A Random Universe Designed by God

Anguilla Ocean pic

A Christian biology professor uses randomness to foster peace between  evolution and creation

William Bragg was an acclaimed English physicist who received the Nobel Prize in 1915 for advancing the use of X-rays to study crystalline structures.  Just a few decades later, similar X-ray studies were key to deciphering the molecular structure of DNA.  Bragg, known as a brilliant, humble man, once commented, “The important thing in science is not so much to obtain new facts as to discover new ways of thinking about them.” The same might be said of religion.

In religion, there are many counter-intuitive statements: The last shall be first.  It is better to give than to receive.  The greatest among you must be a servant.  Death leads to life.  Yet in spite of the apparent incongruity of such statements, at a deeper level they speak eternal truths that motivate and inspire people of all faiths.  Here I describe another counter-intuitive idea that is expanding my view of the world and God – Random Design, which includes the idea that God created the universe through random events.

The concept of Random Design may raise a few eyebrows.  After all, in a world that values rules, organization, structure, and order; where science speaks of laws; and where theological authority equates God with order and Satan with disorder, it may be difficult to appreciate physical laws that embody an element of randomness.  Nevertheless, randomness really does govern our lives in many ways.

For example, was it by design or chance that one randomly swimming sperm cell collided with your mother’s egg to become you? Taking into account the genetic processes involved in reproduction, the odds of producing another individual exactly like you – even from the same parents – are easily greater than one in 70 trillion.

Or consider the millions of specialized biochemical reactions taking place within each of our 100 trillion cells at this very moment.  Fundamentally, and in unexpected ways, it is randomness that drives these chemical reactions and imparts to these cells the most remarkable physical characteristics of all – the characteristics of life.

Finally, no discussion of randomness is complete without including evolution – that thoroughly messy, often brutal, inefficient, yet remarkably effective creative process that has nurtured the development of all life on Earth for eons.

No doubt, the marriage of randomness and design faces language and cultural hurdles, and will take time to appropriately define.  Scientists, for example, sometimes find it difficult to distinguish between random and near random events.  And it does not help clarify matters or promote peace and understanding when religious people and atheists alike speak of the godless nature of randomness. Consequently, many people view the word “random” negatively.  Nevertheless, a growing number of people are beginning to recognize that the word “random” can also convey a more positive and constructive meaning: equal probability of occurrence.  In this light, Random Design is an equal-opportunity process, and God an equal-opportunity creator.

The exquisite elegance of Random Design resides in both its underlying simplicity and versatility.  From the formation of the heavens to the development of life itself, all available possibilities are tested.  Thus, in the most unexpected ways, Random Design endows the entire created order with boundless, life-giving promise.

Design keeps going

Random Design has two components that can act singularly or in concert: an energizer to keep things humming and a combinatorial mixer that continuously stirs the pot and creates new opportunities.

The energizer driving Random Design is well-known to most scientists as the uniform tendency of all physical and chemical reactions to move toward disorder.  While once again seemingly counter-intuitive, this tendency toward disorder is actually crucial to the creation of order, imparting to our world an essential directionality.  Indeed, without this directionality, nothing in the world would happen.  No chemical reactions, no physics, no connections, no movement, no life – nothing.  Thus, in a surprising and provocative twist of irony, nature’s rush to disorder and randomness is actually the key ingredient enabling life.

The second component of Random Design is the combinatorial mixer.  The mixer’s job is to generate vast repertoires of building blocks from which higher order and structure can be assembled.  In biology, the mixer accomplishes this task via combinatorial mathematics.  By randomly shuffling DNA sequences, vast arrays of unique combinations are created – the raw material fueling Random Design.  Those combinations best suited for a particular function are then sequentially selected and incorporated into an ever-expanding architectural design.

A higher order

Because Random Design plays such vital roles for life, it comes as no surprise that advanced life forms have developed elaborate mechanisms to create, maintain, and even extend random processes.  The beauty and elegance of this approach is that seemingly separate random processes become significant constituents of a larger systematized and coordinated organizational hierarchy.  In fact, in some of these life systems, organized and deliberate randomness actually becomes a primary goal to accomplish higher purposes.

An example of such higher-order Random Design is seen in the billions of cells of the human immune system.  Each of these immune cells, or lymphocytes, provides an essential and specific defense against one of the millions of potentially harmful invaders we might encounter during our lifetimes.  But given that only a handful of our nearly 23,000 genes are devoted to immune defenses, how do these cells successfully accomplish such a remarkable feat? Randomness to the rescue: Unordered chance variations in a few specialized immunity genes occur within each cell during its development in the bone marrow.  The result is a continuously replenishing repertoire of specifically targeted lymphocytes which working together, afford us preemptive protection against virtually all infections agents – even those that do not yet exist!  In this way, apparently random processes lead to astonishingly purposeful outcomes, making our survival possible.

Taking the reins

The extraordinary potential of Random Design has not escaped the attention of modern science.  Researchers from a variety of fields, such as biotechnology, medicine and communications, are keenly aware of its power, and are learning to corral and leverage its creative powers.

Biochemists simulate evolution in a test tube to uncover new therapies for disease.  In just weeks, scientists can create massive random combinatorial libraries of short sequences of RNA or DNA.  The resulting trillions of differently shaped molecular compounds, called aptamers, are then screened for their ability to influence the cell’s activities by binding with critical cell signaling molecules.  Because an astonishing diversity of molecular shapes exists within the total aptamer pool, it is possible to identify and isolate aptamers against virtually any molecular target.  The potential applications are stunning: being evaluated in the diagnosis and treatment of human diseases such as cancer, AIDS, eye diseases, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy.

