Creation Wars in the Church?

I know a lot of people followed the Ken Ham/Bill Nye debate regarding creationism and evolution.

Full disclosure, I didn't watch the debate. As a life-long lover of fossils and dinosaurs (you should see the fossil collection in my office), natural history museum nerd, a Charles Darwin buff, and psychologist with interests in evolutionary psychology I think the scientific debate is pretty settled.

And yet, I also get how very unsettled everything is.

For example, a few years ago I had a phone conversation with a "flagship school" of evangelicalism regarding my interest in an endowed research chair. This conversation was less an interview than a preliminary talk with the head of the search committee to explore my interest and fit before moving forward with a formal application and interview. The chat went well until we hit a sticking point. Evolution and the school's statement of faith. I asked the chair of the search committee this question, "I have an interest in evolutionary psychology and I've always wanted to write a book about the Sermon on the Mount viewed through the lens of evolutionary psychology. Could I write that book at your school?"

His answer: "I don't think so."

Needless to say, we mutually agreed to not go forward with a formal application.

So I get it. This is still a big issue in many places. But here's the thing I've been pondering:

Is this an issue in the local church?

I ask because creation vs. evolution just isn't an issue in my church. I go to church with people who have PhDs in biology and people who teach creationism in their home-school curriculum. The people at my church are all over the map on this issue. Some were with Ken Ham Tuesday night. And some were with Bill Nye.

And we all go to the same church.

How's that possible?

I'm not sure, but my best guess is this.

We just don't think it matters. We just don't talk about it. You are free to think however you want to think about this. We don't make it a test of fellowship. We recognize the diversity in our midst and have sort of collectively agreed to not make it an issue.

For my part, I could care less if you believe in creationism. Seriously, if you think the world is only 6,000 years old, knock yourself out. If you go to my church, it's no big deal to me what you believe, one way or the other.  

How'd this happen at my church?

I think it happened because we all share the opinion that the outcome of the Ken Ham/Bill Nye debate has nothing to do with how we love each other or how we love the people of our city.

Perhaps my church is weird and unique in this way, but my hunch is that a lot of churches have creationists and evolutionists worshipping side by side every Sunday.

Sure, they probably have a tacit agreement, like my church, to just not talk about it. Because sometimes it's just good 'ol healthy family boundaries to leave some subjects alone. It keeps you focused on the important stuff.

Like the fact that we are family. And that we love each other.

Important stuff like that.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

37 thoughts on “Creation Wars in the Church?”

  1. Two questions, Richard.

    (1) Is it a healthy situation for there to be a "tacit agreement" in a church community "just not to talk about" an issue? Isn't this an ecclesial "don't ask, don't tell" policy? Isn't the healthy church one in which we can talk about contentious issues - and disagree, clash - and still love one another and remain together? Shouting matches are obviously not a good way of being church - but neither, I think, are open or tacit conspiracies of silence (which, btw, often mask conspiracies of power).

    (2) Of course, one answer to this question is that it depends on the importance of the issue. Perhaps an issue is not existentially important, perhaps it has no ethical or political implications. And perhaps the issue of creationism - unlike, say, the issues of feminism and same-sex relationships - is one of those issues for your church. That's why "We just don't think it matters". But is that right? Does creationism have no ethical and political implications? Is it a coincidence that creationists are massively culturally and morally conservative and support right-wing political causes, that they overwhelmingly tick the boxes of complementariaism and "traditional" marriage only - and, I might add, are in denial about climate change (due to bad science!)? And isn't the root of this moral divide hermeneutical (the way we read the Bible, the way we read the world), such that the intellectual and affective/moral components of being human - the way we think and the way we live - cannot actually be compartmentalised? Are not questions of inquiry and truth also, ultimately, questions of justice - and love?

  2. You are a very lucky man to have found such a church - a place that can hold both this and that. It seems to me that the debate took place in an either/or place. If this is right, then that has to be wrong. I have found, even in myself, that I see "time" sometimes as a linear and evolving continuum, and sometimes not linear (evolving) at all, but more of an all-at-once, both now and forever dimension to my being.

