I have all kinds of beliefs. Beliefs about religion, parenting, politics, music, traffic patterns and what I look like in plaid. Other people have their own beliefs, and believe it or not, they have the gall to differ from my own beliefs much of the time.
To help my mind wrap some structure around this, I break down my beliefs into two levels:
Level One -- Things I believe but my world won't get rocked if I turn out to be wrong. I don't really shape my life around any of these beliefs -- they're just superficial and small things most of the time. For example, I believe that Roger Clemens used steroids and human growth hormone. But it doesn't affect my life whether I'm wrong or right. That's my level one.
Level Two -- Things I believe and am willing to shape my life around. Even if I can't empirically prove that my belief is correct, I will still hold to it and act accordingly. For example, I believe that my wife loves me. Can't prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt, but I've based much of my life on the assumption that the belief is true. This is my level two, and I have very few things at this level.
Not long ago I heard that one of our bible classes at church would be on the topic of science, creation, evolution... stuff I've studied before and found fascinating. A few years ago I taught a class on science and faith, bringing up quantum physics, electromagnetism, even light refraction. I thought this would be something similar.
I was surprised when the class was actually being done using the materials from Ken Ham, builder of the creation museum in Tennessee. The more I dug into his material, the more I realized that it doesn't really matter if my scientific research and ideas don't match his. Because we don't even rate the issue at the same level.
This is all level two to Ken Ham. He's a new earth creationist, a literal interpreter of Genesis chapter 1, and if somehow we prove that the earth is more than 6,000 years old then you can throw the whole bible away. That's his stance. If you leave room in your faith for the idea that the earth may be millions or billions of years old, then you aren't a Christian. And you're on the slippery slope to becoming a machine-gun toting, rampaging atheist. I'm not exaggerating. Explore the link if you doubt it.
To the teacher's credit in our bible class, he did not present this type of attitude. And most of the people in the room didn't seem to believe in a literal reading of Genesis 1, and were merely there to be a personal support to the teacher. So I give them all high praise for avoiding the radical fundamentalism on the issue of evolution that still appears to be alive and well in America.
Here's how I break down my ideas on evolution and creationism:
1) I believe that the earth is old. Really old. Much older than 6,000 years. I don't believe that the Grand Canyon was formed in a matter of months, that the deep fossil records are there to trick us, or that we walked side by side with dinosaurs. But it won't rock my world if I end up being wrong on this one.
2) I believe that evolution happens, and is happening now. I believe it's simply a natural process that inherently passes genetic information most advantageous to survival in a given environment. You can look up stories for the changing coloration of moths, as they either blend in better with a changing landscape (e.g. buildings that get darker and dirtier by the year) or a dangerous predator (e.g. light-colored moths get eaten by birds while the darker ones avoid detection). Does this "micro evolution" answer for the incredible species variation on our planet, and does it explain how an amoeba could eventually become a human after billions of years of changes? Not sure. Doesn't particularly bother me; this is still my level one stuff.
3) I believe the fact that we can use a telescope to see the light from stars in other galaxies, millions of light years away, is not a trick. It took millions of years for that light to reach us, and for us to see it. Another reason I think the earth is old. But I won't take on a friend through intense debate if he disagrees.
4) That's enough science stuff. I could get really geeky and go off for a while on these, but they're all level one.
1. I believe that the Ken Ham approach to this issue is not only irresponsible, but downright harmful and totally ignorant of the history of Christianity. It smacks of exactly the type of fundamentalism that has dealt harsh blows to the church time and time again:
-- In the decades following the death of Jesus, many Christians quit their jobs and waited for Jesus to return again. Because Jesus said things like, "Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who shall not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom." (Matthew 16:28). And, "This generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place." (Luke 21:32). They thought it was clearly spelled out and took a literal view of those statements.
--In the 19th Century, some of Abraham Lincoln's biggest opponents to emancipation were Christians. They were using the bible as their proof that God sanctioned the practice of slavery, and even that black people were condemned to slavery as part of the curse of Ham in Genesis 9. There are some of these groups still in existence today. They take a literal view of passages like Ephesians 6 to argue that God approves of slavery and that we should restart the practice in the 21st Century United States.
Why Christians pick battles such as these, I'm not sure. We never really picked "flat earth" as a battleground throughout the Middle Ages, when science was saying the earth is undoubtedly round. How could that be, when the bible says things like "the ends of the earth" in Ezekiel 7:2, Isaiah 11:12 and Job 37:3. How can a round ball have ends and corners? Yet history doesn't record Christians making a fuss of this issue.
2. I believe that the fundamentalist approach to creationism is harmful regardless of which group may be proven right. Let's assume for a moment that in the year 2045, humanity finally proves the exact age of the earth. Either:
a. The evolutionists were right and the earth is billions of years old. New earth Christians like Ken Ham are left looking completely foolish, just like the 1st Century and 19th Century Christians who clung to their literalist views.
b. The new earth creationists were right and the earth is 6,000 years old. Even if this happens, will non-believers flock to the Ken Hams of the world, men who have used their beliefs as a way to attack doubters and divide the church? Somehow I doubt it, and I feel that it's the everyday, tender-hearted Christian who would become a sought-after friend by confused atheists and agnostics.
Although the science is fascinating, none of that is level two, stake-my-life-on-it belief. The only thing I will fight is the idea that somebody has to believe a particular age of the earth to qualify as a Christian. I don't believe that Jesus taught that type of exclusivity. And I'm staking my soul on it, apparently, since I'm daring to believe something other than a literal Genesis 1.