Where is Lever Headed?

With a healthy appetite I set myself squarely on my chair and was ready for his nine-course banquet. But what a letdown it turned out to be!

What a letdown! – There is nothing like a good appetizer before a good meal. When I picked up Jan Lever’s little book, Where Are We Headed,* I looked at the outside and found several intriguing things which whetted my appetite.

Who, as a biologist, would not be interested in a “Christian perspective on evolution”? And the back cover tells us that Lever’s message is crucial for the power of the Gospel to be realized. Truly a promising menu! With a healthy appetite I set myself squarely on my chair and was ready for his nine-course banquet. But what a letdown it turned out to be!

What is this little booklet which was deemed important enough to be translated from the Dutch into our English language? Before going into the different chapters I would like to spend a little time putting it into perspective so that we know where we are going in this review. According to the Preface of the original Dutch version, the booklet is a collection of radio talks given in 1968 as an attempt to acquaint the radio· audience with the relationship between the Christian faith and modern natural science; to clear up some misunderstandings; and to present the view that both the Christian faith and natural science are essential for the progress of humanity.

A misleading title – The major title of the booklet indicates that there is a question of direction. Where is mankind headed and what is going to happen to us in the future? The English subtitle suggests that Lever is going to answer these questions by presenting a Christian perspective on evolution, while the Dutch subtitle announces that the author is going to speak on the subject of the origin of the world as a biologist.

I submit that Lever has clone neither of the two, and in that respect the title misrepresents the contents of the booklet. The back cover of the book gives us some idea of this failure when it speaks of man as having come to stand more and more in the perspective of evolutionary development, and that the concomitant ethical and ideological problems will be solved by man’s courage and wisdom, and that this will determine man’s future on earth. This, as you see, is neither speaking as a biologist, nor giving a Christian perspective on the problems of mankind.

Fails to speak as a biologist – From the Dutch subtitle, “A Biologist Speaks About the Origin of This Earthly Reality,” as well as from his text, we get the definite impression that Lever wants to speak with authority from the scientific basis of biological factuality. As a fellow-biologist I appreciate Lever’s eagerness to speak out on the important issues of the day, but as a biologist I fail to see where he speaks as a biologist.

Whatever authority Lever may want to claim, it is not as a biologist that he can claim it. For his perspective and his answers to the problems are not a biological perspective and biological answers at all. Bathers, what Lever is giving us here is a confession of his faith, and a view of what faith means for his biology and for his church life.

By faith, here, I mean Lever’s basic commitment in life. It is very clear that in principle it is impossible for him to speak as a biologist about the origin of the world and of life, because this is not at all within the domain of investigation of biology. Biology concerns itself with living organisms and all their many different aspects, but does not properly concern itself with the question of origins.

Lever’s disappointing perspective – The question of origins is discussed very frequently today, as it has been in the past many centuries. And history can teach us a lesson here, if we are willing to learn it. There are two basic answers to the question of origins. On the one hand, there is the revealed account as God gave it to us in Genesis, written down by Moses to whom God spoke on the mountain as to a friend. On the other hand, there are the many alternatives in all their variety, from mythical antiquity through modern unbelief, which all have in common the one factor that they reject God’s revelation about the origin of things.

Contemporary scientists pretend to be able to give us a valid alternative to the Creation account, and want to give us a revelation based on the scientific method, claiming to be completely reliable and irrefutable. The choice between these two “revelations” is a choice one can make only on the basis of one’s life commitment, and most basic loyalty. When the English subtitle announces that we arc about to read a Christian perspective on the problem of evolution we must be prepared to be disappointed, because the perspective which we find in the ensuing pages is indistinguishable from that of the unbeliever.

It would be much more honest and accurate to change the subtitle to read, “The Secular Perspective On Evolution As Held By A Christian.” Whether Lever is a Christian we may, of course, not judge, for he confesses it with his mouth. But that his perspective, as displayed in this booklet, is uniquely Christian, is certainly debatable.

Lever takes sides – So far we have only looked on the outside of the book, but it is time to take a look at the substance of what it says. I prefer to do this one chapter at a time, in the order in which the author presents them.

