The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Evolutionary biology: Why is it 'such a menace'?

Fascinated with science since his teen years in Puerto Rico, Nelson Rivera conducted research for his doctoral thesis to understand why many Christians view evolutionary biology as “such a menace.” Associate professor of systematic theology and director of the Latino Concentration at the Lutheran Seminary at Philadelphia, Rivera shared some findings in a recent conversation with Mark Staples, reporting for The Lutheran.

Nelson Rivera: “Studying evolutionary biology can provide a window toward understanding the richness, complexity and wonder of God and God’s creation.”
The Lutheran: Why do you think evolutionary biology remains such a lightning rod nearly 150 years after Charles Darwin wrote The Origin of Species?

Rivera: Darwin’s writing gives wonderful attention to the significance of all kinds of creatures, including what so-called lower creatures–worms and barnacles–contribute to life. But while the church has long supported the sciences of astronomy, physics and mathematics, many Christians feel offended by evolutionary biology because it hits so close to home. Evolutionary biology touches a deep fiber in us when we learn that 98 percent of the genetic material in us is also found in a chimpanzee.

You said in your research that many Christians equate evolutionary biology with atheism. What’s the connection?

That may come from a perspective that science and religion are incompatible and exclusive. It’s important to recognize that science isn’t a substitute for religion, nor is religion a substitute for science. Science can and should take religion seriously. Many scientists I’ve known are people of faith who tell me their research has expanded their faith considerably.

You’ve talked about the problem of “thinking from above” versus “thinking from below” as a stumbling block for people in coming to terms with evolutionary biology.

For people of faith, “thinking from below,” that is from the realms of nature and history, is helpful. When we think from below, we can recognize the involvement of God with God’s people and creation, as is true with thinking from above. Thinking from below, however, leaves room and freedom for recognizing that God makes it possible for us to gain a perspective from our experience in the world. Gaining that perspective comes from the process of accumulating knowledge, sometimes through science, learning what we can use and apply safely. It builds gradual knowledge of the world and of ourselves from the realms of nature and history. Eventually, however, we get to some metaphysical construction about our relationship to the whole and to God.

Thinking from above, by contrast, allows very little space, if any, for considering the evolutionary process, which requires freedom and some place to acknowledge chance and accident. Chance and accident are consistent with God’s involvement in human life and creation. In thinking from above one can’t easily move from there to allow for knowledge gleaned from a study of evolutionary biology. The study of evolutionary biology teaches us much about the richness, complexity and wonder of God and God’s creation. We need to remember, though, that it’s sinful for us to think we have the capacity to finally figure out creation and who God is.


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February issue


Embracing diversity