Over the last eight years there have been many points at which I have disagreed with President Bush. And there have been some points where I have agreed with him. His comments about God and evolution on “Nightline” in December were one of those places where I agree with him.
Here’s what the President said: “I think that God created the Earth, created the world; I think the creation of the world is so mysterious it requires something as large as an almighty and I don’t think it’s incompatible with the scientific proof that there is evolution.”
This position is known as “theistic evolution.” It represents the ability to see past the black and white, either/or thinking captured by the evolution-creationism conflict. It is possible to believe God is ultimately responsible for creating all things, and that living things evolve according to the ideas put forward in Darwinian evolutionary theory. The scientific fundamentalist has no room for God in the equation. The biblical literalist has no room for evolution in the equation. But seeing gray recognizes that evolution and God are not mutually exclusive ideas.
President Bush was also asked if the Bible was “literally true” to which he replied, “Probably not,” and “I’m not a literalist.” In this exchange the President found himself caught in the kind of either/or thinking that most people adopt on this question. Is the Bible literally true? Having read it over and over again; studied it for 26 years; sought to preach it faithfully every week and live it every day, my answer to the question would be, “In some places yes, and in others no.”
Were the earth and all living species literally created in seven days? No. Is the earth in an ultimate sense the handiwork of God? Yes. Did a whale swallow Jonah? Maybe, maybe not. Reading Jonah it is clear that the story is primarily written to teach a theological point—it functions as a parable. The point is not diminished if it is only a parable, and it is not enhanced if Jonah really was swallowed by a whale. The point of Jonah’s story is literally true even if the events it describes are a parable. If I get to heaven and find Jonah there telling me he was swallowed by a whale I’ll be thrilled, but I won’t be disappointed if I get there and God says, “Good grief! It was a story meant to teach a point!”
Are the Gospels literally true? Yes, except in the cases when they are not. Jesus teaches parables. The point of the parable is literally true, but the story in the parable is not. Everyone acknowledges this.
A place where there is a bit more disagreement has to do with gospel discrepancies. At times the gospels tell the same story in different ways and the details are sometimes irreconcilable. Is every detail then true? No, someone has this or that detail wrong. But is the bigger picture that the different accounts are pointing to true? Yes.
An example is the Resurrection—read each gospel’s account—they differ from one another in a number of details that, in my mind, are difficult to reconcile. But they all agree and teach the important point that Jesus was raised from the dead.
This idea that the gospel writers may have told the same story in different ways and that one of the tellings is less accurate than another is deeply disturbing to black and white, either/or kind of people. But to most of us, we’re OK with the discrepancies and don’t believe this diminishes its truthfulness in what God intends us to learn from it.
I value the differences and discrepancies between the gospel accounts and recognize that this is part of the authenticity and humanity of the scriptures. It does not diminish the truthfulness of the message of Easter if Mary Magdalene was alone on that first Easter morning and found the stone rolled away and the tomb empty, and only after fetching Peter, saw two angels sitting inside the tomb (John), OR if she was with other women, and they saw the empty tomb but, before fetching Peter, two angels suddenly appeared to them (Luke), OR if there was only one angel sitting in the tomb when they arrived (Mark), OR if Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” were alone and, as they approached the tomb, they saw a lone angel roll the stone away revealing the empty tomb (Matthew).
I am not troubled by the discrepancies, nor do I feel the need to gloss over them, dismiss them or harmonize them. What I am convinced of, and focus on, is what the gospel writers agree upon—there was an empty tomb, the women arrived on the scene first, and Jesus was raised from the dead.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that the Bible is an amazing, challenging, beautiful, confusing, inspiring, unsettling and deeply true book that is not best described by simplistic statements. Which is I think what President Bush meant to say. : )
Adam Hamilton is the author of Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White: Thoughts on Religion, Morality and Politics, and is senior pastor of the 15,000 member United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan. This column appeared previously on his blog.