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Monday, 9 November 2009

My Transition from a Conservative Creationist to a Theistic Evolutionist (albeit with some unanswered questions)

This is a guest post by Eric DeVries and is the fourth post in our series on “Evangelicals and Evolution: A Student Perspective”. Eric is a post-grad biology student at Calvin College.

I’m an evolutionist, a theistic evolutionist to be specific. My transition to this position is relatively recent and I still have much to learn about the interaction between faith and science. I can’t say that my journey is a unique story, but maybe it resonates with some readers of this series.

So here it is.

Early impressions of Evolution
I grew up in a typical, western Michigan, Dutch family. By this I mean to say my family was reserved, proper, and attended church every Sunday. Our first church was a mega-church named Calvary which we attended until I was in 4th grade. At this point my dad decided that he was tired of all the behind the scenes drama so we left to find a “better” church. Ironically we ended up at one of the spiritually deadest churches I have ever attended. It was there that the idea of evolution was first presented to me. And in a typical “good” Christian way, it was described as a theory which directly contradicted the bible and was therefore wrong; so wrong in fact that those who accepted it were ostracized as “unbelievers”.

Attending a Conservative Christian school in a Liberal part of America
When I was in grade 6 my family moved to a part of California that many would describe as relatively liberal. Being the only Christian school in the area, my parents enrolled me in a conservative, Baptist school. Again the idea was taught that evolutionary science could not be reconciled with God’s plan for humanity. Only this time instead of just hearing it, I integrated it into my belief system and self-identify. I came to believe that whomever held to the theory of evolution was at best direly misguided and at worst going to hell.

Instead of joining an existing church, my family connected with a couple other families to start our own church. We lived the challenges of launching a church in an area resistant to organized Christianity. One of the biggest challenges was church growth, which was extremely slow. This lead to quickly solidifying the relationship between my family and the few others who were part of the church and it was with these families that my love of the outdoors, of mountains and the ocean, developed. The hobbies of hiking and backpacking became central to my life in California, sparking my interest in biology. Evolution was not really avoided as a subject of discussion with this group of families; it was more put on a side burner, and not considered an important enough issue to waste energy discussing. Instead we went about meeting a much more diverse group of people, realizing that Christianity does actually consist of more than the conservative, Dutch social group we were part of in Michigan.

Learning to be more Open-Minded in a Conservative Heartland
Moving back to Michigan is a turning point in this story. The irony is that I started becoming more open minded in one of the most conservative places in America after I had learned to be a fundamentalist in one of the most liberal areas of the country . On the recommendation of my dad, I became connected with Young Life, which is a Christian organization in high schools. I loved it. These people, instead of hiding their failings, accepted them and worked those weaknesses into their stories, changing them into something that God could work with to teach others. My experiences in the conservative Christian school in California had taught me the exact opposite, to hide my failings and only deal with them between myself and God. It took me a long time to accept this new approach, nearly two years in fact.

We started attending a church in Grand Rapids which was pretty “radical”. The pastor there had no reservations about discussing topics which most churches would avoid. The sermons opened up dinner table discussions. Our discussions became more open minded, and my parents tackled controversial topics; we were not afraid to ask some hard questions about our conservative brand of Christianity. We never outright denied specific traditional beliefs, but we were encouraged to ask questions about these beliefs. Yet through this entire time I never gave up on my belief that evolution was a theory from the devil, and that the proponents of evolution were like little demons running around spreading a theory directly against the will of God.

These discussions, along with my eventual acceptance of my failings, became a crucial point in my ability to mentally prepare myself to engage evolution once I went off to college.

Starting College and my investigation into Evolution
After graduating from high school I attended Calvin College. Calvin was like pouring alcohol on a fire as it caused my desire to ask questions, and in particular questions regarding evolution, to explode. Why did so many Christians at this Christian College actually accept this theory which I had been taught was wrong (notice the difference between belief and taught at this point in my life)? I began to dig deeper into the evidence for evolution; and the more I learned the more concerned I became. Evolution made sense, or at least its basic arguments made sense. Some of the particulars were, for me, a bit sketchy. But the basic claims of evolution had a logical ring to them, and they appealed to that left-brained side of who I am. So I accepted a conditional form of evolution which excluded the common ancestry of apes and humans. These new ideas brought tension between my faith and what I was beginning to accept about evolution. It was a real testament to the changes I had been going through since moving back from California that I was able to spiritually and intellectually engage evolutionary theory.