Randomness is also being used in applications such as cellular communications, data encryption and airborne radar.  Random background noise serves as a masking medium in which meaningful messages are embedded.  Those individuals who are privy to the code can successfully identify and extract the significant information from the noise.

Artificial intelligence studies show that computer machine learning appears to be more intelligent if the intelligent agent randomly tries various alternatives and then learns by adjusting future behavior to positive or negative feedback – an example of good old-fashioned trial and error, basically identical to the way toddlers learn to negotiate their worlds.

Finally, geneticists, when performing genetic manipulations in a cell, understand that the random statistical nature of DNA incorporation into recipient cells makes the process extremely inefficient.  Consequently, millions of cells and even far greater numbers of gene copies must be mixed together to successfully insert a favorable trait into even one of these cells.  Yet amazingly, successfully transforming just one cell is sufficient.  Just as observed in evolution, once a genetic change has occurred, it becomes permanently embedded in the DNA of all succeeding generations of this cell.  Indeed, virtually all genetically modified crops and animals in existence today began with just one such special cell in a laboratory – a singular product of random events, yet truly unique and possessing exquisite value.

Building credible bridges between science and faith

For those who believe in God, Random Design does not invoke new scientific laws or processes.  It simply provides a credible way to embrace the empirical realities of the modern scientific world while also affirming personal and traditional faith claims regarding the existence of a creator.  In this very specific sense, Random Design resembles the so-called and popularized idea of ‘Intelligent Design’.  However, the striking and liberating distinction is Random Design’s greatly expanded role for intelligence.  Intelligent Design inserts God into perceived (but typically temporary) gaps in scientific understanding with the goal of repudiating evolution.  These ‘God of the gaps’ insertions populate natural history like lonely stars in the sky – tiny lights against a great backdrop of darkness.  Random Design, by contrast, lights up the entire sky with intelligence, ascribing the entire creative process – even the randomness – to a purposeful, coherent creator.  In addition, Random Design is attractive because it recognizes science must be free, not subject to arbitrary religious veto.  Random Design grants this freedom, refusing to redefine or compromise the integrity of science to meet arbitrary religious standards.  It affirms and liberates science to pursue truth in the physical and biological domain – wherever it leads.

People of faith can wholeheartedly embrace Random Design.  Random Design is ecumenical, offering a larger, more expansive vision of God – a God who fashions the laws of randomness for a divine purpose – to create and draw the created to the creator. 

Random Design also strengthens and enhances the credibility of faith and spirituality because it enthusiastically embraces all verifiable physical and biological discoveries from science.  The truth is that facts never negate faith, and genuine faith never attempts to negate facts.

Perhaps the most important immediate faith-affirming contribution of Random Design is in public science education arena.  Random Design provides a comprehensive remedy to the science – faith public education controversy, granting each side in the discussion exactly what they claim to want and everything either group can reasonably expect: Science is free; God’s place is secure. 

It has been said that the highest intelligence always involves a bit of mystery and paradox.  This is why Random Design is a perfect fit: The destructive laws of randomness are the very same laws that fuel creation!  Science clearly demonstrates that randomness plays pivotal roles in bringing about physical and biological order in our world.  Therefore, maybe it is time to cast off worn and discredited concepts of creation, exchanging them for a new vision that acknowledges and celebrates randomness as a part of a comprehensive and purposeful plan.

Human beings now mimic a multi-billion-year-old biological process to create drugs for human diseases; communicate across the globe and beyond though thin air with cryptic codes embedded deep within random cosmic noise; fine-tune genes to modify life; and construct machines whose ultimate design test is whether their learning and actions reflect the mind of their creator.  Therefore, we have to wonder: Maybe the highest intelligence truly is one that purposefully harnesses randomness.  Maybe we, as human beings, are coming full circle and beginning to more fully reflect the essence of the creator within us.  Random Design has the potential to shape an age by acknowledging that much of what appears random in our world is actually bursting with purpose and meaning. 

A modified version of this article first appeared in Science & Theology News.  Readers are free to duplicate and share for their own personal use.  Richard G. Colling is a retired biology professor and author of: Random Designer – Created from Chaos to Connect with the Creator.  For more information or author interview, visit the website at: http://www.randomdesigner.com

 

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Todd’s Question re: Creationist’s Objections to Evolution

One of the responses I received to my blog posting about Rob Bell’s book “Love Wins” prompted this response.  Here is the question – and my response.  Hope this is helpful!

Dr. Colling, I have a question that I think you would be the perfect person to answer. Since you are no longer at ONU, I’m not sure how to get in touch with you, except by this comment. The questions deals with how someone holding to some form of theistic evolution (perhaps a “random” form!) answers the questions raised by creation science folks about no fossil records of trans-species evolution, and there other “big objections” (with which I’m sure you are familiar).I’m not a scientist. I am a pastor. I have no major issues with a theistic evolution approach. However, a couple of the issues raised by the creation science folks seem like good question from where I stand. I’m guessing there are sufficient answers to those questions, but I don’t know what they are.  I look forward to your email!

Your Brother in Christ,  Todd

My Response:

Hi Todd,

Thanks for the question. The truth is that I know very little about the “fossil record”. A Paleontologist or geologist might be a better person to ask.  I can address your question in a general way however.

