By Karen Miller
I should have considered myself warned.
When I began as a teacher I was not in Lutheran schools, so it wasn’t an issue. I simply skipped that chapter and bypassed the entire argument. However, here, in my first home visit for a Lutheran elementary school, the question caught me off guard: How do you teach about creation and evolution? Somehow I suspected “I don’t” was not the right answer.
Perhaps my approach to the creation-evolution debate had been overly simplistic, but I had just chalked the whole thing up to human folly and forgotten about it. God made it, but nobody knows exactly how, and the rest was a problem humanity would be working on until the end of time.
In my mind it was a lot like a jigsaw puzzle at my mother-in-law’s senior center – the pieces would lie on the table until someone came along, put one or two in place, and then went on about their other business. Slowly the picture would take shape, and while I had rarely been there long enough to see much progress, I never doubted its ultimate magnificence.
I didn’t have an answer then, and in a sense I still don’t. During our home visit, the mom started talking about science she didn’t understand, books she’d read but hadn’t comprehended, and beliefs she couldn’t support from science OR scripture … but she had an opinion, and she wanted to know if I was for her or against her.
This pattern persisted. Several other teachers also worked hard trying to ensure that students and parents and teachers alike would be for them and not against them. They placed books in every classroom on the subject, like so many Gideon Bibles. They brought in a guest speaker, an apologist for his cause. They even went so far as to evaluate a science textbook series that wouldn’t ask the wrong questions.
I remember, studying the taxonomy of living things, having the students trace the classification of humans on a poster. What I expected to be a simple thing became a problem when I received an unhappy email from one parent. Her child had come home and described humans as animals, but the Bible said humans were made to have dominion over the animals. What WAS I teaching her child?
When this parent persisted, I sought the advice of the principal. My first inclination was to do as one person suggested and offer them the four alternatives to choose from. After all, if you don’t like being an animal, you could be a plant, a fungus, a protist, or a moneran. Unfortunately, he insisted that I needed to take her question seriously.
I was stuck with no option but to follow my second inclination. I wrote a multiple-page essay on the “breath of life” and the “image of God.” Slowly and carefully, supporting it with numerous Bible passages, I explained that humans could be appropriately grouped with the animals because we all share the “breath of life,” but that we were also distinct from the animals because only humans were made in the image of God.
I sent that essay to both the parent and the principal. The principal responded that I had written too much and likely would cause more problems than I solved with my detailed explanation. That’s when it became clear I was in a lose-lose situation.
Groups are often hostile to independent thought because it is the nature of groups to find their cohesiveness in conformity to some standard, principle, or idea. After all, “synod” means “walking together,” right? Conformity is a double-edged sword, and we have become a church in which breaches of conformity are tantamount to heresy.
In graduate school, I found one theology professor particularly disappointing. He should have been asking the tough questions, forcing us to think, but instead I found myself asking the tough questions, causing him to squirm. Most likely his discomfort reflected a climate where deviation from the “party line” was something to be feared, especially if one had academic ambitions.
I have had similar experiences with most Bible studies I’ve attended. Sadly predictable, the rote answer is the “right” answer, and thorny questions are given simplistic answers rather than risk the chaos of independent thought. Slowly, one hour at a time, we have been taught not to ask the tough questions.
Any system demanding that its every answer be the only right one knows the thinker and questioner to be threats, especially when they challenge assumptions and discard pat answers. Independent thought is, as Luther found out, punished, socially, politically, and professionally.
In this respect there is a fundamental cultural difference between science and today’s Missouri Synod. Both start with an unchangeable set of truths – scripture and nature. Neither can change their truths, but both can grow in their understanding of those truths.
The similarities end when the scientist and theologian find their answers don’t match the data, whether from scripture or nature. Scientists will freely adapt, readjust, and shift their understanding of a timeless universe. Science ultimately rewards independent thought when it is consistent with the body of truth called nature. The model of the atom doesn’t predict its behavior? Throw it out and come up with a new one! It’s been done before, from Democritus to Dalton to Rutherford to Bohr to Einstein and Schrödinger. No one chides the scientist for not believing in the sanctity of the atom – nature is what it is, it is only the scientist’s understanding of that atom that needs to be changed!
The church, on the other hand, all too often confuses questioning our understanding of scripture with questioning of the authority of God. We seem driven to preserve the status quo, correct or not.
Why are we so afraid? Is God is threatened by our questions? Is the Gospel endangered by our struggle to understand it better? Will a new model, such as permitting women’s suffrage in the church, mean that Jesus didn’t ransom us from our sins on the cross or rise from the dead? Perhaps we have, like those who insisted that the earth is the center of the universe, abandoned the unchanging truths in order to serve the idol of our own self-centered pride.
