A commenter named Jason asked some thoughtful questions in the comments section of my previous post. I’ve decided to reproduce the comment here, and then reply at length:
I haven’t actually watched this video yet (my daughter won the battle this morning to play myepets.com) but I have seen quite a few like it and enjoy watching them. But it is not hard to notice that most of these videos are produced by atheists (indeed, DonExodus2 is the only one I know who claims otherwise -catholic- but there could be more, I haven’t looked that exhaustively). Now I’m sure you could quote me some statistic about the huge overlap of mainstream Christianity and belief in evolution and that is encouraging, but it seems most of them simply accept it on the word of scientists. I can’t help but notice that those who really research it and promote it tend to much more heavily weighted on the atheist side then the general public.
I am a Christian and I would like to think that I am so not because I want to be, or it gives me comfort, or I am scared to die, or simply on “faith”, I want to think I believe because God is a reality and Jesus is a reality, and Jesus death and resurrection are a reality. Reality, that is the key word. I now know evolution is a reality, and that the ark is not a “historical” reality, and indeed a whole other mess of things that challanged my simple evangelical faith of just a few years ago. I have slowly lost my fear of these things for there is no point in not accepting reality for what it is. But then I ask myself why any of my traidtional faith can be known as reality, and if so, why don’t all those atheists see it to? Is it perhaps the obvious answer I don’t want to admit, that I have very little evidence for that which I postulate to be the most important, so little that a great deal of educated people think I really don’t have any. Is it because it basically makes more sense that not only is the beginning of my Bible filled with myths but a great deal of it, indeed that most of my religion is just made up?
This is hard, because it is so foreign to my childhood and even to my church experience today. Because in both contexts it wasn’t about whether any of this was true, that was assumed, it was only a matter of whether you would repent of your sin and seek salvation. People weren’t nonbelievers because they didn’t find any reason whatsoever to believe (exactly parallel to why I wouldn’t believe in Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, Islamic, Norse, Greek, Roman religions->as these clearly were false:-) but because they didn’t want to repent(!), they didn’t want to give up control over their lives(!), or because they are proud.
Well I want to repent (and have repented!), and I want a savior (and have called on the name of the Lord Jesus!), and frankly having grown up in the Christian subculture my whole life there is nothing I need to “give up” to be a Christian…and yet I wonder now if it doesn’t make a whole lot more sense that most of my religion, at least with respect to what we affirm as history, is made up. Dr. McGrath, I ask, is most of our religion just made up?
I want to reply in a way that not only addresses the very important and insightful questions you asked, but also challenges at least one assumption that seems to be behind the final question.
There’s a contemporary praise song that includes the line “These words are not made up”, and every time I hear it I find myself asking “They aren’t?! Well then, what are they?!” Obviously “made up” can be used in a derogatory way, as a reference to something that is claimed deceitfully, something that is not merely fictional but a lie.
Some of the most powerful narrative in the Bible is “made up”, not in the negative sense but in a positive one. I think that, for instance, so much of the discussion about Genesis 1-3 is utterly besides the point. A talking snake? Trees with astounding abilities? God strolling in a garden? Two sides go back and forth, one asserting the story’s factuality, the other laughing at those who do so. And yet neither seems to realize that the story is not about a “guy named Adam” but about “Human” (which is what adam means in Hebrew, and there is a long history of reading it as about all of us rather than our ancestor.
I usually ask my class, when we talk about Genesis 2-3, a couple of questions. First, I ask who walks around “naked but not ashamed”. I always worry someone will answer “my roomate”, but usually the answer that is forthcoming is “children”. I then ask a question that has yet to be answered: “When did you first realize you were naked?” No one has a clear recollection of the first instance. I can state, however, with a great degree of confidence that it wasn’t a result of eating a literal, rather special fruit. “Knowledge of good and evil” in the Hebrew Bible is used in reference to maturity. And it is at the point we begin to become mature that we need to take responsibility for our actions, and begin to find ourselves making poor choices, and alienated from one another as a result.
I believe this story was “made up”. I also find it insightful, provocative and powerful, just as I do other “made up” stories, such as the ones Jesus told. I could (indeed, professionally I sometimes do) spend a lot of time trying to figure out what we can know and with what degree of certainty about Jesus, the early Church, and from time to time also ancient Israel and even the Mandaeans. But it turns out that historical study doesn’t give us certainty even in a best case scenario. It always leaves open the possibility that something we firmly believe happened didn’t actually happen. And so the question I find I need to ask is no longer “What can I prove sufficiently about the past in order to build my worldview on it?” but “How can I live in response to a life-transforming experience of transcendence and meaning, in a way that holds on to things that are clearly valuable in the traditions I’ve inherited, but also takes seriously the very different context of our time?”
I now want to return to some of your earlier questions. I think there are a significant number of Christians who also happen to be biologists. I suspect that relatively few of them are visible for a number of reasons, one of which being that biologists in general are not all that visible – if a rock star or actor is a Christian, or whatever else, people hear about it, but biologists don’t generally have star status. But Ken Miller, Francis Collins and Francisco Ayala are big names in biology, and each professes some form of Christian faith.
I think you are right that the majority of Christians who accept evolution do so because scientists with relevant expertise accept it. I don’t think it should be otherwise. It certainly is wonderful if someone has the time and interest to become well informed about a subject outside their specialty, and for most of us evolution falls into that category. But if you don’t have the time to inform yourself, then you really ought to accept what the scientific consensus is, and not a handful of engineers and preachers who tickle people’s ears and tell them emotionally-charged things that they want to hear.
For me, my own personal faith has ceased to be about claiming certain things did or didn’t happen in the past. That has its place. But I focus more on my own experience, and the reality that we inhabit now. If the teachings of Christianity are “true” in any meaningful sense, then we ought to be more concerned with how we treat others than with debating questions of history or even science. We should be more concerned with justice and righteousness than with just being right. And so, when it comes down to it, I consider your decision to spend time with your daughter on MyePets rather than watch a video on YouTube to have been a wise one.
Let me just conclude by saying that, ultimately, I don’t feel like what I’ve provided is an “answer” in any sort of final sense to your question(s). I merely want to offer encouragement to keep asking them, and others like them. Because if we think about the line-up of atheists and Christians that you mentioned, we can forget that these are all people, most of whom are on journeys, and few of whom will hold precisely the same views for their entire lives without changing their minds. Some have travelled away from faith, others towards it, and some having left have found it again, or vice versa.
I mentioned earlier that, in the absence of a detailed study of one’s own into a matter, it is good to trust the consensus of experts. But if one wants to do science, then one has to learn to investigate and evaluate, in ways that may uphold and build upon, but also may potentially challenge the consensus. In the same way, there are helpful guides on our religious journeys, but it is our individual seeking to live and to understand that constitutes doing religion. Your wrestling with your faith rather than merely taking it on the authority of others is a sign of spiritual health, if you ask me, even though some for whom “faith” is really “accepting what certain religious ‘experts’ say” may regard it with suspicion, perhaps even hostility.