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Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Evolution and Faith: Communicating their Compatibility in Christian Higher Education

This is a guest-post by biologist Richard Colling, and is the fifth installment in our “Evangelicals, Evolution, and Academics” series. Richard is the author of the book Random Designer.

“God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and a sound mind.” II Timothy 1:7

One would think this verse would energize and enable all Christians in the mission of confidently communicating Christ’s primary messages of love, forgiveness, and relationship. Yet from first-hand experience as a veteran biology educator at a Christian university I can attest that something is tragically amiss: A peripheral issue (evolution) is getting in the way. Indeed, an ungodly and consuming fear of evolution has engulfed the Christian community. And when fear reigns, power, love, and sound thinking are casualties. In addition, this disabling fear is as contagious as influenza or AIDS – blindly passed from generation to generation, hence not easy to overcome.

This fear infecting the Christian community derives from concern that the foundations of the faith, based upon literal interpretations of scripture, are being undermined by the claims of science. Regarding evolution, this concern seems legitimate, especially in light of advances in biology and genetics. The human genome project - a 3.1-billion letter linear digital directory of humanity - was deciphered in 2003. Now, for the first time in history, we have acquired the letter-by-letter document revealing humanity’s present and past genetic connections with all other life at levels of precision never before imagined. This is not your mother or father’s gap-laden fossil record. Rather, it is an exquisitely-defined map of our entire evolutionary history! So how do Christian educators in the sciences help people recognize that their fear of evolution is unnecessary?

Teaching with Truth and Love
I believe that education is the key, but it is essential to recognize that there is much more to education than just reciting scientific facts and concepts. If we legitimately claim the badge of bona fide secular or Christian educators, we must unapologetically speak the truth of science, but we must also do so with a sensitive, loving, and accepting spirit – actively engaging students where they are at.

When my book, Random Designer was published, a National Public Radio interviewer asked an intriguing question: “What is the greatest challenge you experience in teaching evolution at a Christian college?” I told her that the greatest challenge had nothing to do with teaching evolution per se: Evolution is what it is. Rather, I told her that my greatest challenge was to sensitively listen to and gauge my students’ backgrounds and understanding so that I could effectively reassure them that new understandings in science need never threaten their faith.

In a diverse classroom of 230 students, this is no small undertaking because it flies in the face of what they have been taught growing up. For students coming from very conservative Christian backgrounds where evolution is routinely pronounced as evil and regarded as a litmus test of Christian orthodoxy, the challenge is to encourage and affirm them in their faith. For non-believing students, the task is different, but no less important - encouraging them to keep an open mind - perhaps even giving this God thing a second look. When successful in striking just the right balance in the classroom – speaking the truth in love while also recognizing and affirming each student where they are in their spiritual and intellectual journey - something magical happens. The preconditioned division and discord that they brought to the classroom begins to melt away - replaced by understanding and acceptance.

The Importance of Language, Words, and Emotions
As I suggested above, teaching the actual scientific facts of evolution is straightforward. However, if the goal is actual student learning and effective integration, two practical obstacles come into play - both of which must be successfully addressed.

The first obstacle is language - the words we use to communicate meaning and purpose. The unfortunate reality is that words like randomness, evolution, and mutation positively drip with ambiguity – frequently poorly defined and easily misunderstood. The consequences for relationships can be disastrous as well-meaning good people talk right past one another and misunderstanding, confusion, and agitation escalates. Therefore, it is absolutely critical that terms like mutation and evolution are precisely defined and understood by all parties.

The second and perhaps the most significant obstacle to understanding evolution and mapping a path to peace is that in addition to being poorly defined, words such as mutation and evolution often carry enormous negative emotional baggage. Emotions are powerful because they typically (at least initially - until we have counted to ten!) overwhelm rationality. After all, I doubt you would take it kindly if someone called you a mutant! In addition, although actually inherently compatible when properly understood, referencing seemingly counterintuitive words like random and evolution in the same sentence with God is likely to elicit red-faced responses from even some of the most sedate Christians and secular scientists.

These two things – imprecise definitions and negative emotions - erect powerful barriers to effective communication and understanding of evolution.

It has been said that people do not care how much you know until they know how much you care. In my experience, this is true. Therefore, the first step in overcoming resistance to evolution is is to establish understanding and trust.

