Coming to Believe, Growing in Faith, and Engaging with Science

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Hale-Bopp comet over Austria in March 1997. Photo by Philipp Salzgeber, CC BY-SA 2.0

I grew up in a home that was nominally Christian. Although we went to church irregularly, I was baptized and confirmed as an Episcopalian. I have always been a science geek, earning the nickname “Science Kid” in my childhood neighborhood. I was always collecting rocks and building projects or tinkering with ham radios or model rockets, and could often be found outside at night peering through a telescope. We had a set of World Book encyclopedias that I read regularly and came to know very well, which fed my insatiable curiosity about the world.

In high school, I decided to identify as an atheist. Although I wasn’t necessarily convinced of the truth of atheism, I wanted to mimic the belief system of some people who I admired. I continued to read all I could about science, and entered college as a physics major, but I drank and partied my way out of college after two semesters.

After drifting directionless for a couple of years, I met with an Air Force recruiter. I thought the structure and training of the armed forces would help me do some much-needed growing up. Based on test results, the Air Force sent me to language school, and I learned Russian at the beginning of what would be the last decade of the Cold War.

In my first overseas posting, I became a high-functioning alcoholic: almost completely dependent on alcohol, but young and healthy and lucky enough to avoid serious consequences. My drinking began to have some effects on life, to the point that one of my barracks buddies confronted me gently about my drinking. “Mitch,” he said, “People talk about your drinking.” That was enough for me to sober up for a couple of weeks, but I went back to drinking for another year. 

In early 1986, my drinking and my atheism came to a sudden end—not through a disciplinary proceeding or any negative effects, but through a completely unexpected and uninvited divine intervention: I had a “burning bush” type of experience. I powerfully sensed the presence of a God as a “who,” not a “what,” and experienced his overwhelming love. In a few moments, my desire for alcohol vanished, and God became an objective reality for me. 

Even though I was no longer an atheist, I didn’t become a Christian right away. After almost a year I was transferred back to the US, and went to a new base in Maryland, where I continued to ponder the “God” question. I went to the chaplain’s office and got a Gideon New Testament which I read with interest, and began to see the same God whose presence I had sensed directly in Jesus as he was presented in the Gospels. In my unit, non-commissioned officers like me ended up doing a night of guard (CQ) duty about once a quarter, and on one of these evenings a lovely African-American cleaning lady was in the unit office with me as I sat behind the desk reading a book. My Bible fell out of my thigh pocket as I propped my legs up on the desk. The cleaning lady saw the book as I reached down to retrieve it, and she came over and asked, “Are you a believer?”

In that moment I was confronted with the reality of my sin: my lifestyle, the way I often mistreated others, my foul mouth, and tears began to trickle down my face as I started to weep. 

The cleaning lady touched my shoulder. “Sugar,” she said, “You don’t have to be ashamed of Him.”

“I’m not ashamed of Him, but I’m ashamed of me!” I replied.

She smiled and nodded. “There is a remedy for what you are feeling right now, and you know what it is,” she said, and went back to cleaning.

My thoughts were racing the rest of the evening. When I got off CQ duty at midnight, I went back to the barracks and read my Testament some more. The next morning, I went to talk to a buddy who I knew was a Christian. Brad, it turned out, had some biblical literacy, and when I asked questions, he answered them from the Bible. He invited me to church, and I answered the altar call. I remember praying something like, “God, I don’t know what a real Christian is, or even if there is such a thing. But whatever you have, whatever you do to someone who believes in you, I want it all.” I remember hedging a bit. “I’ll give it a year to really try this faith thing out.”

I embraced my new Christian faith with enthusiasm and boundless curiosity, and read all I could read. I wanted to find out about what it meant to be a Christian, and I wanted solve what I saw as woeful ignorance about the Bible and the faith. 

As I built a library of Christian books and tried to take my faith seriously, I began to encounter anti-evolution materials and polemics. I understood that the “literal” reading of Scripture seems to teach that everything was created in seven days which took place not billions, but thousands of years ago. For someone who had been involved in amateur astronomy, and who had been a lifelong science geek, this was something new and a bit troubling. I got rid of many of my secular science books and devoted my scientific curiosity to being able to defeat the idea of evolution.

Several years later, married and soon expecting our first child, my wife and I watched as comet Hale-Bopp made its spectacular appearance in the sky. I began spending time looking at the stars and re-learning the night sky, first with binoculars, and then purchased a small telescope and began going on observing sessions with the local astronomy club.

