Learning the Contours of our Past
A Review of
Embracing Evolution: How Understanding Science Can Strengthen Your Christian Life
Matthew Nelson Hill
Paperback: IVP Academic, 2020
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Reviewed by Joel Wentz
Perhaps it is due to our unusually polarized cultural climate (though I suspect humans have been good at being divisive for most of our history), but it seems that debates about highly contentious issues have a tendency to get mired in the same talking points. Occasionally, a creative, innovative voice will enter the fray and reveal just how paralyzed the conversation has been. Matthew Nelson Hill’s accessible new book, Embracing Evolution, is an attempt to do just that in the well-trod conflict between biological science and evangelical faith.
But does he succeed in truly moving the conversation forward?
Hill’s new book starts on a promising note in this regard, as he chooses to forego the traditional approach of laying out the detailed evidence for the science behind evolution, or diving into the exegesis and cultural background of the first few chapters of Genesis. Rather, he states plainly that he is not attempting to validate the trustworthiness of scientific methodology for conservative Christians, but is proposing that accepting an evolutionary account of our history can actually enrich the practice of Christian faith.
“[This book] is written for a particular kind of reader: someone who doesn’t get squeamish at the mention of evolution, someone who is maybe even curious about it but doesn’t know why believing in that theory matters for the Christian faith. In other words, I am hoping to address an audience mostly comfortable with an evolutionary account of human origins, anthropology, and modern-day genetics who doesn’t yet see its relevance to Christian life.” (5)
Hill doesn’t completely disregard the apologetic approach, however, and does address both scripture and science as two “lenses” through which we can make sense of our world. On the biblical lens, he gives a brief account of various historical readings of the relevant texts, particularly Genesis, before turning to what he sees as the primary obstacle towards an evolutionary reading: the presence of death and predation before the fall of Adam and Eve.
Hill is to be commended for discussing this question head-on, even if his brief treatment may not be fully convincing to all readers. Indeed, for an evolutionary account to be historically valid, one must concede that death was rampant in God’s creation for eons before the events of Genesis 3, a difficult tension for conservative readers of scripture. Hill should also be commended for proposing a Christological and ecumenical approach to resolving this tension, centering the cosmic reversal and defeat of death in Christ’s resurrection as well as drawing on both Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theology. He ultimately concludes that we may be framing the problem incorrectly, “Perhaps, then, one of my tasks is not to find an explanation for death’s existence in God’s creation, but instead to articulate how the kingdom of God generates life out of death.” (42, emphasis added)
On the scientific lens, Hill nicely and concisely presents the “nuts and bolts of evolution” (chapter 4) and clears up common misunderstanding around the mechanics of selection, as well as the false dichotomy between “micro” and “macro” evolution (a popular distinction in evangelical circles, but one that means nothing in biology). He also urges the reader to consider the grandeur of evolution, “I find it more impressive that God could create a creation that could itself be a creator.” (48, emphasis original)
The heart of the book, and the crux of Hill’s overall argument, is contained in the final three chapters, titled “An Integrative Approach to Evolution and the Christian Faith.” This is where Hill begins to display the type of innovative theological thinking that may very well move this conversation beyond its current paralysis.
Drawing especially on neo-Aristotelian ethics as presented by Alasdair MacIntyre and Wesleyan holiness theology, Hill proposes that a proper account of human evolution can provide language and deep understanding of the origins of our inherited, sinful impulses. The result, he argues, is actually both liberating and empowering:
“An essential benefit of adopting an integrative understanding of evolutionary theory and our Christian faith is that we become better able to recognize who we are and why we tend to have certain behaviors. And this knowledge of our biological and environmental pasts may actually lead us to become more whole – and holier – individuals.” (88)
The proposition of defending evolution to Christians on the basis of its implications for piety and formation is indeed novel, creative and intriguing. It is also refreshing to read a book about evolution and faith that is not overly concerned with the familiar points of so-called “literal readings” of Genesis and the age of the earth.
In sum, and this may be due to the brevity of the book, Hill’s proposal is more tantalizing than ultimately convincing. Out of 130 pages, less than 50 are devoted to Hill’s integrative approach, the most unique and interesting section. Perhaps interested readers will find deeper discussion of this material in Hill’s more academic Evolution and Holiness (2016). In the meantime, readers who are looking for a more introductory text should find Embracing Evolution to be a fascinating and accessible book, illuminating the need for even more similar, fresh theological thinking in this conversation.
Joel Wentz is currently the Executive Pastor at Missio Dei Church in Portland, Maine. He previously served in college campus ministry with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. In addition to reading and writing, his passions include tabletop gaming, music, and coffee. His favorite book genres are epic fantasy and epic theology. He lives in Portland, Maine with his wife and son, and his personal writing and podcast are at: joelwentz.com
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