Creationists are very fond of postulating something as a “necessity” to demonstrate evolution, but this is a “straw man” falsehood. In addition, it is typically impossible to disprove a negative – and I think the creationists who hoist these types of arguments into the discussion know this very well. So it begs the question of whether they are really interested in discovering the truth, or simply grasping for anything they can in order to keep evolution out of the picture of God’s creative actions.

The truth is that the claim of creationists that evolution is disproved by an absence of some hypothetical transitional (the term you use of trans-species) form is simply in error. Very uniform and detailed genetic connections between living forms from simple to complex have been identified using far more sophisticated and accurate measures than postulated so-called million-year old “missing link fossils”. This argument is tired and old, and honestly, no longer relevant to an intelligent and informed discussion of the interrelatedness of life on earth. In other words, the modern scientific technology renders these old objections obsolete.

Perhaps as an example, up until the 1800s, people postulated all kinds of things to be responsible for human disease – “bad blood”, “noxious vapors”, “evil spirits”, “mental state”, and others. Since none of these things were well defined, none could be easily confirmed or denied. The result was mass confusion (and fear) among the general public. But then, when Antoine von Leeuwenhoek in the late 1600s, created magnifying lens adequate to make the invisible world of the living organisms visible; and then Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch in the mid-1800s expanded on this observation to prove that anthrax, cholera and other diseases were simply the manifestation of animals/humans being infected with specific identifiable bacteria, all the old arguments just became irrelevant.  Today, the fact that life is best understood in terms of genetics and the interrelationships between species at the genetic level is unquestioned by any who truly understand. In addition, the level of detail revealed is absolutely stunning.

The old, simplistic, tired and false presumptions and arguments do not become more persuasive simply because a person or group continues to repeat them over and over – preying on a scientifically uninformed general public. No geologist, paleontologist, or geneticist that I know considers these creationist claims to be worthy of any time or attention or response. The entire premise is flawed.

Also, and contrary to popular perception, creationist’s views are not shared by the vast majority of Christian biologists. Nevertheless,  these biologists know as I do that if they are a part of a Christian organization and speak aloud/publicly in support of evolution, they will be demonized and their jobs/positions/reputations/Christian character disparaged and impugned by the loving (not) Creationists. Consequently, I try very hard to not become embroiled in responding to the multitude of the silly “claims” of creationists. My experience is that it is a never-ending “black hole” of foolishness designed to distract and deceive the public.  It sheds no informative light on the matter and adds no useful information to the discussion of origins. After all, if God just poofed it all into existence in 6 -24 hour days 8000 years ago, what else is left to discuss?  The more interesting questions arise if evolution is viewed as God’s tool in creating and sustaining life.  You seem to be genuinely interested and open and honest in your question. Hopes this sheds some light Todd. If you have other questions, feel free to communicate here or via email.
Rick

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Evolution and Christian Faith Chapter (From “The Christian College Phenomenon”)

 Evolution and Christian Faith

The shouting all around us makes it hard to hear.  But the voice of God is different than other sounds.  It can be heard over the din that drowns out all else.  Even when it is not shouting. Even if it is just a whisper.  Whether revealed through scripture or coded in our DNA, the softest whisper still inspires and transforms over chaos and confusion…when it is speaking the truth.

Michael (not his real name) looked across my office desk, discouraged and visibly shaken.  As if I were his last spiritual lifeline, his eyes, filled with confusion, pleaded with me to reassure him that what he was learning in his biology classes about evolution was not really true.

Michael was a sophomore biology student. He came to us—as many students from the mid-western United States—from a strong Christian-fundamentalist family.  All of his life he was told that evolution was a “lie of Satan,” starkly incompatible with scripture and the Christian faith. The passionate anti-evolution teachers during Michael’s formative years were the people he loved and trusted most: his parents and pastors.  And their vocal confidence and insistent denial of evolution left no doubt that they regarded evolution as a litmus-test issue of Christian orthodoxy.   One was either in or out—no middle ground whatsoever.

My heart ached as he related his story. Both his parents and pastors had recently informed him that if he accepted evolution he could neither be a Christian nor a part of the church fellowship.  Emotionally and spiritually cut off, he broke into a soft sob as the agonizing spiritual pain and rejection overcame him.

Michael was an inquisitive and bright college student.  He simply could not comprehend why acceptance within his faith community required him to check his God-given intellect at the door of the church. As a Christian biology faculty member for many years, I had seen this troubling scenario play out many times before in the lives of other students.  Michael was at a crisis point.  He was almost persuaded to unbelief, but not by science or evolution.  Rather it was the insistent scientifically uninformed teaching and judgmental spirit of his religious mentors precipitating his faith crisis.

We talked for a long while that afternoon and several times during the semester.   I prayed with him, each time encouraging him to hold fast to his faith—explaining that many Christians, including myself, saw no conflict with evolution and the Christian faith.  Nevertheless, at the end of the term, Michael transferred to a nearby state university.  The last I inquired, he had apparently abandoned the Christian faith altogether.

Unfortunately, Michael’s harrowing experience with these apparently well-intentioned, but misguided Christians is far too common, prompting many to regard Christianity as a non-viable option.

Is all Truth God’s Truth?

According to the Joeckel/Chesnes survey, 66.5 percent of CCCU students and 35 percent of CCCU faculty share the view of Michael’s religious mentors that evolution is incompatible with the Christian faith (FSQ 51 and SSQ 39). This finding should concern all believers because the either/or proposition carries with it an inherent hazard seemingly unrecognized by its anti-evolution proponents.