At Stake: A Credible Faith
Twenty-first century college students are a savvy and discerning lot: They can smell a fraud a mile away. On the other hand, they appreciate a Christian educator who respects and cares enough about them to speak the transparent truth regarding controversial subjects like evolution. In short, they want and deserve the real stuff – including everything that modern biology and genetics can teach them. Then, armed with actual knowledge and understanding, they can intelligently make up their own minds how to put it all together. My experience is that they do this very well.

It is truly a sad day in the life of a Christian community when new understanding and insights into God’s marvelous creation revealed by biology and genetics - including evolution - are viewed as a threat to faith. No doubt there are many legitimate questions to address, but continued denial of evolution by the Christian community is a sure-fire losing proposition for the credibility of the gospel and our Christian faith. We can, and must do better. The next generation is depending on us to confidently speak the truth in love - and with no fear!

21 comments:

dennis said...

Richard, thanks for this. Of course you are preaching to the choir here, but I value the fact that after many years of teaching you continue to hold to this faithful approach. It is my prayer that more of us will hear God's call to speak the truth in love on this issue.

I'm sure that despite your sensitive approach, every so often you will have students for whom this issue is deeply troubling. Have you had to deal with anger, complaints to administrators, calls from parents, etc? Do you have any advice for those who likely will have to deal with these issues in the future?

Stephen Douglas said...

It is truly a sad day in the life of a Christian community when new understanding and insights into God’s marvelous creation revealed by biology and genetics - including evolution - are viewed as a threat to faith. No doubt there are many legitimate questions to address, but continued denial of evolution by the Christian community is a sure-fire losing proposition for the credibility of the gospel and our Christian faith.

Heartily agreed! Thanks for this excellent reminder of the importance of getting out from behind our fear of man and allowing our fear of God to embolden us to tell Christians the truth. Anyone who feels lied to is susceptible to a crippling mistrust of any and everything from the lying source. No doubt this is why many former YECs turn away from the faith: they don't know where the fairy tales that respected Christian leaders told them stop and where the truth begins, so they chunk it all. We have to talk to these young Christians at the college level.

Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

I would guess to venture that faculty and staff at the school are required to have some core set of beliefs. For example, I doubt you would be a teacher at the school if you believe in the flying spaghetti monster.

So, in your school, if you were the teacher that taught 2+2=4, then I doubt there would be much controversy in your classroom. It does not undermine the core beliefs you have to have to attend or teach at the school.

But what your teaching strikes a nerve at the core of the school. Until the time that the school settles that the world is old, and it evolved, evolution will only be whispered in dark corners of the school.

It doesn’t matter how pretty the tap dance about evolution is, if it goes against the core beliefs of the pastor’s and the administration of the school. That’s where change must occur.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Richard,
Given the struggles you have encountered (and are still encountering!), I admire the way you focus on the message rather than problems you have had delivering the message. As Dennis said, you are somewhat preaching to the choir hear (ok, I know there is strong minority of readers that vigorously deny they are in this choir :-) ). But, this is exactly the message our choir needs to hear - the right message delivered in the wrong way, or delivered before really listening, is often counterproductive. So thanks.

And I’d echo Stephen’s point that it is College age Christians (and non-Christians!) that need to hear this message of compatibility the most. So thanks for your ongoing work.

I do have one question. You’ve been doing this for a pretty long time. Have you seen the reaction to the message change over the years? Do you believe that this generation is “getting it” more than previous generations?

Cliff Martin said...

Thank you, Richard, for your very thoughtful contribution to our discussions. I picked up your book a few months back, and very much appreciated your approach to these issues. (For readers who have not yet read Random Designer, I offer my review which can be read here as a sort of "Cliff's Notes"). I admire your levity and gracious spirit, qualities which are difficult to maintain in this often heated controversy. And your complete absence of acrimony in this present writing over the treatment you received last summer, acrimony which most of us could well understand and excuse, is remarkable. Thank you for leading us in this way.

Martin LaBar said...

Well said! Thank you.

Steve Martin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve Martin said...

Quick note. It seems some published comments on this specific post are not showing up on the site (including those by Richard Colling). I'm looking into this now. If you have this problem, please email your comments to me at: steven.dale.martin@gmail.com and I will publish them myself.

