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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.


Anonymous said...

I'm so glad to see someone addressing this issue.

I think the "when" is going to take a longer than my lifetime. I'd love to be surprised, but it's a major shift for a lot of people.

Greg Myers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Greg Myers said...

I had a similar experience with an EPC church. After preaching regularly for some 15 years (I was an elder in the church as well), I was suspended from preaching as a result of stating publicly that I believed in evolution. I was not accused of heresy; no one in any official capacity suggested that I had said anything incorrect- they just wished I had kept silent on the subject. The session decided to have me removed from preaching to placate a group of vocal Young Earth Creationists.

On an odd note, no one approached me personally to confront me about my statements - the only fist-hand feedback I got was positive, from folks who also believed in evolution, and were appreciative of hearing support for evolution (and science in general) voiced from the front.

This experience has led me to think that silence on this matter is unwise. There are significant theological, biblical and scientific errors involved in a Young Earth Creationist position, and silence in the face of their certainty and passion, though the easy road, leads to the impression that the leadership is endorsing their position.

Cliff Martin said...


I believe you are right. We must not keep silent (see earlier post on this blog from Sept. 10, Dialog, Debate, Silence, or ... and the comments thread). The fact is there are some significant theological issues to be addressed in light of evolution. I wish to get on to that discussion. But until a wider acceptance of the science of evolution is gained, any such discussion of the theological ramifications will always get side-tracked.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

My first thought is, this is an excellent reason for not attending ONU (and maybe not other Christian universities, either). In the secular world, academic freedom is a cherished ideal. Universities are places of intellectual inquiry, and it doesn't promote learning to rule some ideas out of court.

Obviously, Christian universities are going to have some sacrosanct positions, unlike secular institutions. But it appears, from your summary, that ONU has no official position on evolution, but still stifles intellectual freedom! That's appalling, and a good reason to study elsewhere. Why would students voluntarily study at a place that doesn't value intellectual excellence?

• Greg:
If no one approached you to your face, I guess they must have approached other church leaders behind your back. Again, I'm apalled.

It is a serious mistake — indeed, it's contrary to explicit biblical instruction — to let those people question your fitness for leadership without talking to you directly first. The church leaders who took action against you are pandering to the worst kind of narrow, unspiritual behaviour.

Steve Martin said...

Vera: Major shift for many Christians - definitely. However, I'm more optimistic that I will see a general acceptance in my lifetime - I also think that this (along with other big issues) will result in something of another split in Evangelicalism. That's another long story though.

Greg: Thanks for your story. Not sure if you've ever heard Terry Gray's story. See: http://www.asa3.org/gray/evolution_trial/ for some docs on his "trial" in the OPC. (I'm not sure if the EPC & OPC are related).

Cliff: You are right that there is a risk that we can't get on with the discussion of the theological implications of evolution because we constantly get sidetracked responding to hostile reactions to evolution. However, I really do think there is getting to be a critical mass of Evangelicals that are willing to have that discussion. At least I'm hopeful.

Stephen: I really had the same initial reaction to the ONU / Colling situation. But after some discussion (on ASA list & some private email exchanges) I'm now hesitant to judge. I'm betting the administration was put between a rock & a hard place and they were in danger of losing some of their constituency (ie. major fundraising). Here's a good quote from one email from a TE supporter commenting on the situation:
In many ways I don't like it, but not all Christians have absolute freedom and in difficult situations have to make the best decision to avoid collapse.
Evangelical colleges have to live with this kind of problem and those of us who are not in such a situation need to be more understanding, and possibly silently reserve judgment.
I would add that all of us have to make less than ideal decisions in certain situations and may trim our sails to make headway. Time will tell.

In some ways, I think the YEC crowd may have lost. Yes Colling isn't teaching the course anymore (at least in the short term), and yes his book isn't on the reading list. BUT, the faculty still solidly supports evolution & still teaches it.
The college is trying to position this as a break for Colling to get out of the eye of the storm and not as "throwing him to the wolves". If this is truly a short-term thing, and no further action is taken, they may be successful and with hindsight, we'll acknowledge it was a wise decision. However, I fear that this will just give the YEC contingent boldness to push for even more (eg. Actual dismissal of Colling, removing evolution from the curriculum. In this case, we'll look at the decision as a fatal compromise.

Greg Myers said...

I think we are actually making losing ground. Did you notice this story in the Des Moines register?

"A community college instructor in Red Oak claims he was fired after he told his students that the biblical story of Adam and Eve should not be literally interpreted."


I sense a renewed activism, fueled by significant cash, aimed at establishing biblical literalism as THE acceptable approach to practicing the Christian faith.

Groups like the Discovery Institute and Liberty University have given up on the idea of separation, and are actively seeking to see that their view of theology prevails.

VBM said...

I just linked this over at Submerging Influence. Very good article. I also would highly recommend Colling's book. It does a great job reviewing this objectively.

Captain Noble said...

I think that silence is just as great an enemy to reason as the raving YECs. It is well and good for some of us to look at the situation and think that ONU does support belief in evolution, but the only thing most people on the outside see is lunatics. The ONU staff and other evangelicals who believe in evolution need to stop letting YECs and their ilk dominate the debate. They need to stand up and speak their mind to show non-Evangelicals that not all Evangelicals are rabidly anti-science.

Josh S said...

Just a note--biologists are terrible mathematicians. Controlled events are not random, by definition.

Steve Martin said...

Josh S: I guess that depends on your definition of random. What I would say however, is that random events do not mean that they are uncontrollable.

Rob said...

In response to Steven (AKA Q) - I would say that it is also a false assumption to think that secular universities are free of this intellectual bias. For there just the opposite occurs - a suppression of faith and the apologetic underlying it. Not saying the Christian institution is free of bias, but it is a shaky assumption to assume secular institutions are free from such bias.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Rob,
Welcome. I partly agree with your statement. I agree that everyone, and all institutions are "biased". However, I disagree that there is some type of epidemic of "suppression of faith" within secular academia .. at least no more suppression in academic spheres than in other spheres like politics, business, or economic policy. The series on "Evangelicals, Evolution, and Academics" starting tomorrow will be addressing this issue - including a submission from Richard Colling discussed in the OP.