As I sat up in our Youth Lounge listening to some of the youth group kids rehearse their lines for an upcoming play, I was appalled at the indoctrination I was witnessing. The play was Inherit the Wind, which recalls an early twentieth century trial over the teaching of evolution in school. The debacle sets up a false dichotomy between science and faith, between evolution and the Bible. And these young high school students now think they must choose between the two, with the obvious answer being evolution since the trial depicts the alternative to be an irrational, close-minded and naïve, blind leap of faith.
I’d like to scold the schools for promoting such ignorance of thought, but it’s no less the fault of well-intentioned but ignorant Christians. This is not, mind you, an argument for evolution. I simply want to convey the calm, level-headed position the Catholic Church has always held (at least officially), as well as my personal frustration that so few otherwise bright men and women seem to be willing to listen to the reasonableness of the claim.
Here’s the problem. Scientists are using scientific discoveries to disprove religious conviction, and believers are using Scripture to disprove scientific discovery. Both sides are being dishonest.
Science is limited to what can be observed through experimentation (to material and efficient causality), but it can answer very little, if anything at all, in regard to meaning and purpose, to the existence of a (non-observable) spiritual realm—since, by its nature, science has no means to determine formal and final causality. But many scientists ignore that limitation and use their discoveries to back-up their religious and philosophical premises: atheism, materialism, and random chance. Even if evolution is true, it does not follow in any way whatsoever that there is no God or that God does not create with a loving, meaningful intention with his hand intimately involved in all aspects of created reality.
To make that connection isn’t just bad philosophy, it’s bad science.
However, I’d also like to scold believers for getting drawn into the debate. In a very real way, well-intended Christians have created this debacle by not listening to the Church. Many faithful men and women have taken the bait. By using the Bible to argue against science, we’re telling the world that atheistic scientists are right to blur the lines and to ignore the limitations of scientific discovery. And this, in large part, is due to our own misuse of Revelation. The Bible is not a science book. It asks the question “Why” God created the world, not “How.”
Science is not disproven with Scripture, it’s disproven with science.
The creation-evolution debate is a false dichotomy because atheists who appeal to evolution are bad philosophers, but also because Christians are misreading Scripture. For a solid explanation of the proper way to approach Scripture (hermeneutics), read paragraphs 100-140 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Within this framework no scientific discovery has ever disproven the Word of God, and none ever will.
If evolution turns out to be true, says the Church (and ancient Judaism), that’s perfectly reconcilable with the creation accounts in Genesis. The primary meaning of the first three chapters of Genesis has nothing to do with God literally creating the world in seven days. It has everything to do with God creating the world as a cosmic temple, within which Man exists as the “high priest” of creation and thereby the conscious, free and personal representative of that creation to receive the gift of life from God and offer it back to him in thanksgiving. If science proves that man in fact evolved through a material process over the course of billions of years, it just means that the (unintended) literalist interpretation of the creation narrative is indeed false. But the Jews were never really worried about that question anyway, and neither is the Church.
For a solid (but quite scholarly) article on the creation account as a highly symbolic, temple-building narrative, click here.
At this point, we don’t have to believe in evolution. But we do have to understand the science of Scriptural interpretation. When we do, we can trust that no amount of science can ever debunk anything God has revealed in Scripture. He’s the author of both “books.” Faith and reason are of a piece, a wedding, as it were. Grace builds on nature, and God does not deceive our senses. So while scientists must be honest about the limitations of their expertise, believers must also be honest about the gift of human reason and the goodness of scientific discovery. The natural design of the created order is just as much an insight into the mind of the Creator as the Revelation we could never have known through our human efforts. And neither book should be read into for the sake of our own preconceived notions. We must let God speak, and be willing to listen. Truth will never contradict.