Of course, if evolution truly is a figment of biologists’ imaginations, this either/or proposition functions just fine: God’s supernatural role, along with the Christian faith, is safe from the perceived lethal talons of science.  But what if evolution is real?  Indeed, the Human Genome Project completed in 2003 along with genetic analysis of the DNA of numerous other species has changed everything in this regard.  More on this later.

So the relevant questions appear rather straightforward.  Is the anti-evolution cohort of the Christian community right: Is evolution really Satan’s lie?  Does evolution truly preclude belief in God and exhibit incompatibility with the Christian faith? Significantly, who framed the question of God and science in this either/or manner anyway?  And finally, why does it matter? It seems to me that, for a Christian, addressing these questions matters for at least three reasons:

Truth: As a matter of basic scriptural principle, to the best of ones ability, Christians are obligated to speak the transparent truth.  Being scientifically uninformed is categorically no excuse for blindly or intentionally perpetuating false information. Such conduct cannot possibly honor God.  It is far better to simply acknowledge those things one does not know than to claim a self-anointed religious or scriptural authority paradigm to justify speaking—or tolerating—falsehood.

Credibility: One of my biology faculty colleagues, Aggie Posthumus, aptly notes that, “What you allow, you teach.”  In this context, when a vocal Christian minority requires that the facts of biology be disregarded, yet the larger Christian community fails to immediately confront and assertively disown such a position, it paints all Christians as out of touch with reality.  As a consequence, the spiritual witness of Christians in general is eroded and the credibility of Christians to engage in any issue called into question.  After all, if Christians refuse to acknowledge obvious physical/biological realities, why should anyone trust them to render reasonable analyses on spiritual or other issues?  This incremental under-the-radar trend toward cultural irrelevance should be profoundly troubling to all Christians.  Even as I write this chapter, for the first time in American history, it appears that Christian Protestants will soon no longer be represented on the United States Supreme Court.  Coincidence or case in point?

Love and Compassion: As Michael’s experience illustrates, believers and unbelievers who understand and accept evolution find it hard to comprehend the suspicion and hostility directed toward them by Christians who portray them as enemies of the faith.  Such unfair and harsh judgment—especially when done in the name of God—does not honor God or draw people to the Christian faith.  Instead, it alienates them.  Scripture tells us that Christians should be known for their love and compassion, and for their openness to new revelation, inspiration, and learning.  Indeed, Jesus modeled these concepts for us to emulate. In this light, how can the judgmental spirit directed toward those who accept evolution possibly be justified by those who call themselves followers of Christ?

Danger and Opportunity

Herein then, lies perhaps one of the greatest challenges for the Christian community – defining a pivotal and crucial point in the modern history of the Christian faith.  For if evolution is real, describing a continuum of life over many millions of years, and if Christians truly believe the Bible, uniformly embracing the Biblical maxims that God is the creator and all truth is God’s truth, the only logical and viable faith-preserving position for Christians is that evolution must be seen as part of God’s wondrous creative plan.

This understanding raises a difficult question that many in the Christian community may not be ready to hear: By their continued adamant denial of well-established evolutionary processes and the continued framing of evolution in an either/or format in opposition to God, are literalist Christians unintentionally fortifying the atheist’s case against God?

In light of the physical reality of evolution, the self-defeating and destructive theological consequences of a literalist “incompatibility” position are indeed profound: Denial of evolution ultimately reduces to denial of God and his almighty creative acts.

Thus, in an unfortunate and evidently unforeseen twist of irony, the literalist anti-evolution Christians, while claiming to speak for God, actually find themselves speaking against belief in God.  Marching hand-in-hand with outspoken atheistic scientists like Richard Dawkins, they proclaim the exact same scientifically unfounded message that evolution and belief in God are incompatible.  In doing so, anti-evolution Christians have unwittingly adopted and vocally embraced an atheistic position as a fundamental tenet of the faith – utterly failing to recognize that this either/or proposition virtually guarantees that as scientific understanding regarding evolution continues to advance, God’s role as creator and sustainer of life is slowly, but surely erased.  Nothing like painting oneself into a corner!  Everyone knows that in a courtroom setting, an attorney who successfully frames the opening arguments will eventually win the case.  I have never understood why Christians so naively and eagerly agreed to play by the atheist’s rules regarding evolution. Surely we can do better!

Nevertheless, for better or worse, here we find ourselves at the dawn of the 21st century in a society driven by advances and understanding in science and technology.  The human genome—the letter-by-letter codebook of human life—simultaneously reveals both magnificent and messy secrets of our evolutionary past at unimaginable levels of precision.  These revelations are real and concrete physical realities: indisputable facts. They can no longer be denied or ignored by Christians without risking a slow, but certain cultural irrelevance.

Therefore, if Christians truly believe that the Christian faith has something of priceless and eternal value to offer the people of the world, it seems crucial that these scientific realities be courageously addressed with honest and open resolve.  Indeed, I would think that Christian leaders would be eager to begin.

A Potential Leadership Role for CCCU Member Institutions

Thomas Chesnes, in the first chapter of this section, “Deconstructing the Second Pillar of Anti-evolutionism in Christian Higher Education”, quotes Arthur Holmes regarding evolution, “The Christian college will not settle for a militant polemic against secular learning and science and culture, as if there were a great gulf fixed between the secular and the sacred.  All truth is God’s truth, no matter where it is found, and we can thank him for it all.” Chesnes correctly points out that this wonderful ideal is not always manifested at all CCCU member institutions—to the shame of Christian-college administrators who fail to provide a “safe” environment for discussion of these controversial issues. Nevertheless, Holmes’s statement is an honorable standard to which Christian colleges must aspire. Biology and the Bible need never be at war, and the risk of losing the next generation is becoming too great to ignore.

