March 23, 2006

Can Evolution and the Bible Live Together?

I was recently asked to critique this sermon by Dr. Daniel H. Kuhn, Jr., a minister in the United Church of Christ, which is famous for its controversial "inclusive" ads and its slogan, "God is still speaking." This particular sermon was brought to my attention through a Christian lady who found it to be one of the most interesting and inspirational things that she had ever heard. I must, unfortunately, strongly disagree with that assessment.

Here is the sermon, presented at Elon Community Church in Elon, North Carolina on 2/12/06, along with my responses. The text of the sermon will be offset in blockquotes.
On December 21, 2005, four days before Christmas, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III ruled against the school board in the town of Dover, Pa., asserting that “intelligent design” is “an interesting theological argument, but … not science.”

On November 9, 2005, the Kansas School board voted 6-4 to change the definition of science so that non-natural explanations can be used.
This is a common misrepresentation of what has occurred. What they did, in a nutshell, is determine that it was appropriate to teach the scientific controversy over the theory of Darwinian evolution. It is not the case that alternative, supernatural theories are to be taught in place of or even along side of naturalistic evolution. Here is an excerpt from the "Rationale" (page ii) for the science education standards change, which can be found in full here:
"The curriculum standards call for students to learn about the best evidence for modern evolutionary theory, but also to learn about areas where scientists are raising scientific criticisms of the theory."
We are witnessing the resurgence of a debate carried out in the famous Monkey Trial of John Scopes in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925. Indeed, it is the continuation of a debate begun almost one hundred fifty years ago with the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species in 1859. This debate is the result of the mistaken opinion that science and the Bible cannot exist side by side.
This is absolutely untrue. Those who are leaders in the Intelligent Design (ID) movement (who presented their scientific case to the school board) do not make any such claim, i.e., that science and the Bible are incompatible. This is simply the assessment by Dr. Kuhn of his opponent's position, which seems to be based on the idea that evolution is science. But ID advocates object to evolution not on the basis of their religious views, but on the basis of the scientific difficulties of the theory. For Dr. Kuhn (or Judge Jones) to write off their evidential claims as "religiously motivated" is simply dismissive of careful arguments and legitimate data that is indeed a topic of debate even within evolutionary circles.

Additionally, the problem between the two camps is that "science," as it is popularly defined in this current era, excludes the appeal to the supernatural in principle. This means that any explanation that one would seek to offer about some phenomenon within the universe (or about it) must necessarily be "natural" or else it is not "scientific." With this kind of filter for science, theists have nothing to say about the alleged actions of a transcendent deity, EVEN IF THE EVIDENCE FROM NATURE SUGGESTS IT. So, in a sense I would say, yes, the debate is the result of the mistaken opinion that science and the Bible cannot exist side by side. But it is naturalistic science who is saying that they are incompatible (without even caring about evidence) simply because the Bible includes "God talk" and science must remain immune to such unnatural intrusions. As a self-proclaimed advocate of Christianity Dr. Kuhn should be troubled that science has determined to cut itself off from the pursuit of ultimate truth and has chosen instead to dabble in (what we as Christians would take to be) the results of the creation and the lesser laws established to govern it.
I grew up with a love for God and a love for science, and I never considered the two to be in conflict with each other. I have, since early years, believed that God created me through an evolutionary process. The more I studied science, the more awestruck I became with the wonder of God’s creation.
I have loved science all my life (as have so many Christians throughout the centuries who have taken up the scientific profession). But the more that I studied science the more I realized that it defies credulity to believe that nature's intricacies are the result of a chance-driven physical process. It is not a rejection of science that leads one to see the personal handprint of God upon the creation; it is the unbiased examination of it, and the years since Darwin have only exposed the vastly greater complexity in what it is that he proposed to explain.

I would like to ask Dr. Kuhn what he does with the irreducible complexity of the bacterial flagellum. What does he do with the Cambrian Explosion or the inverted cone of disparity in the appearance of species in the geological column? What does he do with the problem of abiogenesis? What does he do with probability issues in producing the necessary trillions of beneficial mutations throughout the animal kingdom, which are the engine of evolution? What does he do with the inadequacy of the fossil record to give evidence of the gradual changes in species that evolution requires? I wonder just how much science Dr. Kuhn has been exposed to, or is he simply relying upon the conclusions of a secularized academic community. Is he exercising the kind of blind faith in authority that he finds so distasteful in the anti-rational, biblical literalists to whom he targets his critique?
Today has been designated “Evolution Sunday,” since it is close to the 197th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. I have signed a statement along with more than 10,000 other Christian clergy that reads as follows:
We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as “one theory among others” is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children. We believe that among God’s good gifts are human minds capable of critical thought and that the failure to fully employ this gift is a rejection of the will of our Creator. ... We urge school board members to preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge. We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth.
It escapes me why these clergy would be excited about the theory of evolution as it is described by science. Remember, these clergy are identifying themselves as being in league with "science," not opposed to it or attempting to insert supernatural explanations. So, let us consider exactly what this theory proposes to explain.