  3. I think for the young earth creationist I know, the constant concern is that linking our roots to primates devalues humans and leads to base and violent behaviors. i.e. 'if we all just came from animals why does it matter if we kill each other like animals.' I always find this an interesting argument. In one scenario, God created man from a primate over the course of millions of years. In the other scenario, God created man from dirt over an undisclosed but apparently brief period of time. Seems to me that the biggest difference is simply the amount of time God took before he 'breathed' the image bearing divine spark and created the human race. Primates, or Dirt. Millions of years, or seconds. I don't see the big difference.

  4. I wonder how similar this would be to the Hell debate? When you got right down to it how many believe in Eternal Conscious Torment. It matters a great deal but we have chosen to keep it to ourselves. I taught a young earth creationism for years. Now I just don't know. I do think that its important that we know what it is to be made in the image of God. Did God love the pre-humans? When did He start loving mankind in the way that we say He loves us?

  5. It is still very much an issue in many (mostly Baptist) churches here in NC. The Baptist church I used to attend held a "Case For Creation" weekend with Duane Gish about 12 years ago. My acceptance of Evolution was cause of frequent requests by Church members for my removal as an adult Sunday school teacher. There were a few people at that church that supported me privately, but were afraid to do so publicly.

    I've been attending a Lutheran (ELCA) church for the last five years, and the subject just doesn't come up. It's not on people's radar, thankfully.

  6. It's all well and good to agree to disagree, until the anti-scientists are actively seeking to inject pseudoscience into public & educational policy. At that point it's no longer outside the realm of "important stuff".

    Obligatory image via xkcd.

  7. "I think it happened because we all share the opinion that the outcome of the Ken Ham/Bill Nye debate has nothing to do with how we love each other or how we love the people of our city."

    nailed it.

  8. Thanks Kim, for the questions.

    Is it a healthy situation? It depends, as you note, on if this is a "secret" where one group is hushing another or if this is simply a matter of adiaphora. What I was describing was adiaphoria. People in my church can share their views. We've had those PhDs in biology share about evolution in sermon conversations. I have no hesitation bringing evolution up in my adult bible class. And on the same way I've had people in my church express creationist beliefs in various places. So when I refer to "not talking about it" what I'm saying is that we don't think it important to adjudicate this in any final way. We express views and move on.

    About your second point.

    I agree that there are a suite of beliefs that "hang together" with creationism often being an indicator of some other things that do have ethical import. Two thoughts about that.

    First, I think you can be a creationist and love the environment. Phrased another way, I don't think I have to convince you of evolution to get you to be concerned about global warming. The theological problem in Genesis isn't fossils and dinosaurs but a particular interpretation of humankind's "dominion" over creation along with an associated eschatology that has creation "disposed of "at the end of time. That reading of Genesis and Revelation does have ethical import and I do think our church is talking about that issue. But that conflict and conversation is less about convincing members that evolution is true than it is about using the theological and biblical resources available to the person to push against toxic forms of reading Genesis and Revelation. In our church hard conversation is present and ongoing. But it's not a fight to convince members of evolution. It's more a conversation about eschatology, about heaven coming to earth.

    Second, at the end of the day I do go to church with people from the Tea Party. And they go to church with me. I don't see how you can love your enemies while shunning your political enemies. It is a grand Kingdom experiment to figure out a way to love each other given our great antipathy for each other's political viewpoints.

  9. Yep. YEC (Young Earth Creationism) is a litmus test for churches to decide who they will love, who they will accept into their tribe. If you don't think like us, you can't be one of us. It's like the use of the King James Bible only; purpose driven/church growth model; it's a way for mostly evangelical churches, to divide up the dwindling population of church goers. I live in an area where there are a large number of PhD's, engineers, scientists, people you'd think would be rational, open to other ideas. But they'll go bat shit,i.e., lose their minds over YEC, and let you know right quick that if you don't believe in YEC, you've no business in "their" church. And that's the crux; it is "their" church, their tribe, their home school group, the place where they're comfortable among people they can love.

  10. If someone is using a creationist account to defend the Imago Dei then I commend that impulse, though I might disagree with the argument. The main problem is how certain accounts of the Imago Dei can create a radical ontological disjoint between human beings (created in the "image of God") and everything else in creation. I think the best way to address this is to shift away from ontology to mission. We are in the "image of God" because we participate in God's mission, not because we are somehow made of different stuff from the rest of creation. In this the conversation shifts away to ontology and origins to the mission of God in the world. And based on Genesis I'd argue that a part of the mission is to care for Eden.

