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Sunday, 29 June 2008

Evangelicals, Evolution, and Academics: Historical Perspective and Future Directions

This is a guest-post by historian of Science Ted Davis, and is the twelfth installment in our “Evangelicals, Evolution, and Academics” series. Ted is the vice-president of the American Scientific Affiliation, and is consulting editor for both Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith and Science and Christian Belief.

For at least a century, evangelicals have typically rejected both evolution and higher biblical criticism. Sometimes there are good reasons: the claims of some biblical scholars are so outrageous, and the claims of some scientists so anti-religious, that a strongly negative response is entirely appropriate. Too often, however, the evangelical encounter with modern science conforms to what historian Mark Noll has called “the scandal of the evangelical mind”—namely, “that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”

Fundamentalists and Evangelicals: Significant Differences

John Stackhouse has given an excellent definition of an evangelical. I especially like the breadth of his criteria for being an evangelical and his emphasis on ecumenical cooperation. Evangelicals and fundamentalists share many core beliefs, but differ from one another mainly in attitude, especially their overall attitude toward modernity, including science. George Marsden, the leading historian of fundamentalism, defines it as “militant anti-modernism,” and both parts of that definition are crucial. Where fundamentalists have historically emphasized separation from the world and its “worldliness,” evangelicals have typically been much more willing to engage the world on its own terms, and thus their understanding of the world is negotiated to a much greater extent than that of fundamentalists.

Evangelical Tension with Science

Nevertheless, evangelicals exhibit considerable tension and ambivalence when it comes to science, especially human evolution. On the one hand, evangelicals enthusiastically embrace the findings of science, when it comes to most applications in medicine and engineering. They also accept the experimental sciences, such as physics, chemistry, physiology, or thermodynamics. They have no problems with gravitation, the periodic table, the circulation of the blood, or the law of entropy. Here, their attitude is highly empirical: if it can be shown from repeatable experiments and observations, it’s true and presents no challenge whatsoever to religious belief.

On the other hand, evangelicals are quite hesitant to accept some conclusions of the so-called historical sciences, such as geology, cosmology, and evolutionary biology. Fundamentalists reject the very legitimacy of those sciences, and have created their own alternative explanation, “creation science,” which comports with their particular views of biblical authority and hermeneutics. Evangelicals are more ambivalent. Many evangelicals accept the big bang – indeed, quite a few evangelical leaders believe that aspects of the big bang theory strongly support belief in the divine creation of the universe. Many evangelicals also accept modern geology, with a 4.65 billion-year-old earth and the long history of living things before humans arrived on the planet. But evolution - understood here to mean the common descent of humans and other organisms - presents very serious problems for many, perhaps most, evangelicals.

Evangelicals and Evolution: Looking for Alternatives

This motivates many evangelicals to look for alternative views. Some embrace creation science. Others prefer one of the many varieties of “old earth creationism” or “progressive creationism.” Probably a large number prefer the confident, sometimes even cocky tone of the “intelligent design” movement. Officially (at least), ID takes no stance on the age of the earth and universe, though most ID adherents have no quarrel with mainstream science on those issues. Technically ID has no stance on human evolution, either: as long as “design” can be shown within science itself, evolution is in theory acceptable to ID advocates. In practice, however, many ID leaders have said strongly negative things about both “evolution” (or “Darwinism”) and “theistic evolution,” leading most observers to conclude that ID is just another form of antievolutionism, albeit the most sophisticated form that has yet appeared. Many ID advocates view the hypothetical “just-so stories” of evolutionary biologists with scorn: they want to see convincing evidence that what might have happened actually did happen, before they embrace a fully evolutionary account of life’s history.

Reconciling Evolution with Scripture

Most evangelicals do not see any viable way to combine human evolution with the following beliefs, which they base on their interpretation of the Bible:

  • the uniqueness of humans, who alone bear the “image of God”
  • the fall of Adam and Eve, the original parents of all humans, from a sinless state, by their own free choices to disobey God
  • the responsibility of each person for their own actions and beliefs, within a universe that is not fully deterministic
  • the redemption of individual persons by the atoning sacrifice of Christ.

Evangelicals cannot and must not be separated from their crucial beliefs about human dignity, freedom, responsibility, sin, and redemption. The 64-dollar question is: can they maintain those beliefs without simultaneously affirming the necessity of an historical, separately created first human pair?

Evangelical Theologians and Biblical Scholars: It is your move

Reconciling the theory of evolution with these core beliefs depends to a great extent on evangelical academics, particularly theologians and biblical scholars. Can they be persuaded that the scientific evidence for evolution is sufficiently strong to warrant a re-examination of the traditional view? Can a credible gospel and credible science be harmonized?

There exists an enormous gap between popular conceptions of science – conclusions, methods, and attitudes – and those of scientists themselves. This gap is not unique to science among practitioners of specialized knowledge, and it is not unique to evangelicals among the lay public. But it is real and very significant, and it affects theologians and biblical scholars no less than anyone else. Those who try to bridge this gap are mostly scientists (in their role as educators at colleges and universities and insofar as they write books for lay readers) and science journalists. Both of those professional communities tend to be skeptical if not hostile toward Christian beliefs, and this can exacerbate an already difficult state of affairs. If ways can be found to popularize good science, while showing appropriate sensitivity to the concerns of evangelicals, it would be a very good thing.

Signs of Hope

Certainly there are reasons to hope. The conversation about science and religion is considerably broader now than it was at the time of the Scopes trial in 1925. Back then, many Protestants faced a very grim choice. On the one hand, they could follow politician William Jennings Bryan and the fundamentalists, rejecting modern science in the name of biblical authority and orthodox beliefs. On the other hand, they could follow theologian Shailer Mathews and the modernists, rejecting biblical authority and orthodox beliefs in the name of modern science. There was no one out there like John Polkinghorne, a leading contemporary scientist who accepts evolution but also upholds the Nicene Creed (a pertinent example is his book, The Faith of a Physicist).

