Letting God Out of the Box
Having grown up in a Christian home, I was impressed with the Bible’s significance at an early age. I can still picture my mother cozied up every morning on the right end of the couch with her afghan and coffee, reading from the gold-trimmed pages of her brown, leather-bound bible. I can also repeat one of her favorite responses when confronted with the barrage of questions children never seem to run out of: “What does the Bible say?” she would often ask. But as I got older and moved farther and farther west on my own, I began to see God’s Word as much more than a life-resource book. The Bible became precious to me as I realized just how precious I was to God, despite my wanderings from the proverbial straight and narrow path.
Realizing such a beautiful thing made me desire God even more, and I began regularly attending the church a friend had introduced me to early on in my relocation to San Diego. The pastor’s messages were funny, relevant, convicting, and oftentimes full of scientific facts used to illustrate God’s majestic creation. As a college student pursuing a degree in biology, it seemed to be the perfect church. One Sunday the topic of evolution came up and I listened as he proceeded to explain how the “theory” was not only utterly ridiculous (it should really be called a “hypothesis”), but that it was incompatible with the Bible. Because the last biology class I took was in high school, I couldn’t quite recall what I learned about evolution; in my new-found zeal for righteousness, I figured doubting the theory was somehow pleasing God more.
Around this time I also began listening to a lot of Christian talk radio, and one of my favorite programs was a call-in show where listeners could join the discussion on that day’s topic. Every now and again evolution happened to be the topic, and whenever people would call in to defend it, the host always seemed to win the debate by countering every point they tried to make with a logical and persuasive argument that was also consistent with Scripture. Just as with my pastor, the radio host appeared to have done a thorough investigation of the matter. Because they were both Christians in leadership positions (and because they exuded absolute surety on the matter), I believed them when they claimed that, not only was there zero evidence for evolution, but that believing it was not consistent with the Christian faith. But the talk-show host didn’t stop there. According to him, evolution was not only a fraud, but a belief system that leads to suicide, Nazism and atheism. Furthermore, because it was being taught in public schools, evolution was responsible for the moral decline in our country. To be fair, this talk show host wasn’t alone. Nearly every program (on all three radio stations I listened to) mentioned similar sentiments about evolution at one time or another. I quickly got the sense that all Christians were in agreement on this issue, and since I wanted to be a good Christian, I determined that I was, too.
During this period I found myself in a very awkward situation. On the one hand I was a follower of Jesus Christ who loved the Bible, knew that it was God’s Word, and, therefore, knew that it was not full of lies. However, I also was someone who had loved science for many years and was planning on pursuing a career in research. Given all that I had learned about the incompatibility of the two worldviews, it seemed that I would have to choose. Or did I? One day on my commute home I turned on my usual AM radio station and heard something quite unexpected – the voice of Ben Stein. Intrigued as to why the teacher from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was on Christian radio, I continued listening as the host and Mr. Stein discussed Intelligent Design and the new documentary that highlighted it, Expelled! No Intelligence Allowed. Loving movies and having never heard of ID, I saw it as soon as it came out. The film did not disappoint: I left excited and relieved that an alternative to evolution had arrived—one that also seemed to be compatible with my faith.
By this time I had graduated from college and decided to pursue a career in education rather than research. I struggled immensely as I pondered what I would do when it came time to teach evolution, but considering that I had been offered a job amidst rumors of hiring freezes, I didn’t want to do anything that would jeopardize my position. During the week before the official start of the school year, there were several faculty meetings and department planning sessions. I was pleased to find out that I was going to be sharing a classroom with another Christian teacher. However, when it came time for the evolution unit, I was confused at the enthusiasm this same teacher had for the topic. I listened in as she taught her students that evolution makes the most sense of homologous structures, the phylogenetics of cytochrome c, and the apparent fusion of two chromosomes to make our chromosome 2 (accounting for the fact that we have one fewer pair than chimpanzees)—and that these features pointed to a common origin of all species, including our own. I couldn’t help but wonder, “What was going on here?! I thought she was a Christian, how could she stand up there and twist the truth?”
I figured that she must be one of those people who call themselves Christians, but really aren’t.
But something else concerned me more than my fellow teacher’s apparent divergence from the faith. Although I remember learning about homologous structures and the phylogenetics of cytochrome c, I never realized their significance like I did at that moment. Furthermore, the fusion of chromosomes our ancestors shared with those of chimpanzees was previously unknown to me. Taken together, these three bits of information were admittedly breathtaking; but even so, I wasn’t ready to accept them as anything more than peculiarities.
As my first year of teaching came to a close, I accepted an invitation to attend an info night for Point Loma Nazarene’s Master’s in biology program, designed for working teachers. I was certainly excited at the prospect of getting a graduate degree in biology rather than in education, but I was most excited to have my first taste of Christian education. During the Q & A period, however, that excitement was quickly turned to disappointment: I discovered that the faculty’s position on evolution and natural selection was one of acceptance. I thought to myself, “This must be one of those colleges that say they’re Christian, but really aren’t.” Despite this somewhat bitter conclusion, I went ahead with the application process anyway, and within a few weeks was sitting in my first graduate class. SEASAND was a summer workshop for teachers which we could use as an elective and that year’s topic just happened to be evolutionary developmental biology. Suffice it to say that I was a little worried at what I was getting myself into.
For the first week and a half I experienced serious internal conflicts trying to come up with rational alternative explanations to the apparent common descent of organisms such as fruit flies, mice, and humans as outlined in our textbook, Endless Forms Most Beautiful. I also took one of the professors up on his offer to answer our questions if we were having trouble with the course content as it pertained to our faith—an offer that caused me even more cognitive dissonance: here was a person who claimed to be a Christian and yet he was completely comfortable with saying that Genesis was not a literal creation account. Combining the terms “Christian” and “a non-literal interpretation of the Bible” was just not compatible with my understanding of things. I felt so lost that I did the one thing I should have been doing a lot more of from the start of the class – I prayed.
Through my times in prayer and reflection I discovered many things. For one, I learned that I had been putting God in a box: I was making him fit into my ideas of how he should create life, as if I knew the correct way it should have been done. I also learned that I had been awfully judgmental in mentally accusing the teacher I shared my classroom with, the people at Point Loma’s info night, and my SEASAND professors of only pretending to be “real Christians.” I even judged God himself by thinking that (if I were to admit that evolution were true) he had chosen a hideous way to bring about life as we know it. Finally, I discovered that a major barrier to my accepting evolution was that I didn’t want to say “I was wrong” to the many people I’d argued with about it; I would rather suppress the truth than swallow my pride. Having realized all of this, it was only a matter of days before I decided to stop ignoring the mountain of evidence being laid out in favor of evolution. As ridiculous as it may sound, I felt a weight lifted off my shoulders and a peace settle into my soul.
It’s now been nearly three years since that transitional summer, and to all those who claim a belief in evolution leads to atheism or any of those other unfortunate fates, I am here to say that you are greatly mistaken. I still love Jesus, I still love the Bible, I still attend a conservative evangelical church, and I even still listen to Christian talk radio. But the best part is that I am not an anomaly: there is an incredible group of Christians out there who accept God as creator and evolution as his process, and I have the privilege of working and collaborating with some of them every single day.