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Monday, 26 October 2009

My Journey from Opposing Evolution to Studying It

This is a guest post by Ryan Bebej and is the second in our series on “Evangelicals and Evolution: A Student Perspective”. Ryan is a Ph.D student at the University of Michigan in the Dept. of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology where he studies the early evolution of whales.

That I am currently studying evolution is somewhat of a miracle. If ten years ago someone had told me that today I would be earning my Ph.D. at a large public university, researching the evolution and paleontology of mammals, I would have never believed them. Why not? Well, for the majority of my life, I believed that the concept of biological evolution was complete rubbish. I was raised in a close-knit Christian family that was very active in our local church, and I had always been taught that the Bible was literal history, precluding any types of evolutionary scenarios.

These anti-evolution sentiments were indirectly affirmed even in my public high school. In the small town where I grew up, being a Christian was virtually assumed, and schools were very accommodating of religious belief—even in the classroom. I recall that the little background on evolutionary theory that I gleaned from my high school biology class was prefaced with a disclaimer that we didn’t have to believe any of it if we didn’t want to. Needless to say, I promptly forgot most of what was said about Charles Darwin, natural selection, and the like, and I continued believing what I thought almost everyone else around me believed: that God created the universe miraculously several thousand years ago and that the idea of evolution was simply not true.

My Initial Exposure to Evolution in College

However, once I got to college, things began to change; it was there that I began to seriously wrestle with evolutionary theory for the first time. In my introductory biology class at Calvin College, we read some articles about evolution by writers ranging from Phillip Johnson to Howard Van Till to Richard Dawkins. These initial readings didn’t convince me to change my views, but they did prompt me to start thinking critically about evolution for the first time.

In my second semester, I took an animal biology class that spent a good deal of time focusing on how evolution works according to population genetics. Prior to this, I had never really understood the basics of evolutionary mechanisms, and I admit that I was a bit alarmed at how plausible it seemed. Could evolution really have occurred? If it did, what would that mean for my faith? This became a crucial issue for me, and I began to read ravenously and watch anything and everything I could get my hands on that discussed evolution. Yet, despite my little obsession with the topic, if someone had asked me what I thought about evolution at that time, I would have answered with a resounding, “I have no clue.”

My Second Year: The Evidence Builds

I read a ton during the summer following my freshman year. By the time my sophomore year began, I had realized that there was an awful lot of strong evidence for biological evolution. During my second year of college, the strength of this evidence continued to grow. In my comparative anatomy course, the homology of structures across disparate animals, as revealed by their development, provided compelling evidence for common ancestry. I also took two geology courses, in which I learned about radiometric dating, stratigraphy, and how to interpret the rock record, and I became thoroughly convinced that the earth had to be billions of years old rather than thousands.

In a January term evolutionary biology class, we surveyed the fossil record, and I was completely overwhelmed by the anatomies of transitional fossils, of which I had virtually no prior knowledge. These fossils exhibited the mosaics of anatomical characteristics that one would expect to see in an intermediate form, and they came from fossil beds during the time periods between their proposed ancestors and descendents. In my mind, the evidence for the evolution of life on an ancient earth continued to grow (and this was before I even knew about the abundant genetic evidence). I became convinced that evolution was anything but false; in fact, given the weight of the evidence, it seemed to be the only coherent explanation of the past and present biological world.

Evolution and My Faith

But even as I began to accept that evolution was a real phenomenon, I still wasn’t sure how this could be reconciled with my Christian beliefs. Growing up, I had always thought that there were two positions: you were either an atheistic evolutionist or you were a Christian who was opposed to evolution—there was no middle ground. Fortunately, my Calvin professors, in both the science and religion departments, demonstrated to me that there are many people who don’t fall into these two polarized camps. There are many Christians who agree with the findings of the greater scientific community, while managing to retain—and even grow and strengthen—their faith. This revelation opened up a whole new set of doors to me that I had no idea even existed.

Since those first couple of years when I was afraid that my knowledge of evolution would lead to a crisis of faith, I have found the opposite to be true. My study of evolution as a scientist and my pursuit of integrating my scientific knowledge with my Christian beliefs have helped my faith to grow by leaps and bounds. I often wonder how my faith would have been affected had I been confronted with the evidence of evolution somewhere other than Calvin. If I had not had the support and encouragement of such understanding Christian professors who cared deeply about my personal and spiritual development, my faith might not have remained intact. But by God’s grace, I was in just the right place at the just the right time, and today I take great pleasure in studying the long history of life in God’s creation.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Evangelicals and Evolution - A Student Perspective: Introduction

This is the first post in a seven-part series on “Evangelicals and Evolution: A Student Perspective”.

