Evolution and British Christianity

Whilst desperately trying to find the final quote for my last-but-one post, I came across a file of old Christian magazines from my University years, 40 years ago. Hoarder that I am, I’ve never had the heart to throw them out, and they’re probably unique now. It was interesting to see that there were a few articles about science and faith which give a flavour of the UK Christian climate of the time – more or less confirming my memories of that era.

Firstly, I have a number of copies of  a Christian youth magazine, Buzz, which really catalogue the rise of the charismatic renewal and, specifically, the early Christian music scene (“Student Graham Kendrick plays folk guitar..” – I actually did some gigs with him in those days.) The articles are about all kinds of things – personal spiritual growth, music, social concern, music, mission, music… but nothing about evolution or creationism. I think the issue just wasn’t on the radar of the average young Christian then.

I have one copy of the magazine of the Scripture Union – utterly mainstream and staidly evangelical. It represents the older age group of ordinary church people. As it happens there is an article on science – pointing out  that science arose, and could only have arisen, in a deeply Christian culture, despite the protestations of the new atheist kid on the block, Jacques Monod. The message is that science is our ally, not our enemy, except when false ideology is added. Plantinga obviously read that magazine. A pity Coyne didn’t.

Real discussion on evolution is restricted to student magazines, where there are clearly issues, especially for science students. An article in Voice, the organ of what is now the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship, but then the Inter Varsity Fellowship, talks of the creation story as being no real source of conflict because “hardly anyone takes Genesis 1 absolutely literally now.” It’s not a controversial article – educated conservative evangelicals here were his target audience.

Further insights come from Really, the Cambridge student Christian magazine, whose staff and contributors list reads like a Who’s Who  of current bishops, theology professors and Christian leaders in the arts, sciences, journalism and public service. One piece is by a geology student (now, I find, a senior oil geologist). He starts by saying that a standing joke in the geology department is that the first rocks were laid down in 4004BC, but argues that although Genesis 1 is shown not to be scientifically accurate, his colleagues have no reason to reject the rest of the Bible as God’s word. He expresses ignorance of the meaning of Genesis 1, but supposes it has some kind of symbolic intention.

An academic botanist, converted to Christ on his first week in Cambridge, and to trust in Scripture as  the word of God the following week, replies in the next issue. He gently challenges the apparent capitulation to the concept of “scientific error” in Genesis, and presents a case for the value of not compartmentalising knowledge – citing what a breakthrough it was when biologists began to notice that what geneticists observed in pea plants and what microscopists called “chromosomes” seemed to follow the same patterm. Theology should feed into science as science should to theology – an excellent insight on to which the science and faith people are just cottoning. So this writer is all for harmonising science with Scripture where possible. Pointing out the looseness of the term “day”, the formal literary structure of Genesis 1, and its anthropocentric, “common man” focus, he says that there is a broad enough concordance between the creation account and what science teaches to make conflict unnecessary (and he too takes a swipe at the newcomer, Monod).

Bearing in mind that both authors are scientists, not theologians, and that more sophisticated understandings based on ANE literature, like those of Walton, were not available to them, their positions are reasonable and, it should be noted, not at all polarised. It’s also notable that they were published freely in a magazine top-heavy with evangelical academic theologians, and that they generated no adverse correspondence either from Creationists or from Neoliberals calling their acceptance of Scripture as God’s word unsustainable.

There were certainly both literalists  and liberals at Cambridge in my time, but my little time capsule shows they were not locked in battle. Even the unbelievers mocked Christians gently (sometimes not so gently) for their faith, but didn’t castigate them as anti-science. Neither the Bible, nor science, has changed that radically since. Only the culture has.

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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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