Just recently a discussion group I sometimes participate in had the question, “Could Christians Believe in Theistic Evolution?” It became quickly obvious that the questioner did not believe a Christian could.
This brought to mind that in a former life, I taught music in a girls’ secondary school in England. It was a great experience. Newstead School for Girls was a highly selective and enrolled only the top 20% of the girls in the London Borough of Bromley. I was one of three male teachers, which made life interesting since our toilet was in the furnace room!
This school was different from the typical American secondary school in two respects. One, the music I taught in the last two years (17- and 18-year-olds) at Newstead Woods is the same level of music I taught in the US to college freshmen and sophomores. The other distinction was the teaching of religion. At that time, religion was the only required school subject and it w as mandated the school day start with an act of Christian worship. Things have changed slightly, but that is another story.
Teaching staff had a work room and we were given an hour free each day to prep lessons, grade papers, etc. Sitting next to my desk was Audrey. She was a new teacher with a recently earned PhD in biology from London University. Audrey was friendly and we soon became good friends and colleagues. Only problem: Audrey was a humanist who saw no need for God.
A student religious study club met weekly at the lunch hour and invited Audrey and me to come to a meeting and discuss faith and evolution. Audrey and I were both eager to do this. Since we were friends I did not anticipate a raucous debate, and it was not.
Audrey gave a scientific definition of evolution. I don’t remember the exact words, but something like this: “Evolution is a process that results in heritable changes in a population spread over many generations.” Emphasis was placed upon the idea that evolution is within populations and not individuals. This definition helps a person to distinguish evolution and similar changes that are not evolution (but no examples were given that I remember).
When my turn came, I had to agree with her definitions and explanations. I pointed out that as a Christian I believed God had created all things for a purpose and was in charge of any processes of change.
Of course, the girls were not satisfied, and probably were secretly hoping that Audrey and I would get into one big row! They raised the questions of origins: how did all this begin. That is where the water hit the wheel. Not being a physicist, Audrey could not be an authority on the Big Bang theory, but said she thought that was the best explanation of how things began. The Big Bang just happened for no purpose; it was an accident. Species just happened and the process of evolution was how species developed and changed.
My argument was: God could have created by using the Big Bang. He created for the purpose of having a people he could call his own. The processes of evolution are due to God’s continuing creative activity. In summary, I asked the girls, which is the best explanation for the universe as we know it: to start with an accident that had no purpose, or to start with a God who designed and created with a purpose? Audrey could not prove a purposeless accident any more than I could prove a purposeful God, so the choice had to be made on the basis of which made the most sense of the data we have? When questions of origins are raised we have left the field of science and entered the field of metaphysics (the branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things, including abstract concepts such as being, knowing, substance, cause, identity, time, and space).
Audrey agreed with my summation. For her, the origins of the universe by accident was the best explanation. We remained friends, and I have often wondered over the years if she had given further thought to the substance of our debate.
I am convinced that the continuing debate over evolution is because many Christians misunderstand the scientific definition of evolution. Evolution does not deal with origins, for that cannot be tested in the laboratory. A scientific definition of evolution is simply the observation of “change in the gene pool of a population from generation to generation by such processes as mutation, natural selection, and genetic drift” (The Free Dictionary). There is nothing anti-Christian about that definition and one of the better dictionary definitions.
Non-Christian scientists are relying upon a naturalistic philosophy that says everything comes from natural properties and causes, and supernatural of spiritual explanations are excluded or discounted. There is nothing scientific or non-scientific about that definition. In the television series titled “Cosmos,” host Carl Sagan made the statement that matter is eternal: it has been, is, and will be. That is naturalism.
Many non-scientists hold that philosophy. So, if we are to debate science it should be on the basis of the naturalistic philosophy that is used to explain the processes of evolution, and not upon evolution as a process. Evolutionary processes can be explained quite adequately by referring to God as the creator and sustainer of all natural processes that we find in the universe.