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God and Darwin - Hebrews 1:1-3

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the evening service on 1st March 2009.

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Let me begin by asking, where do you think this quote comes from: ‘Let no man…think or maintain that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the book of God’s Word or in the Book of God’s Works, divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavour an endless progress or proficiency in both.’ ? Well, you say, it was probably written by a Christian since he talks about searching God’s Word- the Bible. Also he was probably some kind of scientist since he also speaks of the Book of God’s Works, that is, nature. And you would be right. They were written in 1605 by one of the first scientists of the 16th-17th century scientific revolution and father of the so called scientific method- Sir Francis Bacon. But what may surprise you is that these words are actually written in the flyleaf of  Charles Darwin’s epoch making book, ‘The Origin of Species’ written in 1859 and of which we are hearing so much on this 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth. So on the face of it, at this stage Darwin himself saw no great difficulty in reading God’s two books- Scripture and Nature and seeing them in harmony, complementing each other rather than contradicting each other.

You see, historically it was Christianity which gave rise to Modern science. This only developed in the Christian West and no where else in the world because of the Bible’s view of God. It was the view of reality given in the first few chapters of Genesis that there is a rational God who has created a rational world to be studied by rational creatures- us. What is more he is a reliable God and so it is reasonable to expect his world to be reliable too. In fact the founders of modern science went further and said it was our duty to examine how God’s world works and harness its fruits for God’s glory and people’s benefits. In the words of the scientist who produced the first accurate working model of the solar system- Johannes Kepler, science is a matter of ‘thinking God’s thoughts after him.’  And it was probably in that same spirit that Darwin set out upon his endeavours to try and establish a scientific basis for the way species came about and changed.

You see, a Christian would say that science is the human attempt to understand and synthesise what God has revealed in nature- how things work and fit together, whereas theology is the human attempt to understand and synthesise what God has revealed in Scripture. Problems arise when we confuse the two. This is what the Christian writer John Stott wisely says, ‘The creation- evolution debate, especially when it involved headlong confrontation, has been largely unnecessary and remains confused and confusing today. The reason for this is that it has been, and still is, conducted in ‘conditions of low visibility.’ That is to say, the participants have tended to plunge into combat without first pausing to define their terms. When people affirm that creation and evolution are incompatible with each other, what do they mean by ‘creation’? And what do they mean by ‘evolution’?’

Now we are going to come back to those questions in a moment, but let me first spend a little time telling you something of Charles Darwin himself. He was born on the 12th February 1809, the son of a wealthy Shrewsbury doctor. As a small boy he attended a Unitarian chapel-that is a group which didn’t believe in the Trinity. But his father who thought it was more socially advantageous to belong to the Church of England later sent him to an Anglican church. His father was not massively impressed by his son’s achievements at school, telling him that, ‘You care for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and your family.’ That was considered to be ‘parental guidance’ in those days. At the age of 16 he was sent to Edinburgh to study medicine. He found the lectures dull and was somewhat squeamish when it came to watching operations, and given that this was before the days of anaesthetics, that wasn’t surprising. And it was here that he developed a taste for natural history- at least looking at flowers doesn’t make you throw up!

However, he left Edinburgh without a degree and went on to Cambridge to study, would you believe it- divinity! He later wrote that he ‘liked the thought of being a country clergyman’- which then was synonymous with drinking, shooting and fishing. His interests in theology weren’t that great, but with cramming he managed to be placed tenth on the pass list of 178 for a BA in divinity in 1831. But one book which did capture his imagination was, ‘Evidences for Christianity’ by William Paley which took the line that the natural world of which the tiniest details were not without meaning pointed to a Creator. But while at Cambridge he was very much a student’s student- he kept up his old past-times of shooting and hunting. He was also the co-founder of the Gluttony Club, which was devoted to the consumption of unusual meat. So student life hasn’t changed that much in 160 years I guess! And it was while at Cambridge he developed friendships with the Professor of Botany and the Professor of Geology which continued to fan into flame his interest in nature. So what was he to do upon graduation? The Professor of Botany, John Henslow, recommended that he serve as a naturalist on board the Beagle during a hydrographic survey of South America. His father thought, however, that this  would distract his career as a clergyman, but his uncle Josiah Wedgewood (of the Staffordshire Pottery fame) persuaded his father otherwise writing that ‘the pursuit of Natural History, though certainly not professional, is very suitable to a clergyman.’ And so began the 5 year voyage which was to result in the collection of materials which would form the basis for his theory of evolution which was to come to full flower in his ‘Origin of Species’.

Returning to England in 1836 Darwin courted and eventually married his cousin Emma, daughter of Josiah Wedgewood and Emma was a very devout Christian and remained so all her life. And she must have been a very patient and understanding woman because on their wedding night her new husband decided to record some notes on the properties of turnips! Is that a nerd or what? Well, settling down in Gower Street in London, Darwin soon became part of London’s scientific elite. And to underscore how committed Darwin was, upon the birth of Emma’s firstborn son- who was called Willy, Darwin studiously compared Willy’s behaviour with that of Jenny the orang-utan recently acquired by London Zoo.

