Evolving Faith 1 (RJS)

Rachel Held Evans is a young author, a talented writer, with  a story of common experience to tell. Rachel’s book,  Evolving in Monkey Town, is the memoir of a young Christian wrestling with the meaning and implications of Christian faith. It is well written and easy to read, with a thread of encouragement for the future.

Rachel grew up in the south – Alabama and Tennessee – in a culture of conservative Bible belt Christianity.  She graduated from Bryan College in Dayton Tennessee, founded in 1930 and named after William Jennings Bryan, remembered today primarily for his role in the Scopes trial. Playing off the history of the Scopes trial, the theme of Rachel’s memoir is the evolution of faith – not the evolution of Christianity, as though we are moving from an inferior past to a more highly developed form for the future, but the evolution of faith required in each of us as we seek to live as Christians for the future.

I am going to put up a few posts on Evolving in Monkey Town. Justin Topp reviewed the book for this blog (here) and I am not going to review it again. Rather I would like to pose some of the questions raised in the book and open them up for discussion.  The first question, and perhaps the most significant, is the evolution of faith itself.

How has your faith changed over the years?

What role should tradition play in our understanding of the Christian faith?

In the introduction to Evolving in Monkey Town Rachel describes the situation quite well.

To survive in a new, volatile environment, I had to shed old convictions and grow new ones in their place. I had to take a closer look at what I believed and figure out what was truly essential. I went from the security of crawling around on all fours in the muck and mire of my inherited beliefs to the vulnerability of standing, my head and heart exposed, in the truth of my own spiritual experience. I evolved, not into a better creature than those around me but into a better, more adapted me – a me who wasn’t afraid of her own ideas and doubts and intuitions, a me whose faith could survive change.

While evolution on a broad, historical scale happens every now and then, evolution within the souls of individuals happens every day, whenever we adapt our faith to change. Evolution means letting go of our false fundamentals so that God can get into those shadowy places we’re not sure we want him to be. It means being okay with being wrong, okay with not having all the answers, okay with never being finished. (p 22-23)

One of the most important lessons from Rachel’s journey is the need to examine the faith, to look with new eyes at the whole of Christian tradition through the millennia, to be willing to question answers from the past as we look to the future. The world, even the Christian world, is a big place. One certainty is that every local manifestation of the church, trying to follow Jesus, gets some things right and some things very wrong. Our task moving forward is not to dump Christianity for something better and more “rational” nor is it to cling to our local tradition and interpretation.

There are significant challenges to the Christian faith raised by many aspects of modern life. The issues raised by science can require a great deal of effort to think through – evolution, the nature of sin, the role of death, the place for purpose and divine action – these are not issues to be brushed off lightly and disregarded. Science played only a small role in Rachel’s doubts and questions. She isn’t a scientist and the questions raised by biological evolution were second-hand. Science plays a much larger role for me and for many others, especially those who go on to study in various scientific disciplines. The question is not authority and which authority to accept, but how to reconcile all that is known into a consistent understanding. Denial of biological evolution and the evidence for evolution creates a divide that destroys, for some of us anyway, the possibility of a flourishing faith. The realization that the Christian faith does not depend on the inerrancy of earlier understandings of the faith was instrumental in my growth in faith as a scientist. This was an essential insight. Our faith can adapt to new understandings and new facts and grow in the process.

The conflict between science and the Christian faith isn’t the whole story. Other issues were at the root of Rachel’s questions and concerns. The overall question of approach, however, is the same and is the kind of approach to faith that I found and find essential. The evolution of faith involves letting go of false fundamentals and loving God with our whole being, body, mind, soul, and strength. I will put up another post or two on some of the other issues raised in the book, but today I  would like to stop here and open a discussion the role that our view of the world plays in shaping faith and the way faith can change, adapting to new circumstances, both in individual Christians and in the church as a whole.

What do you think?

Does loving God with our whole being, including our whole mind, require an adaptable approach with room for an evolving faith?

How does faith adapt to changes in human knowledge and perspective? What limits would you place on this adaptability?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail@att.net

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

  • http://abcwesterville.org Mark Farmer

    Wonderful post, rjs. Thank you for the content and the questions. .
    To reply to your first question:
    1. “Let me count the ways…”
    2. Distingishing the Bible as it really is (to be discovered) from what I was told it is was the turning point for me. I see this as taking the Bible seriously on its own terms.
    3. I learned to see how God created processes and not just finished articles (biological, biblical, theological, human).
    4. James Fowler’s Stages of Faith describes my own evolution (not random, but hopefully somewhat reasonable) pretty well.

