"How did these mountains come to be?"
It was a question my eight-year-old grandson, John, posed to me as we drove through the majestic Colorado Rockies. A scientific response began to formulate in my head, but before I had a chance to use it, the voice of a passenger in the back seat gave a definitive reply: "God did it."
John was silenced, but not answered. Knowing John, that question, with a stream of other questions, will come up again and again until he arrives at satisfying, viable answers.
"You really taught philosophy at North Park College for 30 years?
It was a question that a young college sophomore asked as he sat alongside me at a festive Easter dinner. Bill (I'll call him) knew that I had taught philosophy and seemed eager to pick my aging brain for some residual metaphysical truths.
"I have not taken philosophy," he continued, "but I'm very interested in it."
So, I thought to myself, would he want to talk about Hume's view of miracles, the recent horrible Heaven's Gate cult suicides, or possibly the ethical implications of the cloning of Dolly. The conversation rather went something like this:
"Some amazing Christian speakers have come to our campus lately. They were inspiring; they brought geology, paleontology, and biology — all together with the Scriptures. I have no confidence in the ideas of the unchristian teachers at my school. I probably won't be taking any philosophy courses. I believe with all my heart that the Bible is the absolutely true Word of God. By the way, what does North Park College hold on evolution?"
"Well, now, that was not exactly my area, and I have not been around the College, now a University, since 1990, so I can't speak for the School. I think, however, that science teachers there attempt to integrate creation faith with evolution. They accept the findings and dating techniques of respected scientists and maintain that God creates and works in an evolutionary way."
"Oh," he said. "I believe firmly in a 'young earth.' Scientific creationists show that the evidence for evolution is flawed. The Biblical account can be proved scientifically, you know."
"I have some question about that," I replied. "There is quite a gulf separating the biblical viewpoint and present day cosmology. We have to work hard to get back into the biblical world view, determine what they knew and didn't know, and then relate that to current understandings of the world, like the evolutionary processes."
"Yes, that's a problem, isn't it?"
I continued, "Why do you find a 'young earth' viewpoint necessary? What practical difference is it whether a Christian holds to a 'young earth' or accepts a really old 3.6 billion years old — earth?"1
"All the difference. Christian Faith stands or falls with the question of the age of the earth! Your 'old earth' destroys the idea that God created humans as we now are. I simply can't go along with the majority of scientists. Too, even some unchristian scientists hold to a 'young earth.'"
Since those conversations with John and Bill, I've wondered where the question of evolution, along with other questions of faith and science, are addressed in the church? Where, other than in a car or at the dinner table, might an honest discussion of the relationship between faith and science best occur?
Public schools? The history of legislation in this area is not promising. Legislation mandating that both creation theory and evolutionary theory be taught in the Arkansas and Louisiana schools was adopted in 1981 and then overturned a year later. In 1987, the Supreme Court ruled that the Louisiana legislation served a religious purpose and violated the separation of church and state. Hope for the integration of the two perspectives in the public schools seems bleak.
Church-related private schools perhaps? Wait till students take their first collegiate biology course? In a theological seminary course? Better than nothing, but it's already late for a first brush with the subject. Discussion should have already begun in Sunday school classes and around family tables.
The ideal time for serious discussion of evolution is, in my judgment, during confirmation. Confirmation, linked historically with the young person's wish to confirm, or not confirm, the faith claims made by his or her parents in infant baptism or dedication, provides an excellent occasion to have some serious discussion on this controversial topic."The head," the Pietists said "must be brought into the heart."2 The search for genuine integration of head knowledge and heart emotion must be encouraged and nourished.
The Covenant Book of Worship states the importance of confirmation in these words:
Christian education begins at birth and, ideally, continues until death. Adolescence represents one of the most critical stages of human development. It is the time when the young person is beginning the "work of youth" learning to think abstractly, developing sexually, discovering an identity. Therefore, it is particularly relevant to provide opportunity for a special Christian education encounter at this time.... While the call to new birth is one purpose of confirmation, it is not its only aim. For many who are reared in Christian homes, this period of study will represent the deepening of a commitment already made....Confirmation brings the pupil through several significant stages along the path of Christian maturity.3
The most important area of study, as dramatized by the usual gift of a fine Bible to the confirmands, is that of Biblical knowledge and instruction. Hermeneutics, though not a common subject either in confirmation or in church generally, is the one absolutely imperative tool and key to the proper understanding and use of our Sacred Book.
