SOLUTION OF A CONTROVERSY.


“Either-or” makes enemies; “and” makes friends.



Ever since the Oxford Meeting in 1860, when Samuel Wilberforce, the bishop of Oxford, turned to T.H. Huxley and demanded to know whether it was through his grandmother or through his grandfather that he claimed to be descended from the apes, the creation versus evolution controversy has been with us. It shows up today in different ways: in newspaper headlines demanding equal rights for those who would teach scientific creationism in schools as an alternative to biological evolution; in textbooks, where no solution is offered but an attempt is made to appeal to partisans on both sides hoping for wider sales.

In its earliest form, the controversy was based on the idea that Darwin’s statement on the evolution of species goes against the divine revelation presented to us in the book of Genesis. The confrontation is thought to be between faith and atheistic science. The Bible is read literally because, after all, we are to listen to the Word of God as it is given, and not interpret it or change it in any way according to the preferences or whims of any given place or time. This kind of thinking characterized the Oxford Meeting in 1860, and the Scope’s Trial in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925. More recently, the controversy is carried on by a group of fundamentalists who call themselves scientific creationists. The name implies that their position about creation is just as scientifically respectable as biological evolution theory, which they oppose. The method used is an attempts to support the creation statements of the book of Genesis from the fossil record, on the one hand, while on the other hand, they attempt to weaken the scientific evidence on evolution of species in general and human evolution in particular by equating it with mere speculations and theories.

The controversy thrives on confusion. The most important sources of confusion are the uncritical use of assumptions, the misinterpretation of the meaning of the fossil record, and the fusion of the timeless, theological contents of the book of Genesis with its cultural and thus temporal presentation. Let us examine these points.

On both sides it is often assumed as a starter that creation and evolution are two, mutually exclusive statements. In a textbook, "Evolution," (W.H. Freeman 1977) written by Dobzhansky, Ayala, Stebbins, and Valentine, on page 1 we read: "If man has arrived at his present state as a result of natural processes rather then a supernatural will, he can learn to control these processes." In this seemingly harmless sentence, the assumption that creation and evolution are mutually exclusive is taken for granted, obviously in favor of evolution. Then, the sentence ends with a statement about our ability to control the natural processes, which simply does not follow from the given conditions. Are creation and evolution mutually exclusive? Does creation nullify our ability and freedom of control? These ideas should be investigated, and not just assumed. If the authors of this text are, for whatever reasons, unwilling to investigate these questions, they should not have written the sentence in the first place. The position on assumed incompatibility in the fundamentalist ranks is similar. As an example, the words of Bishop Samuel Wilberforce at the Oxford Meeting in 1860 are relevant when he said that Darwin’s ‘Casual theory’ went flatly against the divine revelation of the Bible. He said this in spite of the fact that Darwin’s last sentence in the Origin acknowledges God to be the origin of all life through the act of creation.
Is the assumption legitimate, that creation and evolution are in an either-or bind? Are there further studies which indicate that the assumption is not legitimate? The purpose of this essay is to throw more light on this matter and resolve the controversy.

And then there is this misinterpretation of the fossil record. Some people try to use this record as evidence, when it is no more than a historical record on a geological time scale about once living organisms. The record is biased, and incomplete, and it is a proof of neither evolution nor creation. It is not legitimate to attempt to prove evolution from the fossil record because without direct observation such proof would imply the proof itself. We can, however, interpret the fossil record in evolutionary terms based upon the reasonable assumption that the evolutionary processes, which we observe today were functional in a similar manner in the distant past. There is a great deal of indirect information needed to render this assumption reasonable, and to provide this information is the task of evolution science. Of course, the same would apply to scientific creationists, who attempt to interpret the fossil record in terms of creation. Such statements as has been made by Gish, D.T. in a book published in 1978 with the title Evolution. The Fossils Say No! is way off the mark. It should be noted that the realities of the evolutionary process are clearly stated in the Origin in chapters 1-4 and at the end as a conclusion in chapter 15 without any reference to the fossil record. Fossils are mentioned in chapter 10 in connection with the imperfection of the geological record. They do not play any important part in the presentation of the observable features of the evolutionary process.

