I’ve been watching The Story of God, the series where Morgan Freeman wanders the Earth learning about different people’s interpretations and interactions with God. By examining topics like the afterlife or miracles, he explores the way belief unifies us, even if we call God by different names or maybe don’t call it God at all. Many Christians I know won’t watch programs like this. They either don’t have any interest in investing time into learning about religions they deem to be false or they’re afraid of what they might learn.
There’s a hesitation among many when it comes to reconciling faith, the substance of things unseen, and science, the substance of things proven. Raised in the Bible Belt, it was old hat for me to see bumper stickers and billboards disqualifying evolution in favor of creationism. The overarching thought proliferated by pulpits and Sunday School classes is that creationism is divine and evolution is the byproduct of an absence of faith. To many in church culture, the word science has become synonymous with the word evolution, placing it in the corner of humanism while Christians rest on their pews in the faith-based creationist corner. Rather than facilitating a conversation about how our always-changing, God-made world works, it was a non-negotiable issue in church. We were right, they were wrong.
I wrestled with this as a young person. I’d been taught to identify evolutionists as pagans and I went along with it for a while. But the more I learned in school, which includes the Christian universities I attended, the more I began to wonder why I’d taken something at face value when the entire literal world around me begged further research. It only takes a rudimentary understanding of basic science to know there’s a lot more happening in our world than our eyes or brains can process. Isn’t that one of the cool things about our planet? There’s always something else to discover and investigate and challenge our preconceived ideas on life and death and the gap in between.
That investigation led me to wonder if evolution and creationism actually walked hand-in-hand like partners. On paper, the steps in the story of creation and the steps in the process of evolution essentially mirror each other. Then I reasoned that if God can do anything, why would He be limited to a single sun-up/sun-down day to create the world? Hadn’t I been told in church that His timing was different than our own anyway? I believe God is much bigger than you or I or Moses could comprehend, so perhaps both concepts are nothing more than twins separated at birth. Two languages saying the same thing, translated into slightly different dialects. It’s a heretical thought to some, but I fail to see the harm in trying to understand the earthly processes by which the miraculous takes place. Life is an amazing thing – a miracle – whether it’s in a person, a giraffe, a blue whale, a tulip or a redwood. The same Sunday school classes that taught me evolution was a farce also taught me that God made our world in a specific order so all living things could exist together and benefit from one another. Again, that sounds awfully similar to the scientific explanation for the evolving balance of life on Earth.
Psalm 94:4 says: In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land. I think there was more to the creation of the world than just “Poof! It happened,” and I think it’s alright to think that. If the natural world we exist in grows and changes and shifts and evolves, wouldn’t it make sense that it’s been doing so since creation? But the Bible says…I know what the Bible says, but I also think there are stories in the Bible which aren’t unlike Paul Harvey’s stories, there’s more to them than we know. That’s not scary or sacrilegious, it’s actually pretty cool.
For example, Joshua and the tumbling walls of Jericho is one of the big miracle stories in the Old Testament. Men prayed, God showed up in a physical way to knock down the walls of an entire city, and then Josh and Co. captured that city. Boom. That’s an amazing story, yet understanding archeologically that the walls of Jericho fell for a certain seismic reason doesn’t make the scope or timing of their collapse any less miraculous. God still did that, it wasn’t random coincidence, but perhaps it wasn’t just a “Poof!” moment. Just as with Jericho, placing the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah within the context of the geological manifestations of the day doesn’t replace the slate-clearing destruction of those cities. Even laying out environmental explanations for the succession of the plagues of the Exodus neither alters the story nor the outcome. Belief in the natural world doesn’t need to negate belief in supernatural providence.
My consideration of this came from two unlikely sources. As Easter approaches each year, TV channels begin airing an endless slew of “Did the stories in the Bible actually happen” specials and I watch as many of them as I can. As a lover of history, I enjoy following along as archeologists and historians fact-check various blockbuster biblical events by excavating the ruins at sites either believed-to-be or confirmed-to-be the places where those larger-than-life stories took place. With all the tools at their disposal, they attempt to uncover the truth, and somewhere along the way, those facts began to affirm my faith.
Though I feared him, Moses was the initial source of my curiosity on the subject. While studying the ancient Egyptian civilization in high school, I noticed a familiar pharaoh’s name being credited for building a temple. I recognized his name from a study we’d done at church as relates to Moses so the following day I brought a small Bible with me to class. For weeks, I spent the hour of my history class matching up tales from the Bible with the history taught in my satanic public school.
What I learned is that there are moments in the Bible that absolutely line up with the history in my textbook. This was then backed up further by the archeological specials on TV. None of it accounts for the supernatural narratives about God making crazy things happen in miraculous ways, but it accounts for the physical parts of the human story. Is every biblical story backed up by definable proof? No. But in those that are, the facts, or the science, have deepened my faith in the God who could orchestrate Moses and the millions’ grand exit stage left or who could spare Rahab, a Jericho-based hooker, from the demolition of the city walls.
But why care? Why decode something that isn’t meant to be decoded? And where did your faith go Ryan? I mean come on; faith tells us we don’t need proof to believe. There’s even an entire chapter in the Bible lauding the faith of its above-the-title heroes. (Hebrews 11) Whereas some people approach archeological excavations and science as a way to disprove the supernatural, I argue that it only reinforces it. It proves the setting, the timing and the physical facts line up. The remaining spiritual gaps are then filled in with faith, like icing in the seams of a gingerbread house.