As I studied stars and galaxies in the vastness of the sky, I was filled with wonder at how truly enormous the universe really is. I went to the public library and brought home an armful of science books about cosmology. Reading about the emerging consensus of Inflationary Cosmology was like coming to a spring-fed oasis in an intellectual desert. The Universe clearly seemed to have a beginning, but its beginning was some nine billion years earlier than the coalescence of the nebula of gas clouds and metals that would become the Solar System. Looking through my telescope, and indirectly through the new Hubble Space Telescope, I could see events in the cosmically distant universe which, if young-earth creationism was correct, were illusory. It was patently obvious that this much of young-earth creationism was incorrect.

I went to seminary and developed an affinity for church history and historical theology, and with that in mind I began to study the history of modern young-earth creationism. The more I studied, the more I became appalled at the paucity of scientific thought and the vagueness and generality of arguments against mainstream science and its view of the age of the Cosmos. 

I was thoroughly convinced of the great antiquity of the Cosmos, but remained uneasy about evolution Like many Christians, I was willing to make some concessions to the idea of “micro-evolution” but not “macro-evolution.” That is, until I encountered the new evidence for evolution coming from genomic science. The completion of the Human Genome project in 2003 inspired me to explore this emerging field of science. Over the next few years I looked for some popular books that would introduce the basic concepts, and one book I came upon was Relics of Eden, by Daniel Fairbanks.

Fairbanks’ book introduced me to the GULO pseudogene. In most mammals, GULO is a gene that codes for a protein used to synthesize ascorbic acid, meaning that for most mammals, ascorbic acid is not a necessary vitamin. Their bodies make all they need. But in humans and apes, the gene is broken; it’s a pseudogene, so our bodies no longer have the ability to synthesize ascorbic acid, which means if we don’t get it through the things we eat, we develop scurvy. Ascorbic acid is, for us, a necessary nutrient; a vitamin. Interestingly, the specific base pairs which cause GULO to be broken in humans and apes are broken in exactly the same way. These and other wonders of genomics were mind-blowing for me.

Just as God had become a part of objective reality for me, now biological evolution also became something I accepted as true. I spoke with my wife about it, and then over lunch with one of my pastors, and finally said the words out loud: “Either we and apes evolved from a common ancestor, or we were created to look exactly as if we had.” And we spoke at some length about my having embraced evolution as a biological process, at the same time as I finished a Masters degree at Reformed Theological Seminary.

I was reticent to make my views known publicly, but I did swap some emails with Denis Lamoureux, who was very warm and helpful, and his writings were instrumental in helping me through a period of trying to integrate my new convictions with my faith. I also swapped emails with Pete Enns, to whom I confided that although my faith in God and Christ remained strong, my faith in the church was shaken. Dr. Enns wrote some very wise and comforting words: “The dark night of the soul is a very special place of God’s grace and presence.” I found this to be true—God is most present when you are wrestling with your faith. In fact, I’m inclined to appreciate signs of people struggling with their faith and growing through the struggle. When someone is in exactly the same place theology-wise and faith-wise where they were twenty years ago, the lack of growth and change, I think, could actually be a matter of concern.

While I was going through this intellectual integration process, I found in BioLogos a place of community where others were wrestling with the same questions and issues that I was.  Although I haven’t met many people directly, through BioLogos I have corresponded with many who have made the same intellectual and faith journey of integrating acceptance of the truth of what science has discovered about the world with my Christian faith.

I was grateful to hear the senior pastor at my church state in a sermon that “theistic evolution is an acceptable position for an evangelical Christian to embrace in this church.”  Although I would prefer the term “evolutionary creation” to “theistic evolution,” that pronouncement gave me sufficient confidence to privately confide to fellow church members of my convictions.  My position is not the majority one in our local church, but many members have a fairly high level of intellectual engagement, and most I have spoken with find my position on evolution to be interesting.  

It is not my personal calling to push for acceptance of evolutionary creation in the church, but I am grateful that BioLogos exists as a place to find community with others who are striving to foster a dialogue between mainstream science (including biological evolution) and evangelical Christianity.

Notes

Citations

MLA

Mitchell, Robinson. "Coming to Believe, Growing in Faith, and Engaging with Science"
http://biologos.org/. N.p., 16 Aug. 2017. Web. 23 September 2017.

APA

Mitchell, R. (2017, August 16). Coming to Believe, Growing in Faith, and Engaging with Science
Retrieved September 23, 2017, from http://biologos.org/blogs/guest/coming-to-believe-growing-in-faith-and-engaging-with-science

About the Author

Rob Mitchell lives near Memphis with his wife Ludmila and their three teenagers and three cats.  He works in the Information Technology industry and is a graduate (MAR) of Reformed Theological Seminary.

More posts by Robinson Mitchell

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