Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister

 

 

“Reading the Bible after Darwin

Sunday, September 13, 2009

 

 

2 Corinthians 4: 7-18

Dean 

Rev. Dean Snyder


Let me confess this: I have a certain sympathy for those who are opposed to the theory of evolution. If I thought I had to choose between the Bible and evolution, I would be tempted to choose the Bible, too.

 

A Gallup poll done earlier this year found that only 39 percent of Americans believe in the theory of evolution. Six out of 10 Americans do not believe in evolution. They either disbelieve it or say they don’t know what to believe about it. Only 24 percent of weekly church-goers believe in evolution. Three out of every four regular church-goers do not believe in evolution. They either oppose the idea or are agnostic about it.[1]

 

I don’t think the reason for this is that six out of 10 Americans are intellectually slow. I don’t think the reason for this is that three out of four church-goers are ignorant.

 

I think the reason many church-goers don’t accept evolution is because they think they have to choose between the Bible and evolution and, when they have been in trouble in life, reading the Bible has helped them more than reading The Origin of the Species.

 

Many church-goers think that accepting the idea of evolution would be disloyal to the God who has sustained them during the hardest times in their lives. When they have been in trouble, it has not helped them all that much to think: “Well, I guess this is all part of the survival of the fittest.”

 

If Christians think they have to pick between Jesus and Darwin, they choose Jesus. I have a certain amount of sympathy for this. If I had to make the choice I’d probably choose as well.

 

The problem is assuming that this is the choice we have to make – to have to choose between the Bible and evolution or God and Darwin. I think many of us have moved beyond this dichotomy.

 

This is what Christian Century writer Amy Frykholm thinks.

 

 “We may not have grasped all the nuances of the scientific debate,” she says, “but we have concluded that evolutionary science is good science and therefore must be compatible with good theology.…We believe that [evolution and] natural selection [are] evidently part of God’s method of shaping the natural world.” [2]  

 

We who are educated mainline Christians often deal with the tension between the Bible and science by saying the Bible is not a science textbook, and it is true that the Bible is not a science textbook. But to say only this could be misleading. To say the Bible is not a science textbook does not mean that the biblical writers did not care about what we today call science. The biblical writers were using the best scientific information available to them at the time. They were using the best thinking available to them about the nature of reality and the way the world worked.

 

At the time the Genesis creation accounts were written, the best thinking being done about cosmology was being done in Babylon, so the Genesis creation accounts are based on Babylonian theories of cosmology. We would call the Babylonian theories pre-scientific, I suppose, but the Babylonian ideas about cosmology were the best reasoned thinking based on the observation they were able to do at the time. The biblical writers did not disregard the accepted ideas about the nature of the world and creation of their time. 

 

It is not like the biblical writers did not care about the way the world worked or about the workings of nature and the universe. It is not like they ignored what they could observe through their senses or the philosophical ways of trying to understand the world of their times.

 

The biblical writers would have loved to be able to observe the universe through the Hubble telescope. The biblical writers would have loved to read physics, they would have loved to know about the Big Bang and evolution, and it would have influenced the way they wrote the Bible.

 

If they were here today I think they would say, “Don’t be willfully ignorant.” I think they would say, “We were limited by what we could know in our time. With the information you have available to you, you should be able to understand what we were trying to understand ever better than we could. Develop the insights we had in light of the information you have. Do not cling to our limitations. Do not confuse the clay jar for the treasure.”

 

The Bible has two great revelatory events. These two events define and shape everything else. The Bible is basically the oral traditions and thinking and writings of a community of people trying to figure out the implications of these two events, and they used the best philosophical thinking and pre-science available to them at the time to figure it out as best they could.

 

The first great event was the exodus of a slave people from Egypt. Did you know that the creation accounts were written long after the exodus? Most scholars believe the creation accounts were composed in 6th or 5th century BCE – 600 or 700 years after the exodus. The creation accounts are attempts to use the best science available to Israel at the time to articulate the truth that Israel had learned in the exodus.

 

The revelation Israel received in the exodus is that there is a presence and a power within the universe that wants slaves to be free. That revelation predates monotheism. That revelation predates the understanding that this force is the God of the universe. What the creation accounts try to do is to say that this same presence and power we discovered in the exodus from slavery in Egypt is not only within the universe but is the sole source of the universe.

