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Friday, 28 September 2007

Pain, Tears, and Testimony: A Letter from Richard Colling

Last week I commented on the difficulties faced by Evangelicals that publicly acknowledge the coherence of the Christian faith and the science of biological evolution. That post was prompted by Richard Colling’s difficulties at ONU. This is a situation that is far from over, and many of us that support Colling will continue to follow it closely. Below is a letter Colling sent to the ONU newspaper this week, but which they declined to publish.

First, I want to strongly affirm ONU and the Nazarene denomination. As a lifetime Nazarene, and as a faculty member, I have devoted my teaching career to helping students develop their fullest academic, personal, and spiritual potential. I also affirm president John Bowling. I know that very strong political and financial pressures have been brought to bear on him by certain church leaders.

The truth is all I have ever wanted is to accurately and faithfully teach my discipline to ONU students and communicate a message of peace and harmony between science and faith. It has been God’s calling. I believe I have faithfully fulfilled this charge in a manner that models the stated ideals of an ONU faculty member. Therefore, I am extremely disappointed by the unwarranted and unnecessary actions of the president which suggest otherwise.

These measures, acknowledged by the president as an effort to appease off-campus scientifically uninformed critics of evolution who threatened my position and loss of financial support for the university, cannot help but cast a negative - and up until this time - undeserved reflection on Olivet’s reputation as a bona-fide institution of higher education. As a proud ONU alumnus and veteran faculty member who has dedicated my entire professional career to faithfully upholding the Olivet mission of “Education with a Christian Purpose”, the president’s actions seem like a medieval blow to academic freedom in the classroom, the university’s dedicated faculty, and the institution’s status in the greater academic community.

In a world increasingly driven by advances in science, it is a sad day in the life of a Christian university when new insights into God’s creation revealed by biology and genetics are viewed as a threat to faith. Students deserve better. Those who continue to set biology at odds with the Bible do a terrible disservice to both.

My wife and I sat in my office and wept together this past Wednesday afternoon.

After 26 years of heartfelt investment in the lives of ONU students, it is most disheartening that a few uninformed individuals who do not know me, have not read the book God called me to write, do not understand the issues, have never been in my classes, and have never spoken to me about their questions, have successfully swayed the president to action, suggesting I am eroding the faith of students.

But the tears streaming down our cheeks were not because of the critics and the damage they are bringing on Olivet. A biology alumnus from long ago had called to share from his heart the positive personal, professional, and faith-building difference I had made in his life while he was an ONU student. The power of that testimony - the real reason I am here - was so divinely affirming in the current hostile atmosphere, it was impossible to contain the tears. My students and alumni know the truth.

This is the kind of testimony that exposes the “evolution=atheism” lie and the "evolution=compromise” slander. It is the credibility of Colling and other deeply committed Christians who uphold the integrity of scripture and the integrity of science, which will ultimately stop Evangelicalism’s self-damaging war on evolution. This personal credibility is a much more important factor than any argument from the scientific evidence. It was for me. So Richard, from all of us that have traveled this journey, thanks.

Friday, 21 September 2007

When the Acceptance of Biological Evolution has Personal or Professional Repercussions

Grappling with the implications of biological evolution can be a difficult theological challenge. However, for most of us, it doesn’t directly affect our personal or professional lives. For others though, the impact is much more direct. For pastors in Evangelical churches, or for faculty in Christian academic institutions, coming to a personal understanding of the coherence of evolution and faith may be the easy part. Much more difficult is dealing with the aftermath when these personal understandings become public. Richard Colling, a long time biology professor at Olivet Nazarene University (ONU), discovered this the hard way.

A couple of years ago Colling was one of several Evangelical biologists that published books supportive of the integration of evolutionary science and the Christian faith. His book Random Designer addressed the common misconception that the chance and randomness inherent in evolution are somehow competitors to God. The Book:

“… explains that the randomness and chaos which play such central roles in our physical existence are actually creative. The Creator simply taps these random physical processes to accomplish His higher goal – the creation of human beings capable of consciously perceiving Him”
Almost from the launch of his book, Colling faced hostility from those within the Church of the Nazarene community with a YEC perspective. Last year, it appears that several members of the university board attempted to orchestrate his firing. Although unsuccessful, they were able to convince the university President that some action was needed. So this fall, as reported in the Sept 17 issue of Newsweek, Colling was told he could no longer teach the introductory biology course at ONU. As well, his book was removed from the reading lists of all ONU courses.

