This past spring, I was able to share with a group of christian middle school kids how we, as a family, have come to understand evolution and integrate it into our faith. I love to talk to adult friends about our evolving universe, and all the theological implications that renders. But, I think the more important conversations are with the children.
When we hope for little bits of magic as children— whether it’s Narnia closets, Whoville worlds nestled into dandelion flowers, big foot in the backwoods, or even a perfect garden with two uber humans walking around next to lions, dinosaurs, and talking snakes— these are stories that shape some part of our brains to believe there are dimensions or spaces that exist that we cannot fully see (quantum physicists must be the very best kind of adults to be around).
Stories can be true without being, well, true. Horton Hears a Who is not a literal story, but it is one of my very favorites because it is packed with truth. There are a billion tiny worlds inside our world. Are we caring for them well? Are we fighting for them? Do we even see them? Or do icebergs 46 times the size of San Fransisco have to float away to catch our attention1?
Without engaging evolution, the Bible, and all the questions that pour out from those two things in tandem, we hack the beauty of creation off at the knees. When Sunday school classes assume from the start that all the kids are ready to push the magic out of the garden and make it a real, factual, this-actually-happened story, we’ve perpetuated a facet of the problem that has pushed most millennials to leave church already. Christians are really good at de-mystifying the Bible. We make it unbelievable in our need to make it so damn clear.
I was thrilled (like, I can't even tell you how excited) to be given the opportunity to talk to Niamh’s class about the Bible and evolution. First, I was thankful for an open minded facilitator who invited the marginal view into her classroom to be spoken about in a positive way. Second, I wanted the kids, more than anything in those 20 minutes I blabbed, to hear an adult give them permission to explore and ask questions and doubt, too. I wanted them to hear me say I accept evolution and I love Jesus.
In three specific places, evolution continues to increase my love and understanding of God. These are the places I talk excitedly about God to Niamh and Philly:
We love a God who spent unfathomable time invested in creation before we ever showed up on the scene (so get a little humble ya’ll). He is an artist in the truest, truest sense of the word and reveals himself in canyon walls, flower petals, flash floods, dusty dessert, storms on Jupiter, solar flares, dying stars, imagination, nerve endings, birth, death, new life, good books, sidewalks, iced coffee, dark chocolate, a silly puppy, great novels, muslims, jews, nones, gays, women and men alike, children, neanderthals, transitional species, T Rex, dark matter, and even suffering. Christ is in everything2.
I’ve sat in a Sunday group and listened to someone equate chance with purposelessness. The only thing I think that type of statement shows is a lack of knowledge on the subject. Chance is a beautiful, necessary freedom of creation. Without it, you and I wouldn’t be here. Creation tells us who God is (Romans 1:20), so I think God embraces chance— the freedom and growing potential of it all. “Evolution is a dynamic process toward greater complexity that requires chance, law, and deep time. It tells us that change is integral to life, or rather, that without real change there is no real life. Life unfolds from simple structures to complex systems, and this development is not entirely predictable; chance is integral to change” (Ilia Delio, The Emergent Christ).
Finally, we are co-creators in a connected universe. This is a great story to invite your kids into. It means we are not drawing away from the world or trying to get back to a perfect, locked up garden or just trying to make it to heaven. Heaven is already here, and it should be our greatest joy to care for and love this inter-connected world now. Christians should be raising all the tree huggers. We should be on the front lines of every effort to save and protect our earth.
This week, I stood in the checkout line of the grocery store, and an older lady asked who was tattooed on my arm. I smiled and said, “Darwin.” She must have seen my other religious tattoos because she moved away tentatively and said, “Well isn’t that a bit of a contradiction?” I smiled and said I believe in God and accept evolution, that I think they are both good together. Then the teenage cashier who was scanning all my items got super excited and burst out with, “so do I!” And he went back and forth with this 70+ year old lady about human evolution, how we adapt and overcome, and continue to evolve. She said she knew how it worked, she knew where she came from, and she didn’t see humans emerging from any green pools. It was a funny exchange to watch, the teenage boy excitedly talking about science and the older woman who wasn't budging with her bible story. I had a thousand things I wanted to say, but I knew it wasn’t really the place or time to engage the woman on the intersection of her faith and modern science. I left by offering her the name of an author she might enjoy reading on the subject. She said, “I guess we’ll all find out someday” with a smile.
