Sunday, February 13, 2011

Raising the Bar: Evolution and Evangelism (12 Feb 2011)

Last summer I had a visitor at my front door.  I heard the bell ring and went to see who it was, only to find myself confronted with two well-dressed strangers who were anxious to speak with me.  Each was beaming with apparent enthusiasm over something they wanted to share, and after introducing themselves, proceeded to blurt out the well-rehearsed question, “Well, sir, we were wondering if we could speak with you about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?  Do you yourself know Jesus?”
I was struck by the formality of their presentation and by the meticulous way in which these two believers spoke.  One man and one woman, they smiled at me with a coaxing simplicity that covered more covert intentions; they were – most assuredly – praying for me ‘inwardly’ as they confronted me.  I, too, was ‘praying’ for guidance, and suddenly found myself asking them if they understood and accepted the truth of evolution?  _I was rather surprised by these words coming out of my mouth, but it felt ‘right,’ and so I beamed at them with a hopefully less duplicitous enthusiasm.
No_ I mean_ we do not subscribe to the ‘doctrine’ of evolution.  Do you, sir?” the man asked me.  I could see that the woman had taken a submissive step back from the door, and had fallen into the ‘supportive role’ in relation to her male companion.  It was obvious he was the dominant person in this team; especially when confronted with the ‘e’ word.  I had no doubt at that point what kind of ‘church’ they represented; a sexist, traditionalist, literalist, and therefore anti-scientific body of people retreating from the world into the security of a like-minded fellowship, from which they might never emerge again.
I said, with honest conviction and, I hoped, compassion, “Evolution is not a doctrine, sir; it is a well substantiated theory about the world.  It is a ‘fact.’”
“It is a lie!” the man said adamantly, his eyes suddenly turning severe, looking to me like those of a wounded fiend.
“No, actually it’s a well established truth about the world,” I said, “about you and me and everyone else.  Evolution is true, and if you don’t accept it, then how can I hear what else you have to say, especially about Jesus?”
“How’s that?” the man said, now in a rigid stance, obviously suppressing anger and possibly violence.
“If you haven’t opened yourself to the truth of evolution, can I really trust what you say about Jesus?  I mean, evolution is a spiritual as well as an empirical fact; it is the empirical truth behind the myth of ‘Creation;’ it describes the ‘what actually happened’ whereas the creation stories in the Bible tell us more about our relationship to God, the Creation and each other.  If you reject the truth of evolution, then you reject something God has done—something that’s been going on for billions of years.  Evolution is established as the way in which all life on this planet arose; and if God is the Creator, as you no doubt believe, then evolution is the process by which God has created us.  If you don’t accept evolution, how can I possibly trust that you have a handle on the truth of other things; such as salvation and the human condition?”
“I don’t follow you,” was all the man could say.  The woman was by this point distressed; looking at the porch floor and shaking her head, muttering softly to her version of ‘God.’
“The point is simple,” I continued, “but I’ll rephrase it.  As evolution is a fact and you don’t accept it, can I really trust that you are in possession of revelation about the way things are?  What you have to say about more ultimate questions—such as sin and salvation—is suspect, because you apparently aren’t listening to God very closely.”
Why would you say that?” the man asked, now getting angry – I could feel the violent emotion directed at me.
“Because God knows that evolution is true, as He is behind it.  And if you haven’t had that confirmed in you_ by the Spirit_ then you are obviously not listening to God.  God can’t tell you that evolution is a ‘lie’ as God started it all and is the force behind the entire unfolding of the universe—including the evolution of life.  If you are being told by God that evolution isn’t true, I fear for you, as you may be listening to a Liar rather than to the real God.”
The man said, simply, “good day,” turned and walked off the porch with the woman following behind him, still with her head bowed.

