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My Faith Shouldn’t Be Alive (But It Is, and Here’s Why)

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June 23, 2010 Tags: Lives of Faith
My Faith Shouldn’t Be Alive (But It Is, and Here’s Why)

Today's entry was written by Rachel Held Evans. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

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.

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Greg Myers - #19487

June 29th 2010

Your story leads me to remark on the robustness of faith itself. You remark that your faith is alive… but is this really the same faith?  The nature of God is different. How God communicates, and what God says about himself has changed. What you expect from God is not the same. So how is this the same faith?

Step back a little, and think about all the different things people have faith in. There are theistic and non-theistic religions, political and social foundations for faith, faith in individuals, self and even nature- and all of them serve the same purpose as your earlier, more fundamentalist faith. Is it possible that it is faith itself that we have evolved to value, and the objects of our faith secondary to meeting that basic need?

Greg Myers - #19489

June 29th 2010

Martin writes…
under a mistaken view of how God’s perfection requires Him to act in the natural world.  They believe that if He is “perfect in orderliness,” He must not allow deviations from natural law in the world that would violate His perfection as God.

Quite the contrary, the issue is that deviations cannot be found to have happened. Scientists see unexpected things all the time. This is one way science moves forward- looking for the unexpected, and then working to explain it. To ascribe anomolies to God is the end of science.  This is what is so damaging about claiming “God did it;” it encourages fks to stop looking for answers.

Martin Rizley - #19509

June 29th 2010

Greg,  I am not really sure I understand your opening comments in #19487.  You write, “Is this really the same faith?”  The same faith as whose?    You write, “The nature of God is different.”  Different from whose God?  You write, “How God communicates and what God says about himself has changed?”  Changed from when?  You write, “What you expect from God is not the same?”  Not the same as what?  I’m not sure what you are comparing my faith to.  To the faith of the apostles?  If so, then I beg to differ with you.  For I really believe (you may think naively), that I do have the very same faith as the apostles, that I believe exactly what they believed about Christ, His redemptive work, the gift of salvation, the final judgment, the second coming, etc.  I believe in the same God as they believed in, with the same attributes.  I expect from God the same thing they expected—to do all that He has promised to do in His unerring Word.  It may seem to some like the height of naivete to say nothing whatsoever has changed about the apostolic faith in the last 2000, but that is exactly what I believe (continued).

Martin Rizley - #19510

June 29th 2010

The law of gravity has not changed over the last 2000 years, has it?  The only thing that has changed is our own understanding of that law, which has deepened through scientific investigation and study.  In the same way, the church’s understanding of the apostolic faith has deepened, as different teachers, theologians, have meditated on the apostolic writings and have formulated creedal and confessional statements that summarize in a systematic way the apostolic teachings concerning God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, the plan of salvation, man’s creation, fall, and redemption by Christ, etc.  But since those teachings were given by divine revelation, and by no means represent man’s own religious speculations and feeble efforts to “discover” divine truth by the light of reason, experience, etc., those teachings have not changed in the least in the last 2000 years.  That’s why Christians are to contend earnestly for the faith which has been ‘once for all delivered’ to the saints.  They are not to alter it in any way, because the doctrines of apostolic Christianity are not the fruit of man’s search for God; they are God’s gift to man.

Greg Myers - #19516

June 29th 2010

Martin, it makes no sense to speak of “the church’s understanding of the apostolic faith.”  There is no reason to think that we are doing a better job of theology now than in the past, and there is no agreement about what faith means.  What we have faith in changes through time, place, denomination (and even from church to church and individual to individual).  And no one can provide any compelling reason why their faith perspective should be accepted over another’s perspective (else we would indeed have just one understanding of faith).

Next, add in the different ways faith is understood outside Christianity, and then outside theism, and then outside religious belief, and you have a wide range of belief and practice around the idea of faith. 

It is just this situation (the wide range of understandings about faith) that lead me to ask if it is faith (in God or gods, in political systems, in nature, in rationality, in community, in one’s own self, or in another) itself that survives - not faith in a particular thing.

Rachel says that she still has faith, but a quick inventory will reveal that the content, foundation, implications and even practices that make up the object of her faith have changed.

