“Are you for us or for our enemies?”
– Joshua 5
Over the last year or so, I have been coming across a variety of material by Christians who believe in evolution – a blog here, a book there, a podcast yonder. The prevalence, depth, and diversity of such views are greater than I previously realized. While there is much that I disagree with, I have enjoyed seeing how their sincerity and rationality undermine many of the assumptions underlying the atheist/creationist dichotomy.
Dichotomies are attractive. Our brains like tidy narratives that explain everything and leave no room for mystery. They like simplifying complex issues into two mutually exclusive narratives and picking a side and sticking to it. Either Jesus rose from the dead four thousand years after creating Adam, or life is billions of years old and there is no God. Ken Ham or Richard Dawkins, choose one.
When it comes to interpreting science and history, creationists often suggest that atheists are so biased by a desire not to believe in God that they assume the conclusions they want to reach, distorting an objective interpretation of the evidence. Similarly, many atheists believe Christians are so biased by a need to believe that they uncritically reject anything that challenges their faith.
Christian evolutionists throw a wrench into both views. The creationist cannot write off their belief in evolution as the product of an irrational anti-God bias. They are convinced that Jesus died and rose again, yet for some reason they have also evaluated the case for evolution and found it convincing. That doesn’t prove anything, but it at least should give evolution more respect from the creationist. Similarly, the atheist cannot write off their belief in Jesus as the product of an irrational fundamentalist bias. They accept evolution as rational, yet for some reason they are also convinced that Jesus died and rose again. Again, that doesn’t prove anything, but it at least should give Christianity more respect from the atheist.
Atheists and creationists may think “compatibilists” are driven by some desire to gain acceptance with both sides, or a lack of familiarity with the clear problems with whichever parts of their views overlap with the other side of the dichotomy. This may be true of many of them. But I don’t get that sense from the ones I’ve been running into. In fact, I get that the sense that they’ve wrestled pretty deeply with the challenges that exist on both sides. As little as a year ago, I thought incompatibility was pretty obvious, entrenched as I by years of selective reading and participation in fruitless dichotomous discussions. But first I became aware of a greater diversity of creationist views that leaned farther across the creation-evolution divide (though not all the way) than I realized was possible, revealing many previously hidden assumptions that I was no longer comfortable resolutely declaring one way or the other. Additionally, I read and listened to Christians who did go all the way across, articulately and humbly questioning the assumptions behind incompatibility while simultaneously expressing a clear devotion to Jesus Christ. I haven’t really embraced a different view so much as I’ve become less scared of a wider range of options.
The implications are hard to overstate. I know so many people who grew up in traditional, evangelical, creationist homes who have now left the faith, in large part due to the evidence they found when they left home that contradicted what they had been told was the only way to understand Christianity. I see people express these sentiments so often on the Internet that they must number in the thousands if not millions. I have seen Christians respond to this tragedy by claiming that we must do a better job teaching apologetics. I do not entirely disagree, but if all we do is reinforce the notion of dichotomy, it seems to me a hopeless arms race. The greater the expectation that every challenge has an answer, the more devastating it can be to come across one that doesn’t. Chip one part of the increasingly elaborate narrative tower, and the entire thing crumbles.
If you’ve been taught that following Jesus is connected to the entire Bible being literally true which is connected to the Earth and the life on it being six thousand years old, along with a bunch of apologetic arguments to support that, but you come across evidence from lake varves that really look like algae has been living and dying for over 40,000 years – that can be downright scary! If you think there are only two genuinely viable narratives, and you come across a striking fact that seems to belong to the other one, you can’t even entertain the thought that it might be true without also entertaining the thought that you’ve been wrong about just about everything. I remember the queasy knots I used to feel in my stomach when I read things that poked such rifts in my less flexible worldview, hoping I could come across an explanation to put things to rest. The tragedy is that when you examine assumptions about Hebrew words, and English translations, and the passage of time and space between them, and the huge spectrum of legitimate possible interpretations, you don’t even have to accept evolution or reject an inspired Scripture, much less abandon Christianity altogether, to at least be open to the mere idea that certain things are maybe somehow possible.
To be fair, creationists often acknowledge some uncertainty and variety among Christian views, but in my experience the acceptable range is often pretty narrow, with little effort to counteract the pervasive premise that the primary dichotomous narratives are the only serious, viable choices.
I am not saying that creationists should stop teaching creationism and teach compatibility. But I do wonder if things would be different if more creationists placed more emphasis on the existence of a variety of viewpoints within the fellowship of genuine believers. I understand the reticence; I have heard creationists lament that other views are a watered-down faith that is already halfway to atheism. But could that be because in our disagreement we often do not respect the strongest voices along other parts of the spectrum, or recognize their strong faith? I can’t help but wonder if a little more humility and openness would make us less likely to miss the truth and more likely to lead others to it…