Why I Am Not a Creationist, Even Though I Believe in the God Who Created Everything – Guest Blogger, Mary Vanderplas
“How old is the Earth?” he asked me, speaking in a tone of voice that suggested an agenda behind the question. His tone of voice, coupled with the fact that this was the first time I had ever seen the man and that I had just introduced myself as a chaplain (he was a patient in the hospital where I work), tipped me off that his motivation was more to interrogate and test than to dialogue with me on the subject of the Earth’s origin. “Hmm,” I responded, “is there a reason you’re asking this?” “Well, you’re a chaplain, aren’t you?” he replied. “Don’t people like you believe that the Earth was created 6,000 years ago?”
Even though I was taken aback by this man’s question and by the way in which he posed it, I could appreciate where he was coming from. In fact, there are more than a few people “like me” – people who believe the Bible and who believe in the God revealed therein – who are “creationists” – i.e., people who believe not only that God created all things but also that the biblical account of creation recorded in Genesis is to be interpreted literally, leading to an understanding of origins and the development of life on Earth that is decidedly different from that of modern science.* A 2012 Gallup survey found that 46% of Americans – an increase of six percent from two years earlier – believe that “God created humans in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.” (cited in “Creation-Evolution Controversy” on Wikipedia) So my interrogator wasn’t altogether unjustified in his assumption that I am a creationist.
The truth is, though, that I am not a creationist in the sense of the term that is popularly held in the culture. As a Christian believer who considers the Bible the normative witness to the truth of God, I believe this central truth to which the Bible attests: God is the Creator of all things. Everything that exists does so because of the will and power of God. Nothing that exists is here strictly by accident. This I hold as one of the tenets of my faith. But I do not believe that the creation came into being in six literal days or that everything we see now in the way of species, along with those that have become extinct, was created by a direct act of God some 10,000 years ago.
My purpose in this blog is to address (briefly) why I think creationism – with its rejection of evolution and its emphasis on a literal interpretation of the creative narratives in Genesis – is misguided and why I am comfortable with evolution as a scientific theory of the development of life on our planet. Let it be known that, even though I disagree with the stance of creationism, I am not out to bash those who embrace it. I recognize that the subject is a controversial one, and that in terms of one’s faith and commitment to Jesus Christ, what one believes about how and when the Earth and life came to be is less than essential. This is not to say that I don’t think the creationist stance is a hindrance to the church’s witness or that I don’t think that efforts should be made to overcome the ignorance of those who hold a view that denies the facts of science. I do. But I don’t think that either stamping out ignorance or breaking down obstacles to the church’s mission is legitimate grounds for bashing anyone and that in fact I am called to show love toward and pursue unity with fellow believers.
So let me begin. I am not a creationist because I don’t think that believing in the God who created everything requires reading the creation narratives in Genesis as a literal scientific description of how God created the world and life. Indeed, I think that to read these narratives as such is to misread them, to read them as something other than what they are. I agree with those who assert that the author of Genesis did not set out to give a scientific description of the process by which the universe and planet and life came to appear; he set out, rather, to declare the ultimate origin of all that is. The message of these texts is theological, not scientific – an affirmation that the world is how it is by the will and power of the living God. In reading these texts, we need to understand the “scientific” language not as conveying scientific information but simply as a vehicle by which the theological message is transmitted.
A related reason why I reject a creationist stance is that I don’t believe that, in order to affirm the Christian doctrine of creation, one must reject the notion of continuous creation. The language of the text of Genesis 1 and 2 suggests that an affirmation of God as having created all things “in the beginning” does not preclude his use of natural processes taking place over a very long period of time to bring forth the marvelous diversity of the species that we see (see Genesis 1:12, 27; 2:7, 22). The Christian doctrine of creation is, in other words, consistent, in my view, with the scientific theory of evolution.
I am not a creationist because I think that the evidence for evolution is compelling and that to deny it is to wrongly reject a significant source of knowledge of this vast and wondrous world that God made. While I do not consider myself a scientist (even though for a time earlier in my life I studied the science of psychology, before turning to theology), I enjoy reading and learning from those who study scientifically the origins of the universe and the Earth and the origin and development of life on our planet. What the scientific community tells us, among other things, is that there is much evidence to support evolution as a comprehensive theory explaining how life on the Earth developed starting about three billion years ago. It is hard to dispute, though some in the creationist camp don’t give up trying, what scientists in the fields of biology, molecular biology, paleontology, genetics, and others have uncovered about a common ancestor and about descent with modification through natural selection and other mechanisms. While there are still unknowns and unsolved puzzles when it comes to evolution and the mechanisms of evolutionary change, these “gaps” in knowledge are not grounds for arguing that evolution is not a credible scientific theory. Evolution is widely accepted in the scientific world; and in my view, those who persist in denying the truth that science has discovered – on religious grounds or on any other grounds – are choosing ignorance about this good creation.
Another reason why I am not a creationist is because those who argue against evolution often blur the lines between theology and science in arguing their views. Proponents of the position known as “Intelligent Design,” for example, argue that the presence of unexplained-by-science biological complexity is proof of an intelligent Designer having brought it about. But to do this, to invoke a supernatural explanation for a phenomenon in the physical world, is not science. Science involves developing testable hypotheses and gathering data to support them. Moreover, as many critics of this way of thinking have noted, to assume that something that has not yet been explained is unexplainable scientifically and to retreat to a supernatural explanation is to squelch the (God-given, I believe) drive for scientific inquiry (and to force this “god of the gaps” to recede to the margins as puzzles are solved).
There is more that I could say by way of articulating my rejection of the creationist stance. Suffice it to say that, as a Christian believer who understands that the whole world is God’s world, I believe that it is important to accept the findings of science and to recognize that the data and theories of science are significant in helping us to understand God’s good creation. Where creation-as-theology and evolution-as-science are concerned, I do not see any conflict between the two. When either one transgresses the boundaries, however, trouble ensues: Creationists bill their doctrine as science and push to teach it in the science classroom (while calling evolution “just a theory”); evolutionists argue that the facts of science prove that life is purposeless and that God doesn’t exist.
Suffice it for me to say, too, that, as a Christian believer, I do not read and contemplate in a vacuum the findings of science and the things that I see around me. On the contrary, I see the world and I read science through the eyes of faith. When I observe the world of nature, I see the intelligence and power and wisdom of the living God giving it its marvelous diversity and complexity and basic orderliness. When I ponder the vast expanse of the universe, and read about its fundamental constants being exceedingly finely tuned, I see the hand of God setting and preserving the galaxies in their orbits and designing a world such that life would appear. When I contemplate the human characteristics of consciousness and conscience, I see the personal Designer at work bringing into being a most complex and spectacular creation. The understanding given to me by science only heightens my sense of awe and praise of the Creator!
*Granted, not all who are in the creationist camp believe that the universe and planet are a mere 6,000 to 10,000 years old. There are “old Earth creationists” as well as “young Earth” ones, and a number of variations among those who believe that the events described in Genesis took place farther back in history than 10,000 years. What these positions have in a common is that they attempt to harmonize Genesis, construed literally as a description of the events of creation, with the findings of modern science that the Earth is very old.