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« Evangelicalism and Evolution ARE in conflict (and that's fine) »

There are two kinds of thinking that get in the way of the conversation evangelicals need to have over evolution.

One is a defensive, retreatist approach aimed at maintaining theological parameters deemed non-negotiable in mainstream evangelical thinking despite the evidence of science. The other is the claim that there is no real conflict between evolution and Christianity. The two can get along quite well, with perhaps a minor adjustment or two—nothing to lose sleep over.

Both of these views are unrealistic and in the end cause do more spiritual harm than good.

One advantage that the first group has over the second is the frank admission that evolution poses a serious challenge to how Christians have traditionally understood at least three central issues of the faith: the origin of humanity, of sin, and of death. That is true.

I argue in The Evolution of Adam that sin and death are undeniable universal realities, whether or not we are able to attribute them to a primordial man who ate from the wrong tree. The Christian tradition, however, has generally attributed the cause to sin and death to Adam as the first human. Evolution claims that the cause of sin and death, as Paul understood it, is not viable. That leaves open the questions of where sin and death come from.

More than that, the very nature of what sin is and why people die is turned on its head. Some behaviors Christians have thought of as sinful are understood in an evolutionary scheme as means of ensuring survival—for example, the aggression and dominance associated with “survival of the fittest” and sexual promiscuity to perpetuate one’s gene pool.

Likewise, in an evolutionary scheme death is not the enemy to be defeated. It may be feared, it may be ritualized, it may be addressed in epic myths and sagas; but death is not the unnatural state introduced by a disobedient couple in a primordial garden. Actually, it is the means that promotes the continued evolution of life on this planet and even ensures workable population numbers. Death may hurt, but it is evolution’s ally.

So, I repeat my point: evolution cannot simply be grafted onto evangelical Christian faith as an add-on, where we can congratulate ourselves on a job well done. This is going to take some work—and a willingness to take theological risk.

Evolution demands true intellectual synthesis: a willingness to rethink one’s own convictions in light of new data, and that is typically a very hard thing to do.

The cognitive dissonance created by evolution is considerable, and I understand why either avoidance or theological superficiality might be attractive. But in the long run, the price we pay for not doing the hard and necessary synthetic work is high indeed.

Evangelicals are sociologically a defensive lot, tending to focus on the need to be faithful to the past, to make sure that present belief matches that of previous generations. I get the point, but we must be just as burdened to be faithful to the future, to ensure that we are doing all we can to deliver a viable faith to future generations. That too is a high calling. Ignoring reality or playing theological games won’t do—no matter how unsettling, destabilizing, perhaps frightening such a calling may be.

Such a journey must be taken, for the alternatives are not pleasant. Christians can turn away, but the current scientific explanation of cosmic and biological origins is not going away, nor is our growing understanding of the nature of Israelite faith in its ancient Near Eastern context. I do not believe that God means for his children to live in a state of denial or hand wringing.

Likewise, abandoning all faith in view of our current state of knowledge is hardly an attractive—or compelling—option. Despite the New Atheist protestations of the bankruptcy of any faith in God in the face of science, most world citizens are not ready to toss away what has been the central element of the human drama since the beginning of recorded civilization.

Neither am I, not because I refuse to see the light, but because the light of science does not shine with equal brightness in every corner. There is mystery. There is transcendence. By faith I believe that the Christian story has deep access to a reality that materialism cannot provide and cannot be expected to know.

That is a confession of faith, I readily admit, but when it comes to accessing ultimate reality, we are all in the same boat, materialistic atheists included: at some point we must all say, “I can see no further than here, comprehend no more than this."

As for evangelicals, perhaps evolution will eventually wind up being more of a help than a hindrance. Perhaps it will remind us that our theologies are provisional; when we forget that fact, we run the risk of equating what we think of God with God himself. That is a recurring danger, and the history of Christianity is replete with sad and horrific stories of how theology is used to manipulate and maintain power over others.

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.

That’s not easy. But if we have learned anything from the saints of the past, it is that surrendering to God each day, whatever we are facing, is not meant to be easy. Taking up that same journey now will add our witness for the benefit of future generations.