Throughout history the truly great scientists and theologians have been the askers of tough questions and makers of new models. An overview of quantum mechanics reveals a flock of brilliant scientists whose willingness to think simultaneously both inside and outside the usual box helped them adhere that much more closely to the unchanging truths of nature.
Similarly, an overview of the history of the church reveals saint after saint whose willingness to think beyond the rote answers helped them follow more closely the unchanging truths of God, even when those truths were NOT conventional wisdom. Paul took the Gospel beyond the Jews to the Gentiles, Luther taught Justification by grace alone through faith, and Walther emphasized the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. Each risked all to be faithful to the unchanging truths of scripture. Indeed, the Jewish leaders of the day crucified Christ because he called their authority into question.
Through all of this, God was never threatened by people’s ability or willingness to think. God made our intellects as well as our bodies, and he expects us to multiply our talents rather than burying them.
Sadly, too often, rather than burying our own talents, we try to bury the talents of others. Over and over again in my career as a teacher I’ve watched us – myself included –discourage the independent thinker. We claim we’re striving to teach kids to think, but when they have the audacity to do so, we punish them subtly and not-so-subtly. Sometimes we just don’t have time for their questions, because there’s more in the scope and sequence than we can drag them through in a year. Sometimes we don’t know how to answer them but we’re too proud to say, “I don’t know.” Sometimes we feel our authority is threatened by their challenge and perceive it as disrespectful.
I’ve heard religion teachers complain when kids do think for themselves, often because they are unwilling or unable to offer a coherent response. All too often we rely on spoon feeding and will accept nothing but regurgitation. Challenges are perceived as disruptive and disrespectful, or taken, rightly or wrongly, as an affront to God himself.
Some science teachers offer one view of how the world began and refuse to admit any other because they are afraid to be challenged. They want to think they have all the right answers, and teach science as a set of rote facts. They view science as an “us vs. them” battle for the children’s minds and hearts, adopting a simplistic “God said it” attitude that condemns both answers and questions.
The solution? Let God BE God!
God is quite able to take care of himself. He doesn’t need us to defend or protect him. He is not threatened by any question or scientific discovery or pet theory. There IS absolute truth, and he IS that absolute truth, and he is perfectly secure in that truth. The Bible is God’s perfect word, unchanging and true, no matter how we study it, what we discover there, or how we apply it. God’s promises to us are entirely intact even when we don’t understand them completely (or at all). No newly baptized newborn understands what God just did for them, but God’s promise is no less fulfilled.
Nature’s basic principles are also unchanging. Nature isn’t going to quit functioning because we don’t understand it perfectly. The existence of absolute truth is a premise that underlies the scientific method. The natural world won’t function differently no matter how we state or restate the laws of physics, and the sun rose every morning even when we did believe ourselves to be the center of the universe.
We understand neither God nor his creation perfectly, but we don’t need to fear admitting that to our students. We have seen neither God nor his atom but in the end we will understand all things when we see both face to face.
We are sinful, fallible human beings. We were very wrong about the atom, but that didn’t mean nature was any less true. We simply continued struggling to refine our understanding of it. If we find we are wrong in some of our understandings of scripture or about God, that won’t make the Bible or the Gospel any less true either. God’s word is timeless, but our understanding of it most certainly is not. Ironically, because we can neither afford to think nor justify thinking that we are infallible, we must adopt the culture of the scientist with respect to the scriptures or find ourselves defending the indefensible.
Whether in science, theology, or education, two primary obstacles to welcoming independent thought present themselves. The first is pride. Trying to be our own God doesn’t work in any sphere. A teacher, scientist, or theologian who can’t ever admit they’re wrong about something has already failed the most important test. We must, indeed, pour contempt on all our pride.
The second great obstacle to independent thought is fear. Withdrawing doesn’t work either. Interaction is an essential part of all intellectual discourse, in education, science, or theology. When we value security over truth we sacrifice truth and once again make ourselves our own God, but perfect love casts out fear because it gives perfect, eternal security.
Ultimately I solved the creation-evolution problem in my environment by side-stepping it explicitly instead of implicitly. Last year I chose to put the issue to rest once and for all on the day of my annual principal’s observation. In a carefully worded presentation that discussed macroevolution and microevolution, among other things, I concluded with three points:
First, God’s word is true. We can rely on it to be true without question.
Second, God made the world. Christians don’t always agree about HOW creation came about, but they do agree that God is the Creator.
Third, God is Lord of the church AND Lord of nature. There truly IS one reality (God’s) – we just seek it from different perspectives. Perfect and complete scientific knowledge and perfect and complete doctrine are not at odds with one another, but since nobody will know the whole story until heaven, we cannot allow the argument to get in the way of the Gospel. That way, we can always ask God when we get there.