For many years, I have started my introductory lectures to both my major and non-major freshmen-level biology courses with a lecture titled, “Where do you draw the line?” The image being drawn upon here is one of friends or siblings growing up together and drawing a line in the sand or taping a line down the middle of the room that indicates to the other, “If you cross this line, we are going to have a fight on our hands.” It is not just kids who do this, but it is also happening in our churches over a variety of issues, especially issues dealing with Creation and Evolution.
As bad as it is to see this happening within congregations, unfortunately it spills out into all sorts of relationships both within the Christian community and as our “witness” to a secular society. We see the battle played out on the freeways with bumper stickers of the symbol of the “Christian fish” growing legs to become the “Darwin fish.” Not to be outdone, we have the “Jesus fish,” with its ferocious teeth, swimming in to eat the “Darwin fish.” We are tempted to smile at this clever example of “one-upmanship,” but before we do, perhaps it would be worth the time and effort to count the cost that has accumulated thanks to the culture generated by the Creation/Evolution debates. While my essay could focus on a wide variety of issues at the interface of Christian Faith and science, I choose not to focus on the issues themselves but on the WAY we address the issues within the church and beyond.
Anecdotally, I have seen many friends and students who have been raised in the Church and have ended up jettisoning their faith because the views they were taught regarding Creation, portrayed to them by well-meaning people of influence, as “the Christian view” can no longer be reconciled with what they are learning about Creation from well-supported mainstream science. Given the choice of believing what they were taught as true versus accepting what they can clearly see as contradictory data, they are forced into either abandoning their faith or ignoring what to their minds seems to be compellingly clear information from their scientific studies.
I remember my first exposure to this when I went to graduate school. I had a fellow graduate student who had been raised in a Christian home and went to a Wesleyan undergraduate university. I approached her thinking that she would be someone I could talk to and discuss the faith/science questions I was having. I was not prepared for the story that she told me. She shared that she had gone through the questioning phase as an undergraduate and had turned to her church for help reconciling what she was learning with what she had been taught. Over the period of a couple of years, after being counseled to quit her scientific studies in order to preserve her faith, she came to a decision point after a church-sponsored seminar where the speaker indicated that one could not be a Christian without accepting that the earth was young. After the seminar, she asked one of the “dear old saints” of the church, as she put it, how she could account for the fossils of the dinosaurs. The lady told her that she believed that Satan had put them there to confuse and trick humans (a view you can find in books at the local Christian book stores lest you think this silly). At that point, my friend decided that if being a Christian meant that she had to believe as her church seemed to be telling her, she could no longer do this. She turned her back on her faith and became fully devoted to her search for truth as determined by her scientific studies alone. I was dumbfounded. I was angry. I was totally unprepared to contribute anything of value to the conversation (unfortunately my undergraduate training had ignored the issue to avoid controversy). All I knew was that something was not right with people rejecting their Christian Faith over disagreements on the mechanism of how God created—not over the Gospel message or teachings of Christ—but over the age of the earth. This was the defining event that started me on a long journey of study and engagement with this issue as a scientist and a follower of Christ.
My initial strategy, unfortunately, was motivated out of anger for what “those people” did that caused my graduate school friend to abandon her faith. So I studied and learned how to demolish and destroy the arguments of “those people,” and when I first started teaching that was “the gift” I brought to my classroom. When the surveys given in my classes identified that 60–75% of my students identified themselves with “those people,” you might guess that my attempts to “set them straight” did not go so well using my “demolish and destroy” pedagogy. This is when the second, and more important, defining moment happened in my journey.
