How To Talk to Family About Evolution

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January 28, 2014 Tags: Christian Unity, Lives of Faith

Today's entry was written by Nathan Smith. 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.

How To Talk to Family About Evolution

We are fortunate that Bill Nye’s upcoming debate with creationist, Ken Ham, did not take place before the Christmas holidays. Why? Well, many of us celebrate the holidays with family – the one unit of human society whose solidarity transcends the tribalism of everyday life. We sit and eat next to an uncle or a sister with whom we disagree on a great many things. Avoidance, rather than engagement of, ongoing political, societal, and religious issues is very often the best way to enjoy that time, a time many of us have traveled so far to cherish.

So when it comes to evolutionary theory and the family members we love dearly, but disagree with, the concern increasingly becomes “How do I relate to people for whom I have great love, but also great differences?”

The question balloons when evolution is demonized from the pulpit, caricatured in the small group, and misrepresented in the classroom. We who accept evolution as God’s method for creation find ourselves biting our tongues all too often in these encounters, sometimes more than once in the same encounter. And then there are the times we don’t bite our tongue – from a frustrated sigh, to a snide remark, and all the way to a full-blown argument. Either way, discussions involving evolution are not easy to have in the American religious landscape, much less around the family dinner table.

For many of us, the evidence for evolution is just too compelling to ignore. Yet, upon accepting evolutionary theory as a more settled explanation of origins, it can be difficult to look back on the teachers, friends, and family who taught us otherwise without shades of contempt. What do we do when our communities of origin, which gave us so much life and spiritual direction, cease to inspire our trust on basic issues of science and faith? Richard Rohr’s Second Half to Life approach has been instrumental in helping many to resist the temptation of reverse antagonism towards the communities that we emerged from. James Fowler’s seven stages of faith and human becoming have helped many navigate the path of maturation and how to graciously engage those we have come to disagree with but with whom we are still intimately entwined – family, life-long friends, ministry partners, spouses, etc.

Evolutionary theory is not just an explanation of human origins, but is also a new epistemological paradigm – a way of thinking about reality. Examples of this abound: Robert Bellah’s latest great work, Religion in Human Evolution, set out to find the origins of religion in biological and cultural evolution. Robert Gnuse, in his book, No Other Gods: Emergent Monotheism in Israel, argues that punctuated equilibria, (a theory in evolutionary biology which posits that change occurs not steadily, but in brief episodes after long periods of stasis) can also be used to explain cultural evolution, historical development, and more specifically the religious development of Israel’s faith in the ancient Near East. Evolutionary theory, for Gnuse, has moved from the biotic realm to the abiotic, and for many it is offering answers beyond its original biological scope. (345)

One of the difficulties with adopting a new way of thinking is the rupture that occurs in moving from one paradigm to another. Many times, when that transition has been made, we tend to look back on our forebears with pride, disdain, or just plain frustration. But because accepting evolutionary theory for the first time does require us to reconsider and reframe other aspects of our cultural and spiritual beliefs, we must be more caring about the way we interact with those who remain in disagreement with us. As much as we might want evolution to be about accepting the evidence alone, it is about so much more. For many of us, we needed to look not only at the evidence, but also at the walls of our paradigm, before deciding to step outside them.

Jim Carrey, acting the role of Truman Burbank in the 1998 hit film, The Truman Show, deserved our compassion, not our disdain. His life, lived in front of billions yet without his knowledge, wasn’t something that we as viewers felt a need to castigate or make fun of. Rather, when Truman finally found out that he was living in a fabricated world with walls, he found his way out. Each of us watching him step through to the outside world expelled a sigh of relief. The catch was, he had to discover this other world for himself. Immediately, we could all think of someone who is living a similar sheltered life – and yet none of us thought of ourselves as the ones being sheltered.

In the same way, we like, Truman Burbank, encounter times in our life when we realize the need to let go of a paradigm that had previously given us meaning, identity and belonging. While we may recognize new benefits that come with the needed change, we can struggle to look back with charity on the benefits our previous community provided us. While Truman had been deceived his whole life, that is rarely the case with those who have historically rejected evolutionary theory. Most times, they believe that by opposing evolution, members of their community are benefitted. While that perspective can no longer be accepted by those of us who have embraced evolutionary theory, there are still benefits we can be thankful for as we look back. As such, our own evolution can provide us with charitable gratitude for where we’ve arrived as well as where we’ve come from.

Evolutionary theory is a paradigm of thought and action. It calls us to compassion, not castigation, to being compelling, not to being correct, to being faithful, not to fighting. So when we share our newfound convictions regarding evolution with Christians who don’t accept this direction, we must remember we are talking to family, not just friends, acquaintances, colleagues, etc.

It also tells us that we may have more walls to breach even as we peer back on those we’ve already breached. For those who are compelled by the evidence of evolutionary theory, we should also be compelled by the ethics of human development. We need to not only emerge from communities who may now struggle to trust us, but to also be people whose ethics have evolved such that we embrace those communities with charity. We do that with our family by being compelling, being compassionate, being faithful and embracing the challenge of new paradigms rather than fearing them. And God willing the evidence will do the rest.

“Would to God that all the party names and unscriptural phrases and forms which have divided the Christian world were forgot, and that we might all agree to sit down together as humble loving disciples, at the feet of our common master, to hear his word, to imbibe his Spirit, and to transcribe his life in our own!” —Charles Wesley in Wilber T. Dayton, “Infallibility, Wesley and British Wesleyanism,” in Inerrancy and the Church, ed. John D. Hannah (Chicago: Moody Press, 1984), 244 as quoted in Kenton Sparks, God’s Words in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Scholarship, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 374.

