Thinking Aloud Together, Part 1
Note: At the Biologos Theology of Celebration workshop in New York City in March, Scot McKnight was one of the featured speakers. His lecture is published here as a three-part series.
With a Tear in His Eye
At the end of a class on Genesis 1—2, having finished a freshly-brushed-up lecture I give at least once a school year, a student whose name I had just learned approached me with the kind of seriousness in his eyes a professor recognizes. He looked me in the eye and said, “Thank you. This lecture saved my faith.” He hadn’t said a word in class, and he hadn’t given off the signals one sometimes sees in student behavior that indicate mountains are moving in his head. I simply looked at him with the invitation to go on. So he did. “My pastor told me that I couldn’t be a Christian if I didn’t believe in six-day creationism. He told me if God didn’t create some 10,000 years ago, then the whole Bible fell apart.”
He paused then said this, “I love science and I want to be a biologist, and the earth is more than 10,000 years old. So I was wondering if I could believe in the Bible and the Christian faith any longer.” The element that gave this young biologist the courage to continue was no less than eighteen points from John Walton’s book The Lost World of Genesis One. I’m not sure that the cosmic temple theory got him excited as much as a credible, historical Ancient Near Eastern reading of Genesis 1—2 (we’re waiting for Genesis 3, John) that meant it wasn’t talking about a creation ex nihilo some 6-10,000 years ago. In public schools this student had been taught that science tells us the universe is 13.7 billion years old and the earth is about 4.5 billion years and quantum physics is giving that period of time life and choice it never knew before (or that we never knew before).
Those of us who are on the side of the angels, and by that I mean John Polkinghorne, Francis Collins, Karl Giberson, Darrel Falk, Alister McGrath, Dennis Venema, Edward Larson, Simon Conway Morris, Owen Gingerich, and Alvin Plantinga, may have a gnawing habit of wanting to push against America’s Christian conservatives. (I could use stronger terms for Karl, but he’d perhaps say the same of me.) Indeed, we may find ourselves constantly wanting the young, restless and conservative crowd to think again about historical contexts and about the history of interpretation. But there is another side and that is that the young restless and conservative crowd believes the Bible and has radars a-throbbing for those they think are giving an inch, because they are convinced giving an inch leads to Darwin and Hitchens and bald naturalism and immorality and, well, hell. So the angels have a responsibility to mediate, I’m unconvinced we do this well, but I’m also convinced also we can do better.
There are, of course, some precedents—some of them bad ones. Like the famous polemical interchange between the brilliant young orthodox rabbi recently immigrated from Eastern Europe, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and the even more brilliant Albert Einstein.1 It occurred right here in Manhattan. Einstein famously argued for a spiritual motive at work in scientific endeavor, but he found the belief in a personal God to be a relic from a stage of human development out of which moderns ought to have grown. Instead of wanting such a God, Einstein argued for the Good, the True and the Beautiful. Heschel’s primal certainty was a personal God, so he satirized Einstein as a “missionary for a forgotten confession” and then proceeded to connect Einstein to Nazi racial theories. Heschel argued the foundation for true knowledge was the Hebrew Bible and that nature without faith and morals and the Bible will lead to immoralities of all sorts. (By the way, Walter Isaacson’s Einstein fails to mention this well-publicized episode in Einstein’s life.2)
This stuff matters
Some of you may know I have done research on conversion in general, and also have applied those results to specific kinds of conversion. For instance, I have explored why it is that Jews become Messianic, and why evangelicals become Catholic, and (with Hauna Ondrey) why Catholics become evangelical.3 (That book is called Finding Faith, Losing Faith.) One of the general conclusions is that all conversions are also apostasies, so I had the idea that if all conversions are apostasies then all apostasies are also conversions. So I studied why people walk from the faith, which means I spent some dreary, depressing days reading one accusation after another against Christianity as I plumbed for a pattern. The essence of apostasy is that such persons “discover a profound, deep-seated and existentially unnerving intellectual incoherence to the Christian faith.” But more important for our topic tonight is why they leave the faith.
