May 16, 2012
Genesis, Function and Evolution
Last week we had a great discussion about John Walton’s ideas regarding Genesis at The Forge.
John Walton’s approach to Genesis 1-2 is to read it in the light of the ancient context in which it was written, not in the light of modern science. The most fundamental difference, says Walton, between that ancient context and ours is that the ancient mind was primarily concerned with the question of function whereas the modern mind is primarily concerned with the question of material production. They asked what is it for, what was designed to do? We ask where did it come from? What processes brought it about? Our assumption is that once we have explained production we have exhausted meaning.
With this in mind, it is interesting to read the story of Genesis chapter one again and notice that it is chock full of functional language. The sun exists to light the day. The moon exists to light the night. Their cycles define time (day and night). The story of Genesis has little interest in the source of the sun and moon. Of course, God made them. But this is perhaps uncontroversial in the ancient context. Surely, they all knew that the gods had created the world, the sun, the stars, and everything else that exists. The big news of Genesis is not that there is a God who is created the universe (this is news to modern people, perhaps; to atheists, perhaps). The big news of Genesis for ancient people was that God had created the world for his own good and exalted purposes. The universe has a grand design that flows from the mind and will of God. This is a marked contrast to other ancient cosmologies in which the world is the by-product of some cosmic conflict, an accident, or maybe an embarrassment to the gods.
But how God created seems to be a completely uninteresting question for the biblical creation story and therefore, it seems, also for the ancients.
When viewed in this way Genesis has little to say about the evolution/creation debate. Evolutionary theory is about material generation; Genesis is about function. This is not to say that it is inappropriate for Christians to wonder about material production and to even connect scientific “production” information to God the creator. It’s just that it’s not what Genesis is doing.
But the most interesting point, I think, is that the functional message of Genesis is actually quite a relevant and profound message in the face of evolution. Because Genesis is still saying today the same thing it said back in its ancient context: you, human being, were formed, designed the will and mind of God himself. You have purpose and meaning. You have dignity. This is something that evolution can never say. In fact evolution says the exact opposite: you are the byproduct of an impersonal process, you are an accident. The meaning of your existence, from the perspective of evolution, is nothing more than to reproduce. And there is no grand scheme, not driving will, no good purpose. Just a natural process that happened. That’s it.