(38) Why I am – perhaps not – an evangelical

Last Thursday evening, I had the opportunity to join historian and writer Susan Wise Bauer and minister Peter Bauer for a discussion on the William & Mary campus entitled “Why I am (not) evangelical: a scientist, a historian, and a minister reflect on the evangelical movement in American Christianity – where it came from, what it is, and why it’s a problem.”

The historian was Susan Wise Bauer, Ph.D., a research associate in the W&M English department and author of The History of the Medieval World (W. W. Norton, 2009) and other books (see http://susanwisebauer.com).   The minister was Peter Bauer (M.Div., Westminster Theological Seminary), who is senior pastor at Peace Hill Christian Fellowship (http://peacehill.org) and president of the interdenominational, interracial Charles City Clergy Conference.  The scientist was yours truly.

The event was attended by about 40 students and 10 faculty.   Susan spoke first, followed by me and Peter.  The event was enjoyable and the discussion was engaging. The following post is an adaptation of my 20 minute presentation.

WHY I AM – PERHAPS NOT – AN EVANGELICAL

 I always loved science and math. I have a vivid memory of a motoneuron whose axon wound back and forth across the centerfold page of a beloved childhood science book. I was an avid reader of Martin Gardiner’s Mathematical Recreations column that appeared long ago in Scientific American. My favorite authors were Carl Sagan, the astrophysicist, and Stephen J. Gould, the evolutionary biologist. In first grade, while building a model rocket, I cut my thumb with an exacto-knife razor blade.  My mother says that I cried, not because of the pain, but because “I couldn’t see my cells.” :-)

Unlike Susan and Peter, I did not grow up on an evangelical home.  One of my first experiences with evangelicalism was in fifth grade when friend invited me to his church.  My family and I were atheists and secular humanists.  We believed that “organized religion” was largely responsible for the world’s bigotry, hatred and violence.  But I was a curious young atheist, and because I seemed very interested in seeing what the inside of a church looked like, my mother was inclined to let me go.

In Sunday school at this evangelical church, the biblical story of creation and the flood were discussed. Having recently read a LIFE Young Reader’s book on evolution, I asked many questions.   I remember is that these questions were not well received.  And later that week I learned that the Sunday school teacher was giving the children five dollars for every friend they brought to church.

I remained an atheist until my early twenties, but I was heavily influenced by several evangelical fraternity brothers at MIT who noticed – after my parents got divorced in Junior year – that I was on an intellectual or spiritual search.

At MIT I loved science, far more than many of my classmates, it seemed, most of whom had a instrumental view of their education.  My spiritual/intellectual search drove me to read beyond science … during my Junior year I read anything that I thought was “deep” or significant, from William James, to Russian novelists.

As I was saying, my Christian college friends noticed this search, prayed for me, invited me to bible studies, gave me a NIV bible and challenged me to read it myself.  I did so, the semester after I graduated, primarily because I was honest enough to recognize that I didn’t even really know what it contained. In fact, I would say that the beginning of my conversion was the realization that I was far too sure that Jesus wasn’t the Son of God.  That is, given the fact that I was questioning everything else in my life, I seemed far too confident about that particular point.

During my Senior year of college, I learned that the Bible was like no other book. At first it was simply incomprehensible, but one day a scripture verse spoke to me: “blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”   I didn’t know what pure in heart meant, but whatever it meant, I knew that I wasn’t. I know now that what I experienced was conviction of sin.

During the summer after my senior year I took a bicycle tour of the northwest with three friends from my fraternity, two of whom were evangelical Christians.   There are a number of stories I could tell at this point, for example, an extremely memorable and probably miraculous answer to my first prayer to Jesus himself, as well as several “divine appointments.”  But rather than give you my entire testimony, let me focus on one event that caused me to consider what exactly was different between me and my Christian friends.

One day during this bicycle tour, I was sitting next to my friend eating lunch overlooking a lake with a beautiful view of a mountain before us.  As I considered the beauty of that mountain, I thought of the uniformity of natural law and the wonder of geological time scales, and said to myself “Look at this mountain! How could anyone believe that God created the world?” Moments after I had this thought, my friend turned to me and said “You know, it’s at times like these that I’m most sure God exists.”

This amazed me.  We were both looking at the same mountain! How, I wondered, could this one mountain simultaneously confirm my atheism and his theism?

I was baptized several months later.  Since that time, for the last 20 years, I have attended evangelical churches. First, as a graduate student, next as a post-doc, and now as a faculty member. I was married in an evangelical church. After my divorce, I took refuge in an evangelical church. I believe in Jesus. I believe in miracles. I enjoy sharing my faith. So I am an evangelical Christian.

But why am I perhaps not an evangelical?  Why might I be uncomfortable with that label? I think because … when I came to Christ …  I was a politically liberal, a biology major, and a free-thinker. And now … 20 years after coming to Christ … I’m a Christian version of each of those things: I’m politically progressive out of Christian conviction, I’m a professional scientist who hopes to glorify God in his work, and I’m thoughtful about my faith.

