Foundations: No.66 Spring 2014

Review Article: Mapping the Origins Debate

 

Mapping the Origins Debate
Gerald Rau, IVP, 2012, 237pp, £12.99

Introduction

The debate over creation and evolution is a noisy one. The heat generated could solve our nation’s energy issues, and yet the light is often equivalent to Edison’s prototype bulb. There is a mountain of literature seeking to answer each of the mountains of questions the “origins” subject raises. For anyone other than a specialist to even begin an ascent has the equivalent feel of a rambler approaching Everest in flip-flops.

It is with that in mind that Gerald Rau has written Mapping the Origins Debate. His goal is to provide “a simple map to help high school or college students find their way through hotly disputed territory” (13). He is not attempting to add a further voice to the already crowded debating chamber, but to provide “a scaffold to support learning” (13), a commentary for the debate already in full flow, and a “You Are Here!” sign for the tourist asking, with perspiring brow, “where on earth am I?”

There is much to commend. The book had already received positive reviews elsewhere, from far more qualified people than I, (for example http://www.e-n.org.uk/2013/10/reviews/creation-cartography/?search=1, subscription required), and the map itself is much needed. Rau’s approach is to outline the evidence supporting each of the six main origins models (Naturalistic Evolution, Nonteleological Evolution, Planned Evolution, Directed Evolution, Old-Earth Creation, Young-Earth Creation) as they answer the four main origins questions (The Origin of the Universe, The Origin of Life, The Origin of Species, The Origin of Humans). In doing this he then goes on to show “where they are similar or different and how each is logically consistent and tenable, based on certain underlying assumptions” (30).

To chart the models at the level of their underlying assumptions is important. A map of the debate must get to the level of worldview if the differences between the positions are to be correctly identified and the internal logic of each model respected. This surely is the first step towards generating light and not heat, and Rau’s irenic tone throughout is laudable. The structure and format of the book serves this end well, and back in the 90s, as a first year undergraduate geology student, having recently come to faith, I know I would have benefited from reading a book like this.

However, early on in reading it became apparent just how ambitious the project was, given the complexity and scale of the mapping exercise. So, for the purpose of this review, I want to ask three questions. Is Rau’s map accurate, is it useful, and ultimately, is it achievable?

Is The Map Accurate?

At the level of worldview, Rau places the six models on a natural-supernatural spectrum. He writes,

The gradient I am proposing, which determines the model of origins chosen, is the degree of interaction between the supernatural and natural worlds. Obviously, if there is nothing supernatural, a naturalistic position, there can be no interaction, so we must seek a naturalistic explanation for every phenomenon, including the origin of the universe. On the other end of the spectrum is the view that God not only exists but has supernaturally revealed both his method and timing of creation in the first chapters of the Bible (38, author’s italics).

This approach leads Rau to assert that the most consistently “supernatural” model is one that holds to a creation story of literal twenty-four-hour days. However, this presupposes that a natural explanation somehow excludes a corresponding supernatural explanation. If one was to read Psalm 104 and ask how donkeys get water and cows get grass, the answer the psalmist gives not either natural or supernatural, but both natural and supernatural. The natural-supernatural spectrum distorts the map. One would suspect that an Old Earth Creationist would dismiss the claim as inaccurate, that his is a “less supernatural” account of origins than a Young Earth Creationist’s account.

Within the models themselves, because of their specialised nature, I cannot evaluate their accuracy at every point. They appear to be a good sketch of the main evidence, but it is in the sphere of geology that the terrain is most familiar to me.

It was surprising to see the Cambrian explosion labelled as a significant contribution of Old Earth Creationists. Rau notes, the Cambrian explosion, “until about ten years ago was not even mentioned in textbooks, even though the phenomenon of many different phyla appearing in the fossil record within a very short period had been known for a long time” (160).

This may be explained by the context into which Rau is writing, but the Cambrian explosion was made popular by the American palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould’s book Wonderful Life in 1990, 24 years ago, and was covered in the syllabus of my thoroughly-secular undergraduate geology degree in the late 90s. Inaccuracy at this level slightly undermines the credibility of the map overall. Within the category of accuracy it is also worth asking whether anything important is missing from the map. Here I was surprised that there was no real mapping of the debate over the age of the earth itself and related evidence. Given that this is the key distinction between the “old-earth” and “young-earth” creation models this seemed an obvious omission.

