Theological tools for the journey
As I related in my last post, my transition from aligning myself with the Intelligent Design Movement to accepting evolution was rather sudden. Looking back on this transition, I realized that a few factors had helped. Of course, my training as a geneticist had been invaluable: most evangelicals cannot read the primary scientific literature on evolution as part of their own journey, and as such they are beholden to how other Christians represent (or misrepresent) it. Yet beyond this obvious advantage, there were other factors that helped from a theological perspective. One such factor in easing the shift was the rich theological material that I had spent years listening to as a graduate student. Through that material I had learned that the simple, straightforward, Sunday-school approach to the Bible that I had learned as a child and teenager was merely a façade: Scripture was interwoven with mystery, tensions and scholarly issues that are simply not discussed in the average evangelical church. Though many pastors learn about these issues in seminary, most will never mention them from the pulpit for fear of unsettling the faith of their congregations. Discovering them, and then working through some of these issues had slowly, but surely, washed away tendencies of rigid thinking: I now knew that Scripture had widely varied genres within it. I now knew that the opening chapters of Genesis had the hallmarks of an ancient near-eastern worldview. As such, the realization that evolution, including human evolution, was a well-supported scientific theory did not precipitate a theological crisis for me. Ironically, what many pastors fear to touch in a Sunday morning sermon was just what I needed to handle this shift. This did not mean, of course, that I had everything worked out theologically then (or that I do now). Rather, it had created habits of mind that were more at ease with exploring uncomfortable questions, and reevaluating long-held assumptions.
An additional factor that eased this transition was the fact that my experience of God had grown and deepened over my undergraduate and graduate school years. Specifically, I had come to experience the power of God the Holy Spirit in ways that I had not during my, until then, relatively conservative church experience. As such, my relationship with God was not tied to a specific interpretation of Genesis or literal mode of Biblical interpretation, because I was experiencing His power and presence personally. That experience did not suddenly evaporate the moment I understood the evidence for our evolutionary history. Instead, God’s empowering presence continued to be part of my life as I explored a method of His creative activity that I had previously denied.
In 2009, I had an unique opportunity. That year was the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s opus Origin. It was also the year I was to host an annual meeting of biology instructors from universities and colleges all over British Columbia for a professional development day. Accordingly, I needed to arrange a plenary speaker. The theme, given the year, was an easy one. As I wracked my brain for a local speaker with expertise in evolution, Dolph Schluter came to mind. Dolph does internationally-known work on the evolution of freshwater sticklebacks, small fish that are descended from sea-living ancestors. There are multiple coastal lakes in British Columbia that were colonized with marine sticklebacks in the last 10,000 years, making my home province a natural laboratory for adaptive radiation. As I recounted in my first post in this series, Dolph’s research was also once the target of my antievolutionary views as an undergraduate, some twelve years prior. Dolph would be perfect for this talk, in more ways than one. Would he remember? Would he be willing to come?
Wonderfully, Dolph was available and more than happy to come out. As I introduced him to the crowd of faculty and students that attended his lecture, I recounted the story of our previous encounter and some of my personal transition to accepting evolution. His talk (and other talks given that day on teaching evolution and interacting with students threatened by it) generated much helpful discussion. All in all it was a very enjoyable day, and a significant milestone on my journey.
Like evolution itself, my path was at times slow, and other times rapid. Small changes, whether in my thinking or in my experiences, later combined to produce larger effects. Through it all, I have no doubt that this journey was ordained and sustained by my Creator, as He patiently led me into a deeper understanding of His creation. As I mentioned in a NPR interview, this understanding is to be welcomed, not feared. All truth is God’s truth, and the book of His works is one that He desires us to take, read and celebrate.