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God, Darwin, and the Church

Pray like a pietist, worship like an enthusiast, think like an atheist |

by James Rowe Adams

Reprinted from The Progressive Christian (formerly Zion’s Herald), September/October 2007, pp. 51-53

In his review of Philip Kitcher’s Living with Darwin (TPC May/June 2007), Robert Cornwall suggested that his readers pick up the challenge to “reconcile a dynamic supernaturalism with evolutionary science”. I think that Cornwall has identified the most important test facing the churches in the developed nations of the world. While evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity is thriving in Africa and parts of Asia, in Europe over 90% of the people have little to do with religious organizations. Are the churches in the United States bound to follow the path taken by the older industrialized nations? Or can we welcome people to whom evolutionary science makes more sense than a divine creator or an intelligent designer?

Most progressive churches do welcome people who are convinced that Charles Darwin got it right, but the acceptance they receive is a bit like what gay and lesbian people get from the military. As long as no one addresses the subject directly, everybody can get along. The Christians who are satisfied with this approach are able to accept Darwin when they are in a conversation about science and to accept God as the creator when they are in church. They would rather not think too much about the apparent contradiction. If pressed, they usually take what a trained theologian would call a deist position. God set the whole universe in motion, including the capacity of life forms to evolve into new species. Never mind the implication that God’s design allowed for viruses and earthquakes that kill millions of people. When pressed to confront the logical contradictions in accepting both Darwin and God, such people tend to respond vaguely with talk about mystery. Mystery is the last refuge of determined believers when faced with gaps in their logic.

In my experience, the people who can keep science and religion in separate compartments tend to be over sixty. They grew up with the habit of going to church before the news media began to identify Christianity with a right-wing point of view that is anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-intellectual, and anti-evolution. Many, perhaps most, younger people have learned from the newspapers and television to see religion in opposition to science. For them, trying to compartmentalize religion and science would compromise their intellectual integrity. They may feel wistful about the possibility of praying or belonging to a spiritual community, but if their ways of thinking are steeped in the scientific method, they are repelled by sermons and Christian literature that present God as the one who not only created the universe but who also continues to manage its affairs. Unless the church can successfully appeal to these younger, thoroughly secular people, the number of people in this country who call themselves Christians will continue to dwindle. In a front page article, The New York Times reported that even leaders of successful evangelical youth organizations are now predicting that not many of their current members will remain faithful as adults. A few conservative congregations, which totally reject the findings of science, probably will survive the twenty-first century, but they will exist on the margins of society.

In order to survive, let alone grow, progressive churches may need to adopt an understanding of religion that does not emphasize believing propositions that contradict the findings of science. In fact, churches may need to de-emphasize all forms of believing and present Christianity as a way of life rather than as a series of beliefs. In this approach, religion is understood to be the business of trying to make sense out of existence. Existence from a purely logical perspective is, of course, nonsense. As Steven Weinberg, a Nobel Prize winner in particle physics, famously stated, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless.” Yet nearly everyone feels driven to find some meaning in this pointless universe.

If a church wants to stay alive, it will advertise itself as a community of people engaged in the task of making sense out of that which is nonsense. Individuals engaged in the task may develop a variety of beliefs. Some may accept conventional Christian doctrines, and others may be skeptics or atheists, but they can pray and worship and think together if they do not feel any pressure to conform their beliefs to a real or imagined standard.

I think it is interesting to note that Eastern religions and disciplines, which have been growing in popularity among young intellectuals and artists, do not emphasize beliefs or dogmas. What Buddhism and yoga, for example, offer is not religious propositions but guidance in spiritual practice. You do not have to believe anything about God in order to meditate or to use physical postures in centering your thoughts. Only recently, and somewhat belatedly, are Christians rediscovering their own spiritual traditions, including contemplative prayer.

Many skeptics and atheists have difficulty giving in to their desire for the experience of praying. Since they do not believe that prayer will cause God to intervene and change reality, they think that they would feel foolish asking for what they want. They may need help in discovering that while prayer does not change external reality, the practice can change the reality within a person, and the changed person can have an impact on the world and other people. For example, if you take the advice that Matthew’s gospel attributes to Jesus and “pray for those who persecute you,” you might find that your feelings change about the people in your office or neighborhood who are giving you a hard time. You might find openings for a mutually satisfactory settlement of your conflict. You might not, but at least the praying can reduce the hatred that has a toxic effect on the rest of your life.

