It’s been nearly ten years since I was graciously offered a full scholarship to participate in what I affectionately called “science camp”. About twenty pastors spent a week on a small island off the coast of Vancouver, BC eating organic meals, debriefing a host of pre-reading we’d done, including one of my now favorite books, “Lives of a Cell: Notes of Biology Watcher” by Lewis Thomas. Heated discussions erupted over the course of the week because all our leaders were there to point us away from young earth literalism and toward theistic evolution. Some were readily convinced, and others rose up to resist.
I came away far less dogmatic about the length of time in the Genesis One creation narrative, but far, far more comfortable with the notion of evolution and adaptation as a means whereby our amazing planet has blossomed to its current levels of biodiversity, eco-interdependency, and just outright beauty. When science camp was over, I preached a 4 part series on Genesis 1 and 2, followed by a panel discussion of scientists who were also Christians. These fine people answered questions from attenders whose mindset ranged from feeling threatened, to the warm embrace of “finally – permission to think AND believe!” from someone who grew up believing these two paradigms to be antagonistic.
As for me, my biggest take-away from the conference was the realization that my own movement, in light of further evidence, away from a strictly literalist approach to the seven day creation narrative of Genesis one was, itself, a form of ‘faith evolution’. Both mind and heart were confronted with previously unseen evidence, and I adapted, moved, evolved, as a result – or at least my faith did.
Since that time I’ve come to believe that this adaptive mindset is truly a hallmark of what it means to follow Jesus. We grow, we’re faced with new evidence, we wrestle, we let go of old views or practices, we embrace new ones. These new things themselves, change us so that we grow still more, are faced with yet more revelation, wrestle with it, adapt, embrace, and move yet again. When the fruit of these kinds of movements leads to a greater love for others, and oneself, a greater peace and generosity, a gentleness of spirit rather than combativeness, and a deeper love of Jesus, I think we can rest assured that the fruit is from Christ.
All of us are in need of that kind of continual evolution, but there are strains of the Christian religion that exist more as turf defenders than curious saints on an ongoing journey of transformation. Their lives are defined by anxiety, fear of disappointing God (and other authority figures), and a boatload of blind prejudice to their own shortcomings, along with historical amnesia about the ‘big C’ church’s failings down through the centuries. Those who grow up with this defensive mode of faith sometimes have a hard time “breaking good”, by breaking away from its legalistic forms. They continue to parrot the faith of their parents, all the while terrified of missing God’s will, wondering if they’ve prayed enough, served enough, given enough, to warrant God’s favor.
There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Christ-followers who, having grown up in this defensive posture, have had the courage to follow Christ into an evolved faith – a faith that’s more gracious, less certain, more nuanced, less defensive, more hospitable, less afraid.
Elizabeth Jeffries memoir “Through the Kaleidoscope” is just such a journey. Her subtitle is “How Exploring Cell Biology Transformed My Relationship with God”. With disarming authenticity, she shares her faith journey from her evangelical fundamentalist roots, to her current faith posture, as much in love with Jesus as ever (actually more so), but now with a deeper embrace of mystery, the power of community, and a warm embrace of her own evolving identity – spirit, soul, and body.
Her theological shift was the outgrowth of her work as a research scientist. One after another, her simplistic and reductionist views of biology collapsed in light of further knowledge. The views that came out more fully formed on the other side were deeper, but also infused with a bit of mystery in many cases. She applied this depth of discovery to her faith and found a similar result: deeper, but infused with a bit of mystery
The practical outworkings of her evolved faith bear the marks of authentic faith:
better body image
less performance anxiety related to both faith and work
more capacity to enjoy her full identity: scientist, Christ-follower, woman
…and much more.
You needn’t be a scientist to enjoy the book, but it will help if you bring a curiosity, theological honesty and vulnerability, and willing to lay down your theological weapons so that you can read with an open mind. Those who do will find their faith evolving, as Paul says, “from glory to glory”, which is what we all want anyway! Or at least I hope we do!