Real Voices interview: Michael Reiss
Meet Michael, a Professor of science education and a priest in the Church of England, who explains how evolutionary thinking affects his Christian ideology
What are your thoughts on a Biblical understanding of the beginning of life?
The early chapters of Genesis have always been read literally by some and more figuratively by others. However, since the first half of the 19th century, advances in geology and biology have meant that it has become increasingly accepted that the world is much older than a literal reading of Genesis suggests.
Indeed, practically all scientists nowadays think the universe is several million times older than such a literal reading implies. (Such a difference is hard to comprehend. I live near Cambridge and work in London. It's a bit like finding that I commute daily, not to London, but to somewhere about twice as far distant as the sun is.) Furthermore, we increasingly know more about the early history of the universe and the course and mechanisms of evolution of life on Earth.
So what differences does evolutionary thinking make to Christian theology?
I can suggest two principal ones.
First, evolutionary thinking - in particular a study of the history of life on Earth with occasional great extinction events - can make it easier for humans to accept that there is an open-endedness to creation. Within Christianity there have always been two ways of understanding God's ordaining of events: one is to suppose that all is foreseen by God, even predetermined; the other is to allow for a lack of predictability. Both ways find support within scripture. The former is more common but the latter view has its supporters. The world is indeed partly in our hands; we cannot suppose that we will be rescued by God's intervention.
Secondly, perhaps especially to biologists such as myself, evolutionary thinking makes it easier for us to see God as concerned with the whole of the created order, even if humans are made in the image of God. We see too, though this begins to anthropomorphise, a God who loves diversity (ten million or so species on the Earth) and who has great patience (if you have waited 15 thousand million years for the first creatures to arrive that can consciously respond to you revealing yourself, you may choose to wait a little longer).
It is worth mentioning that the ways in which evolutionary thinking does not affect Christian theology are far more numerous than the ways in which it does. Nothing, for example, about the occurrence of miracles, life after death, the nature of the sacraments, the worth of prayer, what it is to lead a good life or the doctrines of redemption have anything to do with evolutionary theory.