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:
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.
“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).
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