I started my blog a few months ago with the following statement:
Dialogue rarely describes the relationship between evangelicals and evolutionary science. Perhaps debate, condemnation, or mocking, but rarely dialogue.From my perspective, I believe the dialogue on biological evolution within Evangelicalism is both possible and desirable. First, it is possible because there is no inherent conflict between the science of evolutionary biology and an Evangelical expression of the Christian faith. Second it is desirable, because the other options (debate, mocking, and condemnation) are injuring our Christian witness and causing division within the Christian community.
Roman Miller, the Editor of Perspectives on Science and the Christian Faith (PSCF) captures my view on the desirability of dialogue over debate in his March 2007 editorial called “Do we Debate or Dialogue Issues of Science and Faith?”. Miller proposes that Christians with different viewpoints abandon the debate mode and dialogue instead. He muses:
I wonder about the value of debate as a tool to create understanding. In my experience, debates have created more heat than light and have served to further entrench combatants in defending their position while attacking their opponent’s position. More and more, I am convinced that within the circles of the Christian community, we should avoid the “debate mode.” Rather, we should deliberately advocate a “dialogue mode.”Miller states that dialogue works to enhance mutual understanding while debaters focus on winning the argument. Ironically it is dialogue, not debate, that is much more likely to “change minds”. And an attitude of humility, a topic Miller addresses in his September 2007 Editorial (not yet online), is a prerequisite for a successful dialogue. As a preview to this editorial, he states in the earlier column that:
Especially in these issues in which we “dimly peer through our varied perspective glasses,” it behooves us to admit that we do not know or understand with entirety and to hold our positions with humility and grace.Participating in respectful dialogue, with an attitude of humility and grace, is the ideal for which we should all strive. This is especially true for a topic as contentious and complicated as the origin of life, biological diversity, and humanity, a topic that no one can claim they grasp completely. Unfortunately in the real world the ideal is not always possible. What if one group of Christians considers another group’s origins view not only wrong, but also diametrically opposed to the gospel? What if our origins view is condemned as heretical, and our accusers refuse to acknowledge that we belong to the body of Christ? How can there be any mutual understanding in this situation?
Maybe more importantly, I think dialogue is not always preferable even when it is possible. As I’ve indicated before here, and as Vance McAlister has written in “Creationism vs. Evolutionism: The Danger of Misplaced Dogmatism”, a dogmatic interpretation of scripture can damage the gospel. When Christian youth are abandoning their faith because they cannot reconcile modern science with the brittle scriptural interpretation mandated by their church community, and when seekers choose not to follow Christ because the gospel presented to them includes a version of science that is unsupported by the evidence, then I think we need to respond with urgency and vigor. We need to communicate that “The Gospel of a Young Earth” is no gospel at all, and is as erroneous as stating that "Only Evolutionists can be Saved".
There are other times when silence is the best option. In situations where origins science or the biblical interpretation of the Genesis creation accounts are clearly peripheral to the discussion, starting a dialogue on science / faith would be distracting at best, and probably even destructive. I would hazard to say that even in many situations where these issues are primary, starting a dialogue on evolution could still be damaging. As Gordon’s anecdote regarding missionary Anna Leonowens shows, even the truth can sometimes be a stumbling block.
I agree that dialogue, conducted in humility and grace, should be the primary mode of engagement in our discussions on the integration of faith and evolutionary science. However, I do not think dialogue is the best option in all cases. To promote Christian unity, there are times when we must simply remain silent. And there are other times, when the gospel is being damaged for instance, that we must choose confrontation, confrontation with humility and as much grace as possible, but still confrontation.
The question of course is this: When should we dialogue, when should we remain silent, and when should we confront? Each individual situation will require its own wisdom, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But are there principles that can help us make these choices, principles that will minimize the times we confront when we should be dialoguing, or dialogue when we should remain silent? How do we balance church unity against the need to correct potentially damaging ideas about science & biblical interpretation? How do we seek self-correction (for none of us have all the answers), when the correction being offered is an abandonment of the integrity of science or the scriptures or even of the gospel itself? How do we achieve dialogue when others are not interested in pursuing dialogue?
I’m still struggling with these questions.