Chapter 4: The New View of Origins

God in the New World
by Lloyd Geering

Chapter 4: The New View of Origins

At the beginning of the modern era all Europeans, whether Catholic or Protestant, shared a common view of the origin of the world in general and of man in particular. This common view came from the opening chapters of the Bible. No cogent evidence had so far been produced to cause any widespread questioning of these chapters, and since they had long been regarded by the church as divinely delivered to Moses, this account of origins was accepted as sufficient and final.

The common view was that God created the whole universe out of nothing, about six thousand years ago (a notable Irish theologian, James Ussher (1581- 1656), deduced from the chronology of the Bible that the actual year was 4004 BC.) It all happened in the remarkably short period of six days, and on the sixth day God made both the animals and human beings. First of all from the dust of the ground He made one human being; He breathed His own spirit into him and called him Adam. Then from Adam’s rib He fashioned a woman called Eve. All other human beings were subsequently descended from these two by natural procreation.

It was further believed that the human race became so evil that God almost annihilated them by a great flood that covered the earth. Consequently all men who lived after the flood down to the present day have been the descendants of Noah, who became with his family the sole human survivors of the Deluge. The nations of the world were thought to have spread over the earth subsequent to that time and to have developed gradually their racial characteristics, their separate languages having resulted from a further divine judgment, following the disastrous attempt to build the Tower of Babel. All human religion, other than the Judeo-Christian faith was thought to consist of various forms of natural religion which could all be traced back to Noah. This simple outline in the opening chapters of Genesis was thought to contain all that man could ever know of the origin of the earth and of the human race. All Christians and Jews, and that meant nearly all Europeans, accepted this simple view of origins as a matter of course until about a hundred years ago, and some Christians still cling firmly to it with varying modifications.

The nineteenth century was destined to witness the complete upset of this simple picture, and this upheaval began with the emerging science of geology. In his book, Principles of Geology, 1830, Charles Lyell (1797-1875) burst through the preconceived opinions that had hindered earlier geologists, and from the evidence he had amassed he showed that the earth had been in existence for a far greater period than the Bible allowed for. Where men had thought in thousands of years, he claimed that ‘the language of nature signified millions’. He explained the present condition of the earth’s surface as the result of gradual development over a long period and due to causes which were still at work. He claimed on the evidence of fossils that life had existed on the earth for millions of years. Ardent defenders of the Bible refused to accept these conclusions, and one of them, a zoologist named P. H. Gosse (1810-1888) admitted all the evidence of geology but claimed that at the creation God had deliberately placed the fossils in the rock so that men would later find them there. In the same way he concluded that Adam and Eve had navels just as if they had been born naturally as infants. Bertrand Russell later commented that on this theory we might all have come into existence five minutes ago, with ready-made memories, holes in our socks and hair that needed cutting.

But the problem posed by the much longer history of the earth was small compared with the furore which took place soon after the publication in 1859 of The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (1809-82). (We should note that this was two years prior to the famous Essays and Reviews.) Darwin originally went up to Cambridge to study for Holy Orders, but he became absorbed in natural science. After some thirty years of study, including several trips of exploration round the world, Darwin outlined a theory of biological evolution, which was destined to revolutionize the common view of the origins of life. The idea of evolution was by no means new and Darwin’s own grandfather was a zealous exponent of some form of evolution or development. It was Darwin’s achievement to supply the theory with a tenable principle, namely, that progressive changes take place by a process of natural selection.

One can readily see that the theory of biological evolution is completely at variance with what had hitherto been the common view of origins. Instead of tracing man’s ancestors back to our first two parents, Adam and Eve, it explains man’s origins as all a part of a very long and very intricate process of development, in which all known species of life had by natural selection gradually branched out from other forms; this tree of life had grown originally from the simplest possible forms of life. What had previously appeared simple and straightforward was now bristling with new problems. In the old view all the ancestors of present-day man had been true men, but in the evolutionary picture man’s original ancestors were not men at all, and it became impossible to point to a time when true men first appeared and why. The orthodox Christian teaching about the creation of man and the origin of sin in a first act of disobedience in Eden now appeared to be undermined. Such problems as these were more difficult to solve than the fact that the opening chapters of Genesis could no longer be regarded as history and needed to be reinterpreted.

