Over the years, the issue on which I have changed my mind most significantly is that of evolution. Growing up in a conservative Christian household certainly instilled a lot of valuable ideas in my mind, but out of all of the things I think could have been done better by the people surrounding me, education on evolution is probably the most important.
See, when I was a boy, I loved dinosaurs. I knew the scientific nomenclature, which strata you could find different species in, which dinosaurs never actually existed (*cough* brontosaurus was a hoax *cough), etc. But what I learned in church was that if I were to believe what I read about the timeline from Triassic to Jurassic to Cretaceous and so forth over millions of years, brimming full of evolutionary development, I would be sacrificing my belief in Scripture, and God Himself. If it was not downright heresy, it was still viewed as so nearly heretical that I did not feel comfortable expressing my doubts about the literal 6 sets of 24 hours of creation.
I was told that evolution and creation are opposing ideologies. If one were true, the other must have been false. That notion stuck with me up until about high school. My doubts were suppressed, for fear of being the heretic. If I were to say what I believed— namely, that the scientific evidence for evolution was so overwhelming that I could no longer take seriously the literalist view— I would receive a stern reprimand, and be told not to question God’s Word. After all, Satan was the first being to ask an interpretive question, according to the literalist view of Genesis. Would I want to be identified with the worst figure in Scripture?
Of course, this was all a bit much for my younger mind to handle. I can remember, quite vividly, reading a book about the evolution of dinosaurs late one night. I fell asleep while reading it (as was, and still is, my habit) and had a dream wherein I was faced with blackness all around me, and nothing but an enormous, planet-sized human skull in front of me. In the dream, I had a disastrous realization that it was my skull. I would die one day. When I woke, I sobbed. I could not shake the conviction that I needed to follow the truth wherever it led; but I also knew that there exists a God. I could not reconcile the two. I thought that my disbelief in literalism would banish me to hell.
I wonder how many young Christian children are put under the same existential crises because of the push to believe in literalism about the Genesis narrative. People in the conservative church are taught that they ought to believe God’s Word; and that’s alright with me. But those same people are all-too-often taught that God’s Word perfectly aligns with a literal interpretation, and they are not given the necessary tools to distinguish between what is literal, and what is archetypal.
When children from these churches become college students, they enter a world in which their beliefs are open for questioning and criticism. Many of these students, once they discover the reality of the scientific data supporting the theory of evolution, the age of the universe, etc., choose one of two things: either to abandon Christianity entirely as nothing more than superstition, or to cling to literalism and refuse to believe what they are being taught. And I’m afraid that the conservative church has often taught people to do the latter. After all, if you believe in evolution, you cannot believe in creation; and if you do not believe in creation, you deny God; and if you deny God, you spend eternity in hell. Only by adhering to literalism can a person be saved. It is the gospel of the modern evangelical church.
It wasn’t until I began to seriously study theology and philosophy that I understood that the church hadn’t always been that way. Once, inimitable defenders and disciples of Christianity had taken the position that the Genesis narrative was archetypal, telling the truth through a kind of “fiction” in a way that no literal narrative ever could. Among them were Justin Martyr, Theophilus of Antioch, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Cyprian, St. Augustine, to name only a few. These heavyweights of Christendom seemed to be taking a position that was synchronous with mine, but which remained radically outside of the bounds of the fundamentalism in which I had been raised.
With such great thinkers and saints to open up the possibility of alternative explorations of Genesis, I began to discover truths far deeper than those I could have mined from the literalism of my childhood church services. The Bible is not a simple text; rather, it is an incomparable vast trove of immense wealth of truth, goodness, and beauty. I felt as though a weight had been lifted. No longer did I need to repent for my doubts. Instead, I thanked the Lord for them. They enabled me to gain new insight, and to shatter dogmatic confinements which would have rendered me incapable of pursuing any sort of effective method of Christian apologetics in the future.
I rediscovered the wonder of existence itself, even. The evolutionary tree, unbroken for nearly 3 billion years, was staggeringly complex and beautiful to me. While some think that if we were descended from primates, we could not possibly have been made in the image of God, what I began to see was that God has no constraints of time, or material. If God so desired, why should He not have created us over the course of eons, through the incredible process we call evolution? The self-evident teleology of the natural order served as an indicator that God designed it. The sheer unlikelihood of evolution was not evidence against evolution itself; rather, it was evidence that there was a divine force at play, giving the evolution of life purposeful direction, divinely ordained. The artistic wonder of evolution was far more beautiful to me than the cartoonish, flannel-board-esque literalism of my childhood.
But I know that not every child’s story turns out that way. Many children, to this very day, in an age of overwhelming scientific evidence for evolution, and none against it, must feel utterly trapped within the literalism of their churches. When these children go to school, and sit in science classes, they are taught to assume that the teachers are not Christians, and must be blind to the truth. (After all, if they were Christians, they would teach young-earth creationism, despite the utter lack of evidence for it.) Those children stubbornly refuse to cave to the scientific evidence, because to do so would be equivalent to denying God, according to the fundamentalist adults.
For those who have read this far: take a moment to consider that fundamentalist literalism may not be the way that God intended for you to read Genesis. Perhaps there is deeper, archetypal, primal truth hidden within, but you have to actively seek it. Consider that evolutionists may have compelling scientific evidence to back their claims, and that such evidence need not interfere with one’s belief in a God who created all things. Ask yourself whether, if you were given sufficient evidence, you would accept the theory of evolution; and, if not, ask why you would not. And if you cannot let go of literalism, at least allow your children to decide for themselves whether they want to believe your narrative, or whether they want to discover the truth independently.
(The following is a clip I rather like. While I am by no means a fan of Richard Dawkins’ atheism, he is a remarkably intelligent biologist, and is knowledgeable in his own domain. This is, I think, a beautiful thing, to bring an evolutionary biologist into a religious setting, and to expose children to the realities of the scientific world. They can make their own choices to believe the evidence or not; but to shelter them is to destroy them.)