Believing in God and Evolution

A new movement is encouraging Christian colleges to embrace the teaching of evolution -- without giving up professors' or students' faith.
October 14, 2009

An anti-evolution group is capturing headlines with its plans to distribute a special edition of The Origin of Species to tens of thousands of college students at secular universities next month, hoping that an introduction that promotes creationism will change the views of those who read it.

But while that group is fighting for the hearts and minds of students at secular colleges and universities, there is also a theological and scientific struggle taking place at Christian colleges. Some professors, with support from prominent scientists, are trying to defend the teaching of evolution and to make it safe for those who teach biology and the Bible to talk about ways in which belief in evolution need not represent an abandonment of faith. Many Christian colleges have statements of faith -- which in some cases must be followed by all students and faculty members -- that endorse the literal truth of the Bible or of specific parts of the Bible (six literal days of creation, for example, or that Adam and Eve are the parents of all humans). So teaching evolution as scientific fact, which would just be taken for granted at many non-Christian colleges and universities, raises all kinds of delicate issues.

And yet some proponents of this new movement say the push is long overdue.

If Christian colleges don't permit the teaching of evolution, "they could be left behind," said Richard Colling.

He knows how sensitive these issues are. Colling this year left Olivet Nazarene University, where he taught for 30 years, after a dispute in which he was barred from teaching general biology or having Random Designer, his book, taught at the university that is his alma mater. When the book appeared in 2004, some anti-evolution churches campaigned to have him fired, and while the university initially defended him, it subsequently put limits on what he could teach and barred his book from being taught. Those limits were lifted after an investigation by the American Association of University Professors found that his rights were violated. But Colling continued to be subjected to intense criticism from some Nazarene church members, and he resigned in an agreement with the university.

Colling said he hopes the new movement will "open up the possibility" that he and professors who teach evolution at Christian colleges can have more security, allowing their colleges to gain more respect within academe. "If the colleges don't change, no one will take us seriously. If we require students to check their intellect at the door of our churches and colleges, they will not come in."

Much of the push for change is coming through the BioLogos Foundation, a group founded by Francis Collins to promote "the search for truth in both the natural and spiritual realms seeking harmony between these different perspectives." Collins led the Human Genome Project and now leads the National Institutes of Health -- and he is also someone who takes his Christianity seriously, and believes that there is no incompatibility between his faith and his science.

BioLogos currently has two major projects in the works that relate to changing the discussion about evolution at Christian colleges. A series of faculty workshops is being organized, starting with one at Gordon College, a multi-denominational Christian college in Massachusetts, at which biology and religion professors at Christian colleges will talk about issues related to evolution and how it can be taught at Christian colleges. In addition, BioLogos leaders are writing several books on how evolution can be taught within Christian colleges, and have an agreement from InterVarsity Press to publish the first in the series, and possibly additional titles.

Going with InterVarsity -- a Christian publisher that has released numerous books about creationism and intelligent design -- is intentional, as was the decision to have the academic gathering at Gordon. Organizers are looking for venues that will increase the comfort level of professors and presidents at Christian colleges, some of whom might be reluctant to have such discussions in secular settings.

"We want to help the church and colleges come to terms with Darwin's theory and not feel threatened by it," said Karl Giberson, president of BioLogos, a professor at Eastern Nazarene College, and director of the Forum on Faith and Science, at Gordon.

Giberson calls himself "an orthodox Christian," explaining that "the tradition I embrace and promote believes that truth comes from a broad cross-section of sources, that all knowledge comes from God, and that includes science, so we shouldn't take the Bible and say that all truth in all areas has to come from the Bible."

It is "difficult to the point of impossible, said Giberson, to look at the scientific evidence, and believe that creation of the Earth and its creatures took place in six days. The difficulty for many Christian colleges, he said, is that they have statements of faith that require such a belief. Liberty University's statement, for example, explicitly rejects evolution: "We affirm that all things were created by God. Angels were created as ministering agents, though some, under the leadership of Satan, fell from their sinless state to become agents of evil. The universe was created in six historical days and is continuously sustained by God; thus it both reflects His glory and reveals His truth. Human beings were directly created, not evolved, in the very image of God."

Gordon College also has a statement of faith, but it is less detailed on creation. And Gordon's "Philosophy of Education" statement outlines both a religious view about creation and a strong commitment to academic freedom.

Of the former, the college says that "[a]ll creation testifies to the God Who called it into existence, sustains it and remains sovereign over it. From this, creation derives its coherence and meaning." Of the latter, the college says: "Both the student and professor are accorded the right to know all pertinent data and relevant interpretations in all areas of study. Moreover there must be mutual insistence upon candor in revealing assumptions and in clarifying perspectives. Within our common commitment to the Bible, from which the Gordon College Statement of Faith is derived, each person in the college community may exercise the right of free judgment. If scholarship is to proceed without coercion, there must be freedom within our commitment to raise questions and explore diverse viewpoints."