  • Susan N.

    The title itself ‘Evolving in Monkeytown’ resonates with me; this passage pretty much sums up my opinion on faith:

    “While evolution on a broad, historical scale happens every now and then, evolution within the souls of individuals happens every day, whenever we adapt our faith to change. Evolution means letting go of our false fundamentals so that God can get into those shadowy places we’re not sure we want him to be. It means being okay with being wrong, okay with not having all the answers, okay with never being finished.”

    I was reading and studying Matt. 13 this week. Having “ears that hear” requires an open mind/heart, a willingness to think outside the box. This distinction separated those who heard and received and those who could not hear and rejected Jesus’ kingdom of God teaching.

    Moreover, I was fascinated to learn how parables have been interpreted in different ways down through church history (Hebrew – mishal, allegory, historical, single vs. multiple point of comparison…) So I suggested to my Bible study group that we should be conscious of the fact that, depending on the way parables had been taught to us through our faith traditions, we each might have a different “take” on a parable’s meaning. And–it’s pertinent to note that my fellowship is comprised of elderly women–encouraging them to embrace the idea of “learning all the time; allowing God to teach us something new”.

    If one’s mind and heart is willing to consider a different way of understanding, and also work a bit to gain a broader, deeper perspective, our eyes and ears are opened often in new ways. By contrast, in Jesus’ time, the Pharisees clung to the old and missed the new kingdom of God message altogether. Too much pride and love of power to admit error and let go of their comfortable traditions?

  • AJ

    I think the best way to describe my faith’s evolution is that I worshiped a very specific image of God – and I related to Him really well. I understood Him and I percieved my relationship with Him as being very intimate. A series of life and spiritual events resulted in a broader image of God that I can’t contain. Honestly, it seems that since this change took place I do not relate to God as well. I suppose I just don’t know exactly how to relate to a much less specific God. But I still believe that God hasn’t given up on me and I have resurrection hope that even my relationship with Him is being renewed and redeemed.

    Ironically, as I’ve felt less intimate with God, I have related to people who are different than me much better. I wonder if I’m on a path to learning what love really is. The Blue Parakeet helped me to feel more comfortable not having all the answers. I’m certainly in process.

  • http://likeachildscience.blogspot.com like a child

    I’m still in that adaptation process, so my thoughts are very dynamic, but for me personally (at least right now), I would have to disagree that “the question is not authority and which authority to accept” when it comes to the historical Jesus endeavor, whether Jesus was resurrected literally, whether He was divine etc. There is alot of conflicting thought and opinion on the matter from scholars on all sides of the a/theism debate, and I’m struggling with indecision. While science isn’t the primary issue for me, it set off my questions about Jesus. When I started viewing the Bible as a narrative (which you need to in order to incorporate evolution), it lead me to question where I stop with the narrative…and that has to be Jesus in order to retain orthodox views.

  • Karl

    RJS, the question that most grabs me is “What role should Tradition play in our understanding of the Christian faith?” I have a couple of thoughts.

    First, I love this quote from Chapter 4 of G.K. Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy”

    “It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a consensus of common human voices . . . Those who urge against tradition that men in the past were ignorant may go and urge it at the Carlton Club, along with the statement that voters in the slums are ignorant. It will not do for us. . . . Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea. We will have the dead at our councils.”

    Second, in further answer to your question about the role of tradition I often think in terms of legal precedent. In the legal world the principle of “stare decisis” requires judges to respect and follow the precedents established by prior decisions of the same court or of a court recognized to be a higher authority. They can not lightly decide a case before them in a manner that goes against prior precedent. But that doesn’t mean precedent can never be overruled. It just means that there is a very high standard of proof, a very high bar to clear before overruling prior precedent. A judge isn’t supposed to just decide a case however he wants and pretend the prior precedent doesn’t exists. The judge must specifically find that the prior precedent was in error, and overturn it giving solid reasons why, and set a new precedent. That’s kind of how I see Tradition in the church. And the closer to the core of the faith, to the content of the creeds, and the more unanimity that has existed through time on a given issue or doctrine, the higher the bar that should have to be cleared before overturning the precedent of tradition on a given matter.

