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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.


Steve Martin said...

Hi Stephen,
I know you are looking at the “little formal discussion” as a “glass half full” situation (and given the pain the discussion caused this is probably a good thing). But could we also look at it as a “glass half empty” one? What I mean is the lack of significant dialogue within Evangelical circles on the theological implications of an evolving creation. Do you see some of those theological discussions happening outside of the science department within Calvin? In some ways, Calvin was the vanguard for the scientific discussion within evangelicalism around evolution. What are the odds that Calvin will be leading the way on the theological side as well?

SFMatheson said...

Steve, that's a good question. Early this year I mentioned a nice piece in Christian Scholars Review on the Genesis creation accounts, written by my friend and colleague in the Religion department, Dan Harlow. Dan participated in the Origins Symposium that I mentioned, and the paper came from that presentation. I don't think anyone else in the religion department is working on these questions, but I do know that some of the philosophers are, and I'm collaborating with two of them right now.

But I'm not sure that Calvin will be "leading the way" on the theological side anytime soon, unless some new things are happening in my sabbatical absence.

Jimpithecus said...

The second post did ameliorate my fears quite a bit. Thanks. I have over twenty years of experience in dealing with the human fossil record. If ever there was evidence for an evolving creation, that is it. I am in the process of outlining a book on human evolution and the church's (non)reaction to it. It is slow going. Probably won't make any friends in the process, either.

Stephen Douglas said...

Hey Stephen (am I the only one amazed at how many Steves/Stephens there are around here?!),

Any way I can get ahold of Harlow's paper? Sounds fascinating.

Thanks for your contributions here. Love your blog!

James F said...

Indeed, there are lots of Steves. :)

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

James F:
Hmm .. wonder if we could start an "Evolutionary Creationist" Steve's list too :-)

Stephen M (as opposed to Steven M & Stephen D):
As I commented to a reader over on Richard Colling’s post, it is interesting to compare your own situation to that of Richard’s. He is having all kinds of trouble at ONU (a university also closely affiliated with a specific denomination) even though his Church’s creation statement simply states: “We oppose any godless
interpretation of the origin of the universe and of humankind. However, the church accepts as valid all scientifically
verifiable discoveries in geology and other natural phenomena, for we firmly believe that God is the Creator.” That is a statement all Christians can heartily agree with – no explicit mention is made of the “how” in creation.

SFMatheson said...

Hi Stephen--
The place is crawling with Steves, isn't it? Steve is right that we could start a Steve project of our own; as some may know, I'm a proud NCSE Steve, also known as a Steve Steve. Ahem.

Regarding Dan's excellent article, I recommend that you contact him directly to ask for a reprint; I'm sure he'll be happy to oblige, and glad to get the feedback. His email is dharlow at calvin dot edu.

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