From the outside, it is easy to conclude that ONU, in the face of an angry “fundamentalist” contingent within the Church of the Nazarene, is abandoning Colling. Some close to the situation do not see it this way, and view it as a short term compromise to “make peace” between the various factions. (For example, see ONU faculty member Charles Carrigan’s comments here and here). I think we should be careful not to judge the ONU president given that he had to make a very, very difficult decision. As well, (as indicated by Carrigan's comments above) there are probably other factors and complexities to the situation that are not being revealed publicly. Whatever the case, Colling is deeply disappointed and hurt by what has happened. He has commented publically in several blogs, for example here and here. He is also wary of additional repercussions (see his comments at the end of this very LONG thread).

What I find most fascinating about this incident is that neither the Church of the Nazarene, nor ONU, takes an official stand against evolution. Colling is not being disciplined for teaching something contrary to institution policy or church doctrine. In essence, he is being moved “out of the public eye” to placate some very powerful constituents within ONU and the Church of the Nazarene. The course curriculum at ONU has not changed and still includes content on biological evolution. Other ONU faculty that teach and strongly support evolution are not affected (at least for now). So this looks like a strategic retreat for ONU, and not a hard right turn to antievolutionism.

The pertinent question for me is this: If Richard Colling faces these challenges in a Christian environment where his colleagues and administration largely agree with his views and are predisposed to support him, should scientists in other Evangelical institutions less friendly to biological evolution be nervous of the increasingly militant antievolutionist lobby within Evangelicalism? If ONU faces this difficulty, isn’t the risk even higher for individuals and institutions that belong to denominations that take explicit stands against evolution? What about theologians and biblical studies faculty that discuss the interaction between modern evolutionary theory and theology or biblical interpretation? What if they do not believe this interaction is in inherent conflict? Will they also face repercussions?

In non-academic environments, the problem may be even more difficult for Evangelicals that have come to peace with evolution. I suspect that many pastors and other local church leaders who are comfortable with the integration of biological evolution and the Christian faith have chosen to remain silent on the topic. I’m sure this silence can be justified as a way of promoting church unity since, for the vast majority of Christians, an understanding of biological or human origins is not necessarily relevant to their daily participation in the kingdom of Christ. However, how long should they remain silent? As I posted previously, antievolutionism can be dangerous, and there are times when silence is not the best option. What should these leaders do in this situation when they know that saying anything can have huge personal implications?

These are tough, gut wrenching personal decisions. But these are not only personal decisions. I strongly believe these are decisions that are important for the collective Evangelical church. As Colling comments in this post:

I believe that it is a matter of when, not if, the evolutionary paradigm WILL be integrated into the evangelical Christian theology. If not, the Christian faith will be relegated to cultural obsolescence. With the genetic data derived from the human genome project and other sources, the evolutionary connectedness of life on earth can no longer be denied. Therefore to build the foundation of the Christian faith on opposition to evolution is not only silly, it is suicide for the long-term viability and credibility of the faith.
Well said Richard, well said.

I too believe that, in time, this integration will happen. It is unfortunate that in the meantime Colling, and others that promote the integrity of science along with the integrity of scripture, need to suffer personal and/or professional damage because of their commitment to that integrity.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

God's Universe: A Review

I have mentioned Owen Gingerich’s book "God’s Universe" in several comments & emails. Recently, while enjoying the more natural part of God’s Universe in northern Ontario, I had a chance to reread his book. I think I was more impressed with it the second time I read it. To me, that’s one indication of a good book.

