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.