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.