Monthly Archives: July 2018

Teaching Evolution at a Faith-Based University? (Faith and Science 6)

With the story of Job in mind, it seems to me that we need to avoid two extremes in the debate over faith and science. One extreme is taking one’s cue from a faith tradition and assuming that every scientist who disagrees with that viewpoint must be perverse. Most scientists I have met are very open to evidence and discovering the flaws in their own thinking. To proclaim otherwise destroys one’s own credibility in speaking to the debate. The other extreme is to downgrade or mock the validity of Scripture because straightforward readings of Scripture point to a different view of the world than that of traditional science. Scripture has stood the test of time in so many areas and the last word in science is far from being spoken yet.

What does all this have to do with the teaching of evolution at a faith-based university? I recently met a conservative colleague from the Philippines who asked me what was going on at a sister institution. I told her that they were being accused of teaching evolution in science classes. Her immediate, unscripted response was, “Well, I hope so!” (Not what I expected from her.) What did she mean by that? Two things, I think. For starters we need to distinguish between microevolution and macroevolution. The former is taken for granted in horticulture classes, for example. All plants adapt to their environment or they die out in times of environmental change. Such adaptations are observable and can be tested and predicted. The model works. You cannot teach horticulture without teaching that form of evolution. Macroevolution takes such insights and extrapolates them to the distant past, which is not observable and is difficult to test. Should macroevolution be taught in faith-based universities? I think the best answer to this question is yes and no. Even if a scientist is unconvinced about the evolutionary hypothesis of origins, it is still necessary to teach the theories and the evidence they draw on in class. I think not to do so would be irresponsible.

In 2015 the Seventh-day Adventist world church in general conference session voted a new, tighter statement on creation, asserting a six-day, twenty-four time period in which creation took place fairly recently (thousands of years rather than millions or billions). I grant that the Bible doesn’t use such words to speak about God’s creation, but it is certainly the most natural reading of Genesis and related passages elsewhere in Scripture. I preferred the older statement, because of its reliance on biblical, rather than philosophical language. But I recognize that the new statement reflects the thinking of the majority of the membership of the church around the world. As such, it is an appropriate statement of what most Seventh-day Adventists believe. But one major piece is missing, as I have shared with church leadership. The statement does not address how the teaching of science should be done in light of the statement. I have recommended, and still do, a companion document, “In Defense of Science,” that spells out how a teacher addresses the tensions between the results of science and the results of faith and biblical research. Such a document does not exist, to my knowledge.

In the blog that follows, I will address the why and how of such teaching and also the consequences of teaching evolution and not teaching it in a faith-based institution. Perhaps it will be a step toward the kind of document I am suggesting above. What I share in the next blog may surprise you.

The Role of “Faith” in Science (Faith and Science 5)

As the author of Hebrews puts it, faith is an “inner conviction of things we do not see” (Heb 11:1, my translation). It is through faith we understand that “the universe was created by the word of God” (Heb 11:3, ESV). Faith is more than just knowledge of facts. It is an inner conviction of things we cannot always prove. If the scientific evidence perfectly confirmed our faith, it would no longer be faith in the full sense that Hebrews describes it. To live in faith is to live with a certain amount of tension. When it comes to matters of faith, we need to take the evidence of both the Bible and science seriously. Because of inspiration, I choose to give the Bible 51% of the weight in my personal faith decisions. But those faith decisions do not rule out a continuing openness to further study in both the Bible and science. Study of the Bible can suggest scientific options that an unbelieving scientist might not think of. Study of science and experience has led the church to read the Bible differently (think Galileo and Acts 15). The best definition of theology I have ever heard is “Faith seeking to understand.” Faith is both a standpoint and a process. When it comes to faith, both conviction and continuing process are a given. To repeat, people of faith must learn to live with a certain amount of tension.