 


Nathan Smith is an adjunct of Biblical Studies at Cornerstone University and blogs over at www.restoringpangea.com. His research interests are in contextualization, Old Testament and Historical Theology.


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Hanan D - #84328

January 28th 2014

Examples of this abound: Robert Bellah’s latest great work, Religion in Human Evolution, set out to find the origins of religion in biological and cultural evolution. Robert Gnuse, in his book, No Other Gods: Emergent Monotheism in Israel, argues that punctuated equilibria, (a theory in evolutionary biology which posits that change occurs not steadily, but in brief episodes after long periods of stasis) can also be used to explain cultural evolution, historical development, and more specifically the religious development of Israel’s faith in the ancient Near East.

I may be wrong, but I doubt mentioning a book like this would help. It basically negates the story of Israel as a family chosen by God that later reveals his will to. Instead, Israel is just a one of the local tribes that revolutionized a new belief. That’s it. 

Is that the belief that you would like shared with fellow religious Christians? 

Also, why stop there, if evolution is used to explain everything, why no mention resent statistics that show more and more of the western world is becoming secular. So it went from many gods, to one god, to no god. Thats a shift that evolution can explain, right? 


Nathan Smith - #84336

January 28th 2014

Hannah,

Thank you for beginning the first comment. I imagine that Robert Gnuse’s book is not the best representation of how to understand the development of Yahwism in early Israel, but it’s one that cannot be ignore in the field of Old Testament. What was interesting in his volume was the way in which punctuated equilibria crossed from science into biblical studies as a salutary theory to describe a religious social evolution. I’m sure there are other examples that could be found in non-religious books as well. My point was merely to suggest that evolution is not only a scientific conversation - as an ideology it is having a farther and farther reach into other academic and popular disciplines. 

I believe you are right to critique Robert Gnuse’s conclusions in some sense though his works have great merit as well. The most important critique is his positive appraisal of Process Theology/Theism - a position that is difficult to hold for many Christians. I personally don’t hold that view, but understand why some would.

Gnuse was included merely to mention how those outside of science disciplines are co-opting evolutionary paradigms for their own purposes.

As far as the progression you mentioned ending in “no god,” I am unconvinced that evolutionary creationists or theistic evolutionists perceive their system as possibly ending in the non-belief of God, but rather in a more expansive view of God than can understand his ways as reaching beyond the bounds of religion and theology into science, just as science is reaching into theology. There are some bumps, but the relationship between science and faith has been long overdue and whatever we do, we need to keep moving forward with concerns like yours in mind, but also hope and openness to ways of thinking that we may not have had, nor could have prior.

I hope that helps to clarify. Thank you for your comment

Nathan


Lou Jost - #84354

January 30th 2014

“Is that the belief that you would like shared with fellow religious Christians?”

But Hannan D, this is exactly the wrong kind of question to be asking. This same attitude  towards belief is what got creationists in trouble with reality in the first place, and it continues to get theists in trouble. The question should be “Is this belief true, or backed up by evidence?”, not “Is this what I would like to believe?” or “Is this what I would like others to believe?”


Matthew Winegar - #84339

January 29th 2014

This is a tough issue for me.  I also have family members who disagree with me about evolution (and age of the earth and other issues that Creationists typically disagree with me on).  I think it is important as a fellow believer in Christ to keep a Christlike attitude, and try to avoid letting things become a stumbling block to people’s Faith.  However, I do not believe we should hide what I believe, if pressed.

Many times, when that transition has been made, we tend to look back on our forebears with pride, disdain, or just plain frustration.

As above, pride and disdain would not be part of a Christlike attitude.  However, for me frustration can be unavoidable when dealing with these differences.  I need God’s help in knowing how to deal with these frustrations in a way that honors Him and advances his kingdom.  This is my prayer as I work through these issues.

While Truman had been deceived his whole life, that is rarely the case with those who have historically rejected evolutionary theory. Most times, they believe that by opposing evolution, members of their community are benefitted.

They may believe this (about their community benefitting, which is of course debatable), however many in this camp are deceived (willfully or not) by propaganda from Creationist organizations about the evidence for and claims made in contemporary scientific theories.

 


Nathan Smith - #84346

January 29th 2014

Matthew,

Thank you for your thoughts. The frustration you spoke of is felt by many. It is a wrestling match for sure. I like the paradigm of family - or reality of family - in that we must assume we are family before the conversation begins. It’s one of those things that both hides and perpetuates problem but also is the proper and good place to hash them out if need be. The best thing about a family is that they remain so until their death, even if their disagreements last unto death.

I do honestly believe that many creationists are less propogandists and more sheerly convinced that they are right and by fighting for their view, they are serving God in spite of his family. Phinehas in the Old Testament is the Israelite who was willing to kill another Israelite in order to purify the community - he is praised for doing so. 

Many times that is the posture we as Christians can take with each other. We can become militant even towards our own family if we think that it will “honor” God, but that just doesn’t fit with New Testament zeal - the kind of converted zeal that Paul practices after his conversion. It’s a zeal for each other over and against zeal for our positions.  

I wrote about that here - http://restoringpangea.com/religious-zeal-its-not-what-you-think/

Blessings 


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