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Scripture and science PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter Johnston   
Monday, 23 February 2009 22:40

Experiment on a bird by Joseph Wright, 1768

When living in London it was such a joy to be able to pop into the great museums and galleries when you had some spare time. One of my favourite pictures in the National Gallery was the famous painting above from 1768 which captures with reverence the scene of a family gathering to witness a scientific experiment led by a natural philosopher. The painting is called "An experiment on a bird in an air pump". It captures the mixed reactions to the bird's sad demise in the interestes of expanding knowledge. From the fascination and thoughtfulness of the two seated gentlemen, to the tears and horror of the girl comforted by her father (I assume). In the background the young servant boy looks on with interest. 

Of great appeal to me was the philosopher's seeming request to the viewer to join this gathering: staring straight at you he seems to be asking, what do you make of this experiment, of this science? [There's more...]

March edition Life and WorkIn the March edition of Life and Work I have an article that touches on scripture and science. There are other articles on work with young people, and an excellent article about Charles Darwin, whose 200th birthday was celebrated on 12 February. The piece I wrote bridges these two themes.

For the other articles, highly recommended reading, you'll need to pick up a copy of Life and Work. If you don't already have a subscription to the Church of Scotland's magazine, then see Lorraine Brown on a Sunday.

I have a couple of spare copies, if anyone is interested.

I wrote a couple of different versions of the article and, unfortunately it was an earlier draft that was printed! I changed one of the examples in my later edit to focus on the more pressing issue of economic capitalism, but alas it didn't get the print. So here is an alternative take on what is in the magazine.

A young girl I know, I’ll call her Lizzie, has recently been having a discussion with a classmate in primary school. He, no doubt echoing his parents’ thoughts, has told Lizzie there is no God. His hobby, he has told her, is science. He knows about the Big Bang and that humans are descended from apes. Lizzie has been worried about this: not just because she is trying to reconcile her classmate’s information with her Sunday School knowledge of creation, but also out of concern for her classmate’s eternal welfare. Lizzie and her classmate are nine years old.

Around the same time, a grandparent in our congregation asked me about his eight year old granddaughter, who asked him how dinosaurs fit into the creation story. And a friend’s son, aged nine, asked him recently, “Dad, if you don't believe that God made the world in seven days does that mean you can’t believe in God?”

Through these young people’s experiences today we get a flavour of the crisis of faith that afflicted Christians during the Enlightenment, as advances in our understanding of the world were more widely disseminated and new methods of studying the Holy Scripture unsettled accepted wisdom. In his poem Dover Beach, written in 1852, Matthew Arnold depicts some of the anguish of the time when he describes the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the “Sea of Faith”.

Arnold’s poem was written seven years before the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and yet Darwin’s exposition of evolution by natural selection has been cited by many Christians over the last 150 years as a stumbling block for their faith. My own great-grandfather Rev James Johnston, a late 19th century minister in St James’s United Free Church on London Road, Glasgow wrote a work titled A Refutation of ‘On the Origin of Species’.

While I believe that evolution in its modern form is both a profound insight into the way the world is and the most complete scientific description so far of our biological origins, I also believe in the accounts of our origins found in Genesis and echoed in the Psalms (104 or 136). These stories and songs contain deep truths, offering an awe-filled celebration of creation while also recognising the sense of incompleteness we often feel about life, and our longing for reconciliation with God.

As someone steeped in the natural theology of the day (that God’s handiwork is observable through the study of nature), Darwin faced difficult questions about God as he studied the sometimes gruesome realities of life. The female Ichneumon wasp, for example, lays her eggs in a caterpillar she has previously paralysed. As the eggs hatch, they devour the internal organs of the caterpillar in careful order to prolong the host’s life. It is fiendishly innovative, but not exactly what you have in mind when singing “all things bright and beautiful”.

Prominent atheist Richard Dawkins emphasises the challenges evolution raises for natural theology and biblical literalism in order to undermine faith in God and promote his own agenda. However, even defenders of a literal biblical view of creation, like the late Henry Morris and Duane Gish, allow for limited evolution, and more recent Intelligent Design theorists such as Michael Behe and William Dembski largely accept natural selection, only positing a ‘Designer’ in areas where scientific understanding is currently limited. As our understanding grows, Intelligent Design finds itself defending an increasingly marginalized ‘God of the gaps’.

On the other hand, many Christians describe themselves as Darwinian evolutionists, including scientists like Simon Conway Morris. While seeking to understand more about the natural processes at work in our world, we also follow our Lord Jesus. And this can mean wrestling with the tension between Jesus’ teaching and the reality of the natural world as we find it.

When people move beyond the science of evolution towards the “secular religion of evolutionism,” as philosopher Michael Ruse calls it, in which ideas of progress and selection are applied to society, it has led down some dark corridors. Herbert Spencer, one of evolutionism’s first proponents, coined the phrase “survival of the fittest”. His work has been used to defend rampant capitalism as part of the ‘natural order’, allowing the strong to oppress the weak. Evolutionism, applied to economics, has been used to justify the vast global wealth gap that exists today. John D. Rockefeller stated that his vast oil wealth was “merely a survival of the fittest… the working out of a law of nature and a law of God.” I am pretty sure I know how Jesus would respond to that.

So – what do we say to children who ask the difficult questions? Do we fob them off with pat answers? Do we defend a literal reading of Scripture on the matter of origins or help children begin to appreciate metaphorical and mythic language? Do we argue that religion and science are mutually exclusive? In my experience, it is better to encourage people to develop the tools necessary to begin a dialogue between their faith, scripture and science early in life. In so doing, we may help them avoid the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of receding faith as they grow older – something which occurs all too often today. It is our privilege to help shape their understanding; let us use it wisely.

Two recent books that may be helpful to readers are The Evolution-Creation Struggle, Michael Ruse, Harvard University Press: 2005 and Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution, Karl W. Giberson, HarperOne: 2008.

For more on a similar theme see When do we remove the kid gloves?

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