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Monday, 26 May 2008

Teaching Evolution in Christian Higher Education: Faith Shaking or Faith Affirming?

This is a guest-post by biologist Dennis Venema and is the fourth installment in our “Evangelicals, Evolution, and Academics” series.

Teaching biology at the university level is a joy and privilege. There are days that I wonder at the fact that I am paid for doing what I love. Watching students “get” the material, see connections, and grow in confidence as scholars is exactly why I love what I do. While I enjoyed teaching (as a graduate student) at a large public university, I enjoy it all the more at a Christian institution. Here I get to see students develop holistically: deepening in their faith as well as honing their intellects, and all for the glory of God.

The Challenge for Christian Academics in Biology
Yet there are also days when I can be heard muttering “should have been a chemist, should have been a chemist” – my tongue-in-cheek response to the realities of being an evangelical Christian biologist. The issue is, of course, evolution. Darrel Falk puts it well when he describes his early university career:

“During those years, I was inclined towards the natural sciences and math. I found that if I restricted my intellectual energy to chemistry, physics and math, leaving aside biology, all would go much more smoothly for me. In contrast to biology, those disciplines seemed to have no direct implication for my Christian faith. Biology did, so I shied away from it in large part because studying it would entail thinking about the details of evolution, and my faith was too important to me for that.”

(Falk, Coming to Peace with Science, p.21).

Chemistry in many ways is the perfect science to teach at a Christian university. It avoids the young-earth / old-earth issues that challenge physicists and geologists, and no mention of evolution is required. If only this middle path was of stronger interest to me as an undergraduate student.

Approaches to Teaching Evolution in Christian Higher Education
There are several options for teaching evolution (1) in Christian settings. One approach is to denigrate evolution, either overtly or subtly. This is remarkably simple in practice – omit a few key details here, change of tone there, smatter some distortions of genuine scientific controversies, et voila – you are everyone’s hero, a stalwart defender of the faith. You will never ruffle feathers telling people (students, administration, parents) what many of them long to hear. The problem with this approach is, of course, one’s own intellectual honesty.

A second option is to minimize evolution – to mention it as little as possible. This is easy for a chemist, but almost impossible for a biologist. Biology without evolution is like physics without either Newton or Einstein. Or, to continue the chemistry motif, imagine if atomic theory was perceived to run counter to Christian faith – and a Christian professor needlessly emphasized gaps in current understanding to minimize or denigrate it. It is hard for non-specialists to appreciate just how central evolution is to biology, but it is precisely that central. Teaching biology without evolution reduces it to an 18th-century-style litany of descriptive lists devoid of meaningful connections. No, this way will not do either – not if we are to honour God with our hearts, souls and minds.

The more difficult path, but the one I believe needs to be followed, is to teach evolution thoroughly and to teach it well. At a secular institution, this is straightforward; at a Christian institution, this can be a nightmare. Yet few things worth attaining are easy – and Christian students deserve an education as scientifically rich as anyone. Indeed, our calling as Christian faculty behooves us to offer students the best education possible, for it is for God’s purposes that they are in training. Should we sell them short when teaching evolution, the central organizing principle of modern biology? God forbid.

Christian Universities: Ideal Settings for Learning About Evolution
A Christian university is an excellent setting for dealing with the theological implications of evolution. Students for whom evolution is a faith-shaking experience are in a place of safety – surrounded by faculty, staff and peers who care about their whole person, not just their scholarship. There are opportunities for asking hard questions, and hashing through the issues. To be sure, this is a difficult process for some students, especially those from families dedicated to young-earth creationism. For other students, it is hardly an issue at all. In either case, it is far better to deal with evolution in a setting where positive, faith-building support is available. Given the prevalent belief in our society that faith and evolution are in conflict, the absence of this support in many academic environments can lead students to confuse the evidence for evolution as being evidence against God.

Faith Shaking or Faith Affirming?
Does teaching evolution shake or affirm faith? It can do both. Ironically, the greater danger may be denying or denigrating the evidence for evolution. In the face of overwhelming evidence (and more mounting by the day) this approach sets students up for a fall in the future, should they ever closely examine the data. Then, faced with the false dichotomy of God or evolution, they cannot choose well. At best, they will choose God and reject His works; at worst they will choose His works (not seeing them for what they are) but reject Him. One of the joys of teaching biology at a Christian institution is putting the lie to this false choice. The history of the cosmos and life on earth is an amazing story, one that displays the power, creativity, majesty, and patience of our Creator. As evangelical students come to see the beauty of evolution as a vehicle for God’s creative design, many are affirmed in their faith. They see that they need not fear evidence for evolution if God Himself has ordained it as a mechanism of His creative acts in the past, present and future.

