Last year, a retiring senior pastor asked me to consider being his replacement. As a recent seminary graduate looking for work, this was a big deal. The interview went really well, and he wanted to move forward. But a few days later he called me and left an urgent voicemail. One of the other elders at the church had found several articles online that I had written for BioLogos. He thanked me for my time, but my views on creation was an issue they couldn't overlook. My views on evolution and Genesis cost me a job. I certainly have no regret about writing for BioLogos. I simply accept that sharing my beliefs sometimes has negative implications.
For evolutionary creationists (EC) in anti-evolution families and faith communities, it is often difficult to discern when, how, and even if to share those beliefs. As I illustrated above, there can be consequences. So how do you do it? How do you share with a resistant audience that you accept the scientific data and still believe in the truth of the Christian faith? Here are 5 tips for “going public” as an EC, drawn largely from my own life experiences.
1. Decide When and How to Share Your Beliefs
There are situations where it would be best to keep views on evolution private. But should you decide to share those beliefs, it is worth giving careful thought and prayer as to how and when you do it. Below, I’ll give some pointers from my own experience about when and how to talk about evolution with your family and church communities.
I was on the pastoral team of a conservative evangelical church in which the vast majority of people were not okay with the theory of evolution. For the sake of unity, I had to keep my views private. The consequences of going public as an EC in that context affected far more than just myself, it affected the church as a whole. I could not in good conscience go public with my views. It would have negatively affected the congregation, and it would have most likely cost me my job. So for the sake of other people’s conscience, as well as my job, I kept my views to myself.
For others who are not pastors or hold no office of leadership in the church, the implications may not be as significant. You may be able to say more or be more bold in what you share about your EC beliefs. I remember being on staff at a church where one of the members was open about being an EC. He asked to teach a Sunday School class on the different interpretations of Genesis, offering not to promote any one view over another. After much debate, it was decided that a specific video curriculum on the evolution/creation topic would be shown, and he and one other person (a young-earth creationist) would facilitate a class discussion.
Talking about evolution with your family can be a little more difficult than talking with friends or people in your church. I spoke just recently to a college student whose parents are unaware of his belief in evolutionary creationism. He is thinking through how to tell them about his view on Genesis. As we chatted over Skype, it was clear to me that he doesn’t think his views on science are an obstacle to having a relationship with God, and he doesn’t want his views to be an obstacle to having a relationship with his parents. After weeks of prayer, he made a plan to talk to his family about his views. The next time the topic came up (at church, or at home, etc.) he would let his parents know in a gentle way that his views have changed. He isn’t sure what the outcome of that conversation will be, but he is ready to take ownership of his beliefs. Making a plan and taking ownership are necessary and good first steps.
2. Emphasize Your Commitment to the Truthfulness of the Bible and the Importance of Faith
When I first told my friends and family I was an EC, the number one question I faced was about the Bible. “Don't you believe the Bible anymore?" They asked. In their minds, creationism (meaning a rejection of mainstream science) and commitment to biblical truth were one and the same. They assumed that there was no way a person could affirm the science of evolution and believe the Bible is true.
I had to explain that while I still believed the Bible was true, I did not believe anymore that a literal interpretation of Genesis was the right (or only) one. When I would explain to my friends and family why I was no longer a YEC, I had to begin by explaining that my understanding of the Bible and how I interpret it had changed. I still believe the Bible is true, I just understand what it is saying and what it means in a different way. I believe that Genesis 1 tells us about who the Creator is, not precisely how he created. This is why I believe that a Christian can hold to various interpretations of Genesis and still believe the Bible is true. Genesis 1 is communicating theology, not biology.
People also often suggest that since I accept the mainstream scientific understanding of how life has developed and diversified (i.e. evolution), I must be valuing science over the Bible. I use the following analogy to explain why I think this accusation is misguided: imagine the company UPS—with all of its drivers, brown trucks, package centers, and airplanes. Now imagine describing how a package moves through the logistic network from one place to another without ever mentioning the CEO David Abney. Am I somehow discrediting Abney’s role in the company or the part that he plays? As the CEO of UPS, he has authority and control over the organization and how it functions. Yet, when we describe the details of the day to day operations and how the organization actually functions, it is unlikely that we would mention him. While he certainly possesses a great deal of authority and influence over the organization, his involvement is not immediately apparent when we examine the processes and running of the organization itself.
While this is not a perfect analogy (frankly, human analogies are always going to fail, when talking about a transcendent God), nevertheless it is helpful. When talking about the relationship between science and faith it is important not to discredit the Bible, or value science over the Bible. We are simply using science to gain an increasingly accurate picture of how nature works; information the Bible was never meant to give us.
One last tip: If you can give people books or other resources written by people of similar beliefs, this can be really helpful. Given that this is a BioLogos post, I should of course mention The Language of God by Francis Collins. Some other great options are The Lost World of Genesis One by John Walton, Evolution: Scripture and Nature Say Yes! by Denis Lamoureux, In the Beginning...We Misunderstood by Johnny Miller and John Soden, and How I Changed My Mind About Evolution, which features a lot of well-known theologians/pastors/biblical scholars (and many others) talking about how they came to the evolutionary creationist position. If they are willing to browse BioLogos-branded materials, the BioLogos Basics videos or the Big Story presentation are also great conversation starters.
