I recently had the chance to attend the BioLogos-Gordon College Conference 2010: “A Dialogue on Creation”. Over four days, we listened to lectures and had vibrant discussions on evolution and creation. Drs. Claudia Beversluis, Karl Giberson, Peter Enns, and Darrel Falk all gave excellent presentations that were thorough and challenging.
The life of the mind was indeed stimulated and friendships were made.
During the Q&A session of one of Dr. Enns’ talks, a wonderful question was posed regarding Evangelicalism and evolution, and what the future held for Evangelical theology. In the spirit of evolution, it was discussed which would be better: the evolution or extinction of Evangelicalism? Can Evangelicalism truly remain as a valid theological framework? Or should it be allowed to go extinct with the expectation that another “better equipped” theological basis would develop in the midst?
My own initial answer to the question was that perhaps Evangelicalism should be allowed to die out, or that the capital ‘E’ should at least be replaced with a lowercase ‘e’. Dr. Enns had a different viewpoint, however. Evangelicalism should remain for fear of the sociological ramifications that would occur upon its demise. Too many have devoted much of their time and effort, lives and relationships, to the Evangelical church. How can we throw that away and start anew?
In addition to this, Dr. Enns also replied with something that I thought was even more profound. The mental or life of the mind, while being vital, is only one piece of Evangelicalism. There is so much more to it as a whole.
Our actions, relationships, hopes and fears, experiences, etc. all comprise what it means to be a part of the Evangelical tradition. So while we may need to struggle through new dimensions or radically transform our theology, we do not do that in a vacuum. We do that in the context of everything else that comprises Evangelicalism.
This reply reminded me of a relatively common occurrence that I experience as a biology professor at a Christian liberal arts university. Students often come into my classes having been told by their pastors that acceptance of evolution equates with being a non-Christian. If evolution is true, then the Bible cannot be read literally, and so on. As an Evangelical who is deeply committed to evolution, I tell them that of course it is possible to be a Christian and an evolutionist at the same time. (The good folks at BioLogos, of course, are expending great effort to argue why this is the case.)
But it often doesn’t matter. Students still see it as an either-or and are ardent in their anti-evolution stance, for fear that treading the water will lead them to no longer be Christian or “lose their salvation”. Since they obviously don’t want the latter, they MUST reject the former. I’m not sure I blame them.
So what am I to do? Should I show them the evidence for evolution? Yes. Should I tell them their pastor is wrong? Yes (but with humility and grace). Should my “modeling” of Christian behavior and action show that their pastor is wrong (perhaps it feels better to say “not right”) and that as one who is clearly an evolutionist, I am also a Christian? Hopefully… These are all good examples of what can be done. But I think that there is also another way.
Theology is often described as “faith seeking understanding”. A striving to explain in human terms an encounter with the Divine. Contemplating the infinite using the finite. In Evangelicalism, we believe and rejoice in the experience of God, both personal and communal. We hunger for this experience and in fact question our faith when we struggle through times of “un-experience”. Where is God? Why has God “left us”? Conversely, those times when God seems most close awaken and revitalize us and provide largely to the basis of our hope as Christians.
All of the above language intimates that there is inherently a strong subjective or personal component to our understanding of faith. This component can be difficult (near impossible) to put into words and thus does not lend itself to conversation and discussion. But that doesn’t mean the personal experience of subjective nature of our faith should be held in any less regard.
It is my fear that students struggling with evolution and the aforementioned pastors’ comments believe that the truth of evolution will then somehow invalidate their experiences with God and the life of the Evangelical community. As a result, they will cling heavily to their ill-conceived disbelief in evolution. Evolution MUST be wrong because my faith is right. I know this statement to be wrong. How can I teach them this without first ripping apart their faith?
I look my students dead straight in the eye and tell them softly… no matter what, ideas (i.e. the mental) cannot and should not take away or diminish the importance of the subjective nature of their faith. The personal experiences that they believe to be encounters with the Divine… they matter. They give us a glimpse of God and ultimate reality in ways that can be difficult to describe. The experience of Jesus’ followers led to the creation of a new religion, for heaven’s sake! (pun intended)
As a result, there is no need to be on the defensive regarding evolution. Instead, one should be on the offensive for truth, regardless of what it looks like. Personal and subjective experiences are meaningful and no one can take that away. I tell my students to ground themselves in that. And then I tell them to feel free to go and discuss the validity of scientific or other claims, without fear. The classic mantra “All truth is God’s truth” is not cliché.
As we learn more about the world that God has created and take the truth claims of science seriously, it is likely that cherished or traditional Evangelical ideas will need to be reworked or discarded. We do this with intellectual humility and the purest of intentions. We do this with the belief that our experience of God is real and that our interpretation of it and the world around us is, while challenging, legitimate. We do this remembering that the mental is just one component of our Evangelical faith tradition.