Book Review: Mapping the Origins Debate: Six Models of the Beginning of Everything
Frequently, as we wrap up a Forum discussion on questions of origins, we hear the question, “Where can I read more about these issues?” A bibliography of all the books addressing this topic would be dauntingly long, and of course many of the books listed in it would be quite technical, addressed to highly specialized audiences. So we try to keep an eye out for books that instead offer a concise, accessible summary of the issues, and then recommend it for further reading. We are therefore pleased to point readers to a newly-published book from IVP, Mapping the Origins Debate. Author Gerald Rau takes on the daunting challenge of charting a comprehensive overview, informed by his training in genetics, education, and philosophy of science. This broad range of experience allows Rau to approach the debate from multiple perspectives, thereby offering the reader a variety of entry points to a necessarily complex subject matter. Rau’s approach to the questions of origins is, as far as I am aware, a unique one. Charting a continuum of six models (ranging from naturalistic evolution on one end to young earth creation at the other) he stresses the internal coherence of each approach to its own standards and criteria. He explains that, while scientific evidence is crucial for investigating questions of origins, it is our underlying perspectives that help select which evidence to admit, and how to interpret it accordingly. Given the subjective nature of scientific interpretation, then, he writes, “Each model rests on and is inextricably connected with particular philosophical presuppositions” (p. 30) Rau’s intent here is not to minimize or relativize the scientific process. Instead, his goal is to map the evidence – and our accompanying assumptions – in such a way that might lead to fruitful dialogue between ‘proponents of different positions.’ (p. 35) He is therefore careful to use neutral language and respectful explanations of each model – reminding his reader time and again that each approach in fact makes logical sense within its own stated parameters. We are, in a sense, each playing well by the rules – but unfortunately, it’s the rules we can’t seem to agree on. The point of this approach is to help us understand those who hold to a different model, and to respect the process of reasoning that has led to their conclusions. Though we may ultimately disagree about models, we come to recognize that our thought processes share striking similarities. The book is structured as an investigation of the origins of the universe, of life, of species, and of humans. For each chapter, he lays out a brief summary of the scientific evidence, and then explains the ways in which each model selects and interprets the evidence. Finally, he offers an overview of the theological and philosophical implications of each approach. In the final chapter, Rau surveys the philosophical presuppositions inherent in the practice of science, broadly understood. Critical to the purposes of this book is the recognition that science itself is not a monolithic, uncontested set of facts. Rau does indeed hold that there is such a thing as scientific truth – and, in fact, that a great deal of it is knowable by us. However, it is simultaneously true that our philosophical and religious assumptions dramatically impact how we approach and understand that truth. Rau’s goal is to shed light on this reality “in a way that will promote mutual understanding and thus honest communication about the underlying issues with less animosity.” (p. 190) This book is a significant resource for those who share TCF’s desire to engage in charitable dialogue about contentious issues. The framework – understanding the perspectives that frame our scientific conclusions – helps set the stage for gracious discussions. The information it lays out is a helpful introduction to the relevant scientific considerations. Most especially, the author’s respectful tone effectively models the presentation of opposing perspectives with charity and respect. Mapping the Origins Debate will prove especially helpful for high school or college level educators, or adult study groups. Rau’s scientific expertise shows through on more than one occasion, and the technical descriptions were occasionally a stretch for this humanities-trained reader. It’s also important to note that his approach necessarily gives equal weight and validity to each of the six models. This could lead to the assumption that scientific evidence or philosophical inference supports each to the same degree – a conclusion to which some readers may object. On the other hand, the book has been recommended by the National Science Teachers Association, suggesting that its balanced approach is viewed as a welcome alternative to the all-too-common contentious treatments of the issues. The Colossian Forum welcomes a conversation partner like Rau – one committed to deep respect and charitable engagement. His thorough, even-handed presentation of scientific, philosophical, and theological considerations serves as a tremendous resource for Christians who are looking for the “facts.” Even more importantly, however, Rau models a gracious, thoughtful approach to interacting with both the information and with fellow believers. This book provides helpful information in a gracious manner which evidences precisely the kind of formation we work to affirm.