Gingerich is a Harvard astronomer of Amish background, a somewhat surprising combination. Rather than being dissuaded from higher education, he was actually encouraged to follow his passion for astronomy since we should not “let the atheists take over any field”. He is also a historian of science, and this allows him some astute insight and understanding into the science / faith dialogue. This insight and understanding is almost entirely absent from many popular modern scientific books that depend on the “historical fiction” of Andrew White's "A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom". The historical anecdotes and the conclusions Gingerich draws from these anecdotes in "God’s Universe" not only demonstrate that the “inherent conflict thesis” is unsupportable, but also make for a compelling & accessible book.

God’s Universe is based on a series of lectures Gingerich provided at Harvard. The first lecture entitled “Is Mediocrity a Good Idea” examines the contention of the modern day “Copernican principle” (not to be confused with Copernican heliocentricism). This states that our galaxy, our solar system, our earth, and humanity are not special at all but simply one insignificant, infinitesimally small, irrelevant accident, possibly one of many such accidents. Using his background as both a scientist and a historian, Gingerich shows that the Copernican Principle is more ideology than science.

I find it fascinating to compare the ideology the Copernican Principle with the ideology of “Rare Earth” espoused by many Christians and others. This is the contention that the earth is not only very special, but absolutely unique in our mind-bogglingly expansive universe. I can’t say I’ve examined the math closely, but I highly doubt we have enough understanding to say either that the earth is unique, or that there are billions of other worlds like ours. I’m certainly not jumping on the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) bandwagon, but to state categorically that the search is theoretically (and not just practically) doomed is to go to far. I love Gingerich’s nugget near the end of his first lecture where he states that:

“We human beings are the most extraordinary creatures we know about, and part of our glory is that we can imagine we are not the most remarkable creatures in the entire universe”.
The second lecture entitled “Dare a Scientist Believe in Design” is daring indeed. For a scientist, “supporting design” is a declaration that often invites derision from one’s colleagues and career limiting repercussions. For a Christian, and particularly for Evangelical Christians, “opposing design” invites suspicion of a sell-out or even accusations of heresy. So one could forgive Gingerich and other Evangelical scientists for dancing around the design debate or even ignoring it altogether. Gingerich does neither.

Gingerich ends his first lecture with a quote that could be seen an introduction to the second, stating that:

For me the universe is more coherent and congenial place if I assume that it embodies purpose and intention.
So, if by intelligent design, one means there is purpose to the universe then Gingerich identifies with intelligent design. However, he clearly does not identify with the current Intelligent Design movement that ridicules the theory of evolution. For Gingerich, “evolution today is unfinished theory, but these are not grounds for dismissing it”. He uses Aristole’s catagories of final (primary) and efficient (secondary) causes to show how both materialistic scientists and ID proponents confuse the “How” and “Why” questions of divine action. In a quote sure to raise the ire of both those attempting to teach the religion of “atheistic evolution”, and those trying to eliminate the teaching of biological evolution he states:

“It is just as wrong to present evolution in high school classrooms as a final cause as it is to fob off ID as a substitute for an efficacious efficient cause”.

In the third chapter entitled “Questions without Answers”, Gingerich states that “Science is good at asking questions that are answerable” but that many questions cannot be addressed by science. These metaphysical questions are the ones with which religion must deal. Science may have some input to these answers, but is the junior partner. In Gingerich’s words, “physics constrains metaphysics, but does not determine it”. He also addresses the place of “proof” in science, which has particular application for complex areas like biological evolution:

Today science marches on not so much via proofs as through the persuasive coherency of the picture it presents. What passes for truth in science is a comprehensive pattern of interconnected answers posed to nature – explanations of how things work though not necessarily why they work.
In conclusion, I’d like to quote Ted Davis’s review of “God’s Universe”:

Ultimately, as [Gingerich] states, the God creative enough “to make the entire observable universe in a dense dot of pure energy is incomprehensible, beyond human imagining,” but still “we can see the consequences of this unimaginably powerful creative act: a universe congenial to the ultimate formation of life, life giving rise to intelligence that can ask questions science cannot answer. It is God’s universe.”

