Moving Past Origins

What virtues are most valued in your church community?

What is the significance of human uniqueness?

Elaine Ecklund in her new book Why Science and Faith Need Each Other: Eight Shared Values that Move Us Beyond Fear suggests that scientific and faith communities share many virtues – although this may depend in part on the specific communities involved. An important resource for digging into this question is found in many of our church communities – scientists who are active in the local church. In her interview with Christian scientists she found (not surprisingly) that some churches do a better job of this than others. The scientists within a congregation can provide an important and trusted perspective. But this will only happen if there are some shared values and virtues.

Before digging into these virtues however, it is worthwhile to step back and look at the largest area of concern for many Christians … the question of human origins and human uniqueness. For good reason, Christians hold strongly to the position of humans, created in the image of God. For many, this rules out the possibility of  evolution, especially human evolution. But the choices and range of views is not quite so clear cut. In her survey, Ecklund found (see Religion vs. Science: What Religious People Really Think) that a little less than 40% of evangelicals claimed that some version of young earth creationism was definitely true, but about a quarter of these also claimed that a contradictory old earth view was definitely true. There is an important lesson here. Surveys can obscure the truth by forcing respondents to choose the more acceptable of options without nuance or careful consideration.

The issue for many Christians isn’t the age of the earth. The role of God in creation and the uniqueness of humans are far more important. Ecklund concluded that “many Christians are able to accept the idea that life on earth evolved over time if they are given the opportunity to also express the idea that God plays some role in the process of evolution.” (p. 50) When I discuss science and Christian faith in a church, I will start by pointing out that there are multiple views on the subject and the only one that is absolutely incompatible with Christian faith is the view that the universe and all life originated by purely natural means without involvement by God. Looking around the room, there are likely a number of people who hold each of the other views. We are not all right, but we can discuss the pros and cons of each position without calling into question each other’s faith in God.

In our current context, we do well to point out that many Christians, especially those of color, are wary of evolutionary theory because it has been used as a tool and justification for oppression. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s evolution and eugenics were connected.  William Jennings Bryan, famous today primarily for his role in the Scopes trial, objected to evolution largely for this reason. Stephen Jay Gould, in his book Rocks of Ages, points this out (see pp. 133-170). Bryan was a defender of the working class and Darwinism, especially social Darwinism – quite popular at the time (taught implicitly in the book Scopes used in his class), would “weaken the cause of democracy and strengthen class pride and the power of wealth.” Evolution was, and for some continues to be, linked to ideas about racial and class superiority.

Of course, church history is not clean when it comes to issues of race and oppression. American evangelicalism has a split personality. Christian faith has been used both as a force for liberation and justice and as a tool and justification for oppression.

Here is the crux of the matter as I see it. Christian faith is grounded in a belief in God the father almighty, creator of heaven and earth, maker of all things visible and invisible.

Human beings are created in the image of God – that is with a special role and vocation to image God in creation.

God cares for his people and the Christian story reflects the central role for humanity in God’s creation.

Our understanding of the Christian story and human uniqueness is centered on Jesus not on Adam. As Ecklund summarizes “Ultimately, the image of God is most clearly realized in the person of Jesus, and thus evolutionary accounts do not have to be a threat to our understanding of what it means to be endowed with the image of God.” (p. 50)

What are the most fundamental issues when it comes to questions of science and Christian faith?

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This post is also available at Jesus Creed, now published as a Christianity Today blog.

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3 Responses to Moving Past Origins

  1. Anton Van Der Beek says:

    My main question is: what is truth? Can science and faith be interwoven and if so, what do you mean by “science”? Or what is faith? Both faith and science have so much to say about the beginning of the earth and the beginning of life, I think nobody can have a real grasp on it.

  2. Peter Sandberg says:

    I too have found it helpful in my classes to start with the statement that God is always, constantly acting in creation both in initiating but also in sustaining all that occurs. This also takes some of the steam out of the question of how God acts to cause physical events (quantum fluctuations, genetic nudging) for miracles. J. B. Stumps’ book, Science and Christianity, does a great job of articulating this.

  3. aharvey22 says:

    I think the key to alleviating the “image of God” concern you mention is to view the image not as a capacity or quality that we possess, but as you say “a special role and vocation to image God”. What makes us “special” is not our biological origins, but God’s choice to assign our species to be God’s representatives.

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