The story of how the world got here is the central point of fierce collision between science and Christianity. Genesis is all we need, right? Any other musings about our origins are entertaining, but not to be taken seriously…I mean who could actually think we came from apes after billions of years? I understand how ridiculous that sounds, especially to someone (myself included) who grew up with Answers in Genesis and literal biblical interpretation.
But, after taking the time to face the issue in physical anthropology and biology courses - as well as a university - level Darwinism and Christianity course - I discovered the tools to begin to unify these seemingly opposite worlds. I'm not perfect, infallible, or a credentialed theologian - but I am someone who is passionate about science and faith. I invite you into an honest look into how I have begun to unify these worlds in my own life. Here is my proposal:
The world is the divine product of natural forces over billions of years that were divinely conceived and are continuously maintained by God. Humanity is the culmination of God’s creative action, and the ultimate expression of God’s image.
Why This Feels Uncomfortable
I know some of you are probably cringing right now, I would have too, but here is why I think we worry. All our lives, we have faced powerful, evangelical atheists who propose that natural processes negate the need for a God. Rather than take the risk of sounding like them, we cling to tradition and separate ourselves from science. We keep those worlds separate. I get it, in the end, the bottom line is to love God and love others, and we don't need evolution to do that. But, in my experience, this puts those who are passionate about science in a precarious position.
My proposal here is to help those people (myself included) integrate their faith with a contemporary scientific worldview. God is not a relic of the past, He (or She - to be revisited in another essay) is an ever-present unveiler of infinite mystery. Although God is consistent, our depth of understanding of Him is not, and our understanding must evolve with a contemporary scientific worldview. Religion and science are intimately intertwined.
Must science conform to religion? Religion conform to science? As with everything in life and our universe, the real answer lies in a balance of the two, not a binary choice. Pope John Paul II wisely states, “science frees religion from error and superstition, religion frees science from idolatry and false absolutism.” Science illuminates the underpinnings of our wondrous universe. Religion gives us a reason to wake up and to live selflessly. Absolutism in science creates boundaries, hinders progress, and negates the scientific method. Superstition in religion creates a complacent, close-minded misrepresentation of the divine complexity of God. Both must work in tandem and continually refine one another.
God - a divine, powerful, infinite being - beyond our understanding, decided to create a beautiful, perfect, glorious world in which He actively participates and brings into a salvific relationship with Himself. Doing this entails suffering - for both creation and Himself. The gift of freewill to creation which enables relational participation requires that God willingly limit Himself. God, for reasons forever mysterious, chose to give this gift and create a literal explosion of infinite complexity, divine transcendence, and rapidly expanding power - the universe.
Through the divinely-inspired interaction of law and chance over billions of years - stars, planets, and galaxies formed. God’s continuous creativity unfolds in a majestic, unquenchable flow of divine action that manifests in four potentialities: increasing complexity, increasing Information-processing and storage ability, increased sensitivity toward pain and suffering, and development of self-consciousness and language (this idea courtesy of Aurthur Peacocke). These potentialities, over long periods of time, inevitably direct the universe into the development of life - from simple cells, to animals, and then to self-conscious humanity - each intimately connected with one another.
Just as a parent raising a child, creation is gradually nurtured into a self-aware organism that is conscious of the world around them and the God they serve. In Elizabeth Johnson’s words, “consciousness emerges gradually, in and through the increasing complexity of the brain…humanity is the universe becoming conscious of itself.” This creation, due to its evolutionary history of selfish competition, must gradually learn how to put others before itself. This culminates in the arrival of God on earth, Christ, the ultimate expression of a servant-king who invites creation into participation in God’s continuously-unfolding, all-encompassing plan of salvation that began at the start of creation and continues into eternity.
God used the processes of evolution to serve as the ultimate metaphor of the collision between the spiritual and the physical. Just as the natural world gradually emerges and progresses into conscious image bearers of God; God’s character, and our understanding of Him, gradually emerges across human history. God is not king who reigns with omnipotent tyranny, He is a parent who gives creation the tools to emerge and discover the world and their relationship to Him - on their own.
Where do these ideas come under scrutiny within Christian tradition? God’s intervention, impassibility, and role in suffering (theodicy). Within this model, God does not directly intervene in the processes of the universe (I see your cringe now - but let me explain). God is not toddler with a tool belt, His creation is perfect and has no need for quick fixes or duct tape. Rather than intervening and directly bending creation to His will, He empowers creation to pursue the ultimate good - salvation. As opposed to God swooping in to fill in the gaps when we need Him, he empowers us to participate in His will on our own.
So, what about miracles? The depth and mystery of God is never ending, with the ongoing unveiling of the complexity of natural processes, we will continue to catch glimpses of what we once considered “miracles” as part of God’s complex natural order. Take prayer, for instance, one way to view it would be a “wish list” of requests, and another view is that prayer is a facilitation of a relationship where God communicates divine intent to His creation. God is not fulfilling requests, He is giving us eyes to see. Does God have the power to intervene? Yes. Is God’s direct intervention necessary? No - because He empowers us through His perfect creation.
