Making Peace with Science


by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

In belated recognition of Darwin’s 200th birthday, I thought I’d post a series on faith and science, culminating with a really fun post on Friday that you’re not going to want to miss. (Hint: It’s about the billboard war in Dayton.)

I thought I’d start by sharing my own story of how I came to respect evolutionary theory as a viable explanation for how God created the heavens and the earth, and how this position has enriched rather than destroyed my faith.

Defacing Science Books with Crayons

I’m not sure when I first heard about the theory of evolution, but glancing through an old science book of mine shows that I had a pretty negative impression of it.

When I was about ten, my mom bought me this fantastic used science book from a garage sale called “Tell Me Why.” It included colorful drawings of fossils and flowers, dinosaurs and molecules, planets and lightening strikes. I loved it. However, the first two pages described the history of planet earth using the evolutionary model of billions of years, common ancestry, and survival of the fittest. Apparently, I had some strong objections with such a description, and therefore took a gray crayon and wrote “NOT!” all over the first two pages of the book.

My parents never really pushed young earth creationism on me nor taught that it was a fundamental element of the Christian faith, but for most of my life I travelled in circles where it was assumed that good Christians embraced a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2, which describes the earth as being created in six days.

Young earth creationism goes something like this: Because the Bible is God’s Word and is truthful in all that it affirms, the book of Genesis accurately records how God created the universe and life on earth. Based on the scientific accuracy of the Bible, one must conclude that the creation week consisted of seven 24-hour days, and that the earth is around 6,000 years old. Geological and fossil evidence does not conclusively prove an earth age of millions of years, but can be explained by the argument that God chose to create things at full maturity with the appearance of having developed, or by the argument that various factors, such as the earth’s magnetic field, may have changed through the years and affected the accuracy of carbon dating. Contrary to the theory of evolution, the Bible teaches that God separately created distinct kinds of organisms, and that the similarities between these organisms point to a common Creator rather than a common origin.

I learned much of this at Bryan College from Dr. Kurt Wise, one of the leading young earth creationists in the country and a favorite professor among Bryan students. Dr. Wise once told us the story of how, as a sophomore in high school, he had dreams of becoming a scientist, but could not reconcile the theory of evolution with the creation account found in the Bible. So one night, after the rest of his family had gone to bed, he took a pair of scissors and a newly-purchased Bible and began cutting out every verse that he believed would have to be removed to believe in evolution. He spent weeks and weeks on the project, until he’d gone through the entire book, from Genesis to Revelation. By the time he finished, he said that he couldn’t even lift the Bible without it falling apart. That was when he decided that “either Scripture was true and evolution was wrong or evolution was true and I must toss out the Bible.”

So, for most of my life, I was under the impression that one could not be a true Christian and believe in evolution. I thought I had to choose between faith in accepted science and faith in God.  I later found that this is a very dangerous position in which to leave one’s faith.

Crisis of Faith

During my early twenties, I had a lot of doubts about Christianity. I struggled with questions about religious pluralism, the destiny of the un-evangelized, the Problem of Evil, the inerrancy of the Bible, and much more. Looking back, I see that this was a healthy experience for me, for it helped me distinguish between what things were really essential to my faith and which things were not. But at the time, it was pretty scary.

Removed from the conservative evangelical community, I began learning more about evolutionary theory. I started to see that despite what I’d been told, there was some really compelling scientific evidence that supported evolution, and that all kinds of modern scientific discoveries/advances (particularly concerning genetics) confirmed Darwin’s theory.  Perhaps most disconcerting to me was the fact that the overwhelming majority of scientists—something like 98 percent—believed in evolution and were working off of evolutionary principles. In other words, for most scientists, evolution is not a theory in the same way that a hunch about a potential love match is a theory. It’s a theory in the same way that gravity is a theory.

It seemed extremely improbable to me that all of these scientists had gotten together and conspired against the faith community. As Francis Collins writes in The Language of God, this is just not how scientists work:

“One of the most cherished hopes of a scientist is to make an observation that shakes up a field of research.Scientists have a streak of closeted anarchism, hoping that someday they will turn up some unexpected fact that will force a disruption of the framework of the day. That’s what Nobel Prizes are given for. In that regard, any assumption that a conspiracy could exist among scientist to keep widely current theory alive when it actually contains serious flaws is completely antithetical to the restless mind-set of the profession.” ( p. 58)

I’ve never liked conspiracy theories. When someone tells me that the moon landing didn’t happen or that Barack Obama is an alien from another planet, I tend to be skeptical. So after doing some research, it became harder for me to accept the notion that thousands of scientists worldwide were in the business of intentionally falsifying data and producing fake fossils just to undermine Christianity, especially when about 40 percent of these scientists are people of faith themselves.