Hermeneutics, the art of interpreting ancient literature, is the recognition of the great time difference which exists between the old Bible and us. It means, for instance, to appreciate the difference between their three-decker, geocentric view and the vast galactic view of the cosmos we have today. We must jump that temporal gulf as we attempt to find what their historical and cultural situation was like, and to determine the meaning the message had for them in their day. Successfully jumping that gulf, we have to take a mighty return leap back to our own times and decide what possible significance the Biblical messages have for us today. Professor Kline Snodgrass of North Park Theological Seminary is correct when he says: Your hermeneutic is more important than your view of God. The reason behind his statement is that our Biblical beliefs are determined on the basis of the interpretive methodology, that is, the hermeneutic, we use as we come to study the Bible.
Confirmation, falling as it does at the time an adolescent faces developmentally the identity crisis, is the indisputably ideal time to level with our young folk. There are risks, but the risks are worth it; Christian integrity demands that we take them.
Technical interests, scientific knowledge of the earth, computer skills, and space age imaginations create tensions with the message of the church. Confirmation is a time when many difficult questions surface. Along with various other adolescent issues, young people question Biblical miracles and supernatural claims. One Covenant pastor I know, when asked during confirmation class how Jesus did all those miracles, responded simply by changing the subject.
But the subject must be neither ignored nor parried. Christian adults, as they deal with prospective members, must try their best to integrate the newest cosmology, biology, physics, and computer technology with the miracle claims of Faith.
Older Christians may not have the answers demanded, but we can at least make the point that life is a mystery, that scientists are researching into that mystery, and help is available in scientific journals, books, the Internet, and CD Roms. Today, scientists have better methods, superior equipment, and more experience, access, and training in scientific networking than ever before. The scientific community learns, like the rest of us, from mistakes and unsuccessful experiments. As non-scientists we give the best answers we can, being honest and open in our support of science and technology as we share our faith in God as creator, redeemer, and sustainer. As Ray Duncan wittingly said, "If children did not ask questions, they would never learn how little adults know!"
We need to dialogue with our young people — about the nature of the Genesis stories, about poetry, metaphor, and symbol, about the level of the culture and the limited scientific knowledge in Biblical times — at the same time as we confess our love for Christ. Saying, in effect "just hold to a literal creation and don't bother with radiometric dating techniques, the Big Bang, the Hubble constant, paleontology, and so on" — will not play for long.
To my young friend, Bill, already confirmed — your interest and passion for issues of biology, cosmology, and theology are admirable. You may enjoy reading a new book, Quarks, Chaos, and Christianity by John Polkinghorne, a mathematical physicist who is now an Anglican priest.4 Listen critically and learn about God's evolving cosmos from those non-christian teachers in your school. Listen critically and challenge those special Christian speakers who come to your campus. Talk with them at length about hermeneutics. Never, for any reason or emotion whatever, surrender your critical capacities. Sign up for a philosophy course, and write me sometime. My address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
To a future confirmand, John, those magnificent Colorado mountains we ski on are the result of early glacial processes, the heating and cooling of the earth's surface as it rippled into hills, valleys, and mountains. Under the earth's surface, I'm told, are moving plates, like broken-up sheets of ice on Golden Lake, shifting around ever so slowly. As these huge plates hit one another, the pressure pushes up the earth. Some of these "pushed up" areas in the Rockies became rugged and gigantic as they shifted and settled. God, we believe, is the Mover and Creator behind the whole evolutionary process. How wondrously God designed our natural environment, the ancient rocks, oceans, planets, and hills, through the vast cons of time! In the words of Paleontologist Teilhard, "The world is a-building.... A process is at work in the universe."5
Let's encourage our young people, with the knowledge and wisdom from our own experience, to consider that the Christian Faith and contemporary scientific thinking are compatible. We can do better in the Church to make the transition from childhood to adult Christian experience continuous and positive. Confirmation class is an excellent time to work at it.
1. I was conservative here. Many cosmologists think the age of our universe is 12-14 billion years old.
2. Quoted by Don Frisk in The New Life in Christ, Chicago: Covenant Press, 1969, p. 51.
3. The Covenant Book of Worship, Chicago: Covenant Press, 1981, pp. 213-215.
4. Other books by Polkinghorne are: One World, Reason and Reality, Serious Talk, Science and Providence, and his Gifford Lectures for 1993-94, The Faith of a Physicist. See also writings by Ian Barbour, Arthur Peacocke, Philip Hefner, and Nancy Murphy.
5. Teilhard de Chardin, Hymn of the Universe, New York: Harper, 1969, pp. 92-93.