Friday, February 06, 2009
Book Review: Nature's Witness
Leaves don't drop they just let go,
And make a place for seeds to grow.
Every season brings a change,
A seed is what a tree contains,
To die and live is life's refrain.

This chorus from Carrie Newcomer's latest album The Geography of Light captures well the idea/philosophy/suggestion that perhaps death isn't entirely the evil that we often assume it to be. Maybe, just maybe, death is, as they say, a part of life, and can even be a beautiful part of it when seen as one generation making way for the next - giving of themselves, sacrificing themselves even, and thereby making space for their children to survive and thrive. It's an increasingly common point of view, especially among those attuned to the rhythms and necessities of the natural world (the whole "circle of life" thing). However, it can still be a difficult idea to swallow among those of us raised in those Christian backgrounds that unequivocally declare death to be an enemy - an unnatural result of sin, robbed of its sting by Christ's resurrection, and destined to be defeated once and for all at the end times. And certainly, on a more immediate and experiential level, to those who have lost friends, children, and other loved ones prematurely, death understandably appears as a great and terrible evil.

Nonetheless, Daniel M. Harrell's provocative new book, Nature's Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith, humbly suggests that, for those of us who take the revelations of science just as seriously as we do other sources of truth, evolution practically requires that biological death have been part of God's design for the universe since the beginning. Of course he recognizes the challenge this poses for traditional Christianity, but still believes that evolutionary theory is compatible with Christian faith, albeit as long as that faith is flexible and open to new revelations of God's truth.

What I appreciated most about this book is that it takes the conversation about Christianity and evolution to the next level. So many books out there on this topic never get past the basic level of trying to reconcile evolution with the first chapter of Genesis. Having dealt with this issue, to my own satisfaction at least, way back in high school, I am a little weary of this conversation and was ready for a book that would dig deeper. Harrell does exactly that. Rather than spending the bulk of his time on the worn-out question of "Can Bible-honoring Christians believe in evolution?" he simply gives a quick affirmation that since "all truth is God's truth", and since the Bible can obviously contain other literary genres besides historical narrative, the Bible can in fact make room for evolutionary science. He then raises his primary question, which is "If we assume that evolution is essentially true, and we also continue to maintain our faith in the God of the Bible, what then does evolution tell us about God?" In other words, if God is the author of all creation, then God created evolutionary processes along with everything else. So if creation reveals the glory of God, then what does evolution reveal?

Harrell then spends the bulk of the book raising a lot of really good and really difficult questions that too few theistic evolutionists (i.e. people who believe evolution is compatible with belief in God) really consider. For instance, in his chapter playfully titled "What Happens When I Think Too Much", he writes:
Theology teaches me that the character of creation reflects the character of the Creator - God's beauty and order and goodness and purposefulness. But as soon as you start thinking about what an evolving creation truly reveals - namely cruelty and disorder and indifference and randomness - you can't help but wonder about your faith and about the God to whom that faith points. (46)

I really appreciated that Harrell never shies away from these questions, nor does he settle for any easy answers. He considers all the possibilities, including the possibility that God doesn't exist and all of his theology is simply "made up". While he doesn't ultimately settle on that answer for himself, I loved that he admits his doubts, and was honest enough to admit that his faith is based not on scientific certainty, but on a choice to believe based on lived experiences and reasonable possibilities. Harrell in fact has an extended discussion about the epistemological compatibility of faith and science, and thoroughly rejects both any hint of a "God-of-the-gaps" approach (i.e. trying to fashion a proof for God out of the current gaps in our scientific knowledge), as well as the overreaching assumption that science is somehow able to disprove God. As I think Harrell rightly points out "A natural explanation is not a godless explanation because God made nature. The natural world is evidence of his mind-blowing skill." (70)

The problem then, once again, is not whether or not science allows for God's existence, but what kind of God science reveals, and whether that God is at all compatible with the God Christians claim to worship (or whether that God is the sort that anyone would even want to worship in the first place.) If evolution depends on random genetic mutations, most of which are harmful and even deadly to creatures, and on generation after generation of deaths and even extinction to even function properly, then does this mean God is wasteful and uninvolved and unmerciful? After all, it took a lot of evolutionary dead ends and a lot of death and suffering to produce the natural diversity we see today. What can we say about a God who puts a system like this in place?

