Darwin and Creation

Aug 22, 2017 by

Darwin and Creation

In 1859, aged 50 yrs, Charles Darwin published his groundbreaking book ‘Origin of the Species’. It’s central theory of natural selection caused a shock wave in the religious establishment at the time, especially those who took the biblical accounts of creation literally – they believed that the Genesis accounts describe exactly how the universe and human beings were created. In fact, in the 17th century Archbishop Ussher somehow calculated the exact time when God finally finished creation – 9am on Friday 23 October, 4004 BC.

Most Christians regard these accounts as more like parables or symbolic accounts that tell (in story form) the profound truth that God brought the universe and all that is in it into being, and sustains his creation. That God holds everything in being, gives everything ‘beingness’, and we can look to science to help us understand how God did this.

The Genesis creation stories (there are 2 of them) were written down during the period when the nation of Judah had been overrun by the Babylonians, and they’d all been carted off into captivity. That was about 600BC. There, in Babylon, they wrote down the stories that had been told for years, to remind them of their roots, to keep hope alive that one day they would return to the promised – and they did, about 70 years later.

But the creation stories do not need to be taken in any way literally. They work best if considered as metaphors – containing truth, but not literally true. ‘The Lord is my rock’ is a metaphor. It says that God is solid, unmoveable, a solid base for life. It doesn’t say that God is grey, with sparkly bits in, sticking out of the ground. We know which bits are true, what qualities of rock are being referred to. So what are the stories of creation telling us? That behind everything, there is a creator, that we are made in God’s image, that God cares about his creation.

Professor John Polkinghorne is both a respected scientist and a priest in the Church of England; he says:

Genesis is not there to give short, technical answers about how the universe began. It gives us the big answer that things exist because of God’s will. One can perfectly well believe in the Big Bang, but believe in it as the will of God the creator.

In other words, Genesis does not give us the answer to ‘How’ was the earth made, how life came to be, but it does give the answer to ‘Why’. It’s because the One Life we call God wanted it to be. The One Life that is ‘being’ itself.

I taught science in a seondary school for many years, and have never had a problem with seeing evolution as the means by which God has created. Life evolves. Life seems cruel sometimes. Living beings die. That some species die out. There are cycles within cycles.  Nature is ‘red in tooth and claw’. But actually, as biologists are now realising, life evolves more in cooperation than competition. A whole complexity of symbiotic relationships have evolved where one depends on another for life and well-being. We ourselves depend on all sorts of bacteria and other simple organisms within us to stay healthy, and they depend on us as well.

The laws of physics were at some stage, eons ago, set in motion at the Big Bang (or Big Breath), and the outworking of those laws has resulted in human life here on earth, an insignificant planet in a small solar system in one arm of an average galaxy in a universe containing billions of other galaxies. Suns have died, planets have died, species have died, but life goes on in all its amazing diversity. As Charles Darwin said,

‘There is grandeur in this view of life, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.’ Charles Darwin

We might ask the question, “Given the laws of physics, what are the chances of life evolving?” In recent years, some theologians and some physicists have pointed out the remarkable fine-tuning of the basic laws and constants of physics, without which life as we know it would never have developed. If the universe had appeared with slight variations in the strengths of the fundamental forces or the masses of elementary particles, that universe would be pure hydrogen at one extreme, or pure helium at the other. Neither would have allowed for the eventual production of heavy elements, such as carbon, necessary for life.

Similarly, if gravity had not been many orders of magnitude weaker than electromagnetism, stars would not have lived long enough to produce the elements of life. Long before heavy chemical elements could be formed, stars would have collapsed. Only the fact that the gravitational force was forty orders of magnitude weaker prevented this from happening.

In a long calculation, mathematician Roger Penrose has estimated that the probability of a universe with our particular set of physical properties is one part in 10 to the power of 10 to the power of 123 And that, if you know any maths, is an astronomical improbability. Why are their laws of physics? Why are they what they are? These are deep philosophical questions that have more answers in the religious category than the science category.

A question worth thinking about is ‘What is evolution for?’ Is it so that we have evolved as the highest intelligence on earth? My theory is that evolution is about consciousness. If God’s consciousness holds everything in being, then evolution is about God bringing into being other evolved consciousnesses within the One Divine Consciousness. Its about evolution of spirit as well as matter. As animals and humanity become more aware, so love grows and compassion becomes a drive. Nature red in tooth and claw becomes humans humanely killing animals for food. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth becomes ‘Love your enemy, forgive those who hurt you.’ Survival of the fittest becomes caring for the weak and poor, humanity becomes capable of defying natural selection because we care, because we are made in the image of our maker and we have compassionate consciousness. Maybe that is what evolution is about – evolving consciousness to the point where it can be compassionate, where it can appreciate the spiritual realms and return to its maker.  That’s my theory, anyway.

Life moves on, societies and cultures change and our understanding of the universe we live in moves on, and so I believe the understanding and application of faith has to move on as well. That has two implications:

Firstly, Christian theology needs to catch up with new developments in science:- quantum physics, theories of consciousness, our deeper understanding of human nature via psychology, and the whole area of DNA, genetics and how our thoughts and prayers affect our genes and our bodies, because there are tremendous opportunities for putting God back into the scene. A theology which can fit in with scientific thinking is not beyond the bounds of possibility. I wrote a book about it back in 2012, “Blue Sky God: the Evolution of Science and Christianity.” (Available on Amazon)

Secondly, for Christians, how we apply our faith, how we celebrate our faith in God has to move on as well to keep pace with changes in society. Its no good bemoaning the halcyon days when the Sunday school was overflowing and the church was bursting at the seams, if it ever was. We must look at what is needed now to awaken people to the divine reality within – and it is our faith experience that people should be interested in. What has it meant to us, why do we feel the call to follow Jesus the Christ, what does it mean to know God is within you? We have a faith that says there is a loving God, a compassionate being who draws us to himself. We have a faith that tells us that the best way to live is to put on the mind of Christ, to have compassion on each other, to seek the best for each other, to live life so that we leave the world a better place. That is something worth sharing.

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