Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Why William Jennings Bryan Opposed Evolution...

After reading Mark Noll's book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, hearing some of Wesley's views on the created order, and teaching a philosophy class last night that ended a section on economic philosophy and began a section on "The Age of Naturalism," several lines intersected in my mind in relation to the topic of evolution. The intersections are only loosely related.

One thing I have been struck by is how differently we oppose evolution today than how my grandparents did. I grew up going to Henry Morris and later Ken Ham debates and have the books that launched the creationist movement of the 70's: Scientific Creationism and The Genesis Flood. Noll argues that these guys represent a different approach than the "anti-evolutionists" of the early 20th century.

These things are deeply interesting to me, because this is the stuff of cultural and paradigm change--sometimes the "wrongs" stay wrong but the reasons for the wrongness change. Imagine my surprise to find out this semester that the temperance movement started in the middle of a significant Irish immigration. These Irish Catholics were different in more than one way from those who were already here. But one of the most noticeable was, you guessed it, the Irish Catholics drank.

Imagine my surprise to find out that the anti-alcohol movement had as much to do with racism and prejudice as a true fight for social justice! It was a concrete way of resisting the influx of Irish Catholics.

So why did William Jennings Bryan oppose evolution? It wasn't primarily because of the Bible, Noll argues. It has been interesting to reflect that my dispensationalist grandfather, who taught at Frankfort Pilgrim College--no liberal institution to be sure--was greatly sympathetic to the "gap theory." My college Bible teacher at Southern, Herbert Dongell (also Keith Drury's at Allentown), also taught the gap theory. He was my most conservative teacher there.

The gap theory is the idea that in between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2 Satan fell and set the world into a chaos that God then had to fix. So the creation at 1:3 for them was the second creation, since the first one had been messed up. They put the existence of dinosaurs in between these two verses and thus by implication, accepted the idea of an old planet. This view, which would probably be considered liberal today, was held by the most conservative thinkers of my tradition--more conservative than anyone reading this blog for sure!

It just goes to show that the labels "liberal' and "conservative" are almost meaningless in themselves. They are strictly relative terms--unless you know what they are comparing, you can't tell which is the more Christian position. To blindly equate conservative with good and liberal with bad is to show one's ignorance--you need to know what you're comparing with what.

The Baptist dispensationalists Henry Morris and friends changed this whole discussion. They railed against the gap theory and introduced a "young earth" theory instead. Their interpretation of Genesis became the reason why Christians couldn't believe in evolution, when previously Christians had been much less rigid in how they took Genesis 1.

By the way, they don't take Genesis 1 literally either. If you really take Genesis 1 literally, God separates the waters creating sky in between. It is in this sky that God puts the sun and stars... underneath the primordial waters! As I've said before, Romans 5 and Genesis 3 is the greater complication for theistic evolutionists, not Genesis 1.

So why did Bryan oppose evolution so vigorously (you'll remember he was the one who won the case against Clarence Darrow in the Scope's trial)? He opposed it because it was being used to advocate social Darwinism. Social Darwinism was the idea that "survival of the fittest" applied to humans as well as to animals.

The implication was that the Carnegies and Rockefellers deserved to be filthy rich because they were the "fittest" of the human race. Meanwhile, that unknown worker who accidentally fell into a vat of Durham's pure leaf lard and wasn't noticed until he appeared in some grocery store shelf... he obviously wasn't someone nature selected and, in a sense, didn't deserve to survive.

Do you see the irony? Bryant opposed evolution out of social concern as debasing to humanity. It went hand in glove with the oppressive, unchecked capitalist machine of the late 1800's that ran over any insignificant that got in its way. No workman's comp--you get injured you'd better work anyway or you'll be out of a job. Going on strike? No problem for the company, there are plenty of other people to take your place. Read the Grapes of Wrath or The Jungle. William Jennings Bryan was a Democratic politician.

Today, however, those most politically involved with creationism and intelligent design are most likely a Republican's Republican, capitalist to the bone. Creationism in the schools and the deregulation of business fit in the same person like anti-gun control and anti-global warmingism. In reality of course none of these things are actually related in substance at all. Logically each of these issues must be considered on its own merit.

I am not advocating evolution here. I am merely making observations about the fact that we often have no real idea why we favor and oppose the things we do. It speaks to a greater humility about the causes we champion. It may very well be that we are being pushed along by currents we aren't even aware of (and yes, that includes me :-).

P.S. Another random thought is that Wesley would probably have opposed evolution because the idea of extinction was not something that would have fit in his sense of the unbroken chain of being from animals to humans to angels...


Kris said...

Extinction regarding Dinosaurs?

And, Wesley's idea of animals to humans to angels sounds evolutionary to me..?

Ken Schenck said...

Wesley believed that in heaven each level of being would move up on the scale of being. Humans would become like the angels. Animals would talk like humans, etc. But he of course didn't see this as a line of development over time. All were created at the same time.

I'm pretty sure that some of those who first opposed evolution did so because the idea of extinction did not fit within their Christian world view.

Jon Parsons said...

Sounds to me like Wesley has seen the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe one too many times. Oh, wait. . . .