And Polkinghorne has plenty of company – Francis Collins, Joan Centrella, Owen Gingerich, Simon Conway Morris, William Phillips, and Ian Hutchinson (to name just a few) are all excellent scientists, and they all believe in the divinity of Jesus, the bodily resurrection, and the actual divine creation of the universe. But they are all scientists, not theologians (except for Polkinghorne, who is both). In Galileo’s day, it was the scientists who eventually convinced the theologians and biblical scholars to accept Copernicus’ theory of the earth’s motion around the sun, but it took a long time. And the process was difficult and often painful. I suspect we are in for more of the same.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Intermission and Recommended Reading

We are taking a brief break from our current series. I’ve been snowed under at work and wasn’t able to provide timely feedback to our last guest-poster. The intermission should end this weekend. In the meantime, why not check out a few other series I’ve been reading over the past month?

1. Peter Enns is Back
As I posted in April, Peter Enns was suspended from WTS over his controversial book Inspiration and Incarnation. The WTS board announced on May 21st that a Hearing Committee has been formed to review Enns' status at the seminary. A recommendation to the board is due by December. I’d be shocked if Enns was still with WTS come January.

Enns has been a model of integrity throughout this entire affair, and I haven’t seen any public comments from him regarding his suspension. However, he has just posted five articles on his blog defending the claims of I&I:

a. Introduction
b. The Authority of Scripture
c. The Westminster Confession of Faith
d. Inerrancy
e. The Audience of I&I

2. A Wesleyan Minister Publicly Announces his Acceptance of Evolution
Pastor Frank Ritchie from New Zealand runs the blog Servant’s Thoughts. He recently announced (with great trepedation) that he accepts the evidence for biological evolution. Check out this series of posts:

a. I am a Christian who believes in Theistic Evolution
b. Theistic Evolution: My Fears
c. Dr. Graeme Finlay: Christian Scientist

The third post discusses his meeting with Graeme Finlay who has written an excellent article in the most recent PSCF entitled “Human Evolution: How Random Process Fulfils Divine Purpose”. If you joined the ASA, you too could read the entire article. (Who says I can't advertise on my blog :-) )

3. A Series of Delusions
Haven’t had enough of Dawkins yet? Then check out Cliff Martin’s reviews of “The God Delusion” and “The Dawkins Delusion”.

4. Gordon Glover’s Video Series on Science and Education
Had enough reading? Would you rather be watching a video instead? Gordon has started his video series on Science and Education. The first four videos are now up: See video #1, #2, #3, and #4.

5. Saving Darwin Blog Tour
The Science and Religion Today blog is posting articles from Karl Giberson (author of post#8 in the current series here) as he promotes his new book Saving Darwin. Check out:

a) Thoughts on his talk at Wheaton
b) Lawyer, Liar, or Lunatic

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Teaching Creation in Sunday School

This is a guest-post by Evolutionary Biologist Douglas Hayworth, and is the eleventh installment in our “Evangelicals, Evolution, and Academics” series.

In my previous post, I discussed issues related to teaching science in a homeschooling setting. For that topic I focused on middle- and high-school levels, where the main challenge is finding curriculum that does not promote young earth creationism (YEC) or some other version of the faith / science conflict thesis. I now turn my attention to that other realm of teaching and learning in which most devoted evangelical Christians regularly participate: Sunday School. In so doing, I will shift my focus from older to younger children for several reasons, which I trust will be obvious as I proceed.

Sunday School Begins with Creation.
Most Sunday school curricula for grades 1-4 comprise a repeating one- or two-year cycle through the stories of the Bible. Lessons 1-4 at the beginning of the sequence are usually creation, Adam and Eve (the fall), Cain and Abel, and Noah (the flood). After going through this bible-story cycle several times, children graduate to middle school where Sunday School curriculum is almost always topical or creedal (catechism) in format. If creation and the garden of Eden story are ever discussed again, it is within the context of discussing the creation/evolution issue or as it relates to specific doctrinal statements in one's catechism. I suspect that some churches never again revisit the Genesis stories with their teens and adults. Fortunately, some good resources do exist for discussing creation "issues" and theology with teens and adults (e.g., Allan Harvey's lesson plans). Whether churches will take advantage of these resources is unclear.

My main concern relates to the formative elementary-school years. I fear that the creation-evolution controversy has so dominated the landscape that it has diverted attention from the most important lessons of the Genesis story. In fact, YEC organizations are so well funded and clever in marketing their message that they have convinced many churches to use their children's Sunday school materials. As a result, children are preconditioned not only to adopt the conflict thesis but also to understand the Genesis stories in very narrow theology terms. Creation is reduced to meaning "in six days" and "no evolution" when it ought to evoke our deepest and most profound thoughts about our existence, of God's sovereignty and intimacy, of his transcendence and immanence, and of our calling as his image-bearers.

Don't misunderstand me. What our children need in Sunday school is not a counter-offensive aimed at correcting YEC's scientific or theological flaws. That would keep the attention on all the wrong things. What our children (and friends) need is a presentation of Genesis that sparks the imagination like a good fairy tale or children's story. Genesis is the opening chapter of God's great story, not the preface to an instruction manual or science textbook. Fortunately, children may be better prepared to understand the Creation narratives than adults because they are less concerned about distinguishing between "fact" and "meaning".

