Peter Enns was the Senior Fellow in Biblical Studies at BioLogos, the Templeton-funded and Francis-Collins-founded organization devoted to reconciling evangelical Christianity and evolution. Enns has good academic credentials, including a Ph.D. from Harvard in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. And he left BioLogos about the same time as Karl Giberson (the Vice President), and I suspect it was because both of these guys couldn’t abide BioLogos‘s weaselly stand on Adam and Eve: a refusal to take a stand on whether they existed or not despite the clear results of populations genetics that they could not have existed.
Since leaving BioLogos, Uncle Karl became more critical of evangelical Christianity’s refusal to deal squarely with the facts of science. Now Enns joins this critical stance in a pair of essays he’s just published, one on PuffHo and the other on his website, Peter Enns. The articles are telling, for while being far more accepting of science and dismissive of Adam and Eve than were Enns’s former compadres at BioLogos, and far more critical of science-resisting Christians, Enns’s pieces unwittingly show why accommodationism won’t work. It’s the same reason as ever: to comport science with evangelical Christianity requires those Christians to seriously revise their beliefs—something they won’t do. Further, the accommodationist “synthesis” of science and faith requires a selective reading of the Bible, in which some stories are seen as literally true while others aren’t. These two reasons are connected, of course, because Evangelicals are perfectly aware of the slippery slope: if Adam and Eve were just metaphors, then Jesus could be too.
In his PuffHo piece, “Once more with feeling: Adam, evolution, and evangelicals,” Enns begins with a stark claim, and one that BioLogos would die rather than admit: science and the Biblical literalism of evangelicals are incompatible:
If evolution is right about how humans came to be, then the biblical story of Adam and Eve isn’t. If you believe, as evangelicals do, that God himself is responsible for what’s in the Bible, you have a problem on your hands. Once you open the door to the possibility that God’s version of human origins isn’t what actually happened — well, the dominoes start unraveling down the slippery slope. The next step is uncertainty, chaos and despair about one’s personal faith. . .
Evolution is a threat, and many evangelicals are fighting to keep Adam in the family photo album. But in their rush to save Christianity, some evangelicals have been guilty of all sorts of strained, idiosyncratic or obscurantist tactics: massaging or distorting the data, manipulating the legal system, scaring their constituencies and strong-arming those of their own camp who raise questions.
I have a strong suspicion that the last sentence refers to BioLogos and its dumping of Enns and Giberson over the Adam-and-Eve business. Regardless, Enns proposes a solution, but it’s flawed: the Adam-and-Eve story wasn’t meant to be taken literally.
Evangelicals look to the Bible to settle important questions of faith. So, faced with a potentially faith-crushing idea like evolution, evangelicals naturally ask right off the bat, “What does the Bible say about that?” And then informed by “what the Bible says,” they are ready to make a “biblical” judgment.
This is fine in principle, but in the evolution debate this mindset is a problem: It assumes that the Adam and Eve story is about “human origins.” It isn’t. And as long as evangelicals continue to assume that it does, the conflict between the Bible and evolution is guaranteed.
Since the 19th century, through scads of archaeological discoveries from the ancient world of the Bible, biblical scholars have gotten a pretty good handle on what ancient creation stories were designed to do.
Ancient peoples assumed that somewhere in the distant past, near the beginning of time, the gods made the first humans from scratch — an understandable conclusion to draw. They wrote stories about “the beginning,” however, not to lecture their people on the abstract question “Where do humans come from?” They were storytellers, drawing on cultural traditions, writing about the religious — and often political — beliefs of the people of their own time.
Their creation stories were more like a warm-up to get to the main event: them. Their stories were all about who they were, where they came from, what their gods thought of them and, therefore, what made them better than other peoples. . . .To think that the Israelites, alone among all other ancient peoples, were interested in (or capable of) giving some definitive, quasi-scientific, account of human origins is an absurd logic. And to read the story of Adam and Eve as if it were set up to so such a thing is simply wrongheaded.
