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What does it mean to evolve?

Jonty Cornford

It’s a question that I have been asking myself a lot as 2024 has begun to unfold. Even now, not even three months into the year, it has felt like a year that is prompting me towards evolution in so many different ways. It can be a challenging thing to ponder, especially if - like me - you are somebody who finds comfort and safety in the established rituals and routines of life. 

Friend of the show and guest on episode 85 Will Small was a guest speaker at the church I attend on Sunday evenings - aptly named “EVOLVE” - and spoke at great length to us about what it means to have an evolving faith. For him it has looked like holding gently onto some of the religious and theological convictions that he held as a younger Christian, and even letting go of some of them to make room for new, more urgent, and perhaps more loving, spiritual practices. I love this idea, but I also find it challenging. Because, as Will so eloquently communicated to us on that Sunday night, being able to do that can sometimes involve owning how the practices we cling onto have been harmful or damaging to people that we love. 

For me, that has taken a number of different forms over the years. I remember distinctly in high school being super convicted that a number of behaviours that I saw friends of mine exhibiting (both Christian and non-Christian) weren’t just something outside of how I wanted to live, but something that I deemed “sinful” in my own, naive, uneducated, judgemental and prideful way. As I evolved to no longer think so strictly about things like swearing or drinking, and actually look back at how I treated some of those people with a twinge of regret and a pang of shame. While I know that it is important to evolve, the painful part of that is having to look at the things you left behind in that evolution, accept them, and claim them as something that was your own. 

That is hard. But maybe that is exactly what it actually means to be open to the possibility of evolution; not just the embracing of the new, but the integration of the things we leave behind as equally important in shaping who we might want to be in the future. 

I’ve been reading the sequels to Frank Herbert’s science fiction opus Dune, and at the moment I’m up to Children of Dune, the third novel in the series. Core to Herbert’s philosophy in his Dune universe is a very pointed critique of the messiah complex, and a warning against being swept up in movements led by charismatic leaders. As a believer, there is a lot to chew on and unpack, especially when it comes to Herbert’s view on prophecies, messiahs, and faith. But there is a character in these novels that I find to be a fascinating case study when it comes to this idea of evolving faith. That character is Stilgar, played in the two Denis Villeneuve adaptations by the great Javier Bardem. He is a key figure in the first two novels as somebody who not only believes in Paul Muad’dib, the Messiah, the Kwisatz Haderach. It is largely his belief in Paul and his support of him that leads to the bloody Jihad that sweeps the universe in Paul Muad’dib’s name. 

By the time we meet Stilgar in Children of Dune, Paul’s sister Alia rules the universe as regent, and he is caring for Paul’s twin children, Leto and Ghanima. He is in a state of evolution (something that becomes startlingly literal as Children of Dune progresses), and is beginning to question his belief and devotion to the prophecy of Muad’dib. Not only is he having deep, existential questions about his faith and belief, but he is forced to confront the role he has played in perpetuating those beliefs and spreading them at the expense of billions of lives. 

Now, I have never taken part in a plot to prop up a political leader as the literal Messiah of the known universe and waged a Holy War in his name, but I have certainly held religious beliefs that have driven behaviour that I now look back on with regret. The question I find myself asking myself as a result is a frustratingly complex one, but one that I think is actually profoundly important if I am going to be a person of evolving faith that is rigorous and holds weight. 

How do I let go of things outgrown to continue to evolve in a way that still acknowledges and integrates those things as a crucial stage in my evolution?

It’s my instinct to distance myself from some of those things as quickly and cleanly as possible. Partially because it is painful and frankly embarrassing for me to admit that they were a part of my identity, and partially out of a desire to quickly and cleanly find the next thing to replace it with. 

But I am learning, with the help of the words Will Small shared with us at Evolve that evening, that it is important not to rush. These things take time. But also that it is all a part of the process, and it is a process that requires us to show grace, patience and kindness. Especially to ourselves. 

So I guess my question to you is two-fold. Are there things in your spiritual life, in your pursuit of a life that better reflects the love of Christ, that you find yourself evolving away from? And if there are, are you simply trying to chop them out of your life? Or are you taking the more complex, challenging and rewarding route of actually integrating them into the everchanging, evergrowing patchwork of your life? I encourage you to ponder that with me as we strive to replace judgement with empathy, and cynicism with curiosity.

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