This is the fifth part of our blog series connected to our fall book club.
As a child, my response to the typical question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” was straightforward: I wanted to be a scientist. While my father and brother were fishing, I was the kid with the dip net and jars, poking in the backwaters for interesting insects and minnows. I remember one successful collecting expedition where I caught both tadpoles and a giant water bug (something within Belostomatidae I suspect). Later, to my horror but also fascination, my tadpole count was reduced by one and I had been introduced to a predator / prey relationship right in my collection bucket. In high school, I focused on courses that would prepare me for university – though by then, I had dropped the idea of science in favor of medicine. Living in a small rural town meant that I didn’t know any scientists – but I did know my doctor, and medicine seemed pretty much like science. So, off I went to university – and decided that an undergraduate degree in biology was the best way to prepare for medical school.
I distinctly recall the last church service I attended prior to heading off to university. Our pastor prayed for everyone heading off to school: he thanked God for those bound for Bible college, and prayed that those of us heading to secular university would not lose our faith. I was determined that this was not going to happen to me – and I knew, going in, that I would have to be prepared to defend myself against evolution as part of keeping my faith strong. Fortunately, in my biology courses I encountered very little about evolution at all – I was able to avoid it almost entirely simply by not taking the one evolution-specific course on offer. Along the way I would rediscover my love of science, drop the idea of medical school, and head into a PhD program in genetics – all the while maintaining an anti-evolution view. Indeed, at this time I was an adherent of the Intelligent Design movement and a firm supporter of its strong stance against evolutionism.
In chapters 8-10 of Origins, we encounter what I was missing throughout my university education (and my church life that had preceded it) – that there is a range of Christian views on origins (Chapters 8 and 10), and that evolution, as a scientific theory, is well supported by experimental evidence (Chapter 9).
Growing up in the evangelical church, I had no idea that some Christians, especially Christians who were scientists, accepted evolution as a scientifically valid theory. In my limited experience, evolution and Darwin were bad words – as a child, I remember feeling like I’d heard profanity if I heard them spoken. What I knew was that as a Christian, rejecting evolution was part of the faith – just like believing that the Bible was true and Jesus was God. It was part of the package. At this stage, for me there was no distinction between evolution (in any of the senses helpfully discussed in chapter 8) and evolutionism, the atheistic belief that there is no creator and no purpose in life.
In the opening of Chapter 8 we meet Jennifer, a fictional composite of several students. Like me, Jennifer was raised in a tradition that rejected evolution as part of Christian faith, and had a culture shock upon learning that there were Bible-believing Christians that accepted evolution. While Jennifer would come to this understanding as an undergraduate student, I would have to wait until I was a professor at a Christian university to come to the same realization.
Today, the shoe is on the other foot. Now instead of playing the role of Jennifer, I play more the role of Professor Bensen, I suppose. In my courses, I frequently present the evidence for evolution, especially the kinds of genetic evidence that are touched on in Chapter 9 and that I write about frequently for BioLogos. I’ve come to view the evidence as of secondary importance in the overall conversation, however. The evidence, taken at face value, clearly points to the reality of evolution. Scientifically, there is no controversy about the common ancestry of life, the reality of biological change over time, the formation of new species, and so on. Evolution, as a well-tested explanatory framework with over 150 years of research behind it, is not going anywhere soon, nor are its core concepts about to be changed in any meaningful way. No, for Christian students, the issues are primarily theological and sociological in nature. As they encounter the evidence for evolution, I see some very common struggles in the process.
First and foremost, we (speaking broadly for the evangelical church) have taught our young people to view science and faith as competing sources of truth. If science can explain a phenomenon, so this view goes, then that’s one less thing we need God to explain. Tied in with the prevailing evangelical view that evolution is in competition with the biblical account of creation, this mindset sets up students to encounter a false dichotomy, where they feel they must choose between science or their faith. Working from this - often only vaguely articulated – view, students cannot win. As they see the strength of the evidence for evolution they feel that it is evidence that God is not the creator.
Secondly, our churches have not, in general, done a good job of teaching students the full range of Christian views on origins, nor calling for unity among believers holding these views. As such, many students feel that to accept evolution is to step outside of their faith community (and in many cases, effectively it is). Coupled with the science-or-God misconception above, this places students in double jeopardy: they are at once facing doubts about God and/or the Bible, and possibly thrust out of their church support structures, accused of entertaining “doubts” or worse.
The solution to this false science-or-faith dichotomy is both simple and complicated. It is simple because it merely requires us to teach our young people that (a) scientific explanations and theistic explanations are not a zero-sum game, but rather complementary in nature, and (b) there are a range of Christian views on evolution, including views that accept it as valid. It is complicated, of course, because in many settings advancing such views will cause controversy and division, despite our best efforts to maintain the unity of believers. Still, for students like Jennifer, it’s an issue too important to ignore.
The situation for students has improved significantly since the time I changed my views. Back then, there were precious few within the evangelical community willing to stand up and be counted as evolutionary creationists, though the pioneering work of scientists like Denis Lamoureux, Darrel Falk and Francis Collins was beginning to eke out a toehold. Today, evolutionary creation is increasingly recognized as a legitimate position on origins for evangelical Christians, and BioLogos is increasingly welcomed as dialogue partner alongside other evangelical groups of differing views. In addition to this progress, resources on evolutionary creation (for students, pastors and laypersons) are much more readily available, including, of course, the Haarsmas’ book Origins. In my “Professor Bensen” role, I’ve found this book very useful for students – not so much that it convinces them that evolutionary creation is the best way to reconcile science and their faith, but rather that it shows them that, whatever position they ultimately decide on, that there are faithful believers in all positions. And that, more so than holding a particular position, is the most important lesson of all.