It’s a pretty common story. Someone grows up in a conservative Christian setting and is taught that Genesis gives the true account of creation and that evolution is false. Then in high school or college the young Christian learns about evolution. You’ve probably heard or met people who had that experience and reacted in one of two ways. He may be convinced by the scientific evidence that evolution is true, and decide that Christianity must therefore be false. Some have taken this path to militant atheism. But if the Genesis stories have been a sufficiently fundamental part of the student’s world view, she may reject evolution and insist that Genesis is literally true. Some anti-evolution crusaders have had such a history.
The first part of that story is mine. I grew up in a conservative Lutheran church and took its teaching seriously. In ninth grade I did a science project with the ambitious title “A Refutation of the Theory of Evolution.” But one Sunday morning of my sophomore year in college, on my way home from church, I thought, “There’s no good reason for a Christian not to accept evolution.” No drama, no trauma, just a realization that the basic claims of evolution don’t conflict with Christian faith. Since then I’ve gotten a doctorate in physics, become a Lutheran pastor, and spent a lot of time and energy writing and speaking about how to understand scientific knowledge in a Christian context.
By no means am I the only person coming from a conservative background who has decided that religious belief and evolution can be compatible. But reflection on my history has made me think that perhaps I have at least one insight into the process of coming to terms with science.
The fact that I was attracted to the physical sciences as I was growing up certainly helped in this process. (It’s pretty hard to believe in six-day creation if you know a bit about modern astrophysics.) But a major factor was the type of conservative Christianity to which I was exposed. Certainly there was emphasis on the truth and authority of scripture but I wasn’t told that the Bible was to be revered for its own sake. The teachings that made the greatest impression on my were those that the Lutheran tradition has always stressed – justification by grace alone through faith alone for Christ’s sake, the person of Christ and his real presence in the Lord’s Supper. Forgiveness of sins was crucial but I don’t recall particular emphasis being placed on the idea of Christ paying for Adam’s sin (though that is a traditional teaching).
When I thought about the Apostles’ Creed (which we had to memorize, together with the catechism’s explanations, in confirmation class), I saw that its focus is on the saving work of Christ and renewal of life by the Spirit in the church. Of course creation is there – “I believe in God, the Father, creator of heaven and earth” – but there’s nothing about the details of creation. That doesn’t mean that the details are unimportant, and evolution provokes some tough theological questions. It wasn’t until I was in seminary that I really wrestled seriously with some of those questions. But the priorities are clear. And we don’t have to have answers to all our questions in order to put our trust in the God revealed in Jesus Christ.
Theological illiteracy contributes to the idea that science has to conflict with Christianity. I don’t mean just lack of knowledge of the books or stories of the Bible but, more seriously, ignorance of the difference between truly fundamental Christian teachings and aspects of the faith that are secondary. (I’m appalled by “statements of faith” that put belief in “a personal devil” on the same level as the atoning work of Christ.) If a young person realizes that Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, is the real fundamental that must be clung to in life and in death, it won’t cause a lot of harm if they think for awhile that the earth is a few thousand years old and that the Garden of Eden was a real place where a real Adam and Eve lived. Maturity can come in its own time. And our children and grandchildren won’t be pushed to become either militant atheists or anti-evolution crusaders.
George Murphy has been active for many years in helping churches see the relevance of science for faith and to deal with religious issues raised by science and technology. With a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Johns Hopkins, he taught college science courses in the United States and Australia for twelve years. He received his M.Div. from Wartburg Seminary, and was pastor of St. Mark Lutheran Church in Tallmadge, Ohio from 1984 till 1999 and a pastoral associate at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Akron, Ohio from 1999 to 2008. Now retired from regular parish ministry, he continues to write and speak on issues of science and theology and is an adjunct faculty member at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus.
Dr. Murphy has published many papers in physics as well as articles in the science-theology dialogue in Dialog, The Lutheran, Zygon, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, and other journals, and writes the “Handiwork” column on issues of science and technology in ministry for Lutheran Partners. His most recent books are Pulpit Science Fiction (CSS, 2005) and The Cosmos in the Light of the Cross (Trinity Press International, 2003). Earlier books are Toward a Christian View of a Scientific World (CSS, 2001), Cosmic Witness (CSS, 1996) and The Trademark of God (Morehouse-Barlow, 1986), which is now out of print.
He has spoken at conferences and retreats for clergy and laity, seminaries, and universities and taught television courses on theology and science and religion. He served on the task force that developed the Evangelical Lutheran Church’s “Caring for Creation” statement and on a committee of the the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio that produced a report on “The Incarnation and the Internet”, and for years was a member of the Steering Committee of the ELCA Alliance on Faith, Science and Technology. Dr. Murphy has written for several services that provide internet resources for preachers.