“If I may end on a more personal note. . . “ (on evolution and Christian faith)

Posted by PeteEnns on October 26, 2015 in Christianity and evolution The Evolution of Adam 34 Comments

evolution of adamLast Friday I gave the Religion and Civil Society lecture at the annual meeting of the Institute for the Study of Christianity and Culture at Michigan State University on “Reconciling Human Origins and Religious Faith: Thoughts from a Christian Evolutionist.” (Go Wolverines . . . uh, I mean Spartans.)

Many thanks to Malcolm D. Magee (director of ISCC) for the invitation to speak and to his assistant Kristin Whitwam for making everything run smoothly despite my best efforts to be difficult.

Thanks, too, for all the wonderful people who came out to dialogue about evolution and Christian faith.  You remind me why I do this and why this is anything but a dead topic!

I spoke for an hour from a manuscript, which I almost never do (the manuscript part . .. going on for an hour is easy peasy for a wordy guy like me), and complete with all sorts of impressive PowerPoint slides.

Below is the concluding portion, and I thought I’d share it with you.


If I may end on a more personal note, my own journey has taken some turns over the last ten years or so, that have collectively influenced how I look at questions like the Bible and evolution and many, many others. This journey involves both personal and professional experiences.

I have come to believe that the life of Christian faith is not fundamentally “rational,” by which I mean faith in God is necessarily trans-rational (not anti-rational) but not “captureable” by our minds. It’s mysterious. It’s mystical. After all, this is a faith that calls upon its adherents to “participate in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).

It proclaims God as the creator of all there is, and the more we learn about that creation, the more we are—or should be—at a loss for words. A universe that is about 14 billion years old and 100 billion light years across, containing billions of galaxies—the closest one to ours is 2.5 million light years away—with each galaxy containing billions of stars—the closest one being 4.2 light years (= about 25 trillion miles) away. At the other end of the spectrum are subatomic particles—the very phrase defies comprehension—and now we hear of string theory and the multiverse (or meta-universe).

If God exists, what can any of us possibly add to the conversation? The God who did this is the one we are aiming to understand. So, “mystery” seems to be an operative category for thinking about theology.

Two pillars of the Christian faith express this mystery: incarnation and resurrection. I see these two elements as making Christianity what it is, and both dodge thought and speech. I don’t mind saying I find it strangely comforting that walking the path of Christian faith means being confronted moment by moment with what is counterintuitive and ultimately beyond my comprehension to understand or even articulate.

Maybe we really do walk by faith and not by sight; maybe childlike trust, rather than a frenzied ironing out of all the details, is the way to walk this journey.

Rather than seeking finality and certainty, which cripples the Bible/evolution debate, I have come to believe that periods of not-knowing—even doubt—are such common experiences of faith, including within the Bible, that there is something even necessary to be learned from such periods.

I feel it is part of the mystery of faith that things normally do not line up, and so when they don’t, it is not a signal to end the journey but evidence that you are on one.

It may appear that we are now far a field of our topic, the Bible and evolution, but not for me—and I suspect many of you. These (and other) notions I just highlighted describe my own spiritual journey, and if I may be direct, being on a journey like this relieves me of much handwringing over the Bible, while also opening up for me an intellectually and spiritually rich life of faith—though rarely a comfortable one.

The irony of all this can perhaps be summed up as follows, and I conclude with this: Searching for a meaningful theological appropriation of the Bible in view of evolution can bring us to examine more closely our theological assumptions and assertions rather than resting in them. And it seems to me this journey can bring us closer to God rather than further away.

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  • Sheila Warner

    I just finished this book. My spiritual legs felt a bit wobbly after. But I’m finding that my daily reading of the Bible is suddenly feeling deeper. I guess I’m not quite as wobbly as I thought? Or perhaps my filter is being tuned up as I read. It’s pretty cool.

  • Paul Bruggink

    Your final paragraph sums up my personal experience well.

