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Evolution and Faith: Communicating Compatibility in Christian Higher Education, Part 1

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February 20, 2010 Tags: Education
Evolution and Faith: Communicating Compatibility in Christian Higher Education, Part 1

Today's entry was written by Richard Colling. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Introduction by Darrel Falk
This coming week, leaders of the Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) are meeting in Atlanta, to discuss issues at the heart of Christian higher education. The Coalition represents 325,000 students receiving their college education in an evangelical setting. The Christian college is at an important intersection. On the one hand, according to a recent survey, only 28 percent of evangelicals believe in evolution and of these, only one in five think it happened through natural selection. On the other hand, many of us with degrees in biology know that the most fundamental tenet of biology— evolution by common descent and natural selection as an important driving force—is correct. The students are in the middle of this intersection where evangelicalism and the academy meet. Our task in Christian colleges is to ensure that there is no crash. If we are successful, the intersection merges to become a single line—a Y junction.

We, as faculty members are deeply committed Christians. We are followers of Christ first, and biologists second. Our most important task is to help our students come to an understanding of the biology, while at the same protecting the most important thing we all have in life, our faith in Christ. Today’s post is written by a person who had a long career of teaching biology at a Christian college, Dr. Rick Colling. Dr. Colling, a personal friend of mine, reflects back on how he tried to walk the delicate road of teaching biology with integrity, while at the same time doing his utmost to respect the faith journey of his students. His journey was difficult at times, extremely difficult, but it is the student and the faith of the student that matters most of all. In this, the first of a set of essays that Dr. Colling will write for BioLogos, he reflects back on the delicacy of the task at hand.

Evolution and Faith

“God had not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and a sound mind”. II Timothy 1:7. One would think this verse would energize and enable all Christians in the mission of confidently communicating Christ’s primary messages of love, forgiveness, and relationship. Yet from first-hand experience as a 28-year veteran biology educator at a Christian university I can attest that something is tragically amiss: This peripheral issue (evolution) just keeps getting in the way. Indeed, at the grass roots, an ungodly and consuming fear of evolution has engulfed much of the Christian community – including many leaders. And when fear reigns, power, love, and sound thinking are inevitable casualties. In addition, this disabling affliction is as contagious as influenza or AIDS – blindly passed from generation to generation.

This fear infecting the Christian community derives from concern that the foundations of the faith, based upon literal interpretations of scripture, are being undermined by the claims of science. Regarding evolution, this concern, on the surface, seems legitimate, especially in light of advances in biology and genetics. The human genome project - a 3.1-billion letter linear digital directory of humanity - was deciphered in 2003. This letter- by-letter document reveals humanity’s present and past genetic connections with all other life at levels of precision never before imagined. This is not your mother or father’s gap-laden fossil record. Rather, it is an exquisitely-defined map of our entire evolutionary history! So, in the midst of such a documented record of evolution, how do Christian educators in the sciences help people recognize that their fear of evolution is unnecessary?

Teaching Truth with Love

I believe that education is the key to overcoming the conflict, but it is essential to recognize that there is much more to education than just reciting scientific facts and concepts. If we legitimately claim the badge of bona fide secular or Christian educators, we must unapologetically speak the truth of science. However, we must also approach the subject with a sensitive, loving, and accepting spirit – actively and individually engaging students where they are at.

When my book, Random Designer was published, a National Public Radio interviewer asked an intriguing question: “What is the greatest challenge you experience in teaching evolution at a Christian college?” I told her that the greatest challenge had nothing to do with teaching evolution per se: Evolution is what it is. Rather, I told her that my greatest challenge was to sensitively listen to and gauge my students’ backgrounds and understanding so that I could effectively reassure them that new understanding in science need never threaten their faith.

In a diverse classroom of 230 students, this is no small undertaking because it flies in the face of what many of them have been taught growing up. For students coming from very conservative Christian backgrounds where evolution is routinely pronounced as evil and its rejection regarded as a litmus test of Christian orthodoxy, the challenge is to encourage and affirm them in their faith. For non- believing students, the task is different, but no less important - encouraging them to keep an open mind - perhaps even giving this God thing a second look. When successful in striking just the right balance in the classroom – speaking the truth in love while also recognizing and affirming each student where they are in their spiritual and intellectual journey - something magical happens. The preconditioned division and discord that they brought to the classroom begins to melt away - replaced by understanding, perspective, and peace.

