« Why Conservative Christian Piety Should Animate Evangelical Engagement with Science’s Sticky Subjects »

“Well, it’s kinda hard for me to believe in Jesus because—well, you know, the dinosaurs and everything.” Stuart was in the first year of a graduate degree, with wavy brown hair and cheeks to match the hue of his posh pink polo. Sawing at a tough bit of curry chicken over dinner during an Alpha course, this agnostic student was responding distractedly to my question, “What strikes you as the most troubling feature of Christianity’s claims about Jesus?” For all that it lacked in rhetorical verve, Stuart’s off-hand comment voiced one of the fundamental difficulties educated non-Christians must overcome in order to embrace Christianity: the popular face of our religion seems squarely and thoroughly incompatible with scientific knowledge. 

Prima facie, the existence of dinosaurs possesses little relevance to the teachings, putative deity, and redemptive death of a Galilean Jew 2,000 years ago. But to Stuart, serious countenance of the Bible’s Christological claims would require assent to a whole litany of scientifically incredible assertions. And Stuart came by this assumption honestly. He had been exposed to the sort of Christianity that regularly fulminates against evolution, the sort of Christianity from which I also hail. (I as a homeschooler, my Christian biology curriculum required me to rehearse seven reasons why radiocarbon dating was unreliable; while my grasp of the water-cycle may have been flawless, my knowledge of plate tectonics was mediated through detailed exposition of Noah’s Flood.) 

In this conversation with Stuart, it felt as if my fundamentalist chickens were coming home to roost. To share the gospel, I now had to divert from the story of Jesus in order to deconstruct historicizing readings of Genesis 1-11. Ironically, my evangelical tradition had actually hamstrung the evangelism effort by contributing to the erroneous supposition that Christianity and mainstream science are ideological alternatives. In fundamentalist circles, this anti-scientism is sometimes taken as a mark of Christian piety.[1] But I would like to suggest the opposite: Christian piety should motivate a far more robust engagement with mainstream science than has hitherto characterized the evangelical tradition.

 Evangelism and Apologetics

 I’ve already indicated how a concern for evangelism should stimulate more rigorous interaction between religion and science. In a similar vein, I would underscore Kyle Roberts’ observation that better Christian engagement with science is imperative for in-house apologetic purposes, insofar as a great many young Christians are abandoning their faith because of its putative incompatibility with science. Kyle points out, “Traditionally, apologetics has been directed primarily to non-Christians (atheists, agnostics, or adherents of other major religions). But another apologetic need is arising today within the church itself. This apologetic argues that the perceived forced choice between science and faith is a false dichotomy.” Serious reflection on the subjects of cosmology and human origins is a matter of urgent pastoral and apologetic concern.

 Belief in the Transcendence of God

Still, when I talk about the role of piety in the faith-science dialogue, I’m not just thinking about gathering converts and maintaining the numbers on our church membership rosters. Christian piety should make us receptive to the insights and truths of science insofar as proper Christian piety has a fundamental commitment to the transcendence of God. Yet, however much we extol the greatness of a God whose being splinters our rough-hewn images of him (cf. the commonplace warnings about ‘putting God in a box’), our reticence towards the insights of science may indicate that we begrudge God the right to gainsay our traditional assumptions about the way he works in the world.

I wonder if the apophatic theological tradition might provide us with a much-needed corrective. Apophatic theology is not simply an exercise in saying what God is not; it is no primer to theological nihilism. Rather, apophaticism is a spiritual and intellectual commitment to recall that our predications about God, even when true and revelatory, are also inadequate caricatures; whatever true things we may say about God fall magnificently short of exhausting or circumscribing him. Recourse to apophatic theology might counterbalance the hubris by which we presume unduly on our understanding about, e.g., the way divine agency operates in creating and sustaining the universe. Apophatic theology is not to be confused with sloppy relativism; it manifests deference to divine transcendence.

For this reason, I found my head bobbing enthusiastically at Peter Enn’s post, when he wrote: “It may be that evolution, and the challenges it presents, will remind us that we are called to trust God, which means we may need to restructure and even abandon the ‘god’ that we have created in our own image. Working through the implications of evolution may remind Christians that trusting God’s goodness is a daily decision, a spiritually fulfilling act of recommitment to surrender to God no matter what.”

Trust in the Work of the Holy Spirit

 Peter’s comments about trusting God’s goodness and surrendering to God bring us back to the heart of all properly Christian theological inquiry: belief in the self-revelatory work of God through the Holy Spirit. Ultimately, all our attempts to pursue truth through Scripture and theology rely upon the assumption that the Holy Spirit inspired the composition and compilation of the Scriptures and continues to bear with and sustain our efforts to hear the Word revealed in those holy texts. But we also believe that the Spirit of the Creator God bears with and sustains our efforts to hear the Word as revealed in the creation that declares the glory of God (Psalm 19).