  • John W Frye

    A change occurred deep inside me when I reflected on my theological journey and saw that it had been agenda-driven by the “authorities” in my stream of Christianity. It created in me an “us/them” paradigm with “us” being right–”rightly dividing the word of truth.” Texts were cobbled together to foster belief in some very novel views of theology. Views taught to us were and are not inerrant (as RJS notes). Not that we go off individually and find the truth for ‘me.’ We do live in a huge, long family of the faith. Idiots did not precede us as some current theologians like to think. I like AJ’s line in comment #3 “…I do not relate to God as well.” If God is God and we relate to him well all the time, then is it really God we’re relating to, or is it some projection of ourselves onto God? If God doesn’t scare the /.%$#@ out of us of from time to time, what kind of God is God?

  • Cathy

    Real faith is living,it must grow; it is experiential. Any attempt to box it up, define it by creed and dogma stifles and often kills it. Tradition can be useful so long as it is always subservient to real faith experience. I just came out from under a tradition that claims to own God and speak for Him infallibly. Like most other factions of Christendom it claims to be right and everyone else is wrong, setting up a religion “about” Jesus rather than following the religion that Jesus lived. In fact, He calls us to Love and that sums up His entire life at every level. Religious traditions tend to heap up rules and regulations that diminish what we are to be about, in favor of creating the very thing Christ came to free us from. I think the portion of Rachel’s book that you quoted is right on the mark!

  • AJ

    Cathy – interesting statement “Like most other factions of Christendom it claims to be right and everyone else is wrong, setting up a religion “about” Jesus rather than following the religion that Jesus lived.” I very often feel like people make “right belief” into yet another law…”the very thing Christ came to free us from”.

  • rjs

    Mark,

    Thanks, I agree … let me count the ways. Letting the Bible be what it is rather than what I was told it must be was a significant factor.

    Cathy,

    I don’t think tradition is subservient to faith experience. This approach doesn’t acknowledge sufficiently power of God, the work of the Spirit, or the church as the body of Christ.

    However tradition is the tradition of the church in a grand sense, not just, or even primarily, the tradition of some local gathering of the church. God is and was at work – broadly, not just in a small faithful remnant.

  • Linda

    Before God saved me I was lost, lied to, and dying, then the Holy Spirit enabled me to turn from sin and completely trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, to embrace Jesus as “the way, the truth and the life, and the only way to the Father”…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XrPEpG5o0Ko

  • Cathy

    rjs@ #9, what I mean is that the faith experience of the believer must be alive and living and cannot be replaced by or reliant on tradition or ritual…the faith experience of the believer IS the power of God working; it IS the Holy Spirit working. I know people who have living faith but without ritual or tradition, and I know people who have seemingly lifeless “faith” but extremely high levels of rigid, enslaving traditional ritual.

  • Fred

    This is the meaning of repentance and is behind Paul’s admonition that we be “transformed by the renewing of our mind.” The question is, it seems to me is, what will inform our minds, the words of Jesus or the words of the world?

  • rjs

    Fred,

    Exactly … but sometimes what is spouted by a tradition as the correct interpretation of the words of Jesus is more accurately described as the “words of the world.” I think this is part of the root of our struggles.

  • http://facebook.com/csobalvarro Camille Sobalvarro

    One of the aspects of Christian faith that people of all walks of life and hugely diverse cultural perspectives embrace The Way of Jesus and find unique ways of following Him that I’m sure profoundly please the Father. It’s not that this truth is relative, it’s that it’s DURABLE! It’s not (always) that one group of believers gets it right while others get it wrong, it’s (often) that God works in different ways with different people. The faith that results is a personal, powerful and ends-up reflected in unique ways that resonate within the community. Yet because these expressions are locally inspired, they may seem foreign to people outside that context. It’s not that their faith is in different God, Jesus is the common ground, it’s that truths end-up expressing themselves differently to different people in different places, cultures, and times. I find this durability of the Way of Jesus to be absolutely captivating.

  • Fred

    I know what you mean, rjs. That’s why things like Jesus Creed are important. “Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another.” Proverbs 27:17

    BTW, thank you for your contributions.

  • Susan N.

