Friday, January 29, 2010

Disneology #8: What about Evolution?


The most stressful and emotionally divisive debate between scientists and theologians is over the issue of evolution. Conservatives (who may have even misinterpreted fellow conservatives’ positions on this issue) consign fellow conservatives to Satan because they think the others do not totally agree with them. Liberals dismiss as silly anyone who is not a “true believer” in Darwinism (something that is far from being proven, itself). The entire discussion gets rather mean-spirited, at times. My goal in this commentary is give fair theological consideration to all sides of the theological issue, to help people wrestle with their own views.

In my last commentary, I mentioned evolutionists who believed that logically, there must be more intelligent life on other planets. The “logic” of this belief is expressed in the Drake Equation, developed by Frank Drake, in 1961: N = R* fp ne fl fi fc L, whatever that means! The name of this “branch of science” (that, so far, has produce zero empirical evidence of any kind of life on other planets) is “astrobiology.” A famous popularizer of extraterrestrial intelligent life theory and astronomy, Carl Sagan, even came up with a plan for attaching some sort of message to U.S. spacecraft that may be destined to leave the earth permanently. Sagan, clearly, was not thinking some extraterrestrial “plant” would be able to decipher his message. Sagan’s hope was that his message might eventually be interpreted by some extraterrestrial intelligent life form that might find our spacecraft. Some of Sagan’s notions are dramatized in the 1997 movie, Contact. These ideas were clearly floating around before Sagan and Drake became famous. Disney producers were already toying with the relationship between evolutionary theories and extraterrestrial life in the 1950s.

On December 4, 1957, the Disneyland television series on ABC TV aired an episode entitled “Mars and Beyond,” directed by Ward Kimball. The episode is included in a Walt Disney Treasures collection entitled Tomorrowland: Disney in Space and Beyond, available through Film critic Ernest Rister ( explains that the episode offers “the history of evolution on Earth (creationists, beware) in a sequence that strongly echoes the "Rite of Spring" sequence from Fantasia, without re-using any of the 1940 animation. Then we are shown how life may have evolved on other planets in a bravura animated set-piece that is as strong as anything to come out of the Disney studios in the 1950s.”

This piece of textual evidence may be important proof that Walt Disney believed in evolution, but does that mean he rejected creation theology? Even if Disney accepted evolution as an explanation of the origin and development of life on earth, has evolution been scientifically proven? Believers in gradual evolution have been hoping that the study of fossils (paleontology) will yield scientific evidence of the various transitional stages of development each genus and species went through as it evolved. They are searching for “missing links.” The website ( reports:

“Stephen J. Gould, America's most famous evolutionist . . . stated, ‘The extreme rarity of transitional forms in the fossil record persists as the trade secret of paleontology. The evolutionary . . . textbooks have data only at the tips and nodes of their branches; the rest is inference, however reasonable, not the evidence of fossils. I wish in no way to impugn the potential validity of gradualism. I wish only to point out that it was never seen in the rocks.’”

Gould’s comments may be used by theologians who wish to reject concepts of evolution altogether. Such theologians may insist that “the extreme rarity of transitional forms in the fossil record” may be taken as proof that gradualism (evolution) did not occur. Such a view may, of course, be supported by the biblical creation account, which uses the phrase “according to its/their kind/s” throughout creation (Genesis 1:11, 21, 24, 25). This “kind/s” terminology may indicate a doctrine of the existence of biological boundaries that are not crossed by evolution. Hence, there would necessarily be missing links. Nevertheless, there may be other theologians who are persuaded that some evolution/gradualism did occur. Does the biblical creation account rule out any possibility of evolution/gradualism?

The issue is “how” God created and/or made things. Genesis 2:8 states that God had “planted” a garden in Eden, but this is surely not an indication of how God made plants. Planting presupposes that one has seeds to plant. Given the existence of seeds, even humans can “plant” a garden. Did God form each plant or seed that grew? Perhaps, but Genesis does not make that claim.

Genesis 1:11 indicates “how” God made plants. He SPOKE to the land: “Let the land produce vegetation.” Genesis 1:12 confirms: “The land produced vegetation.” One way of viewing this phenomenon is to say that God delegated to land the capacity for producing plant life. If land, then, was given by God the capacity to produce life, we should not be terribly surprised if, at some point, humans—putting together the right combination of chemicals from the land—are able to see that “land” (i.e., a chemical combination) produce life (in a test tube, for example). My high school science teacher predicted to me nearly a half century ago that we were on the verge of such an accomplishment. It has not happened yet.

In a somewhat similar manner (but with a curious departure in the way it is phrased), in Genesis 1:20, God SPOKE to the waters: “Let the waters teem with living creatures.” Did God, then, endow the waters with the capacity to produce animal life? Possibly. Possibly not. Note that in Genesis 1:21, “God created . . . every living and moving thing with which the water teems.” This seems to be a special act (hence, the use of the word “created”). Water animal life was the first level of animal life. As I noted before, there are just a few times Genesis employs the term “create” in the creation account. This is one of them.
In Genesis 1:24, we return to a formula similar to the formula for making plants. God SPOKE to the land: “Let the land produce living creatures.” If God delegated to land the capacity for producing plant life, and then (later) the capacity for producing living creatures, it may be that once God created elemental animal life (in the waters), the land was given the capacity for developing that animal life. In other words, there appears to be some room for a somewhat theologically-based evolution/gradualism theory.

Note, however, that Genesis once again employs the term “create” when it comes to humans. Genesis 1:27 states: “God created man in his own image . . . male and female created He them.” Genesis 2:7 adds the detail that God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life before man became a living being. I commented in Disneology #6: “The term ‘create’ is used by Genesis only in terms of creating the ‘heavens and the earth’ in 1:1 . . . creating ‘the great creatures of the sea and every living’ thing in the sea in 1:21 (the beginning of animal life), and God creating ‘man in his own image’ in 1:27.” Nevertheless, all creation seems to have been accomplished by God “speaking,” with the lone exception of the creation of Adam. Those theologians who wish to accommodate some form of evolution/gradualism theory in their theology would do well to pay attention to the significant shifts of these three “create” events.

Regardless of whether biblical theologians choose to reject evolution altogether or to accommodate some elements of evolutionary theory in their theologies, there is a motto borrowed from the Restoration Movement that could be useful in reducing the theological community stress over this issue. I refer to the motto on page 36 of my book, The Seven Cs of Stress:

There was a nineteenth century motto promoting church unity, which suggested: “In essentials, unity. In opinions, liberty. In all things, love.” The second element of that catch phrase is a principle of anarchy. There may be instances in which each individual should have the latitude to decide for himself or herself. When there is no compelling reason for everyone in the group to be doing the same thing, why not provide liberty/anarchy?

Is there a compelling reason for every theologian to hold exactly the same view regarding the evolution issue? When Martin Luther debated the Catholic Church over The Ninety-Five Theses, he tried to establish the compelling basis upon which he thought all Christians could find unity: Sola Scriptura (the Bible alone). If a theologian cites a plausible biblically-based argument for the opinion s/he holds, it may be a situation that cries out for liberty (and love).

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