Learning to Say “Maybe”
Matt Zandee shares how he changed his mind about evolution.
Fourteen years. That’s how long I have spent as a student in Christian education. From the beginning of preschool until I graduated high school I attended the same small, Christian school in Michigan. Don’t get me wrong, I truly loved it and owe a lot of who I am, what I know, and what I believe to Christian education. But that is just it. When you spend so much time in any environment, especially during the time when you’re learning how to think and what to think, you will be affected by that environment. In my case, Christian education was really positive for me. I left for college with a strong faith, great friends, supportive teachers, and a good education; I felt like I was ready to take on the world’s toughest questions, equipped with all the answers.
Stepping back for a moment, I believe now that this offensive, strike-first mentality of Christian apologetics was hardly a way to dialogue with others—especially unbelievers. I now see how much of what I was taught stems out of a sort of fear of not knowing something or being stumped, and it was definitely never appropriate to say, “I don’t know.”Of all of the topics I encountered—bioethics, predestination, pluralism, and so forth—origins was the one that really hit home for me, particularly issues surrounding evolution. I left my high school wholly convinced that evolution was simply an antonym for creation; that Genesis served as a science textbook, explaining our origins in a straightforward way. I had plenty of “proofs” that evolution could not work, like the argument of irreducible complexity, among others. I remember arguing with a well-meaning guy in High School youth group because he thought that accepting evolution could be a potential option for a Christian. I was so sure in what I believed I couldn’t even attempt to hear him out, which makes it hard to respectfully engage with anyone—especially another believer. Saying God could have created with evolution was denying a part of the Bible, I told him, and if you believe in evolution you may as well toss out the rest of the Bible along the way! After all, scientists endorsing evolution all have ulterior motives, and science and Christianity are surely in conflict (or so I thought). Biblical truth is to be elevated above observations of the natural world in the end, I believed, so the Bible gets the final say.
When I got to college as a freshman Biology major, my first cell biology class had weekly discussions on faith and creation. The professor, now a friend and mentor of mine, handled the topic of creation in a much different way than I was used to. He asked the class not simply to yield to his belief in Theistic Evolution, but at least to try and put themselves in a neutral position to be able to wrestle with the ideas presented, handling each with respect and clarity, and then arrive at our conclusions. Even this approach made me feel like I was compromising “biblical truth” and elevating “general revelation” to its level. I still remember the diagram he drew to this day. It didn’t shatter my thinking then and there but did something more important—it got me to, in humility, consider an idea in conflict with my own. The diagram had God on top, naturally, and man was at the bottom. Extending down and to the left from “God” came his Special Revelation through his Word and his Son, Jesus. This is the foundational truth in which he reveals himself, his means of salvation, and the story he is writing, and through Jesus we see the embodiment of his perfect Kingdom, both in the present and the future. Down and to the right, at the same level, was the revelation that we see through the natural world. The natural world itself, not just through it, speaks of his very nature, and in studying it we see truth about its cause. After all, “natural” is misleading, as it came about in “super-natural” means, by an eternal, creative God. These two equal truths both extend from God towards man in a middle area, which the professor classified as capital-T “Truth.” God doesn’t give us some Truth and some truth, one that fails to align with the other.
The “errors” arise neither at the “God level” nor at the “Truth” level, but at the level of man’s understanding. If the truth of the natural world is no less true than the truth we see in the Bible, the way to deal with apparent discrepancies is not to throw one out or elevate one above the other. The error must be on our part; the interpretation is flawed, missing a piece. For me this meant just a brief moment of “maybe.” Maybe God could have used evolution to create the world if there truly is evidence for it extrapolated by good science. Just maybe. In the context of my story, “maybe” was a big thing to finally say.
I really feel like this inability to say “maybe” in much of the church, particularly regarding evolution, creates a false dilemma in the church. We hear so much about college kids leaving the faith the moment they step into the secular universities and science classrooms and upon encountering the “pluralistic” philosophies of the world. Some say these students must not have been prepared enough or sheltered enough. Not so! If the elegance of natural selection draws the Christian in who has built up a stronghold of “it’s either evolution or God,” then surely it is one or the other and every argument for evolution is a chink in their picture of who God is. This doesn’t have to be the case. Of course there are issues that are not to be compromised. We will not always fit in with “the world,” and we are called to think “other-worldly” at times. But it is here that I believe we have made a false dilemma, and on this very issue I have seen many of my friends leave the faith or seriously doubt their beliefs. After all, if one thing doesn’t line up, they were taught to throw the rest out.
In my freshman year of college, I truly struggled with this issue. Thankfully, I can say that my faith was not based on my belief in a literal six-day creation, but my picture of God was interwoven with young-earth creationism so much that it led me to argue with many people about my views. I came to know Christ at a young age, and my faith in him did not just consist of facts and ideas but genuine encounters with God. This gave me a multi-faceted view of God that laid the foundation for re-thinking my ideas about origins.
A turning point came when I realized that I believed in a “god of the gaps.” When I had considered gaps in scientific understanding, my instinct was to place God in the gap and cordon it off from further investigation. But, if upon further scientific research, these gaps shrink or disappear, where is that god? I began to understand that our God is not just in and among the gaps that we perceive, but he is actively engaged in that which we understand, as well as the areas in which we have just scratched the surface. Creation cannot explain away its creator, it merely tells part of the story of him. The danger comes when we only need God for what we don’t know, and, conversely, we don’t need him in what we do know. All of this, I found, could be attributed to the false dilemma between God and science that I had come to accept while growing up.
My story was not always a linear, progressive one where I was in darkness and now in light. I still have plenty of questions, not just about origins but about every aspect of life, not just science. I am wrestling still with how to interpret Genesis, how and when God stamped his image and breathed his Spirit into the first human, how the first flagellum came about, and more. There are many good and likely answers on both sides of this discussion—something I could never have admitted years ago. As a biology student, what seemed an antagonist to my faith I now see as an amazing biological story of God, active throughout history, turning chaos into order in wild and beautiful ways throughout vast amounts of time.
The whole process of changing my mind about evolution was a sobering one for me as I saw how it was possible to be wrong about something I once held as truth. It gave me a dose of humility in how I converse and dialogue with others. I look at the example of the disciples in the Gospels, and see how their ignorance of many things, scientific, spiritual, or otherwise, did not prevent Jesus from engaging them patiently and lovingly. Jesus, it seems, was never just trying to prove a point. Maybe we can learn from his example when it comes to the tough issues of science and faith, as we realize that we are all like the disciples, traveling on the path to truth.
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