Wednesday, 27 August 2014

W.F. Barling - On Accommodating Evolution

The correspondence to The Christadelphian in the wake of then editor L.G. Sargent's review of Ralph Lovelock's argument contains this stellar letter [1] from W.F. Barling. While showing no sign of accepting evolution, bro. Barling's conciliatory words stand in stark contrast to the rhetoric of those who want not just to excommunicate those who accept the fact of evolution, but those who while not accepting evolution do not regard it as a fellowship issue:
Dear bro. Sargent,
The Brotherhood owes you its thanks both for your able critique of The Origin of Man and for your courage and fairness in publishing the author’s reply. In your exchange you and bro. Lovelock have each set a splendid example of vigour without venom which all should follow whenever differences arise. The blunt yet brotherly way in which you have both made your points enables readers to reach their own conclusions in an informed and dispassionate manner. This is great gain.
Such was the case also at the Study Class at which bro. Lovelock first gave his talks. There, as was inevitable, discussion was spirited, but never at the expense of Christian courtesy and forbearance. Bro. Lovelock, by his gentle manner, his scrupulous fairness in replying to searching criticism, and above all his manifest reverence for the Word, did much to set so fine a tone, and it is as well at the present juncture that this fact should be more widely known. Like your own opening tribute to him, it might help to restrain his more intemperate detractors, and even induce them to ask whether their present methods are in fact meeting our community’s need. 
I feel, moreover, that the utmost clear-sightedness is necessary if that need is to be recognized for what it is, since discussion of differences can so easily conceal the measure of agreement between contestants. The fact is that God’s activity as Creator is in no way being challenged, either explicitly or implicitly—just as the fact that it is He who sends the rain on the just and the unjust is in no way being questioned when the scientist’s explanation of rainfall is accepted, as surely it is by all of us, daily, when we listen to the weather forecast. The real issue before us is whether (to use two much abused terms) “creation” and “evolution” are contradictory, or complementary, explanations of God’s activity as the Maker of all things. 
Traditionally, we have vigorously declared them to be contradictory. Now, a growing number among us are not so certain that this is so. What is not generally realized is that this section of our community is not an organized, self-confident group bent on converting the remainder to a new opinion, but a number of perplexed individuals, deeply loyal to the community, desperately anxious not to offend those who do not share their anguish—let alone transfer it to their minds—but who feel that they must be intellectually honest. What they ask of their brethren and sisters is not a change of viewpoint but a change of attitude. None would rejoice more than they if incontestable evidence were finally produced to warrant the most literal acceptance of the opening chapters of Genesis. Meantime, what they seek is not approval but tolerance. If a repudiation of the notion of slow change as God’s method of creation is demanded of them, then their loss to the community is inevitable. So too, alas, is the loss of many potential candidates for baptism who share their perplexity and, feeling that the Brotherhood will not tolerate them with their mental reservations, are being driven, in their desire to give themselves to Christ, more and more towards evangelical groups with less exacting theological demands to make on their converts than we have. 

In an age of astounding scientific discovery and technological achievement the problem thus posed is one with which we are going to have increasingly to live, whether we like it or not. Recourse to our pioneers is not enough, for like us they were men of their day, and who, in fairness, could guarantee how they would tackle the problem were they among us now? Our safest course is to be true to our claim to be a first-century community, and go back to New Testament precedents. 

Paul recognized that the disagreement between strong and weak over the matter of meats was too complex to be settled by discussion, let alone coercion. The fact had to be faced that “to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean”. His advice to the strong brother was therefore, “Destroy not him with thy meant, for whom Christ died”. With equal realism he took account of the intractable nature of Jewish habits of thought and accommodated himself to them so that something more important than intellectual consistency might be achieved thereby—namely salvation. Have his words no relevance to our present problem? Can we not likewise learn the wisdom of a similar adjustment “for the gospel’s sake”, giving compassion precedence over condemnation? Those advocating draconian measures would do well to ponder the Lord’s words, “Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones . . . for the Son of man is come to save that which was lost.” Otherwise their kind of concern with the opening pages of Scripture runs the risk of nullifying the teaching of other pages of Scripture without which Genesis would have no meaning anyway.
Your brother by grace,
Those who want to tear the brotherhood apart by making evolution a fellowship issue would do well to heed this sage advice from the past.

1. Barling W.F. "Letter: The Origin of Man" The Christadelphian (1965) 102:463–464. (Emphasis mine, though frankly all of it is worth emphasising!)