The third major source of confusion at the heart of the controversy is the attempt of being literal by fusing the meaning of a literary source with its culture. This would be eminently functional in a static world, but in a changing world where the meaning of words are colored by cultural shifts the result is disastrous. Here is a simple example. I pick up a newspaper in a library and read the headlines: Gay Gathering in Plaza Hotel. Today, I would say there was a meeting of homosexual men in the hotel. Glancing at the date of the paper, July 12, 1930, I immediately realize the headline refers to some happy gathering of people without homosexual overtones. The words are the same, the meaning is different because cultures change. That is why the understanding of such ancient text as the book of Genesis requires proper scholarship. We are to go back in time when an ancient text has been written and understand the culture of that time in order to understand the meaning of the text. The next step is to translate the so discovered original meaning into the present day usage of words in our own culture. That is the meaning of a literal interpretation of an ancient text.

It is not an easy task to keep ideologies, cosmologies and world views at bay when we read the book of Genesis. In the textbook on evolution, quoted earlier, we read: "The idea of the permanence of species as special creations entered the Judeo-Christian culture through myths such as those related in the book of Genesis." This statement, to say the least, is unsatisfactory. First, there is not one single word written in the book of Genesis about the permanence of species. That was a cultural construct. Second, it is quite unacceptable, both theologically and historically, to relegate this book to a form of legendary myth literature of ancient religions. In an excellent exegetical work on the first three chapters of Genesis, Jean Daniélou, a French, Jesuit scripture scholar points out a rather important point about this text. These chapters of Genesis were probably written during the fifth century BC. At that time the Jewish people were surrounded by a great variety of peoples with divers cosmologies and religions. They felt threatened by the pantheistic and polytheistic influences of these peoples. It became necessary to make a clear statement about the Jewish monotheistic position about God, the Creator of all. What has been achieved in these chapters of Genesis was a demythologization of the Oriental, Chanaanite, Babylonian, and Egyptian religions by reducing the various forces of nature from their "divine" status to their natural reality. The Babylonian Tiamât and Marduk, the Egyptian Re, and the Chanaanite Astarte were no longer gods and goddesses but the created ocean, the sun, and the moon. Quite rightly Daniélou remarks: "There is a certain air, free from all polytheism, which we breathe in Genesis 1, a wholesome, liberating air." The book of Genesis on creation is truly a demythologizing literature.

We should note, however, that the monotheistic statement of Genesis had been presented in images and expressions that we find today to be excessively anthropomorphic. The understanding that we were created in the image of God does not justify the presentation of God in the image of ourselves. Nonetheless, this anthropomorphism is the language of Genesis. God created in time, that is in six days, and he got tired by all the labor he had done so he rested on the seventh day. I recommend to anyone who wants to appreciate more fully this kind of anthropomorphic presentation, to look at the creation painting by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican Museum in Rome. A good reproduction will serve the purpose even better, because then you can enjoy this magnificent painting in peace and comfort, none of which, at least to my experience, are available at the site of the original. Michelangelo presented God in this painting in the classical form of a robed, elderly man, with white flowing hair, and noble features, radiating tremendous intelligence and power. His strong, outstretched arm is only an inch away from the hand of the man he has just created. This is anthropomorphism at its best, but still as such, it is very much bound by all the shortcomings of culture and time. The painting is wonderful, but the way it represents an idea of God is certainly not correct, because it is completely anthropomorphic.

Somehow, there is a catch-22 here. We can describe God and speak of the divine act of creation but only in anthropomorphic terms. It is unfortunate that in these terms what we are really describing is not God but ourselves. We speak of God with words that cannot hold him. Can we resolve this problem? I intend to show here that there is a partial solution to this dilemma, and what is more, that this partial solution can also show us the way to a satisfactory resolution of the creation-evolution controversy.

It all hinges on our understanding of time, or more precisely, on the way we experience the present moment in the flow of time. The method of approach here is reflexive. We find that the human mind is quite extraordinary in its ability to understand. There are many dimensions to this ability. We understand much more then just the external world that is brought to us by our senses. We are also able to understand abstract ideas, and we can creatively conceive ideas that never existed. On top of all this, the mind is also able to understand itself in a real feat of reflexive actuality. We know ourselves in the same act of knowing. We are aware of ourselves. Without this precious ability we could never experience consciously the present moment, and we would then have no idea of time. As things are, however, we find that self-awareness is a universal and constant experience of the rational human mind.