 

In the exodus Israel got a glimpse of what they came to believe was the deepest intention of nature and history – that slaves should be free, that every person should be able to live with dignity and respect…out of which was born Israel’s commitment to justice and equality and education and truth and all the other values biblical religion represents.

 

The writers of scripture would not say: stop thinking at the place in history where we stopped. They would say take the revelation we have received in the exodus – that God wants slaves to be free – and engage with the best knowledge of your time in figuring out the implications of this for the way you should live.

 

The second great revelatory event was the life, death and resurrection of Jesus – the life of Jesus and the church’s experience of the resurrected Christ in their midst as a community after his crucifixion. Jesus – in his lifetime and as the risen Christ in their midst after his crucifixion – showed them the heart of God. It showed them all they needed to know about the heart of God.

 

The New Testament is an attempt to take the exodus revelation and all the thinking that had been done about it over the centuries and the new revelation about the heart of God in Jesus Christ and to begin to work out the implications of both of these for the way we might live in the world.

 

The New Testament writers used the best information available to them, the best pre-science of their time, the best philosophical thinking of their time, to try to figure out and articulate the truth they had discovered in the story of Jesus Christ and the experience of the risen Christ in their midst.   

 

The New Testament writers knew that there was more they did not know than what they did. “We see through a glass darkly,” Paul wrote. “We have this treasure in clay jars,” he wrote.

 

But none of the New Testament writers were anti-learning. They were not anti-philosophy except when philosophy became a substitute for love. Then they believed philosophy was being misused, not that philosophy itself was bad.

 

So I believe that Darwin has done us a favor. Darwin has forced us to read the Bible trying to discern what is clay jar and what is the treasure…what is the mud jug and what is the wine.

 

It wasn’t just Darwin, of course. The same century that produced Darwin produced the pioneers of higher biblical critical thought who used the tools of historical and literary criticism to teach us that the Bible is intricately layered and richly contextual. The same century that gave us Darwin also gave us Feuerbach, Marx and Freud. Lots was happening in the era that produced Darwin, and all these have all done us a favor because they have compelled us to ask what is clay jar and what is wine.

 

But Darwin and evolution and the idea of natural selection seem to maybe disturb Christians the most. We assume these ideas conflict with the Bible.

 

I want to suggest our response ought to be what the biblical writers’ response would have been: “The idea of natural selection is fascinating. Let’s see how it might inform our basic revelation that slaves are meant to be free and that Jesus Christ shows us the heart of God.”

 

The biblical writers would have said: “If they seem to be in conflict, it’s a potentially creative tension. Let’s struggle with that conflict because truth is always born out of labor.”

 

Do you know that the entire Bible is written in parables? We know that Jesus taught using parables but the entire Bible is written in parables. The exodus story is a parable. Jesus’ life, not just his teachings, Jesus’ life is a parable.

 

Why is the Bible written in parables? Because what the writers of the Bible are trying to communicate cannot be communicated in any other way. Because the truth the Bible is trying to communicate is already inside you. But the truth inside us is the hardest truth to find. It is also the riskiest truth. Because it is truth that we can’t merely grasp. It is truth that we have to allow to grasp us.

 

We misread the Bible so often because we are looking for ideas or rules or objective truth when the Bible is trying to lead us to a truth that is already inside us but that we resist allowing it to find us.

 

Christianity is an eastern religion and the Bible is an eastern book.

 

When we stop trying to find proofs inside the Bible and let the Bible lead us to a truth that wants to find us, then the Bible will have served its purpose.

 

This is why I am grateful to Darwin and the biblical literary scholars of his day and the Feuerbach, Marx and Freud and the entire enlightenment. They help reopen the Bible to us as a path toward truth rather than a final answer that stops our inquiry and growth.    

 

I agree with Amy Frykholm: “We may not have grasped all the nuances of the scientific debate, but we have concluded that evolutionary science is good science and therefore must be compatible with good theology.…We believe that [evolution and] natural selection [are] evidently part of God’s method of shaping the natural world.”