3. Demonstrate Grace to Those Who Don’t Demonstrate Grace to You
Of all these tips, this one is probably the hardest to do. Because some people believe that a “correct” belief about creation is an essential part of being a “real” Christian, they may be unkind in how they treat fellow Christians who hold to an evolutionary creation view. This is by no means the most common response to a person sharing an EC view, but it does happen, and we need to be prepared in the case that it does.
Perhaps the hardest place to be honest about your EC views is with your own family. My friend Jeff learned this lesson the hard way. He is in his Junior year in college and told his parents about his affirmation of evolutionary creationism. His parents were heartbroken, and asked their pastor to meet with Jeff. His pastor tried to persuade Jeff that evolution was not true, using YEC arguments and books that Jeff was already familiar with. But Jeff was unpersuaded. He started feeling distance growing in his relationship with his parents, and felt like he had to do something. He remembered a discussion on grace he had in one of his theology classes, and decided to seek restoration, rather than withdraw from his parents, He assured them of his love for both them and Jesus. He respected their wishes of not discussing the topic of evolution at family gatherings. This grace that Jeff showed to his parents went a long way toward restoring his relationship with them.
After going public as an EC, there will likely be some people who just won't understand and will refuse to accept your view on evolution as a faithful Christian position. Some may change the way they interact with you. Such behavior does not warrant an equally unkind response. The truth is that most people will respond with either grace or indifference. But for those who don't, our job is to still respond to them with love. This is why the next tip is so important.
4. Find a Community with Like-Minded People
If you go public about your EC views, longstanding relationships you had might change. People who you once trusted and were close to might view and treat you differently. They might feel like they can’t relate to you any more, and vice a versa. I’m not saying this will happen, only that it could happen. If it does happen, this is why having other people who are like-minded is so important. Having other people who can affirm and accept you will help you through any difficulty or discouraging times you may face.
My wife and I have lived and traveled extensively overseas. Long term exposure to other cultures and people groups changed us. We see the world differently than we did before. When we moved back to the USA, we found that not only did we no longer fit in as Americans, but we didn’t know anyone who could relate to us; not even in our church. Relationships we had for years changed; it felt like we didn’t speak the same language any more. We began a long process of trying to find other people who had a similar understanding and experience of the world that could relate to and accept us. Even if they didn’t have the exact same views or experiences as us, they could still relate to our situation and experience and provide a network of support.
Chances are that you are actually not alone in your view. There could be others who think and affirm evolutionary creationism in a way similarly to you, but who also don't know how, or are too afraid, to share what they believe. Those people need to know that it is ok to be an EC, and that they can find fellowship with like-minded believers. By sharing your beliefs, you have the opportunity to empower and embolden others to be vocal about their view as well. And perhaps you can start a group of like-minded believers right where you are!
There are several other practical things you can do. Find an online community of ECs (the Biologos Forum, and EC Facebook groups are a good place to start), or attend a BioLogos event and meet other people who have similar stories just like you (the American Scientific Affiliation is a great EC-friendly organization for Christians who work in the sciences). If necessary, consider finding a new church. There are no perfect churches, but there are churches where holding to an EC view is will not be an issue, or seen as a threat. When I left my previous church, I checked the statements of faith at the churches we visited for clear language that would indicate a particular stance on creation. Vague or non-existent language was a good indication that the church didn’t have a particular stance on interpreting Genesis. To be really sure, I would sometimes just directly ask one of the pastors about the church’s position on Genesis and creation. What I eventually found was a church that values both science and the Bible, and doesn’t see them in inherent conflict.
5. Remember to Share with Your Non-Christian Friends Too
In states like Kansas where there is a push to teach anti-evolution views in the public school science classroom, the debate about evolution and Christian faith has implications for both religious and nonreligious families. So often, those outside of the Christian faith perceive anti-evolution views as the majority position within Christianity. Since most people outside Christianity discern this view as incompatible with mainstream science, they conclude that science and faith are irreconcilable. Going public with your EC views helps correct this misconception.
A non-Christian friend of mine recently posted a story over Facebook about how her son's teacher told him that humans and dinosaurs once coexisted. My friend became so angry when her son told her what her teacher said that she pulled her son out of the school and refused to let him go back. As an EC, parent, and lover of good science, I was equally surprised by the teacher’s remarks. This was an opportunity for me to express my views as a Christian and evolutionist, and provide balance to the conversation. In my comments on my friend’s Facebook post, I expressed my own frustration over the teacher’s actions. I affirmed the good science that decades of peer-reviewed publications have revealed about the timeline of dinosaur and human existence. And I shared what I would do as a concerned parent in such a situation. I used my voice to (hopefully) correct some misconceptions about science and faith.
Sometimes the biggest contribution we can make is letting people know that you can be a Christian and accept the scientific data. Just this statement alone goes a long way to breaking stereotypes for many people. In the context of conversations like this, you can also talk about what it actually means to be a Christian. You can find that conversations can quickly turn to discussions about the heart of Christianity: the person and work of Jesus. Doing so helps others to see that Christianity affords diversity in opinions on non-essential issues, as well as various beliefs about areas that the Bible does not speak on dogmatically.
What have your experiences been? Do you have any other tips for people considering “going public”? Please share in the comments below.