So, I’ve done a bit of responding to other posts on here, and I thought it was about time I made my first post, on a subject I have a lot of personal interest in. A quick search for keywords such as evolution, creationism, and intelligent design shows that there has not been much discussion (actually, any, as far as I can see) of these subjects on this blog. This does not entirely surprise me, because, in my experience, there is very little discussion amongst the Anabaptist Churches in general on issues having to do with the relationship between science and faith. Conservative Anabaptists (just can’t get away from that term!), for their part, often fall in line with other conservative Christians, in being suspicious of evolution (or “evolutionism”) and embracing a literalistic interpretation of the first few chapters of Genesis. Either that, or they don’t make an issue about it at all, one way or the other, and prefer not to discuss it. Liberal Anabaptists, for their part, tend to accept the truth of evolution because they have a liberal enough interpretation of Scripture that it presents no exegetical problem for them to do so, and because they associate creationism with ignorant warmongering racist homophobic fundamentalists. The fact that Jerry Falwell endorsed creationism is good enough reason for many progressive Christians to automatically reject it.
Of course, anti-evolutionism has not always had attached to it the social and economic conservatism we associate with it today. Indeed, in economic terms at least, Darwinism lends itself quite well to a conservative worldview—in fact, it was largely the work of economist Thomas Malthus that first inspired Darwin’s idea of natural selection. And, in fact, it was this association of scientific Darwinism with Social Darwinism that many socially progressive Christians of ages past objected to, and so became anti-evolutionist. William Jennings Bryan, three time Democratic presidential candidate, was a socialist and peace advocate who famously opposed evolution because of what he saw as its social implications. In a stump speech that he gave in revival tents around the country, he referred to Darwinism as propagating a “law of hate” that stood in stark contrast to the “law of love” that Christ taught.
What’s my point with all this? It’s certainly not that Bryan was right. Creationism is both bad science and bad theology—the evidence for evolution is strong, and for an old earth even stronger, and a literalistic interpretation of the Bible brings with it a myriad of difficulties itself. (Bryan believed in an old earth, as did most vocal proponents of creationism until the 1960s, and for the most part I can forgive his theology. lacking as the literalism that saturates creationism today. Still, his understanding of science left a lot to be desired.) But Bryan asked interesting questions and made interesting points. How does one deal with the apparent implications of Darwinism in light of the “law of love” we find in the Gospel? Many Christians today have come up with creative ways to reconcile the truth of biology with the truth of Christianity. Some Christians, of course, continue to simply deny the truth of biology. But scientists such as John Polkinghorne and Francis Collins have written about the compatibility between science and religion, and theologians are attempting to figure out how evolution—and other scientific truths—can inform and shape our theology (this is one of the motivations for open theism—if God does not predestine or even foreknow evolutionary changes and processes than can only be described as cruel and unnecessary, then he cannot be held responsible for them). The conversation on this issue—sometimes civil, sometimes not—is alive and active in the Church today.
In the Anabaptist churches, however, I see little of this discussion. Perhaps it’s the lingering suspicion of higher education from our Anabaptist forebears. Perhaps it’s our emphasis on social justice and discipleship at the expense of other matters. But whatever the reason, there just aren’t very many Mennonites or Brethren out there talking about science and religion. I know of one prominent Anabaptist theistic evolutionist—Owen Gingerich. And it might be more accurate to call him a theistic evolutionist who happens to be a Mennonite, at least as far as his scientific beliefs are concerned—because while his science is clearly informed by his Christianity, from what I’ve read of him I see very little that is explicitly “Anabaptist.” In contrast, when I read John Polkinghorne his Anglican faith is incredibly evident. Its influence is quite present in his scientific and theological reflections. The higher churches have always had more of an interest—for better or for worse—in natural theology.
In my experience, the general approach of Anabaptists, at least the ones who accept evolution, to the relationship between science and faith is that of “non-overlapping magisterium,” to use Stephen Jay Gould’s phrase. Basically this says that science and religion have nothing to do with each other, and that scientific discoveries should have no influence on our religious beliefs, which are simply a totally different kind of truth. Having professed this belief, Anabaptists are then free to go on their merry way of never actually thinking about science or its implications for faith.
Now, while I applaud the recognition that science and religion can both be true and that evolution (or whatever else) does not preclude Christian belief, I think that to act as if scientific truths have no bearing on religious truths is ridiculous, and based on a rather schizophrenic view of reality. We need to consider how the truth of evolution should affect our understanding of the nature of God. Personally, I think open theism goes too far in some of its claims, but at least it’s an attempt.
So, here are my questions for you. Firstly, why is this something that is never talked about in the Mennonite Church? Secondly, do you think that it is something that should be talked about? Is it an unimportant issue? Is this just pointless intellectual hair-splitting that is better saved until we’ve actually solved things like hunger, war, and poverty? Finally, if it is something that we should talk about, is there something distinctly “Anabaptist” that we can bring to this issue? Perhaps not—perhaps Anabaptist theology and practice has nothing constructive to add to this conversation. Perhaps we Anabaptists simply need to start discussing this issue more, but our discussion will be the same as with any other Christians, because there’s nothing our specific tradition can bring to this issue. Or maybe there is something Anabaptism has to say about all this. What do you think?
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