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Reader Comments (19)

I think one possible way to do this synthesis is to see early Genesis as like a parable and not history.

October 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDon Johnson

Love this so much Peter. You bring up a very good point. Science can't ultimately be in conflict w/ religious truth....but we don't always know for sure which one needs to be amended. Sometimes both!!

October 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSarah Senne

It seems this is the foundational problem Christianity must face if she chooses to ‘believe’ in evolutionary theory:
Christians believe that God’s works authenticate His words. All through the Bible, beginning in Genesis 1:3, God spoke, and things happened as He said they would; “‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” That is the pattern in the Bible between God’s word and His works. That consistency on His part allows us to have faith in His Word, which is faithful and true, as time plays out the fulfilled promises of God.
The issue with evolution is this: if one believes that His creation is formed through His randomly mutated works, then one must also believe that His words mutate randomly as well. If that is true, then there is no absolute truth. Instead there is a ‘truth’ that is relative only to the mutated situation, and that is definable by the ones effected by the mutations. If that is the case, then for these believers who look to creation to define their god, any behavior may end up being acceptable as the whole of the Bible is nullified by their definitions and descriptions of truth.
Susan

October 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSusan Moore

I like this statement of yours, Pete:

Neither am I, not because I refuse to see the light, but because the light of science does not shine with equal brightness in every corner. There is mystery. There is transcendence. By faith I believe that the Christian story has deep access to a reality that materialism cannot provide and cannot be expected to know.

That is a confession of faith, I readily admit, but when it comes to accessing ultimate reality, we are all in the same boat, materialistic atheists included: at some point we must all say, “I can see no further than here, comprehend no more than this."

Science is helpful in understanding much of the 'materialistic' world. But it has a stopping point. And that's ok. It's not given to tell us whether there is God or not, whether purpose is beyond the material world or not. It only observes what it can see.

So I am happy to continue to consider what science can see and observe. And I am very grateful to live by faith in the living & resurrected Christ. I believe this is truly possible.

October 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterScott

Susan Moore,
Re: " if one believes that His creation is formed through His randomly mutated works, then one must also believe that His words mutate randomly as well."

Two comments: (1) "must also believe" does NOT necessarily follow. (2) Random mutations are only a part of biological evolution. Natural selection and numerous other factors are also involved.

October 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Bruggink

Susan,
I understand what you are saying, but I would strongly contend that you are making numerous assertions here about the Bible that would require a lot of defense, namely the notion that in Scripture and only in Scripture we find "absolute truth." This assertion leaves undefined what you mean by that, and it also seems to be a bit of abstraction rather than the product of grappling with Scripture in context, which is what drives this entire discussion. You may feel that is the wrong fork in the road to take--that Scripture's historical meaning is vital--and that is fine, but then I feel you will have left any sort of meaningful discussion over what Scripture means, other than that dictated by theological pre-commitments.

October 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPete Enns

"Death may hurt, but it is evolution’s ally." You could also say, biologically, it is life's ally. Life has been winning for a very long time - both by changing and by just being. Life-death-life is the biological story of the last three billion plus years. Resources, after all, are severely limited. Life has expanded and adapted by endlessly recycling these resources. Interestingly and sadly, sinful humanity is one of life's greatest enemies (wars, environmental degradation for ex.). Redemption brings with it the challenge and means to be more life giving and life supporting. A biological view of life - enormous fruitfulness in the context of extremely limited resources - must become a much greater part of our theological understanding. The role of the Spirit in all of this needs greater emphasis, as outlined by Amos Yong below.

October 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBev Mitchell

Paul Bruggink,
“Must also believe” does follow until a lack of integrity is shown in Scripture between God’s word and His works that follow those words. For example, where is the occasion when God said something was going to happen, and it did not happen? (Understanding, of course, that there are things that have not yet happened because they are unfulfilled prophesies. Things that have to do with the return of Christ, for instance). Where is the occasion when God’s words were powerless to produce those word’s intended works exactly like He said? Where is the pattern of randomness in His Biblical words or works?
Susan

October 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSusan Moore

Death must occur to make way for the next generation, but that is not the end of the story. After death is the resurrection--death is not final.