Where one ends up in matters of faith seems to have a lot to do with experience. If life has pointed you to the beauty of flowers and bird feathers, mountain peaks and sunsets, if you have sensed the divine presence in small tokens of everyday life, you will likely be open to interpreting the Bible and science from a divine perspective. If life has confronted you with birth defects, disease as a result of genetic accident, cruelty, oppression and injustice, you may be tempted to either hate God or to explain the world in ways that leave God out of the picture. Because experiences of life are so different, I am reluctant to judge those who see the world and God a bit differently than I do. The world as we experience it projects a mixed picture. Faith can afford to be generous with the intellectual struggles of others. Perhaps the following statement is apropos here: “The perception and appreciation of truth. . . . depends less upon the mind than upon the heart.” (DA 455)

Perhaps the story of Job is helpful here. Job, his wife and his friends all were ignorant of the larger issues in the universe that led to the situation Job found himself in. The conflict between their view of God and the world they experienced created a tension that challenged their faith. Job’s wife saw the tension and gave up her faith in God. Job’s friends maintained their beliefs by denying that there was a tension. Job recognized the tension, struggled with it and still believed. His belief did not lead him to deny the reality of the tension, he believed in full awareness of the tension. And it was Job’s position that was commended by a God who chose not explain the tension in terms the reader already understood (chapters one and two), but left the tension in place (Job 42:7-8, see 38:1 – 41:34). This middle position is the one that healthy, mature Christians can and should embrace.

Why I Believe in Creation (Faith and Science 4)

For me personally the Bible and philosophical reasoning both point to a Creator and a relatively recent creation. I recognize that people who favor the scientific evidence can read Genesis in ways that differ from the traditional. But the best exegetical work on the Bible points to the idea that the ancients who wrote and read these texts understood them to be pointing to a creator God as the originator of the natural world and that God’s creative activity is fairly rapid and recent. And beyond Genesis, the Bible’s teachings on sin, salvation and resurrection all presuppose a God who actively intervenes in space and time.

Philosophically, I also find it easier to believe that the complexity and beauty of the world we know is the product of a loving and intelligent Designer than that it all is the product of random and chance events over long periods of time. While I am not a scientist, Steven Hawking has been sometimes called the Einstein of the 21st Century. And he has clearly demonstrated that the chances of human life developing on this earth in this universe is something like ten to the five hundredth. That’s one chance in ten followed by 500 zeros. In other words, not much of a chance. That this did not disturb his commitment to atheism makes the admission all the more interesting for me. At the minimum it tells me that scientific certainty on these matters is far from a done deal.

But while the preponderance of scientific evidence is not hostile to the possibility of design, it is very hard to square with the biblical idea of a recent creation of life. Believing, short-age creationist scientists tell me that there is currently no creationist model that is scientifically fruitful in its ability to predict observable outcomes the way microevolution does. We can act as if this is not the case, but it would not be a sound intellectual position. Humility requires honesty. A possible response to this dilemma, however: If God is as great as we believe Him to be, He is capable of doing things in a way that science cannot fully observe or understand. In any case, it seems to me that believers who are honest with the evidence must live with a certain amount of tension. And that is what faith is all about.

The Limitations of Science (Faith and Science 3)

Are there similar limitations to our knowledge of the physical universe? I have to believe so. There are many areas of science in which knowledge has vastly increased in the last few decades. It is, therefore, reasonably certain scientifically that evolution occurs at the micro level (small changes that we can observe over a human lifetime). This would have been an extremely troubling admission for people of faith a century ago and is still troubling to many today. But microevolution is within the direct purview of scientific method and few people of faith question its existence today.

But can we extrapolate from microevolution to large changes taking place over millions of years (macroevolution)? There is significant scientific evidence that points in that direction and one does not have to be a God-hater to see that. For example, the order in the fossil record suggests some kind of evolutionary progression and radiometric dating indicates a considerable amount of time for this progression. I have no compelling scientific data to counter the basic thrust of that evidence and my more conservative scientific friends reluctantly agree that macro-evolution has significant evidentiary support, while creation, at the moment, is not supported with anything as compelling as the two evidences above.

But that does not mean that creation by divine fiat is disproved. After all, science by definition looks for patterns in repetitive events. But creation as promoted in the Bible involves single acts by an intelligent Creator. Science does not offer the tools to explain such singular events in the distant past. A single act of creation would inevitably leave some very challenging evidence to the scientist and could not be proven or disproven by standard scientific methods. So in the absence of direct observation and experimentation, can we be absolutely sure of the way things occurred in the distant past? Is it possible that we have yet to discover the flaws in our current analysis? I think humility is an appropriate approach for both science and faith. We must not only bow before the evidence we have but also before the evidence we have not yet been able to examine.

The Ideal Starting Point (Faith and Science 2)

I begin this discussion of faith and science with a caveat. While I work at a faith-based health science university, I am not an expert in the specific, scientific issues related to the origins of life on this planet. So I think it would be wise for me to confine myself to some general principles that I find helpful in making sense of the debate over the origins of life.