Giberson said that the statements of faith of many colleges pose a real challenge for those wanting to teach evolution. Many colleges, he said, "would not create a mission statement that would make a fundamentalist feel unwelcome," and so may end up making scientists feel unwelcome. As a result, he said, there are plenty of scientists who teach at such institutions who teach evolution, but quietly.

A biology professor at one such institution, who agreed to talk only on condition that he and his institution not be named, said that his institution officially permits the teaching of evolution as one theory among many, so that students can learn what others think.

This professor said that he and his colleagues will freely talk about "micro-evolution" in which they describe evolutionary science without getting to primates. Talking about human evolution would be off-limits, this professor said. So too would "interpretation of time scales" for the earth, since the "young earth" belief of some anti-evolutionists holds that the Bible yields information to date the earth. Others interviewed for this article said that such "creative approaches" were in fact common at all but a handful of Christian colleges, but that naming professors or institutions could get both in trouble.

Leaders in Christian higher education who are supporting the BioLogos efforts deserve praise "for real courage," Giberson said, noting that Gordon's president has been criticized by some parents and alumni who don't appreciate his support of the ideals of the foundation, on whose board he serves.

R. Judson Carlberg, Gordon's president, said that the first question he received this year when he spoke to the parents of new students was from a woman who wanted to know if her daughter would get an F in classwork "if she holds to a late creation theory of literal fixed days." Carlberg said he answered by saying that the college "isn't in the business of indoctrination," and that such a student has no assurance of an F or an A. "I said she's not going to get an F if she can mount a strong argument in favor of it, but if she mounts a weak argument, she will be forced to go back."

Carlberg said that the work of BioLogos "is a very significant movement within the Christian framework today." He said he is worried about the college's reputation being hurt by a sense that all committed Christians deny evolution.

Studying the geological evidence, he said, makes it hard to credit the the "young earthers" who believe that the Bible is the only guide needed to date the earth: "If you accept the young earth argument, you have to think that God is trying to trick us [with the geological evidence] and I don't think He would do that." Carlberg said he wants to see Christian colleges speak out publicly about their ability to embrace faith and science.

"For years, Gordon College has stood for the fact that God created the heavens and earth, but he didn't give us a textbook to tell us how it was done," he said.

Giberson and others said that part of the reason they can promote more discussion of evolution today is the prominence of Francis Collins. Having the director of the NIH be someone who talks about his own Christianity challenges the idea that there is a clear divide between science and faith. And, indeed, some scientists have expressed discomfort with Collins' faith.

The Council for Christian Colleges and Universities has invited Collins to its international meeting in February -- a move that is notable because Collins is not only someone of faith, but a strong supporter of stem cell research that many Christian leaders oppose. (The council represents 108 "intentionally Christ-centered institutions," and while all of them have statements of faith, they vary widely and represent a mix of denominations as well as Christian non-denominational members.)

Paul R. Corts, president of the council, said that Collins was invited "in a fellowship with people of faith," to create an opportunity for the Christian educators to talk with him about faith and science. The discussions are likely to be "civil, healthy and spirited," Corts said. "Will everyone come away from the forum in complete agreement with Dr. Collins or any of the other speakers? Probably not. But we as an association are able to host these opportunities for our members to have these discussions."

Just as Corts noted likely disagreement about Collins's views, not all biology professors at Christian colleges agree with the push from BioLogos. Fred Van Dyke, chair of biology at Wheaton College, in Illinois, said that he teaches students "an understanding of what these [evolution] positions are about," but that it was a "false dichotomy" to ask, as this reporter did, whether evolution was a fact. He said that the college does not oppose "evolution as a way of understanding some biological data," but that "you probably wouldn't find anyone at Wheaton who would be an advocate for evolutionism as explaining all that has happened."

Wheaton's statement of faith is specific about origins: "We believe that God directly created Adam and Eve, the historical parents of the entire human race; and that they were created in His own image, distinct from all other living creatures, and in a state of original righteousness."

Van Dyke said that he affirms that belief. "That isn't something that is necessarily a fact in all biology courses, but in some it is," he said.

Giberson, the president of BioLogos, said that he doesn't want to change anyone's religious belief in the Bible. But he said the case of Colling, the former Olivet Nazarene professor, showed how urgent it was to advance the discussion. "The church is never going to get over its fear of Darwin until we can discuss it openly at colleges without people losing their jobs."


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