Perhaps an easier place for the skeptic or atheist to begin praying is to take advantage of the blossoming interest in positive psychology. Positive psychology asserts that you can focus on the virtues you want to develop and at the same time learn to appreciate what you already have. Prayer is a relatively simple way to realize the insights gleaned from the writings of positive psychologists. Giving thanks daily for what you have received and asking for help in becoming the kind of person you want to be can create healthy attitudes and relationships.

The hardest part of praying for the atheist or skeptic, of course, is addressing prayers to a God who does not exist. A thoughtful non-theist, however, can come to see that existence is a human category that may be useful in comprehending the external world but that has no relevance in understanding the world within. In prayer it is possible to imagine a god who is the ultimate source of love and of justice and to enter into meaningful conversation with this god. That the god you address in prayer may have no existence outside your inner reality is totally irrelevant. Skeptics and atheists who cultivate the practice of prayer can learn to find as much satisfaction in prayer as the most ardent pietist.

Atheists and skeptics can also find meaning in worship, if those responsible for designing worship services do so with atheists and skeptics in mind. Many of these people who cannot take the Bible literally and who cannot subscribe to traditional church doctrine go to the theater, visit art galleries, and enjoy music without demanding that what they experience be logical. They know that art forms transcend the limits of logic and enrich their lives at another level of perception. They can be caught up in well-designed worship in much the same manner. Most progressive churches that are successful in attracting secular people support the arts. One good reason is that people who come to church for concerts, plays, and displays of visual art are conditioned to enter into the experience of worship with a similar mind set.

That manner of worship may be, but does not have to be, the studied informality favored by the megachurches. Many people respond to worship forms perfected in the thirteenth century, forms that touch all the senses. The music may be anything from Gregorian chant to Bach to jazz. Each form of music will penetrate the inner lives of some people. Just as patrons of the symphony do not worry about the words when hearing classical Christian music, worshippers can learn to accept the traditional words as part of the art form. They can accept the text as poetry comprised of myth and metaphor.

In order to worship enthusiastically, however, most of the people who embrace Darwin need fairly constant reminders that they need not take literally the words of the liturgy. The sermon or homily is critical in this regard. Whenever preachers want to comment on a Bible passage or some part of the ritual, they have an obligation to make room for both the conventional believers and the skeptical members of the congregation. For example, if the text includes some mention of Jesus’s resurrection, the preacher can say, “For many Christians Jesus emerging from the tomb was an historical event, but the language used by St. Paul, who did not mention an empty tomb, makes more sense to other people. Paul used words associated with dreams and visions to suggest that he and others experienced Jesus’s resurrection as an internal realization, an inner glimpse of what Jesus meant to them. Either way you want to take the resurrection, you may find that the story offers insight for your own situation.”

A preacher can use a similar approach to a Bible story that has no acceptable parallel in the letters of Paul. In talking about the passage where Jesus calms a storm, the sermon can point out that, while some people take this to be a report of an actual event in the life of Jesus, others think that early followers of Jesus made up the story to reflect their attitudes toward him in the light of their deepest fears and longings. Whichever approach you take, the questions to ask yourself are: What is it about this story that caused people to repeat it and later to write it down? What is there in the story that might help me to understand my own fears and longings?

A habit of critical thinking will have a major impact on how a person reacts to a sermon. The sermon may itself be an art form, but a thinking person is likely to see it as a break in the drama of worship. A person who has learned to suspend disbelief temporarily in order to participate in worship often expects something different from an art form when listening to a sermon. The sermon is the time for being stimulated intellectually as well as emotionally, for hearing about the critical work of scholars, for getting to know what the preacher honestly feels, believes, and thinks.

The need a thoroughly secular person has for critical thinking is not likely to be fulfilled by sermons alone. A church that wants to include atheists and skeptics as well as conventional Christians will provide a variety of occasions when people can think through and discuss the implications of being followers of Jesus. Participants in study groups do not have to agree with one another to learn from each other. By challenging each other’s assumptions and conclusions, they can stimulate faith development for individuals and for the community as a whole. Such exercises are valuable to the faith community for two reasons. First, the freedom to express openly doubts and disbelief confirms the welcome extended to people with a scientific mindset. Second, the conventional Christians learn how to think like atheists so that – without giving up their beliefs – they can grow in their understanding of their secular neighbors and become more effective evangelists.

I hope (and, yes, I pray) that progressive Christian churches everywhere will accept the challenge of reaching out to people for whom evolutionary science makes more sense than the stories of a divine creator or an intelligent designer. The churches will be successful if they can show that it is possible to pray like a pietist, worship like an enthusiast, and still think like an atheist.

Jim Adams is the founder of The Center for Progressive Christianity, which he now serves as an Honorary Advisor. His latest book is From Literal to Literary: The Essential Reference Book for Biblical Metaphors.

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