During my first semester as a freshman at a Christian college I was exposed, for the first time, to a positive description of evolution. For some reason, this unexpected defense of Darwin's theory did not disturb me, but instead piqued my curiosity. Shortly after that initial lecture, I sought out my professor to find out more. Several discussions later I found myself embracing what I had previously regarded as an evil theory. Interestingly, the more I learned about evolution — the more I got excited about the grandness of the theory — the deeper my faith grew in a divine, awesomely creative Creator.
Of course, not all of my classmates, nor the college's constituency, appreciated such advocacy for evolutionary theory. During my years as an undergraduate at Calvin College (in Grand Rapids, Michigan), a physics professor by the name of Howard Van Till published The Fourth Day: What the Bible and the Heavens Are Telling Us About Creation (Grand Rapids [MI]: Eerdmans, 1986), a book that discussed evidence for an old universe. Although Van Till's book focused on the inanimate, avoiding an in-depth analysis of biological evolution, it still stirred up the wrath of parents, donors, and members of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), the sponsoring denomination of Calvin College. Although Van Till kept his job, he endured years of ugliness.
Two decades later, two physicists at my alma mater, Deborah and Loren Haarsma, have published Origins: A Reformed Look at Creation, Design, & Evolution. Although some evangelical and fundamentalist Christians will certainly reject their message, this book will probably not create the stir that Van Till's book did. For, although creationism remains strong in the United States, evolutionary theory is no longer big news at many Christian colleges, including Calvin. While evolution is still a taboo subject at some Christian schools, evangelical students at many schools are more accustomed to hearing about evolutionary theory than they were even twenty years ago. Many can recognize that, even if they personally reject evolutionary theory, this issue need not define and divide Christians. One must be careful, therefore, not to lump all Christians, or even all evangelicals, together.
The Haarsma and Haarsma book is intended for use as a textbook in Christian classrooms, particularly for schools within the Reformed tradition. The authors are very frank about the particularity of their belief system and how it affects their scholarship and understanding of the world. This particularity serves both as a strength and as a limitation. By speaking from a very specific location within Christianity, they can set up specific criteria for critiquing various positions. But this specific position also limits their audience. Not only are they Reformed, they are Christian Reformed — drawing on specific rulings by the denomination and referring to specific persons and historical incidents. Unless one is part of the community (or grew up in it), much of the dialog will feel like an eavesdropped conversation.
The authors have further assumed an audience of undergraduates who are not majoring in the sciences. As such, their language and arguments are quite basic and easy to follow. Each chapter has a number of sidebars that typically offer internet links for further discussion and research. At the end of the each chapter they list some "Questions for Reflection and Discussion" (that is, homework assignments) and a list of additional resources. The book thus can serve as a launching pad for a more in-depth exploration of the creationism/ evolution dialog.
I've used the term "dialog" deliberately. Although the authors recognize and describe the faith-vs-science wars, and offer various arguments in support of evolutionary theory, they tend to assume the accuracy of evolutionary theory. Instead of spending most of their energy defending evolution, they instead take for granted the reality of natural selection and evolutionary theory. Thus, with both God and evolution as "givens", they have no choice but to believe that these two realities will not ultimately conflict.
In each chapter the Haarsmas offer various options for reconciling different aspects of evolutionary theory and Christian belief. They begin with discussing the worldviews that shape how persons understand both their faith commitments and their scientific interpretations. "A worldview," state the authors, "is defined as a belief system that a person uses to answer the big questions of life." In many ways, a worldview is similar to a scientific paradigm — it's the overarching context for interpreting life's data. Although the authors mention a number of non-Christian belief systems, their discussions focus on just two worldviews: Christian and atheistic. Although this approach helps to streamline the discussion, it sometimes appears as if the authors have parceled out all persons into these two categories.
After exploring alternate ways of interpreting Scripture, the authors move to discuss the age of the universe, evolution by natural selection, "intelligent design", and human evolution. The Haarsmas seek to be as even-handed as possible, presenting each reconciliation strategy in a positive light, even as they critique each position. They openly admit that they are not fully satisfied with any of the strategies, but they are still seeking reconciliation. For them, the process of discussion and seeking is more important than absolute certainty.
At the same time, there appear to be limits to the Haarsmas' seeking. At the beginning of this review, I mentioned that Origins will most likely not be as controversial as Van Till's book was twenty years ago. In some academic Christian circles, evolution is not as startling or threatening as it once was. Human evolution, however, remains a touchy subject. As employees at a denominational school, the Haarsmas are bound by denominational rulings. They thus admit in Appendix B that they have been careful not to advocate pre-human ancestry, which would be a violation of church statements. Instead, the Haarsmas are very careful in the human evolution chapter to speak theoretically about the various options Christians have chosen, including the acceptance of a more extensive family tree. Maybe in another twenty years this too will change.