Convergent evolution of origins discourse

On Thursday I drove two hundred miles across England to attend a meeting on Christian approaches to origins – only to find the meeting had been cancelled and the organisers forgot to tell me.

Paradoxically, it turned out better for me than if the meeting had gone ahead. My main aim had been not so much to learn about the options – I think we have a fair idea of them here, don’t you? – but to see where things stand in Britain in particular, since for various reasons I’m more in touch with the US scene than my own. For example, the hit rate for the Hump of the Camel is weighted about 7.5:1 in favour of North America compared to Britain (though we’re big in Sweden, Turkey, Germany and India too).

The venue for the evening meeting was a prestigious Evangelical research establishment (not related to origins), and obviously embarrassed at my long and, ostensibly, fruitless journey the admin person made me coffee and wlecomed me as a friend – it in fact turned out that she is a good friend of my fellow elder in our small village Baptist church, which she also knew well: such is the power of providence.

But she also sent for the director of the establishment, who abandoned his wife and family to meet me, and we spent around an hour in conversation (which otherwise I’d have spent listening to what I already know about ID, EC etc). Though a significant biblical scholar, it happens that he has an active personal interest in the “origins question,” and knows the UK scene well – for example, he is a friend of Richard Buggs, and was aware of the debate he recently conducted at BioLogos. So let me share a few general conclusions I reached on the basis of his informal, but very informative, briefing.

The first thing to note is what I have observed over the years in posts at BioLogos: that the culture wars between “creationists” and “evolutionists” are very much less marked over here, as indeed was the case way back when I was involved in Evangelical groups in my time at Cambridge. The research establishment I visited, for example, has scholars on the staff with EC views, ID views, young earth and old earth. And they treat each other with mutual respect, rather than (as so often in the US) regardinging those they disagree with as ignorant, unspiritual or anti-intellectual.

My host attributed this in part to the huge influence of great men like John Stott, who after the Second World War made British Evangelicalism a largely unified and coherent movement, rather than the ragbag of contradictory ideas conjured up by the term “Evangelical” in America. Evangelicalism here is characterized by its core unity more than its disagreements. (Incidentally, he told me that John Stott held to an “ancient Adam” view similar to that of Ann Gauger, and defended in the Buggs-Venema thread – so it’s not a dead hermeneutic option, by any means, despite the dismissive attitude of Venema and his chums.)

Arising from that, my conversation partner said that Christians need to realise that the real dividing lines ought to be not between Christians keen on evolution and those agin it, but between those who accept the real authority of biblical revelation and divine governance, and those, such as atheists and deists, who do not. Now one needs to take that assessment seriously when one is talking not to an IT student on a public combox, but to someone who knows Tim Keller, N T Wright, Greg Beale or Wayne Grudem personally.

In another way, though, I was interested to find that his assessment of the “science-faith” scene in the UK closely parallels my own experience of the US. And that is that much of the theological agenda has been taken over by those trained in the sciences, not in theology, and whose priorities and prejudices (and limitations) reflect that. Eddie Robinson refers to this phenomenon at BioLogos in his recent post, and it seems comparable here in the UK, except that far more scientists in the US are reacting against a childhood YEC indoctrination, and far more here imbibing a culturally-conditioned scientism .

There is a close equivalent to the ASA in the British group Christians in Science: both seem to have become deeply influenced by the kind of theistic evolution based on doctrinaire Neodarwinism as interpreted, theologically, by those like Howard Van Till, John Polkinghorne or John Haught at the academic end, and Ken Miller or Dennis Lamoureaux in popular writing.

Apart from that, there is a Templeton-funded organisation apparently closely modelled on BioLogos and sharing its values, The Faraday Institute. This, like BioLogos, promotes theistic evolution as the thinking Evangelical’s default view, but like BioLogos it leans towards “consensus science” and methodological naturalism and is rather muddy both theologically and philosophically.

It may be that these two outfits actually have a proportionately greater influence on Evangelical academics than the US equivalents do. Here, as there, there is a tendency for Evangelical theologians and Bible scholars to assume that scientists have the facts sorted in their own field (which is odd, for they recognise many in their own disciplines to speak with gross error!). But in the US, there is also a very strong Creationist “infrastructure”, and an effective Intelligent Design movement. Both these are lacking, currently, in Britain – although it is interesting that as a research programme Intelligent Design was originally formulated in England, albeit by American scientists and philosophers doing post-graduate research in Cambridge – see Meyer’s Signature in the Cell for a partial account of that.

In summary, the need for serious, orthodox, Evangelical engagement with science, the Bible and ancillary fields like philosophy, history and metaphysics is as great here as it is in America. For example, given that the British groups are as unlikely as BioLogos to discuss the Genealogical Adam hypothesis seriously, there is currently nobody here (except me!) to do so. My host had vaguely heard of it, but not read Swamidass’s articles.

I was particularly interested in my host’s assessment that New Testament studies have been a success story for Evangelicals. Thanks to the fantastic work of people like Tom Wright and Richard Bauckham, almost wherever one goes here, in churches of all kinds, acceptance of the basic truth of the New Testament narrative is widespread. (“As I said to David Jenkins [former liberal Bishop of Durham],” said my host, “is it more likely that God is a figment of our imagination, or that we are figments of God’s imagination?” – seems directly relevant to my recent post!)