 As an undergrad at Wheaton College, I recall Prof. Sam Storms introducing the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, that wonderful epistemological heuristic that articulates how God’s truth is revealed through Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience (with special deference to Scripture as the “base” of the Quadrilateral, so to speak). Dr. Storms, being a good charismatic, underscored that the whole reason we trust any of the “sides” of the Quadrilateral is because we believe in the operation and self-revelatory activity of the Holy Spirit, A) in the inspiration of Scripture, B) in our daily experiences with him, C) in the history of the Church as enshrined in Christian tradition, D) and in the operation of our reason in reflection of the All-True God whose image we are and bear.

In this respect, I’m in energetic agreement with Amos Yong’s encouragement that “Those who are led by the Spirit can therefore pursue the life of the mind, even the scientific vocation, and in this way also bring their own questions, perspectives, and curiosities to their scientific endeavors.… [P]ursuit of the Spirit-filled life can be part and parcel of the modern scientific task.”

Conclusion

As I said above, popular evangelicalism can sometimes wear its opposition to science as a badge of Christian piety, and some evangelicals have been wont to characterize engagement with science as a faithless attempt to ingratiate oneself to the fashions of the academy. But I’d like to think that grappling with the Big Bang and abiogenesis can express precisely the sorts of piety that should animate Christian evangelicals. For the sake of the lost and for the sake of our own struggling parishioners we have an obligation to sort out a faithful understanding of modern science. And this intellectual engagement is not stirred by an anxious disbelief in the Scriptures; it is vivified by a deep-seated conviction in the transcendence of the God who is revealed, if only in part, in those Scriptures. Still, however partial may be the glimpse of the God’s face we see in the Bible, it is a true glimpse, true because it is given to us by the Holy Spirit. And it is faith in the continued operation of that Spirit, in and for God’s people and through the world God created, that gives me hope that evangelical engagement with science will not only prove possible, but revelatory.

 


[1] More than once have I heard someone reject evolutionary biology or mainstream geology by appeal to Colossians 2:8 (“See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ”.) Of course, the fact that Pauline literature is shot through with appropriations of Stoicism should keep us from presuming that Paul thought that all philosophy was demonic and deceitful. The existence of bad philosophy does not mean that all philosophy is bad; the existence of bad science (or scientists bent on turning their research into a pike on which to impale Christian belief) does not mean all science is bad. 

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

Reader Comments (7)

Thanks Chris for a great article. I think the bottom line most sticky issue is not the question of cosmic or human origins (as sticky as these are for some people), but the great theological question to be addressed in the context of evolutionary science is what then do we make of death? In what sense is death a penalty for sin? There are great works being written on origins, but what will this dialectic lead to in regard to the cross?

October 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn

Hi John,

Thanks for the great questions. I think that you are right that the place of death remains a major theological question for those of us who are theistic evolutionists. The reason I use the word "remains", however, is that I don't think that a traditional/historicizing reading of Genesis 1-3 actually amounted to a solution to the problem of death either. As numerous scholars have shown (John Walton's NIV Application Commentary on Genesis provides an apt and accessible example), even the Genesis account presumes the existence of death prior to the fall of Adam and Eve. It is the tree of life which preserves their mortal bodies indefinitely, and exclusion from the tree of life results in their eventual but certain death. And obviously, plant death is presumed by the narrative (however vegetarian Adam and Eve may have been), and it's hard to get around the idea of cellular death existing prior to a fall (if we want to think of that in historical terms).

So yes, death and the justice of God are real questions to be answered by the theistic evolutionist, but I don't think we are, for that reason, any worse off than we were when we were historicizing creationists.

I still think we need to draw on a panoply of (partial) theodicies to account for the dynamics of evil in this world, including the sort of evils that seem operative in the evolutionary process. (And I personally am not inclined to see the evolutionary process, being 'red in tooth and claw', as morally neutral, though many make that case.) One element that perhaps could be utilized more than is often countenanced is the notion of a pre-creation angelic fall, which can be appealed to as part of a way of accounting for the incomplete (and I'd say partially sinful) state and history of the created world. Michael Lloyd (the new principle of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, and author of "Cafe Theology") has done some lovely work on this topic, and though I initially balked at the idea, I'm increasingly drawn to it.

As to the ramifications of evolutionary theism for the cross: I don't think they are as significant as is often suggested. Evolutionary theists and creationists agree on the fallen and depraved state of the world and the human soul, and agree that the way God deals with that is through the self-abnegating acceptance of suffering on the cross. Evolutionary theism only creates a problem for our understanding of Christ's suffering death if evolutionary theism is thought to amount to a denial of the universality of sinfulness (which it doesn't).