Impassibility is the idea that God is unaffected by the actions of His creation. This doctrine is important in some theological circles because some consider a God who is directly affected by His creation a weak God. I would argue that this is instead a stronger representation of God and His character as shown in scripture. The idea of Kenosis, a God who self-limits His divine power and authority to make room for a free-willing, dynamic creation, is found in Philippians 2:7, “but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” The cross is a perfect representation of divine vulnerability. Jesus is the incarnate manifestation of the suffering God that has always suffered with His creation throughout all time - since the day He limited Himself to make room for a free-willing, relational creation. It makes perfect sense for God to arrive incarnate as a suffering servant, because He is a suffering servant outside the context of our anthropocentric world. He is not a lonely, distant clockmaker, He is intimately involved.
What about all this suffering in an evolutionary worldview? How does a radically transcendent and loving God create a world ripe with extinction, pain, and evil? Even in traditional theological models, theodicy creates intense dissonance for any Christian. Consequently, when we move away from the doctrine of impassibility and come to know God as a suffering servant - and not a distant monarch - we discover a God who suffers in, with, and under his creation in order to endow it with free will, potentiality, and salvation. This model dramatically lessens the cognitive dissonance associated with the problem of evil. God does not spectate suffering from afar, He willingly suffers in order to empower His creation. Death is a necessary precursor to life, suffering is the precursor to freewill - and God willingly suffers alongside us to direct creation back into perfect relationship with Him - culminating in Christ - the ultimate expression of a God who has suffered alongside creation since its beginning.
Genesis 1 & 2 tells Israel’s story - a story of redemption and relationship with God - a purpose that it fulfills with resounding depth and beauty. Genesis tells us that in our pursuit of knowledge, power, and self-fulfillment - we inevitable wind up distant from God and in need of a savior. God invites Israel back to the Garden - to participate in a salvific plan that brings all of creation back into perfect union with Christ.
In other words, Genesis is not a science book, and we are not throwing away its value when we say that. In the same way that God is literally a "rock" in Psalm 18:2, the creation story of Genesis is not a literal scientific description of the universe. God gave Israel a timeless metaphor to explore their divine relationship - a metaphor that is still relevant today. God begins the story not with a science textbook, but with something greater, a divine metaphor of mythic proportions that will inspire generations across all time, culture, and society.
Important Note: There is SO much more to discuss from a scriptural basis and it could not all be included here.
One of my biggest hang-ups with evolution was that God set humanity apart from creation as His image bearers. Doesn’t that mean we can’t come from animals? That’s what I thought until I realized that the only reason I accepted it was because it was easy. We have HUGE egos as humans, we much prefer to view ourselves as little gods and not intelligent apes. But, I would argue that rather than a theological issue, this is a culture issue.
What is more profound and impactful? God creating humans out of nowhere and making them image bearers and rulers of the earth? OR God creating a universe so powerful and transcendent that it inevitably progresses toward becoming aware of itself, its role, and its relationship to Him - a creation that is intimately intertwined and interdependent. Emerging from the rest of creation does not make us lesser, and when we feel like it does, that’s our ego talking. We emerged from creation and are given the responsibility to care for it - the opportunity to participate in a cosmic event of infinite proportion - salvation.
When did we become conscious? When are we endowed with the image of God? One thing we must remember is that God is mysterious. When we get hung-up on small details and feel the need to have a definite answer, we are satisfying ourselves not God. Are we smart enough to know the exact point that apes transcend the line into humanity and become God’s image bearers? No! Is that okay? Yes! All we know definitively is that we are here, we have a responsibility to care for creation, and we have the ability to participate in God’s plan.
Law and Chance
God is a God of certainty, right? How could He operate through the crude mechanisms of chance over time? I thought this at one time, but what I have come to find is that our universe, that I once thought was mathematical and certain is, in fact, chaotic and uncertain. The spins of electrons are inherently unpredictable in quantum theory. Particles can be entangled and affect each other instantly across entire countries. Time moves at different rates (we have to reset the clocks in satellites because time moves faster at their speeds). The universe is inherently mysterious.
God did not create perfect laws and step away, nor did he let chance and probability loose to create the universe. The divine interaction of law and chance delivers the world we see today. With law alone, there would be no consistent idea in the universe. If God only used chance, there would be no variety. The divine interplay of the two, in perfect balance with one another, delivers the mysterious, diverse universe which we inhabit.
Here are some of the best resources I have found on this topic!
The Bible for Normal People - Episode 17: Denis Lamoureux - The Bible, Evolution, & Christian Faith:
The Liturgists Podcast - Episode 2 - Genesis & Evolution:
Ask Science Mike - Episode 34 - Mutation, Natural Selection, and Evolution:
God and Evolution: A Reader - Mary Kathleen Cunningham
If you have made it all the way to the end of this, thank you, I know there is a lot of information. Consequently, I know that it is still only the tip of the iceberg. You probably have questions, and I am here to learn along with you! The ideas put forth are not set in stone, they are up for debate and evolution. Sorry, I know that was corny, but I think it is important to say that these are hard questions with no certain answers. Let me know your thoughts in a comment below! I respond to all comments and would love to hear perspective.