My one complaint with the book was that Harrell waits until essentially the last chapter before offering his answer to these questions. However, when he does finally get there it basically boils down to two suggestions. The first, as I have said, is that perhaps we need to stop seeing death as always and only being an unnatural evil in the world. Instead, perhaps it is possible to see death as a reflection of God's own self-sacrificial nature, a giving of the self so that others may live. Or, as Carrie Newcomer put it, "Leaves don't drop they just let go/ And make a place for seeds to grow." To back this up theologically, Harrell points to Christ's own sacrifice, and thus speaks of the possibility of a "cross-shaped creation" as well. As he puts it:
Death is necessary for life to evolve and death is necessary for life to be redeemed into eternal life. It's the necessity of death in the handiwork of God that so strongly argues for the presence of sacrificial death within the character of God. (122)

His second suggestion is that evolution points us to a God who doesn't micromanage creation, nor a God who creates everything "perfect" (and therefore static) right from day one, but rather that evolution reveals a God who delights in a creation that is free to change and unfold. He suggests that "perhaps creation is not so much something good that went bad, but something started as good that just is not yet done." (118) And just as humans have free will to choose our own moral and spiritual path, so the rest of creation operates according to "free processes" which allow nature to develop along unique evolutionary paths, not merely according to a predetermined divine plan. For Harrell biological freedom, as with moral freedom, is an expression of God's relational nature. God creates a relational creation that can co-operate with her in its own self-creation. Because of God's love for creation, she in a sense "sets it free" to become what it will on its own.

Of course Harrell's answers may not satisfy everyone, and he admits that there are still unanswered questions (the Problem of Evil, for instance). And his answers do require a radical rethinking of certain traditional doctrines. For instance, it means that biological death didn't just enter into the world with Adam & Eve's sin. If evolution is true, then animals, including whichever animals eventually evolved into homo sapiens, were dying long before human beings came on the scene, and thus it is likely that the first humans would have died eventually as well, sin or no. In other words, evolution requires us to say that biological death is not necessarily the result of sin. Harrell instead proposes a distinction between biological death and spiritual death (i.e. a break in one's relationship to God), and points to the fact that Adam & Eve did not immediately keel over despite having been told by God that "on the day in which you eat of [the forbidden fruit], you shall surely die" as evidence that scripture is referring to something other than biological death.

It's an interesting possibility. I confess that in the past I have been torn between the stream of thought that sees death as an outrage and an enemy to be resisted at all costs, and the response which says that death is a reality to be accepted and even embraced at times. I think there is truth in both, and quite honestly I'm sure I might skew back towards the former option if I were to ever lose someone close to me (my life has been mercifully and somewhat unnervingly death-free so far), but for the moment I find myself more and more attracted to the latter possibility. I look at the frenetic unease of those who demand immortality, and seek it at any cost, however it is that they define it, and find myself not wanting to grasp life quite so tightly as that. And then I look at the serenity of those who accept death as a part of life and prepare themselves to let go with dignity and peace when the time comes and think "Yeah, I want that to be me." Finding that this approach also fits with an embrace of evolutionary science makes it all the more attractive.

Anyhow, I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to look at evolution as a source for Christian theology, not just a challenge to it. Whether you end up agreeing or no, at the very least, it will make you think.

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posted by Mike Clawson at 4:25 PM | Permalink |


At 2/07/2009 09:04:00 PM, Anonymous Andy

Hi Mike!

Thanks for this review. I haven't kept up with the evolution debate, but this seems like a needed book. When I've heard the issue raised of what kind of God would use evolution, it's always been by creationists who quickly answer, "Not ours," and move on. Harrell's book sounds like a good discussion sparker.

I think of death as bad because I think of separation as bad. I don't like missing people, especially if it's forever. But I have thought that there could be such a thing as a good death if it happened peacefully in the presence of loved ones at the end of a long and well-spent life. It would just be the natural close of a life, like the end of a book.

The problem with evolution is that most deaths aren't like that. An evolutionary world is a very messy place with lots of suffering and premature deaths. So if that's the kind of world God created and he called it good, it raises the question of what "good" means. A worthwhile question if I've ever heard one.


At 2/08/2009 05:06:00 PM, Anonymous cl


First-time visitor here, saw the link on FriendlyAtheist. If I get a chance I'll check this book out. Seems interesting. As for the Genesis 1 / Evolution discrepancy, I think its severity depends whether we're talking about a metaphoric vs. literal vs. YEC parsing of Genesis. It also depends on our particular definition of evolution. For me, the general concept of LUCA speaks in favor of a Creation with foresight and resourcefulness. Homology is consistent with utility of design and violates nothing in scripture.

