Book Review – Rau, Mapping the Origins Debate

Last post, my power was running out. This time, funnily enough, it’s the anaesthetic on my wisdom tooth extraction. But this book is worth a quick post before the pain sets in:

Rau, Gerald. Mapping the Origins Debate (Leicester: InterVarsity, 2012).
Now I’ve read more than a couple of books about creation, evolution, and Genesis, and a few more about science and religion. I dare anyone to read all the books available on those topics. There would hardly be time if you did nothing else. So it isn’t uncommon to get that “I’ve heard all this before” feeling.

What do I like about this one, that makes it worth a mention?
Firstly, it lays out the state of play in creation-evolution discussions using six categories that prove quite handy:
  1. Naturalistic evolution, or atheistic evolution, the Dawkins style of evolution that just happens to have happened, with no-one intending it. Our world is an accidental freak of nature, and here we are scratching our heads wondering what happened.
  2. Non-teleological evolution, which is a kind of deistic version amenable to process theologians. God is responsible for creation, but more or less just lit the fuse that set off the Big Bang. He didn’t set the course for where it would end up, other than, says Rau at one point, that he wanted sentient life to appear.
  3. Planned evolution is also theistic, but God has set up the universe from the start to lead to the outcomes he sought, including the appearance of humans. So this is a teleological version, one with an intended outcome, but the system is so well designed that God need not, and does not, intervene subsequently.
  4. Directed evolution is interventionist as well as teleological, permitting that God actively directs the evolutionary process.
  5. Old-earth creationism effectively breaks the links, or better, finds significant missing links, in the evolutionary chain. The earth is indeed old on this scheme, but major new stages such as the Cambrian explosion, and in particular, the first humans, reflect the direct creative work of God. There is no true evolutionary tree.
  6. Finally, young-earth creationism holds to a literal Genesis creation week and would connect the various Old Testament genealogies to come up with quite a short world chronology. We might say that earth history is not any older than human history in any real sense here.

Rau proves this schema to be quite workable as he explains what the general evidence is, and then what each model has to say, about four areas of inquiry:

  1. The origin of the universe
  2. The origin of life
  3. The origin of species
  4. The origin of humans.

Rau says that he is pitching this book at late high schoolers and college students, so I was a little worried that it might be simplistic. But my sense is that Rau is quite competent to speak on a range of areas, I learned a lot about such things as recent developments in comparisons between the recently-sequenced genomes of chimpanzees and humans. To put the outcome of that point very briefly, the two sets of code (3 billion base pairs in the human genome v. 2.7 billion base pairs for the chimp) have quite a range of variations from one another, yet are still alike enough that it makes sense to speak of which sequences are the same and where the differences lie. Rau offers many intriguing and often readily accessible references for follow-up on such points.

Let me close with one group out of many apt quotes I might have chosen, suitable because it reflects my own thinking so well:

The question of origins is a puzzle, and it is clear that no model has put the whole puzzle together yet. … We are all working on the same puzzle and must eventually work together if it is to be completed. … There would not be a debate unless there were reasonable arguments on each side (153-155).

I often find myself wanting to concede to each end of the spectrum, strict creation and the evolutionary paradigm, that I am convinced on some points and not at all persuaded by others. I see various puzzle pieces that look like they belong in the puzzle, but I haven’t seen anyone properly solve the puzzle yet. That’s a hard sell for others, because our hearers are really hoping that, while they haven’t figured out origins yet, perhaps there’s an expert who has, and maybe it’s us. As a theological educator, I have certainly learned a few things about the issue, but I don’t have that ready-to-order solution that is often wanted. I think there is perhaps a little healthy humility in order here – to let God be God, the One who knows the answers, and not presume to know too much. Rau complains late in the book that it’s chiefly hubris (i.e. pride) that fuels the fights that thrive in this area, and I agree.

What Rau has done for me is make me feel that perhaps this partial and cautious approach has some legitimacy.

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