Nazarenes Exploring Evolution

Evolutionary Battle Fatigue

Perhaps my experience is not the norm for a lifelong Nazarene, but evolution has never been terribly problematic for me. I cannot say the same, of course, for reductionistic naturalism. Not surprisingly, I have always viewed materialistic thinking as fundamentally incompatible with my Christian faith, as well as good sense. Despite having written a number of essays and co-authored a book on the origins debate, in recent years I have checked out of the conversation suffering from what one might call "evolutionary battle fatigue." With this essay, I step back into the conversation briefly to reflect on why the tone and content of much of the contemporary origins debate is disappointing.

My first exposure to evolutionary thinking was in 1964–65, when as a high school freshman I took a biology class shaped by the fairly new Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS). I can still recall terms from the BSCS textbook like coacervates and amino acid soup. Although the BSCS's naturalistic perspective on origins was not lost on me, I had far more pressing matters with which to contend. In those days, the big issues for a good Nazarene teen were smoking and drinking with sexual immorality not far behind, lurking in the moral swamplands of "lewd and lascivious" rock-and-roll music and Hollywood movies. Endtimes preaching and fears of world communism dominated my "larger" intellectual horizons. As I reflect on those days, I don't recall having difficulty compartmentalizing what I learned in school from the more immediate demands of my local church, with its weekly ritual of confronting me with fearsome questions of eternal destiny.

I shall always be grateful to Clayton Dyer. He was a biology teacher at my high school, though he was not assigned to the BSCS class. Dyer was also a Sunday School teacher at my church, and I recall vividly how he told the class one Sunday that we could "believe in" evolution and remain good Christians, as long as we steadfastly held to God as the Creator. Evolution, he maintained, was our best understanding of the processes God employed to bring about life. That was good enough for me then, and the framework of theistic evolution has guided my thinking ever since. It must be noted that I am not a scientist—far from it! I majored in history at Eastern Nazarene College (ENC) and went on for an M.A. and Ph.D. in American history (with an emphasis on naval history—of all things!) at the University of Maine. So, my understanding of evolution has decidedly been that of an amateur. But I never encountered a persuasive argument to challenge the basic stance of theistic evolution that Dyer presented to me back in a Church of the Nazarene Sunday School class. In retrospect, I view this as a great intellectual gift.

Fast forward to the mid-1990s. A group of ENC faculty members launched an interdisciplinary book club, and in that setting, I became exposed to the emerging science and religion dialogue that the Templeton Foundation had spawned with an enormous financial investment that trickled down to evangelical Christian colleges like ENC. In 2002—after a series of improbable events for a naval historian that included interviewing Sir John Polkinghorne (with Karl Giberson and Kent Hill) for Books & Culture and engaging in postdoctoral study in science and religion at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford—I co-authored a book with Giberson on the origins debate. We intended our Species of Origins: America's Search for a Creation Story to be a non-polemical tour d'horizon of the debate over evolution in North America.

When I co-wrote Species of Origins, I harbored some sympathy for the intelligent design (ID) project. I freely admit that I lacked the expertise—and continue to do so—to reach an independent assessment of the science behind evolution and ID. But the design theorists (as they liked to be called) struck me as being eloquent critics of the ontological materialism that many science writers smuggled into their books. And while I had no quarrel with evolution as a God-created mechanism, at a gut level of intuition it did seem implausible that evolution alone could account for the astounding organized complexity of life on the planet. Now ID spokespersons, with seemingly solid academic credentials and without the baggage of a literalist reading of Genesis, were arguing that my intuitions of design could be confirmed empirically. I knew that the overwhelming majority of scientists, including many with very strong Christian beliefs, considered the ID camp's claims to be hyperbolic. And ID's talk about "theistic science" troubled me. What would that look like methodologically? But I was willing to suspend judgment, and let the IDers make their case. If empirical evidence of design could be provided, wouldn't science have to salute?

