to read that book again. Or perhaps it’s time for me to hike the Appalachian trail.

It’s spider season in southern Manitoba

A couple of school girls fundraising in our neighbourhood spotted this spider on the side of our trailer:

Spider on our trailer

I measure its body to be about 5/8-3/4″, but note that its legs are retracted (it’s cold and rainy outside), so it’s actually bigger.

I really don’t want to find one of these guys inside the trailer. I can’t stand spiders. Last autumn I avoided dealing with a spider living in our entrance window and as the weeks went by, it grew significantly larger, to the point that when I finally realized I need to get rid of this thing, I was unwilling to even kill it with several layers of paper towel in hand. I’m not sure if it’s the thought of the thing crawling up my arm and into my shirt that gives me the heebie-jeebies, or if its the thought of hearing and feeling the crackle and squish as I squash it.

My solution? Suck it up with the vacuum cleaner and then empty the container into the garbage (and then take the garbage out).

(I fully expect you, Scott, to comment on this post with scientific accuracy and warmth, and quite possibly incredulity with my phobia. Perhaps you can identify the spider?)

For the birds.

Well, the trees are in full bloom ’round these parts, abuzz with bees and their ilk, and I, whilst a pork tenderloin cooked in indirect heat on the barbecue, went out bird watching for the first time.  Dixie bought me binoculars for my birthday, along with The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, and I was putting them to use.

I discovered, first of all, that Otterburne may fall into the Eastern region of the continent, at least in terms of bird-books.  The dividing line seems to travel through Manitoba.  We are, at best, in a transition region.

My first sightings were difficult. A jay of one kind or another might be a better find for a rookie, but I spotted some kind of blackbird.  It looks to me like we have quite a large flock of Brewer’s Blackbirds in the tree line across the field from us. This is not entirely a confident assertion, because judging by the pictures and details in both Sibley’s and my older copy of the Stokes Field Guide to Birds (Western Region), male Brewer’s Blackbirds and Rusty Blackbirds are nearly indistinguishable. Subtle differences–e.g. slightly longer beak, slightly shorter tail–are not helpful when both birds are not standing side-by-side.

It doesn’t help, either, that the two guides seem to differ on their descriptions.  Where one describes a bird as “drab in colour”, the other pictures the same bird as having quite deep, shiny colour.  And what, pray tell, is the difference between “check” and “chick” in terms of bird calls?

Having said this, the Brewer’s Blackbird is common (the Rusty is uncommon) and its habitat seems to fit our surroundings here.  So I’ll say it’s a Brewer’s Blackbird until someone corrects me.

There’s a third party involved: the Brown-headed Cowbird, which is often found among blackbirds. Unfortunately (again), the Brown-headed Cowbird looks a lot like the female Brewer’s Blackbird, though the latter is slightly lighter than the former.

What I’m really interested in figuring out is which of the two birds occasionally makes a sound akin to a soft sneeze.  The Blackbirds’ “chick” or “check” could sound like this, but so could the cowbirds’ “ch’ch’ch’ch”.

It seems that bird identification is, like translation, an art as much as a science.

Incidentally, the legend of the painted pigeons was repeated to me on the weekend, as an explanation of the campus mystery bird.  I haven’t spotted that flock since before the snow melted (Dixie thinks she may have hit one with the van), but I hope to get a closer look. I don’t have good lens to get a picture, but my binoculars are quite powerful.

This is Our Father’s World.

I haven’t written anything about creation/evolution in a while.  I’m not really going to in this post, either. At least not in terms of theories or possibilities. However, the BioLogos Foundation has been posting a series of short video clips on YouTube, in which a variety of Biblical scholars talk about various aspects of creation/evolution, theology and Genesis 1. The videos featuring N.T. Wright were interesting, but this one with Bruce Waltke (conservative OT scholar, connected with the NASB, NIV/TNIV translations) sparked some new thoughts in my mind:

Initially I had some reservations with his concern about church becoming a cult (or at least looking like one), because that seems like a poor reason to accept a different view. But I think that what he says in this context (as well as his specific definition of “cult”–a “group which does not interact with the real world”) is important.

I think that if the data is overwhelmingly in favour of evolution, then to deny that reality will make us a cult–some kind of group that is not interacting with the real world…To deny the reality would be to deny the truth of God in the world and would be to deny truth. So I think it would be our spiritual death.

The implication of the creation story is that this world is God’s world and it his creation. To deny or ignore the evidence* in creation of the method or process of creation is in essence to deny the message of the creation story. It would be to “deny the truth of God in the world”–to deny what God has done.

In other words, to deny the evidence for evolution found in God’s creation is potentially more dangerous to our view of God than to affirm it. “It would be,” says Waltke, “our spiritual death.”

If God created the world, and the evidence within the world he created points to an evolutionary process, then we must conclude that God may well have used an evolutionary process to create the world.

God and evolution are not mutually exclusive.** For some reason this isn’t self-evident to many Christians. In fact, many Christians, at least by implication, would say that they are mutually exclusive, and so to preserve the one, we deny the other (some scientists will do this as well, except vice versa). So, for some Christians, the evidence must be either non-existent, faulty, or misinterpreted.

The comments on blog posts about this video show a certain lack of self-awareness on the part of the Christians commenting with unequivocal rejections of evolution. The general response of the Christian skeptic is generally that scientists are reading the evidence however they want to or that they are imposing their views on the evidence. However, Christians have to have the humility to recognize and accept that we are often no different when it comes to interpreting the “evidence” of scripture. We are often imposing our view on scripture rather than letting scripture be what it is.

Another comment might go something like this: scientists are making the evidence say more than it can. This is normally in reference to coming to naturalist/materialist view of the universe based on the evidence–i.e. the suggestion that the evidence proves that God doesn’t exist. This is a legitimate concern, but not reason to deny evolution or the evidence for it altogether (evolution and evolutionism/materialism/naturalism are different things**). But, once again, are we able to recognize that same tendency within our own views? Particularly as concerns the question of creation/evolution, are we making the Bible say more than it can or was meant to say?

_________________________________

*the “if” in “if the data” is important. It’s important for two reasons: 1) most people discussing this issue in this kind of forum are not scientists. So we are dealing with what we think we know about the issue, which is probably not very much. 2) the “if” is not an implied denial of the evidence, but actually an affirmation of what is accepted by scientists generally (but, again, I need to be careful here, because I don’t know for sure), including scientists who are also Christians.

** it’s important to make the distinction between evolution and evolutionism–which is basically a distinction between science and worldview. When I say “evolution” I am referring to the scientific theory relating to the evolution of biological organisms. I am not referring to “evolutionism” or any of its worldview relatives. Unfortunately, many Christians conflate the two, making evolution a denial of God’s existence, which I think does a disservice to the scientific community as well as this whole conversation.