In 2008, IVP Academic published a book entitled The Bible, Rocks and Time by Young and Stearley, in which the geological evidence for the age of the earth was summarised. To map the origins debate without any reference to the evidence of the stratigraphic record does affect the accuracy of the map of the debate.

Is The Map Useful?

A map is only as useful as it is accurate, but the usefulness of a map is also connected to the purpose for which it is required, and especially for whom the map is made. Rau’s hope is that this map will go some way towards helping representatives of the six models solve the puzzle together, but the reality is that this book will mostly serve an Evangelical constituency seeking to live faithfully, and handle God’s Word accurately, as they engage in the debate for themselves.

Because of this, it is not only important to have a map of the various interpretations of the biblical data, which Rau helpfully provides within the book and as a dedicated appendix, but also to have a map of the underlying theological convictions regarding Scripture, and a map of what is at stake doctrinally for the Christian as an implication of each position. Rau acknowledges that “each of the six models of origins presented here is intimately wedded to a certain theological interpretation of Scripture, so the model and the theology rise and fall together” (189). However, what this actually means in practice is left off the map.

Inevitably, left unmapped, the bias of the author is allowed simply to assert itself. Concerning the origin of humanity, Rau writes representing the Young Earth Creation position,

If Adam was not a single individual, this would affect our doctrine of sin and therefore redemption from sin. Related to this is the question of death, particularly death before the Fall, which YEC considers to be a major issue. While such doctrines are human creations, not divine revelation, they are deeply rooted in church traditions and in many cases treated with almost as much reverence as the Bible itself (150).

According to Rau, that the doctrines of sin and redemption are “human creations, not divine revelation” is not the conviction of one model, or the implication of one approach, but a foregone conclusion floating, unmapped, over the debate. When such a bias occasionally shows itself, without any apparent self-awareness, it rather undermines the usefulness of the map as a whole.

Is a Map Achievable?

This leads us to the question of whether or not what Rau attempts is actually achievable. Failing to state one’s own bias is not the same as being objective. A purely objective map is never achievable, and it would be far more helpful to understand where Rau stands himself and then see the terrain, and engage in the debate, from his perspective.

The book begins with Rau acknowledging that he is “not so naïve as to think that this will resolve the issue” (13). However, towards the end he clearly alludes to the fact that he believes the issue is resolvable, and he has a model of his own that could resolve it. He notes, “So where do I stand? I will only say that as far as I know, no one has yet written a comprehensive justification of the model I support, from a theological and scientific perspective” (191). He wants us to “begin to see the world from a wider, and perhaps eventually different, perspective” (192).

There are points where, despite himself, his own model is revealed. He notes, “we are all working on the same puzzle and must eventually work together if it is to be completed” (154). He speaks of the six blind men examining the elephant: “Each, utterly convinced that his observation was correct, mocked the others as fools. So it is often with the six models of origins” (154). Like a globe being viewed from two different poles, “the two hemispheres have a different notion of which end of the globe ought to be considered the top” (171). It seems to me astonishing that he cannot see the implications of his claim. Rau stands with the jigsaw box in his hand, gazing, fully-sighted, over the six blind men, orbiting extra-terrestrially the globe the rest of us inhabit. At this point one has to ask whether Rau has strayed off the map altogether and up the faraway tree!

Conclusion

As I began, there is much that this book has to offer the reader that will help them into the origins debate. Though an “objective” map is attempted, it is not possible, but neither is it really needed. A map, with its stated bias, is ultimately all that is required, and at least then whoever the reader is, they know which planet they are on.

My frustration with the book comes down to this. Rau clearly believes his model could resolve the debate, and though he is unwilling to plot it on the map he has charted, he believes that his mapping exercise is a step towards us getting there. Although he does not want to add his voice to the debate, he is implicitly adding his voice, but in a way that makes dialogue very difficult. Rather than feign objectivity, that is the book he should have written, and given this volume, it would probably be well worth reading.

 

John James

Pastor of Helier Chapel, Northfield, Birmingham