1. In this post I refer to “evolution” as the scientific consensus that all life descended from a common ancestor through natural processes of speciation (see Allan Harvey’s definitions, specifically E1 – E4). It is important to note that these scientific definitions in no way imply the absence of God in the process of evolution

22 comments:

Stephen Douglas said...

I appreciate your perspective, Dennis! I thought your comment about Christian universities being the ideal place to learn about evolution was insightful. On the other hand, I can imagine that there is a lot of time spent justifying the biological data to the faith at the expense of time spent getting the actual biological data out there in quantities comparable to that of a secular classroom. Am I right about this?

Also (and tell me if another post is on the way addressing this), when you refer to the hardships of teaching evolution, approximately what percentage of the trouble is due to pressure from students? administration? peers? parents?

Thanks again,
Stephen

Collin Brendemuehl said...

One of the challenges is to separate molecular biology from evolutionary biology. There is a presumption that evolution own biology, and that is not the case.

http://evangelicalperspective.blogspot.com/2008/05/evolution-is-apologetic-for-naturalism.html

I've a fried who teaches at a Very Major University and is a world-recognized expert on the H5N1 strains (avian bird flu), yet still accepts in special creation. There is no issue when the biological concerns are correctly framed. And we don't need to appeal to theistic evolution.

Collin Brendemuehl said...

Dennis,
BTW, I enjoyed your post.
I may contact you outside of this blog.

dennis said...

Stephen: you are correct that much time is spent on prefacing evolutionary biology with discussions on the scope and nature of science, methodological naturalism / philosophical naturalism, etc, etc. This is needed to offset the misinformation that many students work from on this issue. I don't mind the discussions, actually, but from time to time I wish I could just focus on the science. Again, to compare to chemistry, imagine a setting where it would be necessary to discuss how atomic theory and bond formation is not in conflict with Col 1:17.

In terms of pressure, I have to say the admin side so far has been the best - I wouldn't even call it pressure, just concern. I do not envy their position in the least! First year, non-majors students are often the most surprised to be taught evolutionary concepts at a Christian university. Upper-level biology students often lean towards ID. So, it's a mixed bag. Some of my students have certainly faced pressure from family once they start to explore evolution from a non-YEC perspective.

Collin: certainly one can be a molecular biologist and not a TE. Understanding the molecular nuts and bolts of a given function doesn't absolutely require an understanding of its evolutionary history. Similarly, one can be a Christian without understanding the context of 1st century Palestine. In both cases, once I looked into things, I found my increased understanding deeply enriching, however.

tommct said...

Like Stephen, I also thought your advocation for discussing evolution in the Christian environment as insightful and necessary. I can also see it being aborted by administration and parents before it has a chance to be of any benefit, unfortunately. Have you, or any other Christian teachers reading, actually been able to have a successful series of discussions on the ramifications of evolution to faith with students in a public forum?

Richard said...

Well said Dennis,

I agree that the Christian university setting is an ideal place to teach evolution, but many people, including church leaders and parents, are still afraid of evolution and it's implications for some core Christian beliefs. Christian biologists should be tapped by the Christian theologians as a vital resource to help them frame and articulate the Christian theology intelligently and in a manner consistent with the world as it really is. Alas,because of their misunderstanding of evolution, many church leaders and theologians are afraid. They will speak privately at theological conferences and such, but rarely publicly endorsing evolution. The politics of Christianity are not yet open to this at the local church level. I guess we can continue to hope and keep speaking. There is a good deal of the 21st century still remaining...
Once again, nice piece. It is easy to see that you are right there on the front lines.


Rick

RBH said...

Dennis may be correct that

Collin: certainly one can be a molecular biologist and not a TE. Understanding the molecular nuts and bolts of a given function doesn't absolutely require an understanding of its evolutionary history.

However, one wonders how the molecular biologist Collin referred to deals with review papers like Evolution of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza type H5N1 in Europe. Google Scholar yields 4,120 hits on the term pair [+HN51 +evolution]. Understanding the etiology and epidemiology seems pretty difficult absent an understanding of the evolution of HN51, though I suppose one could gain some understanding of just the molecular mechanics of the organism in isolation from the way it changes under selection.

Dennis went on

Similarly, one can be a Christian without understanding the context of 1st century Palestine. In both cases, once I looked into things, I found my increased understanding deeply enriching, however.

