Jesus, Meet Evolution

[Editor's Note: This interview was originally published on Campus Progress.]

It used to be that if you wanted to provoke the wrath of God, you had to do something really horrific, like enslave an entire race of people to build your pyramids.

These days, though, you just have to vote for the wrong school board candidate. At least that's televangelist Pat Robertson's take on the ousting of eight Dover, Pennsylvania school board members who had mandated the teaching of intelligent design in local science classrooms.

"I'd like to say to the good citizens of Dover: If there is a disaster in your area, don't turn to God, you just rejected Him from your city," Robertson warned on the November 9 broadcast of his televised insanity (also known as The 700 Club). "And don't wonder why He hasn't helped you when problems begin, if they begin. I'm not saying they will, but if they do, just remember, you just voted God out of your city."

Of course, even many conservative Christians dismiss Robertson as a shamelessly immoral fraud (though the White House apparently does not). His tirade, however, was only the latest in a series of attacks on the religiosity of those Doverites who dared oppose teaching intelligent design as science. During the campaign even neighbors accused the challengers for school board of being un-Christian, anti-God, and in bed with the dreaded ACLU, terrorists, and pedophiles.

There's only one problem: Most of the newly elected board members are people of sincere and devout faith. Of the four Republicans and four Democrats (although they all ran on the Democratic ticket), at least two hold leadership positions in local churches, and even the group's stance on intelligent design can't be construed as anti-religious: They simply assert that since the concept is more about faith than science, it is more properly broached in religion and humanities courses.

For the countless Americans who comfortably balance belief and science every day, the discovery of Christian evolutionists in Dover won't raise any eyebrows. But it will strike many others as a rare contradiction. This is understandable: Conservative Christian leaders have been working for twenty years to reshape the American lexicon and popular consciousness until the word "Christian" refers not to a broad range of self-professed--and often progressive--followers of Jesus Christ, but solely to right-wing fundamentalists like themselves.

These efforts, however, cannot mask the reality that it is perfectly possible to be a good Christian and embrace evolution at the same time.

How? The simplest explanation is that science answers "how" questions while faith answers "why" questions, and never the twain shall meet. Unfortunately, it's not always that easy: Faith often embraces and builds upon certain assumptions about how the universe works, and science often digs beneath those assumptions, seeking to unlock the secrets of what many consider the divine.

Evolution is a case in point: For certain Christian traditions, science's contention that all life on Earth developed through millions of years of mutations clearly invalidates their assertions that everything originated exactly the way it's described in Genesis.

This might not be so bad, except that that "how" creation story is intimately tied to the "why" of these believers' faith. For very conservative and fundamentalist Christian traditions, a literal reading of Genesis sets up many of the religious concepts and morals they hold dear: that men and women were created for biological partnership with distinct gender roles, say, or that our ancestors' eating of forbidden fruit makes all humans sinners, with salvation available only through Jesus Christ.

Moreover, this approach to the creation story is the first expression of a central tenet of fundamentalist faith: that the Bible is the literal and infallible word of God, and that as such it offers clear, unquestionable lessons for how we should live our lives. After interpreting Genesis in this way, conservative Christians proceed all the way through Exodus and Leviticus to the Book of Revelation, constructing their entire edifice of theology and morality from a narrow reading of carefully selected passages.

An admission that things in the beginning were not so cut-and-dry, then, wouldn't just undermine the creation story and its religious lessons; it could cast doubt on the entire concept of scriptural authority and the uncompromising moral code that religious conservatives derive from it. If we question the Bible's account of creation, could questioning its stance on homosexuality or original sin be far behind?

While intelligent design abandons this literal approach to Genesis, it too is an effort to defend a narrow understanding of Christian theology--namely, that God acts primarily through overt interventions in the physical world, and that a theory of evolution which makes such intervention unnecessary could be taken as evidence that God is not present in any aspect of existence. This is why ID advocates are struggling to force Godly interventions back into biology by any means necessary.

What motivates all of this pushback against evolution, then, are fears that science threatens not only the "how" but the "why" of Christian faith. The real danger, though, is only to exceedingly narrow and literalistic interpretations of that faith. The best way for Christians to resolve this conflict is not to attack science, but to embrace a broader and deeper approach which can not only accommodate evolution but fulfill the full potential of Christianity itself.

Conservative preachers sneer at this approach as a cop-out or a concession to "secular humanists," but they push the limits of their own rigid standards all the time--starting with Genesis. After all, the well-known "Biblical" story of creation is actually a combination of two different accounts. In the first (Genesis 1 - 2:3), God makes the world in seven days, with plants first, then animals, and humans last of all. In the second (Genesis 2:4 - 3:24), God makes everything in one day, starting with a human, then plants and animals, and finally splitting the human into man and woman.

This contrast illustrates the limits of narrow literalism from the first verse of the Bible, but it also points to the real power of the text. Millions of believers have dwelled on these stories with all their contradictions not because they were desperate for a simple account of human origins, but because they found in them immense insight into the mysteries of the universe and our existence within it. While a literal reading of the seven-day account leads only to petty disputes and outrageous questions, a meditation on its spiritual significance inspires awe at the vast complexity of our cosmos, our earth, and ourselves.

This is where the Bible begins to take on its real power and authority: not as a precise account of physical truth, but as a deeply resonant revelation of moral and spiritual truth.

If we insist on approaching the tale of Adam and Eve as literal truth, we come out of the story with little more than frustration that our ancestors could be so stupid as to condemn all humanity by trusting a talking snake. But if we let go of this literalist fixation and dig to the moral and spiritual heart of the story, we confront a fundamental tenet of Christianity: that the Garden of Eden drama is played out every day, by our neighbors and ourselves; that we are not just condemned by the temptation and sin of our predecessors but by humanity's perpetual weakness in choosing evil over good; that we have all made choices to eat forbidden fruit for which we desperately want and need redemption.

Opponents of evolution fear that modern science advances a "materialist" worldview in which every aspect of existence is approached only on a crude, physical plane. But the literalist approach to scripture is precisely this--only when Christians move beyond it do we encounter the most meaningful realms of spiritual understanding and revelation. Thus, while intelligent design advocates desperately try to make science validate a clumsy interventionist God, C.S. Lewis envisions in The Screwtape Letters a Deity for whom the linear progress of evolution means nothing, because It operates beyond the bounds of space and time, intimately involved in "the whole, self-consistent creative act."

The greatest Christian believers throughout history have understood and embraced these depths of the faith, and continue to do so today. In 1996, Pope John Paul II declared of science and belief that "truth cannot contradict truth," acknowledging that while evolutionary theory may challenge literal creationism, it can never challenge the basic spiritual message of Christianity: that humans face suffering and need redemption; that the vision, light, and life of Christ offer, for many, the means of that salvation. Many U.S. denominations, including the Episcopal Church, United Methodist Church, and Presbyterian Church, USA have taken similar stances.

The Bible is not a scientific text. But neither modern science nor modern fundamentalism can challenge it as an incredibly powerful historical, psychological, moral and spiritual document. As the great sage of another religion, Master Yoda, once said, "Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter." We should approach Christian scriptures and faith in the same way.


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