My Faith Shouldn’t Be Alive (But It Is, and Here’s Why)
There’s a great little show on the Discovery Channel that never fails to undo my best laid plans for Saturday afternoons. It’s called “I Shouldn’t Be Alive.” When the title alone isn’t enough to draw me in, it’s only a matter of time before the survivor of a plane crash (or rock slide or shark attack or hiking misadventure) begins recounting in excruciating detail his decision to cut off his own arm with a pocket knife (or eat his dog or drink his urine), rendering me completely useless on the living room couch until I’ve seen that the rescue helicopters have arrived.
We all love survival stories, which is perhaps why I like to compare my own faith journey to one--though with considerably less blood and suspense.
You see, my faith shouldn’t be alive. By all accounts, it should have perished the moment I started asking questions about faith and science. All my life I’d been taught that I had to choose—between believing the Bible and believing my science book, between honoring God and embracing evolution. To accept one was to effectively kill the other, I learned. They couldn’t both survive. They were incompatible.
And yet here I am—a girl who loves Jesus and accepts evolution, alive to tell the tale.
Survival stories usually begin in a dramatic setting, and mine is no different. For most of my life I’ve lived in Dayton, Tennessee, home of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. Located in the buckle of the Bible Belt, Dayton is not the most convenient place to question a literal interpretation of Genesis. Most people here believe that evolution is part of an anti-Christian worldview, and the wounds from getting called “yokels” and “ignorants” by the press during the trial are still being nursed today.
I attended a small Christian college in town named after William Jennings Bryan, where one of the most popular professors at the time was a leading young earth creationist. This professor often told the story of how, as a sophomore in high school, he had dreams of becoming a scientist, but could not reconcile the theory of evolution with the creation account found in the Bible. So one night, he took a pair of scissors and a newly-purchased Bible and began cutting out every verse he believed would have to be removed to believe in evolution. By the time he was finished, he said he couldn’t even lift the Bible without it falling apart. That was when he decided, “Either Scripture was true and evolution was wrong or evolution was true and I must toss out the Bible.”
Having operated within this paradigm for so much of my life, I experienced a major crisis of faith when I encountered the overwhelming scientific evidence in support of evolutionary theory soon after graduating from college.
On the one hand, I felt betrayed. Pastors and teachers had assured me that science supported a 6,000-year-old earth and that only atheists with an agenda against Christianity believed it was older. And yet everything from the fossil record to biodiversity to starlight to DNA seemed to confirm evolutionary theory as sound, with the overwhelming majority scientists affirming it.
On the other hand, I was afraid to accept undeniable truth I’d encountered. I didn’t want to walk away from my faith. I didn’t want to throw out the Bible. I didn’t want to reject God. But everything I’d been told up to that point led me to believe I had to choose. Doubt is difficult to describe to those who have never experienced it. What’s most frightening about it is how one question leads to another, which leads to another, which leads to another, creating a sort of domino effect out of your skepticism and fear. I lay awake for hours at night, struggling with this conflict between my intellectual integrity and my faith. I begged God to “help me in my unbelief,” but His presence seemed to drift farther and farther away with every seemingly irreconcilable conflict between reason and faith.
I thought for sure my faith was a goner.
The first rescue helicopter came in the form of Francis Collins’ “The Language of God.” A friend recommended it, and it was the first time I’d ever read the work of a scientist so passionately committed to both his Christian faith and accepted science. The fact that it was even possible to be a Christian and believe in evolution gave me hope.
In the third chapter, Collins includes a quote from St. Augustine, who—centuries before Darwin made his landmark observations—warned Christians against interpreting the first two chapters of Genesis too strictly. Said Augustine, “In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in search for truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it.”1
That was when I realized that my hyper-literalist interpretation of Genesis 1-2 was going down, and it was taking my faith with it.
I couldn’t let that happen.
So like a survivor cutting off his arm to escape from beneath a boulder, I severed my fundamentalist approach to Scripture. (Okay, so it wasn’t really that dramatic. Let’s just say I spent some time on the BioLogos site, ordered “The Lost World of Genesis One” by John Walton, and managed to survive the faith crisis with my love for God and for the Bible intact.)
So why tell my story?
Because I wasn’t alone out there in the wilderness of doubt, and not everyone’s faith survived. I have friends who walked away from their Christian faith right when their gifts and talents could have served it best. They walked away because they thought being a Christian demanded willful ignorance and fear of truth. They walked away because they felt betrayed by their pastors, parents, and professors. They walked away because they believed the lie that they had to choose.
And that makes me angry sometimes.
It seems like for every survival story, there is a story of loss…which is why I believe the BioLogos Foundation is so important. We’ve got to work together to reverse this trend. We’ve got to send out more rescue helicopters to young people around the country who are desperately holding on to what remains of their faith. These are unnecessary casualties of an unnecessary war, and the simple knowledge that faith and science can coexist can be enough to bring a lost soul back from the brink.
My faith shouldn’t be alive.
But it is, and not a day goes by that I am not grateful for the gift of a second chance.
Rachel's book Evolving in Monkey Town is available on Amazon. To hear about Rachel's journey, see our video conversation with her (below).
Rachel Held Evans is a self-described "writer, skeptic, and Christ-follower" from Dayton, Tennessee—home of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. Her first book is a spiritual memoir entitled Evolving in Monkey Town. She enjoys speaking, blogging, traveling, playing poker, and talking theology over coffee.