LAST November, for the third year in a row I signed up for NaNoWriMo, and for the third year in a row I fell far short of the 50,000 word goal. I could get discouraged by that consistent failure, but I’ll keep NaNoing because I’m learning and making progress in my writing each time I try. Failure isn’t always bad (as an optimist, I’d argue that failure almost always has a silver lining). I can tell you I’ve failed to be the kind of person many adults in my young years assumed I’d grow up to be. But I’m much happier with who I am now than with who I was when I was trying to fulfill others’ visions. My personal evolution took me to emotional, spiritual, intellectual, and physical places I never imagined I’d be.
I grew up in a loving evangelical Christian home in Illinois where some things were strict, but others were permissive. I went to a small, nondenominational Christian school from kindergarten to twelfth grade, then attended a private Christian university for undergrad. Despite what most would expect, I consider myself to have received a good education at both schools: I learned critical thinking skills; I learned to research and think deeply; I learned how to write and how to communicate well. What I learned in those places set the stage for how I would later evolve.
Both the church my parents took me to and the K-12 school were a mixed bag of conservative to moderate views. I learned about radical empathy for the poor; about welcoming the stranger; about leading by serving; about Jesus’ empowering treatment of women; and how women are equal to men in leadership. We read a lot of C.S. Lewis, I remember. But I also heard my share of conservative evangelical messaging. Girls need to dress modestly in order to not cause the boys to stumble; good Christians have daily devotions and go to church every week; “intellectualism” is suspect (ironically forgetting C.S. Lewis’ sharp intellect); and evolution is an atheist agenda.
In 17 years, I hadn’t changed much or questioned my assumptions or beliefs. When I attempted to test my beliefs (because at times we were encouraged that questioning was healthy, but given books like The Case for Christ to do our research), my beliefs were obviously affirmed. My world had treated me well so far, and I had no reason to suspect it or deeply examine it. The people in my life who loved me and liked me reinforced that being a good Christian was in my own best interest. I was earnest and good-hearted (& I think I still am, much as I want to be more badass), adaptable, eager to please.
But when I got to college, questions bigger than my experience surfaced. Even though I went to an evangelical, non-denominational Christian university, I was an environmental science major, and every class freshman year talked about evolution like it was no big deal–cell biology, plant biology, even a survey class covering philosophy, psychology, literature, and sociology called Fundamentals of Christian Thought. Quite a few of my devoutly Christian peers also had no problem with evolution.
Of course, I wasn’t the only freshman shocked by this. There were questions and debates in class, readings, essays, panels, colloquiums. Mostly, I preferred to listen to the discussions and mull over all the arguments. Little by little, things were sinking in and making sense, and I began to let go of some of my assumptions.
(Side note in my journey of exorcising some dogma against science: fall of my freshman year I wrote an essay about how the idea of global warming sprung from a Chicken Little syndrome among some fretful scientists and wasn’t anything to worry about. That was 2001; there was enough evidence then to know that something was terribly wrong, but since then, we’ve had 15 of the 16 warmest years on record. Lolololol.)
The summer after sophomore year, I went on a month-long field studies intensive in South Dakota with a small group of other science majors and some of our professors. The course involved a lot of hikes to geological sites, and to places with examples of the flora and fauna we were studying, which provided a lot of time walking, which leads to thinking, which leads to talking. Some of the best conversations I remember about science and faith took place on those trails.
The trip culminated in a week of traveling in our 15-passenger vans across SD, into Montana and Wyoming, camping in the mountains, and visiting some of the great state and national parks. I distinctly remember one conversation about evolution between a few of my friends and one of our professors (shoutout to Mr. Reber!) on a hike. At least one of those friends was still skeptical of evolution, and there was a lively debate with questions and follow-up questions. I was right behind them, making one or two contributions, but mostly eavesdropping. I don’t even remember the words or the point given in the moment, but I remember that I literally felt something shift in my body. It was all the cliches, like a light bulb turning on and a weight being lifted off my shoulders, but mostly, it was a lot like taking a camp bath in the stream of melted snow from high in the mountains. There’s a zing, an excitement, an urge to laugh.
This is discovery, the delight of evolving. By the end of junior year, thanks to the addition of some rigorous biblical literature studies, I was convinced that there needed to be no contradiction between the evidence for evolution, as examined by the minds god gave us, and the truth behind the genesis accounts, which as a whole were more theological and relational in purpose rather than historically or scientifically explanatory.
Despite this exciting personal development, I didn’t broadcast it at home. I brought it up once in passing conversation with my parents, and it sort of floated away, much to my relief. I used to be terribly allergic to conflict, which will be the subject, I’m sure, of a future post on failure and evolution. But in the meantime, I was coming to see a whole slew of contradictions between the values and ideals I’d been raised with and the evangelical church and political party I was led to believe held themselves to those same standards. I was finally starting to examine my assumptions in a productive way.
I want to write more frequently here not only about my own personal evolution, but also about how it relates to what’s going on in America today. We have a leader who is allergic to the appearance of failure and the idea of being humble and open enough to evolve personally, so I think a conversation on these topics could be very timely. We cannot stop examining our assumptions, ever. Stay tuned.