Monday, March 1, 2010

The Rise of the Evangelical Evolutionists (part 2) Some definitional issues.

In my previous post on this topic, I spoke about the dichotomy between evolutionary materialists and evangelical creationists of various stripes. In this post I'd like to go into more detail about what some of those differences are and then also offer up some alternatives that are, in recent years, bubbling up from within evangelical Christianity itself. But first, let's unpack some of the distinctions that divide most evolutionists from most evangelicals. As in every debate, there's the first problem of what any of the terms even mean. And this debate is no different. Ask any average person what "evolution" means and you're guaranteed to get as many answers as people you ask. Likewise, if you ask the average person what "evangelical" means and you're just as likely to get as many answers as the number of people you ask. And also, if you ask people what is meant by the term "creationist" you're going to get a wide variety of answers, depending of course where the person answering is "coming from" ideologically and religiously.

Now for me, why this is important is because in some sense I consider myself to be all three. I believe evolutionary biology and cosmology to be scientifically accurate, thus I'm an evolutionist. I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and is the unique source of salvation to a lost and dying world. I believe in all of the early church creeds, and to boot I'm also a Reformation Christian of the Calvinistic variety, so I'm about as evangelical as you can get. And as a consequence of my religious convictions I can be called, in a certain respect, a dreaded "creationist" insomuch as I believe that all that is is a result of God's creation of everything ex nihilo (out of nothing). I'll save my defense for this position for a future post. I just thought it would be appropriate to say where I'm coming from right from the get go.

In this post I'd like to get to some of the definitional issues: what do we mean when we say evolutionist, evangelical, and creationist?

Although I'm sure there are far more than three varieties of evolutionists, and I'm sure I'll be guilty at least in some degree of oversimplifying the issue, here I'd like to offer up three basic definitions of what it means to be an evolutionist.

The first is the most well know, in that it is represented by the most outspoken advocates of the new atheism, most notably Richard Dawkins the eminent evolutionary biologist who has written some of the best material out there on evolutionary biology but who has also become the most outspoken polemicist against theism and Christianity in particular. As an aside, it may well be worth noting that some atheists consider Dawkins to be a bit of a blowhard who reflects a sentiment which might more accurately be called anti-theism. Many atheists aren't nearly as angry as he seems to be and simply look to the evidence and don't see the necessity of believing in a supernatural god. As a Christian I can respect this particular form of atheism much more, since it works with the evidences before us and comes to a conclusion different than mine. Also, many times this "softer" type of atheism is as much a form of agnosticism which recognizes that our knowledge of the physical world doesn't offer up "proofs" of God. The evidence mitigates against belief in a supernatural being that creates all that is, but, at least among the agnostically oriented, they allow that we are simply too limited in our knowledge to say definitively whether there is or isn't a god. This view might be best expressed by Antony Flew, though he left the reservation a few years ago when he co-wrote "There Is A God." His earlier atheism represented an intellectual type that looked at the evidence and made its decision on that basis. Thus, when he saw evidence contrary to the atheistic framework, he had the intellectual honesty to make an adjustment to his views. But then again I'm a theist and a Christian, so I would say that.

The second view we're considering here is that of theistic evolutionists who aren't evangelical in their understanding. This is the view that has predominated among the mainline churches, synagogues, and to a much lesser extent, liberal mosques. These are the main monotheistic expressions that I know something about. I'll be the first to admit that I know very little about polytheistic understandings of evolution amongst traditional cultures, let alone views of evolution amongst those who hold to forms of pantheism. My knowledge of those faith communities is simply too sparse to be able to speak with any competence.

Among those who accept evolutionary biology, but who are also theistic in their beliefs, the mainline variety typically has accepted the modern scientific method pretty much uncritically and adjusted whatever theology they hold to in order to fit whatever view in the scientific community is popular. At one time it included such (now) nonsensical ideas as social Darwinism, phrenology, and other such momentarily popular ideas. It seems that science and religion can both be quite susceptible to moments of "narrow logic" overriding critical thinking. But I digress. Overall however, the main issue evangelicals have had with the mainline acceptance of evolution is that any supernatural or miraculous understanding of God's interaction with the world is jettisoned in order to accommodate an essentially materialist understanding. So while mainline or liberal theologies may be technically theistic, they're at best deistic in their understanding of God's engagement with the world he created and generally speaking reinterpret key passages of scripture which describe miraculous events in purely naturalistic terms. They end up offering up nothing much better than Thomas Jefferson's notoriously redacted "bible" that excised any passages that even smelled of anything miraculous. What ends up being left is nothing more than a bland form of moralism that is just as motivating as a high school civics class.

Finally, regarding evolutionary viewpoints, there is the evangelical evolutionary view, which is the view to which I subscribe. But I'll save the details of that view for my next post, since it needs the space of a separate post to do it justice. Next up I'll address the notoriously difficult task of trying to define what is an evangelical. Almost no one is agreed as to what that means, especially in the (post) modern American context
Well, this post has already gone longer than I planned. So the definitional issues regarding what it means to be an evangelical and a creationist will be dealt with in due course  So in the days (I hope!) to come expect to see some of my thoughts on what it means to be an evangelical, what it means to be a creationist, and finally what it means it means to be an evangelical evolutionist.

1 comment:

Brendan Payne said...

Thanks for another edifying entry, John! Especially like the bit about Anthony Flew having the "intellectual honesty" to make adjustments. I eagerly look forward to further definitions, and clarity on the topic! Your love of this issue is clear, and it matters, also to me.
As for what an Evangelical is, I'd stick with self-referential and leave it at that!