When I believed in Jesus a relationship with God began, but it is not as though I had a brain swipe when I accepted Christ.  These three aspects of my personality were redeemed, but there were not eliminated or transformed into their opposites. And these three aspects of my (redeemed) personality seem antithetical to the evangelical way … at least the populist versions of American evangelicalism.

I’ll talk briefly about each.

Politically liberal.  In most evangelical churches there is an assumption that to be politically conservative is part and parcel of being a Christian. But I was born in Berkeley, California, to parents who pushed me in a stroller as they marched in the Vietnam War protests. There were two unforgivable sins in my family: one was pointing a toy gun at a human or animal; the other was eating sugared cereal. I was a liberal before I believed in Jesus, and after my conversion, I didn’t become a conservative, I became a Christian liberal.

As a young Christian I was suggestible. I tried for a time to be politically conservative, but it didn’t work for me. It’s just not who I am. More to the point, I couldn’t find the “religious right” perspective anywhere in the bible. As a mature Christian I’m comfortable affirming that there is a troubling conflation of politics and Christian belief in the American evangelical church. There is a “Christian left,” e.g., as represented by Sojourners magazine, but we are outnumbered. In any case, I would not advocate substituting left for right in the church.

My point is that faith in Christ is not a political ideology. American evangelicalism is being misled on this point.

Scientist.  As I entered graduate school and learned more about science and read Christian theology, I had many questions about the social controversy over evolution. I found that there were few moderate voices – or even informed voices – in the evangelical churches I attended.

This was very troubling to me, because when I became a Christian, my evaluation of the evidence for evolution didn’t change. Rather, my “perspective on evolution” or my “interpretation of evolution” changed.  As God revealed to me that He was Creator, I began to interpret the history of life on earth differently.  I began to see the long history of life on earth as a manifestation of God’s providence, creativity, diversified unity, and patience.

During that bicycle tour when I was a seeker, I could only see one mountain; now I see both mountains.

People like me in refer to ourselves as “evolutionary creationists,” as opposed to young earth creationist, old earth creationist, progressive creationist, or intelligent design advocate. And because evolutionary creationism is currently a minority position in the evangelical church, I’m often uncomfortable.

Note that evolutionary creationism is not the minority position among scientists who are Christian. The Biologos Foundation, founded by Francis Collins, is a great resource if you are interested in these things.

The aspects of science that many evangelicals struggle with often do not compute for me. For example, a friend once said he was interested in picking my brain about how I could be a scientist and a Christian.  He asked me, I’m wondering how you can be believe in Jesus? What do you do with the big bang theory?

OMG! How could the big bang theory ever be viewed as a problem for the doctrine of Creation?  I now see the big bang as God’s creation of space and time.

Another example would be every time I hear a believer dismiss evolution because they can’t believe that we got here through a “random” process.  Such comments confuse me, because evolution isn’t a random process.  Evolution has always been conceived of as a combination of chance and necessity. In what sense is evolution “random”?  Only in the sense is that the mutations that occur … to the extent that we can observe the process … e.g., see their consequences in the genomic sequences of different organisms … these mutations do not appear to happen with the adaptive significance for the organisms “in mind.” Rather, adaptive traits appear to result from a process of selection.

Or perhaps “random” refers to the recognition that evolutionary story involves a large degree of “historical contingency,” e.g., the extiction of the dinosaurs leading to the adaptive radiation of mammals? In any case, the philosophical significance that most evangelical Christians attach to “randomness” and “contingency” in evolutionary biology doesn’t compute for me.

If something is “random” does that mean it can’t be understood, that there are no laws governing the possible outcomes?  Consider the laws of thermodynamics governing the air in this room…  Underlying these laws are the chaotic dynamics of molecules bouncing off one another, dynamics that we will never be able to predict, because we could never establish the initial state.  Nevertheless, we can think statistically about these ricocheting atoms.  This perspective is known as the kinetic theory of gases, a theory that assumes deterministic Newtonian laws of motion, but is nevertheless statistical in nature.  And underlying that theory we have quantum mechanics of the electron orbitals that cause the atmospherical molecules to bounce off one another.  Quantum mechanics is inherantly – fundamentally – statistical in nature, yet the equations for the wave functions are deterministic…  And so on.

My point is this. What if there WERE “laws” that could be associated with the “random” process of evolution?  We already know some of them.  What if we understood all of them?  Well, in that case there would be a large number of evangelicals concerned that the determinism of evolution implies “no role for God.”  This is what Newton and other Christians worried about long ago, during an age when the clockwork view of the universe dominated science.

And guess what?  If we understood “evolutionary law” completely, then the new atheists would be saying that the determinism of this theory meant that the universe had “no need for God,” because we HAD to arrive here as intelligent organisms, given sufficient time.

But from the perspective of spiritual discernment this is an absurd state of affairs!  “Random” and “deterministic” are opposites of one another. How can both types of scientific theory generate concern among evangelicals (or triumphant glee among atheists) that there is “no room for God”?

Free thinker.   Perhaps that soap box I was just on gives you a sense about what I mean when I describe myself as a free thinker. My perspective on the science faith debate, as a professional scientist and relatively well-read amateur theologian, is that almost everything you hear and read with regard to the social controversy over evolution is baloney.

