One question I am often asked is, “What is the Episcopal Church's position on Evolution and Intelligent Design?” The place to look would be resolution A129 from this last Summer's General Convention. It reads:
Resolved, That the 75th General Convention affirm that God is Creator, in accordance with the witness of Scripture and the ancient Creeds of the Church; and be it further,
Resolved, That the theory of evolution provides a fruitful and unifying scientific explanation for the emergence of life on earth, that many theological interpretations of origins can readily embrace an evolutionary outlook, and that an acceptance of evolution is entirely compatible with an authentic and living Christian faith; and be it further
Resolved, That Episcopalians strongly encourage state legislatures and state and local boards of education to establish standards for science education based on the best available scientific knowledge as accepted by a consensus of the scientific community; and be it further
Resolved, That Episcopal dioceses and congregations seek the assistance of scientists and science educators in understanding what constitutes reliable scientific knowledge.
We believe in a creator, that evolution is not in conflict with such a belief, and that scientific research and education should be handled by the experts in those fields. I think it would be fair to say that the Episcopal Church really does not have a position on Evolution, much in the same way the National Science Foundation does not have a position on the Resurrection.
There is a myth out there that science and religion are irreconcilable that is held by both some (but not most) scientists and certain more fundamentalist strains of Christianity. (I hold that both of these extremes are very similar in method - they just use differing standards for truth. See The Heresy of Literalism). But we simply cannot use the Bible as a science text. To do so is perilous to both science and to religion.
The threat to science is fairly obvious. The scientific method is based on what can be observed, measured, recorded and repeated. Basing our understanding of how the universe works in a particular understanding of scripture rather than observation leads to non-repeatable results and eventually stops science altogether. You only have to go back to the example of Gallileo to see the stifling role authoritarian religion can play with scientific discovery. Most people advocating for “Creationism” or “Intelligent Design” these days would agree that the persecution of Galileo was wrong and that the Earth does indeed revolve around the sun. But the Bible seems clear on this. Psalm 93:1, Psalm 104:5, and Ecclesiastes 1:5 all speak of the motion of celestial bodies and the suspended position of the earth. If you take a literal position on this, you end up like the Flat Earth Society, who base their views on passages of the Bible referring to the earth as having four corners (Is 11:12, Rev. 7:1, Rev. 20:8). Both a geocentric solar system and a flat earth are not scientifically valid, but a true literal interpretation of scripture requires such belief.
The peril to religion is more subtle. The problem with both 'Creationism“ and ”Intelligent Design“ is that they try to fit God ”into the cracks“ where science has not explained a phenomenon yet. The head of the Human Genome Project and a committed Christian, Dr. Francis Collins, puts it this way in an article from Salon:
”The intelligent design argument presumes that these complicated, multi-component systems -- the most widely described one is the bacterial flagellum, a little outboard motor that allows bacteria to zip around in a liquid solution -- that you couldn't get there unless you could simultaneously evolve about 30 different proteins. And until you had all 30 together, you would gain no advantage. The problem is it makes an assumption that's turning out to be wrong. All of those multi-component machines, including the flagellum, do not come forth out of nothingness. They come forth very gradually by the recruitment of one component that does one fairly modest thing. And then another component that was doing something else gets recruited in and causes a slightly different kind of function. And over the course of long periods of time, one can in fact come up with very plausible models to develop these molecular machines solely through the process of evolution as Darwin envisaged it. So intelligent design is already showing serious cracks. It is not subject to actual scientific testing.“
The problem with this ”God of the gaps“ is that often those gaps are closed by science. If you base your belief in God on those gaps, when they close you have nothing left. Traditional Christianity is not based in proofs of God from nature, but is based in faith. While God loves and is concerned about nature, God is certainly outside of nature.
So what are you left with? Do you have to choose either Biblical Literalism or Scientific Humanism? By no means! In my own belief, I feel that science and religion use different methods to answer different questions. Science uses observation to ask the questions, ”What, where, how and when?“ Religion uses scripture, community and individual discernment to answer the questions, ”Who and why?“ Theologians can speculate on the scientific questions, but to think that Biblical interpretation, prayer and meditation can answer them is to misuse both scripture and tradition. Likewise, scientists can speculate on the theological questions, but to think that experimentation can answer questions of meaning is really bad science.
When I ponder the human genome, or the intricacies of particle physics or chaos theory, the wonder of creation draws me to a belief in Intelligent Design wholly unrelated to the re-branded creationism that the phrase usually means. God created the universe and set the laws that govern it. If God wanted to take millions of years to create us in his image, that is certainly his prerogative. But I'm not a deist - I believe that God has a much more personal role in creation. The belief that miracles are impossible only holds if you do not believe that God is really God. We tend to try to separate the ”Natural“ from the ”Supernatural,“ but that is our division of knowledge, not God's.
In the Biblical book of Job, when Job has finally had it, he calls upon the Lord to account for his actions. Job gets an answer, but it's not what he expected:
Then the LORD replied to Job out of the tempest and said:
¶ Who is this who darkens counsel, Speaking without knowledge?
Gird your loins like a man; I will ask and you will inform Me.
¶ Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Speak if you have understanding.
Do you know who fixed its dimensions Or who measured it with a line?
Onto what were its bases sunk? Who set its cornerstone
When the morning stars sang together And all the divine beings shouted for joy?
Who closed the sea behind doors When it gushed forth out of the womb,
When I clothed it in clouds, Swaddled it in dense clouds,
When I made breakers My limit for it, And set up its bar and doors,
And said, ”You may come so far and no farther; Here your surging waves will stop“? (Job 38:1-11 JPS)
When confronted with the majesty and mystery of creation, our first reaction should be one of humility and awe. After that, we may measure and theorize how it all came to be. But responsible theologians and scientists who understand the limits of their methods would not presume to stretch either discipline to the breaking point by insisting that we have an exact record of how God did everything in the Bible or that science can explain all of life's complexity.
”What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror; then we shall see face-to-face. What I know now is only partial; then it will be complete — as complete as God’s knowledge of me. “ (1Cor 13:12 TEV)
Until then, let's be realistic and accept that both science and religion have something to say to us about the questions of our existence.
A related audio Item, "NPR's Science Friday - Balancing Science and Religion" is available on the AskThePriest Podcast.