Posted by: dacalu | 20 November 2016

Evolution and Genesis

Today I had the great privilege of talking with a conference of middle schoolers in the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia. The theme for the meeting was “Jesus Christ and Dinosaurs” and they asked me to talk specifically about evolution and the book of Genesis. There was only time to say a few things – as I wanted to field questions – but here is my practice script.

Life is interesting. Living things never do exactly what we think they will. They move; they jump; they burp; they poop; they eat things. Set a living thing down on the table and turn around.  It might not be there when you turn back. Even plants grow and shift and bloom. Not only that. Life comes in so many different shapes and kinds. There are giant organisms like whales and dinosaurs and tiny creatures like mites and bacteria. We eat some of them – others eat us. Some make us sick – others make us healthy. So, it’s no real surprise that people study living things. You probably have a biology class at your school.

I study life. I study life with science – which makes me a biologist.  I went to college at the University of Washington and studied biochemistry. Then I went to Harvard for graduate school (or grades 19 through 24; who knew there was a grade 24?) While I was there, I studied the evolution of photosynthetic reaction centers, the parts of bacteria and plants that convert sunlight into energy. I also started working with NASA on the search for life elsewhere, what we now call astrobiology – life among the stars. So, I don’t just study Earth life as it is, I also study life as it could be. I want to know what the word “life” means and how can understand all life better.

Scientists have been talking about life for 3000 years and many different theories about life have been suggested. Mostly, people agreed that 5 activities were among the most interesting aspects of life – eating and growing, moving and sensing, and thinking. All 5 require coordination between the parts of living things.

In eating, your teeth work with your tongue to break up food; your stomach and intestines work together to digest the food; and your blood carries the sugar and vitamins to other parts of your body. That’s why we speak of living things having “organs” or being “organisms.” Our bodies are organized to work together. For most of history, we had only the roughest idea how organisms got to be organized. None of the non-living stuff has that kind of order.

About 200 years ago, the most popular theory said that God must have designed organisms the same way we design cars and computers. That would explain how they came to be organized. But people had a few concerns. First, we could design some things better – like eyes that see more or throats that cough less. Second, organisms don’t come out of a factory – they come from parents and grow up. And third, some people don’t believe in God. For all three reasons, people were looking for a better theory of biology.

Along came Darwin. Darwin looked at the way humans breed animals – like dogs, cows, and pigeons. Breeders select the animals they like best and breed them with other animals so that their children have all the best traits. They make dogs with long floppy ears or short fur or tiny bodies. What if Nature had a similar way of choosing some animals over others? Darwin suggested evolution by natural selection – the idea that environments slowly work on populations, changing them to fit in with their surroundings, just the way breeders work on populations, changing them to fit with their plans. Hence, “Natural Selection.”

Consider a bunch of mice living in the desert.  The black and white mice stand out against the sand, so that birds can see them from a long way away.  Predators eat them. The sand colored mice survive because they are harder to see.  Over many generations, the black and white mice die out, while the sand colored mice have children and take over the population.

What most people call “Evolution” has to do with this idea that organisms in the wild change, just like farm animals do. Species don’t look the same way they did in the past and they will look different in the future. Darwin is not famous for coming up with the idea of changing organisms. That idea was old. Darwin talked about how they change.  Over 30 years he pulled together massive amounts of data and many kinds of arguments for why the details of change are what they are. The environment favors organisms that fit well with their surroundings.

Darwin’s idea allowed us to understand two other things as well. First, it suggested that any two species around now, might have evolved from only one species in the past. Perhaps there was even one original kind of living thing, from which all living things come. One great-great-great-…great-grandmother to all plants, animals, and even humans. Second, organization could happen without a designer because the environment was slowly shaping the animals all along.

In the last 200 years, we have discovered that life is weirder and more diverse than we imagined. Some organisms are so small that no-one could see them before microscopes were invented. Some live in extreme heat, cold, and radiation – in places we never thought to look. Throughout all of this, evolution by natural selection has been a great tool in understanding why and how organisms are complex, why we find them where we do, and the traits they have. Biology and evolution help us understand why life works the way it does and how organisms are related. Scientists like evolution because it’s useful. It explains living things.

We also want to know other things about life. We want to know about individual lives – about you and me. We want to know about life and death and meaning. How do we value life? Are some lives more important than others? Is it okay to eat living things? Can we eat some, but not others? Most people think people are more important than animals and animals are more important than plants – but it’s tough to work out the details. These are important questions and science doesn’t help us with them.

Genesis does. Genesis tells us things about what it means to be alive and how living things should relate to one another. Many people think these sorts of issues are more important to daily life than the science questions. Just like science, we’ve been talking about how to interpret Genesis for 3000 years. We disagree about some of it, but we also agree on many things. Perhaps most important for Jews, Christians, and Muslims is the idea that God created everything. People disagree about how God did it, whether God designed things individually, or just got the ball rolling and let things develop. The important part is that God made humans and animals and plants and sea and earth and stars and – this part counts – considers all of it good. God made all things and all things are, from the very beginning, good. Second, God made us to represent God and care for all the things that were made. The first chapter of Genesis is all about this. Creation is good and we were asked to care for it.