Tell the Story. Explore the Story.
The creation, garden, and flood narratives are certainly MORE THAN mere stories, but they are NOT less than that. Just as the four gospels cannot be understood properly (or the differences between them reconciled) unless each author's individual theological purpose (i.e., "story-telling purpose") is appreciated as the primary framework, so, too, the creation narratives cannot be understood without keeping in mind the story-telling context. And aren't we all agreed (evolutionary, progressive and young-earth creationists alike) that the point of Genesis chapter 1 is that God created everything that exists? It is irrelevant whether it took six days, a blink of an eye or billions of years. Keeping the "story-telling" theme in the forefront helps to keep focus on God's message (i.e., the moral of the story) rather than theologically insignificant details.

So, call it a story and tell it like a story. Describe Genesis as God's story to the children of Israel through Moses. Then explore the story as the moral tale that it is. Use the "framework" model to outline the creative works of days 1-6. (Even if one takes the six days as literal, the framework is still the best way to understand the significance of those days.) For a craft, don't have the children draw the events of each day on separate pages (as is commonly done). Instead, have them add the days' events sequentially to one picture; then ask them if there is any part of the world that is missing. For the garden story, ask the children to think about what the various elements represent? Tell them that "Adam" means "man" (it is an individual's proper name only secondarily). What does the serpent represent? What do the trees represent? What do Adam and Eve's disobedience represent? Ask the children how they are like Adam and Eve. Do they like to learn about different animals and learn their names? Do they ever do things they know are wrong? Do they feel ashamed when they do wrong?

Give the Simple Back Story. Don't Over-answer Questions.
When questions arise, provide a little more of the back story. Explain how the pagan people in Abraham and Moses' day worshiped the sun and moon and believed in many gods that battled one another and created humans to be their slaves. These pagans also had garden-of-Eden stories that attempted to explain why humans always struggle to do what is right yet constantly fail. Genesis is God's retelling of these pagan stories in a way that corrects their wrong ideas. It is perhaps an understatement to suggest that our Sunday School teachers may need some training about the back story themselves.

Most of all, don't provide more answers than children need at their level, and don't strong-arm them by giving definitive answers. We evolutionary creationists shouldn't try to explain how we know that the creation stories aren't literal, and YEC's should not try to insist that a literal interpretation is the only valid and "safe" Christian interpretation. Children (and our Sunday School teachers) need to know that there are some things about which they must suspend judgment until they are older or more widely read. When children ask about reconciling evolution and the creation account, remind them of the story (literary context) and then explain that adult Christians differ on how exactly they make sense of the two ways God reveals himself to us. However, we all share a trust in a faithful God, a God who has a message of purpose and love for all of us Adams and Eves.

Tell the stories and let God speak for himself.

Monday, 16 June 2008

The Challenge of Teaching Science in a Christian Homeschooling Setting

This is a guest-post by Evolutionary Biologist Douglas Hayworth, and is the tenth installment in our “Evangelicals, Evolution, and Academics” series. Douglas and his wife homeschool their three children.

One of the most challenging tasks facing homeschooling parents is providing a good science education to their children. And providing a healthy academic and theological perspective on evolution is one of the most difficult aspects of this task. There are several specific challenges that must be faced. First, there is typically a knowledge gap; few parents have the training necessary to properly guide middle- and high-school level learning in science subjects. Second, few if any science curricula from Christian publishers provide the necessary academic and philosophical guidance on issues of science and faith. To make matters worse, these publishers often claim or imply that they do provide strong guidance in these areas and thus give typical parents a false sense of security. Third, grade-appropriate supplementary resources are currently nonexistent or unavailable to homeschoolers. Fourth, hands-on laboratory experimentation, which is necessary to reinforce the empirical nature of science, is more difficult and expensive for individual households than for public and parochial schools. I derive these points from my personal experience as a homeschooling parent of three children and from my observation of nonscientist Christian homeschooling friends.

Challenge #1: Lack of Parental Scientific Knowledge
Lack of parental scientific knowledge is often a significant challenge. No parents are trained in the broad range of academic areas required to fully examine the evidence for cosmological, geological, and biological evolution. They must depend on the expertise of others. As their children grow older, parents must increasingly rely on the authority of their chosen curriculum and textbooks rather than their own life experience and direct knowledge. Ironically, this knowledge gap begins to form at exactly the time in children's education when they should be learning to critically evaluate information and authorities. This makes it more and more difficult to answer or meaningfully discuss important questions that will (or at least should) arise concerning the relationship of scientific knowledge and Christian faith.

Challenge #2: Inadequate Science Curricula
Most Christian homeschooling parents choose science textbooks and resources from Christian publishers. Having done so, most parents will become uncritical about its primary content and theistic perspective, falsely assuming that the curriculum adequately fills the knowledge gap by raising all the important questions and providing all the appropriate Christian answers. In fact, I am not aware of any "Christian" texts that fairly (i.e., meaningfully) cover science in relation to origins, natural history, evolution and design, not to mention other significant science topics that have theological implications. I contend that Christian parents (even young earth creationists (YEC) who wish to perpetuate the "incompatibility" or "conflict" thesis) would provide their children with a better science education (i.e., critical thinking skills) by learning from a secular textbook because they would be more vigilant in scrutinizing what is presented and therefore also more engaged in the subject.

Challenge #3: Finding Supplementary or Alternative Resources
Three years ago, my daughter's 7th grade curriculum included the first text (physical science) in J. Wile's series (Apologia Press), which our curriculum supplier (Sonlight) had recently adopted for middle and high school. I soon discovered that the book's entire presentation is bent and contorted to support YEC. At first, I attempted to use the situation as a learning opportunity for my daughter; I wrote discussion questions and counterpoint examples corresponding to Wile's book chapters. Needless to say, it was a lot of work for me, and I think not very productive for my daughter.