Evolution and Biblical Interpretation
My exploration of evolutionary theory, and its implications, made me revisit my ideas of biblical interpretation. I began to see that a literalistic interpretation of Genesis leads to many discrepancies. One, which may not seem as blatant as others, but oddly enough is the one I remember most, is the geography of the Garden of Eden. In Genesis 2 the garden is described as having 4 rivers flowing through it. One of those is located in Egypt, while two others are located in current day Iraq, and the fourth has its probable current day location in Ethiopia. How these four rivers found themselves, within the recent past (geologically speaking), to either originate or terminate in one area is still beyond me.

This rethinking of biblical interpretation was important in my journey. But even more important was the evidence supporting evolution. Coming back to Calvin, following a semester in Spain during my third year, I decided to take a J-term evolutionary biology class. This class was a three week course exploring the evidences behind evolution. I had previously studied population genetics, homology, and common ancestry in first two years of college, but had yet to see a condensed list of the evidence supporting each idea. We examined the various anatomies of the ear bone in the transition from land to water in the story of the whale. We read The Song of the Dodo by David Quamman, which sifts through the various ideas presented by naturalists over the past two centuries before delving into island biogeography and its affects on the composition and genetics of an isolated population. But most important was our discussion about genetics, which was spurred on by our readings in Quamman and our study of the whale. I began to see the picture of history painted by genetics using the mechanism of evolution.

And it convinced me.

Now I identify myself as a theistic evolutionist; an interesting transition.

Conclusion
I transitioned from a conservative creationist to a theistic evolutionist in a journey that took anywhere between 4 and 8 years, depending on the starting point. Today I see evolution as a beautifully fluid display of the creative aspect of God. But that does not mean I have all the pertinent questions answered. One of the biggest unanswered questions is how to explain death. Evolution is pushed forward by death, but according to the biblical account death is an evil only present in the world after “the fall”. And for that reason how do I explain “the fall”? So evolution doesn’t explain everything, and it actually presents new problems.

But evolution happens. For me the bible no longer dictates what I believe about science. I don’t think it was ever meant to. Science describes science. That’s that.

20 comments:

Steve Martin said...

Eric: Thanks for sharing your story ... including the unanswered questions. Living with unanswered questions is an important part of the transition in my experience. Oh, most of the questions do get answered - and confirm that TE / EC is both an intellectually and spiritually coherent position)- BUT, new unanswered questions keep popping up.

Emiliano M said...

Great post Eric!

For me some of the most interesting implications of evolution in regards to Christianity lay in the fields of theodicy and the nature of death. In my opinion it helps in answering many questions but (as offten happens) raises others.

Paz de Cristo

Karl A. said...

I also want to thank you, Eric, for your story. I appreciate how you frame your journey in the context of grace and honesty (being able to admit you don't have it all together or have all the answers). May God continue to feed the various parts of your brain!
BTW, there's a good discussion of the role of death and the problem of evil, revisited in light of evolutionary theory, at http://cliff-martin.blogspot.com. Cliff's an "out of the box" thinker.

Rob Mitchell said...

Thanks very much, Eric, for sharing your story. One interesting part of the story is the transition to the church where evolution was held up as something contradictory to scripture and therefore invalid.
Forgive me if I assume too much, but since you grew up in a Dutch family I will assume that your church life at least had some contact with the Reformed Tradition (and I write as a Reformed believer).
I can see two interesting facets that emerge from your story, which are true of evangelicalism generally and the Reformed stream in particular.
The Reformed Tradition tends to do theology from above rather than from below, and combines with a high view of Scripture which brings along views which might be summarized as "Scripture trumps science" (probably a caricature on my part) and "Scripture is the lens through which we must view and interpret science," which phrase I have heard almost verbatim from several sources.
As Christians we want to be biblical; we have a high view of Scripture as authoritative - it is our only rule of faith and practice.
But when we impose an interpretive construct on Scripture which is foreign to the text, then use that construct as a blunt instrument, we get into trouble.
I don't find the view of Scripture and science as non-overlapping magisteria appealing - I think there is some overlap, but maybe not as much as popular creationism would suggest.
So I find the most comfort in the parenthetical portion of your post's title - to quote one evangelical leader, "Sometimes we need to learn to be more comfortable with unanswered questions than with unquestioned answers."
Thanks very much for sharing your story.

Bethany said...