Martin Rizley - #19527

June 30th 2010

Greg,  I know that in our present world situation, the idea that there is such a thing as propositional revelation from God to man (revelation in the form of a message from God to man that is true for all people everywhere)  seems incredible to many people.  After all, when you consider this vast, yet ever-shrinking, world in which we live, and the kaleidoscope of belief systems, religions, and ideologies that are embraced and sincerely practiced by countless multitudes in different parts of the globe,  it seems incredible (and to many incredibly narrow, presumptuous, and arrogant) to suggest that some people are “right” in what they believe (because their beliefs are in accordance with what is objectively true) and others are “wrong.”  It seems incredible that there could be one and only one message from God to mankind that all must receive by faith in order to receive the forgiveness of sins and be reconciled to God.  But that is in fact the claim the apostles made in the first century (in a culture as pluralistic as ours, I might add) and it is a claim that still holds true today.  (continued)

Martin Rizley - #19528

June 30th 2010

I would suggest you read again the words of the apostle Paul concerning the “message of the cross” in 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, for it shows that in the first century, just as in the twenty-first century, people were offended by Christian gospel, and in particular, what Paul calls the “logic of the cross.”  Notice, it wasn’t the ‘uninterpreted’ cross that offended people, but the interpreted cross—the message of Calvary—the message which says that man can do nothing by his own meritorious works to attain a right relationship with God, but must be reconciled to God solely through the substitutionary atonement of Christ on Calvary, who bore the penalty of sin in his own body and soul on the cross.  That message was a stumbling block to the Jews because it indicated that their most strenuous efforts to attain right standing with God by their own ethical strivings in conformity to the Law of Moses were utterly worthless; and it was foolishness to the Greeks, because it meant that their efforts to arrive at truth and “enlightenment” through the exercise of human reason operating on its own light was also worthless (continued).

Martin Rizley - #19530

June 30th 2010

Ever since the first century, the Christian gospel has continued to ‘nix’ every religious philosophy based on on human works, merits, wisdom, knowledge,etc., by telling ‘seekers’ to stop their seeking and receive by faith the “logos,” the word revelation, concernng the cross of Christ that has been revealed from heaven to men.  That message has not changed in the last in two millenia, and it still calls us to repentance and faith in the crucified, buried, risen and ascended Savior.  The gospel reveals clearly that not every type of ‘faith’ is worth having, but only the faith which is placed in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth, who IS the Christ, the Anoined One of God.  So I must disagree with you that “faith” is the important thing, and the object of faith not so important.  The object of faith is essential.  Just as an oxygen tube cannot save anyone, but merely acts as the conduit through which life-saving oxygen is transmitted to a person on life support,  so “faith” does not save anyone, but merely acts as the conduit through which Christ Himself is given to us—if our faith is placed in Christ as the object of our hope.

Greg Myers - #19553

June 30th 2010

Martin, I don’t deny you your perspective - I point out that it is just that - one perspective among many.  The perspective you express is not shared by all who have faith.  That you reject any other understanding of faith than yours as “not worth having” serves to underscore my point.  For all that you see it as worthless, others find it life-giving.  For all you think it lacks utility, others would disagree.  You cannot convince these others that they are wrong - faith is a personal matter, and there is no appeal to a higher authority (god is either not speaking, or speaking inconsistently).

Faith is so important to many folks that when they are no longer able to “have faith,” they re-invent the object of their faith, and go along their way.  Faith is robust, even if the things we have faith in are not.

Martin Rizley - #19582

June 30th 2010

Greg,  Your words express what I can only describe as a ‘post-modern’ view of religious truth.  Post-modernism believes that there is no one truth that applies to all people everywhere, since different peoples embrace different ‘narratives’—different interpretations of reality—that function as truth for them on a practical level.  For some, the narrative they embrace is the Christian narrative; for others, it is the Marxist narrative; for others, it is a Buddhist, or an Islamic, or a Hindu narrative, etc.  Each person has his own private version of truth, and no truth claim may regard itself as absolute, since different ‘versions’ of truth ‘work’ for different people.  In contrast to this view of truth, however, I believe that authentic Christianity from the very beginning has been ruthlessly antagonistic to the idea of ‘private truth,’ by asserting that the universe was created by a God of truth whose truth applies to all people everywhere.  Our interpretations of reality are valid only to the degree they conform to God’s prior interpretation.  In other words, truth, by its very nature, is public and universal (continued);

