[The following is adapted from the conclusion of The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins and is somewhat modified for blog consumption.]
There are two kinds of thinking that get in the way of the conversation evangelicals need to have over evolution.
One is exemplified by those who see red, cry “liberal,” and retreat to their safe doctrinal bunker with their fingers in their ears humming “la la la la la I do not hear you.”
The other type is exemplified by those on the other side of the spectrum, but whose thinking is just as harmful. They claim that there is no real conflict between evolution and Christianity. The two can get along quite well, with perhaps a minor adjustment or two—nothing to lose sleep over.
The former approach is obscurantist and stubborn; latter is theologically superficial. Both cause spiritual damage.
One advantage that the first group has over the second is the frank admission that evolution poses a serious challenge to how Christians have traditionally understood at least three central issues of the faith: the origin of humanity, of sin, and of death. That is true.
I argue in my book that sin and death are undeniable universal realities whether or not we are able to attribute them to a primordial man who ate from the wrong tree. The Christian tradition, however, has generally attributed the cause to sin and death to the first human, Adam. Evolution claims that the cause of sin and death, as Paul understood it, is not viable. That leaves open the questions of where sin and death come from.
More than that, the very nature of what sin is and why people die is turned on its head. Some behaviors that Christians have thought of as sinful are understood in an evolutionary scheme as means of ensuring survival—for example, the aggression and dominance associated with “survival of the fittest” and sexual promiscuity to perpetuate one’s gene pool.
Likewise, in an evolutionary scheme death is not the enemy to be defeated. It may be feared, it may be ritualized, it may be addressed in epic myths and sagas; but death is not the unnatural state introduced by a disobedient couple in a primordial garden. Actually, it is the means that promotes the continued evolution of life on this planet and even ensures workable population numbers. Death may hurt, but it is evolution’s ally.
So, I repeat my point: evolution cannot simply be grafted onto evangelical Christian faith as an add-on, where we can congratulate ourselves on a job well done. This is going to take some work—and a willingness to take theological risk.
Evolution demands true synthesis: a willingness to rethink one’s own convictions in light of new data, and that is typically a very hard thing to do.
The cognitive dissonance created by evolution is considerable, and I understand why either avoidance or theological superficiality might be attractive. But in the long run, the price we pay for not doing the hard and necessary synthetic work is high indeed.
Evangelicals are a defensive lot, tending to focus on the need to be faithful to the past, to make sure that present belief matches that of previous generations. I get the point, but we must be just as burdened to be faithful to the future, to ensure that we are doing all we can to deliver a viable faith to future generations. That too is a high calling. Ignoring reality or playing theological games won’t do—no matter how unsettling, destabilizing, perhaps frightening such a calling may be.
Such a journey must be taken, for the alternatives are not pleasant. Christians can turn away, but the current scientific explanation of cosmic and biological origins is not going away, nor is our growing understanding of the nature of Israelite faith in its ancient Near Eastern context. I do not believe that God means for his children to live in a state of denial or hand-wringing.
Likewise, abandoning all faith in view of our current state of knowledge is hardly an attractive—or compelling—option. Despite the New Atheist protestations of the bankruptcy of any faith in God in the face of science, most world citizens are not ready to toss away what has been the central element of the human drama since the beginning of recorded civilization.
Neither am I, not because I refuse to see the light, but because the light of science does not shine with equal brightness in every corner. There is mystery. There is transcendence. By faith I believe that the Christian story has deep access to a reality that materialism cannot provide and cannot be expected to know.
That is a confession of faith, I readily admit, but when it comes to accessing ultimate reality, we are all in the same boat, materialistic atheists included: at some point we must all say, “I can see no further than here, comprehend no more than this.”
As for evangelicals, perhaps evolution will eventually wind up being more of a help than a hindrance. Perhaps it will remind us that our theologies are provisional; when we forget that fact, we run the risk of equating what we think of God with God himself. That is a recurring danger, and the history of Christianity is replete with sad and horrific stories of how theology is used to manipulate and maintain power over others.
It may be that evolution, and the challenges it presents, will remind us that we are called to trust God, which means we may need to restructure and even abandon the “god” that we have created in our own image. Working through the implications of evolution may remind Christians that trusting God’s goodness is a daily decision, a spiritually fulfilling act of recommitment to surrender to God no matter what.
That’s not easy. But if we have learned anything from the saints of the past, it is that surrendering to God each day, whatever we are facing, is not meant to be easy. Taking up that same journey now will add our witness for the benefit of future generations.
It is time to stop playing games.