Erik,

Great story! Funny you should bring up the death question... I think that is one of the biggest unanswered questions, so I've made it my thesis question (evolutionary theodicy). We'll have to talk someday.

Eric said...

@ All. Thanks for the compliments on the story. It's helpful to know others share some of the same questions I do.

@ Emiliano
The statement "the nature of death" starts me thinking along the lines of death metaphorically rather than literally. Thanks for the boost in that direction, might help in providing a framework to answer some of my questions about death.

@ Karl A.
Thanks for the reference. I'm planning on checking it out, seems pretty interesting.

@ Rob Mitchell
Much of what you stated I agree with. The second church I attended (which denounced evolution) was less in the reformed tradition then in the baptist. It is in an area crowded with reformed churches and I'm positive was influenced, at least slightly, by reformed theology. Nonetheless they taught a very baptist doctrine. The school I attending in California, where true anti-evolutionary ideals were taught, was also baptist (this is not to say anything against baptists, just stating facts :) ). I actually began accepting evolution after attending a reformed school (Calvin College) as well as switching churches to the new one in Michigan, which does not associate itself with a specific denomination but does teach doctrine following the reformed tradition.

@ Bethany
I would love to chat sometime. The question of death and evolution was first presented to me a couple years ago by an evolutionary biology professor. I just recently began addressing the issue again. I would love some insight into it.

Jordan said...
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Jordan said...

Thanks for sharing, Eric. Theodicy and the origin of death is indeed a bit of a problem for evolutionary creationists, though I'm not certain that it's an insurmountable one. There have been many potential solutions offered in the literature, but my problem is choosing between any one of them. And as others have pointed out before, sin and death is an issue not just for evolutionary creationists, but for Christianity as a whole. I've often wondered, myself, about the purpose of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, given the traditional neocreationist approach... it just doesn't make sense that physical death wasn't around beforehand!

Jimpithecus said...

Hi Eric,
Thanks for the testimonial. I am sorry that your path was so tortuous but it seems to have been relatively persecution-free. Interestingly, as I read your section on Biblical interpretation, I was reminded of a paper by geologist Carol Hill called The Garden of Eden: A Modern Landscape in which she lays out the plausibility of there having been an actual Garden of Eden. I don't find all of her argument persuasive but it is, at least, provocative.

I am consistently amazed by the sheer number of people out there that think that if you accept evolution, you are literally damned and believe the lies of Satan. They wouldn't think that way if I told them I accept the existence of Black Holes also. I think that, as scientists, we are often myopic to the visceral reaction that evolution gets and which is whoppingly disproportionate to what the theory actually posits. Reading these accounts, it almost makes me think I missed out by not growing up in a YEC church.

Eric, I was interested by your comments on theodicy. Lately, I have been doing some cursory research into Endogenous Retroviruses, which are responsible for a number of really bad things such as possibly MS, melanomas, other forms of cancer and other diseases. They are also, oddly enough, responsible for some major leaps in the genome and some ERV strings have been incorporated in to the functioning of the mammalian placenta. If evolution is God's plan, then the suffering we experience is offset by the plan to make humans what we are today.

Rob, you make the statement "But when we impose an interpretive construct on Scripture which is foreign to the text, then use that construct as a blunt instrument, we get into trouble." That is probably the most succinct appraisal of the YEC position that i have read in ages. It jumped off the page at me. Thanks.

Steve Martin said...

Rob:

re: the reformed tradition and scriptural interpretation, I love Loren Haarsma’s “Two Books Metaphor” slide in his Where is God in Science? presentation. See slide 46 … the picture says it all.

Re: that quote … that is very good … which evangelical leader was it? Do you have a reference?

Jordan: “sin and death is an issue not just for evolutionary creationists, but for Christianity as a whole” …

absolutely agree with this … similar to what I said a while back on theodicy in my post Theodicy and Evolution (which interestingly provides more questions than answers). My thoughts have developed since this post over 2 years ago .. BUT not sure the question to answer ratio has changed much.

Kristian Swearingen said...

