“You are not only a coward but a non-believer as well.”
It may not quite be at the level of a vibranium shield, but my skin is a lot thicker than it used to be. When you start a blog that promotes something as insanely unorthodox as the idea that the author of Genesis 1-3 might have (like most other biblical authors) made use of a metaphor here and there, you come to expect that some fundamentalists are going to call Father Merrin and start reaching for the holy water.
It’s unfortunate — and, often, perplexing — but you learn to get used to it.
Even so, there are times I receive emailed messages like the one quoted above, and it hits like a punch in the gut. I know I should just ignore such trollishness. Usually I can. But not always.
Now, it would be easy to paint this as an “us vs. them” thing, the “us” meaning those of us who think evolution is good science and the literal-ish reading of Genesis is bad hermeneutics, and the “them” being anyone who disagrees. But I don’t want to do that, mainly because it would be exceptionally counterproductive to the ultimate goal of making evolution a less contentious issue in the evangelical conversation, but also because it simply isn’t true.
Yes, through my work on this site, I have met young-earthers who are antagonistic and downright mean-spirited, who have discounted me as a “heretic,” “atheist,” “secularist” and more, all without displaying the slightest interest in understanding why I believe what I do. But I’ve also met young-earthers, who are just as young-earth-y as the other young-earthers, and who hold to and defend their beliefs just as strongly, while still showing respect and deference to someone who is — after all — a human being just like them.
So I can’t paint with a broad brush. But this discrepancy, between people who otherwise have almost identical beliefs, is causing me to rethink almost everything I thought I knew about the Christian faith.
You see, evangelicals like me are partial to the idea that faith is paramount in Christianity. In basic terms, this is a very biblical idea (James 2:24 notwithstanding). The problem is that “faith” is almost synonymous with the word “beliefs,” which is pretty darn close to the word “doctrine,” which leads to the subconscious (and hence, very powerful) idea that theological purity is the ultimate goal in the life of being a Christian. (Thanks a lot, English language.)
I have not been immune to this. At various points in my life, I have found myself bizarrely, irrationally feeling as though the Catholic who prays to the saints, or the Pentecostal who speaks in tongues, are more my enemy than the atheist who thinks we’re all a bunch of crazies that worship fairy tales.
But now I feel like I have to change my tune. More and more, I’m seeing that the issue is not doctrine; it’s attitude. It’s not theology; it’s posture. It’s not the brain; it’s the heart. In short, maybe it doesn’t really matter what kind of Christian you are. Maybe, what it comes down to is what kind of person you are.
It’s about how we treat people. Do we see them as … well, people? People with hearts and minds and spirits and free wills of their own? People whose needs and desires, broadly speaking, are common to us? Or do we see them as objects: prizes to be won, numbers to be accounted for, rebellious animals to be brought in line?
To say there is a spiritual component to all this is an understatement. The Spirit is the key. Galatians 5 contrasts the “works of the flesh” (among them, immorality, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, disputes, dissension, division, envy) with the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
These latter nine are the adjectives that are to characterize the Spirit-indwelt Christian. It is these nine traits that are to distinguish us from “non-believers” — not the view we take of evolution, nor how vociferously we defend that view.
And again, this is not about bashing young-earthers in general. But it is about bashing the idea that self-righteous, indignant, hostile anger over matters of theological disagreement is somehow a virtue of the “true Christian.” Because it just isn’t.
I freely admit, this requires checking oneself constantly, because peace and joy and love are not exactly our natural states. It is the fruit of “the Spirit” after all, not the fruit of “humans just doing their human thing.”
None of this is to say we should just “agree to disagree” — ignore contentious matters in the name of some false appearance of “unity.” Even the early church was deeply divided over certain issues, which they debated at length. The bottom line is simply that there is no biblical basis for letting the quest for theological purity trump a constant outpouring of grace in a world that desperately needs it.
In evangelical culture, you hear a lot about whether someone can be a “real Christian” and believe in this or that. It’s why I worded my own headline the way I did. But I wonder if it makes more sense to ask whether someone can be a “real Christian” and not showcase the fruit of the Spirit, especially in trying situations.
Fortunately, that’s not my call. But I do know this: If this fruit is not evident in one’s life, it is obviously not because they are mistaken on some fine point of Christian doctrine. I’m afraid their confusion goes much, much deeper.
An earlier version of this column was originally published on the Sojourners’ blog God’s Politics.