    Cathy @ #11 – faith is both tradition and experience…and more; I’m reminded of Wesley’s quadrilateral: Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason. Coming from a “fundamentalist” initiation to the faith (which I have discovered is not very much different from an old school Catholic theological POV, I see the value in all means of growing in faith. Hearing, doing, thinking, and feeling. Accepting that I don’t have all of the answers at this moment has allowed my faith to grow and deepen, more than trying to convince myself that my set of beliefs was completely right, period, end of subject.

  • Jeff

    We are saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8). All generations are in this situation. This does not mean that one’s conclusions will all be right. We are not saved by perfect knowledge. “Tradition” can in fact be completely wrong – whether it comes from individuals in the “church” or not. The fact that they may be saved by faith does not mean God was “with” the traditions that were established! A classic illustration is in Mark 7:1-15 (though this problem of tradition is all over the NT). The “tradition of the elders” (believers in God who were every bit as sincere as Christians today or in past generations) was not, in itself wrong, became a problem because it was “bound.” They were: “teaching as ‘doctrines’ (i.e., Law) the commandments (traditions) of men.” Paul warned of those who would bind certain rules – 1 TIm. 4:1-3 – and described this as doctrines of demons! It’s not the rules themselves there, but the mentality of binding what God has not bound. This is what “tradition” often becomes. Over time we tend to equate a certain way of doing something as the Only way. Then, what was an expedient in the past (maybe a good idea given circumstances or maybe all that we knew at the time) becomes a Law today. Then, it’s a problem.

    The “evolving faith” is a great point. It is what growth is about. If one’s faith is not changing and evolving – it is not growing. Some equate “change” with the “being tossed too and fro with every wind of doctrine.” This is a concern but “change” is not what this is about. What that is concerned with is the danger of false doctrines that lead one away from Christ b/c one is not centered on Christ.

    Let me close with a quote from N.T. Wright from The Last Word that I think fits with the excellent essay above:

    “To affirm the authority of scripture is precisely not to say, ‘We know what scripture means and don’t need to raise any more questions.’ It is always a way of saying that the church in each generation must make fresh and rejuvenated efforts to understand scripture more fully and live by it more thoroughly, even if that means cutting across cherished traditions. This applies not least when the traditions in question refer to themselves as ‘biblical.’ There are always some who are ready, on hearing a new interpretation, to search the scriptures afresh to see if these things are so (Acts 17:11). But there always others whose reaction to any new proposal is to insist that since great preachers and teachers of old have said what a particular passage means, there can be nothing to add—and that even the attempt to say something new is somehow impious or arrogant… There is no doubt what Martin Luther would have said to an argument like that.”

    Amen.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    The single biggest change that I have made over the years is the shift from thinking of God and religion as fun suckers and moving that to fun fulfillers. I used to think that knowing God and participating in religion was a practice of self denial but now view it as fulfilling and enriching, not devoid of fun and excitement.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    I want to give accolades to the Roman Catholic Church in regards to accepting science. I went to a RC school growing up and never once did I ever have the notion that there was a discrepancy between science and religion. The nuns taught both, and did it well.

  • Cathy

    Sharon @ #16, I hear ya! Allowing faith to “grow and deepen” speak to life, joy, and ongoing journey. I think it is important to “protect” that from our human tendency to want everything boxed up in a convenient, easy package.

  • Casey McCollum

    Just want to say this is a great book – accessible, enlightening, and inspiring. Helped me in significant ways.

  • http://blogforthelordjesus.wordpress.com Mike Gantt

    “How does faith adapt to changes in human knowledge and perspective? What limits would you place on this adaptability?”

    Faith adapts to changes in human knowledge and perspective in the same way that faith in one’s spouse adapts to these things. And the limits are the same as well.

    That is, faith is an issue of personal trust in Jesus Christ, who lived as a human being but reigns as God Almighty. Thus in both His humility and grandeur, God is known to us…personally.

    Personally implies intimately. That is, there are conversations between each of us and Him to which the rest of the world is not privvy. Changes in human knowledge may test and tax our personal intimate relationship, but they effects should only strengthen our faith. That is, our faith in Him transcends all other concerns. This is what makes a marriage strong…and it is what makes faith strong.

  • rjs

    Mike,

    That is an interesting take on the limits. The focus is on relationship and that defines both the center and the “fuzzy” boundaries.


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