Martin Rizley - #19583

June 30th 2010

whether it is the truth of the Pythagorean theorem or the truth of the incarnation, truth is truth for all people everywhere, whether or not they choose to acknowledge it.  To embrace the true and living God, we have to abandon whatever ideas we have about Him that are not in conformity with His self-revelation in Scripture.  Paul had to abandon his Pharisaical beliefs to embrace Christ.  Greek polytheists had to abandon the worship of Diana and Athena to embrace Christ.  Augustine had to abandon Manichaeism.  That is because the gospel deals with objective facts, not private ’visions’ of reality.  Either Jesus was or was not born of a virgin.  Either He is or is not the eternal Word of God made flesh.  Either He did or did not perform the miracles ascribed to Him in Scripture.  Either He did or did not rise bodily from the grave and later ascend to heaven; and either He is or is not seated in the place of supreme authority over all heaven and earth as the King of kings and Lord of lords.  Paul says bluntly that if the facts on which Christianity rests are not objectively true—(continued) for

Martin Rizley - #19584

June 30th 2010

for example, if Jesus’ bones rotted in some tomb in Palestine, if His ‘appearances’ were mere hallucinations in the minds of the apostles—then Christianity is a contemptible hoax, and ought to be rejected by all sensible people everywhere.  But if the facts upon which the gospel rests are objectively true,  then all people everywhere need to abandon their own beliefs that do not accord with the revelation of truth given in the Word of God.  People may successfully live for a time in their own fantasy world, cherishing their own fabricated ‘visions‘ of reality; but because we live in a world made by the God of truth whose truth does not ‘accommodate’ falsehood, all people will ultimately be forced to acknowledge His truth by confessing Jesus Christ as Lord.  Better for us that we acknowledge that truth now willingly by falling at Jesus’ feet as His bondservants, than to acknowledge that truth later by falling at His feet unwillingly as vanquished rebels against His rule.

Greg Myers - #19617

June 30th 2010

Martin, the observation that faith differs from person-to-person, religion-to-religion, sect-to-sect is not a modern observation, let alone post-modern.  It is something that has always been true - that there is no one universally accepted objective truth.  What is more, you have no way of demonstrating that the “facts” of your faith are objectively true.  You have faith that they are - and that is the best you can do.  Other people believe that their own (different from yours) faith is based on “objectively true” facts (even if it is just the facts of their own subjective experience). 

Rachel came to doubt the “objective facts” of her faith, and has discovered that her faith survives, though with a different set of “objective fats” than she started with.  This is more common than people seem to expect.  I’d go so far as to say that most people experience a change in what they believe in as they gain in life experience, education, perspective, etc.

This is why it seems to me that we are wired for faith, and that as a result, we find things to believe in.

Martin Rizley - #19645

July 1st 2010

My ‘observation’ was not the fact that different people have different belief systems, but the idea that all these conflicting belief systems are equally ‘true.’  That is a distinctively post-modern view of truth, based on the assumption that truth is a “private” matter and that no truth claim can be regarded as absolute.  Although quite popular in our present cultural milieu, this post-modern view of truth is quite antithetical to the Christian view of truth.  There is a world of difference between saying that there is no universal, objective truth and saying their is ‘no universally ACCEPTED truth.”  The fact that not all people ACCEPT a particular axiom as “true” has no bearing on whether or not that axiom itself is in fact universally true for all people everywhere.  Heliocentrism was true for everyone even when multitudes of Galileo’s contemporaries refused to accept that idea as truth.  So, too, even if the whole world were to deny the truth of the gospel, that would not alter the universal, objective truth of the gospel in the least.  (continued)

Martin Rizley - #19646

July 1st 2010

That is why Paul could say, “Let God be found true, and every man a liar.”  It is God’s affirmation of something, not man’s affirmation of it, that makes it true.  Moreover, while I may be unable to PERSUADE an individual that the faith I confess is objectively true, that doesn’t mean I have failed to PROVE to him its truth.  You see, it is possible to PROVE that something is true without people being PERSUADED of its truth.  Just talk to a “flat earther” sometime.  You can offer him the most compelling proofs of the spherical shape of the earth; but he can still refuse to be persuaded and devise sophistical arguments to rebuff what you are saying.  I believe the Bible offers many powerful and compelling proofs to substantiate its truth claims; the gospel itself was confirmed with “many infallible proofs,” but that does not mean that people will be persuaded of its truth until God is pleased to remove the ’blinders’ from their eyes and shows them their error.

Greg Myers - #19758

July 1st 2010

Martin, I am not suggesting that all belief systems are equally true.  Nor is the idea that there are many paths to God a post-modern idea.  And theologically, I think you underestimate the role of the Spirit in the process of conversion (John 6:44) - it is not a simple rational argument (consider Jesus’ point about the futility of miracles in the conversion process).  No religion I am aware of presents a compelling proof of its truth.  This post had its genesis in Rachel’s growing awareness that many of the truth claims were not actuality true. 