I finally came to the conclusion that it would be better to supplement a secular textbook with a discussion of relevant issues rather than attempt to undo and correct the theological bias and scientific errors of a Christian text. Secular textbooks that are intended for public school use must pass the scrutiny of many scientists and diverse school boards throughout the country; as a result, they more accurately present reliable scientific consensus and have very little theological baggage (see post #8 in this series). The disadvantage in using a public school textbook for homeschooling is that teacher resources (answer keys, etc.) are not available to the general public. For me personally, this is not a significant issue since I am trained in evolutionary biology and well read in science-theology issues, but I suspect it can present a significant challenge for typical parents. For 8th grade, my daughter used a Glencoe Life Science book, which a schoolteacher friend gave to me. That was a successful schooling year, but I had to manually "work" all the chapter questions in order to check her answers. As a biologist, I am not certain how well I will be able to help her with physics this coming school year.

Challenge #4: Providing "laboratory" experience
Interacting with the natural world using scientific methods is the surest way to instill an inquisitive attitude towards the structure and function of creation. Although individual households cannot afford the equipment needed to perform many traditional science experiments, they have the advantage of flexibility. For younger grade levels, I recommend using "knowledge encyclopedia" books (rather than traditional textbooks), coupled with as many hands-on activities as possible. Visit science centers, natural history museums, conduct cooking and other kitchen work as chemistry and physics lessons, plant a garden and measure growth rates, go bird watching and fossil hunting.

For older ages, find projects that require learning more about a science subject or application thereof. For example, last year my son and I studied electronics together so he could learn how to assemble an LED timer circuit to light up a space ship model. Frequently look up "how stuff works" on the internet. Encourage your children to consider the theological implications of all that they observe around them. For example, when studying and examining ecology (e.g., ecosystems, food webs and nutrient cycles), ask your children (and yourself!), "How could this orderly, God-given "balance of nature" function without animal death?"

Help Meet the Challenge
In summary, good curricula and resources for teaching middle and high school science at home are scarce to nonexistent. Although there are some good supplementary books and study guides about creation-evolution issues that have been published recently (e.g., Origins by Deb and Loren Haarsma), these are high school level materials and are not integrated topically with an ordinary sequence of science topics. These also do not address some of the other science-theology issues, including those to relating to the practice of medicine. (A good world literature and history-based curriculum that covers the spectrum of Christian responses to medical advances is helpful here. By the way, this is the strength of the Sonlight Curriculum my wife uses for our children.)

Over the last couple of years, I have been navigating these intellectual waters, attempting to identify science resources for Christian homeschoolers who wish to teach something other than a YEC perspective.

Despite there being an immense amount of information available on the internet, parents will find it almost impossible to identify any well-organized, non-YEC curricula and other resources for science homeschooling within a Christian worldview. Thankfully, the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) has always sought to assist the church in appreciating the wonders and challenges of science. Recently, the executive director, Randy Isaac, asked if someone would be willing to organize a special section or wiki group on the ASA website to address the needs of homeschoolers. I immediately volunteered and am currently developing ideas for the project. My personal goal is not so much to advocate the evolutionary creationist view but to outline and review all available resources so that parents can make informed choices about the options that exist. Hopefully, complementary materials can be suggested, and (in time) new study guides and supplements can be written and posted.

The project is in its infancy, so I welcome any and all ideas that interested readers might have. What kinds of teaching aids are you looking for? Are you willing to review a particular textbook or curriculum that you have used? Have you written any materials for your own children? What kinds of questions have your children asked about science? I'd love to hear your feedback in the comments. You can also contact me directly by email at Doug@BecomingCreation.org.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Why Evolution should be taught in Christian Schools

This is a guest-post by Professional Engineer Gordon Glover, and is the ninth installment in our “Evangelicals, Evolution, and Academics” series. Gordon is the author of the book Beyond the Firmament. His three children attend a private Classical Christian school. He is currently publishing a series of blog posts on the topic of “Science Education in Private Christian Schools”.

Private Christian schools exist to give parents a distinctively Christian alternative to secular education. From my experience, however, the way that the Christian worldview is compared and contrasted to secular philosophies often results in academic subjects being treated as individual battle-fronts in an all-out war against secularism. While the intent is to prepare Christian students to effectively argue the case for Christ and promote biblical thinking wherever they find themselves, good science often becomes a casualty of friendly-fire.

Methodological Naturalism: Friend or Foe?
Somewhere along the way, as the shifting lines of battle were being hastily redrawn, methodological naturalism (MN) ― the methodology traditionally used to approach questions about the physical world ― found itself pinned down in the same foxhole as materialism ― a worldview philosophy that says the physical world is all that exists. Even though MN raises no weapon against Christianity, it unfortunately wears the same uniform as materialism and the two are easily confused in the fog of battle. Once this happens, the natural sciences cease to be effective tools of learning and discovery, and are instead taken by force and conscripted into the service of Christian apologetics.

This unfortunate case of mistaken identity is most evident in the life sciences, where comparing and contrasting our material frame to that of other creatures for the sake of scientific inquiry is summarily rejected as a dangerous philosophy that treats mankind as a meaningless cosmic accident. As a result, science teachers in Christian schools have little choice but to ‘fight the good fight’ by shielding students from any practical utility of evolutionary biology and supplying them with every conceivable reason why this 150 year-old paradigm of natural history is fundamentally flawed. So why would any private Christian school risk losing students, teachers and financial support by teaching evolution ― an issue that has become a key litmus-test of faith for evangelicals?