October 2, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjesuswithoutbaggage

I ask this question without a smidgen of snark, but I wonder what remains non-negotiable with respect to your sense of the core of Christian theology? I understand--and respect--your argument for a reevaluation of certain time-honored constructs; if truth is God's truth then what have we to fear wherever the truth leads? (yes, a presupposition, I know). But does anything remain trustworthy enough in which to rest besides what seems like another God-of-the-gaps category of the "mysterious and transcendent"? I wonder if you might in a follow-up post elaborate on that reality to which "the Christian story has access" that materialism does not. I cannot contend with your basis for a reevaluation, but might I ask you offer as much a ray of reasonable hope as you do a bone of contention?

with utmost respect, Doctor Enns

October 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPatrick Lafferty

I can't answer for Paul, but I have an opinion on Susan's "where is the occasion when God said something was going to happen, and it did not happen?" (except for future prophecies). I think that this question assumes that a lot of the events in the Bible are eyewitness accounts. They aren't, and an author writing on any past event can say/write "it happened just as God said it would". (Redaction is highly successful at predicting.) This is not meant as a slam, and in antiquity a lot of stories relied on bringing together oral traditions (and some writings). This was the common way to pass on the memory of events. The idea of accurate news as it happens is a phenomenon of our time. I acknowledge that the assumption of Biblical inerrancy leads to a totally different interpretation of the Biblical data.

October 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJim

Hi Patrick,
I appreciate your honest question. We need to be having conversations like this. I'll try to hit at what I think you're asking.

A few months ago I posted two things that you might be interested in and that gets toward your question. Here is the link to the second post, with a link inside it to the first post. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/peterenns/2013/06/5-main-challenges-to-staying-christian-and-moving-forward-anyway-part-2/

Let me say that mystery is not the refuge of last resort, but an often neglected yet core element of the Christian faith. When the gospel is about participation in Christ, those aren't just words but...well...mystery. Or perhaps, rather than mystery, we can think of it as an object of childlike trust that transcends our ability to know.

Your question whether anything remains trustworthy enough in which to rest is a good one and needs to be asked. It may not address where you're coming from at the moment, but I would make one small change in your question--is there anyONE trustworthy. God. Questioning, even interrogating the Bible (a good Jewish practice, by the way) is for me not an obstacle to faith but a means.

October 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPete Enns

Patrick Lafferty,
Re your, "what remains non-negotiable with respect to your sense of the core of Christian theology?"

How about the Nicene Creed and/or the Apostles' Creed, neither of which say anything about HOW God created or HOW sin entered into the world? We're just haggling over how to interpret God's Word and God's works.

As Peter Enns mentioned in his blog, "our theologies are provisional . . . which means we may need to restructure and even abandon the “god” that we have created in our own image."

October 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Bruggink

Dr. Enns,
I’m not asserting that absolute truth is only found in scripture, but rather that it is also found in scripture. It seems you are asking, “What is absolute truth?” The answer is this: God is the truth, and God is perfect. And in that there is only one God, then there is also only one perfect truth. That perfect truth is also referred to as the absolute truth, and is the truth against which all other human ‘truths’ are judged.

October 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSusan Moore

To Jim,
You made an assumption about what I asked of Paul that is not true. Instead of making assumptions, which in dialogues such as this may come off sounding like disrespectful accusations, let us ask each other questions when we do not understand what is being said. Ok?
In the meantime, no one has given an example where God said something was going to happen, and it did not happen. It can be an example where the occasion has an immediate conclusion, or it can be an example where the occasion has a conclusion that occurred some time later, even centuries later.
I believe God wants us to know Him, and He gave us Scripture to help us know Him. So, show me in scripture where God’s words produces something different than what His words predicts would occur, and that will show that there is randomness in His word.
Thanks-you.