Ken this blog is incredibly poignant and it is amazing how much our bias' and contextual circumstances seem to shape our philosophical ideas. With regards to the other side of the fence, I personally cannot help but think that if we weren't living in a supposed age of "Islamic extremism and terrorism" that the most unintellectual atheism in the form of Dawkins, Hitchens and the Rational Response Squad wouldn't be getting as much as attention as it is. Here you have a specific group of people parading as philosophers using just about every fallacy of logic known and yet they are selling books and getting their message across. You couple this with the technology of a day where you can watch the planes hitting the world trade center over and over again and after awhile switch over to Kirk Cameron and the Rational Response Squad debating the existence of God, and it isn't difficult to see what is fanning the flame.
So where do the rest of us fit in this? I think the project is a matter of recognizing our own presuppositions and questioning their validity, and by doing so we will be able to glean what we are really standing on.

JohnLDrury said...

Thanks for this. Especially important line of inquiry to ask why someone opposes something, not just what they oppose. This tells us more about their overall perspective, and make sense of otherwise odd alliances.

Ken Schenck said...

Thanks Jon and John. By the way, be sure to check out John Drury's running commentary on the days of creation on his blog, today's entry being on the second day: Drulogion

Mark Schnell said...

(In my best Captain Kirk voice)

"Mind expanding...too fast.... Stop ... feeding my brain!"

Thanks for this Ken, great stuff!

vanilla said...

The gap theory is so much a part of my world view and I have held it dear for so long that if someone should convince me some other position is more reasonable, I should be the "man convinced against his will ---."

I appreciate your sharing your insights daily in this forum!

Anonymous said...

william jennings bryan

see also Bryan's positions on other issues such as pacifism. They are also quite interesting.

Ken Schenck said...

Thanks... it's the little foxes that spoil the vine.

John Mark said...

I totally agree that nothing ever is produced in a vacuum, not music, or philosophy or theology or theories about evolution. I haven't heard anyone mention the gap theory for a long time, in fact my pastor when I was 30 (27 years ago- an ONU and NTS grad) was the last I recall.
People like Phil Johnson would say the battle is between naturalism and some sort of Theism. I may be over-simplifying here.
Do you agree or disagree?

Ken Schenck said...

I think Keith Drury put it well in his new book Common Ground. Christians believe that God created the universe! :-) That seems a lot like what you're saying, yes?

James Gibson said...

Michael Kazin's biography of Bryan, A Godly Hero is a thorough and fair assessment of the man's life. He was something of a transitional figure, standing at the crossroads of the historical shift from evangelical social reform movements to fundamentalist cultural retreatism. Kazin (p. 301) assesses Bryan's ironic legacy thusly:

In the late 1920's, most fundamentalists and other conservative evangelicals retreated from political life to build an empire of their own. The preachers and laypeople who broadcast over Christian radio stations, taught at Bible institutes, and took off on foreign missions occasionally invoked Bryan's example, but few mentioned that his lifelong purpose had been to place "the heart of the masses against the pocketbooks of a few." The curriculum at the small college named after him that opened in Dayton in 1930 was heavy on Bible studies, foreign languages, and business courses. But William Jennings Bryan University offered just one class in American history and none at all about contemporary issues. All this marked a decisive break from the century-long tradition of prophetic reform movements that Christian agitators, lay and ordained, had first created in Jacksonian America.

Martin LaBar said...

I missed this one until now (October 27). I found it by searching for Herbert Dongell, who is to be buried today. Thanks for your thoughts.

Ken Schenck said...

I was sorry to hear that he had passed. He was a great man, one of the many unsung heroes of history.

Anonymous said...

I'm kind of interested in how you arrived at the conclusion that it is Romans 5 and Genesis 3 that "is the greater complication for theistic evolutionists, not Genesis 1."

I see nothing in those chapters that would lead anyone to such a conclusion.

Am I missing something, like possibly an accurate definition of "theistic evolutionists"?

Ken Schenck said...

Anonymous, I'm not mud slinging at anyone. I am not a fundamentalist and if I have an agenda on this topic it is to help fundamentalists see that a person can be a theistic evolutionist and have a robust faith.

My comment here only has to do with Paul's statements that death entered the world through sin. Evolution requires lots of death and therefore, if death only entered the world at Genesis 3, then the theistic evolutionist position at least seems to stand in tension with Genesis 3 as interpreted by Romans 5.

How would you define theistic evolution (or interpret these passages) such that this is not an issue?

Anonymous said...

I must say. It sounds scary to me. Just how far from the Literal Biblical acount are we willing to go? Or, is this just an interpretation issue? Maybe, I'm way off. I believe Theistic Evolution it to be a dangerous veiw.

Ken Schenck said...

Is this the same Anonymous I just responded to? I misunderstood where you were coming from. I thought you were a theistic evolutionist.

Genesis 1 doesn't seem as problematic to me because even the scientific creationist approach doesn't seem to take it completely literally. For example, on Day 2, God divides waters from waters and a firmament is in the middle. But then on Day 4, God puts the Sun, moon, and stars in the firmament. In other words, if Genesis 1 were meant to be taken literally, we would picture primordial waters straight up above the firmament where the stars are. I don't know of any scientific creationist that could even make him or herself believe that there are waters of this sort above the stars literally.

Also, Genesis 1 doesn't mention the creation of the waters themselves. They are just sort of there from the beginning, as in other creation stories like the Enuma Elish or Hesiod's Theognis.

So I feel very comfortable taking Genesis 1 as a poetic expression in its ancient near eastern context of the fact that God created the world without opposition from other deities, that God made the world good and ordered, and why Saturday is the Jewish Sabbath.

Anonymous said...

I guess I can be 'anonymous 1A'to keep us no-namers distinct.

It is important to know not only the positions people hold but also on what grounds they hold them. A lot of times when we find ourselves in agreement with others about a topic, it isn't always obvious that the grounds for our agreement can also lead to problems in other areas later on.