The Circles of God and Evolution (5 of 5)

In this final formal essay on the evolution series, I want to compare the uproar over evolution by natural selection with a previous uproar over cosmology. Harold Nebelsick, in his marvelous book, The Circles of God: Theology and Science from the Greeks to Copernicus (Scottish Academic Press, 1985), traces the development of the driving theological force that got Copernicus and the Copernican theory in such trouble with the church.

The ancient Greeks came to believe that a circle, because of its utterly simple structure, was an expression of perfection. Among these ancient Greeks, and then in turn, within the medieval western church that came to rely heavily on Greek philosophy, it was assumed that the orbits of the heavenly bodies had to be circular. They were heavenly bodies, after all and it was a theological given that heavenly bodies weren’t affected by the fall. (The fallen angels fell out of heaven, after all, according to standard interpretation of Isaiah, leaving heaven, and the heavenly bodies, pristine.) Since these heavenly bodies reflected divine perfection, it was a theological necessity that they orbit in circular patterns, because the circle is the essence of perfection in geometry.

Of course, this idea seems silly to us today. It’s why Prof. Nebelsick spent 250 pages (of small print!) in demonstrating that this was indeed the theological assumption of the medieval western church. To them this teaching was obvious to anyone who just read the Bible! If you doubt it, I encourage you to read the book.

Copernicus used science to demonstrate that the orbits of the heavenly bodies were actually elliptical rather than circular. If you’re a bit rusty on your geometry, an ellipse is an elongated circle. Geometrically speaking it has two focus points rather than the single focus point of the circle. (Still confused? The Wikipedia article will tell you all about it.)

This created a crisis for the church. For the first few hundred years the science was declared wrong, scientists who persisted in these demonic beliefs were declared heretics, and the church stubbornly held on to its core theological principle (unwittingly borrowed from the godless ancient Greeks) that the circle expressed divine perfection and anything with the imperfect two foci rather than the perfect single focus (ie, an elliptical orbit) was imperfect. To say that heavenly objects were imperfect was the equivalent of saying God was imperfect and the Bible was untrue.

Eventually the church came to terms with the science by recognizing that there was nothing biblical about this idea of the circle. A more reasonable understanding of perfection was eventually developed and the church finally embraced as truth what the scientists had known for generations.

Nebelsick tells this story because he believes (and has given evidence elsewhere in various journal monographs – it was one of his favorite subjects) this is a standard pattern for the church. Christians embrace an idea to such an extent that the idea becomes equated with biblical truth and, in turn, becomes foundational to theology. But on occasion the source of the idea isn’t the Bible at all, but something else that sounds completely reasonable and obvious.

I believe that Biblical Creationism is one such idea. It is based on an erroneous understanding of Genesis 1 that fails to distinguish between scientific and metaphorical uses of language. The idea has both become a bedrock principle of theology and a “Maginot Line” against the seemingly godless scientists who are clearly heretics. (Where have we heard that before?)

Both science and theology need to be immersed in humility if they are to ever discover the truth. Most evolutionary biologists that I’ve run into (and I make a habit of talking to them when I have a chance) are quite humble about the possibility that the theory of evolution by natural selection could be set aside by a better theory of origins. There are just enough holes in the evolutionary chain to create doubts, after all.

(Of course the arrogant and very loud ultra-orthodox defenders of evolution, such as Richard Dawkins and the late Douglas Adams – who no doubt knows better now – give humble scientists a very bad name.)

In turn Evangelical theology needs to be humble about its understanding of scripture, allowing all sources of divine truth (both from the book of scripture and the book of God’s creation) to inform its theology.

(Of course the arrogant and very loud ultra-orthodox defenders of Biblical creationism, such as the various school boards in the state of Kansas give humble creationists a very bad name.)

In the end we’ll get past the impasse just as the church got passed its damnable ideas about circles and heavenly perfection. Someday we’ll be able to look back and see the error on both sides.

But of course, by that time a new battle ground between science and theology will have developed.