This article first appeared at Religion Dispatches
These are busy times for those who fight the teaching of creationism in public schools. It’s like playing a giant game of Whack-a-Mole: In January alone, anti-evolution forces first raised their heads in North Carolina. Whack. Then Kentucky. Whack. Then Ohio. Whack. Then Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas. Whackwhackwhack.
The fight continues. And I encourage everyone to support those who wants our kids to grow up in the real world, which is so beautiful and surprising and rich.
Anyway, there’s a nice little piece of snark that has popped up from the more atheistic side of the pro-science forces. This group of folks has noticed that, since the creationist and intelligent design crowd (they’re the same crowd) want creationism taught in the public schools, it’s only fair that the supporters of real science should ask: Well, can we teach evolution in your churches?
I think that’s a mighty fine idea.
Why go to church?
Why do people go to church? I mean, besides the fact that churches often make dandy country clubs, besides the fact that going to church is a highly effective method for keeping us Christians from facing the facts about ourselves (“I’m at church, see? I’m one of the good ones! See?”), and besides the fact that no human being can resist doing something for the simple reason that it’s always been done?
What I mean is, are there genuine social or intellectual or spiritual reasons for going to church?
Yes. Underneath all the nonsense and pomposity, there are very good reasons why we Christians go to church. But I would like to suggest that, ultimately, people go to church because of mystery. This is not mystery in the sense of Whodunnit?, or in the sense of “What makes a rainbow so pretty?”; instead, this is the very mystery of existence itself; it is the bare fact of us showing up, without even having been asked, on this loneliest of planets in this strangest of universes. All people who attend church — conservative, liberal, whatever — do so, at least in part, because of mystery. They may never use that word, but there it is nonetheless.
This is not to say that all are motivated by mystery in exactly the same way. Some people attend church in order to receive answers to the hard questions life throws at them, to shield them from the dark realities of modern life, to seek reliable absolutes by which to measure the world. That is, those in this group attend church in order to escape mystery. Because mystery means not knowing, and people must know.
This is broad generalization, to be sure, but many, many people are powerfully motivated by the fear of the utter mystery of life. It is, after all, the great unknown. And to not know is to give up control, to be shut out in the dark, to drift, to face the abyss with no armor. Flight is a very human response to mystery.
But sometimes the need for control, absolutes, and knowledge careens out of control. To wit: Those who desire to have creationism taught in our nation’s public schools. They know, because the Bible says so; and what’s more, they know so well that they’re going to take control of the educations not only of their own children, but of everyone else’s, too. After all, isn’t it good to know the truth, and isn’t it good to share it, even if that means stacking school boards and inciting legal battles? It’s the truth, and nothing justifies like the truth.
Facing the unknown
But some churchgoers do not attend every Sunday in search of answers. These people understand the church not as a provider of answers but as a poser of questions. That is, for these Christians the task of he church is not to clear away mystery, but to deepen it; to teach its congregation how to bear mystery — and “the truth” — lightly. The unknowns of life may be terrifying, but this group knows that facing them squarely can be fantastically liberating.
It is under this second understanding of the church that its teaching of evolution makes a lot of sense.
My earliest experiences that could be called “religious” were delivered to me by the hands of science. When I was in third or fourth grade my dad showed me a geologic timeline in a Time-Life book on natural history. My eyes followed its epochs, periods, eras, and eons down the page until they converged on the dark Hadean eon, marking earth’s very assembly 4.5 billion years ago.
I was stupified. With its boxes and numbers and colors and fine print the timeline seemed to me a thing of great elegance. The words — Ordovician, Silurian, Jurassic, Eocene — were themselves rare discoveries, whatever they signified. Yet standing at the edge of that precipice was, for me, secretly scary. It was profoundly disorienting. It made me feel utterly empty, like I was an absolute nothing. Like I was a ghost.
But it also made me feel giddy, joyful, and free. I could not take my eyes from it. Night after night, I took the Time-Life book to bed with me and I read it until I could read no more.
This quiet but transformative introduction to deep time started me off on a terrific three-year-long obsession with dinosaurs and evolution and geology and astronomy. Other encounters with nature had similar effects on me: They made me feel empty, terrified, and utterly happy and free, and I wound up being a physicist and astronomer. And the irony is, it was science and the natural world — and not the church — that introduced me to mystery. Or, to be more direct, it was science and the natural world — and not the church — that introduced me to God.
Mine is not an isolated case. Over time I have come to know many others with similar experiences. Many of these are scientists who, like me, entered the scientific world out of their love of nature. Yet unlike me, most of them were — and still are — agnostics or atheists. They know the wonder, they know the profound amazement, they know the jaw-dropping disbelief that comes with even a modestly scientific view of the world. Whatever their theological position, they know something about what we religious sorts call mystery. And they don’t have to give it the same name I do to know what I’m talking about. I suspect many atheistic scientists know more about mystery — about God, even — than many believers, but they would never call it God.
The church, in its ignorance of and hostility to evolution (and science in general), is passing up one of its greatest opportunities to apprehend the very God it claims to represent. This irony is due to a terrible case of what may be called “small-god-ism” and is, unfortunately, encouraged by much popular theology. This theology makes claims about scripture and church practice that reduce God to a cheerleader, or a cosmic vending machine, or some domesticated and pale image of our own confused selves. Such a god is clearly not sufficient to contain all of reality. And in the face of the challenge posed by modern science, instead of rejecting whatever idea of God one has constructed, reality itself is rejected. So evolution is like sex — it’s there, all right, but it is not to be mentioned in church. What would decent people think? What would God think?
If “God” is not large enough to contain this universe in all its immensity and complexity and age, then it’s just not God. God is not a thing; God does not exist like we exist, or like the moon exists. God is like nothing we can know in language or image. God transcends these things and all we can know or imagine. This includes what we know of evolution, cosmology, geology, and any other science. Christians have absolutely nothing to fear.
Here’s another irony: None other than the late great atheist Carl Sagan has said all of this already. In his book Pale Blue Dot, he wrote,
How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed”? Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.”
Rather sentimental people often argue that the more science one knows, the less mysterious and wondrous nature becomes. But this is simply not so. The insistence that the wonder of nature is reduced by scientific knowledge is no different than insisting that scripture can only be understood literally; both are fixated on appearances and are based in the fear of the unknown. At the initial stages, historical criticism may seem to needlessly desiccate the Bible. But over time the effect of study is a radical deepening of the text. Careful and sustained attention releases a kind of wonder from the pages of scripture; this has been attested to my many over the centuries. But this level of appreciation does not come from a literal reading; it comes by digging deeply and patiently in order to find the meaning that is found beneath and between the words on the page.
The “book of nature,” as the natural world is sometimes called, is no different. Beauty in nature begins at the surfaces but compounds rapidly beneath. All scientists know this. Keeping this beauty and wonder and mystery from those who come to church in search of God is simply unfair. By keeping the best of modern science out of the church, a disservice is done not only to those who come looking for God, but to society at large.
Who knows — it may be that, by teaching evolution in the church and presenting it in the context of the Christian faith, we may help, in some small way, to shut down the great national game of Whack-a-Mole.