  11. But it may bring into question who we are? What does it say about being made in the image of God! That in turn determines how we treat each other. In Origin of the Species, Darwin suggest that some races are more evolved than others. This led to all sorts of atrocities being waged against people of color, European Jews, Native Americans and slaves.

  12. You don't have to convince someone of evolution to convince them of global warming, but you do have to disabuse them of scientific creationism to do so. This isn't "creationism" in medieval Europe or homegrown Christian creationism in modern Botswana (if that's a thing) that we're dealing with, but scientific creationism in modern, affluent, white Evangelicalism.

    It has ethical import in environmental practices, the maintenance of imperial culture, and the creation miserable faith crises -- to say nothing of intramural issues of right theology and church identity.

  13. This ability to "express views and move on": do you think it is related at all to your church's organizational structure? I don't recall exactly how your local church is structured, but there are a lot of people sharing the preaching, so not the "one pastor" or "head pastor and assistant pastor" structures I've known. As a result, when one person speaks to the congregation or via email or a blog (I attend a large church), it is not taken as *the* position of the church.

    I attended a non-church function held in the church building, a book club, and someone went off on a tangent, very upset that our pastor had taken a "Christians have different views" position on a controversial issue, even though he leaned towards the position she held firmly. After letting her talk a while, I began to feel dishonest and cowardly and so began by just stating that I was grateful for the pastor's position. It became a battle between me and her, and over a year later, I am still ashamed about that whole conversation (no name calling or anything ugly, but we were strongly at odds). And I'm pretty sure she hinted I was going to hell. And I made faces that indicated I was appalled at her, so I'm told.

    My views have undergone rapid transformation. I'm new to claiming opinions and therefore easily unsettled. A sibling called me the "black sheep" of the family, even though I'm a traditional suburban stay-at-home mom, so clearly any divergence in thinking is a problem, and they don't know how divergent I've truly become. At the risk of sounding like I'm writing in to an advice/help column, how can someone like me, in a context like mine, get to a place in my dealings with others at church and in my family where I demonstrate the wisdom your church demonstrates? I've been going over this encounter in my mind for well over a year, whether I should have spoken up at all when it was obvious she was upset, whether I should have stopped at expressing disagreement and declined to explain, and how to keep my emotions (and faces) in check as I do explain, in a hostile setting.

  14. If anything its made me more aware of caring for Eden. If I am made in God's image then I see beauty in all that God created. Its always amazed me that Humans are set up as the pinnacle of God's creation but are the most hated by environmentalist. We have no problem aborting an unborn child but when it comes to cutting down a 200 year old tree we believe in the right to life.

  15. I guess my ambivalence is regarding the "how" and "when." I don't care how or when stuff was made, and I don't think we ever will know, so it is not edifying to anyone to be dogmatic about it. I do believe that the initial spark or whatever, is Yahweh-breathed and Yahweh-directed, be it a big bang 900 bajillion years ago or a guy made from dirt 6000 years ago. The subject of the imago dei is a whole separate can of interesting one at that.

  16. I can see that. But I don't think that's what I'm dealing with in my church.

    What I'm dealing with is people who have a "plain sense" hermeneutic in how they read the bible but who haven't connected that hermeneutic to a political impulse. An apolitical creationism. And that's sort of what I'm trying to distinguish in this comment thread. I don't think belief in creationism is, intrinsically, a bad thing. It's the politicization of creationism that is the problem. If that were in my church then there would be a whole lot of conflict. But that's the point of the post, we haven't politicized the issue so the hermeneutical diversity is co-habitable.

  17. It may have to do with the organizational structure. In the Churches of Christ the preacher is a pretty disempowered position. Which I like, but it sort of suck for our preachers (job security, ability to implement vision). Our preachers don't function like Executive Pastors. God bless them, they have to herd cats.

  18. I think a good way to deal with the problem you're raising is the one I'm trying to articulate, to be a community of diverse beliefs where you come across multiple perspectives in a non-anxious, non-combative environment. You come to see that nothing much is riding on having the "correct answer" on that issue. It desacralizes the debate.