Anyway, seems like a decent read, and I always appreciate a good tip.


At 2/08/2009 07:54:00 PM, Anonymous Autumnal Harvest

The problem with evolution is that most deaths aren't like that. An evolutionary world is a very messy place with lots of suffering and premature deaths.

Andy, I see how that's a problem, but I don't see how that's a problem with evolution. It seems like that's just the problem of evil, which you have with or without evolution. After all, even if one doesn't belive in evolution, you can look around now and see that the world "is a very messy place with lots of suffering and premature deaths."


At 2/08/2009 11:01:00 PM, Blogger Player Piano

Hi! I am a first-time poster, referred here from Friendly Atheist.

I really enjoyed your review of this book. It raises a lot of intriguing questions.

For full disclosure, I feel I should let it be known that I am an atheist, but I find this topic a worthwhile one all the same.

I like reading about the "evolution as positive theology" idea. We know that evolution occurs, so if there were a god, what would it be like? It is fascinating to me how different people view the divine nature.


At 2/08/2009 11:38:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Autumnal Harvest - the problem my old college roommate Andy is referring to is that most Christians would say that "evil" doesn't come into the world until after humans arrive on the scene (i.e. the whole Adam & Eve story/myth/whatever). So if evolution leads to the kind of messy biological death that appears to us as an "evil", even before humans were around, then that leaves us with the problem of whether God herself is the author of such evil.

Harrell's response (I think) would be that such death is not in fact "evil". It's not pleasant, but it does reflect the self-sacrificial character of God, which is essentially a good thing.

One might also argue that consciousness of the self (whatever that is, and at whatever point it actually appears in the history of human evolution) makes a difference in whether premature death is an evil or not. When an animal dies, it can be messy and painful, but there may not be the same type of mental agony, and relational grief experienced by creatures with self-consciousness (and no, I'm not sure that humans are in fact the only creatures with that kind of consciousness - it's definitely possible, even likely, that some higher mammals do as well).


At 2/09/2009 08:48:00 AM, Anonymous Karl

Sounds like a book worth reading.

I have no problem as a Christian with the idea of evolution or any other scientific knowledge informing my theology or hermeneutic. The idea of nature as yet another book of God, a facet of God's self-revelation, isn't threatening or novel.

But does the author also make room for a God who self-revealed in the incarnation and through scripture? I'm not a literalist or an inerrantist and I'm ok with reading Genesis mythologically, but I do think it's fairly important (if one wants to remain Christian) to maintain a relatively high view of the Bible as authoritative and as containing God's self revelation. Isn't the God Christians believe in a God who didn't only leave humanity with nature and conscience and then say "ok, go figure it out" but who also came down to our level and had more than a few things to say about who God is and what God is like and how we can relate to God and the world we live in. From this review, it almost sounds like this author would turn the fundamentalist view on its head, and give primacy to evolution and its theological implications over and above anything that might be contained in the Bible because unlike "objective science" the Bible is too subjective and a product of superstitious ancient times and different worldviews and can't be trusted when it speaks of the nature of God, etc. Or am I reading something into his approach that isn't there?

I realize most of what I just typed will seem like nonsense to atheist readers here. But I'm not trying to start a X'ian v. atheist debate as much as have an intra-Christian dialogue with Mike, who is a Christian seminary student.


At 2/09/2009 09:48:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

"But does the author also make room for a God who self-revealed in the incarnation and through scripture?... Or am I reading something into his approach that isn't there?"

Yes he does, and yes you are. In fact, in some ways this author seemed even more "conservative" regarding scripture than I myself am. For instance, while being willing to see Genesis 1 as poetry, not history, he still felt the need to affirm Genesis 2-3 (i.e. the Adam & Eve story) as basically historical, whereas I am more than fine with the possibility of that being a mythic narrative as well.

At any rate, yes, he affirms the incarnation and the inspiration of scripture and doesn't believe there need be any conflict between it and science.


At 2/09/2009 10:22:00 AM, Anonymous Karl

That's good. I don't find the attitude that says "if current science plus my logic tells me something different about who God is than scripture and 2,000 years of tradition, then scripture and tradition must automatically be wrong" any more helpful than "God says it, I believe it, that settles it."

I think one has to wrestle in both directions, not just one. Often a belief in God's use of scripture to reveal God's nature and relationship to the world is replaced, rather than supplemented, by a willingness to see scientific discoveries in the natural world and the insights of current social science as sources of truth about God.


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