The majority of participants in the creation-evolution “debate” … on both sides … are grinding an axe. Most writing – by evangelicals and atheists alike – on the subject is misleading with regard to either the science or the supposed theological implications of the science. Demagoguery abounds.

Atheists pride themselves in being “free thinkers” … not submitted to any authority or dogma. Is there a Christian version of this? Can one still be a free thinker, but have a mind submitted to Christ, an ear that listens to what the Spirit says in the Word of God? I think so. This situation is the intellectual version of the paradox that “obedience brings true freedom.” Karl Barth said: “Free thinking with authorities, this is the way!”

As a Christian who is academically inclined, free thinking has meant a perpetual search for pure doctrine. Where can one find scientific truth that hasn’t been overloaded with philosophical presuppositions? Where can one find theological and biblical truth, that isn’t stuck in the muck of rationalism, or defensively reacting to scientism, or dependent upon studied ignorance for it’s viability?

It took a very long time … a lot of reading … for me to discover Christian voices that I could trust.  It turns out that there are thoughtful people, helpful voices, I am so thankful for them, but don’t look for them in the Christian bookstores!  If you are academically inclined, you might hurt yourself there. :-)

For me, the helpful voices are most often academic theologians, scientist-theologians – whether evangelical or not – and certain philosophically minded and thoughtful authors – whether Christian or not.  In fact, because I’m an academic, reading Christian theology is a devotional experience.  This reading doesn’t substitute for prayer, bible study or worship, but I need this larger community of Christian academics for intellectual fellowship.

So … I’m an evangelical, but I am uncomfortable with that label, because evangelicals tend to be conservative, afraid of science, and prone to let others think for them.

I’m not a doctor of the church, and I’m not a theologian, but I want to end with an exhortation of sorts.

I recognize that acceptance of evolutionary biology opens up a set of thorny theological issues related to biblical authority, hermeneutics, etc., but … to be frank … as a scientist I must insist that these are not my problems; rather, they are the evangelical theologians’ problems.  :-)

Perhaps that is too strong.  What I mean is this: the question of what evolutionary biology means for biblical authority, hermeneutics, the doctrine of man, etc., will remain unanswered until there is more engagement between church leaders and believing scientists and other academics.

It is very interesting, in fact, the way the evangelical church holds up certain scholars – I’m thinking here of major figures such as C.S. Lewis or Alister McGrath or John Polkinghorne – as proof that one can be an intellectual as well as a Christian, but then essentially ignores the perspective that such people bring to complex issues such as the relationship between scriptural authority and the “general revelation” of modern science.

John Goldingay of Fuller Theological Seminar said “Reality is complex. The fact that Scripture is divine revelation does not make it less so.”  Amen!

Or perhaps I should put it this way: I am a Christian and a scientist who is increasingly uncomfortable with the label “evangelical” because the oversimplified positions taken by the evangelical consensus make it ever more difficult to share the gospel with the people I care about most: scientists, academics, the coffee shop crowd, etc.

I think that the evangelical church needs to ask: Are we meeting spiritual resistance in the form of disbelief … in which case we need to push forward … or are we talking in a way that is simply doesn’t make sense, because what we are saying can easily be demonstrated to be false?

The evangelical church needs to share the gospel of historic Christianity and not the peculiar, reactionary, and often obscurantist worldview of American evangelical subculture.  The gospel is in some sense “unbelievable” … but it’s not “intellectually untenable.”

Because Jesus is the Truth, you can be sure that you don’t have to choose between loving God with your mind and loving God with your heart/soul.  Free thinking with minds submitted to Christ.  This is the way!

 Jesus ♥ Darwin 

Here is a link to an article in W&M’s student newspaper The Flat Hat

7 thoughts on “(38) Why I am – perhaps not – an evangelical

  1. Well argued.

    RE: “Can one still be a free thinker, but have a mind submitted to Christ…?”

    Acts 17:11: “[T]he Berean Jews were of more noble character…for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.”

    Receive and examine. It’s not an either-or proposition ;)

  2. “Note that evolutionary creationism is not the minority position among scientists who are Christians”

    This is worth emphasizing. Go to any university town, even a lefty bastion like Berkeley, and check out the local churches. It is easy to find in them academics of all stripes, including from the science departments, and from these including the biology department. This is completely unremarkable. These people don’t have to sneak out from their houses in Sunday mornings with their faces covered lest their colleagues see them. Ask them about the supposed conflict between religion and science and they will roll their eyes or give a weary sigh. This simply isn’t an issue for most of them. Some will even tell you that religion led them to science, while others will have it the other way around. All this culture wars is simply irrelevant, expect for explaining why they are probably going to a mainline rather than an evangelical church.

  3. Really well written Greg. One of your best articles to date. The lines below are classic:

    I recognize that acceptance of evolutionary biology opens up a set of thorny theological issues related to biblical authority, hermeneutics, etc., but … to be frank … as a scientist I must insist that these are not my problems; rather, they are the evangelical theologians’ problems. :-)

  4. Pingback: Cleaning Out The Favorites File | theologyarchaeology

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