Steve Martin said...

The following is an update that Richard Colling sent to me via email

Thanks so much for the many kind comments. From the depths of my being, my heart and calling has always been that I would communicate a message of peace and harmony between science and faith - a message that is true and consistent with our core beliefs AND scientific integrity.

I am convinced that the next generation holds the key.

I saw a few questions, so I will try to address them as best I can.

Dennis, you said,

I'm sure that despite your sensitive approach, every so often you will have students for whom this issue is deeply troubling. Have you had to deal with anger, complaints to administrators, calls from parents, etc? Do you have any advice for those who likely will have to deal with these issues in the future?

I suppose that if I had it all figured out, the current problems I am experiencing would either never have occurred or be quickly resolved. Unfortunately, the events of last summer have actually become much worse. I will explain in a bit, but I will try to offer what little I might in the context of "what I think I have learned."

I have had virtually no trouble with students. Sure, there are occasional conservative students who have been taught that evolution is evil, hence anyone, especially a Christian professor, who acknowledges evolution is quickly placed in this evil category. (Teaching students not to believe the bible, doesn't believe in miracles etc.) At first I suppose these hostile responses hurt, but over time, I have been able to recognize that the students are just plain afraid. They have been taught to fear evolution. (I suppose this is because its explanatory power for creative events and life is so substantial and authoritative.) The worse thing for them AND me is to react to their fear or become defensive, especially on an emotional level, even though it may seem like they truly are attacking your professional expertise, personal character, and Christian experience. Sometimes in front of a hundred or so other students who are watching this interplay like hawks to see where it will go. I think the old adage, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" applies here. I am fortunate to teach at a Christian college where personal interaction with students is encouraged. I also begin every class period with a short devotional (2-5 minutes). Over the course of several weeks, I hope (and believe I have fairly good success) to model the Christian life before their very eyes in all aspects of the class - demonstrating that I care about them, the faith, and the integrity of science. Slowly they begin to understand that I will tell them the truth and that I will not judge them. Once this trust is established, when we discuss controversial topics like evolution, abortion, stem cell research, and other things like this, they know that they are in a "safe" environment where they will be accepted wherever they are at in their understanding or personal convictions - even if they are atheists.
So no problem with students. I have time for them to get to know me before we deal with evolution, and we build up to evolution with basic cell structure, genetics and such gradually so it does not simply drop on them in one day.

HOWEVER. Complaints from outside parents and pastors and board of trustee members are a major problem. For the most part I think these people are well-meaning, but the manner in which they express their hostility is sometimes VERY uninformed and VERY unchristian. Dealing with them has become my entire life for the past two years.

In my case here, two or three board of trustee members apparently decided that it was their god-ordained duty to get rid the university of this person (me) who was so openly teaching evolution and had written a book acknowledging it. (I think it is okay here as long as you are sufficiently apologetic and do your best to keep it a secret that you are teaching evolution.)
The key to dealing with this is a strong administration (president and academic dean) who will resolutely stand on truth, facts and principle - defending the faculty members' academic freedom to teach the truth of his/her discipline without pressure or threat by outside influences. Unfortunately, although initially firm, when the pressure continued, our president completely caved. I just posted a short description of this on my web site. Here is the link.

OlivetControversy Update

I will share more if folks are interested, but it is a sad commentary on Nazarene Christian clergy leaders.

Tom said...

There are several things I appreciate about this post, mostly the evidence of experience and the required patience for any education/interchange to be positive for it to be able to continue in any way. Thanks for sharing this, Richard. I can totally see how your situation at Olivet played out and is probably occurring and will occur at several Christian institutions for years to come.

RBH said...

As the 'house atheist' I don't have a stake in the theological bases of Professor Colling's troubles, but as an educator and citizen and human being I do have a stake in the educational issue and a good deal of sympathy for the personal issues he faces. I was a professor once, too. :)

A question that I haven't seen mentioned in the discussions of Professor Colling's travails is the potential effect on younger faculty members at Olivet and other Christian colleges. I was a tenured full professor at one time, and believed that part of my duty to the (secular) college in which I taught was to protect younger faculty when they spoke out on topics of dispute in the college. It was rarely required (I can think of only two instances in 20 years at the college) but a necessary protection for young untenured people.