Now we shall return to Darwin’s life a little later on because something happened which was to have a profound and lasting effect on his belief in God. But let’s just get back to the point raised earlier about the supposed conflict between belief in evolution and belief in creation and what we understand by those terms.

First of all, it is only fair to point out that by the term ‘creation’ it is not to be assumed that we mean a literal ‘six day’ programme. As Peter Jensen said on the clip- it is possible to believe that the earth is millions of years old and life came about over a long period of time and still be a ‘creationist’  in that all Christians are ‘creationists’ by definition, for they believe in God as the Creator. This is what Christians declare in churches up and down the country every Sunday, ‘We believe in God the Father Almighty Creator of heavens and earth’. That still leaves open the question ‘how’ he created the heavens and earth and does not rule out a scientific explanation any more than the fact that Christians can pray ‘give us this day our daily bread’ rules out belief in the process of the use of sunlight energy and the activity of enzymes in the growth of wheat. Ultimately the whole show is from God- however he chooses to bring it into being- Big bang, evolution of whatever.

Secondly, Evolution is not to be conceived as a blind, purely random process in which God is eliminated and replaced by something called ‘Chance’. That would be incompatible with Creation. But the Bible itself is well aware of what we call chance still being under God’s control and guidance. Let me ask: what is chance? Well, it is simply a term we use to describe our ignorance. For example, you toss a coin and whether it lands heads or tails we say is ‘chance’. That is we can’t predict it. But presumably if we had enough information say about the dimensions of the coin, wind speed, the force with which it is tossed and so on we might well be able to predict with infallible accuracy the result by using a computer. So chance is not some ‘thing’ a ‘force’ which is an alternative to a personal God. Or let’s change the picture by thinking of cricket. A good spin bowler will produce a variety of deliveries-the off-spinner, top-spinner, arm-ball or straight ball. If he is successful the batsman will not be able to predict what kind of delivery it is until mid-stroke. The batsman’s inability to predict the delivery does not mean that the delivery is unplanned or lacking in purpose. What seems random chance from one point of view (the batsman)  may be thoroughly planned from another (the bowler). So we read in the Bible, ‘The lot (or die) is cast into the lap (chance) but its every decision is from the Lord (purpose).’ So some Christians argue why could not God do the same through the apparently random process of evolution and genetic change? If, as Christians believe God is sovereignly at work in and through all human history which still allows for human decisions to be made and yet God infallibly  achieves his purposes, why can’t he work through natural history to do the same- that is, bring about creatures like us? At this point some Christians argue that this seems a strange and wasteful process. Why take millions of years and umpteen deaths of creatures to get where we are today? Why not miraculously and instantaneously bring things into being? Well, two things can be said in response to that. First, it is not for us to say what God can and can’t do- you look at the evidence, and the evidence is there for a very old earth. Secondly, think of the way God has worked in history to bring about his purposes of salvation. The Bible speaks of God choosing a single man Abraham and waiting a very long time before giving him a son. Then came the slow process of the nation of Israel being descended from him-that didn’t happen overnight. Not only that but many of them died off in judgement because of their rebellion- it happened in the desert under Moses and later in Exile in Babylon with only a remnant that had been purified coming back to the land. Then it was another 400 years or so before Jesus came. That sounds a bit like a natural selection to me but we might call it spiritual selection. God does seem to take his time about things it has to be admitted.

Thirdly, whilst dealing with history, the Bible is not a book of science, but a book of God’s rescue. I think Francis Bacon was right-God has given us two books to read- Scripture and Nature. And there are 6 lessons the Bible teaches about his creation. First, God created everything out of nothing. Only God is eternal, the world of matter, space and time isn’t. That does not mean, of course that God created everything instantaneously –which wouldn’t mean much anyway given that time itself is part of creation. Second, creation proceeds in successive stages, some things come before and after other things. Third, from God’s standpoint the means whereby creation is brought into being is by his will expressed through his divine say so- his Word. So again, just as we can speak to God in prayer and ask him to ‘give us our daily bread’, God answers by arranging things through nature so that we eventually get the material to make bread, so why could he not do something similar to bring about conditions for the development of life on earth? Fourth, the crown of his creation his humankind, male and female made in his image and so precious whose task is to explore and take care of the world God has made and to do it under his loving rule. Fifth, everything God made was ‘good’. The word used in Genesis 1 translated ‘good’ does not mean-‘perfect’ in that there is no room for development or improvement, but good in that it is just right for the purposes God intended- sunlight for green plants, green plants for food and so on. Sixth what God made he sustains, so that means that science is really a study of what God is doing in his world but describing it in scientific terms.

Now I would have thought that there is nothing in those six items which is particularly controversial. Hopefully all Christians would agree with them. So what has happened to produce the popular view that there is a deep, entrenched conflict and that the theory of evolution is essentially atheistic? Well, there are lots of factors, many of which are historical which we can’t go into this evening, but the fact that there are many scientists who are intelligent and devout Bible –believing Christians who do accept evolution as a valid mechanism that God could have used, should at least cause us to not be so hasty in believing that the theory of evolution is essentially atheistic. The charitable assumption is that their science has led them to this view whilst still passionately believing all six things I have just mentioned.