Can one be an informed Christian, an expert on Christianity, absent some understanding of the cultural context in which it arose and the ANE audience to which its core scriptures were directed? The anonymous molecular biologist is not a layman in the pews of biology. He's the equivalent of a professional theologian. It seems to me (writing from my atheist perspective) that a putative expert on modern Christian beliefs who does not know the intellectual and theological roots of those beliefs is crippled. Knowing the nuts and bolts of modern Christian practice without an understanding of the historical roots of that practice is a seriously truncated view.

Steve Martin said...

Hi RBH,
Good analogy. Christian theological leaders absolutely need to have some understanding of our Christian theological & intellectual roots. It is an area in which our (Evangelical) tradition often falls short. On the other hand, just as the molecular biologist in question can do “some good practical science” without knowledge of evolution, some Christians can “Love the Lord God” with at least their hearts and souls (if not their minds) and also “Love their neighbours as themselves” without a good understanding of our roots.

I like Dennis’s line (maybe not original) that “Teaching biology without evolution reduces it to an 18th-century-style litany of descriptive lists devoid of meaningful connections.”

Dennis,
Students for whom evolution is a faith-shaking experience are in a place of safety – surrounded by faculty, staff and peers who care about their whole person, not just their scholarship.

This is an excellent point. And I think ideally Christian universities would be ideal places to learn about evolution. I’m wondering how many are though. How many do teach evolution in a way that can be faith affirming? It would be interesting to see a study of this.

Not sure if you saw the December 2007 PSCF which had an article on “Theories of Origins: A Multi- and Interdisciplinary Course for Undergraduates at Wheaton College”. I was pleasantly surprised at Wheaton’s approach: they had professors from biblical studies, science, theology etc. who team taught this course and examined various approaches for relating scientific and biblical accounts of creation. Is this something you have experience with? Is it something that you see as a possibility in your university or maybe others with which you have some familiarity? Or are you basically on your own when it comes to addressing the theological challenges? (This is similar to Tom's question above).

RBH said...

Steve wrote

I like Dennis’s line (maybe not original) that “Teaching biology without evolution reduces it to an 18th-century-style litany of descriptive lists devoid of meaningful connections.”

I like it, too. A phrase I've used is "the cosmic oddity shop model of science" for the same thing.

elbogz said...

How do you answer the inerrant question? I’ve yet to find any Christian education center that doesn’t base it’s beliefs on the fact that the bible is an inerrant revelation from God. You go from one class that says science is true, and then you go to church on Sunday and are told the bible is true, and yet, they seem to tell a much different story.

Collin Brendemuehl said...

rbh,
I'll ask him some particulars.
(I never though of Google as empirical proof or even sufficient evidence for anything.)

http://evangelicalperspective.blogspot.com/2008/05/evolution-is-apologetic-for-naturalism.html

I find the problem not with how genes behave but with how those changes are framed in history. A test of a gene's behavior may provide a proof or disproof of a gene's behavior but there is a serious problem when the *assumption* that history (Darwinian evolution) is proved a current event. N&E seem to be wrapped around molecular biology inappropriately.

dennis said...

Have you, or any other Christian teachers reading, actually been able to have a successful series of discussions on the ramifications of evolution to faith with students in a public forum?

Certainly I've discussed this in my classes, and just this year I was privileged to lead a men's small group through Ken Miller's book Finding Darwin's God. Now, that group is somewhat of an anomaly in that everyone in the group has postsecondary education, but it went very well - everyone appreciated the book. It was also gratifying to see how readily they recognized the inherent dishonesty in the ID movement (now it's religion, now it's not).

many church leaders and theologians are afraid. They will speak privately at theological conferences and such, but rarely publicly endorsing evolution. The politics of Christianity are not yet open to this at the local church level.

I agree with this - evolution is one of those "third rail" type of issues for a church. To be fair, it is not a central issue for faith. My local church has no vocal YEC proponents (as far as I can tell thus far) so I feel no need to counter misinformation that might hinder someone's faith.

The anonymous molecular biologist is not a layman in the pews of biology. He's the equivalent of a professional theologian.

Agreed. Perhaps he takes an instrumentalist approach? (Now there is a position for which I have never seen the appeal).

I like Dennis’s line (maybe not original)

While the sentiment is widespread, the words are mine. :)

Not sure if you saw the December 2007 PSCF which had an article on “Theories of Origins: A Multi- and Interdisciplinary Course for Undergraduates at Wheaton College”.

Yes, I did, and I was envious! We do have one upper-level "Biology & Faith" course, and I teach a portion of the natural theology section. Wheaton's approach looks like a winner.

How do you answer the inerrant question? ... You go from one class that says science is true, and then you go to church on Sunday and are told the bible is true, and yet, they seem to tell a much different story.