What effect can one expect to see on younger faculty members at Christian institutions as a consequence of Professor Colling's troubles? At the least I would expect some self-censorship, some increased defensiveness on the part of those who see evolutionary creationism as an appropriate accommodation between their religious beliefs and their science. At worst it will lead to a process of self-selection in which those who are evolutionary creationists and theistic evolutionists will steer themselves away from Christian institutions and toward more secular institutions.

The effect of that self-selection on the part of young faculty will be to erode the protected environment for students that Professor Colling writes of. Erode the protection for teachers and one erodes the protection for students.

Of course, if their teachers don't teach evolution (and the self-selection and self-censorship will encourage that-- it's what has happened in public schools all over the country for decades), there will be no need for a protected learning environment for the students. Those who have created Professor Colling's problem will have accomplished their goal: students will be protected by their ignorance, not by thoughtful consideration of the relation between their faith and science, and maintaining ignorance is easy.

Other ideas?

RBH said...

I forgot to add the 'stinger' at the end of my post. The last two sentences should read:

Those who have created Professor Colling's problem will have accomplished their goal: students will be protected by their ignorance, not by thoughtful consideration of the relation between their faith and science, and maintaining ignorance is easy. For a while.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Rbh,
Very astute comments on the effects on younger faculty. Richard writes about his difficult decision to write the book, knowing full well that there would be antagonism from many quarters (see his update that I referenced in yesterday’s post). But Colling is a senior member of the faculty, a former head of the biology department, and winner of a “best teacher” award. He has loads of political capital here. What about junior members, and particularly untenured junior members? Well of course that makes a decision to publish a book like Random Designer much more difficult - even potentially foolhardy if the salient metric is career enhancement. At a minimum, this makes untenured faculty very, very careful. (From my own limited conversations in this area, I know for a fact this happens).

One other note: IMO the whole “academic freedom” discussion is different at Christian (or other religious) institutions. Faith based schools do have the right to promote and protect their faith. How this promotion and protection plays out, should play out, and what limits should be imposed on it, I’m not exactly sure (much, much longer discussion). But, the most important issue here isn’t so much academic freedom (although there is that as well). The most important issue is the faith of ONU students and their thoughtful consideration of the relationship between science and faith. And, as you implied, protecting them from this thoughtful engagement is dangerous.

I’m an optimist. I believe that those elements within Evangelicalism that are trying to protect our students through ignorance will be ultimately unsuccessful. Unfortunately, in the short term, there will be (many, many) specific environments where a positive relationship between science and faith cannot be proclaimed. Richard is trying hard to ensure ONU is not one of these.

RBH said...

Well, I won't presume to forecast; I don't know what course Christian colleges will take. But looking at Colling's situation, and looking back at Howard Van Till's (PDF), I'm not as optimistic. If senior faculty members of that stature can be brought low by the forces of what I can only call willed ignorance, then it's hard to see much hope for junior people. Devaluing inquiry, questioning, and honest attempts at accommodation between what is learned from general revelation (to use the theological term) and from special revelation is a mind killer.

For those who are wondering, I'm not a concern troll. Having fought in the evolution/creationism wars for over 20 years, from the days of the Committees of Correspondence on Evolution Education, I know that the strongest allies in the political battles entailed by that issue are Christians who have thought through the issue and have come to what they deem to be a satisfactory (if not completely comfortable) accommodation between the two sources of revelation. So long as that accommodation does not entail rejecting the integrity of science I'm happy to have them as allies.

We have a "situation" brewing in my local school district where a fundamentalist middle school science teacher has been running what amounts to a private Christian school embedded in the public schools (Google News search; the news stories don't exhaust the allegations.) Members of his congregation, an Assembly of Christ church, have been purporting to speak for all Christians in the public discussions. "Moderate" Christians are beginning to resent that, and will be the main political force supporting the school board when it disciplines him, as it surely will.

But that support for good science teaching is coming solely from the lay public so far. A potential source of support for the integrity of science, the science faculty at a local Nazarene university, has been completely silent. To my knowledge there has been no public comment from any member of that faculty. The last time this issue arose in the same school district five years ago, members of the science faculty of that institution spoke on both sides of the question. The sole speaker on the side of creationism at that time, Georgia Purdom, has since left to join AIG; the others are still on the Naz faculty. Now that faculty is silent. The chilling effect of disciplining respected senior faculty like Colling and Van Till apparently isn't confined to their home institutions.

