I’ve been looking for a short article I could link to that would summarize the challenges I feel as a Christian who is not only accepting of evolution theory, but animated by it. I think I’ve found that article in Peter Enns’s blog post “Evangelicalism and Evolution ARE in Serious Conflict (and that’s not the end of the world).”
On a personal note, I don’t call my present understanding of theology as “Evangelical.” I’m drawn to the Mennonite church for its practices and guidance, and my personal framing of religion falls loosely under the broad rubric of “Emergent” – a newer term that may not last, but for me means something like, “dissatisfied with many available options, yet stubbornly optimistic.”
So at the end of the day I don’t have much stake in “Evangelical theology” per se. I guess you could say that my faith is Evangelically inflected, most likely because I was raised Evangelical and experienced my faith early in life in exclusively Evangelical ways.
Peter Enns, an Old Testament scholar and theology prof newly joined to the faculty of Eastern University, speaks and publishes on subjects of particular interest to those who remain closer to the heart of the Evangelical project. But of course the rigor and breadth of his scholarship makes his work much more widely applicable than just to Evangelicals. I’ve encountered Enns mostly online, through his blog and his writing for BioLogos, and a number of public presentations archived at YouTube (also many of them from BioLogos, though he’s no longer affiliated with that organization).
Enns’s latest book tackles collisions between Christianity (especially Evangelicalism) and science (especially evolution). The blog post linked above is drawn from the final chapter of this book. I’d been looking forward to reading the book, but excitedly bumped it closer to the front of the line after reading this post.
He begins by describing 2 unhelpful ways Christians may respond when encountering evolution theory. One is to deny it, cry “liberal,” and hide from even learning about it. Enns condemns this approach. But he says there is another possible response that is also counterproductive:
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.
This is precisely something that has been eating at the back of my mind for a while now. I’ve visually mapped Enns’s idea, along with the theological challenges he names, in the illustrated graphic at the end of this post.
I expend a lot of energy trying to persuade Christians that their religion does not require them to reject evolution theory. And I mean it. I’m fond of testifying that evolution shares the identifying characteristics of “God’s Truth” I was taught in Sunday School (observably true, astoundingly beautiful, in harmony with scripture, and a little bit scary).
But I worry that, like an Evangelical tract evangelist who glosses the difficult realities of a life of faith, I sometimes skip over the reality that it’s not all easy sailing.
It’s true that evolution poses genuine challenge to a religious believer, especially a believer constrained by more conservative approaches to scripture. I don’t mind a robust challenge to my thinking or worldview, but I do require my commitments to meet those challenges without pretense or fear. I’m with Enns in his conclusion that Evangelical theology (let me say, for my own part, “Evangelically-inflected” theology) should take more seriously the trouble that evolution theory poses.
Trouble like the following conundrums:
- Evolution means God did not make the world in the first chapter of the Bible and then stop. God has been continually making the world, and continues making it on into the future. Should we stop saying that God made (past tense) the world?
- The scale of suffering and death required for evolution to be useful in the production of human beings staggers the imagination. How are we to understand suffering and death in light of this fact?
- Evolution literally relates human beings to all other creatures in a web-like matrix of descent rather than a divinely ordered hierarchy of virtue (and value). How does this change our understanding of how those relationships should be lived?
- Evolution describes the aspects of “human nature” we consider so repulsive that we label them “sin” (selfish drives for dominance, violence, and control). But Evolution leaves little room for the notion that human disobedience brought these things into the world. How then do we reconcile a Christian hermeneutical tradition that blames humans?
I’ve already adjusted my thinking to accommodate some of these challenges without much effort (often by engaging historical religious thinkers like Thomas a Kempis and Teilhard de Chardin, or contemporary figures like Nancey Murphy and Michael Murray). But others haven’t been as easy for me, and continue to haunt. Enns hits on most of these personal challenges of mine in his post. I’ve no doubt the book explores them even more fully, which is why I’m excited to read it.
Ultimately, because I care deeply about evolution and Christianity both, I agree with Enns’s conclusion that Christian theologians have work to do. Many attempts to avoid reconciliation he labels ”games,” and calls instead for “synthesis.”
A futile effort? That’s an accusation on which fundamentalists and New Atheists agree. Even though I don’t think it’s futile, I guess it might be. Nevertheless, it’s a call I consider worthy, and I hope many will answer.