Why Teach Evolution? #1 - It is Good Science
The most obvious reason to teach evolution is that it is good science. There is simply no other natural cause-and-effect approach that unifies the life sciences under a single coherent paradigm. And unlike the supernatural intervention paradigms typically taught in the place of physical science (such as special creation and intelligent design), evolution actually allows practicing scientists to draw non-trivial conclusions about God’s creation ― an important point entirely underappreciated by Christian parents and teachers who are not called to sort through the challenging data of natural history and make sense of it.

It is important that students understand how scientific ideas, even when incomplete, fundamentally flawed, or theologically offensive can still add to our material understanding of the created order. However, all too often Christian schools use biology class to highlight the perimeters of our scientific ignorance and focus on only those areas where the theory of evolution breaks down. They mercilessly criticize the paradigm for failing to answer questions that don't even fall under its jurisdiction. If we took this same paralyzing approach with us into the physics classroom, Newton’s laws of motion, Einstein’s theory of relativity, and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle would all be mocked as ‘godless’ paradigms of matter and motion that fail to address spiritual realities, and are hopelessly flawed at the fundamental level. After all, none of these ideas even pretend to offer a complete picture of reality; and each are based on necessary assumptions that fall apart on some level. While such an approach might have the temporary effect of making science look silly and incompetent in the face of biblical truth, it doesn’t prepare our graduates for success in the real world where seeing through a glass darkly doesn’t require us to close our eyes completely.

Why Teach Evolution? #2 - It Enhances Critical Thinking
Teaching evolution in a private Christian school can also provide many fruitful opportunities for students to exercise critical thinking skills. Whether we like it or not, the undeniable patterns found in comparative anatomy, the fossil record, biogeography and molecular genetics all converge on a single universal scenario of common ancestry. If Christian students face this overwhelming reality for the first time in the workplace or at a secular university, a crisis of faith can follow. It is much better for students to learn about evolution in a Christian school setting where they have access to Christian faculty, staff, and parents that can provide faith-building support.

The questions that are bound to arise can indeed be challenging. Do these obvious patterns reveal an authentic natural process of creation, or could they have been purposefully built into the created order (by fiat) to enable man to make sense of the world around him? What are the theological consequences Christians face if this scenario is authentic? What are the theological consequences we face if this scenario is only apparent? And if the traditional Christian doctrine of special creation is indeed non-negotiable, does “enabling scientific progress” excuse God for creating a biosphere that conspires at every level against a superficial reading of the biblical creation account? These are the real challenges of evolution ― not blood clotting or the bacterial flagellum!

Why Teach Evolution? #3 - It Offers an Opportunity to Discuss Biblical Inspiration
Teaching evolution also provides ample opportunities to discuss the nature of special revelation and the scope of biblical authority in a very relevant context. Rather than cause us to question the inspiration of Scripture, teaching evolution should force us to examine the very nature of biblical inspiration itself. On what level does God speak to us? Does God emphasize the technical details of cosmic structure, making the Scriptures relevant only to those generations who shared the cosmology of the biblical authors? Or does God emphasize the teleological details of cosmic function, making the Scriptures relevant to every generation regardless of their “contemporary” scientific paradigms?

Not Easy, but Essential
The questions raised above are difficult and there are no easy answers. But Christian educators must be willing to tolerate a certain amount of unresolved tension in the science classroom. Not every question will have a satisfying answer, but our children are better served by teaching them to think through the issues and deal with the theological consequences that are inevitable once we start poking around the cosmos. If we fail to teach our students the proper use of contemporary scientific paradigms in their current form, no matter how theologically unsettling they might be, we are effectively denying them a seat at the table of discovery and isolating an entire community (professional scientists) from the light of the Gospel.

We all want our children to have the best education possible, to succeed in their various life pursuits, to learn how to think critically about the world around them, and to develop a theologically robust God-centered worldview. Teaching evolution as a valid paradigm for understanding the life sciences, at the appropriate age level, is entirely consistent with these goals.

Monday, 9 June 2008

Evolution in Public Schools: A Threat or a Challenge?

This is a guest-post by Physicist Karl Giberson, and is the eighth installment in our “Evangelicals, Evolution, and Academics” series. Karl is the author of the book Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution.

America’s evolution controversy is rooted, curiously, in her noble attempts to provide every child with a free quality education. Early in the 20th century, when public schools began to educate students beyond the 8th grade, the curriculum included impressive amounts of science. And, although evolution in textbooks like that used in the Dayton school where John Scopes taught was a minor topic, students were bringing home accounts of origins at odds with what they were learning at home and in their churches. William Jennings Bryan was the first great champion of the idea that taxpayers should not have to fund schools that undermined their values.

Evolution in the Public Schools: A Recipe for Atheism and Moral Anarchy?
The public schools have remained the primary battleground for the origins controversy, particularly in the courts where endless challenges to the teaching of evolution have been launched by local school boards from Pennsylvania to Louisiana and California. Anti-evolutionary pundits like Phillip Johnson have charged the public schools with promoting atheism in the name of science, even suggesting that evolution is responsible for widespread moral anarchy of the sort we saw at Columbine.

Johnson is joined by crusaders like Ken Ham, the late Henry Morris, John Ankerberg, the late D. James Kennedy, Anne Coulter, and others who claim, as earnestly as any Old Testament prophet, that evolution is the basis for Nazism, homosexuality, rising divorce rates, pornography, drug addiction, socialism, atheism, and every other imaginable ill. School children are supposedly being taught to think of themselves as meaningless assemblages of molecules with no more purpose or meaning to their existence than the pencils in their desks.

These hyperbolic claims should raise our eyebrows. They certainly raised mine. Having known schoolteachers for all my life, from my sainted mother, to my sister and brother-in-law, to all the teachers I had in public school, to my countless students studying to become teachers, and so on, I simply could not imagine that any public school teacher anywhere would teach any of these things. These peculiar ideas are not in the textbooks; they are not natural extensions of evolutionary theory; they are very unlikely to be a part of the worldview of the teachers—so why are Johnson and Ham claiming children are being indoctrinated with these ideas? Do they know something we do not?

