Christian Education and its Shortcomings: Why We Need a Fair and Balanced Approach to Origins Part 2
Today's entry was written by Brian Eisenback and Ken Turner. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.
What we are doing
In Part 1 of this article, we indicated a perceived rift between anti-evolution Christian curricula and anti-Christian science writings. We see a need for educational material that presents the evidence for evolution and evaluates interpretations of Scripture in a way that is honest, fair, and written from the perspective of Christians. In our experience, many Christians are not familiar with basic evolutionary concepts, and they have rarely interacted with Scripture at any level other than a superficial one. Therefore, we have decided to write a curriculum that presents modern evolutionary theory and also teaches students about ways that Christians interpret science and Scripture.
We received an Evolution and Christian Faith grant from BioLogos to develop educational materials and curricula about Christianity and science, specifically focusing on evolution and the Genesis account(s) of creation. The curriculum will summarize appropriate hermeneutical strategies for reading and interpreting Genesis, focusing on the work of evangelical Old Testament scholars (rather than systematic theologians, philosophers, and popular speakers/ministries). Next, the curriculum will present a brief history of science and then begin with the origin of the universe and work through the chronology of evolution up to the appearance of humans. The curriculum will also review various perspectives (Young Earth Creationism, Progressive Creationism, Evolutionary Creationism, among others) that interpret Scripture and science, and it will compare and contrast the strengths and weaknesses of each viewpoint.
While we believe this project can serve as a stand-alone reference in some contexts, we think it will likely be used as a supplemental resource to (rather than a replacement of) the standard Christian curricula. As we shared previously (in Part 1), we are pleased with much of that material and have no intention of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Our goal is not to proselytize our readers in order that they accept or reject evolution, nor do we have an agenda to convince readers to interpret Scripture’s accounts of origins in a particular way. Rather, we strive to produce materials that will provide a resource for anyone who is curious about evolution (the evidences for it as well as evidences it has difficulty explaining), how Christians read and interpret Genesis, and the ways in which different groups synthesize (or fail to synthesize) science and faith.
How then should we educate students on this complex and politically charged topic?
First, it is important for teachers to define concepts relevant to this discussion. Students often enter our classes with a shallow hermeneutical approach to reading Scripture. They don’t know the meaning of concepts like authority, revelation, perspicuity, inspiration, infallibility, and inerrancy—let alone the differences between these terms or the possible disagreements theologians have with defining or applying any of these terms. How should the concepts of truth and error be handled when it comes to grammatical accuracy, variance in text traditions, or tensions within the Bible or in comparison with extrabiblical data related to theological, moral, historical, and scientific questions? When does a tension become a contradiction? How much flexibility of viable options is allowed in order to retain the description “evangelical”?
Most have not considered Genesis in its historical-cultural context, and they do not know what to do with ancient Near Eastern myths that parallel the creation event in Genesis 1, Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden in Genesis 2-3, and the Noachian deluge in Genesis 6-9. Similarly, students are unaware of the literary context of Genesis; they are unfamiliar with Hebrew terms and word plays, and in many cases they have not been exposed to exegetical difficulties in the biblical text.
For example, most students believe that on day one God created light, and separated it from the darkness. However, prior to day one the earth exists as a formless, watery mass. Students have rarely considered when God may have created the earth and its waters, and are unsure how to explain the existence of light and a day/night cycle on days one through three prior to the creation of the sun on day four. Different creationist perspectives have different interpretations and responses to these issues, but students are largely unaware of them.
We believe that in order for Christians to actively participate in discussions about origins, they should have an idea in their own minds as to how they reconcile these difficulties, among others.
In our experience, Christian educational approaches often present only two views of origins: atheistic evolution and young earth creationism. However, the landscape of views on origins is much more robust. In the Introduction to Biology course at Bryan, students are presented with Intelligent Design, Young Earth Creationism, Progressive Creationism, Evolutionary Creationism, and Scientism. The Framework Hypothesis, John Sailhamer’s Historical Creationism, and John Walton’s Functional Ontology views are also presented. These latter three views focus primarily on interpreting the Genesis 1 text and do not dwell on science. All of these views are presented as part of the educational experience of students at a Christian college. In our opinion these viewpoints are a valid (minor) component of a Christian biology class because they are such a prevalent part of Christian culture.
It is important to educate Christians about the various ways that science and Scripture are interpreted. Christian teachers should exhibit a pastoral approach to this subject that accurately represents the scientific evidences as well as the different approaches to reading Genesis. Christian curricula should strive to distill some of the conversations that are occurring in academia to a level accessible for the general public. These views should be presented honestly, warts and all. This is what we hope to accomplish with our curriculum.
It is important to define science, and explain the rationale behind modern definitions. Science is currently defined as something to the effect of: the systematic study of the physical world using the scientific method. By this definition, science cannot consider that which cannot be measured empirically, i.e. the supernatural or metaphysical. Since scientific processes cannot examine the supernatural, some scientists reject the supernatural in toto. This circular reasoning, however, should be avoided in the science classroom. Teachers should remind students that science uses testable hypotheses to explain natural processes, and it is outside of the realm of secular science to comment on the supernatural. The Christian should look to synthesize science and their personal faith in order to have a more coherent worldview.
Sometimes just the mention of evolution causes Christians to react in a way that reveals that they view evolution to be solely an atheistic philosophy that displaces God and undermines the authority of Scripture. Tim Keller differentiates evolution as a biological explanatory model from evolution as a philosophical belief system. He provides a helpful distinction [PDF] when he contrasts evolution as biological processes against what he calls the “Grand Theory of Evolution.” Evolution as biological processes simply explains biological change and ancestry among organisms. Evolution as the Grand Theory of Everything posits that everything, including human nature, is the product of godless evolution, and that the supernatural, the soul, free will, good and evil are all non-existent. Evolution should be presented in science classrooms as the former to the expense of the latter.
When evolution is presented as a Grand Theory of Everything and is used to comment on the existence of God or to undermine the Bible, Christians are right to react negatively. Evolution should be presented in the science classroom as a biological process and Christians should be open to learning about it whether or not they ultimately accept it.
We believe wholeheartedly that Christians should be open minded, honest, and kind when they communicate contentious topics. It is embarrassing when Christians fail to accurately present a perspective they disagree with, and it is shameful to see Christians treating all evolutionists as hell-bound idiots. As fathers, it is worrisome that Christian education so often preaches dogma instead of teaching science. We need to do a better job being examples to our children, showing them that we can handle complex and controversial topics with integrity and grit. We need to do a better job educating Christians about the various ways that both evolution and Scripture are interpreted. Instead of posing the conversation as a dichotomy of creation vs. evolution, we should remember that the actual rift is between those that believe in God and those that do not.
The take-home message is that the Christian community needs to be reminded that the gospel is not at stake with this issue when it is evaluated within the confines of the Christian faith. This is an in-house debate and believers should not be disqualified based on their views of origins. Christians need to deal honestly with the scientific evidence and should read Scripture deeply. We hope that open communication about these matters in an educational setting will allow some of the hostility that is present in the modern culture wars to be replaced with a fresh breath of grace, peace, and love to the glory of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Our goal is that young people don’t reject their faith; instead that they embrace it better informed, challenged, and stretched.