In view of the difficulties raised for Christian orthodoxy by the theory of evolution it is the more remarkable to find that there were theologians who reacted favorably to Darwin’s book from the very beginning. F. I. Hort (1828-92) one of the famous trio of Cambridge Biblical scholars of last century, himself skilled in both classics and natural science, wrote in a private letter in March 1860, "Have you read Darwin? . . . In spite of difficulties I am inclined to think it unanswerable." Cardinal Newman (1801-90) wrote in a private note-book in 1863, "It is strange that monkeys should be so like men with no historical connection between them. I will go the whole hog with Darwin, or dispensing with time and history altogether, hold not only the theory of distinct species, but also of the creation of fossil-bearing rocks."

It is a pity that these initial thoughts of men like Hort and Newman were not made public till long afterwards. For in these words Newman expressed succinctly the dilemma in which the Christian was placed; he had either to shut his mind completely to the new knowledge derived from science, or he had to be prepared to accept it and surrender the security and some of the claims of traditional orthodoxy. Charles Kingsley (1819-75), a clergyman whose theological competence has been obscured by his literary fame, was ready to accept the voice of science as the voice of God, and believed that the theologian was bound to be obedient to it. He maintained that all ordinands should be required to study at least one of the sciences.

But in the decade following the publication of The Origin of Species it was mainly the voices of reaction that were heard. The book gave rise to a famous debate between Samuel Wilberforce (1805-73), Bishop of Oxford and T. H. Huxley (1825-95) the celebrated biologist. The Bishop made a vigorous, polished but superficial speech attacking Darwin’s theory and concluded by trying to win the sympathy of the audience with an appeal to Victorian sentimentality concerning women. "If anyone were to be willing to trace his descent through an ape as his grandfather", he asked, "would he be willing to trace his descent similarly on the side of his grandmother?" It is reported that Huxley excitedly murmured to his neighbor, "The Lord hath delivered him into mine hands," an odd remark to come from the first man to call himself an agnostic. Huxley then gave a straightforward account of Darwin’s views and ended by declaring that he would rather have a monkey for a grandfather than one who used his great gifts to stifle truth.

Even Wilberforce, however, was ready to recognize some cogency in evolution and this is borne out by the way he reviewed The Origin of Species later that same year. There he accepted the principle of natural selection but argued that it could not by itself account for man’s moral and spiritual condition. He defined his attitude towards scientific truth in the following striking way, "We have no sympathy with those who object to any facts in nature . . . because they believe them to contradict what it appears to them is taught in Revelation. . . To oppose facts in the natural world because they seem to oppose Revelation . . . is . . . but another form of lying for God, and trying by fraud or falsehood to do the work of the God of truth . . . The words graven on the everlasting rocks are the words of God and they are graven by His hand." He claimed that these could not ‘contradict His word written in His book’.

Only two of the famous Essays and Reviews touched upon The Origin of Species. We have already referred to the one by Benjamin Jowett; the other was written by an accomplished scientist and Professor of Geometry at Oxford, Baden Powell. (His name is familiar because of his son -- the founder of the Boy Scout Movement.) Baden Powell believed that it was within the power of science to make rapid advances in human knowledge in all directions and to unravel sooner or later those mysteries which at the moment seemed miraculous and mysterious. Such a contention was a great blow to orthodox theology for the most popular method in those days of defending the truth of the Christian faith was to appeal to prophecy and the record of the miracles. If the concept of miracle were to vanish, as a mirage, before the advance of science, what was to happen to Christian apologetics?

Baden Powell accepted biological evolution enthusiastically, writing, "a work has now appeared by a naturalist of the most acknowledged authority, Mr. Darwin’s masterly volume on the Origin of Species by the law of ‘natural selection’, which now substantiates on undeniable grounds the very principle so long denounced by the first naturalists . . . . a work which must soon bring about an entire revolution of opinion in favour of the grand principle of the self-evolving powers of nature." The latter was a prophecy soon to be fulfilled.

There were many, of course, who were quite unprepared for this revolution in the understanding of the origins of life. One clergyman is said to have prayed in church, "O Lord, grant this evolution be not true, but if it is, grant that it may be hushed up as far as possible." It is not surprising that the advent of Darwin’s theory of evolution should have caused such consternation in Christian circles, for it removed what appeared to many to be an indispensable pillar of the whole building of Christian orthodoxy. Among more conservative Christians that reaction has continued up until the present, and where such conservatism has been the dominant force in society, it has even been forbidden to teach biological evolution in the schools.

