Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Why I teach evolution as a Christian pastor

What does it mean to "teach" something? So much depends upon this basic question. If teaching is the passing on of indisputable fundamentals, and evolution is considered one such fundamental, then of course many people should be concerned about teaching evolution, not the least of whom are scientists themselves.

But if evolution is the current best scientific description for how life formed and developed on our planet, then teaching evolution is in a sense teaching the scientific method, something that scientists and people of faith can and should encourage.

So, what's the scientific method? According to Rudolph Carnap: "Science is a system of statements based on direct experience and controlled by experimental verification."

So science prioritizes direct experience, and then uses controlled methods of verification to test experience. In the case of evolutionary biology, biologists continue regularly to verify what they observe through direct experience in the natural world, and any good evolutionary biologist (which would also make them a good scientist) would tell you that if direct experience and experimental verification led to a new theory, they'd be the first to embrace it.

Theories are not fictions or fairy tales. They're the best current explanation we have for what is.

Much the same can be said of theology (which is why theology is actually one of the sciences). The methods for testing theological truth claims are of course different from the methods for testing biological truth claims. Nevertheless, theology is not settled, and it is always developing.

This is why any good theologian, and really any good pastor, should teach evolution. Because evolutionary theory is the scientific communities current best explanation for all that lives and why and how it lives, and bringing that direct experience into conversation with the theology that emerges from reflection on Scripture and the life of the church is perhaps the best way to shed even clearer light both on the doctrine of creation (theologically speaking) and the theory of evolution (biologically speaking).

This is to say, doctrine is also a theory. Theology is also a science.

A parishioner recently wrote something I believe to be so very true.

"To me, in life, there is nothing more dangerous than fanaticism. Doesnt matter if youre a fanatic creationist or a fanatic evolutionary scientist, or fanatic anything. We are not doing anyone any favors by thinking black-or-white. Questions are healthy and welcome, in science and in faith. Open your mind. The Bible was not written to be a scientific text – and yet the mythical creation story has many parallels (albeit poetic ones) to how the science community views the origins of our uni- verse today."

There are a couple of claims in here worth expanding. First, it really is the case that as far as we can tell, the original intent of the authors of Genesis was not to give a literal scientific account of creation, but a mythopoetic one. We should not ask of Genesis 1 something it was never written to give.

Second, questions are healthy and welcome, in science and in faith. That's why bringing evolution and Scripture into fruitful conversation is so beneficial. We learn more about both, deepening both our faith and our abilities as scientists.

Third, the creation story does have many parallels to how the scientific community views the origins of our universe today. Even beyond evolutionary biology, there are fascinating parallels between Genesis 1 and current quantum theory.

It is also true that we sometimes do not fully comprehend the implications of revolutions in scientific worldview until much after they take place. In this way, quite a bit of the scientific worldview is a form of faith. Often, as a pastor, I wish both sides of this conversation, the scientists and the Christians, might see how much overlap there is between their forms of thought, they're hopes and goals.

As They Might Be Giants sing, Science is Real. And so is faith.


  1. Oh, my. This post was so close to greatness, but I think you went off the rails when you called theology a science. Theology absolutely is a dynamic field of intellectual inquiry, but as you note, the scientific method is not how truth claims are tested in theology.

    I really want to commend you for pointing out that science is underpinned by a certain type of faith. Scientists cannot do our work without faith in the principles of causality and inductive reasoning. We also cannot do our work without a certain amount of faith in the integrity of the research process.

    But beyond those points, I think the greatest difference between theology and science is that the first is inspired by abiding trust (in God and in His Word), which the second is inspired by abiding distrust. That's a funny thing to say, until you understand that scientific theories are strengthened best by our deliberate, systematic efforts to prove them wrong. (That is, to falsify a hypothesis). We advance science most effectively not when we try to understand new information in light of what we already believe to be true, but when we allow ourselves to dare to ask whether the new information shows our existing truths to be insufficient or incorrect.

    In our lives of faith, we do the opposite. When the world and the events in our lives ask us to reject what we know about God's love and grace (to falsify the hypothesis), our challenge is to return our hearts again and again to the truths we have known all along. Yes, we learn and grow and incorporate new information as we do all this, but in the end we must trust, rather than distrust.

    Faith and science are wonderfully complementary. Science efficiently describes the "how," but only faith can give us lasting answers to "why." And there is always, always so much more to learn. Thank you for this thought-provoking post.

  2. When I speak of theology as a science, I mean at least something like this: