INTRO BY JIM: Five years ago I was preparing to lead a new honors program at the college where I was a professor. Among the students of the first incoming class was today’s blog author, Mahala Rethlake. I could tell almost immediately that her mind was a sponge, eager to soak up everything in the college environment, which as you’ll see was so radically different than the one in which she grew up. Our honors group read through a couple of books together that first year, one of which was Rachel Held Evans' Evolving in Monkey Town. My goal was not to convert these students to an evolutionary creation perspective on origins, but to subject them to a considerably different perspective than they had typically been exposed to. Mahala’s mind kept absorbing, and from the story she shares today, you can tell that it hasn’t stopped yet! It was one of my great privileges as a professor to have a role in her intellectual and spiritual growth and development throughout her college years.
When we needed an editorial assistant at BioLogos, I knew she would do a great job. And for the past 18 months, she has labored valiantly behind the scenes proofreading blog posts, fixing broken hyperlinks, digging up resources, and anything else Brad Kramer threw her way. Now it’s time for her to move on from BioLogos, as she begins a graduate program in philosophy this fall. We’ll miss her dearly, but we’re also thrilled to see her continue to develop her intellectual gifts and to see her mind continue to absorb all it can. We’re proud to share her story with you today.
When I first meet someone, they tend to be drawn to my first name: Mahala. During the course of our conversation, they will more than likely mispronounce it (the correct way is Ma-HAY-la) and reference the American Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson—the only popular context in which my name almost fits. They inevitably ask about the origin of my name, even guessing the location from which my ancestors originated, usually guessing Hawaii. (It’s actually a family name that extends back several generations, which was passed down on both sides of my dad’s parents’ families—the origin of which no one has yet been able to identify for me.) This initial fascination quickly turns into confusion and disbelief when they learn that I grew up in the Midwest United States in an Amish community and that most of my relatives live within fifty miles of my home.
I truly don’t mind these frequent interactions: my name makes for a fantastic conversation starter, and most people tend to remember it. More importantly, though, I understand. They have no frame of reference for understanding my existence. I upset their categories in more ways than one. I defy their expectations.
In a similar way, my experience in the BioLogos community has challenged my expectations and assumptions. My time working as a BioLogos editorial assistant, along with my training in philosophy, has upset my previously held suspicion that science and Christianity are inherently incompatible—especially the science of evolution.
While I am no longer part of the Amish community, I am thankful for the many ways my background shaped me. Growing up Amish molded me into the thinker and believer that I am. The members of my Amish community taught me countless valuable life lessons that have developed my perspective and character. Because of my upbringing, I know the value of and seek to embody the traits of working diligently, serving others, cultivating humility, practicing and developing my faith, maintaining a close community of supportive, like-minded people, respecting the lives and property of others, and—more generally—being intentional about developing my character for the better.
One reality my background did not prepare me for, however, was the science-faith discussion. Because of the Amish community’s intentional separation from situations, people, and communities that lie beyond their own, their perspective on mainstream science was a mixture of passivity and open hostility. While strengthening my faith in a loving and present Creator, my experience in the Amish community, thus, did not equip me to engage with the world beyond my own: neither the secular nor the academic world, and especially not the sciences.
My first true encounter with science-faith issues occurred when I entered a conservative Christian college as an undergraduate student. In my conversations with professors and other students, I was exposed to the tension the church is facing in its relationship with science. Students around me raised important questions about the compatibility of science and faith and, as they studied the philosophical issues and the scientific evidence more deeply, they began doubting the veracity of the answers they were receiving from their family members and church communities.
Additionally, I began thinking differently about the perspectives of the people around me. I identified what seemed to be a fear of science (particularly of the theory of evolution) in the Christian community. It deeply troubled me. Something wasn’t adding up. If science is our best, most systematic tool for studying the natural world, i.e., God’s creation, why should we fear it and/or its findings?
I also felt disconcerted by the way that many Christians around me seemed to demonize “those evolutionists.” A consistent lack of love, empathy, and research (many, when questioned, knew very little about evolution, causing me to question their conclusions about “those evolutionists”), worried me. Their lack of charity and understanding drew me nearer to the questions, as I did not want my view on any subject to be driven by a spirit of fear, but rather by curiosity and a desire to understand the truth.
Moreover, my studies of these issues, as an undergraduate and BioLogos intern, have made me acutely aware of how little I know. Rather than making me feel inadequate (though this could happen at times), I feel at peace knowing that I am loved by a God who has an abundance of mercy and guidance for the many things I do not know.
One verse has proven to be a helpful source of guidance for my science-faith journey. In response to the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?,” Jesus said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind…’” (Luke 10:27; emphasis mine).
Jesus commands us here to love God with every part of our being, including our minds. This is what I see myself doing, when I explore science-faith issues carefully and fully, and what I think many other Christians who are exploring these issues—including those who affirm both evolution—are doing.
As I’ve thought about this more deeply, I’ve come to the conclusion that we love God with our minds when we ask the difficult and uncomfortable questions and when we are willing to hold our views with humility. This is what I hope I’ve done in my own journey, though I certainly do not have all of the answers to the questions these issues raise. Currently, I consider myself an evolutionary creationist, though I am in the process of fleshing out the details of what this means. What I do know is that evolutionary creationism is a faithful Christian understanding of God’s Word and God’s World. Because of my experience at BioLogos, I know that I can embrace this position without fear.