October 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSusan Moore

I am truly enjoying this site and blog. My reflections upon reading your posts Peter are [probably shoudn't say this] 'comforting' to a large degree. Like and 'unlike' Susan, I too find a certain need to be assured of the authority of Scripture. But I also find greater peace resting in my humbled posture that I cannot "ever" "fully" "know" "God" soley based upon the medium He has prescribed for me (humanity) to know Him. It's an odd thing to say (feel) that in all of my desire to know Him in full confidence, I would then 'be as Him' and we all know that is not the case - gratefully. But to know Him confidently through the medium of the Bible is limiting I believe. For I am reminded of how I came to faith in Him, not through a Biblical exegectical reading but rather through a contrite spirit and broken heart. Only then, and especially then, did I seek to learn more about this Person who had invaded my world. I especially like your words,

"Neither am I, not because I refuse to see the light, but because the light of science does not shine with equal brightness in every corner. There is mystery. There is transcendence. By faith I believe that the Christian story has deep access to a reality that materialism cannot provide and cannot be expected to know."

This mystery you speak of is not lost to me. I beleive that one could 'debunk' the entire OT and I would not be shaken one iota to the redemptive work of Christ and the transformative power of the Cross and the eternal implications of His resurrection from the dead. I realize this opens me up for much ridicule, but hey,,,He's worth it!

October 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterA David Griffin

Hi Mr.Griffin,
Because my name is in your response, I feel comfortable responding to your response. Yes, I understand we cannot know all of God because He is infinite and Spirit and we are finite and physical. We can only know what He shares with us, and only when the Spirit opens our eyes and ears and describes for us, in our own human language, what we are seeing and hearing from Him.
And what did you first hear and see of Him that catalyzed your contrite spirit and broken heart?
Although it could have been like a vision, coming straight from Jesus, most likely I suspect that you heard about Jesus either indirectly or directly by a follower of Christ. And not an Apostle or anyone who was an eyewitness to Jesus when He walked on earth. No, through someone’s testimony or teaching about scriptural truth; through their written or spoken words, or through your direct reading of scripture.
In any case, unless it came as a direct revelation from Christ through a vision, your first knowledge of Christ came directly or indirectly through scripture! That’s Good News! The Bible is a medium that can be confidently trusted to give us knowledge of God.
The error in thinking is to assume that an exegetical reading of Scripture will bring us closer to God. It depends; is that reading under the influence of the Spirit of truth, or under the influence of the fallen human? We must compare and contrast all teachings by every human against absolute truth to answer that question.
“My soul finds rest in God alone; my salvation comes from Him. He alone is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will never be shaken” (Psalm 62:1-2).
Love in Christ,
Susan

October 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSusan Moore

Dr. Enns,

You have as much as said this, but I want to accentuate it: evolution demands a new theodicy, not only a new theology. Pauline theodicy is so neat and acceptable. I have no problem with a God who creates over ages, as revealed by science. I do wonder "what is evil?" if death, suffering, extinction, etc. are no longer evil. The theodicies of Origen/Irenaeus are not much better... the presence of evil before humans come on to the scene is a problem.

October 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSusan Gerard

In evolutionary thought, I die because my genotype and thus phenotype may not be adapted for future environments. My progeny will bear much of my genes and heritage mixed with my wife's then mixed with the families and lines into whom they marry and bear children with some degree of mutation. And those offsprings may or may not be adapted for their environments. I die so that change with in life can occur. Change occurs so that life can continue. This is why we die. Sin would be a set of behaviors and part of the phenotype. Behaviors may or may not be adaptive. Maladaptive behaviors have been, are being, and will be less likely to survive. Adaptive behaviors are more likely to continue. Humanity has flourished. Perhaps dangerously so. With seven billion of us, energy-dependent lifestyles and environment change, we have a volatility, at least in the number of us and our current comfortable modern lifestyle. This is the present global angst. Living a cruciform life may well fit into this evolutionary story and present human crisis. The origins and recent trajectories of much of Evangelical theology and culture certainly appear on the surface quite maladaptive. If they are, the dross-burning force of natural selection will have its way. There's really no reason to worry here. If God is having His way in a groaning creation, if Jesus is the first fruits, it'll be fine. The Sower casts the seed everywhere--on the path, in the rocks, on the shallow soil, in the good soil. In every scenario, natural selection applies. Some of the seed may likely survive everywhere. And it will be adapted to those conditions. Perhaps the seed thrown in the nominally good soil will be the weakest of the lot. Yet the Sower sows everywhere and who, if anyone, will be like Him?

October 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBrian P.

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