There is an elephant in the room every time the relationship between evolutionary biology and Christian faith is discussed. Whether the discussion occurs in a church, a classroom, a coffee shop, a bar, or on a park bench, it will typically follow a certain pattern. In my and many of my colleagues’ experience, the pattern typically begins with questions about the interpretation of Scripture, followed shortly thereafter by broader questions regarding the relationship between faith and reason. Some inconclusive biblical “proof-texts” are tossed out, and there is usually a historical review of the “Galileo affair.” A couple of apt but non-authoritative remarks from Augustine may also appear, depending on the backgrounds of the participants. At some point we may expect an attempt to assess the strength of the most up-to-date scientific evidence we now possess for long-term, gradual evolutionary change, with emphasis on the evidence for the common ancestry of all living things. Many participants will ask whether human beings can in some way be exempted from the generally naturalistic account of origins that is supplied to us by our best biological science. A certain amount of biological knowledge is required for this, and a general consensus within the community of professional, practicing biologists constitutes what may be reasonably regarded as biological knowledge. However, attentive non-biologists (a group that may include anyone, but surely includes professional philosophers and theologians, as well as scientists in non-biological fields) can readily acquire the biological knowledge necessary to make reasonable assessments of the philosophical and theological consequences of the current state of biological science. Eventually, we may anticipate a full-circle return to problems of biblical interpretation in the form of puzzles surrounding the biblical figures of Adam and Eve, whether they can or cannot be regarded as historic individuals, and what theological consequences are in store for those who do not so regard them. This latter topic is currently so wide-open and unsettled that the array of available options quickly becomes dizzying. It can take years to examine them thoroughly and judge their relative strengths and weaknesses competently. But the good news here is that we have plenty of plausible explanations. Our problem is the much more desirable one of having too many plausible but competing explanations, and not yet knowing how to sort them out. This, then, is a very rough description of the intellectual landscape regarding the relationship between evolution and Christianity, and it is all very important.
But there is a problem with the above pattern. Something very important is missing. I think the problem can be best illustrated by means of the following story.
I recently had the privilege of leading a series of discussions spanning three consecutive Sundays in an adult Sunday School class at a local church (not my own). The discussions centered on the feasibility and desirability of reconciling Christian faith with evolution. The class displayed a considerable amount of viewpoint-diversity, from full-blown Young-Earth Creationism to a variety of happily sanguine attitudes toward non-historic, and even non-authoritative, approaches to Scripture. There were also a few agnostics. The only view not represented, at least among those who spoke up, was a Dawkins-style militant atheism (it was a Sunday School class after all). So there was some potential for fireworks, and I will admit to being somewhat apprehensive.
Happily, the discussion about the usual topics was both civil and well-informed. I was pleasantly surprised, and started to relax. But my serenity was unexpectedly shattered when a very astute but unassuming woman had the temerity to point out the elephant in the room. It is really an obvious problem that is remarkably and conspicuously missing from the list of usual topics. “What bothers me,” she said with a reflective but forceful tone, “is why we even have to deal with any of this at all!”
Now this remark can be made by someone who takes a clear stand on one of the divisive issues, and who means nothing more than that her own view seems so obvious to her that she can’t imagine how any reasonable person could think anything else. But it was clear that she did not mean that. She was not siding with anyone on any of the usual topics. She was referring instead to what has been called the problem of divine hiddenness, though she expressed it much more forthrightly. She quickly added that it was her calling to teach the Bible to young children, and controversies surrounding the issue of origins make it very hard to know how to do that confidently and in good conscience. How is it that God has not revealed himself more clearly? Shouldn’t we expect him to? Why is there even an apparent disparity between what Scripture teaches and the results of scientific inquiry? Shouldn’t we expect God to see to it that there is not even a hint of such a disparity? Does this very lack of clarity give us a reason to doubt God’s existence… or his goodness… or anything essential to the gospel… or perhaps just our ability to understand his communications to us (but the latter, if carried to an extreme, would threaten us with a debilitating skepticism regarding anything we might take to have been communicated to us by God)? The stakes, then, can be high, and the problem can be very frustrating.
Concerns about divine hiddenness can be only partially assuaged by making the apparently undeniable point that the “great things of the gospel” (Incarnation, Atonement, Resurrection) are logically consistent with an evolutionary creation. They clearly are, and that point must be made. But we might yet wonder why we must distinguish between the “great things” and the other apparent teachings of Scripture that we might need to reinterpret if further scientific inquiry should require it. Does God really want us to remain in such a confused condition while we go about the very hard work of determining what he really intends to teach us? We must already deal with the ambiguities inherent in figurative language, and multiple literary genres employed in Scripture, and the accommodations he might be making to the cosmological ignorance of ancient peoples. Isn’t that enough? If he intends to help us with this problem, then why (after all this time) do we still have it? This is the elephant in the room! Few like to talk about it, but it is always there. Every now and then someone actually points it out. That’s what the children’s Bible teacher had done. It was actually quite refreshing, in its own disturbing way.
Come back tomorrow for the conclusion to this article.