[As Micah and others have noted, those of us without access to big telescopes and high-powered microscopes accept much of this information on faith. In other words, I have not personally observed the cosmic microwave background radiation that provides strong support for the Big Bang theory.  Nor have I ever dug up a hominoid scull or watched a bacterial infection evolve into a resistant strain in a Petri dish.  But the same could be said for a lot of things I take as truth. I’ve not personally gone into outer-space and observed the shape of the earth, but I’d have to believe in a pretty outlandish conspiracy theory to entertain the notion that all those beautiful pictures of our spherical planet were made in Photoshop.]

For several years, my heart sank with every convincing argument in support of evolution I came upon. I wrongly believed that each one brought my faith closer to its demise. This is why I think it is so dangerous to teach young people that belief in God and belief in evolution are mutually exclusive. Many of us grow up to face a difficult, yet completely unnecessary choice between our faith and intellectual honesty. We must expose this dichotomy as false before more people leave the faith over it.

Lessons from History

The first time I entertained the notion that the theory of evolution might be compatible with my faith happened when I was studying the history of the church. I learned that in Galileo’s day, support for the traditional paradigm of an earth-centered universe was so adamantly espoused by the Church that anyone presenting evidence to the contrary could be excommunicated.

In those days, most Christians believed that the Bible spoke quite clearly about cosmology. The earth had a foundation (Job 38:4), which did not move (Psalm 93:1; Proverbs 8:28).  Even Protestant Theologian John Calvin considered geocentricism so fundamentally true that he claimed people who believed in a moving earth were “possessed by the devil.”

But if geocentricism was indeed this important to the Christian faith, then Christianity would have slowly died out with the eventual acceptance of a helio-centric cosmology. But instead, Christians adapted, and now no educated Christian believes that the sun and the planets and stars revolve around the earth. I’m sure it took some getting used to, but believers found a way to re-think and re-imagine their faith in the context of a new environment, where they no longer sat in the center of the universe. As I considered this, I began to wonder if perhaps the current debates regarding evolution were comparable. Maybe God was just trying to teach us something new about the world around us. Maybe the Christian faith could survive in a four-billion-year-old world.

The Bible is Not a Science Textbook

About this time, I also learned that it was quite possible to interpret Genesis 1 and 2 metaphorically without compromising the point of the passage—that God created the universe. The notion that the Bible is only true if it is scientifically/historically accurate is based more on Enlightenment rationality than on Scripture itself. The Apostle Paul wrote that "all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work." He never says that it is to be used as a science textbook. This, of course, is probably a topic for another post!

All Truth is God’s Truth

Strangely enough, one of the most important things I learned at Bryan was that all truth is God’s truth. In other words, Christians need not be afraid of truth because if God is who he says he is, then he is behind it.

Scientists are responsible for studying the physical world.  (They should be required to factor in the metaphysical; that’s not their job.) So when scientific conclusions seem to clash with our assumptions regarding theology, we’ve got to learn to deal with it in a way that doesn’t involve burying our heads in the sand or simply ignoring good data. We have to be willing to face the facts.

I’ve already mentioned Francis Collins’ book The Language of God, but I cannot adequately explain how dramatically this book changed my perspective. The Language of God is a beautifully written, intelligent, and compassionate book written by the man who was the head of the Human Genome Project. A devout Christian and one of the world’s most important scientists, Collins makes the case for how a scientist can believe in God and how people of faith can embrace science.  While reading The Language of God, I experienced a strange phenomenon:  I simultaneously grew more convinced that my faith in God was in fact reasonable while also growing more convinced that my belief in young earth creationism was not.

For example, I learned that questions surrounding the Big Bang and quantum mechanics actually complimented much of Judeo-Christian theology. I was reminded that no scientist can ever explain the moral law written on the human heart. At the same time, I came to better understand how rocks are dated and how scientist often discover fossils of transitional species at precisely the date and place that evolutionary theory would predict.  An expert on DNA, Collins eloquently and convincingly shows how Darwin’s theory of evolution is supported by naturally occurring mutations in DNA. I marveled at a chart that showed a diagram of the tree of life, where relationships between different mammalian species were figured out solely by comparison of their DNA sequences, providing powerful support for Darwin’s idea of descent from a common ancestor with natural selection operating on randomly occurring variations.

That said, I’ve still got a lot to learn about evolution, and I’ve honestly never been that good at science, so it’s going to take some time. I'm still open to arguments from creationists.

However, I’m no longer afraid of bumping into a fact that might destroy my faith. I’ve learned that my faith is much more resilient than that.  Like a living organism, it is extremely adaptable to change!

Conclusion

I know that many of my readers will strongly disagree with the conclusions that I have reached, and that’s okay. I welcome a healthy debate.  It isn’t especially important to me to convince people that evolution happened.  I’m not qualified, nor motivated to do so. However, I think it is incredibly important to get the word out that faith in God and belief in evolution can coexist, that a person does not have to choose between the two.

Saint Augustine, in a statement far ahead of his time, said this in one of his many commentaries on the book of Genesis:

"In mattes that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one said that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it."
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