    • Jim

      Thanks for posting for me, Paul.

  • http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/ Richard Beck

    This is pretty awesome. Thank you.

  • Clayton

    Most Christians see no conflict between science and religion, and the more religious the person the less likely they are to see a conflict.


  • gapaul

    What I find myself pondering these days is that this is a fairly common journey — from Christian fundamentalism to the embrace of mystery. But if one begins with mystery as a starting point, why choose Christianity?

    • Lars

      I think most people that begin with mystery, stay with mystery, and are comfortable there. Or at least more comfortable there than with the certainty that religion often tries to provide.

    • Andrew Dowling

      Because many believe Christianity provides a solid framework for that mystery. Of course, if one’s view of Christianity is the standard megachurch evangelical variant, then yes I don’t see the appeal of that for someone starting out with an acknowledgment of the mystery; unless they hate that and want pseudo-certainty!

  • Hill Roberts

    Shared your closing remarks Pete on my FB page. You are speaking for so many more walking a very similar journey. Especially me. Thanks.

  • Steve Watson

    Yes. This reminds me of comments I heard Phyllis Tickle make in a speech about a year before her death. She talked about a faith that could handle the immense largeness of the universe(s) as well as the absolutely stunning smallness of things. Pushing us away from a big-me certainty and towards a small-me humble mystery.

  • Derek

    Thanks Peter, it’s always refreshing to read your posts. I too find something almost perverse about a wholly “rational faith”. Although, I wouldn’t go as far as to say Christianity is in essence a mystery. There are fundamental components that certainly are rational and intelligible. Likewise, there are components that are transcendent and thus shrouded in mystery. I think we need that balance. I think we need to speak when it comes to the gospel, salvation, etc. because after all, Christianity is not only a great mystery but also a great revelation.

    • Pete E.

      “There are fundamental components that certainly are rational and intelligible.” Such as?

      • Steve Thomas

        I suppose it depends upon what you mean wrt rational and intelligible. If you’re writing, speaking and thinking about something, a rational process is at work. To come to faith (or as Tillich puts it, to be “grasped by” faith) is not a matter of rationality, eg the revelation that “God is” or that “Jesus is the Christ.” But I find it difficult to see how what we do with that revelation is anything but rational. As you say above:

        “Rather than seeking finality and certainty, which cripples the Bible/evolution debate, I have come to believe that periods of not-knowing—even doubt—are such common experiences of faith, including within the Bible, that there is something even necessary to be learned from such periods. I feel it is part of the mystery of faith that things normally do not line up, and so when they don’t, it is not a signal to end the journey but evidence that you are on one. …. These (and other) notions I just highlighted describe my own spiritual journey, and if I may be direct, being on a journey like this relieves me of much handwringing over the Bible, while also opening up for me an intellectually and spiritually rich life of faith—though rarely a comfortable one.”

        What you are describing sounds very much like a rational process.

      • Derek

        Such as: God is holy, and we as human beings, are not.

        • Pete E.

          The holy? You mean the mysterium tremendum? If anything is not “captureable” by our rational minds, that’s it.

          • Derek

            Thanks professor 😉

            Although, I think we can be a more down-to-earth. Basically, a sober minded, rational individual would be able to grasp the idea that humans are not so righteous and holy. Then we could demonstrate to our unbelieving friends that the Bible teaches God is so holy and righteous – and this is a problem for our non-Christian friends. This would open the door for the proclamation of the gospel.

          • Andrew Dowling

            But what is “holy” . . .that’s a whole debate (within and outside the Bible) in and of itself.

          • Derek

            I forgot to add: Now, do I exhaustively comprehend God’s holiness? Of course not, but I don’t think we have to in order to get the message across. :)

          • Pete E.

            I think I get you. I think you might be reading me as saying we can knowing “noting” and that faith is completely irrational. I didn’t say that, though.

            In another context, though, I would challenge that conviction of sin is a rational process.

