Darwin at 200 – time for the church to own up?

Recently I was looking at a Sunday-school display which consisted of a timeline of Bible events. It was very informative and I learned facts I didn’t know. One thing that I couldn’t help but notice, though, was that this history only went back to about 4000 BC. Before that was a label which said something like: “Creation of the World. Adam and Eve”.

A faultline in the church

This timeline reflects a strain within the church – there is no agreed history before 4000 BC. Encyclopaedias will tell you that the world is billions of years old and current life evolved from simple organisms over that time. Fundamentalist churches tend to teach that about 6000 years ago God created everything in six days. Throughout most of the church, however, there is a diversity of understanding and a silence so that no-one is offended. That silence has led most people outside the church (and many within) to assume that the fundamentalist position is the official or accepted position of the whole church.

Genesis relates that God made each type of animal and brought them to Adam for naming, and Darwin was fully aware that many Christians would be deeply offended by any suggestion that new species of life could be created by natural processes rather than by decree of God. Darwin’s own wife Emma was one such Christian, but there were also   many very eminent scientists who found these new suggestions to be a horrendous and needless challenge to the accepted position, among them Richard Owen, renowned palaeontologist and creator of the British Museum of Natural History.

Predictably, Darwin was vilified, and preachers and cartoonists had a field-day. The (incorrect) caricature of Darwin’s hypothesis, that mankind is descended from monkeys, caused distress amongst some and mirth amongst others, depending upon how seriously they took it and how much they each thought it mattered.

The treasure of the past

It would be wrong, though, to think that Christians universally set themselves against these new ideas. The church contained many serious thinkers for whom the Genesis account was clearly to be taken as a poetic description rather than a scientific text. The ideas of Darwin created a way forward, by which God could be seen to have decreed a natural order which had the capability over millions of years to bring forth all the myriads of creatures and plants which were now known to exist. Here at last was a creation they could believe in.

A few years ago I was helping to tidy some cupboards in church. Anyone who has ever done this knows that such cupboards are filled with an array of objects whose history can only be guessed at – they are there because they have always been there. My eyes fell on an old Bible, and being a lover of books I paused to look through it. It was published sometime in the 1920s or 1930s and was clearly the sort of Bible designed to be presented as a Sunday School prize (in fact as I recall it had an inscription inside the cover saying who it was presented to) and the text was illustrated with pictures of the most exciting scenes and heroic role models.

What grabbed my attention, however, was the introduction. I had expected some twee text saying how every child could aspire to slay giants if they studied the scriptures prayerfully. What I hadn’t expected was a description of the wonder of God’s creation as revealed by science which was showing that the universe was far, far older than we had ever imagined and that this world was once home to strange creatures living in an unimaginable landscape. There was no attempt to tie this in to the Genesis account – whoever wrote it was taking for granted that science reveals God, and whoever published it was not concerned that the Sunday School superintendents buying and presenting this book might be “creationists”.

Time to regain our honesty

Somewhere along the line since then we have lost that cheerful innocence. The tragedy is that those contemplating joining a church, or young people growing up in a church, are sooner or later presented with a harsh and unnecessary choice: do you accept that wonders of the physical universe are revealed through scientific study and reasoning, or do you believe that the answers have already been written down for us in the Bible and that no other research is necessary? That choice drives many thoughtful people away from churches and drives others into an uneasy silence. Is that what God wants?

I’m not expecting Christians with deeply held convictions to change their minds. But surely the time has come for us all to be honest and stop hiding. The silence is becoming unbearable. I’m more than happy to share a pew with someone who thinks the world was made in six days, but I don’t want to pretend to share his convictions – I’ve got plenty of my own. And a church where we all say what we really believe will surely be a much healthier place to be.