Tag Archives: creation and evolution

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 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.

SDA Fundamental Belief Number 6 (Creation)

God is Creator of all things, and has revealed in Scripture the authentic and historical account of His creative activity. He created the universe, and in a recent six-day creation six days the Lord made “the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in themand all living things upon the earth, and rested on the seventh day of that first week. Thus He established the Sabbath as a perpetual memorial of His completed creative work the work He performed and completed during six literal days that together with the Sabbath constituted the same unit of time that we call a week today. The first man and woman were made in the image of God as the crowning work of Creation, given dominion over the world, and charged with responsibility to care for it. When the world was finished it was “very good,” declaring the glory of God.  (Gen. 1-2; 5; 11; Exod. 20:8-11; Ps. 19:1-6; 33:6, 9; 104; Isa. 45:12, 18; Acts 17:24; Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:2; 11:3; Rev. 10:6; 14:7.) (Gen. 1; 2; Ex. 20:8-11; Ps. 19:1-6; 33:6, 9; 104; Heb. 11:3.)

In the 1980 version, this fundamental particularly sought to deny, on the basis of Scripture, three beliefs that Seventh-day Adventists in general reject. 1) It denied that each of the days of creation in Genesis 1 can or should be interpreted as representing long ages. 2) It denied the “gap theory” in which long periods of time occur between the various days of creation. 3) It denied that life on this earth, particularly human life, began long ages in the past. The large scientific picture of the universe is in broad agreement with that perspective. According to the current scientific understanding, the universe is perhaps 13 billion years old, the earth has been around for 2-4 billion and human life is an extremely recent development. While there were many issues unaddressed by the 1980 statement, it affirmed a broad consensus between the evidence of Scripture (the earth and the heavenly universe were here before creation week—Gen 1:2) and the evidence of science. A broad-based, inclusive statement like the 1980 version allowed for a variety of solutions to perceived differences between Scripture and science. But a series of conferences and recent science/faith controversies led church leadership to the conclusion that the 1980 statement wasn’t specific enough.

So this is the fundamental belief that was most changed by the recent actions in San Antonio.  As originally expressed (in 1980), the wording was largely drawn from the biblical text itself, and was careful not to say much more than what the biblical text actually said. This style was and is in keeping with most of the fundamentals, so there is danger that the changes mandated by a group process may create a type of fundamental that is different in kind from the others. The major concern is whether the new wording will tend to divide more than it unifies believers.

Looking specifically at the changes, four phrases are crossed out, not because there was anything wrong with them, but because the new wording replaced them with different, lengthier or more specific language. So let’s focus on the additions. To the first sentence was added the words “and historical.” This was to exclude the idea that Genesis was not intended as literal history, but as legend or poetry that should not be taken literally. As a student of Hebrew, I can affirm that Genesis is not poetry, it is narrative. Adventists generally agree that Genesis 1 is historical rather than legendary narrative, hence the addition. The addition of Genesis, chapters 5 and 11, to the text list was to provide biblical evidence for the relatively short length of the history between Genesis 1 and Abraham.

The addition of “He created the universe” is deliberately separated from the six-day creation to leave open the reading that suggests an old earth but a much more recent creation of life as we know it. A recent six-day creation” was designed to conclusively rule out the idea that the days of Genesis could be read as long ages, although the previous statement was clear enough for most on that point.

The biblical quotation from Exodus 20:11 was expanded to include “the sea and all that is in them.” The language of Exodus 20 seems to restrict the six-day creation to this earth. It is not talking about the original creation of the universe. Since Adventists believe there were other worlds watching the creation (Job 38:7) and that sin arose before the creation of humanity, it would be consistent to see Genesis 1 as describing a later act than the creation of the universe. So this expanded statement does not take sides in the young earth vs. old earth debate. The age of the earth is an open question, it is life on this earth that is “recent.”  The lengthy and awkward addition in the fifth through seventh lines (the work He performed and completed during six literal days that together with the Sabbath constituted the same unit of time that we call a week today”) was designed to exclude the idea the days of the week were different in length at the time of creation than they are now. The assertion, generally accepted by the church’s membership, is that the days of creation were roughly 24-hours long in today’s terms.

