Evangelicalism and Adaptation
Note: This essay was originally posted July 13, 2010.
I recently had the chance to attend the BioLogos-Gordon College Conference 2010: "A Dialogue on Creation." Over four days, we listened to lectures and had vibrant discussions on evolution and creation. The life of the mind was indeed stimulated and friendships were made.
During the Q&A session of one of the talks, a wonderful question was posed regarding Evangelicalism and evolution, and what the future held for Evangelical theology. Given the current tension between modern science and the church, the following question was posed: “Which would be better: Evangelicalism changing to accommodate modern scientific findings, or the development of a new, ‘better equipped’ theological basis?” That is, in the spirit and model of evolution, is it possible for Evangelicalism to adapt, or would Christianity be better served if a new theology took its place?
In the discussion that followed the question, it was clear that the majority agreed that Evangelicalism must not fade out of the picture.
The main argument is that Evangelicalism is much more than theology. The component of intellect, while being vital, is only one piece of Evangelicalism. Ideas can be debated, thrown around, tossed out, and revitalized. I hope that most would agree on this. In addition, however, there are strong personal, cultural, and sociological implications for the demise of Evangelicalism. Evangelicalism is not solely a theological construct. We should not throw the whole enterprise away and start anew.
Clearly, adaptation is the better approach. (I can only imagine that species when faced with this “choice” would tend to agree.) But as in nature, there are limitations to variation and adaptation. Is this degree of change even possible without losing the heart and soul of Evangelicalism?
This discussion reminded me of a relatively common example of adaptation that I experience as a biology professor at a Christian liberal arts university. Students often come into my classes having been told by their pastors that acceptance of evolution equates with being a non-Christian. If evolution is true, then the Bible cannot be read literally, and so on. As an Evangelical who is firmly convinced of evolution, I tell them that of course it is possible to be a Christian and an evolutionist at the same time.
But it often doesn’t matter. Students still see it as an either-or. They remain ardent in their anti-evolutionary stance, for fear that treading the water will lead them to lose their faith. Since they obviously don’t want the latter, they MUST reject the former. I’m not sure I blame them.
They can’t comprehend that their beliefs can undergo an adaptation or evolution themselves. For them, it is clearly extinction or bust. And in this case, we’re contrasting adaptation with extinction of not just a species, but life completely.
So what am I to do? Should I show them the evidence for evolution? Yes. Should I tell them that I believe their pastor is mistaken? Yes (but with humility and grace). Should my “modeling” of Christian behavior and action support my claim that as one who is clearly an evolutionist, I am also a Christian? Yes. These are all good examples of what can be done. But I think that there is also another way.
Theology is often described as “faith seeking understanding,” a quest to explain in human terms an encounter with God. To contemplate the infinite using the finite. In Evangelicalism, we believe and rejoice in the experience of God, both personal and communal. We hunger for this experience and in fact question our faith when we struggle through times where God seems absent. Where is God? Why has God “left us”? Conversely, those times when God seems most close awaken and revitalize us and, I think, perhaps, personally remind us of the hope that we have as Christians.
All of the above language intimates that there is inherently a strong personal component to our understanding of faith (for me, within Evangelicalism). It is my fear that students struggling with evolution and the aforementioned pastors’ comments believe that the truth of evolution will then somehow invalidate their experiences with God and the life of the Evangelical community. As a result, they will cling heavily to their ill-conceived disbelief in evolution –“evolution MUST be wrong because my faith is right.” I know this statement to be wrong. How can I teach them this without ripping apart their faith?
I look my students dead straight in the eye and tell them that no matter what, debate within the intellectual sphere cannot and should not take away or diminish the importance of the personal nature of their faith. The intellect, to use a scientific phrase, while necessary for the faith, is not sufficient. The personal and communal experiences that they believe to be encounters with God matter. They give us a glimpse of God and ultimate reality in ways that can be difficult to describe. The experience of Jesus’ followers led to the creation of a new religion! This is not to say that one’s faith needn’t hold up to scrutiny, but merely that adaptation of the mental does not invalidate the personal. (For more, see "No Fear", with Os Guinness.)
As a result, there is no need to be on the defensive regarding evolution. Instead, one should be on the offensive for intellectual truth, regardless of what it looks like. Personal experiences are meaningful and no one can take that away. I tell my students to ground themselves in that. And then I tell them to feel free to go and discuss the validity of scientific or other claims, without fear. The classic mantra “All truth is God’s truth” is not cliché.
As we learn more about the world that God has created and take the truth claims of science seriously, it is likely that some cherished or traditional Evangelical ideas will need to be reworked. However, this does not mean that evangelicalism should fade away; it will only need to adapt to its new environment. Along the way, we proceed with intellectual humility and the purest of intentions. We do this with the belief that our experience of God is real and that our interpretation of it and the world around us is, while challenging, legitimate. We do this remembering that the intellect is just one component of our Evangelical faith tradition. We do this knowing that the end result will be a “species” that is indeed the most fit to explain our interaction with and understanding of God.
Justin Topp is an Associate Professor of Biology at Gorden College. Previously, he was an Assistant Professor of Biology at North Park University in Chicago, IL. His research interests are in cell and molecular biology and include cell signaling, alternative splicing, and currently, the molecular characterization of Borrelia burgdorferi, the causative agent of Lyme disease. He has recently started blogging on science and religion at wordpress.com.