Fall From Grace

After months of tension, tenured religion professor -- who wrote about challenges science poses to literal reading of Genesis -- leaves Calvin College.
August 15, 2011

Readers of The Banner, the publication of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, reacted instantly to the news in January that two religion professors at Calvin College had written scholarly papers suggesting that evidence of genetics and evolution raised questions about the traditional, literal reading of Genesis about creation, the story of Adam and Eve, and the fall of humanity out of an initial idyllic state.

The professors were not disavowing the role of God or of their church, but were arguing that modern science challenges traditional, literal readings of the Book of Genesis in ways that may require theological shifts.

Nonetheless, the reaction from readers of The Banner, as expressed in many (but not all) comments on the website, was clear: no deviation from Genesis as literal truth could be tolerated. "To protect the church and college from false teachers and contrary orthodox beliefs it would be right to let these guys go," said one comment. "Clearly, professors who deny the scriptures as interpreted by our creeds and who have broken the promise they made when they signed the Form of Subscription should be fired," said another.

One recent post says: "Why is it that so many Christians and academics in Christian colleges seem more concerned about keeping in step with what the world teaches than they are about what God's Word teaches? Are we ashamed of God's Word in the face of the beliefs of our worldly peers?"

Such comments weren't just posted on The Banner website, but were also sent to college officials, where the two professors were investigated. One -- John Schneider -- has now left the tenured position he held for 25 years, as part of an agreement with the college. The other religion professor, Daniel Harlow, remains at the college, and is refusing to back down from his views.

A joint statement from Schneider and the college says that the parties mutually agreed that Schneider should leave Calvin because of tensions raised by his scholarship and a desire that these tensions not create "harm and distraction." While the statement praises Schneider's commitment to the college, it also says that his "recent and proposed scholarly work addressing issues in genetic science and Christian theology, as they relate to human origin, have engendered legitimate concerns within the college community and its constituencies."

The college has restricted its comment to the statement, and Schneider said that his agreement with Calvin required that he not discuss the circumstances or terms of his departure. But in an interview, he did discuss the article that set off the furor and why he thinks it is important -- however difficult the discussions are -- for scholars at Calvin and other religious colleges to grapple fully with science.

"My view is that any Christian denomination that can't articulate itself credibly in ways in which science is regarded as true is in danger of being marginalized," he said. "That's what I was trying to do. I was trying to be constructive."

Science in a Christian Context

The controversy at Calvin surrounding Schneider is notable in part in because he is no atheist trying to tear down religious belief in the Richard Dawkins model. Schneider's work that is at issue was first presented in a lecture at a Christian institution, Baylor University, and it was published in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, a journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, an organization of Christian scientists who focus on ways they can be true both to research and to their faiths.

Schneider said that he considers himself "an orthodox Christian within the Reformed paradigm," and that he has felt "at home" at Calvin over the years. Calvin is quite clear about its expectations of faculty members -- that they must affirm that "the Bible is the authoritative, Spirit-breathed Word of God, fully reliable," and that "God, the almighty creator of a good world, is sovereign over all of creation, granting to human beings, made in his image, the responsibility of caring for this world."

His current views, Schneider acknowledged, raise "legitimate" issues of whether he can do the work he wants while at Calvin. "It kind of blew up in a way that made it clear to me, in the course of last year, that I couldn't explore these ideas in the ways I wanted to explore them without causing very serious problems for myself, my family and the college."

Evolutionary theory is hardly new, but Schneider said that the scientific developments that raised the greatest questions for him have come out of the recent breakthroughs in genetics research, which he said strengthened the evidence for evolution and specific questions about Genesis. Much of the discussion about his views has focused on his doubting that there were but two original humans, Adam and Eve. He said that he believes in fact that there was an original, much larger group of humans, not just two.

But he said that -- from a theological perspective -- he probably caused more difficulties for himself by questioning the idea that there was "a natural paradise" before original sin, a paradise in which human beings and animals all peacefully coexisted with one another. Questioning the literal story of "the Fall" was very serious to many Reformed Christians, he said. But science has made it impossible for him to believe the literal story -- even if he continues to believe in the importance of the Bible.

While Schneider stressed that he is not a scientist and that he cares deeply for those who take the Bible as a literal guide to history, he said that it is impossible for him at this point not to treat research based on evolution "with great respect."

Harlow, who like Schneider has tenure and considers himself a committed Christian, said that the backlash reflects the views of fundamentalists within the Reformed denomination, not what most people think. "I work in the mainstream of Biblical scholarship, and we believe that the early chapters of Genesis are divinely inspired stories which imagine the human condition and creation of the world. Their intent is to make theological statements. They weren't written to provide geological or biological information," Harlow said. "My college freshmen seem to be able to handle this, but fundamentalists get all bent out of shape over this."

At Calvin, the biology department tries to show respect for science, while also affirming church teachings. "While we understand that the term 'evolution' can mean different things to different people, we accept the biological theory of evolution (descent with modification over time) to be the best explanation for understanding the diversity and commonality seen among all living creatures on Earth. We find the evidence in support of this theory to be convincing, and we reject any notion that suggests the acceptance of this scientific theory precludes God’s existence and creative activity," says the introduction to the department's statement on evolution.

The statement goes on to say: 'The theory of evolution is one of biology’s key unifying principles. It integrates and explains observations in all areas of biology, including the DNA sequences in genomes of creatures past and present, the emergence of resistant strains of disease, similarity of molecules in widely divergent lineages, hybridization events between different species, elegant camouflage coloration in insects, and the uniqueness of species on tropical islands. We believe God brings forth the creation through evolutionary means. While no biological theory is ever beyond revision, we affirm the scientific consensus that life has existed on Earth for billions of years and that it has changed, and continues to change over time."

While that explanation may sound confident, several science faculty members at Calvin declined to comment on Schneider's departure, citing concerns about their job security in light of what happened to their colleague.

Hoping for 'Real Discussion'

One faculty member in the sciences, who agreed to talk only if his name would not be used, said that he is bothered by the suggestion that those who back Schneider don't take the Bible -- all of it -- seriously. He said that he believed the first chapters of Genesis, where creation is described, "are the underpinnings of our understanding of human nature and the cosmos." And believing that there may not have been a literal Adam and Eve does not change that, he said.

This faculty member said he is not sure what the future holds for colleges like Calvin. While it may be more difficult to reconcile science and faith, he said that he sees some Christian colleges that "are thriving by ignoring the scientific evidence."

This faculty member said he hoped Schneider's work would "open the door to real discussion" on these issues. Some faculty members were encouraged that the joint statement between Schneider and the college specifically said that his work could be discussed on the campus. The statement said, "The college will continue exploring issues of faith and science with vigor and such exploring may mean mentioning the work of Dr. Schneider in professional and respectful ways."

But others said they remain worried. The science faculty member who asked not to be identified said that his colleagues across the sciences are concerned. "This has had an effect on academic freedom as a whole," he said. "We all feel less secure."

Harlow, the religion professor whose work appeared with Schneider's, is among those feeling less secure. He said that he knows that there is "a cloud hanging over me" of pressure from religious conservatives to have him fired. Harlow said that he believes Calvin is "far and away the best Christian college in the nation, and one of the best liberal arts colleges," but that if he could find another job right now, he would have to take it.

"There are a lot of people in my denomination who are glad that Schneider is gone, and who would like to see me gone as well," he said.


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