Although Enns is an Old Testament scholar, this is bizarre. It implies that the stories were “designed” as kind-of-metaphorical tales to explain human origins, and that the Adam and Eve story wasn’t really about human origins. It was a “warm-up” to explain human nature, and therefore shouldn’t be taken seriously.
But that’s bogus. Two millennia of Christians thought these stories were real, and saw them as literal. Of course those folks weren’t capable of giving a scientific account of humanity’s origins, but they didn’t know that! The Adam and Eve story, an amalgam of two earlier myths, was an honest attempt to describe human origins, and is still seen as such by millions of Christians who believe the Bible is either the direct word of God or is divinely inspired.
But it’s more important than that: the Adam and Eve saga plays a pivotal role in the message of Christianity: their sins brought God’s opprobrium on humanity, an opprobrium that could be expiated only with the death of Jesus. If you discard Adam and Eve, the whole rationale for Jesus’s appearance and crucifixion, and the Christian view of humans as innately sinful, dissolves completely. That’s why BioLogos is in such a frenzy about Adam and Eve. Science says they’re fictional; Evangelical Christians require that they existed. There’s no resolution except to concoct dubious stories that the Primal Pair sort-of-existed, that is, there were two real people among many that God designated as “honorary” ancestors of modern humans.
Enns’s solution, the only one possible that saves both Christianity and science, is to discard the idea of a literal Adam and Eve:
Reading the biblical story against its ancient backdrop is hardly a news flash, and most evangelical biblical scholars easily concede the point. But for some reason this piece of information has not filtered down to where it is needed most: into the mainstream evangelical consciousness. Once it does, evangelicals will see for themselves that dragging the Adam and Eve story into the evolution discussion is as misguided as using the stories of Israel’s monarchy to rank the Republican presidential nominees.
Evangelicals tend to focus on how to protect the Bible against the attacks of evolution. The real challenge before them is to reorient their expectation of what the story of Adam and Eve is actually prepared to deliver.
Translation of the last sentence: “Evangelical Christians must discard their belief in a literal Adam and Eve.” But he doesn’t add the obvious point that this affects the whole Christian mythology, nor describe how to deal with the idea of discarding original sin. Further, he doesn’t tell us why we shouldn’t also see the stories of the New Testament as “quasi-scientific” attempts to explain human nature—not the word of God but human constructions. If Adam and Eve didn’t exist, why do we assume Jesus did? After all, the Bible is equally clear on the existence of all three.
While I admire Enns’s frank admission that Evangelical Christians must deal with science, he weasels out of the most important questions: the effects on Christian faith of trashing the Old Testament as a literal document, and the reasons why we’re supposed to accept the Old Testament as metaphor but the New Testament as literal. I challenge Enns, who knows these things perfectly well, to come clean about these issues. His failure to deal head on with the important questions shows, more than anything, why the mission of BioLogos is doomed. And it has been an abject failure: no Christians have converted to evolution, and BioLogos now is engaged simply in pandering to Biblical literalists.
Enns’s own blog post, “Evangelicalism and evolution ARE in serious conflict (and that’s not the end of the world)“, is taken from his new book, The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Does Not Say About Human Origins. And I’m surprised and pleased that he admits again that Evangelical Christianity is wrong in opposing science. He also admits that facile acccommodation is doomed.
There are two kinds of thinking that get in the way of the conversation evangelicals need to have over evolution.
One is exemplified by those who see red, cry “liberal,” and retreat to their safe doctrinal bunker with their fingers in their ears humming “la la la la la I do not hear you.”
The other type is exemplified by those on the other side of the spectrum, but whose thinking is just as harmful. They claim that there is no real conflict between evolution and Christianity. The two can get along quite well, with perhaps a minor adjustment or two—nothing to lose sleep over.
The former approach is obscurantist and stubborn; latter is theologically superficial. Both cause spiritual damage.
The last two sentences are a serious indictment of Enns’s former employer BioLogos, whom he sees as promulgating “superficial theology” and pushing views that are “spiritually damaging.” That’s a strong charge.