The theory of biological evolution proposes to explain the development of all life entirely by means of a process that involves change and selection. The "change" agent is genetic mutation. As explained by the leading evolution advocacy website (, "The cellular machinery that copies DNA sometimes makes mistakes. These mistakes alter the sequence of a gene. This is called a mutation."

And Richard Dawkins, one of evolution's champions, describes the "selection" process in this way: "Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparent purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no mind's eye. It does not plan for the future. It has no vision, no foresight, no sight at all. If it can be said to play the role of watchmaker in nature, it is the blind watchmaker."

So, Darwinian evolution is best described as a blind, aimless process driven by error and chance. In what way, then, is this evolutionary theory compatible with the God that these Christian clergy claim to represent? In what way does Dr. Kuhn believe that "God made him through an evolutionary process?" If evolution is chance-driven, as science maintains, then even assuming that evolution can succeed in producing anything at all, there would be no guarantee that it could produce human beings, much less Dr. Kuhn. And if he would like to slip in some sovereignty on God's part in order to insure that these "mutations" produce something specific (or anything interesting at all), then by the term "evolution" he is no longer referring to the same thing that his revered scientists mean when they speak of it.

Dr. Kuhn must make his decision: does he believe that life is a fortuitous and improbable event that could have played out in any number of ways (we could be intelligent squid), or will he break ranks with evolutionary scientists and claim that God directed the process in some way? He's either destroyed purpose, planning, and participation in his God or he's alienated himself from "science" (as he allows it to be defined).
Why would preachers suggest that evolution and science deny the Bible? Such a belief comes from three sources: 1) A fear of the loss of the Bible’s authority in life. 2) Taking the words of the Bible literally, and 3) Making the Bible itself an object of worship.
So, is the theory of evolution just a battle between preachers who believe it and preachers who reject it? Dr. Kuhn seems to be in complete denial of the fact that the leading edge of this battle is being played out upon the field of science. The battle over the science standards in Kansas was not a matter of the testimony of "science" versus a group of fundamentalist preachers, but a conversation between scientific peers debating over the merits of evolutionary theory and what the very definition of science may allow. I don't believe that the Bible and its authority were ever brought to bear in the discussion.
People see what they believe to be the deterioration of community ethical standards, and are frightened. They say, “If only we restored the importance of the Bible in our society, we could return to peace and prosperity.” But, you see, many desire not simply the return of the authority of the Bible, they desire the literal reading of the Bible.
Heaven forbid that "Christians" wish to take the Bible seriously! And how silly of the historic church to ever have taken it as something more than metaphor and human speculation! As far as "peace and prosperity," I must ask Dr. Kuhn where he proposes to derive his standards for defining exactly how we ought to be seeking peace with our fellow man (much less with God) with nothing but flawed human imagination as our guide? We certainly cannot appeal to God, since He hasn't given any clear revelation (according to Dr. Kuhn), and the Bible is no point of authority, since it is merely the product of other person's imaginations who are no more inspired or authoritative than we.
Let me tell you, God never intended a literal reading of the Bible.
How in the world does Dr. Kuhn know what God intended? Has he found this idea "literally" in the pages of Scripture? He does not even believe that God has explicitly spoken in its pages, but if so, then it is at best a montage of myth and metaphor composed by fallible men. In which case, Dr. Kuhn has no more grounds for dogmatically asserting what God "intended" than any other Christian does.
If God had, God would have plopped the Bible into our laps in English.
Ah, here are the grounds for his interpretive principle of the Bible. It seems to depend upon the questionable idea that concepts cannot be effectively translated and conveyed in different languages. But novelists and politicians seem to get their ideas across quite well in this multi-cultural world (others may not like what they have to say, though), and I'm sure that Dr. Kuhn would be quite satisfied with the average French or German translation of his own sermon. However, I don't think this comment is even intended as a reasoned defense; I think it is more along the lines of a condescending brush-off of the very notion of literalism.
A literal reading of the Bible is not even intended by Biblical literalists. Do they give one tenth of their income to the church? Do they turn the other cheek when someone hits them? Do they refrain from eating ham and shellfish as the Bible commands? Do they support capital punishment, or do they follow the command, “You shall not kill!? Biblical literalists pick and choose which verses will obey literally. You can’t have it both ways.
There is a difference between taking something literally, and taking something as applicable to your particular time and situation. Biblical "literalists" take, for instance, the Levitical laws as being real commands that were really given to a real Moses by a real God to be applied by a real Hebrew nation. However, whether or not a given command happens to apply to a post-Messianic world is another question entirely.

