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:
- 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.
- 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.