Josh recently commented on another thread, “I want to hear your explanation of the origin of life on earth. I have heard the positions you are against. So how did we come about?”
Actually, you’re asking two different questions. The first, concerning the origin of life itself, I have not come to any conclusions on. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a supernatural act of intervention. But then again, I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened by some natural process. The fact is, even scientists don’t have a really good explanation for “abiogenesis” (life from non-life), although they’ve got lots of hypotheses. Yet this current lack of knowledge alone does not make me immediately decide, “Oh! Miracle!” I have explained elsewhere why this God-of-the-gaps explanation is a sinking ship; that some rain god’s direct, miraculous intervention is behind the phenomenon of rain might have seemed like the only possible explanation before an understanding of meteorology, but such a claim would not only have been entirely premature, but, when displaced by a scientific explanation, would appear quaint and superstitious. Just because we don’t know now doesn’t mean we won’t be able to figure it out, and we may even one day be able to reproduce it.
This leads to an important clarification of my understanding. The rotation of the earth, gravity, photosynthesis, fossil formation – what do these have in common? 1) God is responsible for all of them. 2) They operate independently from overt divine activity. What’s my point? What I’m trying to say is that I affirm that all the rules of the universe, such as those responsible for the processes I just mentioned, operate just as they were designed to do. Therefore, I’m an intelligent design advocate of a different kind. As Howard Van Till says, God designed a “fully gifted creation”, which means that He set it up to run in a way that did not require Him to break His own rules in order to create us. I contrast this with Van Till’s assessment that ID posits a “system of natural causes [that] fails to include the formational capabilities needed for assembling certain complex biotic structures, such as the bacterial flagellum.” I contend that there was in fact more design put into the universe than ID advocates or creationists allow for, only that this design lies so deeply embedded within nature that the unbeliever will not be likely to notice it.
For the believer, however, God’s involvement in nature is much more visible on the surface than even ID advocates claim: scientists in the intelligent design movement go to great lengths to dust biology for God’s fingerprints, when the fact that the laws of nature even exist is God’s smoking gun – He’s responsible for it all, not just the gaps! Note, however, that I’m not using the cosmological argument and asserting that the existence of natural laws are proof of God’s existence; on the contrary, God’s role in the physical processes that perpetuate the natural world is one of intentionality and purpose, unrecoverable by science and unprovable by philosophy. God doesn’t have to keep making the universe work; all He has to do is will it to work. Of course, even creationists and ID advocates would agree: where we differ is that whereas I believe this essentially naturalistic manner of cosmos management started further back than the present day, the stance of the ID/creationist crowd is that God began using natural laws to run the universe only after the creation. This is seen by the fact that they don’t regularly posit the necessity of God’s intervention to make sure that iron rusts when exposed to water nowadays, yet (under a literalist, historiographic understanding of Genesis) the creation, including plants created on the third day, was able to get along without light from the sun until the fourth day, because ostensibly the laws of nature did not apply until after He was done.
Now to the second part of Josh’s question: how did we (humans) get here? We determine these sorts of things by examining all available resources.
What surprises some Christians is that I am fully confident that the Bible is not one of those resources, nor was it ever intended to be. In Genesis 1-11, until we get to Abraham, we are not getting history as we would from a history book; we are looking at stories common throughout the Ancient Near East (ANE), remolded and adapted to serve God’s purposes. I have previously linked to the conservative Wheaton scholar Dr. John H. Walton’s presentation on Genesis 1. Watch it or else: it’s an hour-long presentation, but if you’re at all interested in understanding my position, you’ve got to check it out. An inelegant way of summarizing it is to say that this chapter is a complex literary work affirming that YHWH is responsible for the universe using imagery drawn from the Jewish temple. The Garden narrative, while retaining firm roots in Mesopotamian mythology, has been reformulated as an archetypal story showing God interacting with humanity, in terms reminiscent of and serving as commentary on the Torah. I plan on addressing this stuff later.
If we don’t use Genesis as a science book or to determine the origin of humanity, where do we look? My choice has been to look to those who dedicate their life’s work to observing, analyzing, and hypothesizing about the natural world: scientists. And no, that group of people is by no means primarily made up of atheistic conspirators against theism. For Pete’s sake, the head of the Human Genome Project is a devout evangelical Christian who, from his intimate knowledge of DNA, cannot conceive of another explanation of the data he’s seen than common descent.
I’m not going to be dogmatic about exactly how everything got here in scientific terms, because I’m not a scientist. But for me, as with any question beyond my ken, I yield to those people who have studied the matter in depth. To sum up my position as a non-scientist who doesn’t think the Bible speaks to the “how” of creation, I would like to quote Dan Werner’s comment on Mike Beidler’s post discussing Van Till:
As to the scientific question, I stand with the whole of scientific tradition these past 140+ years in affirming full-fledged evolution. There can be no other acceptable position for a layperson such as myself. To believe otherwise would not be humble.