Confronting Our Fears, Part 4: Losing Face
As we continue our tour of fears that confront evangelicals considering evolutionary creation, I’d like to start with an extended (and possibly familiar) quote from Augustine about what’s at stake when we ask, “What if I’m wrong?”
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience.
Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men.
If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?
Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.1
– St. Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430)
For a good portion of my life, I had an extremely difficult time admitting that I was wrong. To do so was an admission of intellectual failure, faulty logic, or simple ignorance—not knowing everything about everything.2 Being wrong is a hard pill to swallow sometimes, because in many cases it equates to losing face. As it pertains to the creation-evolution debate, I believe that we evangelical Christians tend to express that fear by “holding the line” against certain areas of scientific study, rather than being willing to admit that we might be wrong. In most cases, we have no problem accepting the authority of the world’s best physicists, chemists, meteorologists, engineers, and physicians. Our problem tends to be with scientific authorities in only certain areas of study, such as biology, anthropology, paleontology, geology, and astronomy. Why? It’s because the Bible is the divinely inspired word of God and these areas conflict with the plain reading of Scripture, right?
When we evangelicals come to the table of scientific discussion, we tend to pick and choose those “foods” which appeal to us, while wrinkling our noses at what our theological tastes find disagreeable. As long as the menu includes a wide assortment of things we already like, and we share the table with people with similar tastes, we can get along just fine with this strategy. But is this wise in, say, a survival situation? Food is food, and if we’re hungry enough and don’t have a life-threatening allergic reaction to something specific, I would venture to guess that we’d dig right in without a second thought. In regard to the creation-evolution debate, I am convinced that the evangelical church will find itself in dire straights if we intentionally starve ourselves intellectually, especially with a healthy banquet in full sight and within reach. I also think having a too-restricted “diet” limits our ability to sit down with those outside the church and can, as Augustine believed, play a role in actually prohibiting the secular world at large from coming to a saving knowledge of Christ, “to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil.” Several years ago, Bruce Waltke, former Evangelical Theological Society president and former professor of Old Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary, updated Augustine’s caution in a brief video production for BioLogos, suggesting that the church risks losing our ability to really interact with the world if we don’t trust God’s providence in this area. Wheaton College’s Professor of Christian Thought, Mark Noll, as the very first sentence of his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind writes, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”3 If not for the fact that I’ve never met Professor Noll, I’d believe he was talking about me a decade ago.
What drives us evangelical Christians to “hold the line” against acknowledging truths in these certain categories of scientific knowledge? After undergoing several theological shifts myself over the last decade, and seeing others do the same, I believe I’ve been able to “reverse engineer” what happened in my own life: It was a subtle slide from a confident faith into a comfortable, unwitting arrogance. When we believe that we are in an intimate spiritual union with the Creator of the universe, it’s quite easy to forget (if we ever understood this in the first place) that God can couch theological truth in a variety of literary genres and, yes, even in the context of ancient, scientifically inaccurate cosmologies.4 Caught up in the awesome truth of spiritual union, what makes perfect sense to us at any particular point in our spiritual walk can be easily confused with “the truth.” We also gravitate toward churches that conform to our particular belief systems. We prefer pastors who preach to the choir. We buy books that support our particular theological system. To attend another church, listen to a theologically edgy pastor, or read a book from a completely opposite viewpoint from what we’re accustomed to would be to invite a considerable measure of tension into an otherwise comfortable intellectual and spiritual environment.
How many of us actually have or take the time to study evolutionary biology, theology, the history of biblical interpretation, ANE literature, or modern translations of Babylonian creation myths? I would venture to guess that very few of us have the same opportunities that professional scientists and theologians take for granted in their academic careers. To overcome the fear of losing intellectual face, I recommend exposing oneself to different ways of thinking about these topics, including perspectives that you might deem “outside the box.” Reading multi-view comparisons and critiques, such as those found in Zondervan’s wonderful Counterpoints series, is particularly helpful in this regard. Familiarity with and exposure to these views helps temper that initial fear or shock when we come across those few brothers and sisters in Christ who opt to take another approach to any one topic. (One youth pastor friend of mine, when discovering my views on a particular topic, approached me and excitedly exclaimed that meeting me was like meeting a dragon: “You hear stories about them, but you never see one!”)
A word of warning: Before I adopted evolutionary creationism, my neatly packed theology was virtually stress-free. Ignorance was truly bliss. Then came the paradigm shift, and all sorts of previously suppressed tension, questions, and doubts rose to the surface. Another word of warning: If you’re not confronted with tension, questions, and doubts in your day-to-day spiritual walk, something’s wrong. Wrestling with theological issues is not an activity to be avoided; it is a discipline to be vigorously pursued! If you are comfortable enough in your relationship with the risen Savior, you should not fear admitting your ignorance on various topics and entering into a period of temporary uncertainty. This fear can be remedied by taking advantage of a fully informed palette of theological options provided by genuine Jesus followers, including those that embrace biblical criticism. If one’s faith is truly rooted in the One by, for, and through Whom all things were made, all the theories put forth by the higher biblical critics and esoteric scientists should be no cause for fear—but all should be cause for loving dialogue.
1. St. Augustine of Hippo, The Literal Meaning of Genesis (De Genesi ad litteram), Trans. J. H. Taylor, in Ancient Christian Writers (Long Prairie, MN: Newman Press, 1982), vol. 41.
2. “Ignorant,” Oxford Dictionaries, accessed October 08, 2012, http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/ignorant.
3. Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994), 3.
4. See Denis Lamoureux, Evolutionary Creation: A Christian Approach to Evolution (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2008); Brian Godawa, “Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography in the Bible,” accessed October 04, 2012.