More than once in Christian history Christians have concluded too quickly that if a particular doctrine is proved false, then the whole Christian faith becomes null and void. Such an unthinking zeal to defend the faith can have an effect just the opposite of that desired. When Christians claim that a particular doctrine must be defended at all costs or else Christianity is doomed, those who cannot accept the particular doctrine can hardly be blamed if they assume this must be so, and, as a consequence, surrender with reluctance all allegiance to the Christian faith. T. H. Huxley and Charles Darwin themselves were by no means antagonistic to the Christian faith; it was the unwillingness of Christians to face new truth which forced men of this caliber further away from the faith than they themselves would have chosen to go. T. H. Huxley, in spite of his outspoken criticism of orthodoxy and of the church, was still at the end of his life advocating that the Bible be taught in schools in order to foster sound morality and a religious sense. The theory of evolution, and the church’s failure to appreciate it, became one of several factors, which have helped to bring about that decline in active Christian allegiance which has so marked the last hundred years.

For though Darwin’s particular theory of biological evolution was destined to undergo changes and modifications in the hands of successive biologists and zoologists (and with this we are not here concerned), there can be no going back to the simple Biblical picture of origins which was commonly held before Darwin. This picture has been shattered once and for all. Biological evolution is not only universally accepted by all scientists in some form or other, but it is part of the common knowledge of nearly everybody who has had a secondary school education. All this has taken place in the last hundred years, and the popular spread of this view in the last thirty or forty years.

The new idea of origins is much vaster and more complicated than the Biblical one it has replaced. At a conservative estimate the story of man’s origins takes us back at least half a million years and man has been civilized for only about two per cent of this period. The evidence suggests that in the long process of evolution several types of man emerged, but only our own species, Homo sapiens, has survived. The period of time which witnessed the divergence of these hominoid or human species from the various species of anthropoid apes may take us back from ten to twenty-five million years. Most of us have little real appreciation of what a vast time span this represents, and it raises many fascinating questions for which, as yet, there are no clear answers. For such knowledge as we do have, we are dependent upon anthropology.

Yet the period which has witnessed the development of men, long as it may appear to us, is short when compared with the vaster period over which other forms of life appeared. To trace the emergence of mammals we must go back two hundred million years, and for the origin of the earliest forms of life we go back three thousand million years. Much of the rapid and important achievement in the fields of zoology, botany and biochemistry, is too technical for the average layman readily to appreciate. Sufficient it is to say that the story of the earth with the various forms of life that have come to appear on it, is a million times longer than people of only a century ago used to think it to be.

But when we look out from the earth to seek to understand the universe of which our planet is such an infinitesimal part, and to ask how it all began, we find ourselves in a bewilderingly vast space which just defies our imagination. Even though we may read about it from time to time, very few of us live our lives in conscious awareness of this space universe. Mostly we are caught up with what is going on in our own little neck of the woods, and are not even aware of the diversity of the human situation scattered over the face of the globe, let alone the staggering immensity of the universe. Yet if we are going to live in the real world, we must try to understand to some degree the universe that astronomy and astrophysics have opened to us. It is so large that quite a different unit of measurement has to be used -- the lightyear. But to say that a certain star is so many hundreds of lightyears away does not really mean much to minds which are accustomed only to the inch or the mile, which can be roughly measured with the eye.

How old is the universe? Did it have a beginning at all, or has it always existed in one form or another? In any case, is there anything but a theoretical difference between a billion billion years and eternity? Did the universe begin with a ‘big bang’, as has been suggested, or is it subject to a process of continuous creation? With such questions as these we have no assured results at all as yet. Astronomy and radio-physics are amassing more and more information about the universe, and they may eventually be able to give us more definite answers. But here is the point. We once thought we had the answers and they seemed relatively simple and straightforward. Now the whole picture of the universe and the question of its origins have become tantalizingly out of reach of the minds of most of us.

In this greatly changed world of space and time, what does it mean to say that the God, who supposedly cares for us like a father, is also Creator? How can we call Him Creator, if it turns out there has never been a time when the universe did not exist in one form or another? Is man the peak of all creation, or only of those forms of life that have evolved on this one tiny planet? If man has evolved out of lower forms of life, at what point did he become man, and what is it that constituted true humanity? And if there was no point in time when man first fell into sin, what does it mean to speak of man in his fallen state, and how did sin, if this is still the proper term, come to enter the human scene? These are some of the questions which the new view of origins has raised for the Christian, and which must receive a satisfactory answer if the Christian faith is to survive as a living force in the new world. For though there is more to be learned about origins, which may do much to fill in the great gaps in our knowledge, and which may necessitate further radical revision in understanding, one thing is certain, and that is that the popular and simple view of origins which obtained among Christians until a hundred years ago has gone for ever.