In honor of Evolution Weekend 2014, which will take place February 7–9, we have invited Westar Fellow Lloyd Geering to reflect on religion and science, evolution, and his latest book From the Big Bang to God: Our Awe-Inspiring Journey of Evolution. Geering is Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. A public figure of considerable renown in New Zealand, he is in constant demand as a lecturer and as a commentator on religion and related matters on both television and radio. He is the author of many books including Such Is Life! A Close Encounter with Ecclesiastes (2010) and Coming Back to Earth: From Gods, to God, to Gaia (2009). In 2001, he was honored as Principal Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit. In 2007, he received New Zealand’s highest honor, the Order of New Zealand.
Q: You recently celebrated 70 years as a Presbyterian minister. Yet From the Big Bang to God owes at least as much to science as to theology and philosophy. What led you to write a book that weaves science so deeply into the story of who we are?
The idea that science and religion have little in common and, may even be in conflict, is a modern misconception that is no earlier than the 19th century. Theology, as my teacher defined it, is the enterprise by which faith thinks itself through and relates itself to all other knowledge. That is a very tall order in these days of the ‘knowledge explosion’. ‘Science’ etymologically means ‘knowledge’ though today it usually refers to knowledge obtained by the empirical method. But only look at the way the Bible starts with cosmology. That is where theology starts today too. The first chapter of Genesis expresses the cultural knowledge (primitive science) of 2500 years ago when ‘science’ simply had to make eminently good sense to be convincing. This ancient view of the universe has been made obsolete by modern cosmology and so theology must be reshaped accordingly. I see my book as just as much an exercise in theology as it is in science.
Q: Sometimes people express a sentiment to “live and let live” in debates around topics like evolution. How much leeway do we have in this? What is the value of coming to a consensus and sharing a Great Story of human origins, like the one you’ve told in From the Big Bang to God?
As my book makes clear, the concept of evolution applies not only to the development of life itself but also to the development of human knowledge. It too has evolved. When Genesis 1 was first compiled it was a remarkable break-through, so convincing that it remained viable for 2000 years and eventually led to the rise of empirical science. But to base theology upon Genesis 1 today, as some fundamentalists do, leads not only to bad theology but to false theology and hence and idolatry (the most heinous sin of all). Since each great civilization has been based on a common Great Story of where we came from, so I have told this new Great Story in the hope that it, or something very like it, can become the basis for a new global civilization.
Q: The organizers of Evolution Weekend say on their website: “When some define religion so narrowly that it is categorically opposed to evolutionary ideas, or any of the findings of science, it both demeans and diminishes religion.” Does this resonate with you? How would you describe the relationship between religion and science?
I agree with the statement, believing there is much confusion in the popular mind today about both religion and science. By science is meant knowledge that we treat as reliable because it has been subjected to tests that confirm it. But this does not mean that current science is absolute and final for all time. Scientific knowledge is always subject to review and modification. For, example, Newtonians physics has been modified by quantum physics. Religion is even more subject to change for it contains a strong subjective component and must always be consistent with what is the current state of scientific knowledge. Of course much depends on how one defines religion. Much popular understanding of religion is far too narrow, which is why an increasing number say they are not religious. There is no one generally accepted definition. I choose to define religion as “a total mode of the interpreting and living of life”.
Q: You mentioned in a recent radio interview with Pastor John Shuck on Religion for Life that one of your most influential teachers, Helmut Rex, who came to New Zealand in 1939 as a refugee from Berlin, described the Christian tradition not as “a set of unchangeable truths” but rather as “growing path of faith in which one’s beliefs change from century to century depending upon the kind of cultural context in which you live.” How do you believe the great contemporary concern for the environment will affect this growing path of faith?
The new Great Story of evolution has not only replaced all the earlier Great Stories of where we came from but has alerted us to our earthly origins. (The biblical story was strangely not far away from it when it declared us to be made of the dust of the earth.) The important new science of ecology has alerted us to the way in which all forms of life form a living whole with one another and their common environment, just as the trillions of cells in the human body work together for the common good. If we do not learn how to fit in with the environment that has shaped us we shall bring about our own demise as a species, and go the way of the dinosaurs. The former great commandment to obey the revealed will of God in his heaven above has evolved into the obligation to stand in awe of this amazing universe, respect all forms of life and fulfill our duties to the earthly environment on which we depend.
One of the things I learned to appreciate more deeply in writing this book was the amazing capacity the universe displays for the formation of evermore complex wholes. The human species is the most complex whole in the universe that we are aware of. In the last ten thousand years we humans have come to dominate the earth in a way no other species has done. In the recent phenomenon of globalization we have reached the point where we face the choice of building an harmonious community or destroy ourselves by mutual hostility and war. … The evolutionary process so characteristic of the universe gives us hope. Look at how it led to the harmony of the hive of bees. So, though there are no guarantees, this awe-inspiring universe may yet lead us humans to overcome our self-centredness and blindness and learn how to evolve into a global social organism. The unifying instrument is love. That is why the advice of Jesus to “love your enemies” remains so basic to our future. The more we understand evolution and co-operate with it the more this is likely to happen.