My best friend that I had grown up with and knew for my whole life came down with his wife to visit us. It turned out that my best friend also identified his beliefs with “those people,” so naturally I launched into my impassioned attempt to “set him straight.” To my dismay, none of my arguments or evidences seemed to have any effect on my friend. He was well educated with a Master’s degree in School Counseling, but he did not understand my arguments that were steeped in genetics, molecular biology or developmental biology—but then again, I am not sure why I expected he should. Finally, long after our wives had wisely gone to bed, my friend concluded the matter with an affirmation of his belief in me and the way God was using my life and ministry and the suggestion that we would agree to disagree on these issues. He indicated that he had a simple faith that sustained him and that he just could not go where I was asking him to go. This was a turning point in my journey because here was someone who I knew was a “magnet” for Christ and had a profound ministry and influence on high school students. How could I justify holding this over his head in judgment and think of him the way I had come to think of “those people”? That is where I learned to separate the “ism” from the “ist,” the idea from the people who held the idea. I had conflated the two and in doing so had been taking out my anger over what happened to my graduate school friend on anyone associated with the ideas that contributed to her leaving the faith. I realized my approach would have to change, and I would need to offer my students the same grace that I was willing to offer my best friend. Up to that point, I had been content to enter into science/faith dialogue in ways that were defined either by the culture wars of the Creation/Evolution debates or the theoretical world of the academy through its scholarly pursuits. In my view neither of these satisfactorily modeled Christ in the classroom. So through trial and error, many interactions with my colleagues, and a lot of prayer, I developed a different pedagogy—a pedagogy of hospitality.
While I don’t have time to go into the details of each step and how that played out in the classroom, the following 6 steps became the framework that, in my experience, modeled how to approach controversial issues like these in a Christ-honoring way.
- Begin by disarming/diffusing, which creates an openness to listen and discuss vs. feeding the flame that threatens others and causes them to be closed to real dialogue.
- Create a reason for the audience to be engaged or care about the topic by helping them understand why open discussion or dialogue about the issue might be helpful to them.
- Recognize the complexity of the issue and how an individual’s faith can rightly or wrongly interact with it in foundational ways.
- Set the tone of discussion as one of mutual respect for individuals that honors right relationships above right answers.
- Set goals of education that promote greater understanding vs. advocacy that promotes winning the argument. This puts us in the uncomfortable position of being OK with others understanding our position without necessarily accepting or believing it.
- Honor the individual and their journey by remembering our own. It has taken years and a lot of study and thought to get where I am on this issue, so don’t expect others to make huge leaps in their own positions; be gradual.
The principles upon which this pedagogy of hospitality are based are rooted in our core Christian beliefs about who Christ calls us to be in community with fellow believers and who Christ calls us to be as a witness to an unbelieving world (John 13:34–35, 1 John 3:14 and 4:20). It recognizes that the ultimate answers we arrive at in the discussion are not as important as how we interact with each other in the discussion. God calls us to righteousness, which is right relationship to Him. What makes us righteous is salvation through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. When we understand the Gospel message, everything changes (or should change) in how we interact with others. We recognize that we can no longer feel superior to others because our good works get us no closer to salvation than the misdeeds of the wicked, as all of humanity falls short of God’s glory (Rom 1–3). Because our salvation is not based on our good works or even our right thinking, there is no room for arrogance or superiority in our dealings with others. As we approach brothers and sisters in Christ who hold different views than what we hold on issues not essential to our salvation, our first priority is to be in right relationship with them versus trying to prove who is right or wrong on these issues (1 Cor 8, Rom 14). Reversing these priorities runs the risk of “destroying the work of God over food” or whatever the current non-essential topic of the day might be. This idea runs counter to the culture both inside and outside of the Church, which values right answers over right relationships, and it is a hard message to hear for both scholars and lay people alike because it runs counter to the default postures of our heads and hearts, which are inclined towards self. Nonetheless, the Gospel of Christ is a transforming Gospel that aims to renew both head and heart, fixing their inclination to self and aligning their posture towards Christ.
I close my first class by telling my students where I draw the line. I draw the line at “God Created.” Of this, I have no doubt. While I may have ideas about how He did it, and it is interesting to talk about these ideas, they are not important enough to set as a stumbling block for non-believers or as something to split the body of Christ over. So, before we delve into the issues of faith and science regarding the mechanisms of God’s creation in this upcoming conference, it is important that we recognize that according to our understanding of scripture, these are not issues that are essential to our salvation. Because of this, our approach should heed the scriptural warnings described above and the sage advice, whose origin is in question but was often quoted by Bresee, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”