Research Reveals the Rhetoric is Wrong
My intuition gave rise to a modest research project a few years ago. My student, Tim Johnson, and I looked at the public school curriculum in Quincy, Massachusetts. Quincy schools, located on the bulls-eye of America’s bluest state, are hardly restrained by local conservatism and far beyond the reach of the creationists. There is thus no reason to suspect that public schools are constrained by any pandering to the foes of evolution.

As we expected, our examination of the textbooks and teaching standards, and our interviews with teachers confirmed that evolution was being taught with thoughtful and careful consideration of the concerns of the students. Religious issues were addressed directly in the classrooms and students were assured that evolution did not rule out belief in God as Creator. No doubt the imaginary wall between church and state was repeatedly breached by Quincy’s conscientious educators.

Our study, summarized in the article “The Teaching of Evolution in Public School”, concluded that there was “no evidence that public school teachers in Quincy are exacerbating tensions with students and parents in the way that evolution is presented; indeed, most of them are expending energy in minimizing such tensions…Quincy public school teachers are appropriately sensitive to the religious backgrounds of their students.”

We concluded there was no basis whatsoever for Johnson’s charge, in "Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds", that American educators have chosen to “tell the people that all doubts about naturalistic evolution are inherently absurd … and that their silly misgivings will be allowed no hearing in public education.”

Our research suggested exactly the opposite, and I suspect that this inference could be extended to the majority of public school systems in America. Anti-evolutionary pundits like Johnson and Ham are simply wrong. They are little more than shrill demagogues pretending to fight imaginary foes and selling lots of books in the process. Quincy public schools nowhere teach students that they are the result of “a mindless evolutionary process.”

The Theological Challenge for Evangelicals
This is not to say, however, that all is well and that evolution can be comfortably harmonized with traditional religious understandings. It is one thing to note that evolution need not exclude God as creator and quite another to show exactly how creation and evolution are to be harmonized. In "Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution", published this month by HarperOne, I offers some tentative suggestions in this direction. But this harmony comes with a price that many evangelicals may be unwilling to pay—the loss of some key aspects of the traditional creation story.

I suggest in Saving Darwin that we must abandon the historicity of the Genesis creation account. Adam and Eve must not be thought of as real people or even surrogates for groups of real people; likewise the Fall must disappear from history as an event and become, instead, a partial insight into the morally ambiguous character with which evolution endowed our species. Human uniqueness is called into question and we must consider extending the imago dei, in some sense, beyond our species. These are not simple theological tasks but, if we can embrace them, I think we may be able to finally make peace with Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.

There is a lot of work to be done. Evangelical churches have typically been unwilling to confront this topic—except to run off evolutionists like Howard Van Till when they become controversial—and it will be a great effort to reorient the teaching ministry of the church to bring it into alignment with the generally accepted ideas of modern science. But only when this task has been accomplished can we declare the war in the public schools to be over.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Addition to the Series: Karl Giberson, author of “Saving Darwin”

I am pleased to announce that Physicist Karl Giberson has been added to the roster of authors in our “Evangelicals, Evolution, and Academics” series. Karl’s new book Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution will be released on Tuesday. On Monday, he will publish the eighth installment in our “Evangelicals, Evolution, and Academics” series. His topic will be “Evolution in Public Schools”. Given the high visibility and continuing media coverage of the conflict over the teaching evolution in public schools, this is indeed a welcome (and necessary) addition to our discussion.

Thanks Karl. Welcome to the series.

Note: The series introduction post has been amended to indicate Karl’s involvement. Not sure if changing old posts is kosher from a blogging etiquette perspective, but "Blogging Etiquette for Dummies" is not part of my personal canon.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Teaching Evolution at Calvin College: A Personal Perspective

This is a guest-post by biologist Stephen Matheson, and is the second in a 2-part essay on the evolution controversy at Calvin College; view part 1 here. It is the seventh installment in our “Evangelicals, Evolution, and Academics” series. Stephen publishes the blog Quintessence of Dust which explores issues of science and faith.

In the previous post, I summarized the momentous conflict over evolution and creation that rocked Calvin College and the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) throughout the 1980's. By 1991, the dust had largely settled, although ongoing conflict regarding the roles of women in ecclesiastical office compounded the damage and led to significant departures of members and congregations from the CRC. Ten years later, in 2001, I joined the faculty. I offer here some thoughts and observations on the current situation at Calvin and in the denomination regarding biological evolution.

Harry Boonstra's history of Calvin College (Our School) was published in 2001, on the occasion of the college's 125th birthday, and a decade after the momentous synodical report on "Creation and Science." Before describing the episode, he provides some rationale for his decision to emphasize it, and here is one interesting claim:

...after the 1991 synodical report, "Creation and Science," there has been very little formal discussion on creation and evolution in either the CRC or Calvin College. Neither has there been, to my knowledge, an overview of this controversy. No doubt many of the participants were battle weary, but the questions require ongoing discussion.

That was seven years ago, and I haven't noticed "formal discussion" of evolution in the CRC since then, nor does it seem that the topic is being discussed more actively at Calvin than when I came in 2001. Most notably, it seems to me that the subject is not considered to be strongly controversial or dangerous. There was a small brouhaha in the student paper and on the faculty listserv in 2004, centered on comments by a faculty member that I and others found to be muddled and somewhat dismissive of evolutionary science, and there were tiny ripples of dissent when I and others agreed to participate in an "Origins Symposium" that included presentations by four Calvin faculty in juxtaposition with presentations by four YEC proponents. There have been some uncomfortable moments, and there are surely many on our faculty and staff who harbor doubts and suspicions regarding common ancestry. (This includes some who are fans of the old-earth creationism of Hugh Ross and colleagues at Reasons To Believe.) We still hear from disgruntled constituents, and some of them can be obnoxious. But there is no strong reason to expect a campus conflict centered on evolutionary biology.

