In the beginning, God created ... And God said, ‘Let there be light’ … and there was evening an morning, one day. And God said, ‘Let there be a firmament’ … and there was evening and morning, a second day … And God said … a third day … And God said … a fourth day …… Genesis, chapter 1.
When missionaries call at my door, I sometimes accept their invitation to discuss religion and faith, especially if they have a youngster in tow, and my gambit is usually to ask them their views on evolution. I do this because 'evolution or creationism?' has long been a kind of litmus test of people's openness to Truth, and therefore of their willingness to discuss faith seriously. They usually tell me that can’t accept evolution because it's not what it says in the Bible. In a literal sense, they're right of course, but the Genesis account of Creation sets out a scheme that, while it lacks details, is surprisingly close to what happened. It says that there was a beginning to the universe; it says that what we see around us on earth came about in phases; it sees the centrality of sex; it recognises humankind as a newcomer on the scene, and self-conscious humanity as a still later arrival. Obvious as it is once you know, it took us until less than two hundred years ago to understand that evolution is the vehicle and natural selection the motor for the changes from one phase to another. It is not in the least surprising that the Genesis authors didn't grasp these important details. When we think of the evidence available to them well over three thousand years ago, it is really quite remarkable that the authors' overarching scheme was as close as it is to the way we now know things happened.
Nor is that the end of the biblical prefiguring of evolutionary ideas. No thoughtful reader of the Old Testament can fail to sense, within and behind the explicit story of how Yahweh/God leads ‘his’ people through their salvation history, an ever-developing understanding of what ‘God’ means. The jealous Yahweh of the Pentateuch who inhabits a world of gods and chooses the Hebrews for ‘his’ people contrasts with the God of the monotheistic Second Isaiah who creates both weal and woe and works through the great Persian emperor, Cyrus. The magisterial God who lays down the punitive laws of Leviticus sounds very different from the God that Jesus addresses as a loving father. This development has traditionally been described as God’s progressive – and presumably unpredictable – self-revelation; looked at from our point of view it looks like the kind of developing – and open-ended – understanding that we are familiar with in other contexts. The New Testament too understands that things continually move on. When Jesus tells his hearers, ‘You have heard that it was said to them of old time … But I say to you …,’ he is not necessarily saying that what was said in the old time was wrong, only that it has been superseded. And further, on-going change is suggested when John expresses the promise that the coming Spirit will lead us into all Truth. Not ‘give’ us, note; Truth is not something to be possessed – it’s something to be journeyed towards.
Judeo-Christian tradition thus offers not only a very early sketch of an evolutionary approach, but also the sense that our understanding too is part of the all-encompassing story of endless change. In the light of this, it is perhaps not surprising that our understanding of evolution arose within the Judeo-Christian tradition. A tradition less committed to a religion of historical development, of salvation history, and less aware of the way understanding continually deepens through the centuries would have lacked some of the vital building blocks for evolution as science. Yet despite this, some religious people brought up within the Abrahamic tradition still find evolution hard to swallow. They often shy away from reading about it, do not trouble to try to understand it, and reject it out-of-hand as an affront to their beliefs. Why? Why has this debate above all others become the key battle-ground between Science and Religion? Why indeed is there a battle between Science and Religion, with partisans on both sides determined to get the better of the other lot? There are many possible explanations. Mutual impatience and incomprehension play their part, as does fear. Perhaps we have an built-in inclination to strife within the family. And we quite like to feel we belong to a tribe that struggles against a tribe that wears a different strip – White Coats United versus Black Cassock Wanderers.
But there are plenty of real enemies out there, notably the idea that worthwhile life does not need a sense of awe, an ability to love, and a commitment to truth. Religious enthusiasts sometimes feel that scientists have lost their sense of awe; the partisans of Science scoff at their antagonists’ unwillingness to follow where truth leads; and both sides have plenty of reasons to question whether the other side’s principles reliably lead it to demonstrate a practical, wide love. Of course arrogance and awelessness are unattractive and unnecessary in scientists, and ignorance and obscurantism are equally unattractive and unnecessary in religious people. And the ability to love widely is as yet far from hard-wired into the human brain. Perhaps the time will come, through an evolutionary process and/or by ‘the grace of God’, when a wide love will not be as hard for us to live out consistently as it now seems to be. We can make our contribution to that development by making it our business to understand and value the insights offered to us by people we have been taught to be wary of. A famous French scientist adapted the old monastic idea that laborare est orare (to work is to pray) as Laboratoire est oratoire – the laboratory is the oratory, the place of prayer. He was right; there needs to be no tension between science and religion.