The second and third chapters of Genesis tell us about how humans started arguing with God, why we don’t understand one another, and why we struggle so much. Sometimes it seems like parts of the world are not good – thorns and wasps and diseases. According to Genesis, we wanted more than our fair share of the world, so we stole an apple, then lied about it, and broke our friendship with God by refusing to even talk about the apple. Christians like this story because it gives us a way to think about the world. From the start, everything is good, but when we care too much for ourselves and not enough for others, we start to argue and compete. When things seem bad, it’s often because we – or someone in the past – messed things up. We can fix our relationships if we return to friendship with God. Of course, broken friendships can be hard to fix, and we have things like forgiveness and community to bind us back together again.

Another lesson in Genesis has to do with what it means to be alive. It has something to do with the breath and blood that flow through a thing. Think about a river. If the water isn’t moving, it’s just a lake. To say river is to say “water moving from somewhere to somewhere else.” To say life is to say breath moving in and out – or blood pumping – or something like that. It comes from God blowing on the dust, making things move. Life happens. The word “soul” sounds like a stationary thing in modern English – something you have or don’t have – but in the Bible, it means something God is doing something in the world – God’s breath turning dust or mud into something that eats and moves and surprises us. With Genesis, we see God acting in all living things, so we value them and we value God in them.

What do you think God wants to say in Genesis? I think Genesis is about God trying to talk to us. Both the Old and New Testaments begin with passages that talk about the whole universe. For me that opens the conversation. It’s a kind of introduction. Who is God that God is talking to us? God is the one who made everything and who loves everything. We can’t understand God and one another unless we act as God’s children, the sisters and brothers of every living thing, and the caretakers of creation.

From the very start of Christianity, people argued about how God speaks to us through Genesis. They noticed that Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 talk about the creation in very different ways. For example, the animals come before humans in Genesis 1 and after us in Genesis 2. What was the real order? They also noticed that some things don’t match up with our experience.  How could there be a day and a night before there was a Sun? God doesn’t make the Sun until the 4th day.  What is a day and a night with no Sun?

Augustine of Hippo, possibly the most famous theologian in history, lived 1500 years ago.  He said that sometimes God invites us to look closer by giving us puzzles. He said there were several ways to read scripture. The plain sense of scripture tells us what the words say on the surface. That can be factual – “he went to the store” – or figurative – “he stormed off.” When I say he stormed off, I don’t mean he was dripping water and shooting lighting.  I mean he was mad when he went. It’s still a plain sense of the words, because I said exactly what I meant, but I did it creatively. So, there are factual and figurative senses to scripture.

There are also less plain ways to read scripture. Sometimes we say one thing and mean something entirely different. I might say “I am as hungry as a Tyrannosaurus Rex” or “I’m so bored; kill me now.” I’m not just being creative. I’m saying something factually false that still tells you something. I might exaggerate, or be sarcastic, or compare things in a strange way. We talk to each other this way.  The question is: does God talk to us this way.  Most Christians for most of history have thought that God does. Think about the parables.  Jesus says the “kingdom of God is like this” or sometimes he just tells a story and hopes we get the point.

I agree with Augustine. I think that the Bible is an amazing story that invites us to read and re-read and constantly hear new things. I think it has layers to reveal and puzzles to solve. I think it’s just as complicated as an organism and we won’t really get it until we see all the parts working and moving together.


Some Christians have trouble with evolution. Mostly, they don’t disagree with what it explains. They worry that it gets in the way of our ability to value life properly. They think that it if humans are related to other animals, we won’t treat humans very well. They want God to be directly involved in making every species. That matches the plain reading of scripture and it helps them remember God’s special care for each and every living thing.

I think that’s important, but I also think we can think of God’s breath moving in and out of every organism without giving up evolution. I think we are miraculous and valuable, however we are made. Thousands of years of evolution is pretty wonderful. So I agree, we need to value people, but I don’t think evolution makes that harder.

Other Christians want the Bible to be very easy to understand. It tells a story with a timeline. They worry that getting away from the plain sense of Genesis encourages people to ignore some of the important lessons. Why can’t it just mean what it says? That’s where we come in. I agree with them that the Bible is serious and valuable. I disagree that it should be easy. I think that Bible study is something we should do together. I think God has given us this really great gift and that it has depth. Like a really good video game, it has Easter eggs and bonus rounds and special features. It works best when we play the game together.

Episcopalians think that we should do as much science as we can and as much Bible study. We think that Bible study requires a group of people giving everything they can to find both the obvious meanings and the subtle meanings, and everything in between. God starts the Old Testament with two different accounts of creation and starts the New Testament with four different accounts of Jesus to show us, from the very beginning, that we have been invited into a puzzle and a challenge – a conversation with God that will last


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