October 1, 2008
Episcopal Bishop of Atlanta, Pastoral Letter
The Rt. Rev. Bennett J. Sims, Episcopal Bishop of AtlantaA Pastoral Statement on Creation and Evolution
Legislation is pending before the Georgia State Legislature which calls for the public financing and teaching of Scientific Creationism as a counter-understanding to Evolution, wherever the evolutionary view is taught in the public schools.
Scientific Creationism understands the cosmos and the world to have originated as the Bible describes the process in the opening chapters of Genesis.
The 74th Annual Council of the Diocese of Atlanta, in formal action on January 31, 1981, acted without a dissenting vote to oppose by resolution any action by the Georgia Legislature to impose the teaching of Scientific Creationism on the public school system. A copy of the resolution is attached to this Pastoral.
It seems important that the Episcopal Church in this diocese add to its brief resolution a statement of its own teaching. The office of Bishop is historically a teaching office, and I believe it is timely to offer instruction as to this Church's understanding of what has become a contested public issue.
To begin with creation is a fact. The world exists. We exist. Evolution is a theory. As a theory, evolution expresses human response to the fact of creation, since existence raises questions: how did creation come to be, and why?
The question of why is the deeper one. It takes us into the realm of value and purpose. This urgent inquiry is expressed in human history through religion and statements of faith. Christians cherish the Bible as the source book of appropriating the point and purpose of life. We regard the Bible as the Word of God, His revelation of Himself, the meaning of His work and the place of humanity in it.
The question of how is secondary, because human life has been lived heroically and to high purpose with the most primitive knowledge of the how of creation. Exploration of this secondary question is the work of science. Despite enormous scientific achievement, humanity continues to live with large uncertainty. Science, advancing on the question of how, will always raise as many questions as it answers. The stars of the exterior heavens beyond us and the subatomic structure of the interior deep beneath us beckon research as never before.
Religion and science are therefore distinguishable, but in some sense inseparable, because each is an enterprise, more or less, of every human being who asks why and how in dealing with existence. Religion and science interrelate as land and water, which are clearly not the same but need each other, since the land is the basin for all the waters of the earth and yet without the waters the land would be barren of the life inherent to its soil.
In the Bible the intermingling of why and how is evident, especially in the opening chapters of Genesis. There the majestic statements of God's action, its value and the place of humanity in it, use an orderly and sequential statement of method. The why of the divine work is carried in a primitive description of how the work was done.
But even here the distinction between religion and science is clear. In Genesis there is not one creation statement but two. They agree as to why and who, but are quite different as to how and when. The statements are set forth in tandem, chapter one of Genesis using one description of method and chapter two another. According to the first, humanity was created, male and female, after the creation of plants and animals. According to the second, man was created first, then the trees, the animals and finally the woman and not from the earth as in the first account, but from the rib of the man. Textual research shows that these two accounts are from two distinct eras, the first later in history, the second earlier.
From this evidence, internal to the very text of the Bible, we draw two conclusions.
First, God's revelation of purpose is the overarching constant. The creation is not accidental, aimless, devoid of feeling. Creation is the work of an orderly, purposeful Goodness. Beneath and around the cosmos are the everlasting arms. Touching the cosmos at every point of its advance, in depth and height, is a sovereign beauty and tenderness. Humanity is brooded over by an invincible Love that values the whole of the world as very good; that is the first deduction: God is constant.
Second, creation itself and the human factors are inconstant. Creation moves and changes. Human understanding moves and changes. Evolution as a contemporary description of the how of creation is anticipated in its newness by the very fluidity of the biblical text by the Bible's use of two distinct statements of human comprehension at the time of writing. As a theoretical deduction from the most careful and massive observation of the creation, the layers and deposits and undulations of this ever-changing old earth, evolution is itself a fluid perception. It raises as many questions as it answers. Evolution represents the best formulation of the knowledge that creation has disclosed to us, but it is the latest word from science, not the last.
If the world is not God's, the most eloquent or belligerent arguments will not make it so. If it is God's world, and this is the first declaration of our creed, then faith has no fear of anything the world itself reveals to the searching eye of science.
Insistence upon dated and partially contradictory statements of how as conditions for true belief in the why of creation cannot qualify either as faithful religion or as intelligent science. Neither evolution over an immensity of time nor the work done in a six-day week are articles of the creeds. It is a symptom of fearful and unsound religion to contend with one another as if they were. Historic creedal Christianity joyfully insists on God as sovereign and frees the human spirit to trust and seek that sovereignty in a world full of surprises.