Charles Darwin's birthday is on the near horizon, which means that this will be Evolution Weekend. I'm of the opinion that one can be a good Christian and accept evolution as the scientific description of how things have come to be. But, is this type of evolution the same thing as doctrinal development?
Martin Marty takes a look at a debate going on within evangelicalism that involves Brian McLaren. Marty thinks that McLaren may be unhelpfully mixing the two categories. Both might be true, but can we merge them into a common framework? Take a look at what Marty suggests and then offer your thoughts, especially if you're familiar with this conversation.
-- Martin E. Marty
Ever since 1859 anyone could start fights by breathing a single word: “evolution,” on which Charles Darwin held the patent. The conflicts were billed as “science vs. religion,” but it has been clear for 152 years that some schools of scientists opposed other schools in science and some schools of religion opposed others in religion. The “moderns” advocated syntheses of “science” and “religion,” while conservatives, some of them fundamentalist, opposed them. New controversies keep developing.
If I read the reports accurately, there is one brewing within the ranks of Christians often tabbed as evangelicals. For example, witness a project that brings together leaders in various camps under the rubric “The Advent of Evolutionary Christianity.” As Katherine T. Phan reports in the Christian Post, these leaders are trying to change the rules of the game and the contending expectations as to how it is played and who wins.
All this could be easily overlooked or bypassed did it not create shock waves within evangelicalism in the United States and Canada and also did it not involve Brian McLaren. Never heard of him? You had if you tracked trends in the Christian avant-garde; he was named one of the “25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America” by Time magazine in 2005. McLaren’s mark has been in what he and colleagues call “The Emergent Church,” a hard-to-define, dynamic, fluid movement. McLaren now stepped into it, as they used to say down on the farm, by connecting Darwinian scientific evolution with evolution-as-development in many forms barely related to scientific issues.
McLaren: “Evolutionary Christianity is a fact of history about which a lot of Christians are in deep denial.” He included Darwinian evolution under the Evolutionary Christianity tent, and thus roused suspicion and attracted attacks from anti-Darwinian Protestant conservatives. He described his perspective, which blends two categories of evolution as being a liberator for Christian thought and church forms. Brought up a conservative evangelical, he has now broken from that past. One might ask: could there be a problem here that can fancily be described as ignoratio elenchi, a category error?
When McLaren describes the values in his “Evolutionary Christianity” he is often talking about doctrinal “development,” which he finds even in Catholicism (as did John Henry Newman in the nineteenth century). But the issues raised in the “evolution” in doctrine or in church forms prompts quite different, or wholly different, questions than does standard-brand scientific evolution. His critics think that McLaren has gone over the hill or slid down the slippery slope of “development” into relativism and the abyss of heresy. If he and other panelists on TV and in conferences on Evolutionary Christianity would disentangle one kind of evolution from another, or regard the crossovers as metaphoric, matters would become more clear. He can continue his fight over whether church doctrine and practice have developed in one set of categories, while his openness to scientific, as in biological, evolution could make it easier for others to participate in ways that could be helpful in the academy, the church, and the larger culture.
Otherwise or until then, he’ll be a poster-boy for the heirs of old-school anti-evolutionism to banish. Their heritage dates from 1859 and they now offer little new. The Christian Post is reporting on a conflict whose emergent outlines and battle lines are fuzzy, and often have no use for or bearing on scientific evolutionary thought.
R. Albert Mohler, Jr, “Why the Creation-Evolution Debate is So Important,” Southern Seminary Magazine, January 4, 2011.
Katherine T. Phan, “Brian McLaren: Christians in Denial Over Evolution of Faith,” Christian Post, January 27, 2011.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.
In this month's Religion and Culture Web Forum, Jessica DeCou offers a comic interpretation of the theology of Karl Barth, bringing his work into a surprising and fruitful dialogue with the comedy of Craig Ferguson. Both men, she contends, “employ similar forms of humor in their efforts to unmask the absurdity and irrationality of our submission to arbitrary human powers.” The humor of Barth and Ferguson alike stresses human limitation against illusory deification. DeCou argues for understanding both the humor and the famous combativeness of Barth's theology as part of this single project, carried out against modern Neo-Protestant theology. The Religion and Culture Web Forum is at: http://divinity.uchicago.edu/martycenter/publications/webforum/
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.