Profound confusion and misinformation seemingly overwhelm efforts to achieve a positive faith-affirming détente between evolution and the Christian faith.  For this reason, the journey will require courageous and steadfast leadership. But positive transformational change is attainable if education is afforded a high priority.  In this context, CCCU institutions can indeed play a leading role by redefining terms, exposing flawed atheistic assumptions, promoting knowledge and understanding, dispelling fear, and most importantly, articulating a reasoned theological perspective of evolution that establishes a permanent place for God and the Christian faith in the intellectual discussions of the culture. Hand in hand, I believe Christian leaders and CCCU member institutions can effectively—and redemptively—accomplish this peace mission.  In doing so, they will render an invaluable service to God and the Christian faith.

A Vision for the Road Ahead

Having spent the first pages of this chapter describing the hazards and liabilities inherent in the foundational underpinnings of the “Second Pillar of Anti-evolutionism in Christian Higher Education” addressed in the Joeckel/Chesnes survey of Christian Colleges, I would like to now devote the remainder of this chapter to providing some foundational background information about science and evolution, and also to offer insights and perspectives that could help CCCU member institutions regarding positive future actions.

Dynamics and Challenges of Teaching Evolution—Precise Definitions, Emotions, and Scientific Facts

A functionally viable framework for reconciling evolution with the Christian faith must start with a scientifically accurate and philosophically appropriate understanding of evolution itself.  But learning is not completely a function of the cognitive/analytical parts of the brain: Language and emotions play important roles!  And when it comes to evolution, emotional fervor runs high. Therefore, if we legitimately claim the badge of bona fide Christian educators, we must unapologetically speak the truth of science, but we must also do so with a sensitive, loving, and accepting spirit.

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, my greatest challenge was to sensitively listen to and gauge my students’ backgrounds so that I could effectively reassure them that new understandings in science need never threaten their faith.

In a large and diverse classroom of general-education students, this is no small undertaking. For students coming from very conservative Christian backgrounds where evolution is routinely pronounced as evil, the challenge is to speak the truth about evolution while simultaneously encouraging and affirming them in their faith. For non-believers, the task is different, but equally important: to encourage them to keep an open mind, perhaps even to give this God thing a second look. When successful in striking just the right balance—speaking the truth in love while also recognizing and affirming each individual where they are in their spiritual and intellectual journey—something magical happens. The preconditioned division and suspicion they brought to the classroom begin to melt away, replaced by understanding and acceptance.

Coming to Terms with Terms

Evolution is easily one of the most misunderstood scientific concepts in the general culture, a fact that greatly amplifies the confusion and angst regarding its compatibility with the Christian faith. The unfortunate reality is that words like randomness, evolution, and mutation positively drip with ambiguity – frequently poorly defined and easily misunderstood. Therefore, it is essential that these terms be precisely defined and understood by all parties.

A few years ago, I met with some clergy leaders to describe my book and explain my views on evolution. During the course of the inquisition, I was asked if evolution was true.  My response was, “Yes, yes, no, and maybe—it depends on how one defines evolution.”   I expanded on the idea.

  • If evolution is used in the generic sense such as, “The university has evolved over the years,” the answer is “yes.”
  • If evolution is used strictly to describe the biological/genetic mechanisms by which all life is related, the answer is also an unambiguous “yes.”
  • If evolution is defined in the context of secular atheism (and as we have seen, literalist anti-evolution Christians) that insists that evolution precludes the existence of God and is incompatible with Christian faith, the answer is an emphatic “no.”
  •  Finally, if evolution is defined as the means by which the first living cells (known to have inhabited the Earth several billions of years ago) were created, the answer is a definite “maybe.” The truth is that while evolution well-explains biological development and speciation events, the mechanism(s) responsible for the appearance of the first life forms is still a mystery.

I had hoped that these nuanced, yet important distinctions would be helpful to the clergy leaders.  Unfortunately, the judgmental, anti-evolution, literalist mindset permeated the room, and having already reached their conclusions regarding evolution and those who teach it, I honestly do not think they were even listening.

Overcoming Emotional Obstacles to Learning about Evolution

Another 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. When using such emotionally charged words, the consequences for relationships can be disastrous as well-meaning, good people talk right past one another and misunderstanding, confusion, and agitation escalate. Emotions are powerful because they typically (at least initially, until we have counted to ten!) overwhelm rationality. After all, I doubt you would take it kindly if someone called you a mutant! Thus, it is important to recognize that using seemingly counterintuitive, emotionally laden concepts like random and evolution in our references to God represents a formidable emotional challenge for many, despite the fact that when properly understood, these concepts are indeed inherently compatible with one another.

What Is Evolution Anyway?  Our Perspective Determines Our Destiny

Two years ago, I presented two papers at the Wesleyan Theological Society science/religion conference at Duke University.  During the discussion period, a respected university theologian made what was to me a most startling and puzzling pronouncement.  He said, in essence, that evolution dictated death, dying, and suffering, and that it must be considered in this context when discussing its theological implications. The unmistakable inference was that this person believed evolution was something bad. I have since learned that this view is also widely held by many Christian pastors and religious leaders.

It was an epiphany, one of those special moments in time when a complex problem is comprehended in a completely new way.  I suddenly realized that if just one small (but hugely significant!) scientific misconception could be corrected, an entirely new and much more productive path forward might be possible.