And you don’t often see an admission this frank from someone of Enns’s stripe:
So, I repeat my point: evolution cannot simply be grafted onto evangelical Christian faith as an add-on, where we can congratulate ourselves on a job well done. This is going to take some work—and a willingness to take theological risk.
Evolution demands true synthesis: a willingness to rethink one’s own convictions in light of new data, and that is typically a very hard thing to do.
Well, one solution when rethinking one’s convictions is to realize the whole apparatus of Christianity is a human-constructed fiction, and that there’s no evidence for either God or a divine Jesus. Enns, however, isn’t willing to do that. Why? First, because religion is here to stay:
Likewise, abandoning all faith in view of our current state of knowledge is hardly an attractive—or compelling—option. Despite the New Atheist protestations of the bankruptcy of any faith in God in the face of science, most world citizens are not ready to toss away what has been the central element of the human drama since the beginning of recorded civilization.
That’s a terrible reason to retain a false story. What’s false is false, regardless of how many people believe it.
The real reason, of course, is that revelation has told Enns that God and Baby Jesus are real:
Neither am I, not because I refuse to see the light, but because the light of science does not shine with equal brightness in every corner. There is mystery. There is transcendence. By faith I believe that the Christian story has deep access to a reality that materialism cannot provide and cannot be expected to know.
That is a confession of faith, I readily admit, but when it comes to accessing ultimate reality, we are all in the same boat, materialistic atheists included: at some point we must all say, “I can see no further than here, comprehend no more than this.”
This reminds me of John Haught and his cup-of-tea metaphor that supposedly proves a “deeper reality”. Yes, there is mystery, and if two millennia of religious lucubration has shown us anything, it’s that mysteries about the state of the universe can be solved only by science. Theology has provided no solutions; or rather, different theologies provide different solutions. Those are not “answers”, but alternative, irreconcilable, and insoluble guesses. And how exactly does Enns know that there’s “transcendence”?
I have mixed feelings about Enns. He’s smart enough to see that evolution poses a serious problem for Christianity, but not savvy enough to see that this problem is insoluble—maybe not for him, but for many. He’s not savvy enough to see that he won’t persuade Evangelical Christians to give up major tenets of their faith. And, worst of all, he’s not courageous enough to do what Dawkins has asked: for Christians to go “one god further” in abandoning their historical beliefs in deities. When Enns says “By faith I believe that the Christian story has deep access to a reality that materialism cannot provide and cannot be expected to know,” he’s abnegating the very canons of reason that he espouses. Because, after all, the words “By faith I believe” really mean, “There’s no evidence for what I believe, but I believe it anyway because I like it.”
Let me remind Enns what he’s up against when arguing that Biblical scholarship shows that the stories of Genesis are fictional:
When asked what they would do if scientists were to disprove a particular religious belief, nearly two-thirds (64%) of people say they would continue to hold to what their religion teaches rather than accept the contrary scientific finding, according to the results of an October 2006 Time magazine poll.
Perhaps people can eventually be convinced that global warming is real, since that doesn’t really contradict their faith in a serious way, but as for Adam and Eve and evolution, well, it’s not so simple.
Update: I see that over at EvolutionBlog Jason Rosenhouse has written a good analysis of Enns’s PuffHo piece. I especially like Jason’s conclusion:
There are good reasons why mainstream evangelicals are mostly not buying what the scholars are selling. Once you accept that science flatly contradicts the foundational stories of scripture, you seem to have two options.
You could go Enns’s route, and summon forth a tortured model of Biblical inspiration in which God chose to communicate fundamental truths of the human condition in a manner so confusing that normal people cannot read them on their own. Instead they need assistance from the local departments of archaeology and ancient civilizations, and to have it explained to them that what certainly appear to be factual accounts of human origins are actually something else entirely. We are left to sympathize with all those generations of honest seekers laboring prior to the advances of modern scholarship, who simply had no hope of coming to a correct understanding of God’s word.
Against this you have the possibility that the Genesis stories are purely human constructions, and that they seem naive from a modern perspective because they were not written by people with any special insight into much of anything.
Which possibility do you really think is more plausible?