At this point I must question Dr. Kuhn's theological knowledge. His entire "sermon" is a monument to mischaracterization, as he exhibits both his lack of understanding of the modern debate over evolution and his lack of understanding of the conservative Christians he is using to contrast his own position. Does he truly not understand the reasons that historic Christianity has offered for this "pick and choose" approach to Old Testament applications, much of which the New Testament itself supplies? If he is ignorant of these answers, then he has not even understood the classical Christianity that he rejects. If he does indeed understand the rationale, but rejects it, then he is incorrectly charging the "literalists" with picking and choosing their commands. His real beef would seem to be with their reasons for choosing.

The ironic thing is that Dr. Kuhn's brand of liberal Christianity is even more guilty of "picking and choosing" from the Bible than the most unschooled "literalist" ever proved to be. Liberal Christianity has virtually systematized the practice of taking what it likes from Scripture (on a preferential basis) and screening the rest out as "outdated," "human error," "misogynistic," or a "primitive understanding."

One small note here: it's not, you shall not "kill"; the proper translation of the Hebrew is "murder." And if Dr. Kuhn does not know this very basic fact I have to wonder how good his biblical exegesis is likely to be regarding the rest of Scripture.
The Bible was not written by God; it was written by humans. The Bible is the story of human life in the presence of God. God has given us brains with which to think and wonder, brains with which to read and interpret for our day what was originally intended for the ears of Hebrews and Greeks thousands of years ago.
No one is stating that God has "written" the Bible, other than, perhaps, the tablets of the 10 Commandments. However, the Bible itself states that God personally did and said certain things that the authors recorded. And since this is what the Bible claims for itself — quite insistently — I'm not sure exactly where Dr. Kuhn would get any alternate view of what the Bible is all about. Perhaps he has simply exercised his own sovereign "brain" in order to discern (by his own standards) that the Bible is something other than it presents itself to be.

When Dr. Kuhn says that the Bible was intended for the ancient Hebrews and Greeks he is implying that certain things (very many I think) no longer apply for our time. By this idea he is admitting the "literalist's" principle of taking the O.T. in context and finding certain practices to be no longer applicable. The difference is that the "literalists" use Christ as the lens through which to view Scriptures and he uses modern cultural conventions as his own guide.
Perhaps the biggest sin committed by creationists and intelligent design proponents is that they elevate the Bible to an idol that is itself worshiped. Only one object is worthy of our worship, and that is God. The Bible is only a tool, a record of faith that points us toward the Almighty. God is not contained within its pages. God is far too great to be boxed in by a book or by our minds or by theories about how we got here.
Sin? Is Dr. Kuhn suggesting that "creationists" have committed an offense against God for which they must make retribution? I do not believe so, as a survey of Dr. Kuhn's other sermons makes it clear that he has worked very hard to evade the biblical portrait of sin and judgment. It is an interesting claim to make, though, that it is a "sin" to take the Bible too seriously. The very book that even Dr. Kuhn would admit to contain something of God, and which condescends to speak to us about sin, is a "sin" to take too seriously! If God is indeed a loving and merciful God, then I would not be surprised to find that His mercy extends to those poor misguided souls who have taken these sacred writings farther than Dr. Kuhn feels to be warranted.

Additionally, it is a fallacy to claim that taking the Bible seriously, or even literally, is to say that it is being "worshipped." Does Dr. Kuhn take his car's owner's manual seriously and literally? I'm sure he does, but he certainly does not worship it. In the same sense, conservative Christians take their Bibles to be authoritative. The primary difference is that they believe the subject of that book to be important enough to make this spiritual "owner's manual" something of profound importance.

