Following God’s Path, Part 1
David’s personal story is a reminder that BioLogos was begun by Francis Collins to be a resource and encouragement for young men and women who love the Lord and actively explore the world He made through science. Here in Part 1, David recounts how his love of science was fostered in a conservative community where it was assumed that evolution and biblical Christianity were incompatible, and how his views on origins and Genesis began to change from those held by his friends and mentors. In Part 2, David focuses on How God continued to lead him to focus on bringing faith and science together.
“Come and listen, all you who fear God; let me tell you what he has done for me.”(Psalm 66:16 NIV)
I’ve loved science for as long as I can remember, and from an early age I imagined my future career as a scientist. I also grew up immersed within Christian Fundamenatalism; I attended a Fundamentalist church, went to a Fundamentalist school through 3rd grade, and from then on was home-schooled using the Fundamentalist Christian school curriculum from Bob Jones University (BJU). My views on creation were very simple: God created everything fully-formed during the literal creation week around 6,000 years ago, just like Genesis clearly says. Of course, I knew that most scientists didn’t believe this, but how could they be expected to get it right when they wouldn’t listen to God’s own account of the events? To reject God’s existence, they naturally had to make up their own story of how we got here, and evolution was the fable they came up with to banish God from the world. I also knew that some Christians liked to have it both ways by believing in evolution while still calling themselves Christians. But these theistic evolutionists were clearly compromisers – barely Christians, if that, who didn’t really believe the Bible. Either that or they were just plain confused. And if they knew more about science, it would be clear that evolution wasn’t even scientifically defensible anyway.
Besides, you surely didn’t have to accept evolution to really do science, as organizations like the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) and the credentialed scientists on faculty at BJU made clear. As a matter of fact, by being young-earth creationists, they were surely able do science better, since they after all knew the real story of how it all got here! I remember reading articles by leading creationists declaring that the theory of evolution was on its last legs and would collapse completely within another decade or two. Now that was exciting! Not only was science on the verge of a massive revolution that would vindicate the Bible, but that revolution would nicely coincide with my career as a scientist; I would be on the cutting edge!
However, in 2006 I read an article on Francis Collins’ then upcoming book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. It was the subtitle that got me; I hadn’t heard of Collins before that, but the idea of an apparently well-known, Bible-believing scientist defending Christianity appealed to me. But I was surprised to learn that he was also using the book to defend theistic evolution! I bought the book when it came out, and it really surprised me. Collins didn’t seem like a confused man, nor did he seem like a barely-Christian compromiser; he had reasons for what he believed, and they actually seemed like good reasons. All of a sudden, I started wondering whether it was possible that my preconceptions about theistic evolutionists (or evolutionary creationsists, as many prefer) were actually misconceptions.
Soon after that, I discovered the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA), a group of evangelical Christians who were involved (or at the very least, interested) in the sciences. I soon became a student member and enjoyed reading as much as I could from their excellent journal Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith. Although the ASA has no official statement on evolution, it became clear that practically no one there thought the earth was young, and most of them accepted evolution as well. First Francis Collins, then the ASA…this all really caught my attention, and I just had to learn more.
I started reading books on the relevant subjects – as many as 30 books in one year. Books on history (by writers like George Marsden and Ronald Numbers) helped me understand how and why modern creationism and Fundamentalism developed. Rather than being the one faithful continuation of true Christianity, as I had always been told, it became abundantly clear that Fundamentalism was a thoroughly modern invention – a modernist conservatism to combat modernist liberalism. True historic Christianity had numerous biblically-faithful ways of dealing with the sorts of challenges I was learning about, but these helpful approaches were unfortunately not “conserved” by the ultraconservatism of Fundamentalism. Even the cautious openness towards mainstream science of many early architects of Fundamentalism (such as James Orr) was completely left behind by the time that Fundamentalism exclusively embraced young-earth creationism in the 1960s.
However, certainly the most important studying I did was on how to properly interpret the Bible. I quickly came across views like the day-age theory, but something didn’t seem right. Surely stretching the “days” of Genesis to match the eons of science didn’t get us any closer to what the Bible itself actually meant to say, no matter how convenient the results may have been! But when I read more, I learned that scholars, including many evangelicals, were learning more than ever before about the original context of Genesis through studies of Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) writings. If there’s one thing that Fundamentalists, evangelicals, and everyone else can agree on, it’s the importance of studying the original context, so I dove right in.
Working to see Genesis through the eyes of its original audience opened my eyes to a wholly new way of seeing things. We in the modern Western world are used to reading nearly everything literalistically; we don’t look for metaphor, allegory, or symbolism when reading owner’s manuals, newspapers, workplace emails, and scientific papers, and so we uncritically expect the opening chapters of Genesis to communicate in exactly the same sort of way. But ancient cultures didn’t work like that. Especially when it came to origins, they told stories full of rich symbolism and metaphor, where even a certain number would mean something special. Now of course Genesis is unique among ANE creation stories in that it is inspired by God, and therefore true and authoritative for us as biblical Christians. But understanding how ANE people communicated helps us understand how Genesis communicates too; just like how we interpret apocalyptic language in Daniel and Revelation, understanding the literary genre of the passage at hand is essential to discerning the truth that God has for us. When we focus on the theological message of Genesis 1-2, and how the symbolic details of the passage work together to convey that message, we can see extraordinary truths about God’s creation that we miss out on when we flatten the text down to a modern, out-of-context literalistic account.
I am reminded of how baroque painters would sometimes paint the Christ-child with a cross and orb in his hand, symbolizing his sovereignty and role as Savior of the world. As a literal depiction of events, it was “incorrect,” to show Jesus holding the orb and cross like this. Yet that depiction was nevertheless true, if interpreted correctly. In this example, we can see how freedom from strict literalism has allowed the artist to convey far more theological truth than mere photorealism would allow. What ever happened to our imagination and eye for symbolic meaning? Or could we really think that God wouldn’t be as adept as His creatures in conveying truth through metaphor? if Genesis was a richly symbolic telling of the theological story of creation, then critically evaluating the scientific story of creation couldn’t be done simply by comparing Genesis with a science textbook as if they should be one and the same. At that point in my journey I turned to the work of theologians to understand what the biblical doctrine of creation actually entails, and that’s where I’ll pick up the story tomorrow in Part 2.