by Ervin Taylor
Just when one might have thought that my good friend, Clifford Goldstein, had decided that it was in his own best interest to write on topics about which he is better informed, he has returned—yet again—to one of his favorite subjects: biological evolution.
He is like a moth attracted to a flame – apparently not realizing that every time he approaches this subject, he gets burned. Since he is my friend, I really don’t want him to get injured. But what can I do? He keeps doing it to himself.
The title of his latest literary jihad in the Adventist Review (March 15, 2012) is “Changing the Debate.” He starts out with an amazing statement: “Those fighting Darwinism as a viable interpretation of Genesis are now deemed as narrow, parochial, and closed-minded.” I instantly was attracted to the comment about the “narrow, parochial, and closed-minded” part which characterized those Adventists “fighting” Darwinian evolution. I guess that is my “dark side” coming out.
However, on more serious reflection, it became clear that my good friend has regretfully mixed up several different issues in his statement. In the tradition of a well-crafted apologetic—of which Cliff is a prolific and effective producer—he has created a “straw-man” type of argument and then proceeds to argue against something which no reasonably informed person would have formulated in the first place.
As one interested in the culture history of indigenous American religions (e.g., LDS, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, and Adventism), I attempt to keep current on the debates from the right and left of Adventism over problems with a theological system caused by the scientific concepts of biological evolution and deep geological time. However, I am not aware of any past or present Adventist scientist or theologian of any ideological camp who argues or has argued that the Darwinian model (actually the Neo-Darwinian model, but let’s not get into the weeds here) of how biological evolution has proceeded over geological time represents “a viable interpretation of Genesis.”
Most educated individuals gave up trying to reconcile Genesis and Geology in the later 19th Century. The reason was that it was realized that these two ways of talking about “Origins” are addressing two very different kinds of origins—one dealing with the origins and development of the physical world and one dealing with the much more complicated and complex world of the nature of human consciousness and ultimate meaning.
The Neo-Darwinian model of how biological evolution proceeds is a scientifically-inspired narrative widely accepted in the contemporary scientific community because it provides a fully naturalistic explanation of how modern organisms developed from a common ancestor over hundreds of millions of years. This model has a massive body of physical evidence from a wide spectrum of scientific disciplines supporting the validity of major parts of the model.
Genesis or The Beginnings is an ancient Hebrew document that contains a theologically-inspired narrative that describes the creation of the cosmos, the earth, and all living things, including humans, through the supernatural actions of the Hebrew deity. It rounds out the narrative by adding a Hebrew version of the ancient Near Eastern “Great Flood” myth.
Trying to harmonize or reconcile these two incommensurable ways of talking about “beginnings” has been the source of a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding. Insisting that one is literally “true” and the other is literally “false” presents a completely false dichotomy. I regret that my good friend has again fallen into doing just that–again.
In Part II, we will further consider some of the misunderstandings contained in “Changing the Debate.”
PS As an entirely side comment, might I say that of all of the creation stories which have been preserved in various ancient Near Eastern textual traditions, my personal favorite is one story which is only found in the Hebrew version. It is the one that has a very intelligent snake having a philosophical and theological conversation with Eve, the Mother of all humans. You will notice that this conversation was not with Adam. In the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, a narrative much older than the Genesis account, Gilgamesh has his immortality stolen by a snake. Were Adam and Eve created immortal? I suspect that there is much more to the Hebrew “Talking Snake” story than we have typically understood. (I know, I know, later interpretations have the snake being the mouthpiece of Satan. But it would seem that this is clearly not what the original Hebrew story had in mind.)