‘Noah’ and Evolution

Every time I hear Christians get upset about the theory of evolution, I am reminded of 1616 when the Church said you could not be Christian if you believed the Earth revolved around the sun. And then I think of the Christians during the American Civil War who accurately argued that the Bible explicitly portrays slavery as a normative part of human life and tells slaves to obey their masters. And then I think about C.S. Lewis’ comment that if we told someone in the Middle Ages that we did not believe the universe was made up of The Spheres nor did we believe in the Divine Right of Kings to rule, they would have said we couldn’t possibly be Christian.

I’m not sure why, outside a literalist reading of the poem/hymn/origin stories of Genesis 1 and 2, so many Christians are so upset by the idea that God could use evolution as one of his tools. Several Nazarenes have been working on this, and here’s a paragraph from the Church of the Nazarene’s page  on Wikipedia:

Consistent with the position of classical Nazarene theologian H. Orton Wiley, several contemporary Nazarene theologians, including Thomas Jay Oord, Michael Lodahl, and Samuel M. Powell, have endeavored to reconcile the general theory of evolution with theology. There are an increasing number of Nazarene scientists who support theistic evolution, among them Karl Giberson, Darrel R. Falk, and Richard G. Colling, whose 2004 book, Random Designer, has been controversial within the denomination since 2007. At the most recent General Assembly, held in Orlando, Florida in July 2009, there was extended debate on a resolution to adopt a more fundamentalist view of the doctrine of Creation based on a more literal view of the Bible, however this resolution was defeated.

One of my absolute favorite moments in the movie Noah is when Noah says to his family hunkered in the ark during the storm, “I am going to tell you the first story my father told me.” And then he extinguishes the candle he is holding, plunging the room into darkness, and begins reciting a close approximation to Genesis 1. Suddenly on screen, as you listen to Genesis 1 recited, you see the universe come to be, plant and animal life evolving in fast motion, in step with Noah’s recital of the creation of fish, birds, small creatures, etc – it’s an impressive display of the glory of God. For me, portraying animal life developing through evolution didn’t reduce the majesty of God’s Creation one bit. Intriguingly, the film does not portray humans evolving.

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Evolution and Our Kids

I was driving down the road the other day with a couple teenage boys. So I asked them “What do you think? Did God make humans in a day or use evolution?” They talked about Genesis 1 being a poem, not a modern scientific essay on biological origins; they talked about its meaning (God is the Creator of everything) rather than taking it literally; they talked about various fossil records and the presence of new species; they talked about DNA, but they didn’t pick a side. “So what do you think – we’re from apes (I know, I know, ramapithecines) or not?” “It doesn’t matter,” they said, “Either way, God did it.” “Really?” I pushed, “Don’t you lean either way? Our skeletons sure look like chimps. And we can tell bears and dogs both came from amphicylines…”

“And raccoons. But, nope,” they said. “I don’t lean either way – it doesn’t matter. Either way, God did it.”

How about that? Those boys are two of my sons. They are passionate, committed Christians who care about the things Jesus cares about. The older one is a ministry leader. The younger one is coming on strong. Neither of them feels a sense of angst facing scientific discovery or theory. “Either way, God did it.”

I’ve often thought that the “crisis of faith” so many American evangelical kids experience in college, when they run up against the theory of evolution, is a crisis created at home and church, and not by the university. By planting our feet and getting set for a fight, forcing an either/or decision regarding evolution or a literal reading of Genesis 1 & 2, I think we forced our kids to have to choose between which position seemed to have the most evidence to support it. To the sorrow of many families, their kids not only landed on the side of evolution, they landed somewhere outside of church. Permanently.

But I wonder if we had positioned them more like my sons, would they have fared better, and perhaps been able to hang on to their Christian faith? If we had taught them that however God did it, He did it and we don’t have to be afraid of scientific discovery – whatever we learn is part of God’s amazing creativity (the Nazarene Manual says that). If we had ever mentioned that forms of literature 3,000 years ago were not written as  scientific textbooks… (Nazarene theologian H. Orton Wiley called Genesis 1 a hymn), maybe we could have cast a vision for a Christian faith big enough for science.

In 1616 the Roman Catholic Church announced that you were not allowed to be a Christian if you thought the earth revolved around the sun. They felt that that idea struck at the root of Christian faith and undermined the whole thing. They had Scripture to back them up: “the sun rises and sets”. We now look back and think that’s silly: obviously we can be Christian and realize the earth revolves around the sun.

But today there are Christian voices telling us that if you believe in evolution you are not allowed to be a Christian. They say you can’t love Jesus, can’t ask him to forgive your sins, can’t live His ways, can’t go to heaven when you die, etc etc. I’m not sure where they ever go the idea that they had the authority to tell me if I am allowed to love Jesus or not.

I haven’t kept up enough with physical anthropology since grad school to make hard and fast conclusions as to what I think about the viability of the evolutionary hypothesis in regards to human origins. But I do believe we need to stop fighting useless battles with science. It just undermines Christian faith and makes us look like you have to check your brain at the door to be a Christian. And it forces our kids to decide between science and Christianity when they go to university – and that’s sadly destructive. Christian faith has always been, and still is, robust enough to include what we learn from science.

Incidentally, I pastor quite a few people who are exemplary Christians, love God deeply, are working in the world in the name of Jesus, loving people and inviting them into relationship with Christ – and they figure the theory of evolution is true.  When they were first being drawn into faith in Christ, the issue of evolution was a huge hurdle for them. They had only met Christians who said you couldn’t be Christian and believe in that scientific theory – and it made them feel like they had to pretend to live in the Middle Ages if they were going to be Christian – and they weren’t ready to be that intellectually dishonest  with themselves. When I told them it was fine – go ahead and love Jesus and put their hope and faith in him – it was within the scope of Christian faith to think God perhaps used evolution in the created order, the relief on their faces was visible.

This isn’t going away. Humans are going to continue to try and understand God’s creation. Thank God, because polio and other dread things are gone because of this curiosity. As we continue to try to understand the world God placed us in, and utilize it in ways that bless and promote human thriving, scientific  theories are going to come and go. Perhaps a less antagonistic stance toward some scientific theories will help us promote a Christian faith that doesn’t needlessly repel people. Or, what I’m trying to say is that perhaps some of the fights we’ve picked with science have hurt the cause of the Kingdom rather than helped it. Some of those fights may have been very unnecessary and counter-productive. It’s something to consider.

Tom Oord has written a nice little article about why Christians should care about science. Here’s the link: http://www.relevantmagazine.com/life/whole-life/features/27064-10-reasons-christians-should-care-about-science