July 29 marked the release of Darron Aronofsky's controversial biblical epic "Noah" on DVD. While the film received mixed reviews from believers and atheists alike, one scene in particular — the film's depiction of the creation — piqued some interest in both circles.
"The construction of the universe nods to the Big Bang theory and shows Darwinian evolution from fish to primates through single picture clips that simply blow the mind," The Huffington Post's Ryan Kristobak wrote in reaction to a clip of the scene.
But the scene's striking visuals aren't the only thing that got people talking. Aronofsky's telling of the creation combined the Darwinian visuals with Russell Crowe's somber voice reciting a creation narrative similar to that found in Genesis. The end result is a visualization of what theologians typically call theistic evolution.
What is theistic evolution?
Theistic evolution is the belief that the creation of life, as told in various religious texts, was driven by both the Will and Power of God and natural selection.
Not to be confused with creationism or intelligent design, which both argue that natural selection cannot explain the creation of man or the Earth, theistic evolution generally accepts the scientific theory of evolution as the means by which God created life, though not all accept every part of Darwin’s theories equally.
While many aspects of Aronofsky's "Noah" were controversial to believers, the depiction of such a controversial doctrine was particularly worrisome to some.
In a guest post at Christianity Today, Dr. Jerry Johnson, president of the National Religious Broadcasters, wrote in a review of the film that "many conservative evangelicals, like me, believe that a straightforward reading of the biblical text indicates that new 'kinds' of life were specially created, not evolved.
"If you agree with this view, this scene may rub you the wrong way."
And as it turns out, many Americans do agree with that view. According to the most recent Gallup data, 42 percent of Americans believe in the "creationist view of human origins." Compared to 19 percent who believe that evolution was the only force in the creation of the human race.
The same Gallup poll, however, shows that 31 percent of Americans believe in a somewhat middle ground, that "human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process."
While much attention is given to the debates between creationists and strict evolutionists, due in part to the rise of "new atheist" writers such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, the debate between strict creationists and those who believe in theistic evolution has been an important theological debate since the moment Darwin's research gained popularity.
An evolving reaction
As Ronald L. Numbers notes in his book "Darwinism Comes to America," many religious scientists of the 19th century found it easy to incorporate Darwin's theories into their faith.
"I have found no evidence in either biographical or autobiographical accounts that a single one of these men severed his religious ties as a direct result of his encounter with Darwinism," he wrote while describing his research into 19th century naturalists. These scientists did, according to Numbers, reshape how they understood God's relationship with nature. Human beings, for many of these religious naturalists, became "products of divinely ordained natural laws."
According to Numbers, the introduction of Darwinian ideas into the minds of religious scientists was "nonrevolutionary."
Such attitudes were not resigned exclusively to the scientific community. Influential 19th century minister Henry Ward Beecher was adamant that there need not be tension between evolution and the Christian faith. "While finding no need of changing my idea of the divine personality because of new light upon his mode of working, I have hailed the evolutionary philosophy with joy," he wrote in the preface to "Evolution and Religion."
"The underlying truth, as a Law of Nature (that is, a regular method of the divine action), I accept and use, and thank God for it!" he exclaimed.
By the second decade of the 20th century, however one thing had changed the cozy relationship of science and religion: fundamentalism.
The early 20th century saw not only major scientific advancements that reshaped how many viewed God's relationship to man, but global catastrophe drove many to abandon their reliance on God as an influence in their lives.
"Anyone will agree that there was a decline in the importance of religion during and after the First World War," The Economist wrote earlier this year in an article exploring religiosity during the First World War. "Theocratically based regimes, notably the Russian and Ottoman empires, were replaced by secular ones. In western Europe, Protestant and Catholic clergy struggled to explain the seemingly senseless horrors of the war to their flock."
One explanation for the war that many ministers taught, according to religious historian Matthew Bowman, was that science was a corrupting influence to human morality and had led the world to bloodshed and chaos. That combined with rise of higher biblical criticism, led many ministers to emphasize the “fundamental” beliefs of Christianity.
