Christians who accept the theory of evolution (see previous post) face some difficulties with terminology.
The usual term applied to our position is “theistic evolution”. However, I dislike describing myself as a “theistic evolutionist”, for a couple of reasons.
First, “theistic evolution” singles out evolution, among all scientific theories, as one for which Christians need a special term. We don’t talk about “theistic quantum mechanics”, “theistic astrophysics” or “theistic heliocentrism” – despite the challenges each of those scientific theories could be seen as making to certain interpretations of Scripture – and part of the “theistic evolution” position is precisely that evolution should be treated in the same way as any other scientific theory.
More importantly, however, “theistic evolution” suggests a harmonisation of science and theology; one which is liable to distort both. In one direction, this can lead people to misunderstand evolution, by interpreting it as progress towards a predefined goal (“human beings are the pinnacle of evolution”). More seriously, though, are the distortions in the other direction, where people draw conclusions about who God is and what he is like in the light of what evolution seems to tell us.
This can go to extremes, as in someone like Teilhard de Chardin. However, even those who retain a more conventional Christian theology are still tempted to this, such as when Ken Miller writes:
[E]volution is the only way a Creator could have made us the creatures we are – free beings in a world of authentic and meaningful moral and spiritual choices.
This is equivalent to the errors of 18th century Deists, who took the findings of Newtonian physics and concluded that God must be a remote being who had set a deterministic universe in motion and then politely retreated to let it proceed on its course without further interference. That was a serious error: but it didn’t discredit Newtonian physics on a scientific level, and nor should theistic evolution discredit the science of evolution.
Another term which I’ve come across is “evolutionary creationism”. The Christian biologist Stephen Matheson has used this term, and it has the advantage of emphasising that Christians who accept the theory of evolution still believe very firmly in creation. However, it is subject to the same criticisms as “theistic evolution”: namely, that it implicitly combines science and theology into a single endeavour, rather than allowing each to speak on its own terms.
So does that leave me with Stephen Jay Gould’s “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” (NOMA)? This view – that science and religion are dealing with entirely different questions and hence cannot be in fundamental conflict – has some appeal. Perhaps too much appeal: it’s a handy way of waving all the problems out of existence. Everyone breathe a sigh of relief!
The problem with NOMA is that religion – and in particular Christianity – is not able to retreat to the incorporeal realm of “ultimate meaning and moral value” assigned to it by Gould. The Christian proclamation makes certain statements that impinge on the natural world of science and observation. It may not be possible in practice to make scientific observations of Jesus’ conception in the womb of his virgin mother, or of his miracles, or of his resurrection from the dead, but those were all events that were in principle capable of such observation, and that give the Christian faith a stubborn and ineradicable connection with the physical world.
So instead of talking about “non-overlapping magisteria”, I’d prefer to talk about “discrete narratives”. There is the narrative of science, and the narrative of Christian proclamation and theology. Each of those narratives must be taken on its own terms, rather than trying to make premature harmonisations between them (which is simply to create a new narrative that preserves the integrity of neither). But nor can we assume from the outset that the two narratives have nothing to do with one another.
Indeed, the relationship between the two narratives is highly complex, which is one reason why attempts to express that relationship in simplistic terms – whether of mutual incompatibility (as in both creationism and Dawkins-style atheism), mutual harmonisation (as in theistic evolution) or mutual insulation (as in NOMA) – have failed.
I don’t pretend to have the answer as to how the narratives of science and theology are to be related to one another. Indeed, I don’t believe a final answer can be given, since the narrative of science (in particular) is, by definition, subject to constant change and development. However, I do think that Lutheranism has some fresh perspectives to bring to the question – another reason why it is a tragedy that confessional Lutheranism has chosen rejectionism rather than engagement on this issue – and hope to outline some of these in my next post.