  19. I've never seen non-political scientific creationism in modern, affluent, white Evangelicalism, whether its adherents so recognized it or not. You may be right about Highland, but I would think a second critical look might offer a new insight.

    You said that Highland has Tea Partiers. I claim that the underlying attitudes toward the world animating the Tea Party -- xenophobic persecution complex, rejection of critical thinking, epistemic closure -- are behind the fundamentalism that breeds scientific creationism, and that these attitudes are fundamentally political.

  20. Yeah, I think you're right, and I am all for the church being a community of diverse beliefs. I just fear sometimes when we don't agree on things, we avoid robust discussion and debate on them. I would love if churches were more okay with living in the tension and having different viewpoints presented.

  21. What interesting about the Evolutionary-non-6,000 year ago view is all the mystery of millions of years past. Like, yes, God does not do away with creation and we go live in ethereal heaven, but he might have flooded the earth. He might have flooded the Earth several times and only promised the rainbow 6,000 years ago. He might hit the "reset" button again with fire, or with sub-zero cold, or with virus outbreak, or 5,000 mph winds or with massive Earthquakes or with the ground opening up....if, you-know, we get too bad every 10,000 years or so. Who knows? If Adam and Eve weren't real than maybe Noah is just an allegorical representation of the a matrixy reset. Genesis and Revelation are an evolutionary cycle. We didn't come from Monkeys otherwise they would be clear-cutting their own forest.

    I'm appalled none of these issues came up in the debate :) Great points about staying together as a family, otherwise we could quickly spiral and divide into a million creative possibilities.

  22. I hope an evolutionary psychology book is next on your list! I would love to see your thoughts on it at length.

  23. Not too experimental at all. I think about human pre-history all the time. The hominid skulls in my office help with that. :-)

  24. Your are spot on, the difficulty is how we get there, especially those of us who live and worship in churches that are "full" of people who seem to thing their and our eternal destiny depends on what we believe about the manner in which God chose to create. As a teen they nearly converted me to Atheism, I have sadly not yet found a gentle way to persuade them that the manner of creation is either adiaphora (peripheral things not essential to salvation) or among the unknown mysteries of the faith.

  25. I really struggle to understand how this shift in our understanding of history from creationism to evolution doesn't uproot theology a little more than this post suggests. That isn't to say that I disagree with your key point; that family and love are greater than such things.

    But family and love are not contained by a church either. They flow out the door and across the street I would hope.

    I'd be very interested in your thoughts on how evolution and Christianity can combine. I certainly don't fathom the idea that the doctrine of creation can be held suspended untouchable above the facts and then still be relevant to our life among the facts of our own histories. I think there's reason to really unravell a lot instead. The notion of the fall for example and how that defines salvation.

    I suspect any tacit agreement not to talk about these things is not entirely healthy or in accord with the truth setting us free.

  26. For some examples of how evolution and Christianity could combine, you could try The Lost World of Genesis 1: or The Language of God:

  27. 1 Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. 2 This is what the ancients were commended for. 3 By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God's command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible. 4 By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead. 5 By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death; he could not be found, because God had taken him away. For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God. 6 And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. (Hebrews 11:1-6)

    I do not fight science, nor do I fight against hard scientific evidence, but the Bible is truth and it does trouble me how many Christians are throwing the absolute truth of the Bible asunder; for what? How God created the world does not matter to me but He did. What amazes me is how many scientist take such sad and insulting shots at people of faith.

    But it matters not to me what is said about people that believe in the Bible as truth and do not need evidence for their faith; we do not believe what we believe to get the approval of men. The Bible is full of insistences where people of God are strange and not the cultural norm for their time; that is just a modern Christian exception and it will get us no where.

    Have a good day.

  28. Richard Rohr claims that:

    "The very fact that Christians have fought the notion of evolution shows we did not minimally understand the Cosmic Christ. We should have been the first to recognize and honor evolution: the glory, patience, and humility of God is that God creates things that continue to create themselves—from the inner dynamism God has planted within them. Many of us would call this inner creative dynamism the Holy Spirit which “hovers over the initial chaos” (Genesis 1:2) and then stands at the end of history with a constant and beckoning “Come!” (Revelation 22:17). These two verses are the very bookends of the Bible."

