Often when I speak to young people, as I did last weekend, I am asked about evolution. The rhetoric of the culture wars has given many people the impression that one must either believe in creation or evolution. This is of course a false dilemma. I am not, however, suggesting that the appropriate alternative to the either/or of this false dilemma (and of most false dilemmas) is both/and. Nor am I suggesting that a hybrid evolutionary-creationism is the answer either. [What I do suggest follows below, but I think I had to say that now so that some of my dear readers may more easily attend to what I actually do say.] And what unfortunately makes this struggle between evolution and creation even more problematic for young people is that the creationism that is most often presented to them as an alternative to evolution carries the same materialistic and causal assumptions of the evolutionary scientists, except with a God component.
To my untrained eye (I am no scientist), this God-created-the-world-in-six-literal-days-about-ten-thousand-years-ago scenario offers little significantly different from the deist/atheist/agnostic evolutionary scenario. In both cases, God is not everywhere present and filling all things. Neither view, in my opinion, presents a Christian understanding, and certainly not an Orthodox Christian understanding of the state of things–how things came to be and why they are the way they are.
Given this messy context and the heightened anxiety that often accompanies the question, what I have generally told young people when they ask the evolution question is that ancient spiritual texts (even fully inspired ones) are just as inappropriate as foundations for science as scientific theories are inappropriate foundations for theological speculation. We’re talking about apples and oranges here. Apples and apes, really.
Fr. Aleis Trader in his book Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy makes a helpful observation as he tries to lay out the metaphysical assumptions underlying modern psychology. Commenting on attempts by Orthodox Christians to reconcile evolutionary theory with the account of Genesis, which he charitably says “have not been greeted by unanimous approval,” Fr. Aleis gets to the root of the matter. He says that Genesis and evolutionary theory cannot be reconciled because “evolutionary theory is more than a description of a process and Orthodox theology of creation is more than a statement about causation.” And it is this something more that cannot be ignored without making both what neither is.
Evolutionary theory is not merely the description of a process–a description that in some contexts may even be useful–it is also a set of metaphysical assumptions about the nature of reality. Therefore, for Christians, especially Orthodox Christians, to oppose evolutionary theory as though its fundamental problem were that it doesn’t get the primordial facts straight, is truly a travesty. It is the ultimate picking of gnats out of the camel stew. Similarly, at least from an Orthodox Christian perspective, Genesis is about much, much more than causation. Even granting the most literalistic interpretation of Genesis, to separate that God created a certain way from what that creation tells us about the nature of God and of the creation itself and of God’s intimate relationship with His creation is certainly a far greater travesty.
Nevertheless, and this seems to be the point of chapters one and two of Fr. Alesis’ book, it is still possible for scientists and Orthodox Christians committed to a patristic understanding of God, man and the cosmos to have a conversation–even to learn from each other. However, before genuine dialog can take place, the nature of each worldview must be made explicit–and the rhetoric must be toned way down.
I am afraid, however, that for most Orthodox Christian young people caught up in a world of half answers to ill-formed questions, of emotionally charged rhetoric, and of hidden assumptions and intentional ignorance (on all sides), meaningful engagement with science without wounding their Orthodox Christian conscience is a very tricky matter. Many great Orthodox Christians have also been great scientists (Pavel Florensky comes immediately to mind). It is certainly possible for a devout Orthodox Christian to become an excellent scientist: I personally know a few. However, it requires at least the following things: that the metaphysical assumptions of science be made explicit, and that Christian truth not be reduced to mere measurable facts. It also requires that young people studying science know their faith and nurture their relationship with God with as much zeal as they pursue their scientific study. But is this not also the case for everyone in any field?
**NOTE** Some of you may have noticed that I accidentally deleted some comments. I was cleaning out spam and somehow deleted several legitimate comments. I tried to get them back, but I couldn’t figure out how. Sorry.