It does indeed take faith to draw this conclusion in the absence of scientific proof—in Gingerich’s case, a deeply Christian faith, heavily informed by a profoundly incarnational understanding of the creation. Jesus—not the universe—is for Gingerich the “supreme example” of divine revelation, and in his mortal suffering “the nature of God’s self-limited, dappled world became excruciatingly clear. God acts within the world,” he concludes, “but not always in the ways most obvious to our blinkered vision.”

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Billy Graham on Evolution

Billy Graham is unarguably one of the key figures in the revitalization of the Evangelical movement in the last half of 20th century. At mid-century, when other Evangelicals were still intent on fighting the liberal-fundamentalist wars, Graham spoke out passionately for the need to simply preach the gospel. And he did this, working with fundamentalists and liberals alike. Today he remains one of the most respected Evangelical leaders, respected for his integrity and his passion.

So when many voices in the Evangelical movement are claiming evolution cannot be reconciled with Evangelical theology, and that any compromise with evolution is virtual heresy, and that those who do compromise on this issue do not deserve to be called Evangelical, it is interesting to hear what Graham has to say about the scriptures and science, including evolutionary science:

"I don't think that there's any conflict at all between science today and the scriptures. I think that we have misinterpreted the Scriptures many times and we've tried to make the Scriptures say things they weren't meant to say, I think that we have made a mistake by thinking the Bible is a scientific book. The Bible is not a book of science. The Bible is a book of Redemption, and of course I accept the Creation story. I believe that God did create the universe. I believe that God created man, and whether it came by an evolutionary process and at a certain point He took this person or being and made him a living soul or not, does not change the fact that God did create man. ... whichever way God did it makes no difference as to what man is and man's relationship to God."Billy Graham: Personal Thoughts of a Public Man, 1997. p. 72-74

(Hat tip to Ted Davis for this note to the ASA mailing list).

Monday, 10 September 2007

Dialogue, Debate, Silence, or Confrontation: How should we approach the topic of evolution?

I started my blog a few months ago with the following statement:

Dialogue rarely describes the relationship between evangelicals and evolutionary science. Perhaps debate, condemnation, or mocking, but rarely dialogue.
From my perspective, I believe the dialogue on biological evolution within Evangelicalism is both possible and desirable. First, it is possible because there is no inherent conflict between the science of evolutionary biology and an Evangelical expression of the Christian faith. Second it is desirable, because the other options (debate, mocking, and condemnation) are injuring our Christian witness and causing division within the Christian community.

Roman Miller, the Editor of Perspectives on Science and the Christian Faith (PSCF) captures my view on the desirability of dialogue over debate in his March 2007 editorial called “Do we Debate or Dialogue Issues of Science and Faith?”. Miller proposes that Christians with different viewpoints abandon the debate mode and dialogue instead. He muses:
I wonder about the value of debate as a tool to create understanding. In my experience, debates have created more heat than light and have served to further entrench combatants in defending their position while attacking their opponent’s position. More and more, I am convinced that within the circles of the Christian community, we should avoid the “debate mode.” Rather, we should deliberately advocate a “dialogue mode.”
Miller states that dialogue works to enhance mutual understanding while debaters focus on winning the argument. Ironically it is dialogue, not debate, that is much more likely to “change minds”. And an attitude of humility, a topic Miller addresses in his September 2007 Editorial (not yet online), is a prerequisite for a successful dialogue. As a preview to this editorial, he states in the earlier column that:

Especially in these issues in which we “dimly peer through our varied perspective glasses,” it behooves us to admit that we do not know or understand with entirety and to hold our positions with humility and grace.
Participating in respectful dialogue, with an attitude of humility and grace, is the ideal for which we should all strive. This is especially true for a topic as contentious and complicated as the origin of life, biological diversity, and humanity, a topic that no one can claim they grasp completely. Unfortunately in the real world the ideal is not always possible. What if one group of Christians considers another group’s origins view not only wrong, but also diametrically opposed to the gospel? What if our origins view is condemned as heretical, and our accusers refuse to acknowledge that we belong to the body of Christ? How can there be any mutual understanding in this situation?