So let’s get back to Darwin. Did Darwin himself see his theory (with all its weaknesses of which he was aware) as being contrary to belief in the God of the Bible. In his ‘Autobiography’ edited by his son Francis he spoke of  ‘the impossibility of conceiving that this grand and wondrous universe, with our conscious selves, arose through chance, seems to me the chief argument for the existence of God.’ He concluded that the theory was compatible with the belief in God. This doesn’t mean that he didn’t have fluctuations in faith, he did. He wrote ‘I am conscious that I am in an utterly hopeless muddle. I can’t think that the world, as we see it, is the result of chance and yet I can’t look at each separate thing as the result of design.’  That at least is honest. But was Darwin an atheist? Actually the term he preferred was agnostic, a ‘I don’t know.’ When Darwin published his work on evolution, the American biologist and Christian, Professor Asa Gray wrote to Darwin to say that his book had shown God's ingenious way of ensuring the unity and diversity of life. From Gray's point of view, Darwin had deepened man's understanding of divine action. Darwin praised Gray for seeing a point that no one else had noticed. In later editions of his books, Darwin went out of his way to cite the English writer and clergyman, Charles Kingsley, who described evolution as compatible with religious belief. And to the end of his life, Darwin insisted that one could be, "an ardent theist (believer in God) and an evolutionist."

And this is where it is important to distinguish between Darwin the scientist and Darwin the non-believer. What was it that caused him to move from at least holding the notional faith as an Anglican to relinquishing that faith? Well, let me tell you that it wasn’t his science. It was something else which any sensitive person would fully understand and have sympathy with, it was the death of his treasured ten year old daughter Annie in 1851.

During his little girl's illness, Darwin was at her bedside night and day, he was  deeply devoted father. And her death gave poignant meaning to his developing notions of the callousness of nature and the struggle of all creatures for survival. For Darwin, you see, death was a purely natural process, part of the machinery of life that drove evolution towards "endless forms most beautiful." The only comfort he had at Annie's loss was that during her brief life he had never spoken a harsh word to her, which when you think about it is terribly sad as a consolation isn’t it? But his wife, Emma, remember, was a committed Christian and she sought some divine meaning behind her little daughter’s death. She believed that God was all wise and all good, and although she could not see why he had permitted this, she still trusted that he knew best and that our understanding of God’s purposes is limited. Emma could imagine her little Annie in heaven, but Darwin couldn’t. However, neither could Darwin shake off his belief in God altogether, but found himself, feeling angry towards God for allowing this to happen. So there was this tension in his life- on the one hand following his strict evolutionary principles death is part of the process of weeding out the weak from the strong, and his daughter was one of the weak, in which case one has to simply accept it. On the other hand, he was angry that God allowed him to suffer such sorrow in the loss of his daughter. If Darwin was an atheist then he shouldn’t have felt angry towards God for there would have been no God to be angry against! But he wasn’t an atheist, he was an agnostic.

Now, in a sense Charles Darwin saw things with only one eye- the eye of science, the development of life from the inside, the biological mechanism producing greater numbers and more varied life forms, which he allowed could be taken as God’s activity in and through the world. But Emma Darwin was two eyed, so whilst recognizing fully the work of God from the inside of his creation, she also knew of God coming into his creation from the outside, for she had the additional eye of faith. Not some blind leap in the dark, but the reasonable belief based upon historical evidence as we have it in the second part of the Bible called the New Testament. The Christian claim is that God subjected himself to the ordinary biological processes of growth as he became incarnate of a young Jewish Virgin and born as Jesus of Nazareth. If there is an evolutionary human tree, then the astonishing claim is that God became embedded in it some two thousand years ago. Isn’t that an astounding thought? The claim is that he lived the only true human life that has ever been lived, a life of love and service- bestowing upon us a dignity which takes us beyond being merely ‘naked apes’, into having the potential of becoming sons and daughters of the one true God by following him. Modern science and medical science can be traced back to the movement Jesus founded. And when Jesus was confronted with those whose lives were shattered by the death of a loved one, he brought healing by raising the dead, a powerful symbol of what is going to happen in the future for all who put their trust in him. They were signs that  one day there is going to be a new heaven and earth which will be a glorious transformation of this one in which death will be no more, because he has overcome death by dying for us on the cross to take away our sin, only to rise from the dead, and ascend as the rightful ruler of our lives. But the implication for us is that today he invites anyone who dares to come to him to receive his forgiveness and his love, to personally discover, as Emma Darwin discovered, that he can raise us up to a new level of meaning and significance we would otherwise not know. Just think of the difference it would have made to Charles Darwin’s life had he come to know God whose face we see in Jesus, rather than wedded to the cold, abstract God of his formal upbringing? But let me ask:  what of you? Hopefully you have seen tonight that there need be no conflict between science and Christianity and so that is no barrier to you exploring it further. Do you not feel that it is better going through life with two eyes rather than with just one- focused solely on the world of mechanism devoid of meaning? Do you not think it is might be worthwhile to find out more of this wonderful person Jesus? In a moment I am going to talk to God, and if what I say has a faint echo in your heart you might want to agree to it by saying Amen.

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