Hi Eric-

Thanks for the story. I am one of the many whose story is similar to yours. I love the fact that you met pro-evolution (or even just okay with evolution) Christians at Calvin. Though I was raised non-denominational evangelical, I attended 1st-8th grade at a small Christian school run by a Christian Reformed Church and staffed entirely by teachers educated at Calvin. While my teachers were careful to avoid directly teaching about evolution and the age of the earth (likely to avoid the trouble it would have caused with parents like mine), they always encouraged us to use our minds and to think critically. When it became clear that the slim science text books available from Christian Schools International were below the standard of good education, the school administrators decided to use secular geology books for the junior high classes. My teacher told us plainly that the books taught an ancient earth, that we should discuss that issue at home with our parents, and that we would use the books because they had a better treatment of geology. The school administrator told us that if we believe God created everything, then the study of nature is the study of God. It is in no small part thanks to my Calvinist teachers that I am a scientist today.

Rob Mitchell said...

Steve: Thanks for your words. The comment about "Scripture being the lens through which we must view science" is from a recent personal conversation with one of my pastors. I will need to verify my accuracy and get permission before I attribute by name.
I will note that I responded that sometimes the lens analogy works both ways - it doesn't mean that our knowledge of science changes Scripture, but sometimes when we examine Scripture through the filter or lens of scientific knowledge, we may notice some things we didn't see before.
Perhaps it carries the analogy too far, but consider multispectral analyses of palimpsests - new spectra bring out heretofore unseen features of the papyri under study. Bear in mind this is just an analogy and a poor one at that.

Steve Martin said...

Rob: Sorry ... my question wasn't clear. The quote I to which I was referring was "Sometimes we need to learn to be more comfortable with unanswered questions than with unquestioned answers". Do you have a reference for that?

Bethany: I should have asked this last night (but was rushed). Do you have a few references you would recommend on evolutionary theodicy for those of us with an orthodox Christian faith that also accept evolution?

Jordan said...

Are you one of Denis Lamoureux's students, Bethany?

Rob Mitchell said...

Steve: the quote about being more comfortable with unanswered questions than unquestioned answers is from a Chuck Swindoll sermon I heard years ago.

On another note that doesn't relate to the current discussion - I simply HAD to post a link to Michael Paulkner's beautiful illustration of Ancient Hebrew Conception of the Universe here:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/michaelpaukner/4077736695/sizes/l/

Look at the full size version here for the full effect:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/michaelpaukner/4077736695/sizes/o/

HT: boingboing.net

Bethany said...

@ Eric and Steve,
The best resource that I can think of at the moment for evolutionary theodicy is Christopher Southgate's "The Groaning of Creation". It deals with the ambiguity of nature and offers some really helpful thoughts along with some ethical considerations. Lamoureux's big book "Evolutionary Creation" deals with some of the biblical questions in... I believe... the 8th chapter. There are also several edited volumes that look at it. "Physics and Cosmology: Scientific Perspectives on the problem of natural evil" edited by Murphy, Russell, and Stoeger has a couple of good articles. Mostly, the question is an up and coming one though, as evangelicals become more comfortable with evolution, the question will become more important and more time will be spent on it.

@ Jordan: I'm not one of Denis' students though I have had some close contact with him--I was a proof reader on both his recent books.

Edward T. Babinski said...
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Edward T. Babinski said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Steve Martin said...

Hi Edward,
I deleted all three of your identical comments in the last 3 posts. I have no problem with posts from those that disagree with the perspective shared here, or even links to resources that show another point of view. However, the method you utilized seemed like spam to me; I always delete spam.

All: I don't want anyone thinking that we as ECs have anything to hide from or fear; the Christianity that is fearful of science & other intellectual pursuits (eg. biblical criticism) is not a Christianity that shows trust in God. I encourage other Christians to look at other sides of the dialogue, so for example Edward's site where you can find all kinds of information on those disillusioned with Christianity - and under the mistaken impression that there is a linear progression from YECism to atheism. (For my own comments on this unimaginative view, see the new model post).

So, please read Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens etc. as well as McGrath & Polkinghorne etc; read Bart Ehrman as well as N.T. Wright. But let's also remember that our faith is not just about intellectual integrity. Putting too much effort / resources / time into the intellectual side can have a detrimental affect on our spiritual health; there needs to be balance. I'm really preaching to myself here.

Eric said...

@ Kristian
Thanks for relating your story. It's interesting how Calvin can have such a strong influence in quite a few areas around the country, and, from what I hear, the majority of it is good.

@ Bethany
Thanks for the references Bethany, I'll add them to that huge list of things I need to read.

@Steve Martin,
I completely agree with what you said in your last post, that the Christianity which is afraid of intellectual pursuits isn't the type of Christianity that shows trust in God.

@ all. Thanks again everyone for reading the story and leaving comments.