So let’s be perfectly clear: Does evolution dictate death and suffering?  Emphatically no!  Simply put, this idea is just completely wrong.  In fact, it is precisely the opposite: Evolution functions proactively – and redemptively – to preserve life and health, not to detract from or destroy it!

The genetics driving this redemptive feature of evolution are a bit beyond the scope of this essay, but perhaps an analogy will suffice for the present. One of my sons is a police patrol officer.  In preparation for duty, each day he dons his bullet-proof vest.  Police statistics say that it is highly unlikely that the vest will actually ever be needed, even over his entire career in law-enforcement.  However, I must confess that I am very glad that he conscientiously takes this protective precaution—just in case!  Evolution functions in a similar manner, proactively (and continuously) duplicating, reorganizing, and modifying genes in our DNA.  These new versions of genes can then serve as life-saving backups when essential functional genes are occasionally damaged or destroyed.  In this way, they provide critical protection and resilience for life just as the bullet-proof vest—just in case!

The accuracy or inaccuracy of our perspective determines our destiny. If the underlying assumptions and understandings of evolution are plainly wrong, productive outcomes are unlikely.  Thus if the Christian community truly desires to find compatibility between evolution and the Christian faith, a scientifically sound understanding of evolution is a necessary pre-requisite.  Perhaps this more accurate redemptive perspective regarding evolution can be useful in this regard.

The Genetic Evidence Demonstrating Evolution

Until the late 1990’s much of the evidence of evolution came from rare and sometimes confusing fossil records embedded in different geological strata dispersed all over the world.  However, recent advances in molecular biology—especially in the field of genetics—have changed everything.  These advances culminated in 2003 with the completion of the Human Genome Project, an international endeavor spear-headed by Francis Collins, a Christian, author of The Language of God, and co-founder of the Biologos Foundation, an organization committed to seeking harmony between science and faith. The human genome is a 3.1 billion-letter linear digital DNA directory of humanity.  This directory is unlocking the secrets of humanity’s present and past genetic connections with all other life at unimaginable levels of detail and precision. This is not your mother or father’s gap-laden fossil record; rather, it is an exquisitely detailed map of our entire evolutionary history!  The actual genetic concepts and corresponding data are exceedingly complex, yet also very intelligible to the trained molecular-geneticist.  I will summarize several of the distinctive categories.

Analysis of Chromosome Rearrangements

When individual chromosomes in different species are compared, it becomes apparent that some species share common breakage and fusion patterns. Breaks and fusions in the chromosomes are not mysteries, but well-understood genetic events that occur, albeit relatively rarely, in all advanced life forms.  Like assembling a jig-saw puzzle in which every piece fits “just right,” defining the locations of common breakages or fusions in different species allows geneticists to decipher the chronological relationships between these species.   Numerous cases have been documented, but a most noteworthy example is human chromosome two which is the unmistakable fusion product of two ape chromosomes. (1)  Since chromosomes are inherited only through the parental line, this physical reality unequivocally demonstrates common ancestry between humans and the ape line.

Gene Duplications—New Gene Assemblies 

Gene duplications within DNA occur with relatively high frequency.  Typically the resulting spare copies of genes are simply redundant, but occasionally they, either alone or in combination with other genes, give rise to new biological functions. An interesting example is color vision in primates in which the duplication of the opsin gene bestows color vision to the ape line, including humans. (2) Once again, since such genetic traits are passed only from parents to offspring, by identifying the precise location and inheritance of such changes in human DNA compared to DNA from related species, geneticists are able to firmly establish chronological evolutionary relationships.

Pseudogenes

Duplicated genes occasionally experience very specific mutations that render them inactive.  These inactivated genes are called pseudogenes and, once established, they are permanently retained as residual “baggage” within our DNA, inherited uniformly from parents to the offspring in each succeeding generation.  Humans possess thousands of these mutated inactive genes. In addition, and highly relevant to this type of evolutionary genetic analysis, each pseudogene typically exhibits a unique inactivating mutation that endows it with a precise one-of-a-kind “fingerprint” all its own—a sort of evidence within the evidence.  The presence, in different species, of identical pseudogenes located at precisely the same location and bearing the exact same inactivating mutation (fingerprint) establishes a common evolutionary heritage between these species.(3)

HERVs and Parasitic Kin

Our DNA is being overrun by parasites.  It’s true!  That is the bad news.  The good news is that humanity is, but for individual rare (and tragic) exceptions, dealing with these genomic DNA parasites rather well.  These virus-like pieces of DNA, numbering in the millions, never leave our cells and literally pepper our DNA. One group of parasites, the human endogenous retroviruses (HERV), appears to be kin to the HIV-AIDS virus.   A key characteristic of these DNA parasites is their ability to conservatively replicate in our cells (that is, to make a copy of the parasitic DNA while leaving the original copy intact).  The copied DNA piece is then free to randomly insert into a brand new location and once this new insertion event has occurred, the precise position in the DNA is permanently fixed.  Both the original and new parasite DNA are then faithfully transmitted to succeeding generations.    These distinctive features of random insertion and permanent fixation provide geneticists a powerful tool to explore evolutionary relationships between species.  If two different species possess the same parasitic DNA piece located in the exact same position in their DNA, common ancestry is conclusively established.   This field is still young, but already numerous examples have been described that demonstrate common evolutionary connections between apes and humans as well as other species of animals. (4)

These genetic concepts are complex, but it is important to note that complexity does not equate to uncertainty.  The data described here are indisputable physical realities of God’s creation—facts.  Unfortunately, most of this genetic information is not widely known.  In addition, in my experience, the receptivity index toward learning about such things among Christians is disappointingly low – even among leaders of Christian institutions of higher learning.  For example, a Christian university theologian informed me—in no uncertain terms—that the genetic data described here which establishes our evolutionary heritage need not be taken seriously by Christians because the scientists doing the studies possessed “fallen” minds.  Therefore, the conclusions the scientists reached need not, and could not, be taken seriously. He also made it abundantly clear that my confidence in these things placed me outside acceptable Christian boundaries for a Christian university professor.

