Exploring Evolution through Conversations in the Church
In my experience, the topic of evolution has largely been taboo within the Christian community. Until quite recently, that didn’t bother me. My working life is in biological research and I was comfortable with the isolation that I experienced within the church community. Science and biology are not exactly a hot topic of discussion within my church; very few people that I knew in the church pursue scientific careers, let alone women. Moreover, I didn’t know what to think of the “evolution versus creation” debate, myself. As long I didn’t work directly in developmental or environmental biology, I too could avoid the topic. I cultivated a spirit of timidity about my faith in the work place, did not wholly integrate my faith into my daily life, and, because it was not taboo in my church, I chose Intelligent Design as my lens through which to examine the meaning and validity of the theory of evolution.
Then came the first of two personally transformative events. The first was the human embryonic stem cell debate and controversies around creating human embryos in the lab with the idea of re-purposing them for research (the controversy has since largely subsided thanks to the scientific development of induced pluripotent stem cells – but that’s a different topic!). Suddenly, my faith and professional world overlapped in relevant ways because it engaged my heart and mind. I figured these ideas were directly the result of believing in a common ancestral descent between all species. If human embryos resemble non-human primates and other species under the microscope, I thought, then perhaps we were not set apart and we too can be subject to experimentation.
Several years later, however, I challenged my line of thinking and I couldn’t get around the fact that how humans came to be—whether as a relatively sudden and separate creation or the result of a gradual, contiguous creation—had nothing to do with the sanctity of human life. That came from being made in the image of God. In my opinion, the theory of evolution is silent and irrelevant on the issue of the sanctity of human life. As a result of wrestling with the thought, the debate suddenly shifted for me from “evolution versus creation” to ”who versus what” did the creating—i.e., the God of the Bible or a random process involving natural forces and particles. Thinking about the idea of creation this way freed me to whole-heartedly dive into Genesis, reading it for the first time through the lens of an evolutionary creation. Simultaneously, there was an opportunity to apply for a Scientists in Congregations grant from the Templeton Foundation. I wrote a proposal jointly with the brilliant youth pastor at my church, Reverend Bill Haslim (trained in the physical sciences). Through this opportunity, I felt free to visit the theory of evolution purely from a scientific viewpoint, divorced from the lens of naturalism, thus bringing a scientifically informed perspective into my reading of Scripture.
I believe Christ is who he says he is and that the Bible is the truth about our lives. The books of Genesis and John tell us that all life happened at God’s command, that he had a design in mind for all species, with human beings at the pinnacle, who were made in his image. By connecting the dots from a huge body of evidence, researchers have come to understand that there are two components that led to a contiguous creation of diverse biological species, gradually culminating in humanity: random genetic variation (which arises through mutations in the genetic code, the cell’s ‘software’ for all life) followed by non-random survival (also known as natural selection). So the question becomes: “If God created through a gradual, evolutionary process, how does that square with the conviction that the world is not an accident, and that our existence is an expected result?” The Scientists in Congregation grant was an invitation to look at an evolutionary creation through the lens of Genesis.
Starting with the statement of faith that God created all that is seen and unseen, here’s how I began to see things after the discussions we had in our church: God is in charge of the environmental conditions through which selective pressures would have been at work over the millennia determining survival in a non-random fashion. Even naturalists, such as Richard Dawkins, believe that random genetic variation serves a purpose. From a Christian perspective though, that purpose signifies that God left the creation of the physical universe open to his influence. Natural selection then becomes the filter he used to preserve the good, to shape and mold his creation over time. God generated the full diversity of life through one continuous act of creation unfolded over time by balancing the effects of purposeful variation on the one hand and the environment as a filter on the other hand, a filter designed so that at each stage what has gone before is also a part of what is to come. This strikes me as conceptually akin to a potter at his wheel molding the clay. Creation by evolution does not necessarily exclude God from playing an active role as Creator. Per Deuteronomy 29:29, there are details that will remain unknowable to us. Perhaps the unknowable in the biological world is the space within which he operates undetected. So, let us not fear filling in the gaps in our scientific knowledge, for God is in the details!
We cannot know the reason God created the universal physical world through one process or another. Scripture does not address that. We do however look to Scripture to inform us on what may be termed “human selection”, i.e., what happens when humanity shapes itself through human embryo selection, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, abortion, and, potentially, human cloning. This pits natural selection (with God as the “Who” behind it) vs human selection (with humankind as the “Who” behind it) – now that’s an intense and relevant discussion for the entire Christian community!
The “Scientists in Congregation” grant came at the only time in my life that I could have entertained it, for I was in between jobs (albeit, the next job was not lined up yet). Now I know God had big plans for me during this time of hardship in the desert – plans to make me more fully whole and to shake my timidity.
The second transformative event in my thinking about evolution and faith came about when I read the following three books: The Language of God by Francis Collins, The Language of Science and Faith by Francis Collins and Karl Giberson, and Coming to Peace with Science by Darrel Falk. These books compassionately exposed me to the idea that I do not have to make evolutionary creation an enemy of my faith – and this has led to the renewal of my mind and heart. This simple truth has generated integrity in my life, refueled my passion for my line of work, and made me less timid about my faith. I am now keen on learning about the challenges to theology this view introduces, such as how does one come to understand Adam and Eve being made in the image of God, and the Fall from the perspective of evolutionary creation? I now see the exploration of these questions as a means to gain a deeper understanding of the Word rather than as threat to the truth of Genesis and the message of the Gospel.
As part of our “Scientists in Congregation” project, we used The Language of God and The Language of Science and Faith, respectively, for a focus group discussion and a 4-week study on evolution and Scripture which we called “Genes & Genesis.” The authors effectively convey that as we fill in the gaps in our understanding with greater and greater detail, biology becomes even more beautifully complex. In the words of a friend upon reading The Language of God, “God becomes even bigger and we become awestruck all the more.” When I asked for her views on what makes this book spiritually disruptive she replied, “It would only be disruptive if science made God smaller.” Someone else remarked, “This book walked up the alley of my prejudices,” and still another found it “shocking” yet exciting because it expanded her view of God.
Collins’ book was not universally liked by those participating in these discussions, but most found discussion of the book to be a surprisingly enriching experience. We engaged in this controversial topic as well through the four-week study. There was a wide spectrum of views on the topic among the 30 participants; some opinions were repeatedly and clearly voiced whereas others were difficult to discern. At the conclusion of the class, a lay leader in the church expressed that he unexpectedly found a willingness to accept a level of uncertainty in his interpretation of Genesis which to him made the conversation worth continuing despite the discomfort it had stirred. Many heads nodded in agreement. I don’t think we could have asked for a better outcome.
I hope that the Christian culture will one day foster exploration and at least affirm different points of views on how God created and thereby ensuring that no one experiences being a second-class believer. And I would like to be a part of making that happen. Hence, my interest in being a small group leader for the Book Club BioLogos is launching in 2014. Let us humbly seek to understand what we see in God’s creation and humbly relate to one another in this discovery process.