Where is the center in this debate? It seems to me that scientists of faith come to this debate from one of three standpoints. At the risk of oversimplification, let me identify those standpoints as follows. 1) There are those who find the evidence for evolution (in the grand, macro sense) and long ages of life on this earth overwhelming. As a result they seek other than traditional ways of reading the Bible with regard to origins. 2) There are those who find traditional ways of reading the Bible perfectly clear and compelling and therefore put all of their energies into finding flaws in the contemporary scientific consensus. 3) There are scientists of faith who have a high and respectful view of both the Bible and the evidence of science. Such scientists recognize that at this moment there is no easy resolution of the differences that exist between the two bodies of evidence, so they bend all their energies to resolve the issues while maintaining a strong awareness of the limitations of evidence and of human understanding of the evidence.

As a biblical scholar who operates from the standpoint of faith I have all the more reason for humility. While I find the Bible an invaluable revelation of the will of God, I am painfully aware of the huge gap between my understanding of the universe and God’s (Isa 55:8-9). Let me share an analogy. Being a scholar is like a farmer digging a post hole at the edge of a field. I know everything there is to know about that contents of that post hole. But the deeper I go into my limited field of knowledge, the more I am aware of how deep the field is and how much I do not know. When all I knew was the surface of the field, I could imagine that I knew a whole lot about the field. But now that I have gone deep in a tiny portion of the field (writing a dissertation, for example), I realize how deep the entire field goes. So the mark of a true scholar is not how much he or she knows but to know how little one in fact knows. The more a scholar learns, the more aware he or she becomes of how much there is yet to learn. With great knowledge comes great humility. And I believe the reverse is also true. With great humility comes great knowledge. Most of us learn to the degree that we are open to learning.

That brings me to what I call the Ladder of Humility (appreciation to Fritz Guy, who first introduced me to the concept). As a biblical scholar who dabbles in many other issues, I have learned quite a bit in this life. Step one in my ladder of humility is how much I know. But step two is what everyone on earth knows. That is an almost infinite advance on what I know. Go into any university library and you will see that my knowledge is a minuscule fraction of what the human race as a whole knows. But step three on the ladder of humility is what everyone on earth could know, given an infinite amount of time and opportunity. Another infinite advance. Step four in the ladder of humility is what everyone in the universe knows. If, as most people suspect, there are lots of inhabited planets out there, all possible human knowledge is but a minuscule fraction of what everyone in the universe knows. And of course, step five is what God knows, truly another leap of infinity. Looked at from this perspective, everything I could possibly know about God and His ways are like the musings of a two-year old in comparison with what I don’t know. Even the knowledge of the prophets was limited (1 Cor 13:9, 12). So it behooves everyone interested in the issue of faith and science to demonstrate a strong element of humility in everything that is said and written on the subject.

Believing in Creation but Also in Science (Science and Faith 1)

One of the biggest challenges to a Bible-based faith in today’s world is the evidence we encounter when we take up the study of science. For one thing, while science has answered many questions and has provided many enhancements to our lives, it has not generally brought us closer to God. And it is impotent to prove that God exists (neither is it able to disprove that God exists). Furthermore, while Scripture does not itself set a date for creation, a plain reading of the text certainly implies that life began a relatively short time ago. Multiple trails of scientific evidence, on the other hand, imply that life began an extremely long time ago.

The relationship of faith to the evidence of science, therefore, is a very important point of discussion. Unfortunately aspect of this topic is that once an issue like this becomes politicized, and it has been politicized, the conversation tends to be controlled by extremists on both sides and those who represent the center are often intimidated into silence. But it is at times when courage begins to fail that those who “cannot be bought or sold” must be all the more prepared to speak. In doing so, however, we must not confuse rudeness and disparaging speech with integrity. Genuine integrity must be combined with respect for those who may disagree.

One way for believers to resolve the issues of faith and science is the “head in the sand” approach. Assume that there is something seriously flawed somewhere in the scientific enterprise and go on believing as if science never happened. Another way some believers resolve the issue is to assume that science has settled some of these ultimate questions and that the Bible is unscientific enough to be ignored on all issues where science has a legitimate voice. But neither of these approaches works if you are a Seventh-day Adventist. From the beginning, Adventists have been firmly committed to the teachings of the Bible, but also firmly committed to God’s “other book,” the book of nature, and therefore to the scientific enterprise. Adventists do not see these two tasks, understanding the Bible and understanding reality as exposed by science, as two parallel tracks that never intersect. Adventism has always been committed to integrating faith and the scientific enterprise.