 

That’s where I am at. Amy Frykholm admits she hasn’t figured it all out yet: “I, for one, do most of my thinking about science out of one mental box and my thinking about religion out of another,” she writes. “While I think the contents of the two boxes are compatible, I rarely try to work out the terms of their relationship.” [italics mine]

 

 “Perhaps that’s because the content of the two boxes are, when mixed, still combustible,” she concludes.[3]  

 

Part of the reason three out of four church-goers don’t want to talk about evolution is because it is combustible and we go to church to feel safe and cuddled and not to grow because we don’t feel secure in the world because we don’t believe really in the resurrection.  But if we believed in the resurrection, the idea of evolution would be intriguing, not intimidating.

 

The interesting thing about clay jars is that there is no way to have wine without them. There is no wine without something to hold it in. The clay jars both hold and hide the treasure. This is the nature of parables. Like clay jars they both hold and hide the treasure.

 

The Bible both holds and hides the wine.

 

Almost every time we confuse the clay jar and the treasure we end up using the Bible repressively. We use it to defend patriarchy or racism or homophobia. Almost every time we confuse the clay jar and the treasure we end up using it to stop the movement of the kingdom of God. And when we are scared of science, it is usually because we are trying to hold on to the clay jar.

 

Darwin’s own life is interesting. He went from being a candidate for the Anglican priesthood to becoming an agnostic but, he was not a very good agnostic. Some days he affirmed his belief in God. For some, you know, agnosticism doesn’t mean that they can’t believe in God. It just means they can’t believe in the god being imposed on them. I suspect it was this way with Darwin.

 

A new book just published this year by Adrian Desmond and James Moore Darwin’s Sacred Cause studies Darwin’s personal papers and notes and even the scribbling in the margins of the books he read and comes to the conclusion that Darwin’s compulsion to discover the ancestry of humanity was motivated partly by his hatred of slavery.[4] Slavery was one of the clay jars defended by many of its proponents as “biblical” and “natural,” and Darwin believed natural selection undermined the legitimacy of slavery that natural and biblical theologies were sometimes used to justify. 

 

A fascinating book by Keith Thomson Before Darwin: Reconciling God and Nature explores the debate about evolution for the 150 years before Darwin wrote The Origin of the Species. Thomson discovered that many of Darwin’s predecessors and adversaries in the debate about evolution, especially William Paley, feared the idea of evolution because they feared social change. Paley and others preferred to think that poverty and misery were the givens of nature.[5]

 

It may well be that Darwin’s efforts to learn from the radically honest study of nature were an effort to free the God of the Bible from the clay jar of the Bible.

 

There is inspiration here for the struggles of our time…obviously the struggle to protect the integrity of science and the academy from those who would corrupt them for ideological purposes, but also the continuing struggle against patriarchy, the struggle against racism, the struggle against poverty and economic injustice, the struggle for gay and lesbian inclusion and equality.

 

Ironically those who believe the truth of the Bible – those who believe the truths revealed in the exodus and in Jesus Christ – those who believe the fundamental message of the Bible – are the ones who are not afraid of the discoveries of science. God loves freedom. God wants freedom for you and me and everyone. God loves freedom for God. God wants to be free from the clay jars of our narrow minds.

 

 

 

 

 

www.foundryumc.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] Frank Newport, “On Darwin’s Birthday, Only 4 in 10 Believe in Evolution,” at http://www.gallup.com/poll/114544/Darwin-Birthday-Believe-Evolution.aspx.

 

[2] Amy Frykholm, “God in Evolution: The Nature of Divine Power,” Christian Century (Feb 12, 2008), 20+

 

[3] Amy Frykholm, “God in Evolution: The Nature of Divine Power,” Christian Century (Feb 12, 2008), 20+

 

[4] Adrain Desmond and James Moore, Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009). See also Christopher Benfry, “Charles Darwin, Abolitionist,” The New York Times Sunday Book Review, Jan. 29, 2009.

 

[5]Keith Thomson Before Darwin: Reconciling God and Nature (Yale  University Press, 2005).

 J. David Pleins suggests that one of the most significant discoveries in Thomson’s book is that “Paley feared evolution because he feared social change..” See Pleins, “Before Darwin: Reconciling God and Nature, The Christian Century (April 18, 2006), 37+.