Because this fundamental has become as controversial as it has, it is difficult to get groups of people talking honestly about it. The discussion often bogs down to assertions, condemnation and ridicule, and such tactics can be used by all sides. A thoughtful exploration of what we know and what we don’t know on the topic can be hard to come by. One of the problems with this topic is that many or even most Christians who think carefully about the topic have come to believe that the science on the matter of origins has been settled, so the only issue is how to accommodate Scripture within the scientific worldview.

While there are a few Adventists, mostly practicing scientists, who have adopted such a view, most Adventists tend to differ. They believe that origins science is still in its infancy and that creation may one day, when we know more than we do now, have scientific credibility. So they are reluctant to allow science to determine how one reads Scripture and often feel that the “science” itself is more determined by atheistic presuppositions than by the evidence. So the Adventist Church has always been at the forefront of “creation science,” the attempt to apply sound scientific research principles to the matter of origins, seeking the holes in the arguments for macro-evolution (evolution as applied to long ages rather than observable experience) and also evidence for God’s design in creation and a relatively recent history for life on this earth.

But this viewpoint is challenging for most Adventist scientists, particularly when the evidence creation scientists uncover does not support traditional views, as is frequently the case (I have done tours of geological formations with some of the most fervent creation scientists and they have candidly pointed out difficulties). The danger of a more-detailed fundamental on creation (as recently voted by the world church) is that it glosses over the challenges and tempts proponents to manage the evidence in their teaching and preaching so as to win an argument rather than pursue the truth. Such “fudging” is very challenging for young people learning their way into the basic sciences. It can lead them to believe that the arguments for creation depend on the ignorance of the audience. They often feel that the more you learn, the less satisfying are the answers sometimes given.

I am not a scientist, I am a biblical scholar. So my default position is to approach the subject on the basis of the best understanding of Genesis 1 and 2 and similar biblical texts, rather than merely accept the consensus of science. But I realize that for a scientist, the matter is not so simple. I do not believe, therefore, that we should ask people to suspend logic, evidence, facts or reason in their pursuit of truth. I do not believe that we should ask people to believe that science as generally practiced is an elaborate deception, foisted upon us by those who are seeking ways to undermine the Bible and belief in God. What we need alongside this fundamental is a companion statement, written by believing scientists, that articulates exactly how evolutionary science should be taught and practiced in the light of the faith statement the world-wide representatives of the church have voted. I have often called for this, but I am not aware of such a statement at this time. Until it is there, believers will need to be very understanding of the deep challenges that young scientists face when they seek to integrate their faith with their practice of scientific method. Scientists need room to explore or they quickly fall behind their peers.

Let me suggest one possible way forward. The Asian mind can deal with tensions like this (between science and creation) better than the Western mind. The Western mind is shaped by Greek philosophical concepts that require black and white outcomes, and uniformity of thinking. This philosophical foundation permeates biblical scholarship as well as science, demanding precision where the Bible offers little, demanding answers when it asks all the wrong questions (like “Should women be ordained?” a question not asked in the Bible and, therefore, not answered compellingly in the Bible). The Asian mind, like the Hebrew mindset of the Bible writers, is OK with a little ambiguity. Perhaps on this fundamental, we should be OK with a little ambiguity as well.

Our discussion at the School of Religion raised some fresh questions that might illustrate some of the above. Do Genesis 1 and 2 discuss the creation of matter or the organization of matter? In the Hebrew mindset could there be distinctions between different kinds of death (first death, second death, natural death, death caused by sin), and would that have implications for the geological column? Is there a “biblical world view,” or is claiming such the result of organizing the Bible’s teachings on the basis of a person’s own experience and reasoning? If the purpose of Genesis 1 and 2 narratives is more theological than scientific, how much scientific information should we really expect from it? Genesis 1 is like a birth certificate, it establishes our identity as human beings more than it declares exactly how we got here.

The Loma Linda approach to this topic is grounded in our value of humility (LLU has seven foundational values: justice, compassion, humility, integrity, freedom and self-control/purity). True scholarship is not so much about how much one knows, it is about knowing how little one knows. What science does NOT know is much greater than what it does know. What Genesis does NOT say is much greater than what it does say. A standpoint of humility allows the freedom to think and explore within broad general guidelines. On the whole, the 28 SDA Fundamentals do a marvelous job of managing the church’s approach to challenging topics. Time will tell how the changes voted in San Antonio will play out in the church’s experience.