I was somewhat thrown by this interaction, as I’d not planned to take this tack with my visitors.  They were not the usual Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormon missionaries.  They said they were from a “new church” starting up somewhere in the area, and I suspected they were going door to door, trying to drum up converts.  After I thought about our exchange for a while I realized that I’d hit upon a position from which to evaluate the claims of evangelists; I had found a scale to weight their truth claims upon, and because of this it seemed I’d come away from the encounter at my own front door more or less unscathed.
I’ve often asserted that I have no problem with religion, per se.  I have a problem, however, with any religion or philosophy that rejects the established findings of science, amongst which evolution is now well ranked.  _I had just never put my criteria into practice in quite this way before.  I wasn’t trying to be ‘smart’ much less ‘mean’ to my two visitors.  I would have invited them in, and offered them iced tea or water had we gotten beyond this initial interaction, but as I sought guidance in the first few moments of the visit, I realized I really wanted to know whether or not they accepted the truth of evolution; whether – in their worldview – life has been evolving on this planet for billions of years, or if they still held to some version of the old Iron Age myths (e.g., the creation tales from Genesis).
They were probably going to talk to me about revelation in the Bible and the knowledge of God as they understood it, based upon their own experience of Jesus as constrained by a certain amount of “received knowledge” (i.e., the particular religious traditions they held to be valid.)  Experiences of Jesus and of God vary according to the traditions that people accept.  My problem with their intended presentation was simple: If they could not accept something as well-established as the fact of the evolution of life on this planet, then their take on ‘deeper’ spiritual issues (like the state of human affairs, the nature and role of God in our lives, and the ‘plan’ of salvation) was suspect.
It seems to me that truth – all truth, small ‘t’ and capital ‘T’ truth – is something that concerns the God of the Bible and is implicit in the story of the Jesus.  What is the point of revelation, after all, if not to communicate to humankind something that is true; either about God, our relationship to each other and to God, or about the universe in which God is acting?  If revelation isn’t ‘true,’ then those who accept it are being deceived, right?  If believers are being led to accept falsehoods, then their religion can’t be ‘true,’ can it?  If a believer isn’t more in possession of truth – both small ‘t’ as well as capital ‘T’ truth – than the non-believer, what’s the difference; why be a believer?  Why accept a religious system or the revelations of some deity, if you aren’t any closer to knowing the truth about things than you would be otherwise?  Doesn’t that make sense?
Now, there are more or less central claims in religious systems, and a major problem with a lot of religion today is that it has gotten out of step with what we know about the world and it has therefore allowed these central claims to remain framed in an ancient worldview that is no longer a valid way of understanding the world.  Unique revelations about the Divine and ourselves are still for the most part being ‘framed’ in a worldview that is out-of-date and essentially nonsensical at this point.  The key point of the Gospel, to take Christianity as an instance, is not how God made the world, but the fact that God came to Earth, became one of us and then died for us, so that we could be ‘saved’ from the broken state in which we find ourselves.  Within the Bible, the Gospel is set within the larger narrative that includes the Old Testament, the Letters of Paul and the book called “Revelation,” which outlines a vision of the end of the world.
‘The Gospel’ is thus framed in a Big Story that includes the beginning and end of the world.  The problem is that so many religious people today cannot – or will not – tell the difference between a myth and an empirical understanding of events in the world.  They mistake one for the other—and thus become ‘Creationists,’ for instance.
I’ve often argued that, from a Christian point of view, a Creationist is someone who has failed to discern the nature of God’s Word.  They have taken a story with deep mythical dimensions and interesting literary nuances; a sacred depth that is symbolic, parabolic and at times allegorical, and mistaken it for a news story; i.e., an account of something that ‘actually happened,’ in the banal, ordinary sense of ‘everyday events.’  They have traded in the rich stew of the Word for a mess of literal pottage (to use a biblical metaphor).  They have given up a twenty-century long tradition of spiritual understanding and accepted in its place a commercialized, easy to grasp, clichéd version of the Word that can be put on placards at sporting events, plastered all over leaflets left in public places and in other ways used as crass advertizing.
Creationism is part of the Christian ad campaign called Fundamentalism; an insidious commercialization of the Gospel that robs those who ‘buy the product’ of not only the Wonders of the Word but the Wonders of Creation as well!
My interaction with the two visitors last summer was not an attempt to be mean, but to shine a light on the situation.  They came bearing what they believed to be a message of truth; it was being offered – to give them the best of motivations – in the hopes of my salvation.  However, if someone accepts this kind of narrow, literalized message; by falling prey to the commercialization of the Gospel and the Bible – they will fall out of communion with the Creation; which we now realize came into being about 13.75 billion years ago through a process called “the Big Bang” and in which, on this planet at least, a diverse menagerie of life forms have been and are being evolved, with our own species emerging quite recently (only some 200,000 years ago in Africa) from the ever-branching tree of life.  What my two visitors were offering me was an interpretation of the human condition; one that – metaphorically at least – I accept.[1]  However, the cost of accepting their version of the story would be too great, because of the literal nature of their understanding of it, and because of all of the wonders of Creation that it leaves out.

Thus I return to my original question, and pose it to anyone who has a religious truth to share: Do you accept the truth of evolution?  If not, can I really trust that the rest of what you are going to share with me is true?

It might be true, yet if there is a disjunct between your truth and what is now generally known about the Earth & Cosmos, what you know must either be (1) skewed by being out of touch with the real, objective world (and to that extent misleading and essentially a ‘fantasy’ in the negative sense of that term) or (2) too narrowly understood (and to that extent simply false).  I still affirm that the truth that religions have to offer is not to be rejected out of hand.  However, it must be articulated with the truths about the world that enlighten us – as to our earthen home and our cosmic origin – for them to situate us better in the world where we actually find ourselves.  Creation myths are tales that tell us something about what it is to be human.  However, they are stories; they are not histories (in the modern scientific sense of an actual account of things that happened in an actual past).  Creation stories are myths; truths about existence and our relationship to the divine.  Science has revealed the actual history of the universe and of life on our planet; and by accepting what science has revealed, religionists can better frame their questions concerning deeper issues, such as sin and salvation, etc., all of which may well contribute to our sense of the meaning and purpose of life, when properly understood.

[1] I do in fact accept the existential import of the Biblical story as a whole; which implies that we each begin in a state of innocence in our lives (The Garden of Eden), that at some point we all come to an awareness of our ‘brokenness’ and have to realize that we are imperfect and mortal (The Fall).  At this point we ‘leave the Garden.’  Then the long journey of self-realization really begins (as depicted metaphorically and symbolically in the Torah and in the Gospels) during which we work on ourselves and seek wholeness (i.e., salvation).  In this life, we each attain more or less self-realization, and then reach our ultimate end in death (The Eschaton).  There are also many other levels on which the stories of the Bible speak – metaphorically and allegorically – to our existential situation and the need we have to ‘work on ourselves’ in order to realize our fullest potential (this ‘working on ourselves’ is what spirituality is all about).

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