The key word there is "seem". I hold that the Scriptures are inerrant in that they are exactly what (and how) God wanted to communicate His truth to the primary recipients. The trick is to get back into the skin of those first hearers and not see the text through 21st century eyes or speaking to many of our modern concerns.

RBH said...

Collin wrote

I'll ask him some particulars.
(I never though of Google as empirical proof or even sufficient evidence for anything.)


Well no, except that I cited Google Scholar, which searches professional journals:

Google Scholar covers peer-reviewed papers, theses, books, abstracts, and other scholarly literature from all broad areas of research.

PubMed also gives over 200 hits on those search terms. But I don't want to hijack this thread.

rpg said...

I'll add my little voice to the chorus of "Nice Post"s.

Christian biologists should be tapped by the Christian theologians

um... I'll just go and hide, now.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Dennis,
Well, just having a course on "Faith and Biology" seems like a great start to me.

re: the quote. Well I like it and will use it again I think.

re: your small group discussion on Miller's book going well

Sometimes I wonder which fear is worse in the church:
a) fear of the implications of evolution OR
b) fear of other Christian's reactions to an acceptance of evolution

I know we talk a lot about a) but I'm wondering if b) isn't more prevalent? ie. When some of us take public stands, maybe the reaction will be more "Thank God, someone else!" rather than "Are you crazy??".

And I do realize most Christians starting this journey are a combination of a) & b). I'm wondering though if b) is a little more heavily weighted than we believe.

Elbogz: personally, I'm seeing more and more Christian organizations that are silently dropping the "inerrancy" qualifier from their statements of faith.

Steve Martin said...

Hi rpg:
Welcome. You hiding from the theologians or the biologists? Or just Christians in general? :-)

dennis said...

When some of us take public stands, maybe the reaction will be more "Thank God, someone else!"

Here's hoping so, but there is plenty of evidence to the contrary, unfortunately (for example, Cliff Martin's recent experiences).

That men's group is an anomaly for several reasons, but probably the most significant one is that it is not a part of any particular church - it is a collection of friends from university days. The group is thus what we wish to make it and not answerable to any given church leadership. It's a wonderful group, with a distinct ecumenical mix (catholic, anglican, various protestant traditions from reformed to charismatic). As I mentioned before, it is also a highly educated group (an engineer, computer scientists, a nurse, a few lawyers, and myself). So, though it was a delightful experience, I doubt to see it replicated anywhere anytime soon.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Dennis,
Thanks again for participating in the series. Great contributions to the dialogue in both your post and your comments. Much appreciated!

All: The fifth installment of the series by Richard Colling is now up.

rpg said...

:) The theologians.

Had a conversation with a colleague at the pub on Friday about faith. Whenever it comes up (and my fellow bioscientists do ask each other if they believe) evolution is the first bloody thing that comes up — and this from the agnostics/atheists. Getting past that is quite a hurdle.

"No, I don't believe in a literal 7 day creation, yes I accept evolution much the same way as I accept gravity or relativity, and ID really pisses me off".

I should get that made as a badge and wear it.

Steve Martin said...

Hi RPG,
re: hiding from the theologians

Well, in that case you should be successful without too much effort :-). There are lots of evangelical scientists on the dance floor, but very few evangelical theologians.

re: your friends' 1st question re: evolution & belief ...

Well, you can point them to this series as well as any other material these guest-posters have published. And there are lots of other resources by Evangelical scientists that acknowledge the evidence for evolution.

Mike Beidler said...

Ironically, the greater danger may be denying or denigrating the evidence for evolution. In the face of overwhelming evidence (and more mounting by the day) this approach sets students up for a fall in the future, should they ever closely examine the data. Then, faced with the false dichotomy of God or evolution, they cannot choose well. At best, they will choose God and reject His works; at worst they will choose His works (not seeing them for what they are) but reject Him.

This is my favorite part of the essay and one of which I must, time and time again, remind myself as I educate my children in things both material and spiritual.

... much time is spent on prefacing evolutionary biology with discussions on the scope and nature of science, methodological naturalism / philosophical naturalism, etc, etc. This is needed to offset the misinformation that many students work from on this issue.

Perhaps Christian academic institutions which are evolution-friendly (e.g., Calvin College) would do well to create an entirely new course dedicated to the discussion and history of these very topics. This way, when students get around to taking those biology, geology, and astronomy courses that examine their respective subjects in detail, they aren't distracted by the more methodological/philosophical questions and discussions that are wont to rear their ugly heads early on.

Mike Beidler said...

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