“The evolutionary idea is certainly compatible with Christianity; but not so long as it claims to be the supreme idea, to which Christianity must be shaped. Evolution is within Christianity, but Christianity is not within evolution.” – P. T.Forsyth
I was raised by a zoologist. That has been one of my life’s greatest blessings, for to paraphrase Charles Darwin, “There is grandeur in [their] view of life.” Biologists look at the natural world with a sense of wonder. With artists, they share a sense of awe.
As a young science teacher, Dad introduced the science fair to Ponca City High School in Oklahoma in the mid-1950s and served as its faculty sponsor for three years. Then, in 1959, his work took us to Ethiopia for seven years. He taught at an agriculture college that Oklahoma State University was fostering in Harar Province. Other staff biologists were Bill Burger, later curator of the botanical collections at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and author of Perfect Planet, Clever Species (2003); and entomologist Bob Hill. The three biologists were intrepid researchers, and on weekends Dad plotted the stratification of mammals in Ethiopia’s Chercher Highlands and adjacent areas, going to rain forests, rock valleys, and desert plains. He added hundreds of specimens to the collections at the College of Agriculture and established a zoo at the college.
Dad took evolution seriously. One morning at the breakfast table, he asked my brother and me, “What is Darwin famous for?” We both replied, “The theory of evolution.” “No,” Dad answered, “the theory of evolution was around long before Darwin. What he contributed were two plausible explanations for what drives evolution: natural selection and sexual selection.” Dad taught science even at breakfast.
My brother inherited Dad’s science gene. He, too, is a zoologist. Dad’s sisters married agricultural scientists who taught at Oklahoma State University. I’ve known scientists all my life. I’ve loved scientists and been loved by them. These relationships shape my life-long interest in how to understand science in the context of our Christian faith.
Likewise, my professional interests shape my understanding, especially Church history. My particular affection is for the history of the Victorian Church in England and America, when nineteenth-century science brought new understandings to the Christian faith. And church history shows that churches and individuals grappled with these challenges in various ways. Owen Chadwick notes in The Victorian Church that the new science had little influence on the rise of unbelief, which was largely based on philosophical grounds, not scientific ones. James Moore’s The Post-Darwinian Controversies demonstrated that some of Darwin’s most intense intellectual foes had no real antennae for the Christian Faith, while, conversely, some of his most convinced supporters were drawn from the ranks of committed and fully orthodox Christian believers.
When I first learned about evolution in science class, the concept conflicted with what I believed the Bible taught, and yet I suspected that it had to be true in some way. After all, my father was a scientist whom I knew, loved, and respected. I also respected his colleagues in the science department, whom I knew to be honest and honorable. On the other hand, no one really helped me to think through how to square this with the first eleven chapters of Genesis. As a result, I compartmentalized my thinking. Four years of study at a Nazarene college didn’t help. All of the biologists at Bethany Nazarene College were evolutionists when I arrived there as a freshman in 1968. In fact, all of the professors who taught science were, except one, who soon retired. Still, there was reluctance to talk about evolution and the Christian faith. There was similar reluctance on the part of the religion faculty, so I put Genesis 1-11 in a little box and ignored it.
This compartmentalization wasn’t that uncommon for my generation of Evangelicals. But eventually I had to take the issue out of that little box and deal with it.
I have a strong visceral reaction against the whole notion of “myth” in the Bible. No matter how the term is qualified or explained, I can’t get past that visceral reaction to a word that will always connote “not true” in my mind.
On the other hand, I have no visceral reaction to thinking of Genesis’ early chapters as theology, pure and simple, that is expressed in narrative form. There are, after all, many different ways that Biblical writers “do” theology. In the Gospels, Jesus does theology through teaching and parable. The Gospel-writers themselves theologize through writing the passion narratives. Other New Testament writers wrote theology by means of epistle and apocalypse. And in the Old Testament there are yet other methods of theologizing: psalm, proverb, prophecy, and the editorialized history found in Kings and Chronicles.
Theology is also done through narratives. Narratives, in fact, are a great way to teach theology. Preachers do it in sermons all the time. Jesus did it. And once I accepted Genesis 1-11 on this basis, there came peace of mind and the removal of some residual intellectual clutter.
There also came greater appreciation for the great affirmations of the early chapters of Genesis, such as the cycle of stories about sin in chapters 3-11 that collectively probe this sorry and painful dimension of human experience: sin as eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (in other words, deliberately experiencing in one’s own person the distinction between good and evil); sin as jealousy and fratricide; sin as hubris that leads to babble; and the towering story of Noah that depicts God’s wrath toward sin and the Divine judgment upon it.
Like all others, I must face the most important question that arises from this literature: where do I stand on its affirmations? Is Israel’s faith in the One God also my faith? Can I affirm with Israel that the One God is the creator of heaven and earth? As an earth creature (a’dam literally means earthling), will I accept my place in the ecology of embodied existence and do my part to tend this garden into which God has placed me? And as one who has observed and experienced sin, am I willing to acknowledge my condition and throw my whole self upon the God who brings order out of chaos in both the physical and moral universes? As God is my witness, I do and I will.