Faith is intrinsic to a foundational belief in this whole “God” thing and while there may be environmental evidence to prove how Jonah survived inside the belly of a whale, I’ll admit there’s no way to explain people coming back from the dead. To many, this word, faith, is the paper that covers rock. (The rock in this sense literally represents geology.) Some people believe the Earth is only as old as the biblical timeline. Some believe the tale of Adam and Eve is a literal telling of the birth of mankind. Both seem like a stretch. And yes, some people believe that the universe was created in exactly seven calendar days but I’m left thinking that if God truly is the same today, yesterday and forever, maybe it doesn’t matter what the timeline looks like, only that either way, we’re meant to be here now.
I also know God never does things on our timeline. Not once when I’ve said to God – Look, I’ve got these three things bothering me and it would be great if You could have them wrapped up by Friday around noon so I can have a carefree weekend, K thanks amen – did He do those three things in the time allotment I preferred. All those mysterious ways in which He works, they happen on His timeframe. So why should I think He created the Earth in the same duration as a physical day I’m used to?
My curiosity about the biblical/scientific intersection extended beyond people too. As a kid, I figured the dinosaurs were killed in Noah’s flood. That seemed like the most logical bridge between the bones unearthed from the ground and the destruction of the Earth as described in Genesis. Yet scientists tell me Littlefoot and his friends checked out more than 65 million years ago. Those two explanations are not the same, yet the result remains unchanged. Someone in church once told me that dinosaurs were fallen angels from Heaven, something that may explain the Velociraptor’s attitude problems in Jurassic Park, but is not at all plausible or factual. I do, however, believe in Noah and I believe he built that ark. I just know better than to believe a Stegosaurus called dibs on the dorm next to the water buffalos and across the hall from the dik-diks.
When it comes to Noah, I do latch onto a conspiracy theory here and there. Various hikers and pseudo-scientists have claimed they found the ark on Mt. Ararat, wedged into the side of the mountain under layers of snow and ice. I’ll buy into that. There are plenty of naysayers but I’ll side with the possibility that an ancient floating animal condo complex is frozen in a block of ice like the mammoths and the cave people. To that end, I also believe Nessie, the Loch Ness monster, is totally real and just camera shy.
Since the dinosaurs took their leave (except for Nessie) and the Bible had long been written, we’ve been trying to understand and define the world we live in. Scientists like Plato, Aristotle, and Pythagoras formed the foundations of scientific expression, then Galileo, Pascal and Descartes provided terminology for the natural world, and more recently, Benjamin Franklin, Einstein, Isaac Newton and Marie Curie offered explanations for the physical properties of that world. All of these people changed mankind’s mentality of “Poof, it happened!” to “It happened and there’s a process to explain why.” The science those people discovered was canonized, yet when Darwin claimed we didn’t just spring into existence from nothing, rather that we evolved as the Earth evolved, it formed a seemingly impossible chasm. The process of scientific acceptance within the church seems to be very selective and temperamental.
The more I think about the impetus of the Earth, the less I care to argue about it. The biblical history stuff will always fascinate me, but real talk: the duration of time it took to create the universe has very little effect on my morning subway commute, what I pray about, how my family is doing or when the next Thor movie will release. Yet the fear that faith and science may be boyfriends still keeps some people from embracing the complexity of a God who made all the puzzle pieces click into place just right. To many, it’s still as black and white as it’s always been.
I had a conversation with a very conservative person on this topic and they tried to shut me down. They told me I was asking questions that showed my lack of faith. They wondered how “my spiritual walk” was. They told me I sounded like the liberals who want God out of our schools. They were less than amused by my pondering the natural world and ended the “conversation” with a huff. They refused to engage in a harmless and non-combative discourse on the topic, choosing to avoid it completely instead.
And that brings me back to Morgan Freeman wandering the globe asking people about who God is to them. The aim of the show isn’t to disprove anyone’s ideas or to convert nonbelievers to a different way of thinking. Ultimately, the show illustrates that for all our differences, religious or otherwise, we are starkly similar. The theme of the show is that our ideas of God can coexist, which reads as heretical to some but really isn’t. Much like the “COEXIST” bumper stickers that speckled the highways, this show is promoting the willingness to coexist by considering the common ground we share.
Look, I haven’t figured God out yet and if anyone tells you they have, run. We are forever in process when it comes to matters of faith, the tangible world and how those things are braided together. While I think there’s a lot we can learn about our world and the miracles described on the pages of our trendy Teen Study Bibles, the fact is that we will never fully understand the God of the universe who cares as much for Venus fly traps as He does for giant squids, both of which are vile creations yet still exist for specific reasons.
From an outsider’s point-of-view, some of the miracles in the Bible play out in ways that mirror the fictional magic spells of Merlin or the genie in Aladdin’s lamp. Maybe to some they sound about as plausible as the Loch Ness monster herself. Joshua blows the trumpet and the walls just instantly fall down? That reads like a spec script at a Marvel table read. But perhaps some of the things that looked like “Poof!” miracles to the biblical writers who witnessed them may now, after centuries of scientifically documented hindsight, be looked at with the perspective of the miraculously-timed, intelligently-designed and ever-evolving planet on which we live. After all, the biggest miracle on Earth is life itself, which is something we each get to experience every day from sun-up to sun-up.