For many evangelicals, their first serious encounter with evolution occurs as a student in post-secondary school. Evolution is certainly encountered and discussed prior to this, but it is usually in the form of anti-evolution propaganda. Our churches, youth ministries, Christian camps, and other Christian organizations are very good at attacking evolution; they are not so good at introducing thoughtful material on the dialogue between modern science and an evangelical expression of the Christian faith. Thus the first encounter with the evidence for evolution in college or university can be a formative experience for evangelical students; it can be traumatic or awe-inspiring, depressing or exhilarating, faith shaking or faith affirming.

Better Availability of Resources for Today's Students
Fortunately evangelical students today have access to much better resources than past generations. Today, there are numerous books, articles, and electronic material that provide a positive view of evolution from an evangelical perspective; even twenty years ago these resources were virtually non-existent. Today a healthy minority (maybe majority?) of evangelical scientists accept the scientific consensus for evolution, our OT biblical scholars acknowledge that the best scholarly interpretations of the ancient scriptures (including Genesis) do not in any way exclude evolution, and a healthy number of our theologians accept that God created through the process of evolution.

This recent, and significant, change is reflected in our mainstream evangelical institutions. For example, Wheaton (which could possibly be referred to as “Evangelicalism’s Rome”) has for years been offering a Theories of Origins science course for its undergraduates. The major course objective is to give students a background for evaluating the merits of scientific and theological claims for origins theories. Source material from a range of creationist positions (YEC, OEC, and EC) is reviewed in the course. Student surveys show that a YEC position on human origins is historically the position with the most support at the beginning of the course, and the position with the least support when the course ends.

The Series
Over the next month, in a series of posts on this blog, five post-secondary students will be sharing their perspective on evolution. Three science students will share their personal accounts on reconciling their faith with evolutionary science. In separate posts, Ryan Bebej and Eric DeVries will describe their transition from opposing evolution because of their faith, to accepting evolution while growing in their faith. Sandwiched between these posts, will be the story of Emiliano Monteiro, a student of evolutionary science, who found faith in Jesus Christ through a campus ministry, but then discovered that his new Christian community rejected the conclusions of the science he was studying. The fourth post in this series will be from Jordan Mallon. Jordan has been involved in the creation-evolution dialogue for quite some time, and he will share three concepts that he has found helpful in this dialogue. Finally, Bethany Sollereder, a theology student, will discuss why Christian academics often avoid the topic of evolution. Evangelical academia may be making progress, but there is still room for vast improvement.

The evangelical landscape on the science-faith dialogue has changed dramatically in the last generation. Although we are still a long way from making peace with science, I am hopeful that within another generation evangelicalism will have accomplished this once seemingly impossible objective. If we are to arrive there, it is this generation of students that will be carrying the torch.

Enjoy the series.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Almost Half of Evangelical Theologians Accept Evolution?

About a year and half ago I commented that evangelical theologians seem hesitant to engage in the science / faith dialogue. Chiding them as “timid”, I asked:

If we [evangelicals] cannot speak to the issues of the day, how can we expect others to be interested in the gospel? If we aren’t answering the questions that are being asked, why are we surprised when people (including our youth) look elsewhere for answers?

Evangelical theologians: This is not so much a complaint as a request for help.
A few months later, I indicated that I might have been too harsh, and that evangelical theologians were indeed re-evaluating their reluctance to consider the implications of an evolving creation. In a post on the relationship between the leading evangelical scientific organization (the ASA) and the leading evangelical theological organization (the ETS), I shared how Bruce Waltke, a former president of the ETS, had come to accept evolution. I ended this essay by chiding myself and some of my fellow ECs with the remark that:
Maybe we just need to be patient and let [evangelical theologians] think this [science / faith topic] through for awhile.
By “awhile”, I was thinking years, if not decades.

