Outside of my family and my personal relationship with God, there is nothing in recent years that has shaped me more profoundly than the Sunday School class I teach. It all began ten years ago, when I was asked to do a three week series on biology and faith. The attendees were septuagenarians and octogenarians, so they had grown up within or immediately following the era of the Scopes Trial. Most had given little thought to science; all had given much thought to religion. I talked about the evidence for evolution and why the fact of evolution created no spiritual crisis for me; indeed, I told them it significantly enriched my understanding of the nature of God. Even though this was a group of elderly lifelong evangelical Christians, the discussions went surprisingly well. They threw no blackboard erasures at me and they didn’t shout me down or have me ejected from the church. Indeed, to my amazement, they asked me back—they wanted me to be their teacher.
Since that time, I have presented almost 400 Sunday School lessons. Almost all are in my computer, and I look forward someday to getting old myself so I can go back and learn the lessons I have been teaching others. Interestingly, ever since that first three-week series, I have never again taught a whole lesson about science and faith. It quickly became apparent that this is not what they needed. When life is winding down—when your spouse has just died, or your lifelong companion has developed Alzheimer’s, when you spend Christmas alone because you have no family anymore, when your husband of fifty years is in the hospital with an amputated leg and unclear mind—you don’t need a Sunday School lesson on the relationship between science and religion. As you face the most difficult circumstances you have ever faced, what you need to know is that the hope that is laid out so clearly in the Bible, and is articulated so well through good biblical scholarship and wise theology, still rings true after all these years. You need to sing the theologically rich songs that so epitomized your spiritual life during earlier years, and you need to let those same songs enrich your life again now that you are old. You need to revisit the Bible stories that informed your youth and you need to see why they inform your old age even more. You need to be able to laugh. You need to love and you need to allow yourself to be loved as well.
Even though I was the teacher through all of this, I was the one who was being taught about faith. I was taught the beauty of Christian love and hope by watching my dear friend Elbert say good bye to his beloved Lois during her struggle with cancer. I was taught about Christian influence as I listened to a host of grandchildren talk about how they wanted to be just like their Grandpa. We knew him as Ron and we loved him, but they knew him as Grandpa and they wanted to be just like him. I was taught about peace that endures as I watched Hazel bear the loss of her lifelong partner carrying a gentle smile on her face, despite the loss she bore in her heart. I wonder how many times we have sung “How Great Thou Art” at our memorial services as we each celebrated God’s Presence in the midst of life’s ultimate crises.
I have never been more convinced that Christianity is based on real foundations than I have been by seeing it lived out in this community for the past ten years. The majority of the original class-members are gone now, but the group—past and present— continues to shape me deeply as I reflect on their well-lived lives. Paul expresses my sentiment exactly when, in speaking of a different Christian community, he wrote: “... Christ in you, the hope of glory.”
So the science/faith dialog has been virtually irrelevant within this Christian community that has played such an important role in my life. If I had brought it up in class, it would have distracted them from things that were much more important to them. Put simply: it just hasn’t mattered. So why, in another segment of my life, do I invest so much time and energy in the very thing that is almost irrelevant to the typical Christian? Why all these posts day after day on Genesis by scholars like Peter Enns, John Walton, Kenton Sparks, and Paul Seely? Why the very frank exchanges with Stephen Meyer? We are walking a fine line, Steve and I. He is simply a brother on this journey and our discussions would be futile if ever our exchanges eroded into something not characterized by mutual respect and even love. Why the frank dialog between John Walton and Vern Poythress? Why do I and many others like me put so much energy into this science/faith dialog if, for most Christians, it is virtually irrelevant to that which matters most in life?
Ten days ago I had an email message from one of my former students, who I will call John. He has a very special place in my heart. He overcame great adversity in his life and has become a first rate researcher in molecular biology. I played a small role in helping him to believe in himself and overcome challenges. I always knew he would succeed and I’m very proud of him. John has moved away so I haven’t seen him for a few years. Prior to that we sometimes talked about faith and I was inspired by his journey. I think he knows that I had personally hoped that some day he would replace me, teaching my Christian college biology courses and being a spiritual mentor himself to the next generation of our students. His email message to me indicated that he had visited the BioLogos website. In response to that message, I asked John if he would be willing to write a guest blog. Since he had overcome a lot on his journey towards faith, I felt he had an important story to tell and I wanted him to write about it. I suppose I’ll never forget his response so earth-shattering it was to me. “So do you want an agnostic to write for you?” he said. John has lost the most important thing in his life, and it happened, as I see it, because the Church (including myself) had not been able to adequately prepare him theologically and biblically for what he would learn as he delved deeply into biology—especially he tells me, the biology of the brain. The pieces no longer fit for John. My heart aches every time I think about it. Unless things change, John is not going to experience the rich life and the fulfillment that so characterizes the lives of those on the other side of my existence—my Sunday School class community. This is the reason for the long days and short nights that have come to characterize my life lately. I don’t want those who come to learn about science to be deprived of the richness that characterizes the Christian life. I write about this in a "White Paper we posted several months ago. A conduit must be constructed between the two sides. We can’t go on like this any longer.
Paul’s statement, to which I refer above—“Christ in you, the hope of glory”—comes from the first chapter of Colossians. Wanting all to know this hope, this hope of glory, Paul ends the chapter, with these words: “To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me.” May this be true of each of us as well—there is much at stake.
(Photo courtesy of Flickr/sadmonkey)