The creolization of Christianity and the theory of evolution

NPR has a rather good article up called “Evangelicals Question The Existence Of Adam And Eve” (sic — what the heck is up with the indiscriminate capitalization?). It vividly showcases how the tide is (finally) starting to turn in this culture war for/against evolutionary theory. Peppered with quotes from several key people, including Dennis Venema, Karl Giberson, Al Mohler, and Reasons to Believe’s Fazale Rana, the article points out that more and more self-described Evangelicals are coming to grips with the fact that the scientific evidence against a literal Adam and Eve is overwhelming.

Adam and Eve by Peter Paul Rubens

Image via Wikipedia

Calvin College’s Dan Harlow underscores the importance of this discussion to the vitality of Evangelical Christianity when he says, “This stuff is unavoidable. Evangelicals have to either face up to it or they have to stick their head in the sand. And if they do that, they will lose whatever intellectual currency or respectability they have.” Respectability notwithstanding, conservative standard bearers like Al Mohler see nothing in Christianity worth holding onto sans a literal Adam and Eve. Despite Venema’s confident insistence that there’s nothing to be afraid of in accepting mainstream evolution (which decisively refutes two original progenitors), obviously there are some theological implications that remain in need of explanation. And although that end is not out of sight anymore, it’s still going to take a lot more work.

This reminded me of something I learned back in my linguistics program several years ago. (This isn’t a tangent: it’ll come back around!)

When two people groups speaking mutually unintelligible native languages come into contact and have need for communication, especially in a trade situation, they are likely to come up with some sort of compromise that will allow them to interact. Often they will form a sort of hybrid communication system taking elements from each of their languages. This communication system is called a “pidgin”: the vocabulary comes almost completely from the visitors who are seeking trade (historically, usually English or French) and the grammar (morphology, syntax) is taken predominantly from the native language. This system works well enough for trade, but pidgins are not classified by linguists as languages because they lack a number of grammatical features of natural human language. Because of its limitations, the pidgin is often spoken between the two language groups strictly in order to conduct business; the grammatical holes hinder much communication beyond such practical matters.

Yet in cases such as colonization in which the language of the traders makes an established presence, a pidgin may be spoken around young children who naturally adopt it as a native language rather than a limited communication system. In these cases, something very interesting happens: as part of the language acquisition process that comes so naturally to the young of our species, children fill in the pidgin’s holes. When children speak the pidgin to others, they unconsciously and effortlessly begin inserting new parts of speech, formulating verb tenses, bringing in missing vocabulary, and creating any other necessary language features that the pidgin lacked, so that the result is a robust, full-fledged language. This nativized pidgin is what is referred to as a “creole”.

Processes analogous to creolization recur outside language: quite commonly it’s in our children that thesis and antithesis are synthesized and for whom conflicts are likeliest to be resolved or otherwise fall away. Most of my peers in my generation grew up oblivious to and often incredulous of the traumatic struggle for racial equality that our parents and grandparents had to fight so hard for; I anticipate the same for my grandchildren in regard to the currently contentious issue of homosexuality.

I hope and expect this to happen also in the area of evolution and biblical literalism.

As a case in point, I had a conversation about woodenly literalistic interpretations of Scripture and evolution with my young daughter, a science nerd; at first, as a good Sunday School pupil (and my mother’s granddaughter), she was horrified to think about the possibility that what she’d heard wasn’t God’s truth (“But God doesn’t lie!” she once whispered desperately), but it was not too difficult to explain to her that the opinions of her creationist teachers hadn’t been taking all the important information into account. So in a relatively short conversation I was able to assuage her concerns and free her of some latent fears about her beloved science books so that she’ll be a part of the first generation of American Christians that tolerates some variation in the list of acceptable “vocabulary” for the origins question; in turn, theology/philosophy nerds (my son is already heading this direction) will nativize the “grammar” of how it all works and what it all means when taken together. Most importantly, they’ll now be able to look sympathetically at believers on both side of the question to an extent much more difficult for my generation and older.

I’m suggesting that we who have struggled in our exodus from conservative Christian theologies should not despair too quickly or fear too much for our children’s ability to retain and adapt Christian theology: this transition will not be nearly as difficult as it was for us who were more inculcated in our own native tongues before we made contact with those foreigners with their bizarre, barbarian languages. My hope is that, so long as we continue to stand by and tinker at the puzzle we’ve begun and teach our children to lay down their arms when dealing with those who disagree, we can trust that they will come in behind us and, relatively effortlessly, fill in the holes.

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