I could conversely charge Dr. Kuhn with the worship of science — Darwinian science in this case — because of the authority and infallibility that he has ascribed to it on this issue. I would suggest that science is merely a tool, which man has used (imperfectly in many cases) to understand the nature of God's creation. And God is surely far too great to be boxed in by the books and minds of secular scientists and their theories about how we got here.
It is time that thinking Christians put a stop to this ridiculous debate of creationism vs. evolution! Let us make some clarifications. There is not one account of creation in the Bible, but many. Genesis 1:1-2:3 is one, where creation is not the result of God’s handiwork, but God’s proclamation. God creates by speaking, “Let there be light!” This story took shape during Israel’s exile; in response to their captors who insisted that their regime held all power, the Jewish exiles told a subversive story declaring that God holds all power.
How would Dr. Kuhn know what the Hebrew people were thinking or doing if not for the Bible itself? Here he is using this book, whose authority he has undermined and which he insists is not to be taken literally, in order to tell us when and why the book of Genesis has been written. This seems awfully speculative to me, especially since some liberals would even deny the Egyptian captivity story in general. It would be interesting to hear his defense against these liberals on being accused of taking the Bible "too literally."
In Genesis 2:4-3:24, a much older account, creation takes place through God’s interaction and contemplation. Another creation account in Proverbs 8 says that God created Wisdom first and then springs of water, and then the mountains and the fields, and Psalm 8 gives us yet another creation account.
Since Dr. Kuhn has worked so hard to assure us that the Bible is not what it seems and has very little of authority to say regarding God's hand in creation, I have to wonder how it is that he has any confidence that God has indeed created, or that there is a God at all?
Intelligent design and creationism are not science and not forms of science. They are beliefs. As used in science, a theory is an explanation or model based on observation, experimentation, and reasoning. A clear distinction needs to be made between facts (things which can be observed and/or measured) and theories (explanations which correlate and interpret the facts). Scientific theory can lead us toward the how of creation, but it can not help us understand the why of creation.
By his own words he has excluded evolution from the world of "facts," since you cannot observe it or replicate it in a test tube; and he has made way for intelligent design as a "theory," since its entire premise is that ID is a reasonable explanation for the observations we make about the specified complexity in nature. The only thing standing in the way of ID being classified as a "scientific" theory is that modern science, by its very definition, disallows the supernatural as an available explanation. This is the major objection to ID, as voiced by scientists, not that it has nothing interesting to say about the process of evolution or the state of the physical world.

Additionally, he seems to be advocating the segregation of faith (our belief in God and the "why of creation") from the world of facts (scientific thinking and the "how of creation"). As it turns out, it is Dr. Kuhn's brand of Christianity that is irrational and anti-scientific. He would surely beg to differ, since this entire sermon is a polemic toward the harmonization of science with faith, but it is more of a surrender of faith to science rather than a reconciliation of the two. If this is not so then I must ask him where it is that he feels that science has supported his belief in God? To what does he appeal to confirm his merely religious belief that "God created me?"

He cannot appeal to evolution as evidence, since that is a natural explanation (which, by the way, he would never have believed in had science not thrust it upon him). Indeed, he cannot point to any order, design, or phenomenon in the universe; for this would be violating the very principle of separation of science from belief that he has just imposed. So, what is left to which he may appeal for his confidence? The Bible? That is no help to him, since he has made it abundantly clear how he feels about its authority and historical value. Perhaps he may appeal to his own private "experience" of God, but that is no help against an atheist, who "experiences" nothing, a Buddhist, who "experiences" a radically different reality, or me, whose "experience" points to the Bible as being authoritative and reliable. Dr. Kuhn's faith is thoroughly isolated in the "upper story" (in the words of Francis Schaeffer) with no ladder into the lower story where science and reason dwell.
Religion can help us understand why we are here and what the meaning of life is but it should not force us into theories that are unobservable.
And why should we think that Dr. Kuhn's religion can tell us the meaning of life, since he rejects the historical roots and divine authority of even his own Scriptures? Can we not qualify his "meaning," then, as a mere "theory?" And since there is no evidential ("observable") basis for his own brand of theism, then we can banish it to the same reservation he has established for creationism.
A religion that leads us to state that the universe is 6,000 years old, and that God planted dinosaur bones and fossils that appear to be tens of millions of years old to trick us, is bogus.
That religion being "Christianity," in which Dr. Kuhn claims membership. He seems to be implying that these particular Christians are not real Christians: they are "bogus" (or, at least their religion is bogus). It would be interesting to contrast his theological beliefs with those of the Bible and Church Fathers to see how well he, himself, matches the portrait of "Christianity."

