Rethinking 'creationism'

Back in January one might have thought the tired ''creationism'' controversy was legally laid to rest.

Federal Judge William Overton found unconstitutional an Arkansas law requiring a Genesis-based theory to be taught alongside Darwinian evolution as an alternative view of Earth's origins. Advocates of so-called ''creation science,'' he said, were trying to foist on schools their religious views, not a genuine scientific theory.

But months later, theologians and scientists are still banging out commentary after magazine commentary on the issue, as if all creation depended on it. Colleges like the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago and Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota are about to stage whole conferences on the relation of Darwinism and religious faith.

Why all the fuss?

Some theologians, to be sure, continue to bristle over the creationists' biblical literalism. But many more share a grain of the creationists' uneasiness over how evolution is being taught in public schools.

A number of religions deal with various interpretations of the Genesis account of creation and are deeply concerned with arriving at the most spiritually enlightened interpretation. Biblical interpretations of creation are basic to theologies from the most orthodox to Christian Science.

The theory of evolution itself, they point out, never claimed to be an investigation of theological issues. It tries to explain material life and its origins according to biological and fossil data. Yet evolution is often presented these days as an all encompassing worldview - a survival-of-the-fittest, naturalistic philosophy of life that defines existence strictly in terms of materialistic forces, excluding any hint of divinity.

Evolution, the theory, can thus become ''evolutionism,'' the anti-religious philosophy of life. Should such a philosophy be taught as ''the scientific truth'' in public schools? That, says Syracuse religion professor Huston Smith, would violate citizens' rights just as would a fundamentalist reading of Genesis.

The antireligious element also tends to get magnified these days by the very secularism of the culture in which we live, points out Baylor University religion professor Robert E. Patterson.

A naturalistic interpretation of Darwin, he says, has fostered ''a sense that man is brought into being by chance within the blind mechanism of matter.'' And that feeds right into the assumptions of present-day secularism - meaninglessness (that all knowledge is limited to sense data); relativity (no authority or value is sacred); temporality (everything will eventually pass away); and autonomy (self-fulfillment comes through self-direction, not God's).

Many biologists, it should be said, take pains not to interlace their scientific explanations with religious (or antireligious) value judgments. But too often such philosophizing goes on totally unchecked in public discussions of evolution. It is evident even in ''A View of Life,'' a new book co-authored by the Harvard geologist who so staunchly opposed the creationists, Stephen Jay Gould. ''Biology,'' states the book in matter-of-fact tones, ''demonstrates that we were not created in the image of an all powerful God, but had evolved from monkeys by the same process that regulates the history of all organisms. . . .''

It is that kind of value-laden, antireligious commentary that is now being counterchallenged.Even eminent biologists have been urging special care in distinguishing between evolution and ''evolutionism'' as a worldview. ''When belief in evolution is turned into evolutionism,'' says Christian biologist E. Elving Anderson of the Dight research institute in Minneapolis, ''it can portray evolution as the answer to all the fundamental questions of human existence. At that point, I tell my audiences, it oversteps the bounds of its data.''

If the time is ripe for a new image of what evolution theory is and is not, so is the time also ripe for a new image of the creation account in Genesis 1. During the creationism controversy this majestic Scripture tended to be reduced to a mere mechanical description of the emergence of material life (and as such, appeared a pretty archaic one at that).

But this misses the point, as a growing chorus of theologians is making clear. In the Judeo-Christian tradition the creation account is not a mere glance back to some supposed beginning of time. As Berkeley sociologist of religion Robert Bellah explains, the creation account is much more an expression of a spiritual outlook on the world. As such, it reflects an awareness of divine light, order, and harmony coming into view across the full compass of life and the universe. That awareness was a reality not just for the writers of Genesis 1 . It remains a living reality for communities of faith today.

It is because of this positive role which Genesis continues to play in the lives of people of faith that the commentary on creationism continues to pour out. It is also why the trends in evolution teaching do indeed deserve a serious rethink.

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