Maybe more importantly, I think dialogue is not always preferable even when it is possible. As I’ve indicated before here, and as Vance McAlister has written in “Creationism vs. Evolutionism: The Danger of Misplaced Dogmatism”, a dogmatic interpretation of scripture can damage the gospel. When Christian youth are abandoning their faith because they cannot reconcile modern science with the brittle scriptural interpretation mandated by their church community, and when seekers choose not to follow Christ because the gospel presented to them includes a version of science that is unsupported by the evidence, then I think we need to respond with urgency and vigor. We need to communicate that “The Gospel of a Young Earth” is no gospel at all, and is as erroneous as stating that "Only Evolutionists can be Saved".

There are other times when silence is the best option. In situations where origins science or the biblical interpretation of the Genesis creation accounts are clearly peripheral to the discussion, starting a dialogue on science / faith would be distracting at best, and probably even destructive. I would hazard to say that even in many situations where these issues are primary, starting a dialogue on evolution could still be damaging. As Gordon’s anecdote regarding missionary Anna Leonowens shows, even the truth can sometimes be a stumbling block.

I agree that dialogue, conducted in humility and grace, should be the primary mode of engagement in our discussions on the integration of faith and evolutionary science. However, I do not think dialogue is the best option in all cases. To promote Christian unity, there are times when we must simply remain silent. And there are other times, when the gospel is being damaged for instance, that we must choose confrontation, confrontation with humility and as much grace as possible, but still confrontation.

The question of course is this: When should we dialogue, when should we remain silent, and when should we confront? Each individual situation will require its own wisdom, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But are there principles that can help us make these choices, principles that will minimize the times we confront when we should be dialoguing, or dialogue when we should remain silent? How do we balance church unity against the need to correct potentially damaging ideas about science & biblical interpretation? How do we seek self-correction (for none of us have all the answers), when the correction being offered is an abandonment of the integrity of science or the scriptures or even of the gospel itself? How do we achieve dialogue when others are not interested in pursuing dialogue?

I’m still struggling with these questions.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Interpreting the Genesis Creation Accounts in the Light of Modern ANE History

This is a guest post by Gordon Glover, author of Beyond the Firmament.
Modern evangelicals have one unfortunate thing in common with modern atheists, modern agnostics, and modern liberals—they are all modern. In other words, we all tend to have inappropriate and unrealistic expectations as to what something written by the hand of God should look like to 21st century believers 3500 years after the fact. Here is just one example:

“God would never incorporate any themes or ideas from the pagan cultures surrounding Israel. That is simply not befitting of Holy Scripture!”
Is that so? Who decided this? Unfortunately, once we draw this shortsighted line in the sand, we have no choice but to defend the Bible against all archaeological evidence that challenges the Bible’s originality. The problem is that year after year, more and more ancient cuneiform tablets are unearthed that not only predate the Hebrew language (and therefore the OT), but also appear to be source material for many of our favorite OT Bible stories. By continuing to ignore or explain away this material, we are actually subverting our Christian witness by being intellectually dishonest. Perhaps in our zeal to defend God’s Word against worldly attacks, we have backed ourselves into an impossible corner. And our only way out is to attack those for whose salvation we toil.

Let’s take the Hebrew cosmos for instance. This 3-story model of the universe with its flat earth, vaulted sky, and waters above the heavens, is structurally no different than the Mesopotamian and Egyptian cosmologies—both of which God’s people would have been very familiar with (Joshua 24:3, Exodus 1:15-19; 2:1-10, Acts 7:22)—which explains why we can find many references to this model throughout the Bible. While this ancient Near-Eastern (ANE) model of the universe might make little sense to us today, could it have possibly served a useful purpose to the Hebrews as they left Egypt and headed for the promised land? What if God, in his infinite wisdom, had very good reasons for borrowing this ANE cosmology? Rather than run from this idea, let us embrace it for a moment.

What would have been the reaction of the notoriously hard-headed Hebrews if Moses came down from Sinai and said something like,

“Hey guys, check this out. God just told me about creation and guess what? You’re never gonna believe this, but the earth is actually round! No kidding! And there is no solid firmament holding back an ocean of water above us either—can you believe those silly Egyptians? No wonder God kicked their butt! And the earth is actually whirling though space at incredible speeds with the other planets, and there are two more planets that we didn’t even know about! As soon as we get to the Promised
Land, we’re starting a university!”