My point?  Not that you don’t believe that you have the truth, but that many others share your stance - though the content of their belief is different.  Your position is not different from the flat-earthers you deride.  The only difference is that most people agree with you that they are wrong.

You are making my point - it is faith we crave, and will accept a wide range of objects of that faith.

Martin Rizley - #19859

July 1st 2010

I don’t see how you can possibly say that I am underestimating the Spirit’s role in the process of conversion; everything I have said about how people come to faith presupposes the Spirit’s work.  First, people are converted as through the testimony of the Scriptures, which have been verbally inspired (breathed out) by the Holy Spirit.  The Bible is the Spirit’s own testimony to Christ, given through the agency of men.  Moreover, I have said that, although the Bible carries within itself “many infallible proofs” of its divine inspiration and authority—among them, fulfilled prophecy, the exalted character of its teaching, the majesty of its style, the full disclosure it makes of the way of salvation, the aim of its teaching, which is to ascribe all glory to God—I have insisted that “people are not persuaded of its truth until God is pleased to remove the ‘blinders’ from their eyes and show them their error.  Now, who removes those blinders?  The Holy Spirit. So I have continually emphasized, at least implicitly, that conversion is by the Holy Spirit (continued)

Martin Rizley - #19862

July 1st 2010

However, I don’t believe that the Spirit has to “add” anything to the Bible that it is lacking to convince men of the truth of its message, as if the Bible lacked sufficient evidence within itself of its own divine authorship.  Rather, the Spirit’s role is to “remove the blinders” from our spiritual eyes so that we can see that Bible’s internal evidences for what they really are—convincing proof that the Bible really is a revelation from God to men.  The fact that we need the Spirit to give us that full persuasion of the Bible’s truth does not mean that compelling internal evidences of the Bible’s divine inspiration are lacking or are not convincing.  It is simply to acknowledge that, due to the sin-darkened character of our minds, those evidences will make no impact on us—we will not feel their force or be persuaded by them—as long as our spiritual “eyes”  are blinded to the divine character of the Word.  Our blindness is culpable, however, for we OUGHT to see that the Bible is from God.  “Father Abraham” said to the rich man in hell that his brothers “had Moses and the prophets” and that OUGHT to have been enough to convince them of the reality of divine judgment.

Martin Rizley - #20000

July 2nd 2010

Greg,  The crux of our disagreement, it seems, is that you believe that because so many people hold sincerely to contradictory beliefs, it is obvious that the really important thing about faith is the act of believing itself, not the content of faith.  You seem to regard this as a ‘self-evident truth,’ whereas I see nothing “self-evident:” about it.  People can be very sincere in their beliefs, and die as a result, if those beliefs are misplaced.  Initial short-term benefits of a misplaced faith will eventually give way to future long-term disillusionment and loss.  Let’s say, for example, that someone is dying of hunger, and they find food that is contaminated.  The short-term benefit they receive from eating that food—relief from hunger, an initial feeling of physical renewal—will eventually give way to the symptoms of food poisoning and death, unless an antidote is found.  If you say, “Well, you can’t know that what you believe is true and what others believe is false,” then I ask you to apply that principle to yourself.  How do you know that we “cannot” know if our beliefs are true and those of others are false? is that not in itself a ‘truth claim’?  How do you know it is true?

Greg Myers - #20052

July 2nd 2010

Martin, an important distinction between your analogy and the situation with faith is that we can know if food is tainted or not.  Even if modern methods of investigation were not available, we could say “people always get sick when eating food from x,” or “people who eat food Y are much healthier.” 

Unfortunately for religion, no such correlations are observable.  As a result, it is not possible to say that one religion is true because it produces “good fruit,” or another religion is false because it produces bad fruit.  Though to be honest, by the claims that most religions make, they have proven themselves false.  Taking Christianity for example, Genesis presents two creation stories, both taking place on a flat earth and underneath a hard dome of the sky.  All living creatures are created in much the same form we see them now, at roughly the same time.  None of these claims are true.  Of course, since this cannot be denied, we move all of these items over to the “metaphorical” or poetic category.  The last few hundred years has seen a steady shifting of such claims over to the poetry and metaphor side - but this has not resulted in resulted in the faith going away - we’ve just changed what we believe.

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