Well, maybe evangelical theologians are much, much further along in this process than many of us had ever imagined. In a survey that Waltke conducted for Biologos, he found that almost half (46%) of evangelical theologians that responded to his survey accept that God created through the process of evolution. (HT: David Opderbeck)

You read that right: 46% of evangelical theologians that participated in Waltke’s survey, accept that God created through the process of evolution.

I think there are some legitimate questions that can be asked about the methodological rigour of this survey. But even if the 46% number is somewhat inflated (and I suspect this is probably the case), evangelical theologians are not even close to being predominantly opposed to evolution.

Now if only some of this theological thinking would translate into more theological discussion and theological action ….

Patience, Steve, patience.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

A New Series by Students - and other Announcements

Just a very brief note announcing a new series and some other upcoming posts on this blog.

“Evangelicals and Evolution: A Student Perspective” Series

Starting next weekend, we’ll be starting that long-promised “Evangelicals and Evolution: A Student Perspective” series. In this series five evangelical students will be sharing their personal perspectives on the science-faith dialogue. This is a series by students and for students. So if you know of any students for which this topic is (or should be) of some interest, please feel free to pass the message along. (Of course, this being an open forum, everyone can participate – even those like me whose student career is but a distant memory - yikes, those 20 years went fast!).

Psychological Type and Student Views of the “Origins Debate”

Last fall, Marlowe Embree published a series here called “The Social Psychology of the Origins Debate”. Marlowe is conducting research on how psychological type affects student attitudes to the origins debate. He has volunteered to summarize some of the preliminary results of that research on this blog. Given the timeliness of the topic to the series announced above, I’ve decided to post it either immediately following the series, or possibly in the middle as a sort-of series intermission (I like to keep my options open).

ESE status

I haven’t forgotten about the Evangelical Statement on Evolution (ESE) that we discussed here this summer – although, I must admit it has been buried pretty deep on my mental to-do list the last couple months (that day-job keeps getting in the way!). I did publish the series as an ebook for those who prefer that format, and I have started some offline discussions on how to proceed. Hopefully I’ll have something to report soon.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Polkinghorne Quotes #11: Orthodoxy – Neither Inflexible Nor Disconnected from the Past

This is the 11th post in a series on the writings of John Polkinghorne.

Orthodox theology is one of the hallmarks of Evangelicalism; the basic beliefs of the Christian faith as articulated by the inspired New Testament writers, the Apostles and the Church Fathers, and as documented in the early church creeds, are non-negotiable. We are followers of Christ that value “right belief”.

But that doesn’t mean we are locked into an ancient mindset, one that is no longer tenable in the age of modern science. As Polkinghorne states:

The Nicene Creed provides us with the outline of a rationally defensible theology which can be embraced with integrity as much today as when it was first formulated in the fourth century.

Science and the Trinity, page 29
The reason for this, as Polkinghorne astutely comments, is that the creeds themselves are, “condensed in character” and do not “[prescribe] all the details” of how Christian theological discourse must be conducted. “Orthodoxy is not inflexibility”. [Evangelical theologians: Please take a deep breath and repeat this short, beautiful phrase ten times].

This allows for a “developmental approach” to the dialogue between science and theology. Polkinghorne states that he seeks a:
“… basis for Christian belief that is certainly revised in the light of our twentieth-century insights but which is recognizably constrained within the envelope of understanding in continuity with the developing doctrine of the Church throughout the centuries.”

From Science and the Trinity, page 28
It is this developmental approach that can lead to fruitful insights in our thinking about the Creator and his creation. But many theologians, it seems, want to abandon the wisdom of the past. This can lead to conclusions that fall well outside the boundaries of orthodoxy. Polkinghorne recognizes this danger and warns that theologians, like scientists, must stand on the shoulders of giants.
The essential issue is whether substantial new thinking in theology can satisfactorily be achieved largely in disconnection with past understanding. There is always the danger that the gusting of Zeitgeist might wrongly be mistaken for the Wind of the Holy Spirit.

From Science and the Trinity, page 26
This warning should be taken very seriously. New scientific insights present not only new theological opportunities, but also new theological challenges. We must wrestle with the difficulties, and not sweep them under the table. We trace our faith lineage a long way, from the patriarchs, through the prophets, the apostles, the Church fathers, and the reformers. They wrestled with the faith issues of their day, and we can learn from their wrestling as we wrestle with our own. And when we are wrestling, we must pray for guidance from the Holy Spirit, the source of true wisdom.