Those are some preliminary thoughts, John. Thanks for engaging with the topic so insightfully!

Peace,

CMH

October 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterChristopher M. Hays

One of the things that I couldn't help but wonder about concerning the "the universality of sinfulness" is about when this universality came to be. To me, it seems to be a species-specific universality and in that context to require a Platonic categorization of species, not biological adaptation. Sin seems to primarily be a set of behaviors. Behaviors seem to be primarily phenotypical. Phenotypes seem to be primarily expression of genotype. Genotype seems to be mixing of ancestors, under the consequence of the environment's role in natural selection. There are plenty of evolutionary theists do not align with universality of sinfulness as it seems temporal and contextual to organisms existence. Perhaps it would be clearer to suggest that *some* evolutionary theists and *some* creationists agree on *some* things. Universality of sinfulness is simply not universally believed.

October 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBrian P.

Thanks for your comment, Brian. It's not clear to me if your concern derives from my suppositions about the nature of sin (i.e. what factors contribute to the judgment that an action is sinful), or about the universality of that sin (that all humans whose intellectual development allows them to be morally aware and whose life-spans allow for the exercise of volition will inevitably sin).

I should say that my comment on the universality of sinfulness was meant to indicate that all humans (of the aforementioned sort) do sin, not that sin pervades the actions of all animate beings (I do realize that the latter would be disputed).

As to the way in which we evaluate sinfulness, I am quite happy to assent to there being genetic influences which incline people towards behaviors which the Christian tradition categorizes as sinful, and that one's culpability for a given action is potentially diminished in accordance with the degree of one's genetic predispositions to that action (here I'm adopting a construal of sin in terms that weigh the gravity of the matter, the awareness of the agent of the gravity of the matter, and the intentionality of the agent in committing the act). I am not comfortable, however, averring that all or even most sinful actions are genetically determined and insuperable.

I've not come across a Christian evolutionary theist who denies either the universality of sinfulness (as described above). If you do know of one, however, I'm quite happy to qualify my assertion; I'd rather not go on making categorical statement if they are erroneous!

Many thanks!

October 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterChristopher M. Hays

You mentioned that "all humans... sin... not that sin pervades the actions of all animate beings." When do you draw (at least to me a seemingly arbitrary) line between non-human and human in the phylogenetic tree? Which of the hominidae do you consider ontologically human in your harmatology? Was a certain organism capable of such woeful unbelief and pride while its mother and/or father were not? Simply, what do you mean by "human" as related to "sin?"

October 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBrian P.

Hi Brian,

I don't feel one needs to be able to draw the line between pre-human and fully-human hominids for the theological point to stand. I'm comfortable saying that any hominids that God considers morally responsible will be sinful, and it's not troubling for me to imagine that less-evolved hominids could be morally aware even if we wouldn't categorize them as homo sapiens sapiens.

The somewhat arbitrary nature of scientific categorization is not a problem for a theology of sin unless one is inclined to say that moral awareness is limited to anatomically modern humans (which strikes me as unnecessary). No doubt previous generations did not contemplate the question of moral responsibility for non-human hominids, such that their comments about the distinct moral responsibility of "humans" as opposed to "non-human animals" might be insufficient for those of us who are aware of the etic nature of distinctions between species and the way that modern humans are the product of a gradual evolutionary process. I simply think that, as long as we are happy to say that whatever persons God holds to be morally responsible are subject to sin, the 'fuzziness' of species categorization brought on by evolutionary theory need not be a problem.

October 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterChristopher M. Hays

I think that the acclaimed "Biblical Worldview" of much of Evangelicalism rests more on Plato and his ideas than the concepts held in the minds of the Biblical authors themselves. I also think that your language of universality of your piece here is one that owes its philosophical foundations to such thought too. Your latest follow up seems to reduce the grandiosity of "universality" to a vague subset of circularly defined only "morally responsible" hominids. I understand you "don't feel need to draw line," but yet I would suggest that your use of words such as universality imply a very strong categorical separateness for those who are under such a universal. This just one element, but I think, here and in other areas too, Evangelicalism's popular visceral disgust for evolutionary thought is in the description of organic (and thus categorical, moral, etc.) fluidity of the biology of the real world that is so counter to a worldview that rests foundationalistically upon philosophical heritage and norms that pervade Medieval and Protestant era. "Biblical world views" are full of ideas owe their origins to other than early Christians or Hebrews. We want black and white anthropologies, harmatologies, soteriologies, eschatologies, and more. And we've come to learn that our categorizing is often useful misrepresentation of the real world. And that's the threat to our system (and its systematizing itself).

November 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBrian P.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Post:
 
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>