Unfortunately, the design camp did not advance much beyond its initial assertion that evolutionary thinking cannot adequately account for the manifest complexity surrounding us in nature. Moreover, its claims seemed to be increasingly based on philosophical and theological assumptions, not science. And as critics of design became shriller (something I have written about elsewhere), key people in the design camp made increasingly pretentious, even preposterous, claims and predictions. Without a body of scientific literature to support them, ID apologists, for example, confidently predicted that intelligent design would replace Darwinism as a thriving scientific research program. Undoubtedly, the most disconcerting assertion coming out of the ID camp was that it was ushering in a "design revolution" that promised to alter fundamentally the entire scientific enterprise. From ID's infancy, its advocates saw themselves as actors in a Kuhnian drama against the normal science of evolution. In 2004, however, William Dembski made the extraordinary claim that ID "fits the bill as a full-scale scientific revolution" because it challenges not only evolutionary biology, but also "the rules by which the natural sciences are conducted [emphasis added]."1 This assertion was very troubling. Any substantive alteration to the rules of science—its requirements of evidence and avoidance of private knowledge—moves us beyond science to something else. Science is science. It has limits. But it has been a wildly successful enterprise, and talk of revolutionizing its methods is, in my view, ill conceived.

So the shrillness and venom of ID's critics and the hyperbole of Dembski and company soured me to the whole origins debate. Both sides were talking past each other, hoping to "win" the debate rather than seeking to understand. I once thought that ID might take the long-standing intuition of design and, according to Dembski, "cash. . . [it] out as a scientific research program."2 If nature is chock full of design, then surely the evidence—not merely the rhetoric—would sway the debate in that direction. To my knowledge, it hasn't come close to generating a robust scientific research program. And from where I sit on the sidelines, it seems a very remote possibility that it could ever do so.

Even more troubling for me is that the shouting match over design hijacked the conversation about reductionistic naturalism in the public sphere. I cannot prove it, but my sense is that materialism is even more the default position now among science writers and public intellectuals than it was in the 1990s when ID appeared on the scene. And the evolutionary model, far from being undermined, has become the conceptual basis for much of our thinking, not just about origins but about almost everything—morality, religion, altruism, love, etc. As one of my European colleagues has quipped sarcastically, "It's all evolution, boys and girls!"

Where does all this leave me? I no longer monitor the debate over evolution as I once did. I am confident the debate still rages in some quarters, but it is not terribly interesting to me anymore. What still does engage me—deeply—is the way extra-scientific considerations shape the narratives we offer for the cosmos and our place in it. I conclude with two very different narratives, both informed by science but by necessity going beyond it.

The universe has woken up. If the scientific picture we currently have is right, this was an accident, roughly speaking, and also something that happened very locally. At various places some highly organised physical systems—living organisms—have become aware of the world they are part of. In a few cases they have also become aware of their awareness. These living systems are products of evolution by natural selection, an undirected process that began in a fortuitous combination of chemical and physical conditions, whose course is dependent on accidents of history, and which is driven by the slight reproductive advantages some organisms enjoy over others. Even if Earth is not the only place where this has happened, the vast majority of the universe contains no awareness, no life, no reasoning. We, the awoken parts of the universe, can look around and reflect on all this, including the fact that there is no overall purpose in our being here. So the universe has "woken up," but in a local, accidental, and low-key case.3


We find ourselves in a universe that seems to have had a beginning. We find it governed by laws that have a grandeur and sublimity that bespeak design. We find many indications in those laws that we were built in from the beginning. We find that physical determinism is wrong. And we find that the deepest discoveries of modern physics and mathematics give hints, if not proofs, that the mind of man has something about it that lies beyond the power of either physics or mathematics to describe.4

It is not surprising that I find the former view bleak and utterly unsatisfactory and the latter, written by a Catholic physicist, highly congenial to my intellect and Christian faith. Note, by the way, that design for him is not antithetical to evolution; rather, it is linked to the laws of nature. For me at least, pondering the implications of these radically different narratives is vastly more important that being mired in the rancor of an unproductive evolution debate. Science can provide us with enormous amounts of data and many empirically informed theories that help to explain so much of what we encounter in nature. But we must not ask too much of it. It is a profound error to try to make sense of this world and our place in it holding to the view that science is the only reliable source of knowledge. Addressing the truly big questions of life's meaning takes us well beyond science into the realms of wonder and mystery. This is a hermeneutical and narrative enterprise of the highest order.