In fact, this awareness is so much a commonplace that we have to reflect on it to experience it explicitly. Then, it provides us with extraordinary insights. I find in my reflexive experience that I am aware of being active right now in this very moment. Of course, such awareness is only possible if my mind in the act of knowing coincides with itself in the same act of knowing. I also find that my awareness is complex because, in the moment of coincidence, I also experience the passage of time as the now inexorably becomes the past. The moment is gone, and so is the intimacy. My new act of actuality is to see myself as an outsider in the mirror of time. Still I know that it is only through the actuality of my awareness that I know all this and can tell about it. I find, therefore, that in my experience of self-awareness there is a real coincidence, but I also find that this coincidence is limited, imperfect, and partial as the actuality of the moment can only be recorded in the flow of time.

The relevance of all this for the solution of the controversy is this. In my reflexive awareness, I have a first hand experience with my actuality in which I can form some ideas about both, the perfection and the limitation of being human. I can understand the sources and the characteristics of my anthropomorphism, and I can also formulate some more precise ideas about God. If I were to attempt to look upon the perfection of my reflexive experience, and abstract from its imperfection, I would be experiencing an act of knowing that is in perfect coincidence with itself, absolutely active, absolutely real, in the moment of an absolute present. Then, my experience would be truly divine. Or would it be indeed? I don’t really know, because everything I do can only be human. In my ideas, in my words, in the images of my expressions, and in fact, in my very being, I cannot be anything else but anthropomorphic. It stands to reason, however, that when I speak of God, I should attempt to be anthropomorphic by reflecting on my perfection rather than on my limitation. Consequently, I should not say that God created in time, but that God is the Creator of all in the eternal moment of God’s absolute present.

There is a tantalizing hint of this concept of positive anthropomorphism in Exodus when Moses said to God, "I am to go, then, to the sons of Israel and say to them, the God of your fathers has sent me to you. But if they ask me what his name is, what am I to tell them?" God said to Moses, "I AM who I AM. This - he added - is what you must say to the sons of Israel, I AM have sent me to you." (Exodus, 3:13-15)

Michelangelo's creation painting in the Sistine Chapel is beautiful, but it is also anthropomorphic in a negative way. His presentation of God is rooted in the classical and static world view of the Renaissance. In this view, the material perfection of this world, as it was then understood according to a geocentric and anthropocentric cosmology, reflected the perfection of the Creator. The earth was stationary, and there was nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes, 1:9.) No wonder it was so terribly upsetting when Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo threw the earth, that static and immovable center of the universe, on a spinning course around the sun, destroying the sense of secure geocentric stability. I believe, it must have been equally upsetting to see the intimacy between God and us being threatened by the interposition of such an ordinary and mundane process as Darwin's natural selection. By divesting ourselves from our static, geocentric, and anthropocentric cosmology, we have lost a great deal that was historically precious. As we let these go, we gain an even better truth. We can find in this new perspective a truly deep sense of immediacy and security as we contemplate the absolute, creating presence of God in every moment of every process, be this the process of a human life expressed in years, or the process of evolution of life on earth on a geological time scale. Creation, as a divine act, is not in time, but because we exist in time, we perceive it as a process. Space and time are the created framework of the created world, which we experience in our created way. As theologians, we speak of creation, as scientists, we speak of evolution. We speak in two languages, but of the same reality. It is the divine act of creation, which we experience in every moment of this wonderful process we call evolution. There is no contradiction here! There is no controversy!

The idea of this solution is beautifully expressed in the movie Inherit the Wind. The movie is about the Scope’s Trial in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925. In the final scene, Spencer Tracy, the defending lawyer is packing his stuff to leave. He picks of the Bible from the table in his left hand, and Darwin’s Origin in his right. For a moment he seems to weigh them, then slaps one on the top of the other and puts both of them together under his arm as he leaves the room. “Either-or” makes enemies; “and” makes friends.

Sources:
1. Dobzhansky, Ayala, Stebbins, Valentine. Evolution. 1977. W.H. Freeman.
2. Gish, D.T. Evolution. The Fossils Say No! 1978. Creation-Life.
3. Daniélou, Jean. In the Beginning . . . Genesis I-III. 1965. Helicon Press.
4. Exodus, 3:13-15. Jerusalem Bible Reader’s Edition

 

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