I just saw yet another article about large numbers of white evangelicals who refuse to get vaccinated.
This, of course, comes on the heels of a full year of white evangelical hostility to scientific advice and expertise surrounding COVID-19. And on the heels of over a century of opposition to numerous scientific theories, discoveries, and studies that inform everything from our understanding of the age of the earth to the impact of corporal punishment on children to human sexuality.
Science has long been seen as an enemy to the evangelical community because of its view of scripture as “inerrant.” This term is not always well defined and can encompass many sub-beliefs, but it basically comes down to a belief in the Bible, and its very strict/attempted literal interpretation, as the end-all, be-all divine word for all time and place.
This insistence is a pretty recent feature in Christian culture, as Peter Enns and other biblical scholars and historians have documented. Certainly the ancient writers themselves did not experience their world and what they were writing in such a framework. The lines between allegory and factual account were blurred in that culture. There was no such thing as professional history or scientific endeavor. They wrote through the lens that they had, the understanding of the time, and the culture in which they inhabited. It doesn’t mean they weren’t divinely inspired or weren’t experiencing God or that the Bible is bunk. It means that our coming at it with modern assumptions of “inerrancy” and certainty misses the point and can distort the meaning.
It also puts many Christians–particularly those who are bright and well educated, particularly those who are interested in science–in an impossible position. They will either feel they must choose between faith and science, or they will be forced to expend large amounts of additional mental energy to somehow cram all they are learning in the scientific realm, or simply through living in the modern world, into a tiny, ancient box. I have one very intelligent, very well educated loved one, for instance, who loves and has studied science but also adheres to an inerrant view of the Bible. This person has come up with elaborate theories to explain the disparity between a literal reading of the Bible, which indicates the earth is only around 10,000 years old, and scientific evidence of it being billions of years old. Just hearing their explanation is exhausting, and I think to myself how unnecessary it all is, and how fearful a faith it must be to think that your belief system could be one scientific discovery away from crashing down unless you can find a way to make it compatible with a narrow reading of scripture.
Inerrancy also ignores and puts to waste the last two thousand or so years of discovery, learning, and enlightenment, through which I believe God also reveals himself. Not only is science not an adversary of faith, in my belief system, science is a conduit of faith. Science uncovers the secrets of the universe, of human existence and nature, of the earth and natural law. Science finds the breadcrumbs left by what I think of as God (and I realize that not everyone considers what I am referring to as God, or believes in any ordering force or engine behind existence; there is no way of knowing who is right, so I’m not going to attempt to argue that I am). Anything that aids our understanding of existence in a vast, mysterious universe is a divine revelation. It is not a threat to my faith. It is not a threat to my faith when scientists find evidence for the Big Bang or evolution or an ancient earth or any number of theories that contradict a literal reading of scripture. I receive all this information with wonder and awe and possibility.
I would argue that modern science and social science can and should aid our interpretation of the Bible (and everyone interprets the Bible), to distinguish essential belief from culture. For example, the few verses in the Bible that discuss the discipline of children may indicate that it should be corporal, but using modern methods of study, we have strong indication that physical punishment is harmful to kids. So on this subject, perhaps what the Bible has to say is that discipline as a general principle is important for children, but the part about beating them with a rod is a product of an ancient time and place before they understood the impact this has on children. Biblical writers were inspired by God to write about discipline, but the only understanding of that they had at the time was to inflict physical pain. We know much more about child development and child psychology now than we did thousands of years ago. In fact, the entire concept of childhood or the concern for children as full human beings is only around 200 years old at best. Why would we not use this hard won knowledge and understanding? Didn’t it also come from God?
I had an epiphany in church one time that is another example of how the Bible and science can work together to provide deeper understanding of faith. I was listening to a preacher present a very literalist view of Genesis and the concept of original sin. I started asking myself where evolution might fit with this understanding, and it hit me–Sin, in essence, is base selfishness, and selfishness is, at bottom, an instinct for self-preservation. As in, I have to get mine first, at all costs, to meet my needs, and I will shove anyone weaker out of the way to do it. As in, survival of the fittest, only the strong survive. As in, how the animal kingdom generally functions. As in, evolutionary biology. Then I began to think about all the verses in the Bible that discuss the “flesh” and the “spirit,” and how Jesus’s teachings flipped on its head a zero-sum, survivalist, tribalist way of being human. The message of Christ is that we aren’t just biological beings, we don’t have to live in self-preservation mode, we don’t have to jettison the weak to save ourselves. That in fact, if we have faith, if we can trust each other, if we give up some power, we ascend to a higher way of living that benefits the collective and brings deeper meaning to our lives. In other words, we don’t have to act according to the biological imperatives through which we came to be as a species. We are now better than that We are endowed with soul and spirit and the capacity to love. And Jesus taught us to follow that path.
In other words, evolution is perfectly compatible with the biblical concept of original sin. There doesn’t have to be an actual sinner dude named Adam.
There are so very many issues and questions and lessons and truths that the biblical writers did not even consider as existing, much less addressing. They could not imagine women as fully realized, equal human beings. Or that a pharmaceutical might be invented that would spare them from a life of constant childbirth. They could not fathom that marriages could be based on deep connection and intimacy between people who wanted, not just needed, to be together. Or that marriages might be expected to last for 70 years with no other imperative than love and commitment. They had no way of studying and understanding the full complexity of human sexuality. If a person was born with both sex organs or ambiguous biology or who didn’t fit into the gender norms of the day, they couldn’t imagine any other way of approaching that than to cast the person out. They couldn’t dream of a multiracial, pluralistic society based on the fundamental worth and freedom of every individual to live as they see fit. They didn’t understand disease or mental health or addiction or modern weaponry or the modern nation state or global trade or computers or climate change. They saw no reason to comment on abortion or to condemn slavery. And no, they had no concept of even the solar system, much less a universe with no apparent end.
How are the limits of biblical writers’ knowledge not relevant to our interpretation? How could that NOT be relevant? Do people really believe that God is so tiny as to be fully known and encapsulated in one ancient book? That that’s it?
Some of us believe in a very big God. A force that has pushed forward human understanding from the beginning. An engine of human progress and discovery through science. A God that never leaves us where we are. Which is in fact the grand narrative of the Bible, it’s what we should always take away. Human society, moral understanding, and behavior grows better from Old Testament to New. Women become more equal. Tribalism and discrimination becomes less acceptable. The progress that is represented in its pages was never meant to stop where they end. Paul’s teaching on gender was enlightened for the time. It was never supposed to be the end of that story, nor is the Bible supposed to be the end of every story.
An insistence on “biblical inerrancy” and a hostility to science robs us of a universe of divine revelations that keep unfolding, like waves rolling to the shore, century after century, discovery after discovery, ever onward. We can no more stop this process or control what it will reveal than we can block the tides. My God invites us to hop on our surf boards and go for the ride of our lives.