1 William D. Dembski, The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions about Intelligent Design (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 19.

2 William D. Dembski, " The Intelligent Design Movement," Access Research Network's William A. Dembski's Files, (accessed 2/23/2013).

3 From Peter Godfrey-Smith's review of Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False in the London Review of Books 35:2 (January 24, 2013): 20.

4 Stephen M. Barr, "Retelling the Story of Science" First Things (March 2003): 17.

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Comments (7)

  1. Russ Long:
    Feb 27, 2013 at 05:15 PM

    Don, I too suffer from the evolutionary battle fatique. Thank you for this thoughtful piece.


  2. Jonathan Russell:
    Mar 01, 2013 at 05:24 AM

    Thoughtful article, Don, and interesting project. I think the difficulty within the COTN is that we have such a divergent group of members, who have chosen to link hands on certain issues, but hold fast to others, which may not necessarily be consistent with our tradition. I think that plenary inspiration vs. inerrancy of the Bible is one of those divergent issues. Since discussion about how we view the creation story doesn’t serve to unite us, we tend to avoid the conversation.

    When I took an informal survey of my Sunday morning small group, many were surprised to learn how we viewed Scripture. What are the passages that are necessary to our salvation? Must we believe in a six day creation story; a literally Adam; a personal devil; and the story of Job. How does our view of scripture affect our position on homosexuality? Was the feeding of the 5000 a miracle or just about stingy people being willing to give what they had when they saw the generous act of a child? In some ways, our position could be viewed as a slippery slope , or even as a way to hold firm to passages we like, while dismissing those we do not.

    As with the beginning of the story, my understanding is that the COTN has never taken a firm position on the specifics of the end of the story either. We are sort of camped out in middle, in the “here and now”, living out our salvation in a way that hopefully makes a difference in the world in which we live.


  3. Doug Mann:
    Mar 02, 2013 at 04:07 AM

    Thanks, Don! As I post, I feel like I'm out of my league. I'm not a scientist nor a theologian. But, you are someone who doesn't seem to care about how many letters that come after one's name when it comes to conversation.

    What I appreciate about what you've written here is the sense of balance, not only in relation to your own personal history, but also in relation to evolution. The whole discussion (or lack thereof) is tiresome and I've not even been in the US to participate. Nevertheless, social networking platforms have changed all of that in recent years...the world has gotten smaller. At the same time, these are important issues and I do think they speak to the relevance of the church (also read Shea Z.'s post, as you might guess).

    I too haven't had a "problem" with some form of evolution as God's creation mechanism. In fact, I admit that I haven't felt it necessary to "pick" between the alternatives because it's minutia in comparison to the reality that God created. That is why I cringe at the zealots from both sides of the Christian debate (I think its important to make that distinction in this conversation). I don't think either side is really helping either. Both sides feel marginalized by the other and the rest of us who are somewhere in the middle check out of the conversation because no one is listening anyway.

    I do not believe in a literal 6 day creation, although I believe God is certainly capable of such a creation if God so desired. I'm not sure what to believe on the scientific side. I've always heard evolution called a theory. Here's a dictionary definition of the word theory: "a plausible or scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena." The problem I see is that many, if not most, people think of theory as "fact". Plausible or scientifically acceptable simply does not mean fact and this is where there seems to be significant disconnect. I've seen scientists calling evolution fact on FaceBook and calling everyone who doesn't believe like them basically stupid. I've engaged young people in conversations about the definition of "theory" and many seem to think it means "fact". This is disturbing to me. Aren't there a lot of gaps that have had to be filled in order to come to a coherent theory of evolution? If so, what version of evolution is to be believed if we weren't there to witness it and how does God fit in? Then we need to ask, aren't our own observations sometimes (or always) skewed by our own prejudices and agendas? Since science is done by scientists (and by that I mean imperfect humans who also have their own biases), isn't there an imperfect nature even to science? Empirical data is empirical data, right? Well, what if you have to interpret it? I admit I'm thinking out loud here, but I somehow doubt I'm the only one thinking this way.