You might think I’m just trying to be funny, but this is actually what many modern Christians expect to see when they read Genesis. But could there have been other important considerations at the time—perhaps more important than giving the Hebrews a 21st century cosmology?

To illustrate why God is God and we are not, let me relate to you a familiar story that I recently heard. When an English schoolteacher named Anna Leonowens (i.e. Anna and the King) attempted to teach Siamese children about water freezing in the sky and falling to earth in white flakes called snow, her students did not marvel at her knowledge of meteorology. They were actually very offended. In fact, the adult classroom helpers actually asked her to leave. The Siamese people were quite offended that Anna would think them so gullible as to believe such absurdities. The entire incident completely destroyed her credibility. Only the King was able to restore her teaching authority after he reassured the class, with eyewitness testimony (the king was educated in England), that her statement about snow was factually correct.

So already we can see one good reason why God would do such a thing with the telling of His own creation story—even if the material details given fail to satisfy the scientific demands of some future culture such as our 21st century western world. God was wisely protecting the tenuous credibility of His prophet, Moses. The monotheistic creation account of Genesis, set against the backdrop of the pagan polytheistic versions, would have already represented a radical paradigm shift for any ANE people. But had God also elected to correct the erroneous ANE cosmology, this powerful monotheistic message would have been completely obscured by the incredible physical details needed to describe the universe as we know it today.

Now this raises a very interesting question for those who practice “creation science”. If the purpose of the Hebrew creation story was not to provide Israel (or us) with accurate scientific knowledge about the cosmos, why then do so many Christians reject any version of natural history that fails to conform to the Hebrew account?

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Extending the Dialogue: Guest Posts

One of the objectives of my blog is to initiate discussion on evolution and its implications for an Evangelical expression of the Christian faith. That is why the word “Dialogue” appears in the blog title. However, I'm not sure it’s appropriate to call this blog a dialogue when in fact I'm the only one that is posting. Comments are great, and I certainly appreciate the discussion that has occurred, but I believe having others provide posts of their own will enhance the conversation.

In the coming months (starting tomorrow) I’m planning to invite several guest posters to this blog. These posters will share my commitment to the integrity of scripture and science, but will not necessarily agree with all of my views on how scripture and the scientific data should be interpreted, or the theological implications of those interpretations. (Then again, sometimes I’m not sure even I agree with my own position in all areas!). Although I may make suggestions for a post topic, they will be given free rein on what to post. Of course, that means I can provide my own feedback in the comments.

Looking forward to extending the Dialogue.

Monday, 3 September 2007

Recommended Blog: Quintessence of Dust

Evangelical biologists have only recently started speaking out publicly about their support for biological evolution. I could be wrong (ie. I’m inviting correction), but I don’t think any Evangelical biologist spoke out publicly about their support for evolution prior to 25 years ago. And all the books targeted to a lay audience have appeared in the last 10 years (See books by Collins, Falk, Colling, and Wilcox).

Books like these are important for initiating a discussion on evolution and faith within the Evangelical community, but I think other mediums, including weblogs, can also perform a positive role. As such I’d like to recommend a new weblog by Calvin College biologist Stephen Matheson called Quintessence of Dust. He states that on his blog he:

… will deal with issues of science and Christian faith, focusing on genetics, development, evolution, neuroscience and topics related. I'll regularly address intelligent design and creationism, among other scientific issues that attract the attention of evangelical Christians. My main theme will be scientific explanation.

Since I have no formal training in biology, my own explanations for evolution often demonstrate my relatively shallow understanding of the details. So I’m very happy to welcome to the blogsphere someone who shares a commitment to the integrity of science and scripture, but whose understanding of the details of biological evolution is anything but shallow. Matheson has already contributed two excellent posts. In On common descent and Explanation he discusses the explanatory power of common descent. In Which came first, The bird or the smaller genome? he examines the fascinating link between the ability to fly and small genomes, and how common descent can explain this pattern – something that ID can not.

I’m looking forward to following this blog – check it out.