Some leave because of Christians, or bad experiences with Christians – parents, pastors, churches and friends. Some find the traditional view of hell—or eternal conscious torment—morally unbearable, and come to the conclusion that if that is true then that God is also insufferable. For others it is more or less historical study – learning, for example, that Genesis 1—11 has parallels in the Ancient Near East, learning that the Bible’s textual history is out of sync with the magical Bible they learned in their tradition.
But I want to focus briefly on the two most important features of the crisis, and I will tie them together. It works like this: many Christians grow up with a view of Scripture that it is inerrant, and that means for them – and I speak here of the populist impression – that it is not only true but that is more or less magically true – true beyond its time, true when everything else says something else. Connected to this view of inerrancy is a view of Bible reading that takes a sound Christian idea called the perspicuity of Scripture, that the Bible’s message is clear to any able-minded Bible reader, and ratchets it up one notch so that the Bible reader thinks whatever I see in the Bible is what the Bible is saying. This is my way of saying that one’s interpretations of Scripture become as infallible as the Bible itself, and since everything interlocks, giving in one inch is the first step in apostasy. One of which views is that the Bible teaches science in Genesis 1—2. When the evangelical student marches off to Harvard or to schools of lesser repute, takes a Biology class from an able-minded, rhetorically-skilled and atheistic/agnostic professor who makes it more than clear that the earth is not 6-10,000 years old but is in fact closer to 3.5 billion years old, and then tosses in some Gilgamesh Epic or some Atra Hasis, and then loads into that the thoroughly vain notion that intelligent people don’t believe such things any longer, a student’s faith can be more than shaken. Many walk away or, more significant today, embrace an ironic faith.
My studies of stories showed me that the most common crisis that precipitates apostasy from the Christian faith is this nexus of Scripture and Science. Since truth is tied to one’s infallible interpretation of Genesis 1—3 and that it interlocks with everything else in the Bible, even the gospel itself, and since that view is fundamentally denied by Science, the student is forced to choose: Do I believe the Bible against all Science, or does Science disprove the Bible – the whole thing – wrong? The numbers who opt for the second choice are staggering, and for this reason alone we need more and more pastors who can think with young intellectually-gifted evangelical students who are clamoring for someone to mentor them through the thicket. We need more and more scientists who can write for the intelligent student in such a way that does not minimize the problem or promise simple resolutions, but who can point ways forward into the thicket with someone to guide them. Conversion studies reveal to me that we are dealing with a deep, existential issue that won’t go away and simplistic answers won’t satisfy.
Need I remind this audience that American students are being taught something that borders on naturalism—or at best deism—in public education? To be sure, there seem to be Christian public school teachers who suggest other answers than “evolution=atheism,” but the days are already here when they can get in trouble for such ideas. But even if by and large our students are taught evolution plain and simple, that means the clash with Genesis 1—3 is inevitable. Because all of America’s students are being taught evolution in public schools, pastors and churches must master evolutionary theory and learn to pastor and teach and educate and theologize in that context instead of one that avoids that context.
The future of the church will be related to how well the church measures its message in the context of scientific research and its major conclusions. I am not urging us to step back to the days of Washington and Jefferson and become deists. What I am arguing is that we need pastors and churches to begin to think theologically in conversation with evolutionary theory. By this I mean very simply pastors thinking aloud with scientists in the room and scientists thinking aloud with pastors in the room, even though I suspect there will at times be some silence.
The series continues by encouraging patient, constructive conversations about science and theology within our churches.
1. E. K. Kaplan, Spiritual Radical: Abraham Joshua Heschel in America, 1940-1972 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 15-18.
2. W. Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007).
3. S. McKnight, Turning to Jesus: The Sociology of Conversion in the Gospels (Louisville, Ky: Westminister John Knox Press, 2002); S. McKnight and H. Ondrey, Finding Faith, Losing Faith: Stories of Conversion and Apostasy (Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2008), 7-61.
Scot McKnight, a New Testament scholar who has written widely on the historical Jesus, Christian spirituality, and the emerging church, has been the Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies at North Park University since 1994. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Grand Rapids Baptist College, a masters from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a doctorate from the University of Nottingham. He has written several books, including the popular The Jesus Creed, which won an award from Christianity Today in 2004, and his latest book The King Jesus Gospel. You can read more from McKnight at his blog Jesus Creed.