To many in the mid 19th century it would have been quite unremarkable to see the natural world as a sign and mark of the Creator’s hand. After all there was no other explanation. However, by the end of that century, the diversity of life would have an account that fully and surprisingly explained everything from the fossil record, to the geographical pattern of Earth’s organisms today, and even to the anatomical and embryological relationships between its parts. That explanation was evolution through natural selection. Religion was the traditional providence for explaining life’s processes and this new player created a tension that need resolving. Two responses to this tension between evolution and religion were present right from the beginning: that of accommodation; and the other of denial. Denial wasn’t such a bad response at the time. During the last half of the 19th century and early 20th century Darwinism was dying a slow death. There were several problems. First, Darwin’s explanation of inheritance was on shabby grounds. Theoretical work by Francis Galton (Darwin’s own cousin) showed that if things were inherited in the blending fashion that Darwin thought obtained, then the variation on which natural selection needed to work would fade to nothing and natural selection would grind to a halt. In addition, Darwin’s theory required vast amounts of time to work, Lord Kelvin had demonstrated that, based on the rate of planetary cooling, the Earth could not possibly be as old as Darwin needed. Two big blows to the theory looked to kill it.
But in a short time Mendel’s work would be rediscovered, and after a brief flirtation in which Mendel was thought to refute Darwinism, others such as R.A. Fisher turned this on its head showing that genetic inheritance worked just as Darwin needed. Advances in geology would push back the age of the earth to exactly what natural selection needed. By the thirties a landslide of quantitative theory, data from multiple disciplines, deeper understanding of genetics, pushed Darwin’s theory back into the limelight. Since the time of the modern synthesis, as Julian Huxley coined it in 1942, the landslide of scientific evidence supporting Darwin continues as molecular biology, embryology, and other areas are clarifying the Darwinian story in exciting and surprising ways. The theory is now on as solid a foundation as any science we have. Any.
However, the denial by theologians that was tenable 100 years ago, has ceased to be so. Nevertheless, Christian Fundamentalism continues as if the science was such as it was at the turn of the last Century. Christian Fundamentalism was a reaction against modernist biblical criticism, which was attempting to demythologize the scriptures, and Darwinism, which was perceived to be a move attempting to deny the role of a creator in life’s appearance on Earth. This religious response demanded a return to simplistic readings of the scripture in which statements about the age of the earth or the creation of humans was read from the surface of the text. This has morphed into the different creationisms we see today including a variety of responses: from the Young Earth Creationists who believe the Earth is on the order of 6000 years old, to those who allow for longer periods as some Evangelical Christians have advocated, to those who try and mask their relationship with creationism in order to make it more palatable to public perception such as the Intelligent Design movement. In all of these forms of creationism, however, science is held in inappropriate suspicion. And not the kinds of suspicion that are healthy and built into science itself.
Science, as a method, holds all its results in suspicion. Results and theories are held as tentative claims, but scientists express confidence as results continue to accrue, add coherence to the unfolding story, and as falsification fails. However, many of the Fundamentalist responses hold science something akin to a conspiracy to atheism. And its major findings are held in inappropriate suspicion, meaning that there is no criteria which would convince them that science’s findings were right because they hold that things like evolution are wrong in principle and therefore any findings that support it must be wrong. These kinds of suspicions spill over into anything that casts unfavorable light onto anything that threatens Fundamentalist-derived priorities (and their influence and suspicions have spread far beyond those who would self-identify as Fundamentalist Christians) as we’ve seen in the Climate Change debates (and no, Climate Change is not yet on as solid of a foundation as Evolution, but confidence is high that it is real and human caused—see BYU professor David G. Long’s recent Forum Address given to the BYU Student body–listen to it here).
Why should religion engage with science? This is a legitimate question and actually is playing out in some debates in theology. There are two common approaches to theology and depending on which one you focus on will inform the way you answer questions about evolution and religion.
One engagement with truth is to assume that your theology should, in some sense, get at the real world and be informed by way things really are. This approach assumes that questions about God and Creation are matters of fact with which we want our beliefs to line up. For example, some theologians debate whether Jesus Christ was resurrected, the answer to this is determined by whether Christ lived and was in fact resurrected. On this theological take, this is a matter of historical reality and happened regardless of anyone’s relation to it. It was a real event that any observer standing in the tomb would have seen.
The second theory of truth is on based on correspondence. The goal of this kind of truth is that all of the objects in your description of reality are consistent and work together. Some postmodernist theologies, for example, are less worried about lining up with reality, which reality they feel that we have very poor access to. So their project attempts to achieve coherence in theology, including things like not ignoring logical necessity and making sure all the pieces that go into the project don’t contradict. The advantage of this is they believe is that we can concentrate on theologies that work and development of which focuses the project on truths formed by believing communities, from the perspective taken from within those communities themselves. In other words, a theologian of this ilk might say, ‘God is without a physical body, so I don’t have to worry about what you are doing with yours, who has body, parts, and passion. I’ll work on sorting things out for my own theology in my own community.”
Now I’ve just laid out in a few sentence a very sketchy outline of theological approaches that barrels of ink have been spilled over, for which there are nuances thick and many, and for which my sketch will not please those working in the field. But the bottom line cartoon I’m offering is that one approach to theology wants to line up with an objective reality, and the other thinks this might not bear fruit and focus on creating a coherent story of God and our place in the Universe (not that they don’t believe in an objective reality, they just aren’t sure we are equipped to know much about it). There are good LDS thinkers in both these camps as a recent volume on Mormon Theology demonstrates.
Evolution slides easily into the second of these approaches. There are few arguments in most of these types of theologies about the place evolution. The scientific fact of evolution is just one of the things you have to add to your attempts at creating a coherent view of God and humans.
But most Mormons are generally of the first type. History matters. There were gold plates. I think one of the unique and wonderful things about our beliefs is the absolute and undeniable physicality of God. The resurrection is a real event that is a matter of fact that means the same thing to every observer. That the atonement has real effects in the universe. We demand that our beliefs correspond to the universe, as it is. This is what in fact what we mean by true: correspondence with the universe. Now I know some will disagree with this being a necessary LDS view, but even if you do, you have to admit that it is the majority opinion.
And this is why evolution is a hard problem for many LDS members. We have lots of things that require a kind of literalism. We view angles as real beings. We see water changed into wine—not that people in the way-back just believed or imagined that Christ changed water into wine—but there was real wine from real water. Fact.
But even so, we have also recognized non-literal readings. I still remember the stir that Pres. Kimball caused in my Moab ward when he wrote that Eve being taken from Adam’s rib was symbolic rather than literal. Holy cow, it was the talk of the ward for months. Our most sacred rites tell us that things are figurative as far as certain people are concerned. Obviously there was no snake talking in the Garden of Eden. The Earth as it turns out is not the center of the Solar System. Maybe even Balaam’s Ass didn’t speak. Did Satan and God really wager over Job?
So we are not above looking at things symbolically or moving away from literalist readings when necessary. We have to find balance as informed by revelation (Would the Adam’s-rib-as-symbolic have so entered the Church’s mainstream if President Kimball had not authorized it?), scripture, and dare I say it—science.
Next time: Responses of other religions with similar commitments to correspondence.