    This is why I appreciate very much your parting thoughts "It is a profound error to try to make sense of this world and our place in it holding to the view that science is the only reliable source of knowledge. Addressing the truly big questions of life's meaning takes us well beyond science into the realms of wonder and mystery. This is a hermeneutical and narrative enterprise of the highest order." Couldn't have said it better myself.


    1. Donald Yerxa:
      Mar 03, 2013 at 06:20 AM

      Thanks, Doug. I appreciate your kind comments. Mine are simply personal reactions to a portion of the debate that I no longer find productive. I don't mean to suggest that the science-and-religion conversation is a waste of time. Far from it. There are important questions at stake here. But as I indicated in my essay, the debate over ID is distracting us from more important concerns.


      1. Jonathan Russell:
        Mar 09, 2013 at 04:55 PM

        Don, I remember taking a history class from you where one of the themes was that “man abhors chaos”. I can’t help but wonder if this aversion is part of the tension in choosing an interpretation of the creation story. It seems a bit more “orderly” to ascribe to a literal interpretation of the Bible. Perhaps there is a fear of complete chaos, if one starts to open up to a broader interpretation of the text.

        In law school, we typically wanted to by-pass the Socratic process and get to the “black letter law.” We wanted to learn the answer, while the professors wanted to teach us the process. When we start to broaden our understanding of how we interpret God’s Word, we give God the ability challenge us in new ways, however, it is also is a bit unsettling. In this regard, I am mindful of Pete Enns book, "Inspiration and Incarnation", where he writes,

        "That the Bible bears an unmistakable human stamp does not lead to the conclusion that it is merely the words of humans rather than the word of God. . . . And to those who fear the human stamp as somehow dirtying the Bible, marring its perfect divine quality, I say, ‘If you wouldn’t say that about Jesus (and you shouldn’t) don’t think that way about the Bible. Both Christ and his word are human through and through.’ . . . [T]he primary purpose of Scripture is for the church to eat and dink its contents in order to understand better who God is, what he has done, and what it means to be his people, redeemed in the crucified and risen Son. Such an understanding of the purpose of Scripture---as a means of grace for the church--- actually opens up possibilities of interpretation instead of closing them."

        Is the church prepared for the possibilities that flow from such a perspective?


        1. Donald Yerxa:
          Mar 10, 2013 at 05:28 AM


          First of all, I have to chuckle that you remembered that line from...what? 25 years ago! Today I might amend it to "humankind abhors chaos." But the point made in the context of the history of power and politics probably does apply, as you say, in this other context. As you know, I am not a fundamentalist, but I can appreciate its appeal, especially in a time when so many traditional values and understandings seem to be under relentless assault. The Wesleyan quadrilateral as a functional epistemology strikes me as being vastly more satisfying, While it cannot always produce clear-cut "answers"--especially in peripheral matters--it allows me use the gifts of the Spirit and my mind to sift through tradition (Chesterton's "democracy of the dead") and my own experience to arrive at provisional understanding. I emphasize "provisional," because there is so much mystery to our existence and our faith. We should not presume to claim mastery or intellectual control over that of which we know so little.



        2. Donald Yerxa:
          Mar 10, 2013 at 06:43 AM

          I failed to include specific mention of Scripture in my initial response. Of course, that belongs prominently in the mix. But as is so evident in the evolution debates, there are great divides among believers as to how they approach Holy Scripture. My own stance should be evident from my essay and response. Let me just say, for example, that Genesis means far more to me when I read myself into the story of creation and fall than when I try to accommodate it to science or science to it. I don't mean to be narcissistic when I say that things like the historicity of Adam are a relatively trivial matters for me compared to my own sense of separation from God that results from sin.


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