The older woman was kind, gentle, and stubborn. I liked her boldness and how she tempered it well with softness in her voice. Her responses, however, were learned, probably from a well-meaning, God-loving leader who was also ill-informed and probably scientifically-challenged. She had so little understanding of evolution. The cashier kept trying to tell her “you need more time” and “you can’t see it happening right in front of you.” But all she knew was that no half human is walking out of the South Jersey marsh, so evolution isn’t real.
Here are some interesting stats:
% of Americans with purely evolutionary view (no God): 19%, up from only 9% in the 1980’s3.
% of Americans who hold literal, young earth creationist view: 38%, down from 46% in 20123.
% of Americans who affirm human evolution (God-guided or not): 57%3
The percentage of people who hold an evolutionary view increases with formal education.3
Largest religious group in America: The ones who are unaffiliated with religion (also called “nones”) at 25%4
% of “nones” who believe in some sort of higher power: 59%4
These statistics seem to indicate that religious people have (generally and for quite sometime) not done a good job integrating science and faith. We largely get our evolution knowledge from resources slanted at disproving it in the first place. Evolution is put in opposition to our bible story from the get go. And in the process of debunking Darwin, Christians invite science lovers to leave our church communities. In fact, we push them out the door with foolish responses like “I don’t see any humans evolving now.” Those learned-from-Christian-textbook responses only do a good job of showing people how uneducated we are about evolution.
This is why Phil and I speak to our kids over and over about an evolutionary God. We want them to have the understanding and matching vocabulary that speaks to God’s beauty found within the process that the overwhelming majority of scientists today affirm.
Sometimes I think what holds us back the most is the fear that once we give an inch to evolution, it maligns our bibles in some way. It takes this perfect book that God whispered into the ears of humans long ago and makes it grey whereas we prefer it black and white. We cannot raise children with a tendency to save their bibles at the expense of engaging the world around them. Our bibles can handle our doubts, fears, questions, and shiftings. All these things are within its pages already. Abraham. Jonah. Ecclesiastes. Job. Go look. We’re in good company.
Three easy places to start the conversation are deep time, chance, and connectivity.
First, get comfortable with crazy amounts of time. Artists need time. Creators invest in their work by sitting with it, allowing it to move forward on its own volition, giving it the space and care to unfold.
Talk to your kids positively about the word “chance.” Maybe reorient yourself first, because this is a biggie that is used in our churches to undermine evolution. Chance does not mean that God is at the mercy of creation. He is not not in control. It’s bigger than that…God is the newest thing5. He is moving alongside us, in freedom and expectation. Chance indicates possibility. It is the potential energy of the universe awaiting arrival.
Finally, draw them into the world as caretakers and activists to protect it— because it is deeply connected to their actual existence. Encourage children to find heaven now. Invite them into co-creating with God through care and protection of their environment.
These places are easy thresholds to cross and when we do, we've embraced a bigger story for ourselves, our children, and the universe. Obviously, there will be some theological fall-outs for literal bible readers, but theology should be shifting and surprised and even flipped from time to time. Or else you’ve grasped God already— and that, I think, might be the most dangerous territory of all.
"Evolution occurs because God is more interested in adventure than in preserving the status quo."
1. Here’s the Size of the Huge New Antarctic Iceberg...
2. Colossians 3:11
3. In US, Belief in Creationist View of Humans at New Low
4. Exodus: Why Americans are Leaving Religion—and Why They’re Unlikely to Come Back
5. The Emergent Christ, Ilia Delio
Resources we’ve used to celebrate God in evolution with our kids:
Our Family Tree: An Evolution Story
Darwin and Evolution for Kids
Evolution (this one was mostly for Phil and I to help explain aspects of evolution to them, but it has great skeleton pictures they enjoyed)