A Fumbling Journey, Part 1
Note: How does my walk with God relate to modern scientific discoveries? Can I maintain biblical Christian faith even if I change my mind on an issue like evolution? Many Evangelicals today are pondering these questions. Finding the answers will involve more than a mere synthesis of scientific facts. We need to hear stories from others who have wrestled with evolution and Christian faith. What arguments made them change their views on science? How did they hold fast to the Bible and their relationship with God? The essays in this series will eventually comprise a book, provisionally titled, Evolving: Evangelicals Reflect on Evolution.
Today we hear from ecologist Dorothy Boorse about her exposure to evolution during her childhood through college years. Tomorrow she will remind us that love comes before being right—even on evolution.
When the class ended, a student was crying right in the front row. Two or three people hovered, one handing her a tissue, another giving a hug. We had been discussing the fact that the earth looks really, really old and that many Christians believe this is consistent with the purpose of Genesis and its ancient middle eastern literary style. “But “, she said, “I don’t know what to think. My professor who told me otherwise was so godly. “ Her distress was profound, and it brought back to me the journey I have been on as well—a journey in which I have discovered that for His own good reasons—God allows even godly people to be wrong about points of fact.
I remembered back to my own school years when a shy, kind man with thinning hair taught middle school science in our small Christian school. A poster hung on the wall. It showed a progression of supposed pre-human forms. Under each was an explanation for why it was a fraud. The whole poster mocked the entire idea of evolution—using Piltdown man as Exhibit A, but also calling many other scientific findings fraud. The poster seemed to suggest that that scientific fraud was so obvious a twelve year old like myself could see it, but so difficult to understand that the entire scientific community was befuddled. My friends and I loved the idea, tickled that we somehow knew something experts didn’t.
Misinformation, however, was not limited to the poster. I remember clearly a slide show, projected on the wall from an ancient projector, each slide flitting down in turn from its slot in a carousel, and popping up again, to let the next be seen. The slide series purported to show proof of a young earth which most of the believers I knew supposed to be described in the Bible. In the slides were pictures of what I was told were dinosaur tracks alongside human tracks, seen in Glen Rose, Texas. “Wow,” I thought. “Look at that! We know something that they have missed.” The “we” were Christians, and the scientists were “other”. On that day, with a fly lazily making its way through the class, and the poster curling on the wall, the hum of the projector and the slides of rocks along the Paluxy river showing on the wall, I did not suspect how much my opinion would change. Within only a few years, the Glenn Rose footprints were known to be a hoax, some carved deliberately out of rock, others misidentified. A movie made about them would later be retracted. The very idea of human and dinosaur footprints in Texas had been debunked and I myself was faced with overwhelming evidence that my elementary and middle school science had been flawed.
My family was a learning one—we learned the names of plants, dissected the occasional dead mole or rabbit, discussed the role of tannins in the ecosystem of the Pine Barrens, and read broadly. My father, a biology teacher with seminary training, was not as easily impressed by materials we brought from school. “Some biblical scholars believe the Genesis account does not actually mean that the days were 24 hours,” he told us. “Many Christians have no problem with science and Christianity.“ We were given space to believe evidence that the earth was old. A good family friend was a geologist and a Christian. At home I pondered how these things might fit together.
Somehow by high school I found my position shifting. I remember one scene in particular. My family was visiting a different church on Sunday. My older brother and I were in the high school Sunday school class. Evolution came up, and the students and Sunday school leader were saying things about evolutionary theory that I knew did not make sense. Without intending to, my brother and I found ourselves disagreeing with the group. If you are going to contradict something based on science, we both felt, you need to have logical arguments. The discussion got awkward and I wondered how I had ended up there. I was very devout. Why was I the one sitting in this church basement youth group room with people I did not even know, sticking up for a part of science I still knew little about? To them it sounded like I was disputing Christianity. How had that happened?
In college, many things came together. I was exposed to a number of different ways to view both Scripture and current science and was able to consider the different views for myself. I could see ways science and faith might relate without conflict. The relief was palpable. This was like a tight spring uncoiling. I got to know many people who were able to put things together that I had seen in tension. But it wasn’t always easy; I had my own experiences like my student would have years later in class. I discovered that I sometimes disagreed with people whom I loved and respected. And it wasn’t just about science. I found out that a kind family friend couldn’t believe women were capable of leadership, although he personally cared deeply for me and my sister. I remember an elderly woman in my church explaining that she gave up cards and dancing when she became a Christian, while I privately thought both were benign activities. I saw people who were real, kind, loving, complicated and sometimes, just sometimes (at least in my opinion), they were wrong. In these experiences, I was able to see that you could disagree with people and still love them. This epiphany, that loving people is separate from agreeing with them, had been modeled for me by a number of my mentors. I especially saw it in faculty at the Mennonite high school I attended and my parents. Indeed, my middle school teacher also modeled this very trait in many subjects but it was in my young adulthood that I began to understand the idea.
Even later in college, however, I had a crisis of faith. It was not primarily precipitated by evolution or other issues of science and faith, although they were present. I struggled, as many do, with the problems of pain, the suffering in the world, the environmental degradation I saw around me, and the terrible history of human actions toward each other. I could not understand the history of Christianity or why people of faith could do so many unjust things. I saw my own sins and weaknesses. I felt that we were trapped, the human condition was terrible, and I doubted whether God could be both powerful and good. It is hard to explain all of the ways I needed to heal, but I did do so. As I came through this period, in which I struggled with depression as well, I made a conscious choice to live in joy. Because I found the words and life of Jesus so compelling and because I had such a strong sense of my own need for forgiveness, I re-made a decision to follow Christ. I have continued in my faith even as I pursued higher education in the sciences.
Tomorrow, Dr. Boorse will explain how she thinks of evolution now and share some lessons learned on the importance of loving those who disagree with you.
Dorothy Boorse, Ph.D. is Professor of Biology at Gordon College. She studies wetland ecology, invertebrates, vernal pools and salt marshes, and is also passionate about connecting science and faith communities, increasing women and minorities in science, and supporting science literacy. She teaches, does research with students, and has just co-authored an environmental science textbook for undergraduates.