On the positive side, some of my colleagues, most prominently Loren Haarsma, have contributed to discussions of evolution, creation and design, openly embracing evolutionary explanations. And Deb and Loren Haarsma (both of the physics and astronomy department) have recently published a book exploring origins from a Reformed perspective; published by the CRC itself, the book discusses human evolution without obvious equivocation. I am known as an outspoken advocate for common descent on and off campus, and have spoken publicly on the topic of evolution and explanation quite recently, at a large CRC church and in tandem with my friend and colleague in the philosophy department, Kelly Clark. My blog is well known to my colleagues, and one particularly successful entry (which deals explicitly with evolutionary biology) is featured in the current issue of Calvin's e-zine, Minds in the Making.

These observations indicate that the Calvin College of today is a safe place for a Christian biologist who is excited about the explanatory power of common descent. But I'm not sure they communicate just how far the college seems to have come. So let me close with a personal account that should make it very clear that academic freedom at Calvin, with respect to evolutionary theory, is quite strong.

A few months ago, I went before the Calvin College Board of Trustees to be interviewed for reappointment with tenure. The interview went very well, and I was recommended for tenure. We discussed several interesting topics, one of which was my emphasis on God's sovereignty regarding his creation. My "statement on the integration of faith and learning" outlines my contention that the typical creationist notion of the Fall – a cataclysm so radical that it utterly ruptures the fabric of creation and makes the world before the Fall completely incomprehensible – is an unacceptable underestimation of God's sovereignty over the cosmos. From there, we turned to questions about the Fall itself, and I described my position quite bluntly: I have no doubt about human common ancestry with other animals, but I also recognize that this creates difficult questions about the nature of the Fall, and I look forward to further work (by scholars more qualified than I am) on this problem. After a time, I was asked to step out of the room while the group deliberated. In the hallway, I ran into the president of the college, Gaylen Byker, and we were soon having an engrossing and amiable chat about human animal ancestry (with animal welfare and veganism as a backdrop). Unfortunately, we were interrupted by the Trustees, who summoned me back into the room to affirm my work as a Calvin College professor and to warmly congratulate me on being recommended for tenure.

I hope the point of all this is obvious: the leaders of Calvin College may well have preferences regarding the amount and timing of discussions of common descent, and perhaps the fundraisers would love it if we never brought it up at all. But they have never expressed any opposition of any kind to anything I have ever said or written about evolution.

There is much more that could be said, but we'll save it for comments and discussion. But I would be remiss if I didn't end with a tribute to Davis Young, Clarence Menninga, and Howard Van Till, not just for writing a book that changed my life but for courageously paying a price that purchased the blessings I now enjoy at Calvin College. Dave...Clarence...Howard... thank you.

Monday, 2 June 2008

The Evolution Controversy at Calvin College: Historical Perspective

This is a guest-post by biologist Stephen Matheson, and is the sixth installment in our “Evangelicals, Evolution, and Academics” series. Stephen publishes the blog Quintessence of Dust which explores issues of science and faith.

At Calvin College, we describe our institution as "a comprehensive liberal arts college in the Reformed tradition of historic Christianity." Our college is owned by – and is an official ministry of – the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). Like all pastors and officers of the CRC, Calvin faculty are required to formally affirm three Reformed "forms of unity": the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort. Furthermore, Calvin faculty are required to attend a Reformed church, choosing from a list that excludes prominent Reformed denominations such as the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), such that only the CRC and its sister denomination, the Reformed Church in America (RCA), are workable choices.

The point of the foregoing is this: Calvin College is an outgrowth of the CRC, an ethnically Dutch Reformed denomination with some distinctive characteristics. (One of those characteristics is a tendency toward deliberate action and careful documentation of such action, as we'll see below.) And so, when considering the history of controversy over evolutionary science at Calvin, it is important to start with the CRC.

Evolution and the CRC

The CRC has an official position on "Creation and Science." The summary statement begins as follows:

All of life, including scientific endeavor, must be lived in obedience to God and in subjection to his Word. Therefore, Christian scholarship that integrates faith and learning is to be encouraged. The church does not impose an authorized interpretation of specific passages in Scripture; nor does it canonize certain scientific hypotheses. Instead, it insists that all theological interpretations and all scientific theories be subject to Scripture and the confessions.
In my opinion, there is much to commend here, although the "insistence" that scientific theories "be subject to Scripture and the confessions" does give me pause: competing understandings of this conviction led to the painful struggle I will describe shortly. The statement then turns to human origins:

Humanity is created in the image of God; all theorizing that minimizes this fact and all theories of evolution which deny the creative activity of God are rejected.
I don't know any Christian who would disagree with that. But there's more.

The clear teaching of Scripture and the confessions rules out holding views that support the reality of evolutionary forebears of the human race.
This blunt disavowal of human common ancestry with non-human species is, it would seem, completely unambiguous, committing the CRC to an unqualified rejection of entire fields of scientific inquiry.

More to the point of this post, those who know me should be worried. I am fond of exploring genetic and genomic findings that are best explained by common descent, and in various public forums I teach students (and others) that the human genome is overrun with features that point quite unmistakably to our kinship with other organisms on earth. How can a Calvin professor get away with this? Well, consider the final sentence of the CRC's statement.

