Last week's debate in the US between popular scientist 'the Science Guy' Bill Nye and the Australian-born creationist Ken Ham attracted a live audience of 500,000 on YouTube and much media attention.
Ham argues that every human is descended from Adam and Eve, that God created man and all land animals on the same day 6000 years ago, and that there were dinosaurs on Noah's Ark. Nye, an agnostic, acknowledged that there is 'no incompatibility between religion and science', but argued that Ham is the exception. 'There are millions in the world who believe in God and accept science,' he noted.
The relationship between faith and reason - particularly between faith and science - goes to the credibility of being a Christian in the modern world. It is important that a minority view within Christianity is not allowed to frame a false dichotomy between religion and science. The vast majority of Christians belong to churches that do not share Ham's fundamentalist position against evolution.
Catholic theology certainly sees no fundamental conflict between faith and reason. St Anselm wrote a millennium ago 'that faith seeks understanding'. Even earlier, St Augustine wrote: 'I believe, in order to understand; and I understand, the better to believe.' Questioning, philosophical enquiry and searching can all be part of a response in faith and values. Believers are not called to wipe their minds, only to give love primacy, so that at times they will trust in love to carry them when their understanding fails them.
Monasteries were the libraries and schools of Europe for centuries, and many of the world's great universities had their origins in the Church. Roger Bacon, one of the earliest advocates of modern scientific method, was a Franciscan; Copernicus, a cleric; Gregor Mendel, who laid the foundations for modern genetics, a monk. Blaise Pascal, a theologian, has a law in physics and a theorem in mathematics. Fr Georges Lemaître, a friend of Einstein, first proposed the 'big bang theory'. Fr Michael Heller writes on relativistic physics and noncommutative geometry. Thirty-five of the features on the lunar surface are named after Jesuit astronomers.
For me, reading (the Jesuit) Teilhard de Chardin on evolution, or watching a nature documentary, or considering the billions of stars that make up billions of galaxies, or pondering the ocean breaking on rocks on a beach, or reading the first two chapters of the book of Genesis, all point to the wonder of a God who is the author of life, whose creativity defies any understanding, and who bestows the great gift of freedom on the universe.
Evolution, however, becomes a threat to some Christians because it threatens their basic understanding of their relationship with God, a relationship shaped by a fundamentalist understanding of the Bible as literally God's word. Many other Christians share a more complex understanding of the Bible, as a library of books with varying literary forms that need to be interpreted according to those forms. It is understood within the tradition of the community for which it was compiled.
I get frustrated at the attitude still held by some that the Bible must be literally true or otherwise everything is called in doubt. When the writer of Second Samuel describes David as 'having the heart of a lion', he is not proposing a literal truth of biology, but he is recording a truth about courage. On a much bigger scale, the Bible needs to be read in terms of its form, as history, as poetry, as apocalyptic literature, as wisdom sayings. It is addressed to thinking beings, and our response to it includes our ability to reason.
I do believe that God plays a creative role in our universe. The view that the universe displays an intelligibility through which one might argue philosophically for the existence of God, is a view scientists and people of faith could share. Australian physicist Paul Davies, in The Mind of God, appears to argue in this direction.
So would Francis Collins, the director of the Human Genome Project, who can write, as a believer: 'I see DNA, the information molecule of all living things, as God's language, and the elegance and complexity of our own bodies and the rest of nature as a reflection of God's plan.' This is a long way away from holding to a belief that Adam and Eve walked the Garden of Eden 6000 years ago!