In the first chapter the author deals with “Two Related Questions” which are 1) “Genesis and Science,” and 2) “The Gospel and the Future of Mankind.” Since these questions involve interpretation of the Bible, the author feels it an advantage to be able to speak as a biologist, rather than a theologian, since the Bible “was written especially for common, ordinary people like you and me” (p. 7).

That the Bible was written for ordinary people, and not primarily for thcologians or scientists is well said, but it also needs to be said that we, therefore, do not need any special insights from anyone as a biologist, in order to be able to understand properly what Scripture has to say about origins. That some people are “frightened” and have a “fear [of] a new interpretation” may be true enough, but two things must be borne in mind here.

First of all, it is because of pronouncements of churchgoing scientists that these people become concerned about the direction of the new developments. And secondly, lay people, as non-scientists, who read their Bible obedient1y, may be able to understand Scripture more clearly just because they have no other perspective or viewpoint outside of Scripture to interfere with the correct understanding of Scripture. For them there is no need to adjust Scripture to current scientists’ ways of looking at life.

When Lever spells out who the people are that are concerned, he lists “those who do not come into contact with the natural sciences in their daily occupation” (p. 8), and others who are scientists and Christians, who on the basis of their scientific discoveries “can come to only one conclusion, namely, that certain views regarding the origin of the world that have long been held in the Christian community must be wrong [ . . . and] that another interpretation is necessary” (p. 8). He then clearly sides with the latter group.

Still another group – I feel that it is very important that the author, and also his readers, be aware of the fact that there is still another group of people who should be mentioned in this context, namely, those who are Christians, and at the same time are full-fledged scientists who know what the facts of science are, but who do not feel compelled to accept the generally held interpretation of the scientific facts and who, instead, interpret the same facts from a Scripturally oriented perspective.

The author does not appear to be aware of the fact that there are a large number of these people who are convinced that “the [mechanistic] scientific view” is neither scientific nor biblical. I number myself among the latter group and find that without the new interpretation I have full freedom to explore nature, to unlock some of its secrets, to get a better understanding of how God’s creation works, and how to apply this knowledge in the enrichment of the lives of fellow men.

Liberating experience? – When the author, therefore, speaks of a liberating experience, in rejecting the “conservative position” and embracing “the scientific view,” I can hardly see this as a liberation. The author is shackling himself to a position which very much limits free exploration and interpretation of the natural phenomena. Of course, from the booklet one cannot deduce from exactly which position the author has been liberated.

That Lever wants to deliver the reader from uncertainties and fears is indeed noble, but he should first of all determine unto what he is delivering them, and not just take the first solution offered as tile one solution.

Although one might suspect scholastic tendencies on the part of the author when the book speaks of “personal religious life, within the confines of the church” (p. 9), the translator is wholly at fault, for the original version does not at all warrant such suspicion. The author is presumably well enough acquainted with the pitfalls of scholasticism, and indeed shows that there must be expression of one’s religious life in dealing with “the great problems of our times and . . . the future of mankind” (p. 9).

Straw people to be knocked down – The second question of this chapter first of all points up the well-know problem of Western civilization regarding pollution, overpopulation, and the like, and the author senses the urgency of doing something about these problems, and indicates that the Christian, too, must be involved in answering these problems, and that if t11e Gospel of Christ has anything to say for today’s life, the Christian has to convey it to the world.

In this critical situation the author sees the church people as not only ignorant of what is going on in natural science today, but also fearful of the scientific knowledge explosion, and unwilling to be bothered about new ideas stemming from the science world.

After making a caricature of this group of people (who probably exist only as straw people to be knocked down), the author states that it is particularly to these people that he wants to address himself in the rest of the book. Not wanting to fit into the caricature category naturally makes every reader want to be on the author’s good side. But it is very well possible that not only the problematics of the book are stated incorrectly, but that also the solution to the problem may not be the only one or even the correct one.

Since “our entire life and a great share of our thinking, imagination, and fantasy are increasingly being permeated by the results, the ideas, and the methods of the natural sciences” (p. 10), it is just possible that we have to look to a source other than natural science for solving these problems, and for a true perspective on what is really going on. Let us see what bearing Science has on Genesis (or should it be the other way around?) and what the Gospel has to do with the Future of Mankind, in the following chapters.

Three categories of readers – In the second chapter the author, before dealing with the newly-coined term of concept of “picture of reality,” defines more clearly whom he has in mind in his audience. I will take his three categories of readers in reverse order.

