An Introduction To the Problem
I am a Christian who has always been drawn to the biological sciences. So much so that I majored in genetics in college and spent 18 years in the field of paternity/forensics and conservation genetics. In 2003, I was given the opportunity to teach Advanced Placement (AP) Biology at a local Christian high school, and in 2009, I left the field of genetics behind to pursue youth ministry at my church full time. From 2009-2012 I attended Bethel Theological Seminary, earning an M.A. in theology, while concurrently teaching AP Biology.
One of the reasons I agreed to teach at this particular Christian school was because they allowed the teaching of mainstream evolution in an open way in their biology courses. Because my course was an AP course, the school also needed to comply with the textbook requirements, meaning I would be teaching from a secular biology book. This teaching environment presented some of the most powerfully engaging teaching moments I have experienced with teenagers, and it was from these initial teaching experiences that I began to feel God’s call for me to enter into full-time youth ministry.
Within a few weeks of my first year of teaching AP Biology in a Christian school, one thing became clear: The students were entering my class with a presupposition towards Young Earth Creationism (YEC) as taught by our Bible department. I had been informed that among the teaching staff, the Bible Department believed in a Young Earth cosmology while the Science Department in an Old Earth cosmology. This caused me some concern, being new to Christian education. I quickly came to the realization that there were actually different ways of looking at the world (i.e. worldviews) within the Christian worldview. I had only attended secular schools growing up, and so this dichotomy within one teaching institution disturbed me on a few levels.
First, I had the sense that it was not healthy to have conflicting views that appear to place the Bible and science in conflict with each other. Second, and more detrimental in my opinion, I wondered if these opposing views could cause students to eventually abandon their faith in God and the truths of the Bible if they were continually flipping between biblical and scientific truths, as though these truths opposed each other? According to an article published by the BarnaGroup, “One of the reasons young adults feel disconnected from church or from faith is the tension they feel between Christianity [i.e. Theology] and science…the research shows that many science-minded young Christians are struggling to find ways of staying faithful to their beliefs and to their professional calling in science-related industries.” (Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church, September 28, 2011). My new teaching position suddenly felt more like a ministry than when I had first agreed to this job.
Redeeming Conversations: Seeking The Truth
The first challenge for me at the beginning of each school year is to clarify the students’ understanding of evolution as it has been taught in their Bible and pre-requisite science courses. Invariably, they come back with the same answer: “Evolution is a lie,” to which I respond with, “Which aspects of evolution are you talking about?” After some debate and discussion, the students typically agree with microevolution, while rejecting the notion of macroevolution. These initial discussions typically end with the students’ astonishment that I treat evolution in a serious, non-mocking way, and yet am an adult with a strong Christian faith.
Ultimately, these conversations expose the fact that they had been taught to distrust science and trust the Word of God. I whole-heartedly agree that we must trust the Bible, but I also believe it is important for my students to understand that they can have faith in the Bible as God’s inspired Word, but must be careful with how they interpret the Bible and which interpretations they adhere to. One of my past students is currently working on his PhD in neuroscience at Ohio State and recently shared his experience from my class:
I wanted to let you know that in AP Biology you really challenged my view of creation and evolution. Being raised in a Christian family, school and church my entire life, I had always been taught the literal six-day account of Genesis (especially at [our school] where they didn't allow any discussion or thinking on the topic). I still remember in AP Bio when you said that you believed in evolution AND you were a Christian. It was completely unexpected! I ended up writing my college essay about the topic and it has since been a topic that I am greatly interested in. Specifically why culture (secular and Christian) has created the mindset of ‘Creation vs. Evolution’ rather than God could have created the world through evolution.
I share this quote to show the benefit of dealing openly and honestly with science and theology in the classroom. I believe this quote also reveals the underlying tension that is so real in the lives of so many Christians today, as pointed out in the Barna Group quote above. Having been taught a specific interpretation of the Genesis creation account (i.e. Literal Six-Day Creation), coupled with emphasizing the idea that biblical truth trumps scientific truth, a burden has been placed on teachers in Christian schools that goes beyond teaching the curriculum to pass a Bible or biology course alone.
I am firmly convinced that we must educate our young Christians, whether they attend Christian or public schools, to do theology, philosophy, and science well. As Christian parents, God calls us first and foremost to begin this education in our homes, but this should also be encouraged in the local church, through discipleship relationships, and/or in formal educational settings (e.g. Christian schools and Christian colleges). My hope is that as we continue to seek truth in theology and the sciences, we can learn to dialogue in redemptive, God-honoring ways. Maybe it is too much to hope for in the current cultural climate in America, but for my part, I will continue to attempt to encourage my students away from the creation/evolution debate, and towards a more accurate biblical hermeneutic, and less defensive stance towards the sciences.