Because of this passion for wholeness and integration, Adventists not only have institutions of higher education that focus on the humanities, like Andrews University, they have institutions of higher education that focus on science, like Loma Linda University and the Geoscience Research Institute. Given the challenges and the possibilities inherent in attempting to integrate faith and science, church leadership has encouraged me to ponder these issues afresh and offer some guidance and encouragement to all who struggle with these issues. As a professor of religion in a science-based university, I do not have all the answers, but I am in a place to understand some of the questions. This series of blogs is my own reflection. I have not sought feedback before putting these out there, so my choice of words and themes may be deficient. I have a lot to learn. So I welcome response and will not be offended by criticism. And in the process, I hope that this series will build faith in the God who I believe makes science possible and offers His blessing on our best efforts to understand His creation.

Concluding Q and A (New Earth 8)

Why is the millennium necessary when the Second Coming seems to have brought all things to an end?

1) It is recovery time for the righteous. While there will be no conversions in heaven, there will be an ongoing need for personal and relational growth. Rev. 22:2 speaks of the leaves of the tree of life being for the healing of the nations. The choice of “nations” suggest societal and emotional healing more than physical. There may be people in heaven you didn’t like on earth or didn’t expect to see in heaven. Others you expected to see are missing. The thousand years will provide a safe space to learn and grow and transition into eternity.

2) It is examination time for the righteous. The redeemed will be free to explore the “books of heaven” getting answers to questions about God, about those we loved who are not there, and about issues in the Great Controversy. We will be able to explore a detailed biography of our own lives that will transcend anything we or anyone else could have done here on earth. We will share our biographies with each other in group healing sessions. There will be many questions and plenty of time to answer them.

3) Demonstration time for Satan and his followers. At the close of the millennium, Satan will be allowed totally free reign outside the City to run this earth the way he wants to (the text gives us on idea how long this period will be). Together, Satan and his followers will demonstrate one final time the destructive nature of their characters and the destructive nature of Satan’s form of government. This final demonstration will help to secure the redeemed and the unfallen universe in loyalty to God throughout eternity.

What ultimately is the purpose of the Book of Revelation?

The purpose of prophecy is not to satisfy our curiosity about the future, it is to teach us how to live today. The study of Revelation should motivate us to right living and to the avoidance of choices that are ultimately self-destructive and harmful to others. It helps to know that the little battles we face each day are just a microcosm of a much bigger war. Everything we think and everything we do truly matters in the ultimate sense of things. Revelation was designed to prepare people for the challenges of the end and in the process has brought hope, meaning and purpose to millions ever since it was written and will continue to do so until the conclusion of earth’s history (Rev. 1:3).

The Shape of the New Jerusalem, Pyramid or Cube? (New Earth 7)

The length, width and height of the New Jerusalem are all the same, suggesting a perfect cube (Rev. 21:16). But there is another shape whose length, width and height are the same, and that is the pyramid. There is nothing in the description of the New Jerusalem in Revelation that requires either a cube or a pyramid? So how should we decide? Should we envision the New Jerusalem as a cube or as a pyramid?

Most interpreters envision the New Jerusalem as a cube and, in my view this is probably correct. A cube has twelve edges, but a pyramid has only eight. The description of the New Jerusalem makes abundant use of the number twelve and never uses the number eight. The New Jerusalem has twelve gates, twelve foundations, walls 144 cubits high, and dimensions measuring 12,000 stadia (Rev. 21:12-21). This wide-spread use of twelve coheres with the major use of twelve elsewhere in Revelation and the New Testament. It is the number of God’s people and the city becomes the bride of Christ when it is filled with saved humanity. While the text does not specify the shape, a cube would be consistent with the symbolism of Revelation.

What is theologically significant about the cube is that the only other cube in the Bible is the Most Holy Place of the Old Testament temple (1 Kings 6:20). Its sides and height were completely equal. The New Jerusalem, then, is modeled on the Most Holy Place. What is forbidden to all but the High Priest in Old Testament times is now open to all the redeemed. Relationship with Christ elevates all to the roles of kings and priests. All have face to face engagement with God (Rev. 22:4) in the heavenly Most Holy Place, the New Jerusalem.