Teaching the Whole Controversy
This past Thursday on the BioLogos Forum, genomics scholar Praveen Sethupathy argued that Tennessee’s recently-passed Teacher Protection Academic Freedom Act wrongly claims that there is significant scientific controversy around evolutionary biology, when there is not. While many still misunderstand the way “theory” is used in scientific parlance to mean an explanatory and predictive system of knowledge, rather than the popular meaning of “a conjecture,” responses to Sethupathy’s essay did bear out his distinction between the science of evolution itself and the philosophical and theological issues raised in response to it, whether by atheists or Christians. But one commenter in particular (though writing in favor of the bill) also linked the complex “philosophical, theological, social, psychological, political, economic, and spiritual components” of the debate around evolution to the very structure of the educational system to which the law is addressed.
Jeff, who identifies himself as a Christian home-schooling father wrote in comment #69363:
. . . contrary to the modern model of education which isolates academic subjects by assigning to each one a separate teacher and classroom, it should be stressed that the pursuit of knowledge in general is greatly served by teaching students about the important relationships that exists between the various academic subjects in the real world. Thus, to include in a discussion of the theory of evolution some exposure to the theological and philosophical assumptions upon which that theory is based [emphasis added] is not only appropriate, but of great value in exploring the full scope of the theory as it has developed in our world and much of the controversy that surrounds it.
As another home-schooling father (of three boys) I concur wholeheartedly with Jeff’s assessment of the modern educational system—not just in public schools, but in far too many private and Christian schools, and in not a few home-schooling communities, as well. The breadth and depth of human knowledge is now so great that we must, in fact, have specialists who devote their lives to particular areas of study; but this makes the need for a broad and integrated education in the primary and secondary levels more important, rather than less. Beyond that, we need conversation between fields of knowledge as much as we need such dialogue within them. Indeed, part of our goal at BioLogos is to demonstrate that we in the Christian community can and must think deeply but also broadly about these issues if we want to do justice to the complexity of biological life, but also to the complexity of our lives of faith: to the complex redemptive mission God has called us to in Christ, through the Holy Spirit.
But two things strike me as off in the quoted paragraph. The first issue is that it seems to attribute the most problematic philosophical issues of Evolutionism to the theory of evolution itself, as if those are foundational to the science rather than being philosophical add-ons. The very thrust of the statement included above is that an integrated learning is necessary in order to tease apart the philosophy from the evidential science—or, as I would describe it, to tease apart secular ideology and atheism from the powerful and beautiful descriptive and predictive account of biology that evolutionary theory provides—but that laudable strategy is abandoned at the outset when the two are inextricably linked together.
Again, BioLogos exists in part to show that the science of evolution (though always being refined) is sound in spite of the grandiose philosophical claims made “on its behalf” by those who despise faith and the faithful. Our own Senior Fellow in Biology, Dennis Venema, posts regularly on the compelling scientific evidence for evolution, and we also offer both brief and longer-form resources on our website to help readers distinguish between the science of evolution and the philosophical worldview that is Evolutionism.
But it should be noted that the “philosophical assumptions” that are rightly considered foundational to evolutionary theory—like a commitment to methodological naturalism—are seen by the majority of Christian and non-Christian scientists alike as foundational to all science. Furthermore, those basic assumptions came out of a Christian intellectual tradition that affirmed God’s trustworthiness as much as an Enlightenment belief in the power of reason. But perhaps more to the point, to read the history of evolutionary theory in more than a selective and superficial way is also to see that—from the beginning—many orthodox, evangelical Christians have seen it as consistent with their faith, and have given good theological reasons for thinking so.
The second issue, though, is more practical and bears on our life together as the church as much as it does on current educational strategies. Since generations of teachers have now been trained to teach in specific areas of knowledge, and covering state-mandated materials while also attending to classroom management is no small feat, I doubt that there are many elementary and secondary-school science teachers in Tennessee (or anywhere else) that feel adequately equipped to provide that level of integrated knowledge and instruction about that these subjects deserve, combining hard science, social and church history, the history of philosophy, and even theology. This is no slur against teachers.
The kind of discussion that really ought to be had—one that engages the philosophical and spiritual components of our knowledge—should happen (and can really only happen) in churches, not public schools. In church settings, our ability to discuss the relationship between science and Christian faith and doctrine will always be more robust than the anemic versions that would be permissible in public schools, even under this new law. But more importantly, churches may be the only place to find the level of civility, charity, and love that is necessary to understand, much less work through our differences. Or at least they ought to be safe places where that kind of conversation can happen—even with atheists.
But here’s the more troubling point: that “speaking truth in love” mentality is often not in evidence within the Body of Christ. Instead, many Christians seem convinced not only of the correctness of their own interpretation of scriptures, but also that those who hold different views are worthy of contempt—and that they have nothing worth hearing to bring to the conversation. A priori distrust of the Christian identity of those who see evolution as God-given, for instance, makes dialogue difficult, at best. If we can not muster the humility and charity to disagree with our brothers and sisters in Christ in a way that still honors their basic integrity and faith, how can we hope to have proper humility before God’s Word or world, admitting the possibility that we have not plumbed the ultimate depths of what they have to tell us? It therefore seems folly to advocate—much less legislate—that our elementary middle- and high-school teachers “teach the controversy” when we, as the church, do such a poor job of telling the whole story ourselves.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it seems dishonest to claim that we want to “teach the controversy” in public schools without any reference to our Christian commitments. Rather than hide our belief that Jesus is Lord of all (including cosmology, geology, biology and history), let us make that claim forthrightly—let us reject atheistic accretions to evolutionary science, yes, but never deny that love of our Lord and Savior is what motivates us to wrestle with the mystery of God’s creative and saving work in the world.
Mark Sprinkle is an artist and cultural historian, and was formerly Senior Web Editor and Senior Fellow of Arts and Humanities for The BioLogos Foundation. A phi beta kappa graduate of Georgetown University, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. in American Studies from the College of William and Mary, where he studied how artworks embody complex relationships in different cultural contexts. Since 1996 he has been an independent artist and frame-maker, also regularly writing and speaking on the role of creative practices in cultural mediation and renewal, especially in the area of science and Christian faith. Mark and his wife Beth home-schooled their three boys, and are active in the local home-school community in Richmond, Virginia.