    - Adapted from Soul Centering through Nature: Becoming a True Human Adult

    What we call “salvation” is happening to the whole of creation and not just to humans (Revelation 21:1). Our inability to recognize and appreciate this is a central example of our dualistic thinking and even our narcissism. Why would God’s great plan just be about us? The irony, of course, is that we are—by far—the most destructive species on the planet, and refuse to take our proper place in the entire “family of things,” as Mary Oliver calls it.

  29. Or, you know, the Bible, that said that one race of people were chosen by God and went about a systemic cleansing of the world through most of the Old Testament. God's chosen people committing them or not, genocide is genocide, and later served as precedent for the Inquisition, Crusades. . . The Bible as well as science have led to atrocities, but were these mandated by the ideals or perversions of belief or knowledge?

  30. People used the Bible to punish men and women who were using their God-given capabilities to explore God's creation. People held these beliefs because the Bible told them to. When people blind themselves to the fact and encourage ignorance, they are not serving the God who created the things they squabble over.

    Do you accept as fact that the Earth is Round? That it is not the center of our solar system, let alone the galaxy or universe? That the Earth is held up by pillars? These are all things that science has proven that people were killed or persecuted for throughout history- does that reflect Jesus, or pride?

  31. Yes, because we as humans have done the most harm of any species- even when other animals impact environments, they were usually transported, albeit unintentionally, by humans. We spray insecticides and pesticides that kill both animals and humans, and reduce it down to cost instead of being poor stewards of God's creation. No problems aborting an unborn child? Do you honestly believe anyone just thinks, "Oh, it's Tuesday, better go abort my baby?" You are doing yourself and the person in that situation a huge disservice whenever you do that. There are a multitude of reasons people seek that, and some of them, as a loving Christian, are valid. Say your daughter, 14 years old, was raped by her uncle. And say, out of fear of her parents or others judging her and somehow thinking being a victim soiled her, she hid it without knowing she was pregnant. Then, she's faced with a problem no child should ever be faced with- she has to choose between carrying an inbred baby that was the by-product of the most vile thing she has ever experienced for 9 months and forever changing her own body, or terminating the pregnancy.

    What is "good" there? What glory is there in that?

    Or, say, a woman has passed away and is brain dead, and is pregnant. She lost her air supply, so it is doubtful the child will survive anyway, and it is a known factor that the child will have severe birth defects. The woman is survived by her husband, who is being forced by a state- using someone else's morals- to watch the husk of his wife's mortal life on Earth deteriorate while the child inside is shaped by the environment around it, broken.

    Is that right? Is that godly?

    God's view on life in the uterus is not clear from a Biblical reading of the Word. God has ordered pregnant women killed, a ritual abortion involving women who are suspected- not even proven, but suspected- of adultery, and the "dashing" of enemy babies against the rocks.

    Are those ideas in line with modern interpretations of the Bible? Is it okay to say abortion is always wrong when God himself has used it as a tool? Are we putting words into God's mouth?
    After all, if abortion is a sin and murder, and God has committed murder, and our salvation hinges on Jesus being as pure as God, then we have no chance for redemption.

    There are many aspects of the Word that we have to reconcile if we are to fully understand our role as Christians.

  32. I support Christians moving away from the attempt by political rightests to drive a wedge between believers and scientists. It allows people like Ken Ham to pray on Luddite like fears to sell junk science, but I also fear it puts a lot of pressure on Religious Scientists to avoid being stigmad. People like Jerry Coyne combs people like Kenneth Millers work with a comb to pull any quote fracture out they can in order to say they don't belong in the sciences or accuse them of opperating under "doublethink"

    I wish they could actually capture the spirit of Charles Darwin not just his theories.

  33. Good points. I have heard an OT scholar or two point out that the ancient Hebrews did not share our modern view that life begins at conception. So that indicates to me that this was not necessarily a scriptural view, as well as it being a fairly recent notion. Something similar could be said about lying. Is it always wrong to lie? If it is, then we've got a real issue with Rahab's story. I think anytime we take something that we see in scripture (or think we see in scripture) and turn it into a rule that applies always, everywhere, in the same static way; we're not being true to the message of scripture.

Leave a Reply