Finding Beauty and Hope in the Process
Christy Hemphill finds beauty and hope in affirming that God creates through messy and long processes like evolution.
In the Christian spaces where I have spent most of my life, people like to hear your testimony. They expect you to identify the moment in your life when you got saved, were born again, or accepted Jesus. Fitting my own story of faith into this paradigm has always been difficult for me, mostly because I never really had one moment of salvation. There were certainly pivotal points in my life where I made a commitment or took a costly step in response to the transformation God’s spirit was doing in my life, but I can’t pinpoint a time when I was lost and then definitively crossed a line to being found. I know I am not alone in having a personal story that lacks a precise salvation moment. Some of the most compelling and beautiful testimonies of redemption I’ve heard from other Christians have involved a long and sometimes messy process of saving that doesn’t fit neatly into a prescribed timeline of before and after moments.
Recently, I have been reflecting on how the Christian story is full of messy, sometimes ambiguous processes rather than just precise moments of divine intervention. For example, consider how the Christian Bible came into being. For many Christians, it can be a hard thing to learn that scholars do not believe Moses sat down and wrote the book of Genesis. Scholars think the version of the Genesis text that is translated in our Bibles was compiled and edited over centuries from oral traditions and written texts and was not completed until the Babylonian exile period of Israel’s history.
Many Christians wonder how we can call the Bible God’s word if we can’t pinpoint a moment of inspiration when the author wrote it. The conversation doesn’t get any easier when you look at the canonization process and realize that what we call “God’s word” today, the collection of texts that make up the Christian Bible, is not synonymous with what is referred to as “God’s word” in Scripture, and the definitive list of canonical texts isn’t even agreed upon by different Christian traditions. You simply can’t pinpoint a moment in time when God gave us his inspired word, the Bible.
Some of the most compelling and beautiful testimonies of redemption I’ve heard from other Christians have involved a long and sometimes messy process of saving that doesn’t fit neatly into a prescribed timeline of before and after moments.
It can also be hard for many Christians to learn that scientists don’t see evidence for the diversity of life on Earth coming into being in an instantaneous moment, but rather it was a process that took millions of years. When we consider the Genesis account of creation, it can often be read literally as a story of precise moments in time. With definitive moments like when Adam was formed from dust and Eve taken from his side, or when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and sin entered the world, the creationist interpretation can be comforting in its simplicity and clarity—perhaps because there is a clear before and after to anchor theological claims. But if you accept the scientific claim that humans evolved from ape-like ancestors as a population, then the discussion of when, where, and how God created humans in his image and when, where, and how humans fell from grace becomes much messier and more speculative. You lose the security and neatness of precise moments on the theological timeline of creation history, but I would argue that you gain something beautiful in its place.
The boundaries along a continuum of development are often very blurry and arbitrarily drawn, and any point on a timeline is just a snapshot of a long process of formation. There are rarely identifiable moments that mark the difference between this thing and that thing or that define a critical before and after.
Understanding the science of evolution involves taking a look at very big pictures over very long periods of time. It means looking broadly at patterns, trends, and categories that apply to populations, not individuals. The boundaries along a continuum of development are often very blurry and arbitrarily drawn, and any point on a timeline is just a snapshot of a long process of formation. There are rarely identifiable moments that mark the difference between this thing and that thing or that define a critical before and after. But that doesn’t mean we can’t create meaningful categories or make truth claims.
Affirming that God creates through processes like evolution has made it easier for me to face the messiness inherent in discussions of textual criticism and the inspiration of Scripture. Seeing salvation and redemption as a lifelong process instead of a moment on a timeline has also helped me encourage friends who find themselves in painful periods of renegotiating their faith, wondering what label fits their evolving identity and where the boundaries are between belief and unbelief. Knowing that God is still forming his church over time and that his Bride is a population, not an individual, makes it easier for me to cope when specific Christians disappoint me during these increasingly fractured and divisive times. When I contemplate the New Creation that is breaking into our world, it helps me to remember that God’s creative process in nature can involve evolutionary dead ends, extinctions, adaptations, and multiple paths that converge on a desired trait. Maybe our Christian hope that God is making and will make all things new involves spiritual parallels to these natural phenomena.
We find that Scripture repeatedly draws on metaphors from the natural world to help us understand spiritual things. For example, John 15 gives us the picture of vines and fruit so we can understand better what it means to live spiritually united with Jesus. In 1 Corinthians 12 God gives us a picture of a healthy body made of interdependent parts so we can understand what it means to work together and serve one another in the spiritual work of the Church.
Maybe God can use the process of evolution in nature as another metaphor that can help us grasp spiritual ideas about God’s creativity and work. Maybe it can give us insight into how he creates humans in his image, collectively and individually. And how he saves and redeems each person, preparing and purifying his Bride, the Church through different centuries, places, and cultures. There is beauty and hope in these continua of development that we might miss if we are predisposed to focus only on precise moments.
Maybe God can use the process of evolution in nature as another metaphor that can help us grasp spiritual ideas about God’s creativity and work.
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