The Importance of Language, Words, and Emotions

As previously noted, teaching the actual scientific facts of evolution is straightforward. However, if the goal is actual student learning and effective integration, two practical obstacles come into play - both of which must be successfully addressed.

The first obstacle is language - the words we use to communicate meaning and purpose. The unfortunate reality is that words like randomness, evolution, and mutation positively drip with ambiguity – frequently poorly defined and easily misunderstood. The consequences for relationships can be disastrous as well-meaning good people talk right past one another and misunderstanding, confusion, and agitation escalates. Therefore, it is absolutely critical that terms like mutation and evolution are precisely defined and understood by all parties. Dr Jeff Schloss’s recent BioLogos video addressed this point.

The second and perhaps the most significant obstacle to understanding evolution and mapping a path to peace is that in addition to being poorly defined, words such as mutation and evolution often carry enormous negative emotional baggage. Emotions are powerful because they typically (at least initially - until we have counted to ten!) overwhelm rationality. After all, I doubt we would take it kindly if someone called us a mutant! And although actually inherently compatible when properly understood, referencing seemingly counterintuitive words like random and evolution in the same sentence with God is likely to elicit red-faced responses from even some of the most sedate Christians and secular scientists.

These two things – imprecise definitions and negative emotions - erect powerful barriers to effective communication and understanding of evolution. It has been said that people do not care how much you know until they know how much you care. In my experience, this is true. Therefore, the first step in overcoming resistance to evolution is to establish understanding and trust – to genuinely demonstrate our love and respect for our students.

At Stake: A Credible Faith

Twenty-first-century college students are a savvy and discerning lot: They can smell a fraud a mile away. My experience is that they do not want to be “protected” from the realities of the world. They genuinely appreciate Christian educators who respect and care enough about them to speak the transparent truth regarding controversial subjects like evolution. In short, they want and deserve the real stuff including everything that modern biology and genetics can teach them about evolution and origins. Then, armed with actual factual knowledge and understanding, they can intelligently make up their own minds how to put it all together, and just as importantly, defend their faith in a secular unbelieving culture. My experience is that they accomplish things very well – resulting in a stronger more resilient personal faith.

It is truly a sad day in the life of a Christian community when new understanding and insights into God’s marvelous creation revealed by biology and genetics are viewed as a threat to faith - especially at Christian universities where all truth is regarded as God’s truth. Christians should never divorce God from his creation.

No doubt there are many questions to address as we seek to more clearly understand our world, ourselves, and God. These questions must be openly and honestly discussed. What better place for this discussion to take place than at a Christian university with Christian professors who can guide, direct, reassure, and encourage students in their faith. We can, and must do better. The next generation is depending on us to confidently and sensitively speak the truth in love.

Richard Colling is a retired long-time professor of Biology at Olivet Nazarene University and author of the book, Random Designer.

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John VanZwieten - #5181

February 23rd 2010

Dr. Colling,

I really appreciate what you said in the NPR interview.  I always remember the day in my geology course at Wheaton College when (after weeks of studying about the geoligical layers and eras) a student asked the professor “What about the flood?”  I’m glad the professor had the grace to answer sensitively, something to the effect of:

    “Well, it depends on whether you view the flood as a natural occurance or as a miraculous event.  If we are talking about a natural flood that would show itself around the world just as any other natural flood does, then no, the geoligical evidence does not support that.  If we are talking about a miraculous flood brought by God that does not leave the kinds of evidence we see from a natural flood, then certainly one could see a flood like that taking place.”

Whether that’s how he resolved the tension himself or not, it at least allowed us student from varied backgrounds a way of holding onto what was important to us, while still rigorously pursuing honest science.

I wish you and your colleagues grace, insight, and courage as you meet this week.

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