The medieval silence-the-messenger mentality is still alive and well among American Christians.  Biology and religion faculty members at Christian institutions still come under pressure and/or attack if they publicly acknowledge evolution or point out the error and counterproductive consequences of the anti-evolution literalist’s positions.

A Michigan pastor and long-time friend, Reverend Jerry Batterbee related that the evangelical response of many of his Midwestern pastoral peers to evolution was, “We sure hope evolution isn’t true, but if it is, let’s make sure no one finds out about it.”

Aldous Huxley once said: “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” (Aldous Huxley,“Proper Studies”, 1927English critic & novelist (1894 – 1963))

Surely Christian leaders can do better.

 Prophets Without Honor—An Invitation

Family is everything.  As Howard Van Til notes in the preceding chapter, “Inherited Beliefs and Evolved Brains: A CCCU Challenge”, people predictably will do all in their power to safeguard their families (or tribe) from harm.   Indeed, what father or mother, upon learning of a potential danger to the family, would not take immediate and decisive action to proactively warn the family members and institute whatever measures necessary to help them prepare and confront the danger looming ahead?  It is the reasonable, responsible, and right thing to do.

As a microbiologist and Christian educator, I have had a front-row seat over the past three decades as the genetic data (God’s data) unequivocally demonstrating the reality of evolution has become known. I recognized early on that continued denial of this growing body of scientific evidence by Christians was a recipe for cultural and spiritual irrelevance.   Because I care for my Christian family, I attempted to gently warn the leaders—particularly in my own denomination—of the impending danger of the anti-evolution mindset.  Believing that education and honest, open intellectual discussion of topics like evolution provided the best possible resolution, I wrote Random Designer, a book designed to promote compatibility between science and faith to Christians and also non-believers.  In addition, I repeatedly offered to meet with pastors and church/university leaders, individually or in small groups, to update them on the latest scientific findings relating to evolution and to offer assistance in devising strategies to help them develop theological frameworks that would be faithful to the science and faithful to the faith. The responses I received were, “No, it is better to let sleeping dogs lie,” and “Your message of compatibility between science and Christian faith is unwelcome in the churches.” Unjustified personal and professional attacks on my scholarship and Christian character soon followed.

What you allow, you teach.  When leaders of Christian academic institutions value and support the voices of scientific ignorance, fear, power, and money—voices that seek to squelch and intimidate the voices of truth regarding God’s magnificent creation—they not only betray God; they erode the grand mission of Christian higher education.  In addition, they broadcast the unmistakable message to the rest of the world that Christians are insecure in their faith and lack credible answers to the secular atheistic voices of science and culture.   Are they right about Christians?  Time will tell.

It is time to put an end to the false and destructive idea that God must be limited to a seventeenth-century understanding of science, and also the atheistic canard that God must be somehow divorced from his created order.  I believe Christian higher education—beginning with CCCU member institutions—offers the best avenue to successfully achieve this goal.  However, courageous, committed, and knowledgeable leadership is needed from three key groups.

  • Courageous Christian Leaders.  University administrators and boards of trustees are the essential catalysts: No meaningful discussion or progress can occur until explicit permission is granted from these key people.  They must view their job as standing resolutely for education, facts, and truth. They must openly encourage discussions between qualified Christian biologists and religious leaders with an unwavering commitment to find common ground and bring peace to the division and discord. They must also nurture safe intellectual environments where the science of evolution as well as relevant theological/religious questions can be freely discussed in the classroom and beyond. Anti-evolution literalists will most certainly object and likely even issue ultimatums.  How should the leaders respond?  It is one thing to be tolerant of different views, but when the position of vocal Christians is 1) at odds with established facts and truth, 2) denies God’s creative genius, 3) embraces the fundamental (and flawed) argument of atheistic scientists against belief in God, and 4) unfairly and harshly judges all other Christian brethren as outside the boundaries of the faith, one has to ask, “Will the real Christian leaders please stand up?” Courage indeed!
  • Courageous knowledgeable biology faculty. Biologists are needed who understand the latest genetic data, are effective communicators of complex scientific concepts to people with limited scientific backgrounds, and are willing to endure personal attack and vilification by the anti-evolution crowd.  Input from physical science faculty could also be valuable.  These science educators would simply serve as resource people to bring/keep religious leaders and theologians up to speed on the latest scientific knowledge relating to evolution.
  • Courageous religion faculty. These individuals must be genuine scholars of scripture, theology, and the Christian faith – committed to expanding and/or modifying traditional Christian theology in ways that promote compatibility with new scientific discoveries. To successfully accomplish this task, they must also possess a basic understanding of evolution and how life truly works.  Ultimately, these professionals are key to the success or failure of this overall peace mission. As a professional and sacred trust, I sincerely hope they will respond to the call.

