Conversing With Our Children about Creation and Evolution
Today's entry was written by Praveen Sethupathy. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.
Devout followers of Jesus and respected Christian theologians throughout the centuries have held diverse, thoughtful positions on the mode of Creation. Therefore, it is troubling to me that some of our communities teach that one, and only one, interpretation of Genesis 1-2 should be accepted as Biblical. For example, I am aware of churches across our country where young earth creationism (YEC) is taught as the only legitimate Christian position, Vacation Bible School curricula are devoted entirely to YEC, and Sunday school libraries are filled with books that teach that there is a Biblical imperative to believe that dinosaurs and humans co-inhabited the earth. It is important to note that such hardline positions often arise not out of malice, but out of a heartfelt desire, which I passionately share, to respect the authority of the Word of God. But I believe that we must be equally cautious about forcing interpretations that Scripture itself does not demand.
I now mentor students who were taught to view a single position on Genesis 1-2 as a central tenet of their faith, and in some instances were actively discouraged from expressing their doubts or openly wrestling with their questions. Now, as students of science, they find themselves ill-equipped to reconcile their childhood faith with their study of the natural world. This often leads to insecurity and even crises of faith. They feel confused, sometimes unsure about what it means to be a Christian, or whether it is even acceptable to share their struggles. When I meet these students, the damage is so palpable, and reversing it is not easy. Many just fall through the cracks without anyone knowing. For these reasons, I am passionate about giving students in my sphere a space for honest inquiry and healthy discourse. They've become so used to shutting out the world when it comes to questions about their faith, but I want them to embrace the freedom they have in Christ to be reflective.
But what if they had been reached when they were children? What if they had been given the space to explore their faith and engage their intellectual curiosities? What if their stories and ideas about who God is to them had been encouraged?
My 6-year old son, Caedmon, is a bright, creative, and curious boy. He is eager to learn and is always brimming with ideas and finds such interesting ways of articulating them. Every day I try to share with him one exciting thing I learned or did and he does the same. Recently he shared a story with me that reminded me of the value of seeing the world through a child’s eye.
Caedmon: Daddy, today I have a story about how God makes fairies in a place called Dreamland. He first makes a “keeper”. This “keeper” has a magnetic force that holds all of the instructions for making a fairy. When the keeper is activated, it starts a long process of carefully making each of the parts of a fairy.
Praveen: So God doesn’t make the fairy, the keeper does?
Caedmon: No, God is the Maker. He’s definitely in charge of making the fairies.
Praveen: Wouldn’t it make God seem more powerful if he just made the fairies directly and immediately?
Caedmon: Well, no, because God uses a long careful process a lot of the time to make things.
Praveen: How do you know that?
Caedmon: Remember that seed I planted outside with mama? I realized that it takes a long time for God to grow the vegetable from the seed!
Praveen: Oh, I see. But why do you think it happens like that, is there a reason?
Caedmon: Well, if God just made things suddenly all of the time, it would seem too much like magic. When he does things kind of step by step, it makes him very real to me.
I thought the “keeper” in Caedmon’s Dreamland was extremely interesting. Why did he find it so natural to have this intermediate step in fairy creation? As I talked further with him about this, I realized that he had mimicked the concept of DNA. I interact quite often with Caedmon and all of my children about my work as a professor and geneticist, about the artful beauty in DNA, and about the wonders it speaks of our God who authored it. These conversations had helped Caedmon become quite comfortable with the notion that the power of God does not rest necessarily in the immediacy of his creative act, but rather in the glory and splendor that the creation and the process of creation reflect. To Caedmon, the keeper was such a magnificent part of the created order in Dreamland that much of the rest of his story focused on the ingenious activities of the keeper toward the goal of making fairies.
The wisdom in Caedmon’s story is sometimes lost on us. We are often offended that God should have to accomplish anything in steps, as though that made him less divine and all-powerful. But engaging a child can be a fruitful remedy for the biases that have been woven into the fabric of our thinking over time. Creation by process made God seem more powerful and real to Caedmon, not less. In fact, the process of fairy creation was vital to Caedmon’s story because he felt that without it, the fairies would be inclined to view themselves as a product of “magic,” rather than an expression of a creative Person. In other words, the process points to God, and maybe even represents an invitation to learn more about him. I shared with Caedmon that this reminded me of my own work; in particular, how my studies of the evolutionary process in Creation have helped me to better understand the patient and longsuffering character of God. This led to a lovely discussion of other examples of God unfolding his creative vision in a process; everything from the development of an embryo to the sanctification of our hearts.
On another occasion, Caedmon and I had the following conversation when we were talking about a certain species of bird that was near extinction:
Caedmon: Daddy, I have an idea about how to save a species that is about to go extinct. How about we gently take DNA from one mommy and DNA from one daddy, make lots of copies of it, and then put them together to make new children?
I was delighted to see how he had fashioned this idea by putting together pieces of various conversations we’d had in the past about genetics and God’s craftsmanship.
Praveen: That’s very interesting, Caedmon. Would that mean that we are Creators just like God?
Caedmon: Definitely not, because we would have nothing to create with if God hadn’t given us the mommy and the daddy bird to get the DNA from.
Praveen: So we can create from materials God has already given us, but God can create from nothing.
Caedmon: Right. And that’s why He’s so powerful and different. But do you think that God maybe doesn’t want us to create things like this?
Praveen: Well, I think an important question you have to think about is: why are you doing it? God cares about your heart and whether what you’re doing will honor him. Whether or not we should actually do what you suggest probably requires some more thought and prayer, but I definitely think that God is honored by your desire to want to help!
We have a rule in our home that almost no inquiry is out of bounds for discussion. I believe children can often engage and even initiate much more stimulating conversations than we give them credit for. When we give them the space to explore thought-provoking subjects related to their faith, such as creation and evolution, I believe that we help them to cultivate a culture of honest reflection and discourse, be better prepared to tackle the questions and challenges that are sure to arise in their faith journey, and ultimately draw nearer to God.
Praveen Sethupathy is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Genetics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he directs a research laboratory focused on the genetics/genomics of complex human diseases. Praveen received his B.A. in Computer Science, his Ph.D. in Genomics and Computational Biology, and he continued his training as a post-doctoral fellow with Dr. Francis S. Collins at the National Institutes of Health. Praveen was recently selected by Genome Technology as one of the nation’s top 25 rising young investigators in genomics.