“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1)
It’s Charles Darwin’s birthday. 210 years ago, God created Charles Darwin … or, at least, brought him to birth in the town of Shrewsbury.
By the time of his death in 1882 he was the pre-eminent Englishman of his generation and, after a state funeral, he was laid to rest near to Isaac Newton in Westminster Abbey.
His big idea was enormous in its implications. He suggested that all life on earth is descended from a common ancestor that lived, we now think, around 3.8bn years ago. Everything we now see, including ourselves, developed from that ancestor by a process he called evolution by natural selection.
This theory was bound to be difficult for many who held a particular religious worldview. For Darwin’s great idea, so brilliantly set out in his book ‘On the Origin of Species’, appears to dispense with the need for a Creator who made the heavens and the earth and all that lives on it – including you and me, made in his image.
There have been many stand-offs between these two positions. The first came in 1860, just after the publication of Darwin’s famous book. A public debate in Oxford saw the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, arguing bitterly against the pro-Darwin voice of the biologist Thomas Huxley.
This was Bishop Wilberforce reminding us of what we stand to lose by accepting Darwin’s theory:
"Man's derived supremacy over the earth; man's power of absolute speech; man's gift of reason; man's free will and responsibility; man's fall and man's redemption; the incarnation of the Eternal Son; the indwelling of the Eternal Spirit, - all are equally and utterly irreconcilable with the degrading notion of the brute origin of man from an ape."
This was Huxley in reply:
"If the question is put to me ‘would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man such as yourself, Bishop, highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means and influence, and yet who employs those faculties and that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion ... I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape!"
Another milestone came with the famous 'Monkey Trail' in Tenessee in 1928. John Scopes, a biology teacher, was tried and convicted for teaching non-Biblical, or Darwinian theories, of creation to his biology class.
More recently, a huge amount of media attention was focused on a televised debate in the US between a popular science broadcaster, Bill Nye ‘The Science Guy’, and a creationist called Ken Ham, founder of the website called ‘Answers in Genesis’ and founder of a museum in Kentucky called the Creation Museum – a multi-million dollar attraction which promotes the belief that the world is around 6000 years old and was created, complete with life, in the literal six days recorded in the Book of Genesis.
I think Darwin must be turning in his grave. He wrote towards the end of his life: “It is absurd to doubt that a man could be both an ardent theist and an evolutionist.”
As a theist and an evolutionist myself, the literalism of the creationists like Ken Ham make my blood boil – not least because of the disservice they do to both good science and good theology.
I agree with Darwin. The concept of ‘creation’ is not in any sense a rival to the biological theory of evolution. Evolution is the mechanism that God has chosen to bring biological diversity into being. The word ‘creation’ refers to the origin and source of that process. The biblical concept of creation refers not to a description of the particular mechanisms that God has chosen to bring biological diversity into being, because creation is not a concept which refers to mechanisms, but to God’s hands-on, on-going creative relationship with the whole universe, including its biological diversity. ‘Creation’ is not therefore a scientific term at all. Rather, it is a theological term expressing a prior belief about God’s actions, within which framework all of our scientific observations and descriptions are then interpreted.
The Genesis story reveals what science cannot explain: the ground of all existence, the basis of human value and purpose, and the reason human beings make such a mess of the world. Most importantly of all, it reveals the justice and mercy of the loving God who created the whole universe and then revealed himself within it, in the historic person of Jesus Christ.
The story of Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit in Genesis chapter 3 is also a hugely revealing text. It expresses, in what I consider to be mythological language, the essential problem with our relationship with each other and with our God. Is it true? Yes, profoundly true! It reveals what happens when we believe that we are the sole arbiters of the knowledge of good and evil. It reveals a depressingly familiar tale of so much human interaction: Adam blames Eve, and Eve blames the serpent; we blame each other, and then we blame the environment.
Can I put it like this: The first few pages of the Bible tell me much more about the speciousness of species than the origin of species.
Towards the end of his life, Darwin wrote to his friend the Reverend John Innes: “I hardly see how religion and science can be kept distinct, but I most wholly agree with you that there is no reason why the disciples of either school should attack each other with bitterness.”
I agree. In fact, I might go further and quote Einstein here: “Religion without science is blind. Science without religion is lame.” In other words, religion without science is confined, it fails to be completely open to reality; science without religion is incomplete, it fails to attain the deepest possible understanding.
Happy Birthday, Darwin! And thank you for opening our eyes to the glory of creation.
17th January 2020
This January Chapel Choir recorded a new album at Merton College Chapel, Oxford. 'A Winter's Night' will be available to purchase later in the year.
7th November 2019
Further success for upper-sixth musician Luke, who has been appointed Organ Scholar of Worcester Cathedral for 2020-21. His role will involve playing in Cathedral services and helping train the choristers.
19th July 2019
The summer break gives many of us an opportunity to pause and reflect on the past year. As we said goodbye to some very long serving staff and our sixth form pupils, the College Chaplain used his final service of the academic year, to speak of freedom and the importance of good advice. Here is an extract from that address.