How do I respond to a Christian brother who is convinced we are descended from apes and chimps?
Of course, I was insulted at the monkey business. But to merely take umbrage would be inadequate, as this challenge to my imagination on human origins came from someone on whose science I was counting to protect me in the future from cancer, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and a host of other ailments.
If I wanted the DNA discoveries for those frontiers, Dr. Francis Collins said, he had some news for me. As former director of the Human Genome Project—which mapped and sequenced DNA—Dr. Collins declared that I would have to accept that the same science that reveals my DNA imprint shows with unquestionable clarity that the ape is in my family tree.
“I know that’s a troubling conclusion for many believers who find it incompatible with [â€¦] their reading of Genesis,” he said when I recently interviewed him. “But I would challenge those uneasy about it to look at the evidence and to accept the fact that God gives us the ability to learn about creation and that could hardly be a threat to God if we are getting more of that information. Yes, when you study our DNA and that of our closest relatives, the great apes, there can be no question that we share a common ancestor.”
Trying to talk about Dr. Collins’s work within the family-like loyalties of evangelical Christian thought is a fine way to lose friends and alienate people. He is trying to rebrand Christian thinking about human origins: away from “creationism,” to what he calls “BioLogos.”
Collins finds the Intelligent Design approach inadequate because, he says, it fails to qualify as a scientific theory. He argues that the Intelligent Design movement’s arguments on the basis of irreducible complexity and similar “God in the gaps” explanations crumble in the face of scientific discovery. Instead, Collins believes in “Theistic Evolution,” which means that he seeks to argue scientifically—in harmony with Christian faith—that the universe is 14 billion years old; that evolution, once begun, required no special supernatural intervention; and that the human race began with a colony numbering approximately 10,000, likely located in East Africa.
Collins thinks—like Denis Lamoreaux and Denis Alexander—that Adam and Eve were possibly “historical Neolithic farmers that God chose to identify as the first homo-divinus, if you will, infused with the opportunity for free will, and of the moral law.” Or, he wonders out loud, were Adam and Eve perhaps representative of the point in the history of the human race at which God decided to endow them with human characteristics, and to allow them to be fully formed?
When pushed to take a conclusive position on Adam and Eve, Dr. Collins concludes, “I don’t know.”
That’s a relief, because I don’t either. I do believe that Adam and Eve were literal people, but taking into account the evidence from the 3.1 billion letters of the DNA code in each of our cells, I can accept that the words in the creation chapters of Genesis 1 and 2 do not offer a literal account of how life developed.
What I find harder to accept is that we Christians are so resolutely locked into combative camps about human origins, closed to serious dialogue with one another. This makes it difficult for us to seriously consider scientific discoveries about the natural world alongside the Bible as the trustworthy story of God, divinely inspired for application to all of life and guiding us into relationship with God.
It may be easier for Dr. Collins, because he’s had a lifetime to study the arguments of science and live the experiences of a relationship with God. His explains his conclusions in his best-selling book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. I liked his stories in which he personally encountered issues of moral law, apparently his favourite line of argument for the plausibility of God. Dr. Collins, with his science and his faith, has no need for fence-sitting on evolution.
But it is different for Christian parents, pastors and teachers who often lack the time to study and answer tough questions, such as this one: How does the story of original sin coming through the disobedience of one man, as seen in Romans, compute with the questions with which educators wrestle on the BioLogos website? Not a quick study!
Many of us find these matters too complicated to pick up as we run along in our “out of time” world. We excuse ourselves by claiming that, by the time we’d’ve engaged every academic issue, we’d’ve gotten nowhere, and still have nothing to offer. And so we give up on trying to harmonize science and faith. Faith, we rationalize, is about standing on the greatness and promises of Christ, not chasing down the problems that origin debates cause. We want to see minds born anew by the Holy Spirit, not born anew through the apologetics of faith and science.
However, while I do not have much of a science background, I do have a job that demands of me that I encounter and engage fellow believers who are scientists, like Dr. Collins, and their ideas. I think all of us are kidding ourselves if we think we can get away with hiding away from these kinds of conversations. I have to admit that I don’t think that how we humans arrived on this planet Earth is the key issue. Instead, I believe, the more important thing is how we respond to the moral law God created in us. God so loves the human race that He endowed us with purpose, relationship, intelligence and redemption. I don’t believe that the details of the timeline of human origins make a decisive difference with regard to our understanding of these human endowments and therefore, as Dr. Collins suggests, I don’t believe that a war over human origins is necessary. What is necessary, I believe, is that we be able to engage in a serious conversation with those whose minds wrestle with these issues of science—in such a way that we open up for them a serious possibility of honestly considering the claims of the historic person of Jesus Christ. Let’s not run, hide, or even sit on the fence. Let’s engage the evidence from both God’s world and God’s word with curiousity, honesty, and seriousness. And let’s be comfortable in the open ended mysteries of God.