RBH said...

Oops. It's a fundamentalist Assembly of God church, not Assembly of Christ.

Anonymous said...

It appears that my comment critical of Colling and you was deleted. I said nothing derogatory about either of you personally. I wish to know if my comment was in fact deleted, in which case I will leave this post as you are obviously not interested in contrasting opinion.
Carpenter

Cliff Martin said...

Carpenter,
Please note Steve's (the host) comment above (about the 7th comment in the thread) in which he apologized for several comments failing to appear. In Steve's defense, I will tell you that he loves contrasting opinions, and has (to my knowledge) never censured comments merely because of a difference of opinion.
As Steve himself invited, simply email your earlier comment to him and he will post it, or more simply, resubmit it. I look forward to reading it.
~ Cliff

Steve Martin said...

Hi Walt (Carpenter),
Cliff is correct. I rarely delete comments on this blog (I think around 5 or 6 ever) - mostly for profanity, threats & willful & consistent spam (have had all of these). And no I didn't delete any earlier comments - something funny was happening friday/saturday & you appear to be one of the unlucky ones whose comments were lost. Sorry about that.

For now, I'm going to assume your comment was the one you then left on an earlier post - I'm going to repeat it here (correct me if I'm wrong):

I have no doubt of the sincerety of Dr. Colling's, Dr. Henry Morris' or your faith. But I nevertheless believe that each of you are doing harm to the Kingdom by promulgating what I believe to be false teaching. You seem to ignore the massive problems with macroevolution and how it directly contradicts Genesis' statement that each specie was created "after its kind." Morris' young earth creationism is hermeneutically unnecessary and scientifically absurd, which causes many to think that "the Bible is wrong," and keeps people from being saved.

While I am in favor of academic freedom, that freedom is granted to the institution, not the individual professor. I certainly understand the great concern expressed by his colleagues. He has no right to whine about the results.


First, check out my reply to this comment in the other thread.

Re: kinds.
There are other ways to intepret kinds in genesis that remain faithful to the scriptures. For example, see: Carl Drew's essay on Kinds.

RBH said...

Carpenter wrote

While I am in favor of academic freedom, that freedom is granted to the institution, not the individual professor.

Writing as an ex-professor with 20 years experience in a private liberal arts college, including having been both chair of an academic department and chair of the faculty of the college, I find Carpenter's remark to be dangerously mistaken. It precisely reverses the relationship between faculty and institution with respect to academic freedom. Academic freedom refers to the right of faculty members to explore their disciplines without fear of institutional reprisal. It adheres to the individual, not the institution. Any other definition requires the invention of some other term, to avoid confusion with its original and current meaning in at least secular institutions. I do hope that sectarian institutions don't render a good term useless, or worse, deceptive, by reversing its meaning.

Walt Carpenter said...

Steve:

Thanks for your explanation and reply. Christian institutions normally require a specific statement of faith/covenant that the professor will teach in accordance with and not contrary to. I would think that teaching macroevolution would violate most of these covenants. I am aware of the arguments on "after its kind" but I think that is a stretch that does violence to simple language and I suspect most Christians would too. I therefore repeat that the professor has no legitimate beef.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Walt,
Actually, if you want to go by the letter-of-the-law, Colling has 100% legitimate "beef". ONU has no statement of faith/covenant that explicitly denies any aspect of evolution. It is fascinating to compare the situations of the last two authors in this series, Richard Colling at ONU and Stephen Matheson at Calvin. Colling is being disciplined even though he is breaking no official policy / covenant / statement of faith of his university or church (Church of the Nazarene). Matheson, on the other hand, explicitly supports common descent even though the CRC Creation Statement says “The clear teaching of Scripture and the confessions rules out holding views that support the reality of evolutionary forebears of the human race.” Read Matheson’s explanation of his rather odd situation in his two-part essay on Evolution at Calvin College part 1 and Part 2.

For further background on Colling’s situation (where I first point out the irony above) see:
My post from Sept 2007 on his situation

For Church of Nazarene statement on creation, see page 371 of The Manual of the Church of the Nazarene.