But further investigation or discussion regarding the origin of humanity should not be limited.
This final declaration is the reason I can be a professor at Calvin College. Without it, I wouldn't even consider being a part of the faculty or of the denomination.

So how did this enigmatic statement come to be?

Evolution and Creation at Calvin College: Initial Controversy 1984-1988

The statement, which summarizes a report approved by Synod(1) in 1991, represents the culmination of a controversy that rocked both church and college for several years. According to Harry Boonstra, author of Our School, a nice little history of Calvin published in 2001, "the creation-evolution debate became the most critical controversy in the history of Calvin College." It came at a time of simmering conflict over issues of women in church office and other concerns (hermeneutics, secular politics) that loosely characterize recent struggles in Christian churches and denominations of many kinds. Dark threats of "secession" were already being uttered in the early 1980's, and by the mid-1990's, dissatisfaction with CRC decisions on creation and on women in office had driven thousands of people – and scores of congregations – out of the denomination, birthing one new denomination in the process. It would be a mistake to underestimate the intensity of the conflict. The CRC's current position on the matters at hand is the fruit of that conflict, and it all started at Calvin College.

The basic outline, sketched by Boonstra, is as follows. In 1982, Davis Young (then professor of geology) published the now-classic (and soon-to-be-updated) Christianity and the Age of the Earth. Young specifically disclaimed human evolution, but embraced the great age of the earth and repudiated YEC claims. This surely lit some fuses, but the eruption of open conflict seems to have followed the publication (in the official church magazine, The Banner) of an interview with Clarence Menninga (then professor and chair of geology at Calvin) in which Menninga openly asserted the likelihood of an ancient earth, a lengthy span of human history, and even the possibility that Adam was a Neanderthal. Angry letters became an "avalanche" which became more of a firestorm in 1987 with the publication of The Fourth Day by Howard Van Till (then professor of physics and astronomy, and subject of a previous post at my blog). Like the geologists, Van Till did not specifically endorse human evolution (or common descent in general), and the book focuses on cosmic history without delving into biological evolution in any detail. But The Fourth Day openly explores approaches to Genesis that view it as something other than narrative history. At that point, the college empanelled a committee to examine the professors' conduct. I find Boonstra's description to be riveting:

The mandate of the committee was to determine whether these statements are in accord with the synodically adopted guidelines for the interpretation of Scripture and with the doctrinal statements of the Christian Reformed Church." [...] The committee's conclusions and report were greeted with considerable fanfare. This was probably the only committee in the history of the college that elicited a press conference.
Evolution and Creation at Calvin College: Synodical Conflict 1988 - 1991

The subsequent trustees' report to Synod in 1988 was "generally supportive of the professors," but the response of the denomination was a swarm of overtures, overwhelming in their condemnation of the report. The Synod meeting saw "vigorous" debate, ending with unenthusiastic endorsement of the college's report. But Synod empanelled its own committee (it's a CRC thing), "mandated to study the relationship between general and special revelation." And 1988 saw the publication, by Van Till, Young and Menninga, of the excellent but hard-hitting Science Held Hostage, which was subtitled "What's Wrong with Creation Science AND Evolutionism."

It was during this time that public attacks on the professors' views reached levels of slanderous vitriol that make me angry and ashamed even now. I will omit the details; suffice it to say that great harm was done to the cause of Christ and to the good name of the CRC. As Boonstra puts it, "scurrilous accusations were used as often as genuine arguments." These slanders appeared in huge advertisements in the local newspaper and in a magazine (Christian Renewal) popular with conservatives (and, later, secessionists). I'm glad I wasn't here to see it, and I'm certain I wouldn't have exhibited the restraint that Dave, Clarence and Howard showed, and continue to show, toward people who have earned the strongest of rebukes for indefensible behavior.

(It should be noted that the professors were not the only targets; college leaders and trustees were disparaged with comparable opprobrium.)

Reasoned debate and discussion occurred as well, thank God, and the best example is the exchange initiated by Alvin Plantinga which played out on the pages of Christian Scholar's Review and Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith.

The committee made its "lengthy and thorough" report three years later, in 1991. Again, a storm of critical overtures set the stage for protracted debate in the Synod meeting. Here's Boonstra:
This time synod debated for eight hours – much of it focused on a minority recommendation (Declaration F) that "the church declares that the clear teaching of Scripture and of our confessions on the uniqueness of human beings as image bearers of God rules out all theories that posit the reality of evolutionary forebears of the human race." Synod, however, refused to accept this statement, largely on the grounds that the CRC had never made an official pronouncement on the scientific details of creation.
If you're confused by this, join the club. That declaration seems not to differ in any significant sense from the statement that was adopted and is quoted in the first section of this post. Boonstra does not explain how Synod got from Declaration F to the position statement we have now, but the only real difference I can see is the all-important disclaimer, the one sentence that saved academic freedom for biologists (among others) at Calvin College.

The Conflict Subsides

Shortly thereafter, the conflagration seemed to end – not with a bang, but a whimper, according to Boonstra:

Synod 1991 still received twenty-four overtures – mostly critical of Van Till's views – but these overtures were now in competition with the thirty-eight overtures against women in ecclesiastical office. By 1992 this number was reduced to three, and two final overtures in 1994 were the last blip on the synodical screen. The church seemed to signal that the storm was over.
Well, there it is: a not-so-brief overview of the most intense controversy in the 125-year history of Calvin College. In the next post, I'll offer my personal reflections on Calvin College as it is today, based on my seven years as a biologist and evolutionist at one of the finest Christian colleges in the world.

(1) The CRC is governed by a yearly assembly, a synod, composed of representatives of each classis, which is a group of congregations. A classis, or an individual congregation, can bring recommendation or complaint to Synod through the delivery of an overture.