I did something good today, and I'm proud of it. I was asked to sit on a "panel" in a bible class at our church with three other men to discuss an explosive and often-divisive topic: evolution. Really the topic was science in general, but evolution has been the primary topic of that class. I've written about it here before -- just search "evolution" in the search bar above and you'll find those old articles.
Anyway, this class has continued but I haven't been able to participate because I've been teaching a class of my own for the past five months. Then this panel idea came up.
At first I was excited, but over the past week or so I'd been getting more and more nervous. I discovered that all three of the other panel members are young-earth creationists, believing that a 6,000 year-old earth is an essential foundation of the Christian faith. I don't personally hold to that view. It felt like I was walking into a very dangerous situation. In the end, though, it went very well and several people came up to me after class to say they appreciated my contribution.
Below is what I said this morning. Yes, it's pretty close to verbatim -- my memory is freaky like that. After that, I'll post something humbling to balance things out.
Question 1 -- Why are you here on the panel? What is your interest in this topic?
I have no professional training in science -- I was just a dumb business major in college. I'm here probably for the same reason many of you are here listening this morning; I just love this stuff. Science fascinates me, and I love discovering and learning more about how our universe works.
Because of that, my favorite branch of science is physics, since they ask the absolute biggest questions -- what the world is made of, how it works, what are the forces at work around us, and so on. Those big questions are so leading-edge, and the theories often so unproven, that it brings with it a big dose of humility. The people who inspire me are the expected former legends of physics like Einstein and Neils Bohr, but there are scientists today like Brian Greene and Sylvester Gates who are equally brilliant yet still able to communicate to average people like me. I read these guys' books and see them speak in person whenever possible. Like I said, I just love this stuff.
Question 2 -- What is your definition of "evolution"?
Well, my answer is different than those you've heard from the other men here, but when I say "evolution" I'm just talking about the process of species changing over time due to natural selection. It's happening in our world right now, and I'd bet that everyone in the room agrees. Here, I can test it -- would anybody here give their children the flu shot from 10 years ago? Probably not, because the virus changes ever year, and the CDC tries to keep its flu shot relevant to the currently active strains. So things are constantly changing.
Even Ken Ham (the author of the book being used in bible class) agrees that evolution is a part of the picture. Let's take his view of Noah's ark, a literal event a few thousand years ago when only a maximum of 1,000 species survived the flood. And yet today there are over a million species on our planet. His explanation is that right after the flood, God started a super-fast form of evolution, turning one species of primate into 20 in just a few generations. One dog breed became hundreds.
So both sides agree that evolution has happened and is still happening, it's just a debate over the speed that animals evolved in the past. That's all I mean by evolution. The origin of man is a different issue for me.
At this point a class member said the following -- "But if our adversaries hear us talk like that, won't it weaken our argument? If they think that in any way we agree with them then we'll appear weaker and will probably lose the debate. I think we need to tell them upfront that we don't agree with any of their stance on evolution."
This was my answer:
I don't want this to come off as a personal attack on what you just said, but I'd like to point out how differently I approach the issue itself, regardless of my conclusions on all of this.
You said words like "adversary", "debate", and "lose", and mentioned that we have to appear strong to win the argument. In my experience in speaking with scientists, this just isn't effective. A true dialogue requires me to first humble myself, put aside my judgment, and listen openly not only to the content of the speaker, but to the person himself. I need to hear where he's coming from and truly try to understand, and that can be a very vulnerable thing. It's not about strength -- strength doesn't work, at least when I've tried it. It shuts down any chance of two human beings actually having a discussion and impacting each other.
I always start with what I have in common with someone else -- always. I start with what we agree on, use that to build up a base of companionship, and then go from there into the differences with an open mind.
(The commenter came up to me after class and apologized, saying that his words didn't come out like he meant them to. We smiled, shook hands and were better for it.)
Question 3 -- How do you see science and faith working together in your life?
Wow, in a lot of ways, but first let me tell you where they don't work together for me. I think that at the very root level, deep inside my soul, science and faith answer different sets of questions.
Science seeks to answer the What/When/How of the universe. For example, on the issue of creation, science continues to examine and study what happened, when it happened, and how it happened. And if all of those things somehow get answered, although I don't think that will happen in my lifetime, they still aren't the most important questions to me, when it comes to creation.
The most important questions about creation, to me, are Who and Why. Science may someday answer a lot of the things we're discussing today, but it'll never provide a pupose for my life, the "Why" of my values and priorities. That is the arena of faith. So at the very deepest level, science and faith are attempting to answer different questions for me.
Above that deep level, though, there's all kinds of overlap. For example, one of my favorite bible passages is in Luke 1, when Mary sings a song of joy after being told she would give birth to Jesus. She said that her soul gives glory to God, and her spirit rejoices, and then she gives evidence after evidence of what God has done -- shown mercy here, given strength there, provided guidance over there. She rejoices because she looks around and sees God working.
That's how science and faith work together in my life. I read about the weird behavior of an electron and I give glory. I hear a speech about dark matter and I rejoice. It's just an amazing universe, and it's my pleasure to get glimpses of the creator by looking at things in new ways.
Question 4 -- Time is almost up, so in one or two sentences, please tell us why we should even discuss these topics, if they're not "salvation issues".
(The other three men, in their own ways, all disagreed with the question and said that belief about evolution is a salvation issue, because if we doubt Genesis 1 then we are doubting the whole bible. I kept my mouth shut and didn't mention the irony of a creedless church saying you have to believe in young earth creationism to be saved.)
I'll answer the question with another question -- if we can't discuss the important topics of the day with our fellow church members, then what are we doing here? Whatever stuff is inspiring us, challenging us or bothering us, like the financial crisis, should be discussed right here. I don't want to wrestle with life's toughest problems with strangers, I want to lean on my brother and sisters right here for those things.
So that was my morning. It was a lot of fun, althought I was terrified before it started.
And now, as promised, my dose of humility: