Thursday, May 10, 2007
Questions of faith
Christians are divided about evolution and creation
EASTER Sunday is an exuberant moment in the calendar of St Chad’s, the church where a doctor called Robert Darwin, sceptical about religion but conscious of convention, had his son Charles baptised in 1809. This year, as every year since the cylindrical building was constructed in 1790, worshippers at the main Anglican church in this old English town will give a lusty rendering of some familiar Easter hymns; and many will stroll down the nearby river bank where young Charles Darwin took “delight in fishing for newts”.
Mark Thomas, the vicar, easily reconciles his faith with local pride in a man who convinced many people that the Bible could not be literally true. As co-organiser of an annual Darwin festival, featuring lectures on religion and science, he cites Saint Paul’s adage that the “letter kills, but the spirit gives life” as a warning against literalism.
And in other English places linked with Darwin, there is often more emphasis on the scientist’s emollient personality than on arguments which raged over his work. In Cambridge, where Darwin studied theology, a play has just been staged that recounts the warm correspondence between Darwin and Asa Gray, an American botanist who shared his friend’s scientific interests but had conventional views on religion. The play is a spinoff from a project to publish 14,000 letters received or sent by Darwin, and to post some on the internet. As the play shows, Darwin’s scepticism in religious matters gradually deepened, yet his feelings for his friend were unaffected.
Among the 2 billion Christians celebrating the Resurrection of Jesus Christ this weekend (this is a year when the moveable calendars of western and Orthodox Christians coincide) such cheerful negotiation of difference is often impossible. Arguments over how to interpret the Bible—and how to read the story of Creation in the first chapter of Genesis—continue to cause controversy both between Christian communities and within them.
Mr Thomas’s ultimate boss—Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the world’s 80m Anglicans—has dismissed literal readings of Genesis as a “category mistake”. Cerebral Christians like the archbishop endorse the view that instead of treating the Genesis account of the world’s creation in six days as a historical text, it should be read in the sophisticated way that Jewish commentators read it 2,000 years ago. In other words, the “days” of creation are not chronological periods but elements in a vision of the relationship between God, man and the physical world: a vision also implicit in the architecture of the ancient Jewish temple, as Margaret Barker, a Methodist Hebrew scholar, has argued.
But in the fast-growing varieties of Christianity—in the overlapping worlds of evangelicalism, fundamentalism and Pentecostalism—many prefer their faith simple, not sophisticated. As Samuel Rodovalho, an activist in Brazil’s Pentecostalist movement, puts it: “We are sure that the story in Genesis is true, and we are not very interested in scientific theories which say otherwise.”
Somewhere in between these stark convictions and the intellectual subtleties of Mr Thomas's Anglicanism, some intensive discussions about creation and evolution are in progress in the upper ranks of the Roman Catholic church, to which over 1 billion people (with varying intensity) adhere. While Catholic teaching regards a simple faith in the truth of Genesis as permissible, most Catholic scientists would agree with the late Pope John Paul II in saying that fresh evidence makes evolution “more than a hypothesis”. But Pope Benedict XVI has given hints that he wants to reaffirm certain other elements in his predecessor’s teaching—including the idea that signs of a deity are discernible in nature.
Benedict XVI has emphasised the Catholic view that human reason can discern the “divine reason” which formed the world. Ultimately this argument could complicate his hopes of reconciliation with the world’s 140m or so Orthodox Christians—whose medieval forebears clashed with Rome by insisting that communion with God differs from contemplation of the physical world. But in the short term, Vatican-watchers are keenly awaiting the publication of some minutes from an informal, but important seminar on creation and evolution that the pope convened last August.
Meanwhile none of these discussions will prevent the profusion of Christians in Darwin’s home town from celebrating Easter with gusto. In a grassy field opposite one of England’s best-known garden centres, Father Stephen Maxfield has turned a medieval church into an Orthodox parish. In a message to parishioners, he reflects on the instructions he has seen on a packet of sweet-pea seeds, saying, "the purpose of all plants is to reproduce.” “In a sense that must be true,” Father Stephen muses, “but it doesn’t account for the strangeness and wonder of plants, the beauty of their flowers and foliage, the properties of their seeds…Surely there is more to it?” Whatever has changed in Shrewsbury in 200 years, the townspeople retain their curiosity over matters physical and metaphysical.