Creating Controversy

A debate over the teaching of evolution at Seventh-day Adventist college in California draws the attention of church leaders, who say students should be exposed to the theory and then dissuaded from believing it.
September 1, 2009

Ever a thorny issue, the teaching of evolutionary biology at a small Christian university in California has sparked debate on the campus and within the Seventh-day Adventist church.

Now-public e-mails between a recent La Sierra University graduate and his biology professors provide a firsthand glimpse of a debate no doubt playing out at many colleges, where students of faith struggle to reconcile their beliefs with scientific theories on the origins of humanity. Unlike so many such academic discussions, however, the private interchange between Carlos Cerna and his professors has moved beyond the campus walls -- thanks to the Internet -- and generated a review within the church about the appropriateness of evolutionary studies for Seventh-day Adventists, a Christian denomination that embraces the six-day creation story outlined in the Book of Genesis.

Cerna butted heads with professors in a capstone biology course when he sought to insert his creationist beliefs into a paper about evolutionary theories, the e-mails indicate. One of two professors who taught the course had “reluctantly” agreed to Cerna’s approach in principle, but found the final product “unacceptable.”

“The paper you sent me is unacceptable in its present form,” Gary Bradley, a professor of biology, wrote to Cerna May 12. “You said you would address the geological issues presented in class, demonstrating that you understand the data and the mainstream interpretations. Only then would you attach a paragraph taking issue with that interpretation. You have not done this. You have demonstrated only superficial knowledge with what was presented in class and even that was done with clear apologetic skepticism.”

Cerna responded, saying he was “flabbergasted” by Bradley’s e-mail.

“I don’t see why I’m ‘getting the shaft’ for questioning these [scientific] methods, especially at an Adventist university,” he wrote.

The e-mails, as well as Cerna’s paper and other related documents, were leaked to a Web site called Shane Hilde, a La Sierra alumnus critical of what he describes teaching “against the Bible” at the university, is the site’s creator. Hilde says Bradley and Lee Greer, who co-taught Cerna’s class, should both resign because their clear belief in evolution is contradictory to the teachings of the church that founded the university.

“For me it just comes down to employee misrepresenting an employer,” Hilde told Inside Higher Ed. “Someone employed for Pepsi is not going to retain their job promoting Coca-Cola. It’s pretty black and white.”

Hilde’s site, which he says attracts about 1,000 unique visitors each day, has spread the debate about La Sierra among Adventists. But it was an e-mail from David Asscherick, a popular evangelist, that appears to have pressured church leaders to weigh in on the issue. Asscherick, who appears regularly on a 24-hour radio and television station called Three Angels Broadcasting Network (3ABN), wrote members of the church’s General Conference urging them to “do something.”

“It is a matter of incontestable fact that naturalistic evolution is being taught at La Sierra University,” Asscherick wrote in the e-mail dated April 30, “This is not in and of itself a bad thing. Evolution should be taught at our denominational universities. But it should be taught as a competing and inimical worldview to the biblical worldview. We need our young people to know what it is they are up against, yes, but when naturalistic evolution is taught as fact or as the preferred and normative worldview, then we can be sure that the enemy has breached our lines.”

By June 19, the president of the worldwide church had written a letter affirming the church’s belief in a “literal, recent, six-day creation” and that “the Flood was global in nature.” Jan Paulsen, the church's president, went on to say that church-sponsored colleges and universities should teach students about evolution, but mindfully steer them back toward the church’s contrary view.

“As part of that exercise [in teaching] you will also expose them to elements and concepts of evolution. That is understood,” he wrote. “As your pastor, however, I appeal to you that when you take your students out on the journey, you bring them safely back home before the day is over. And their home must always be in the world of faith. You owe it to the students, you owe it to God, you owe it to their parents, you owe it to the church, and you owe it to yourself as a believer to safely guide them through difficult moments on their journey.”

Jay Gallimore, president of the Seventh-day Adventist Michigan Conference, also wrote about the debate on the conference's Web site.

"Adventist parents should be able to trust their colleges and universities to build the faith of their young people," he wrote. "They should not have the additional burden of trying on their own to figure out whether their youth are going to be taught evolution rather than creation."

Cerna, who graduated from La Sierra with a biology degree, said he was not opposed to evolution being taught, so long as it wasn't depicted as the lone viable explanation for the origin of of human beings.

"We should all be very aware of what the leading theory of the origin of life is," he said. "What I have strong feelings about is the way it's being taught. If you’re going to come out at an institution that is a Bible believing institution and say evolution is the only logical theory that makes any sense, then that’s what I have a problem with.”

Professor Not Changing Course

Bradley, who is semi-retired after 38 years at La Sierra, has seen evolution debates erupt on campus before -- and his traditional response is to “dive under the desk and wait for them to blow over.” In this instance, Bradley says he has the backing of his president, who wrote a letter to faculty, staff and trustees affirming the university’s role in the “important conversation of science and faith.”

“We at La Sierra University are continuing to examine how we teach the science relevant to origins in supportive, Adventist, Christian environment,” wrote Randal Wisbey, the university’s president. “We continue to welcome input made in a spirit of constructive Christian fellowship and which is respectful of scientific integrity -- recognizing that while we may not fully agree on everything, our mutual concern is always for unity in love to our Lord and service to His children.”

Wisbey did not respond to interview requests Monday.

The university plans to add a seminar for biology students in which theologians and scientists will discuss the intersections of faith and science. The university has also updated its Web site, listing “important reasons to study biology” on the campus. Students can expect to “study with professors who all deeply believe in God as the Creator of everything,” the site notes. While biology students will be expected to learn theories of evolution, they also “will be introduced to Seventh-day Adventist understandings of Creation, centered in the Genesis account, which reveals the Creator as a personal and loving God,” according to the site.

Bradley says he’s felt no pressure to change anything about his course, and says bluntly that he doesn’t plan to turn his class into a theological seminar, or to present evolutionary theory only to then dismantle it for students. While he’s fine with helping students work through struggles of faith, Bradley says he won’t undercut decades of peer reviewed scientific research in the interest of religious consistency.

“I am not OK with getting up in a science course and saying most science is bullshit,” he said.

Neither Bradley nor Greer have the protections of tenure. Bradley had tenure, but willingly gave it up in a deal to scale back his responsibilities in a phased retirement. Greer, who did not respond to an interview request Monday, is on the tenure track.

Faculty at La Sierra do not have to be members of the Seventh Day Adventist church -- unless they want tenure.

“I hope this will change,” Bradley said. “One cannot be tenure-track if they’re not a member. I’m embarrassed to say that, but it is true.”

Bradley joined the church as a boy, but when asked if he was a practicing Adventist, he said “On record, yes. You can read into that whatever you want.”

“It’s very, very clear that what I’m skeptical of is the absolute necessity of believing that the only way a creator God could do things is by speaking them into existence a few thousand years ago,” Bradley added. “That’s where my skepticism lies. That’s the religious philosophical basis for what I call the lunatic fringe. They do not represent the majority position in the Church, and yes I’m skeptical of that. But I want to say to kids it’s OK for you to believe that, but it’s not OK for you to be ignorant of the scientific data that’s out there.”


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