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The Elephant in the Empty Nave

During the Summer holiday, I walked through the door of an Anglican Church building I hadn’t been to previously, and the first thing that stood out for visitors was a collection of anti-evolution pamphlets. This church, the pamphlet collection screamed at anyone stepping through the door, sees accepting evolution as the source of many, many evils. If you accept evolution, your ideas will not be welcome here.

I’ve written before that, with shrinking church numbers, evolution is the elephant in the empty nave. Bishops and church leaders generally don’t publicly declare their acceptance of evolution, probably on the misunderstanding that even more of the shrinking numbers of pew-sitters will leave (rather than realising that it might lead to many other people beginning to explore faith).

Those who want to keep gender and sexuality uncomplicatedly binary can see denying the historicity of the early chapters of Genesis as threatening the Genesis 1:27 prooftext. They realise that the church hasn’t seemed to put much energy into thinking how evolution fits in with our beliefs about salvation. And if Paul and Jesus are seen to be wrong about Adam and Eve, at which point can we begin to be sure that they are right? What about the nature of being human? And so on…

On holiday, flicking through television channels, there are several Christian ones – the speakers all hold to everything in the Bible is history; everything in the Bible literally happened as written [even if the different speakers on different Christian channels cannot seem to agree with each other or form a single church].

Clearly, there is no room for a person like me in these churches: holding to science and logic, comfortable with uncertainty in some areas…

Not that all those who hold to evolution allow for room for Christian faith. There are anti-theists who use evolution as a weapon to attack faith in God. There are some who, tiresomely, reduce everything or attempt to reduce everything to an evolutionary lens. There are some who are tediously scientistic – that there is no truth unless it is scientifically proved.

And there is another issue I regularly address: applying the evolutionary model of “survival of the fittest” to our life, our relationships, our economics, and so forth. This short-term thinking, where profitability at all costs has become a primary driving force misses that survival is also of those who cooperate. The belief that people, organisations, and corporations acting solely with self-interest will somehow produce the best results – this is clearly destroying social fabric, individual lives, and, in fact, our environment, climate, and planet.

All this – many pitting science and faith against each other – has exacerbated the mistrust in science so dangerously manifest currently, especially in the response to Covid19. I do not accept science in spite of my Christian faith; I accept science because of my Christian faith. I hold to a universe which makes sense, is consistent, and can be systematically investigated because it is sourced in and sustained by a loving God. Accepting science takes faith, faith that what happened in the past will continue to happen in the future – that is the basis of the scientific method – and that this has always been the case in the past is no deductive proof that it will continue to happen into the future!

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7 thoughts on “Evolution <p> The Elephant in the Empty Nave”

  1. In my 40+ years of ordination I have watched the church shrink – every part of it. Those “large” Pentecostal churches of today would have been regarded as merely middle sized back in the day. And whereas I once regarded an average weekly attendance of 70 as the basic minimum for a viable church, I think two churches in my diocese would now fit that criterion. But what is more heartbreaking than numerical decline is the irrelevance of our church to our wider society.

    In the 80s when running children’s programmes in Hamilton we went to all the local schools to deliver fliers and confidently expected that about 10% of families would positively respond by sending their kids at least once. I doubt that if I tried it now the schools would even let me past the gate. We have become irrelevant because the message we preach is simply unbelievable. People still believe in God and the presence of the divine in their lives. People still want hope including a hope that persists after death.

    But our message is framed in the same way it has always been: of creation, fall, redemption and restoration. This pattern is the way our ancestors interpreted the gospel, using their mutually agreed understanding of the world to make the message of Christ known. But we now know there was never a time of antediluvian perfection. This isn’t a matter of religious belief, it is simple fact: the universe and everything in it (including us) appears to be in a process of evolution. Our far distant parents and their world weren’t once in a state of perfection, they were simply part of the process in which we ourselves are situated. So if there was no perfect creation there was no fall from that perfection and redemption simply cannot be the restoration of what once was, it must be something else. We have done little work in reframing our message, but keep on with the same old pattern. And anybody with an education passing about year three knows we are talking nonsense. Of course there will always be people who cling to the old framework, in the same way that there are people who think that vaccines cause autism or that Joe Biden stole the election.

    We have the life saving message of the life, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ to proclaim. But we continue to render that message unbelievable and irrelevant by clinging to the worldview of our ancestors.

    1. Thank you so much, Kelvin, for articulating that so clearly. As you know better than most, there are Eastern Christian models that are not framed in this “Original Sin” approach. There are ways of valuing metaphor and story, the apophatic and the contemplative, that do not depend on belief in an almighty sky-fairy and a simply fall-and-rise human timeline. Thank you again. Blessings.

      1. Further, Bosco, to my short message in response to that of Bishop Kelvin, might I sat that I, too, just would not fit into any congregation that is encouraged to subscribe to an anti-scientific, anti-evolution philosophy. In our modern world, there is just no excduse for such ignorance – especially from the teaching of any minister of the Gospel.

        Jesus’ Incarnate presence brought release from instituional ignorance, where pedantic adherence to the letter of the Law brough chaos into people’s lives while preventing them from using the intelligence that God bequeaths to all God’s children – irrespective of their background or ideology.

        One instance of the damage that can be done by a dogged unregenerate religious fundamentalism – and the outcome of such preaching – was seen in the U.S.A., where one of its renowned Evangelical preachers, has just admitted his error in promoting the sort of intellectually bankrupt cod-theology that led some of his followers to take part in the recent act of insurrection that brought violence against people sitting in the U.S.House of Representatives – egged on by former President Donald Trump and his fundamentalist followers.
        (see my article on kiwianglo for details) .

        That there are still ‘Christians’ who really believe that the Book of Genesis gives an historical account of Creation is really quite stunning. To think that the population of the whole world was brought into being from a single couple (Adam and Eve) is barely comprehensible in the light of scientific evidence of a plurality of peoples and races. The word ‘myth’ seems to be outlawed by the fundamentalists when, actually God uses it to give us an idea of God’s creative genius prefaced by the Gospel: “In The Beginning….”

        Perhaps this is one reason why Jesus, in His teaching, consistently reverted to parables rather than historically verifiable detail – requiring us to exercise our God-given gift of reason to work things out for ourselves, with the help of God’s indwelling Holy Spirit.

        What we need to remember, too, is this infinite mystery, that “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us”. He did not remain tied to ‘The Book’ – however valuable that is as a guide to God’s dealing with us. ‘The Book’ alone, could not have saved us. It took the Incarnate Word in Jesus Christ to do that.

        1. Thanks, Fr Ron.
          I’ve taken the liberty to add a clickable link into your comment directly to your own website.
          Unfortunately, “myth”, “metaphor”, “story”, and “symbol” are expressions that have been debased and devalued so that people think using those terms is derogatory whilst the profundity of Reality is often best accessed and expressed in those terms.

  2. ” I do not accept science in spite of my Christian faith; I accept science because of my Christian faith. I hold to a universe which makes sense, is consistent, and can be systematically investigated because it is sourced in and sustained by a loving God”

    Absolutely. Well said. Faith without reason is mere superstition. Reason without faith is madness.

    1. Thanks, Howard. I love that line: “Faith without reason is mere superstition. Reason without faith is madness.”

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