  • http://www.ontoxenos.wordpress.com/ Nathan Eyland

    I like what you wrote. Too many people are having irrational and emotionally charged arguments about the existence of God. In my humble experience, there is often a hurt behind hatred. The better question is to ask,(which should be the pastoral way of responding), is ‘how has someone claiming to be Christian hurt you? and is there something I can do about that?’ because often in our arguing we often just give out more hurts and that takes people further away from discovering any ‘trans-rational’ truths about God.

    • Pete E.

      That’s a great point, Nathan.

  • Michigan22

    I was up there in East Lansing to hear your talk. Thanks for coming to the Mitten State and sharing your wisdom! Your insights feed my heart as well as my mind.

  • http://drybonesdenver.org Robbie Goldman

    I love your positioning of incarnation and resurrection in this discussion it prompted me to think how they surround the definitive display of God’s love and character on the cross.

  • AHH

    I was moved by your wise words, but then I noticed how you said the nearest galaxy was 2.5 million light-years away. The Large Magellanic Cloud is actually about 160,000 light-years away. So your writing is not inerrant, and therefore you can’t possibly have anything valuable to say. 😉

    • Pete E.

      Heretic. That is a mere satellite of the Milky Way.

      • AHH

        I see — the Magellanic Clouds aren’t really galaxies. Just like the “firmament” isn’t really firm, and “formed” in Gen 2:19 really means “had formed”, and “Joseph” in one of the genealogies really means Mary.
        I repent of forgetting how easy it is to maintain such an inerrancy concept; not really much twisting of words required …

  • Glenna Ganster

    I loved this post – thank you. And it gives me the courage to ask this question: how can I overcome the fear I’ve developed about reading the bible since I started reading books like yours (“The Bible Tells Me So”) and Derek Flood’s “Disarming Scripture”, which have exposed me to questions I was always too afraid to even form, but were lurking in my heart? I’m a recovering Beth Moore/Kay Arthur bible study devotee, and these days I’m cringing over what all I thought the bible was “completely clear” about. I never allowed myself to question pretty much anything in scripture, but now I’m a little overwhelmed. Any thoughts? Or does my question even make sense?

    • oldpastor

      The fundamentalism I was raised in does have a dose of idolatry. Identifying the Word of God with all the words in an ancient mixture of manuscripts almost amounts to worshipping a book. We were always warned against believing that the Bible only contains the Word of God. But the Bible itself teaches that God’s Word is the power that created the universe. God’s Word is God acting: saving, preserving, glorifying, and, yes, even damning people. Lists of kings, numbers of soldiers in an army, etc., are not the all-poweful Word of God. They are part of the ancient framework in which it is (not was) given. The Word of God is that which brings us Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. The intelligent use of critical scholarship which we see in Dr Enn’s work does not destroy the Bible. It clears the mists of time and culture and brings us Jesus. (If I weren’t a Lutheran I’d shout Hallelujah! Instead I will whisper, Thanks be to God.)

  • IICapn

    How much has Eastern Orthodoxy contributed to your thinking, and if so, are you thinking of converting?

  • Pete E.

    I understand your frustration, David, and I give people room here to voice it. But you don’t really think this is my little agenda, do you? You can disagree, but there is little I say here that is really anything new.

    • David Bishop

      Questions of size and authorship are irrelevant, Peter. You wouldn’t conduct a poll and count heads to judge whether you like the taste of chocolate, would you? Who cares how many others agree with you then? Your opinion is still an agenda and it is a question begging one. These two facts are indisputable.

      • Pete E.

        I think you misunderstand my point, David. Apart from the fact that we all have agendas (including you), this is not about taking a random poll, but of listening to learned men and women, whose views I am simply distributing as a biblical scholar myself. You are, of course, free to respond as you see fit, and God bless you in your travels.

  • Chris Falter

    Hi Pete, I appreciate the blog post. Is your presentation up on YouTube or Vimeo, or posted as a *.mp3 somewhere?