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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.


Cliff Martin said...

As you know, the purveyors of Young Earth Creationism, and Intelligent Design, have a stranglehold on the masses of evangelical Christians. For many years, the Christian scientific community has held its peace. Knowing that they are outnumbered in the conservative wing of the North American church, they made the politically savvy choice to keep their understandings to themselves. It is a clear case of truth being repressed by various blackmail manipulations. And it angers me. But it seems that the scientist/believers are beginning to come out of the closet. And the results of this are bound to get very ugly. I sometimes fear that this issue will do a lot of tearing in the Church over the next decade. It is hard for me to see how we can make it though the huge sea-change that will be necessary without many casualties. This makes me sad.

RBH said...

I suppose as an assertive atheist I should laugh and giggle, or perhaps sneer superciliously, at the sight of Christians persecuting their own. But I can't do that -- I'm a moral person who dislikes watching the infliction of pain, be it physical or emotional, particularly pain inflicted on innocents. And I was a professor in a small private liberal arts college for 20 years and know from direct experience how Colling feels about his students, present and former. I know how much it means to have a former student come back decades later and thank one for the teaching and learning they did in one's classes. It actually happened to me just this evening -- a former student of decades past, whom I had not seen in 15 years, happened to be in town for a meeting of some alumni, saw me in the college bookstore, and stopped to talk about it.

Folks like you, Martin, are caught between the anvil of intellectual honesty and the theological hammer of fundamentalist literalism. Atheists like me aren't the fundamentalists' worst enemy and greatest fear. You are. They can easily blow me off as just an atheistic scientist purveying allegedly morally bankrupt materialism (I reject that description, by the way, particularly the "morally bankrupt" part). They're immune to me. But not to you. You bring them face to face with the fact -- and it is a fact -- that Christian believers can also accept the findings, theories and explanations generated by science. My friends and colleagues who are Christians can do so, and they face more calumny from creationist fundamentalists than I do. I am by self-definition immune to their social power. I can't be expelled from their community of faith because in being an atheist I place myself out of their reach. Christians who accept science, however, must be expelled from their faith community -- Christians who accept science cannot be allowed to stay inside the community of self-defined 'believers'. Colling is learning that now; others will feel it, too, as and when the fundamentalists gain more power in the various 'traditional' denominations. Denominations from Episcopals to Baptists are fighting internally now, and schisms are appearing everywhere. You Christian folks who accept science are in for a bloody battle, I'm afraid.

Cliff Martin said...

to rbh: I fear you are right. I hope you are wrong.

Steve Martin said...


Thanks for you comments. Regarding the threat to “creationist fundamentalism”, this is an astute comment, and in many ways you are absolutely right. The fact that a large majority of Christian scientists are completely comfortable with the scientific consensus, and that many other Christians share this view, is very threatening to the “faith” of “fundamentalist creationists”. That’s why their emphasis during the debate is often not on the science, but on the “Christian credentials” of those that accept the scientific consensus. And thus, the Christian accepting of evolution often faces more vitriol than the atheist (although, “blowing the atheist off” is hardly a Christ-like way of engagement – but that is a sin I to must confess from time-to-time). However, I’d argue that we are a threat only to the fundamentalist conception of “faith”, and not true faith in Christ. That is why I think this dialogue is important: Christian anti-evolutionism is actually damaging to faith in Christ, and makes is much less likely that others will be attracted to the gospel. So, in many ways, you and I are fighting the same battle but for different reasons.

Regarding the impending internal “bloody battle”, I, like Cliff, certainly hope not. But our record over the last 2000 years hasn’t been all that spectacular in that department, so I can understand his pessimism even if I don’t totally share it (yet).

Tom said...

This is sadly, not an abnormal story. Of my grade school to college years in Christian education, it was always the most open-minded teachers that were provocative and actually encouraged thinking and learning. They were also the ones most severely reprimanded for students' 'unrighteous' behavior. One of my Bible instructors was even criticized after a survey showed his Bible class was the most appreciated class in the school. The implication was that if we were enjoying it more than say, gymnastics, then he probably wasn't teaching it correctly!