The third group consists of all “those who choose to be known as non-Christians” (p. 13). The second and first kinds of people, then, are confessing Christians. Group two “includes Christians who arc informed and knowledgeable about recent developments in the natural sciences and who have come to the conclusion that a literalist reading of the Bible cannot be maintained” (p. 13). And in the first group of readers are “those Christians who believe that the entire Bible, every word of it, including the first chapters of Genesis, must be taken literally. Thus when one of the sciences sets forth views that conflict with the ones these Christians think they can deduce from certain words in the Bible, they conclude that this science must be wrong” (p. 13). Apparently, group 1 must consist of those people who are not scientists because it is contrasted with group 2 where the knowledgeable, well-informed scientists are.

Now it is not quite true that among Christians there are only those who are non-scientists who try to deduce certain views from Scripture, and those who are scientists and are in the know about the true situation. In all fairness the large group of Christians who are “informed and knowledgeable about recent developments in the natural sciences” but who do not accept the mechanistic interpretation of reality, but instead see all things in the light of a Scriptural perspective, must also be acknowledged.

The true perspective – We must also entertain seriously the possibility that there may be a conflict between what some Christians know the Bible tells us about beginnings and that which certain scientists believe they can deduce from their observations of certain natural phenomena.

The issue is not whether Scripture is a textbook of science, for to my knowledge there is not a person in the world who claims that it is. No one goes to Scripture to deduce scientific theories from any particular passage or groups of passages. But there are certain things which we can know from Scripture by spiritual understanding, and these things can be known only from Scripture because there is no other way of getting at them. Only from Scripture can we know who man is, what his relationship to the world. to other men, and to God, is. Only by knowing that in Christ we are redeemed sinners, and by living in obedience to God’s Word can we learn the true perspective on life, both present and past; and this must be our starting point and focal point in all our activities, including those in science.

Lever makes a very good point when he says that all three groups, as he lists them, must continue to listen to each other, and I would like to add that all three groups could also benefit by listening to the fourth group which I pointed out above.

Picture of reality – A picture of reality is defined as “the picture that we form of reality—of our world on the basis of our knowledge and insights. Our picture of reality has reference, for example, to such questions as: Is the earth round or flat? Can animal species change? and the like.

“Thus, the concept ‘picture of reality’ is much more objective than the concept ‘life and world view’” (p. 16). In other words, how we think of the world around us depends to a large extent on what we see of it, and how we experience it. It is then, of course, obvious that our forefathers, throughout the ages, have had different views of looking at things, because the circumstances have always been different, at least historically.

The question in the author’s mind is, at this crucial point, whether the picture of reality which we think we can deduce from the Bible is an acceptable picture for our days and age. He makes it very clear that he does not think it is, because the “entire Bible was written within the framework of existing notions about nature” (p. 17).

I feel that, at this point the value of the new term, picture of reality, becomes dubious, for Scripture is not merely a human document, but is the Word of God to man, and only by being keenly attuned to God’s message can our religious perspective on reality be true. That means that we cannot merely go to the present day scientist to ask what reality is all about; but in finding out all kinds of different things about reality, we must carefully ask what all these things mean in the light of God’s Word. It appears that the author lacks the realization that our basic commitments to the authority of God’s Word, and an obedient listening to what it says, have very much to do with the formation of our picture of reality, in whatever era in history, and therefore Lever can say, “How can a non-Christian put any trust in the Christian faith if Christians deny the clear and plain findings of the natural sciences?” Apparently Lever is not aware of, or does not agree with, Abraham Kuyper who so clearly pointed out that there is a common work area for the natural scientists, but that as soon as interpretation of the facts starts, two distinctly separate sciences must and do appear, viz., a Christian and an apostate science. It is imperative that we distinguish the facts of science from the interpretations of these facts, and that we distinguish Christian interpretations from apostate interpretations.

The problematics, on which the following chapters are based, are then a false problematics, and not until a Christian interpretation of the clear and plain findings of the natural sciences is incorporated into the discussion can there be any hope of approaching a satisfactory answer to the problems raised. The misconceptions which have been held throughout history about the nature of the world around us, which Lever attributes to a wrong interpretation of the Bible, will then also come to stand in a different light.

(To be continued)