Mrs. Burton and the God Far Bigger Than I Can Imagine

A couple of years ago, EA and I visited the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. One of the most popular exhibits in the museum is Evolving Planet which contains an impressive collection of dinosaur fossils. After we had taken a billion year walk, I overheard a ten or eleven year old kid note that exhibit on evolution and comment, "The Christians aren't going to come here."

It broke my heart because this wasn't some cynical humanist wearing a Chuck Darwin shirt. This was a kid and the Christians of his world were already teaching him that faith and science were on opposite sides and he had to choose. I'm guessing he was opting for science because, well, he was there and he apparently thought Christians didn't go there. I wish that I told him that the two didn't have to be mutually exclusive. I wish I had told him about Mrs. Burton. 

When I was in 6th and 7th grade, my science teacher was Mrs. Burton. When she taught evolution to us young South Carolinians, we had to get written permission to hear what she had to say (I'm grateful my folks gave that permission). Mrs. Burton was an incredible teacher: fiercely intelligent, challenging, and she made science come alive in the classroom. It didn't hurt that she kept approximately a bazillion animals in her room.

For two years, we pestered her about whether she believed in evolution or not. A lot of our churches warned us about the dangers of evolution. She always told us that her personal beliefs did not matter because she was trying to be the best teacher to us. As a science teacher, that included teaching evolution.

Still we persisted. On the final day of 7th grade, she said to us: "I believe evolution is how God created." And the bell rang.

We didn't even know that was an option.

For two years, I witnessed someone that was loving God with all her heart and all her mind. That made a subtle but significant impact.

The question that I sometimes get asked is whether I believe in evolution as if it is some faith system to which I ascribe. I don't believe in evolution. I believe in God. Given the vast amount of scientific information that we have, I would say evolution is the most probable explanation for how God created the earth. Evolution is an interesting thing to learn about but it doesn't dictate my faith.

There are many that will say that disbelieving in a literal six day creation completely compromises the Christian faith. I respectfully disagree. The creeds of the ancient church assert that God is Creator but do not include the six days as part of the profession.

Augustine, who is considered one of the most important figures in Christian theology (though I don't agree with him on everything), was also uncertain about a literal interpretation of Genesis. And he lived 1600 years ago. In The Literal Meaning of Genesis, he wrote:

“In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it.”

And that's the thing. There's been further progress in the search for truth: fossil records, carbon dating, transitional species, etc. Paul writes in Romans 1:20: "Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through things he has made..." (Romans 1:20 NRSV) God speaks to us through creation and creation, to this point, points toward and extremely old earth as opposed to one that's only 6,000 years old.

But perhaps God just makes the earth look old to test us? That's extremely problematic. Daniel M. Harrell writes in Nature's Witness:

“If all truth is God’s truth, to insist on a view of God that contradicts his creation is to imply that God has not revealed himself in his creation. Actually, it’s worse than that. To say that God negates science is to say that God has misleadingly rigged the universe. And to say that is to choose to worship deception rather than truth.”

Evolution does not threaten my faith. It does not threaten what I believe about the Bible. The point of Genesis 1 and 2, to me, is that God created this world and the text explains that to its culture as best as possible (and, yes, I know that brings up a whole different question about scripture; we'll get there eventually).

At the end of the day, it makes me realize that I serve a God that is far greater than I could ever imagine. We don't know everything. Even with all of science's discoveries, there is so much more about this universe that is vast mystery. The universe and time is so immense it makes my head explode. How cool that we worship the God behind all of that? The God that cannot be boiled down to simple explanations.

Here's the thing: I do not have a problem with people that believe in a literal six day creation. There are many intelligent people that do. What I do have a problem with is when people insist that this is a make or break issue for the gospel: that if you take that away then the whole thing falls apart. It doesn't. God is so much bigger than that. God is bigger than evolution or whatever else we may discover on down the road.

I wish I had said those things and more to that kid in the Field Museum. I wish I could tell him about Francis Collins, a brilliant Christian man that headed up the Human Genome Project and wrote about how the world of science brought him closer to God. I wish I could tell him that you can pursue a life of the mind and a life of faith without sacrificing either. I wish I could have told him about how big and awesome God is.

I didn't do that then, but I am writing this now. If the issue of science and faith is one with which you struggle, don't let it kill your faith. It's unnecessary. God is bigger than all of it.

Perpetual Amnesia

Monday Question: What One Thing Would You Say to the Church?