That being said, well, I'm in the "evolution=atheist" camp and over the course of who knows how long, I hope to help illuminate my mindset through my blog. In many ways, I'm so far past those fundamental years and now in the very pro-science/evolution/atheist camp. But you know how it was always the preacher's kids in college that went wild? I guess I'm still living the extremes that fundamentalism sets up, seeing evolution as nearly the answer to everything -- even God. (Once a fundy always a fundy?)

That being said, I look forward to reading Richard Collings' book and sharing my thoughts with you guys because the Christian God and randomness are like oil and water to me, part of my latest post.

Anonymous said...

I am glad to see others that see this not as a battle between science and religion, but a battle for the heart of the church. I grew up in a Methodist church and spent a childhood and college life learning all I could about science. During that time the conversations regarding science and the book of Genesis or Science and the story of Noah, never came up. It was all in the philosophy of “The bible teaches you how to go to heaven, and not how the heavens go.”

The big conflict in my childhood was the end of times. The preacher that was certain that Armageddon was to occur in 1975, had a big influence on me, and when his claims did not come true, it caused me to walk away from the church. I had thought, if they lied to me about “that” then they must have lied about all the rest too.

About 20 years later it seemed to me that I had encountered God. In an instant it all became clear to me that God was real, and there was very little that could rattle my faith. I went on this merry journey for about 10 years, and it was wonderful. It is more comforting to believe in God, than it is to not.

But then one day, I got knocked off my place of comfort. A preacher came along at taught about an earth that was 6000 years old. He taught all of science was from Satan, and that if I didn’t believe the bible word for word, then I had to throw out my entire faith. I thought about that for a while and I realized that other’s in the church believed that exact same thing. As I looked around, I realized the church school was teaching a song called “Behemus is a dinosaur,” and Noah took him on the Ark.

I guess this was the time of the Dover trial, and the big debate in Kansas. I read everything I could about the debate and read almost the entire transcript to the Dover trial, and found it more fascinating than any book of the time. I asked the same question as the judge. Why would a man of faith, lie under oath? Meanwhile on Christian radio, preacher after preacher taught, “hate Darwin, hate science, only God’s word is true”. The told fantastic stories about how all the animals, including dinosaurs could fit on Noah’s ark. But most disturbing of all was the great Christian challenge. If you believe what the science says, then you can not believe in God. If Adam and Eve wasn’t real, and was just a story, then Jesus died to redeem the sins of a story book.

One day, my faith collapsed. I realized once again, the church had lied to me. If they are going to lie to me about geology, and biology and archeology and astronomy, then, they probably lied to me about that Jesus thing and God.

Look, the true damage of all this is the children of the church. One day, they look at 300 million years of geology in a cannon in Utah, and in an instant realize the church lied to them. On that day, they will walk away too.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Tom,
Wow! The gospel is expected to be boring? That’s a pretty big hint that their interpretation of the gospel has to be completely bogus. Thanks for your comments.

Welcome … and thanks for your story. I too grew up in an environment where there was an inordinate (and extremely unhealthy) fixation on the end times. Actually, my background is in the Plymouth Brethren whose founder (Darby) more-or-less invented dispensational premillennialism in the early 19th century. This thinking has had a HUGE impact on the North American fundamentalist & evangelical church, as can be attested by the recently popular "Left Behind" series. This fixation on a non-biblical eschatology is, I believe, the flip side of the young earth creationist coin. Both are recent (heretical?) theological innovations that distract and detract from the Kingdom of Christ. Looks like you’ve been hit by both of these pretty hard. Hopefully you haven’t been completely jaded by this version of the gospel, which is frankly no gospel at all. Actually, your story probably fits in better with an earlier discussion we had here on why the discussion of evolution is important. See my earlier post at: http://evanevodialogue.blogspot.com/2007/06/evangelicalism-and-evolution-why.html. Actually, if I had to write this post again, I’d make sure I emphasized the dogmatic interpretation of scriptures. See Vance M.’s post at http://euangelion.wordpress.com/2007/09/04/creationism-v-evolution-the-danger-of-misplaced-dogmatism/ which got me thinking about this.