Two Books + Two Eyes = Four Necessities for Christian Witness, Part 2
How does my walk with God relate to modern scientific discoveries? Can I maintain biblical Christian faith even if I change my mind on an issue like evolution? Many Evangelicals today are pondering these questions. Finding the answers will involve more than a mere synthesis of scientific facts. We need to hear stories from others who have wrestled with evolution and Christian faith. What arguments made them change their views on science? How did they hold fast to their relationship with God? The essays in this series will eventually comprise a book, provisionally titled, “Evolving: Evangelicals Reflect on Evolution.”
Yesterday Pastor Richard Dahlstrom stressed the importance of not adding to the Gospel by requiring a particular view of origins. Remembering that God speaks through two books—creation and the Bible—can help us to avoid setting up barriers to faith. Today Richard discusses the importance of “two eyes”—humility and interdependence of God’s two books.
2. Two Eyes: Humility and interdependence are in keeping with Jesus’ character.
As compelling as scientific evidence for evolution might be, questions and objections quickly arise because of apparent contradictions with the Genesis narrative. “Evolution requires death, and there was no death until Adam and Eve died;” “humans were made directly from clay” —these are just two of many reasons people who love God and his Word have a hard time embracing evolutionary creation. Schooled in what’s called the literal, or holistic, interpretive method, they believe that the plain literal meaning of any text is the best choice for interpreting the Bible.
None of us who agree with that method apply it to every word of the Bible. We don’t believe the sun is literally rising, for example, in spite of that plain meaning. Scientific discoveries forced a re-thinking of the plain and literal reading; eventually, the church caught up with the rest of the world and believed that the earth orbits around the sun, not vice versa, and rotates on its own axis.
This is an example of the ongoing challenge we face as readers of both the Bible and book of creation. What’s needed is a sense of humility when reading both books. With respect to the Bible, humility is important because history shows us how easy it is to repeatedly get our interpretations wrong—including the justification of slavery, colonialism, and genocide.
Jesus himself is scathing in his assessment of just how wrong the religious leaders of his day interpreted the Bible. “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life,” he says (John 5:39), but goes on to say that they’re unwilling to come to Jesus that they might actually have life. The scriptures had become, for them, a sort of rule book or legal code. Their wooden interpretations of it were so distorted that in the end they conspired to kill the very Messiah who was the object of their longing. It’s easy, in other words, to get things wrong, and it’s for this reason that humility is in order.
Among other things, humility means embracing the reality that we don’t know everything. Here’s what St. Augustine wrote about the dangers of pastors and theologians pontificating beyond the scope of their authority:
“Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens… and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn… If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?” (St. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, book 1; modern translation by J.H. Taylor in Ancient Christian Writers, 1982, volume 41)
The best natural science and the best hermeneutics (the science of interpreting the Bible) are both practiced with humility and interdependence, allowing each to be informed by the other. Where this is present, our mutual understanding and appreciation of each other’s disciplines leads to greater clarity in our own disciplines. Where this is lacking, one ends up entrenched in either a spiritless materialism, or a fundamentalism constantly at odds with the findings of the physical sciences. In a world where God has told us that he speaks through both the Bible and the book of creation, neither of these options is palatable.
On a recent flight, I found myself seated next to an astronomy professor. Though I’m not astronomer, I do visit NASA’s “Astronomy Picture of the Day” website as a regular part of my morning devotions in order to remind myself of the vastness of our universe. Because of my interest, I had questions for the professor, and we talked for most of the flight about the expansion of the universe, the big bang, and other marvelous mysteries of space. He was gray, older, and still immensely curious, telling me that the more he learned, the more aware he was of how much he didn’t know.
As we began our descent, he asked me what I did for a living. When I told him I was a pastor, his eyes lit up and said, “We need each other, you and I!” He went on to talk about how theology had answers to questions he thought science would never be able to uncover, and vice versa. “Two books,” I said, as I heartily agreed and explained what the Bible had to say about creation pointing to God.
It was a good and hopeful conversation, and we need more of them in our world. For that to happen, we need to believe that the books of creation and the Bible aren’t in contradiction, and allow them to inform each other. Then our curiosity and creativity—which are ours because we’re made in God’s image—can be released to allow people to discover, create, heal, and much more “in Jesus’ name.” Such a paradigm will enable joyful Christ-followers to be wholly engaged in being the presence of hope in our glorious—yet broken—world, instead of retreating into narrow subcultures where the false dichotomy between faith and reason becomes a wall that is, for too many, insurmountable.