“In the 1920s,the great historic denominations – Baptist, Presbyterians, especially – split over the issue of fundamentalism,” Bowman said in an email.
This push toward a more “fundamental” belief culminated in the publishing of an influential collection of essays titled “The Fundamentals: A Testimony To The Truth."
"Science can no more account for death than it can account for life,” one essay included in the collection argued. “It has never been able to say why men die. How they die, yes; why they die, no!”
The strengthening of these two opposing worldviews, strict adherence to the scientific method and religious fundamentalism, is what many historians point to as the shaping force in the modern popular belief that religious and scientific explanations for the origin of life are simply not compatible.
The modern debate
Flash forward to the final decades of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st, and recent technological developments (principally the expansion of the Internet) have only intensified the debate.
As part of the introduction video to the website of Creation Ministries International, a non-profit organization dedicated to propagating the belief that "the doctrines of Creator and Creation cannot ultimately be divorced from the gospel of Jesus Christ," warns that "what you believe about where you came from also shapes your view of whether there's an eternity or not." Evolution, in this view, negates any possibility of a creator and therefore leaves no room for a belief in an afterlife.
Werner Gitt, a German engineer who labels himself a "creation information scientist," wrote on the Creation Ministry's website that the danger of believing in theistic evolution is not that it denies the possibility of a creator or an afterlife, like secular evolutionists might argue, but that it weakens the power of said creator. "God is not the omnipotent Lord of all things, whose word has to be taken seriously by all men," but is instead "integrated into the evolutionary philosophy" when the words of Genesis are mingled with modern scientific theory.
"The entire Bible bears witness that we are dealing with a source of truth authored by God," he argues, and it "should not be regarded as a myth, a parable or an allegory, but as a historical report."
Despite the emergence of creationism as a serious force during the last century, there are still modern Christian apologists who argue that belief in evolution does not have to deny the power of God.
Christian minister Timothy Keller counts himself among those who find room for the theory of evolution in their faith. He believes there is a fundamental difference between belief in the evolutionary biological processes — which he sees as a scientific understanding of biological development — and the grand theory of evolution — which extends evolutionary theory to explain "every aspect of human nature." Believers, he argued in an article for the BioLogos foundation, may accept the former, but must reject the latter.
In a conversation on the relationship between God and evolution that was published in the religious studies journal "First Things" just over two decades ago, Howard J. Van Till laments that many religious critics of theistic evolution (in this case, Phillip E. Johnson specifically, who is often considered the founder of the "intelligent design" movement) ignore the fact that many religious people "find considerable scientific merit in the concept of common ancestry among all of God’s creatures, and who do so, not in defiance of our Christian heritage or of intellectual integrity, but as an expression thereof."
According to Till, those who deny any possibility of religious compatibility with evolution wrongly suggest that one must choose between "rationality, or intelligence, or authentic Christian faith."
God, evolution and Hollywood
The theory of evolution has served the plots of many films over the years. "Inherit the Wind," the 1960 film (based on a play of the same name), dramatized the struggle over teaching Darwin's findings in public schools. Science fiction, everything from "Planet of the Apes" to the X-Men films, have also used evolution as means to tell stories of the human condition.
But recent years have seen human origins, and man's place in the cosmos, explored from a more spiritual angle on film. Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life," which was described by Roger Ebert as "a form of prayer," also depicted the creation of the universe, juxtaposing the grand chaos of primitive volcanic eruptions to the quiet spiritual yearnings of a suburban family in 1950s Texas. Science clearly informed how Malick depicted the Earth's formation, but amidst the swirling sea shells and patterned rock formations, Malick finds meaning beyond simply "natural selection."
Aronofsky's combination of faith and science in his spiritual epic may not do much to sway public opinion one way or the other (many discard Aronofsky's depiction on the grounds that he is a self-proclaimed atheist), since the debate stems from deeply held theological understanding. But it did likely introduce the idea of theistic evolution to a wider, and increasingly more secular, audience than it has ever encountered before.