Dr. Kuhn seems to have some confusion over who his critique is directed to. In this sermon he has mentioned the Kansas School board, the Intelligent Design theorists, and biblical Creationists. But he seems to be suggesting by the above statement that all persons opposed to evolution are just 6-day creation, biblical literalists, who think the fossil record is a mere deception. If this were the case, then I could be more sympathetic to his concerns. As it turns out, the field of objectors is quite broad. Indeed, there are non-Christians and even agnostics who take issue with evolution. Even within the camp of conservative Christianity there are "Old Earthers" (who take the "days" of Genesis to be "ages") and "Young Earthers" (who take the "days" to be 24 hour periods). But I have never heard a respected theologian of any stripe claim that the fossils are just a trick of God or Satan. This is the stuff of back-country Sunday School teachers, and I'm sure that Dr. Kuhn would prefer his arguments to succeed against more than just the lowest common denominator.
Can the Bible and evolution exist side by side? Of Course! I can believe in intelligent design, but it is not science. I can believe that God created everything, but I do not know how. I can believe that God created evolution and gave me a brain with which to think and reason.
So, why does he believe that God did create everything? He has done a fine job of making a place for evolution, but has left us without a defense of the Bible, or the God he continually invokes. With these being reduced to mere vapor it is easy to claim that they may coexist with evolution (or anything else for that matter).
Both evolution and the Bible can lead me to praise God.
God? God who? Evolution offers no content for the word "God." Indeed, it suggests that nature is perfectly capable of producing us without the aid of any transcendent designer. And since the Bible is merely "a record of faith" (whatever "faith" is supposed to mean to Dr. Kuhn), which is not to be taken "literally" and merely contains "theories about how we got here," then I am entirely unclear on how the Bible can lend me any assistance in understanding God, much less to praise Him. In fact, I am not even sure how it should lead me to believe that God even exists given the inadequate, purely human groping at mystery that Dr. Kuhn leads me to believe that the Bible represents.
O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; when I look through a microscope and see the cilia of a paramecium that you have created; when I witness the complex combinations of atoms or the individual deoxyribonucleic acid that makes each being unique, I realize that you have set your glory above the heavens.

Praise God!
I'm sorry, but Dr. Kuhn's sermon inspires no such prayer, which is so discordant from the rest of this diatribe as to be almost comical. I would suggest that it more accurately invokes the following sentiment:

O spectator god, there but not intervening, how distant and unknowable is your name in all the earth. When I look at the heavens, which you have spewed forth as an experiment in a Petri dish; when I look through a microscope and see what chance has wrought; when I witness the random confluence of atoms that time and nature have shaped, I realize that you have faded to irrelevance.

Praise chance and mystery, which are your hidden names.



At 3/23/2006 1:46 PM, Blogger Jeff said...

I think you did a pretty good job of dealing with this man's poor excuse for a sermon.

Some readers might claim that you were too harsh or made too many assumptions about this man's perspective on the Bible. But having been around the block a few times with you, I know that what looks here to be assumed, can actually be substantiated.

I'm sure that we will see some ignorant comments to follow that just reiterate much of what this naturalist said in his 'sermon'.

At 3/23/2006 2:41 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Your right. Some of my comments seemed like I was stretching my assumptions when I read this all back to myself in context, but my assumptions about this guy's particular positions are based on 1) this overall sermon, 2) my perusal of his other sermons, 3) my knowledge of his denomination, and 4) his self identification as a "liberal" (in one of his other sermons) and what I know of liberal Christianity in general.

I'm sure Kuhn would be aghast at some of the things I imply that he believes, but if I could get him to honestly answer a few choice questions I'm sure I could get everything I needed to make my case.

At 3/23/2006 8:11 PM, Blogger JELyon said...

I have to confess, I didn't read too closely, but I think I got the gist of where you're coming from.

From what I know of where you're coming from, you're right on target with your criticism of his sermon.

Not that I see eye to eye with you on the subject of evolution, though! ;-)

I don't think you meant it to be so, but I did find the final prayer amusing.

Now, back to reading about lobbying and its effects on public policy!

At 8/08/2006 2:55 AM, Anonymous said...

I think you make a good point that science, that is, as pro-evolutionists teach it, excludes the possibility of the supernatural. Science as taught by schools today is based on the scientific method, and that is the only way of thinking that is allowed. But the scientific method excludes on principle the consideration that God may intervene in the natural process. This means that the scientific community is automatically biased against considering that God created life.



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