In the Embrace of Change

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by Henry Neufeld, Publisher

Henry picI believe the greatest fear we have of change is the way that changes cascade. One thing leads to another. We experience this in daily life when a simple change to our routine impacts other activities. My decision to go to bed later changes my morning routine, which changes the outline of my day, which impacts my family, friends, and co-workers. Those of us who are very careful about such things can get very annoyed with spontaneous people. How dare they change things in moment and alter so many other lives, even in only small ways.

This fear extends to ideas. We may not work out all the consequences of changing our belief on one point, but we can feel those other changes looming. If I change my belief about one scripture, how many others will follow? We each have created a structure of beliefs, whether we did so consciously or unconsciously, and we tend to fear challenge.

Of course, some of us like that feeling, just as some people like to pursue high risk recreational activity. It’s an intellectual version of free climbing. Though we hear frequent stories of a change from a more conservative to a more liberal position, change can move one in any direction, which only gets to make it more frightening—or more exciting and enjoyable!

My story today is about cascading change. It didn’t look like it when I started, but it turned out that way. I’m a theistic evolutionist. I don’t really like the label—theist is a weak word for my beliefs about God, and evolutionist is merely the acceptance of a scientific theory—but it will have to do. I believe in God. I believe that God is the creator of everything, and the ultimate cause of everything.

When I say that in Christian circles I am commonly challenged to investigate creationism in one of its various forms, from young age creationism to intelligent design. I am told that the only reason I can possible accept evolutionary theory is that I was brainwashed in college and never had an opportunity to hear the truth.

But my cascading change was in the opposite direction. Both my BA and my MA degrees were granted by institutions with doctrinal statements that included a firm, young earth creationism, generally without even the 10,000-year wiggle room some young earth creationists use. The earth was created in a literal seven-day week of 24 hour days just like those in the present, so I learned from preschool age through graduate school, with a few questioning exceptions.

As an elementary school student I memorized Genesis 1-3. I knew the names and ages of the patriarchs of Genesis 5 & 11 from memory. I could give precise dates for the creation, the flood, and of course later biblical events. I even memorized lists of texts from elsewhere in scripture supporting this view of creation, at least in the opinion of those who created the lists.

Not satisfied with what was required, I began to collect and read materials by creationists, especially those in the Seventh-day Adventist church, such as George McCready Price and Frank Lewis Marsh. Creationism was not just a doctrine that I believed; it was the foundation of my doctrinal system. It was a cornerstone. This creationism was not a general belief in God as creator, but a combination of all the specifics: God created the entire universe in seven literal days of 24 hours each about 6,000 years ago.

So I wasn’t indoctrinated into evolutionary theory by secularist instructors at a university.

point to ponder

-point to ponder-

I believe that my faith in God became deeper as I realized my own fallibility. There were many struggles to come. Losing some of my faith in my own ability increased my faith and my trust in God, the only one whose perspective is not limited.

The next suggestion I hear is that I must have eventually taken a course or read a book in which I learned about evolutionary theory, found that it contradicted the Bible, and then chose evolutionary theory over the Bible. This suggestion (or accusation) is generally followed by the question of how I can reject God’s Word in favor of a scientific theory. That’s not what happened. It would be simpler if it had. One enormous change, over and done with. New worldview neatly put into place. Traumatic, but only for a moment!

The change started with an assignment in college. The class, if I recall correctly, was titled “Problems in Exegesis.” It was designed for students who had a good deal of biblical studies and was designed to give us practice in looking at a disputed passage, looking at the options, researching the available information, and then proposing and defending a solution. Sort of thesis practice completed in less than five double-spaced pages. Yes, we used manual typewriters. Whiteout was new.

The problem I chose to write about was the text of the genealogies of Genesis 5 & 11. I mentioned that I had memorized all these patriarchs and their reported ages. In my reading for another class I had discovered that the genealogies differed between the Hebrew Masoretic Text (MT) and the Septuagint (LXX). A trace of the differences can be seen in Luke’s genealogy.

Which was right? I studied. I created charts. I examined the dating that would result for major world events. I realized that, unless on could do some major reworking, the Great Pyramid had gone through the flood. I calculated population growth rates required if the flood occurred on the date I thought it had and noted that simply having the people available to build such a major project would require some truly astounding growth rates.

This was going well beyond the assignment. I was just supposed to propose a solution. Which text would I translate were I to translate the Bible?

The bottom line? I thought I’d still translate the MT, though I could not be absolutely confident that it truly was the original text. I thought it most probable (and still do), but doubt remained.

It’s likely that some readers are jumping to conclusions, and assuming that I immediately looked at evolution and a 4.5 billion-year-old earth, and became a theistic evolutionist. In reality, I didn’t actually start looking at evolution until I was out of graduate school.

But there was a big change that took shape in my life at that point, bigger than a change in what I believed about how God created the universe. I came to understand that interpretation involves uncertainty.

When I read my college papers, most of which I have kept, I am amazed at how arrogant I could be. But at that point I began to grant more and more credence to the idea that people could disagree on significant issues of interpretation. If we could disagree, how could we start to consider people heretics because of such disagreement?

Now my beliefs about origins did change, and those changes also had their own cascade. At first I thought that it didn’t really matter how God created, but then further study of the fascinating way in which a universe created and empowered by God functions, changes, brings forth within it creatures who have freedom. That change, in turn, led me back to a study of God’s grace and the wonderful power of the incarnation, which I now hold as my central theological belief.

I believe that my faith in God became deeper as I realized my own fallibility. There were many struggles to come. Losing some of my faith in my own ability increased my faith and my trust in God, the only one whose perspective is not limited.

But my realization that interpretation involves uncertainty changed the entire way I looked at the Bible and the way I looked at nature. I went into that paper with the firm belief that I could find an answer for every question, an absolute answer, one that no reasonable person could question. I came out of it realizing (or rather with the beginning of the realization) that my finite knowledge was shockingly—finite! Limited. Imperfect. Subject to change.

That was, I think, the most important change of my life. Many people have helped me learn about many things. They have helped me work my way through problems. But nothing has been more profound than learning that I might not only be wrong, but I might not be able to find a demonstrably right conclusion.

Appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, I’m not a person who embraces change. I have learned to live with it, because having realized my limitations, I know I have to keep on doing my best to learn. If I can be in error, I probably am, and I want to learn how to be less in error.

I may not embrace change, but change embraces me.

I think that embrace is good.