But the same success is not true of Old Testament studies, where those committed to the inspiration and truth of Scripture, and to rigorous scholarship, are few and far between, perhaps on both continents but more so in Britain. And it is the Old Testament, of course, where we find most teaching about creation origins, and so that is the ground, therefore, on which the dialogue between the biblical and the scientistic worldviews needs to take place.

I drove back keen to share these insights with you – and owing to the fact that a driver in front of me on the M25 narrowly avoided starting a mass pile-up in which I would certainly have plunged at speed, I am able to do so. Such is the power of providence.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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12 Responses to Convergent evolution of origins discourse

  1. Mark Mark says:

    “The research establishment I visited, for example, has scholars on the staff with EC views, ID views, young earth and old earth. And they treat each other with mutual respect, rather than (as so often in the US) regardinging those they disagree with as ignorant, unspiritual or anti-intellectual.”

    That should be the goal here, I think.

    PS- surely North America has 7.5 times the population, particularly Christian population, that England does, so for someone who is thinking globally I would expect stats like that.

  2. swamidass says:

    Faraday institute will be at ASA workshop, and they have been curious but out of the loop.

  3. swamidass says:

    Tell me more about what you think genealogical Adam might do to help the English context? What can we do to increase chance of adoption with faraday.

  4. swamidass says:

    Tell me more about what you think genealogical Adam might do to help the English context? What can we do to increase chance of adoption with faraday?

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Tell me more about what you think genealogical Adam might do to help the English context? What can we do to increase chance of adoption with faraday?

      I’m really not sure, Joshua – my conversation touched on GA, but only enough to show that my interlocutor was only vaguely aware of it. So maybe your engaging with Faraday at the ASA should involve, apart from your usual clear presentation of the science, the way in which it avoids having to go off piste theologically. Overall, British Evangelicals are less inclined to think radical ideas are fun, and more concerned to marry orthodoxy with science.

      That’s against the background, though, that scientists here, as there, see themselves as a particular group, and many will have read EC stuff, so you may need to show you’re selling a new and better product!

      • swamidass says:

        Just got word that Simon Conway Morris and Denis Alexander have heard of my work, and are positive about it. Very encouragingly, there is a report that Francis Collins mentioned it too, in a very positive way. That is really good news. Any information you can give me about SCM and DA?

        • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

          Not a lot – as I’ve already said, I know far more about the American scene. But Denis is clearly influential as a “popularizer”, Conway Morris being more a researcher whose flag is convergence (and whose explanation for that would, I think, best be described as “orthogenesis.”)

          Another person worth sounding out is, of course, John Lennox, because he is essentially an ID guy as well as a populariser. Both Denis and John were mentioned by my interlocutor: if they show a positive interest, it will probably bring it to the attention of interested British theologians as well as believing scientists.

          By the way, the positive you responses you cite certainly are encouraging, and from a wide enough range of people to whiff of “changing the game.”

        • Mattman says:

          Denis Alexander “Faraday finds no contradiction between Science and Religion because we ignore the truth claims of religion” Debate with Larry Moran
          Simon Conway Morris “Having said that, if you happen to be a ‘creation scientist’ (or something of that kind) and have read this far, may I politely suggest that you put this book back on the shelf” Life’s solution.
          “Yet, if evolution is glaringly obvious, why is it not only greeted with growing hostility, but the siren-call of anti-evolutionary dogma, notably ‘intelligent design’, remains a rallying point to individuals that in any other respect fail to manifest any obvious sign of mental instability? ” Evolution: like any other science it is predictable.
          What lovely individuals.

  5. Justin K says:

    Great post, as usual. I just wanted to say that John Stott, in print, often spoke of the homo divinus model (ala Derek Kidner) as his preferred view, and explicitly stated that he saw Adam as Neolithic in his commentary on Romans, with all of humanity made in the image with, and thus falling with, Adam. He quotes Kidner at length, and the commentary itself is quite good. Incidentally, an article on BioLogos states as well that Stott saw Adam as 200,00 years old, but if I am not mistaken this was the same article that clearly mixed Loren Wilkinson of Regent College and David Wilkinson of Durham to the point it was not even clear who the author of the article was!

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Justin

      An interesting ambiguity in Stott – the “old Adam” information came from the guy I was speaking to, who was by no means dependent on BioLogos! I guess it may just show that people’s models have shifted to try and accommodate the data – what has thrilled me since I came into this “game” seriously is how answers that work are indeed gradually revealed.

  6. Robert Byers says:

    I wish well for brit evangelicalism but it seems not to be successful . America, less so canada, is where evangelicalism is successful and famous and influential and threatening to bad guys everywhere.
    Relative to numbers i see origin disagreements as not serious here. its about sampling.
    The trouble comes from forceful people who try to make a impact out of proportion to numbers. i don’t see a pro evolution evangelical movement, or any double digits numbers behind it. in fact its dead on arrival and almost patently boring.
    its just that any attention to origin subjects helps YEC creationism.
    Creationism won’t be successful in britain until they get on, a favorite program of mine, IN OUR TIME.
    lord make it so!

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Robert

      Evangelicalism here is by no means dead – the country is more secular, but within Christianity, Bible believing faith is strong.

      And just bear in mind the old saying, which is insulting but has a grain of truth, which i heard from Os Guinness: “Christianity in America is 3,000 miles wide, and one inch deep.”

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