Christian scholars involved in these discussions must be unconditionally protected from “administrative drift.”  Weak institutional leaders often talk a good game, giving the appearance of public support, but actions are another thing altogether. When the anti-evolution literalists wear them down with threats to restrict donations, to stop sending students to the university, or demand that faculty members be disciplined, restricted, or fired for teaching evolution, a different leader often emerges, and truth and integrity become casualties. While such conduct should never take place at Christian institutions, sadly, it does indeed occur.  Appeasement of ignorance is a lazy form of leadership.  It betrays the truth and erodes the Christian faith in subtle, yet insidious ways as onlookers realize that even in Christian circles, money and personal power politics trump truth, integrity, and genuine education.

If any of these three groups of people fail in their respective responsibilities, the entire message of compatibility between evolution and the Christian faith is likely doomed—at least in this generation.  Yet failure is not an option: In light of the indisputable evidence establishing evolution’s reality, if Christians persist in their claims that evolution is incompatible with the Christian faith, it is they themselves who are pronouncing the verdict against God and, by extension, the Christian faith.  That is why it is crucial that Christian leaders rise to the occasion and articulate a more positive, faith-affirming resolution.

The challenge is not for the faint of heart.  Jesus said a prophet is without honor in his home country. Christian leaders and faculty members with the courage to address the evolution issue honestly and openly will quickly come to understand Jesus’ words on a very personal level.  However, the next generation is looking for us to be salt and light—to be credible witnesses of the world as it is, as well as the God and faith that we claim.  Given this Biblical command, can we do any less?

In II Timothy 1:7 (NIV), the apostle Paul writes, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, love and a sound mind.”  The truth is that a mature faith has nothing to fear from science. Evolution, properly defined and understood, should never be viewed as being at odds with the Christian faith.  An unequivocal public affirmation of this truth from the Christian community—especially the Christian theological leadership—is long overdue. CCCU member institutions have a grand opportunity to play a transformational role in articulating a grander narrative of God.  Therefore, I invite all CCCU member institutions to join the effort. Michael and thousands of others like him are depending on us.

Biography:

Richard Colling, a Ph.D Microbiologist, served for 28 years as a professor of Biology at Olivet Nazarene University – 23 years as Chairman of the department.  He left Christian higher education in 2009 amidst controversy surrounding his book Random Designer, a work promoting peace and harmony between science and faith.   Inspired by a deep love for students and a gift for communicating complex scientific concepts to general audiences, Colling believes that Biology and the Bible need never be at war and that open honest inquiry nurtures a strong resilient faith. Colling’s unique scientific perspective and strong personal faith offer a fresh new voice in the science-religion discussions.

Bibliography:

1.  J.W. Ido, A Baldini, D.C. Ward, S.T. Reeders and R.A. Wells, “Origin of Human Chromosome: An Ancestral Telomere-Telomere Fusion,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 88, No. 20, (1991 Oct 15):9051-5.

De Pontbrian, A., Wang X-P, Cavaloc Y. et. al. (2002), “Synteny comparison between apes and human using fin-mapping of the genome.  Genomics 80, 395.

Wilcox, David L., “Establishing Adam: Recent Evidences for a Late-Date Adam (AMH@100,000 BP).” Perspectives on Science and Christian Belief, 56:Number 1, March 2004, 49-53.

2. Dulai KS, von Dornum M, Mollon, JD, and Hunt DM. (1999) “The evolution of trichromatic colour vision by opsin gene duplication in New World and Old World primates.”  Genome Res. 9, 629.

3.  Gilad Y, Man O, Paabo S, and Lancet D (2003). “Human Specific Loss of Olfactory Receptor Genes.”  Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 100, 3324.

Goldberg A, Wildman DE, Schmidt TR et. al. (2003)  “Adaptive evolution of cytochrome c osidase subunit VIII in anthropoid apes.  Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 100, 5873.

4. Kazazian HH (2004) “Mobile elements: Drivers of genome evolution.” Science 303, 1626.Salem A-H, Ray DA, Xing J et. al. (2003).  “Alu elements and hominid phylogentics.  Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 100, 12787.

Tomas JW, Touchman JW, Blakesley, RW et. al. (2003) “Comparative analysis of multi-species sequences from targeted genome regions.”  Nature 424, 788.

Zhu L, Swengold GD and Seldin MF (2003).  “Examination of sequence homology between human chromosome 20 and the mouse genome:intense conservation of many genomic elements.  Hum Genet. 113, 60.

 

 

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Atheist Scientist Richard Dawkin’s Lecture at Randolph College

Richard Dawkin’s Lecture at Randolph College  October 5th 2011

My thoughts:

Scientifically sound.

Intellectually stimulating.

Humorous, but sometimes coarse.

“In your face” rah-rah session for atheists.

Public scorn and ridicule of virtually all (and especially Christian) religious folks.

Culturally enlightening.

Overall profoundly sad.

Sally and I thoroughly enjoyed the evening out together.  The campus was beautiful and the warm still Virginia evening was spectacular.  As we made the 30-minute drive over to the other side of Lynchburg, the Blue Ridge Mountains rose up to our left with the sparkling orange-red rays of the setting sun radiating from their oscillating peaks.  Awesome.  Illinois and Michigan views just don’t compare.  We met Kathy, a biology faculty member from Randolph college with whom I have become acquainted at her office.  She kindly helped us find the lecture hall – a high-vaulted ceiling with an overhead balcony.  We arrived early, and chose seats in the balcony right over the lectern – a great vantage point of the event.

The lecture venue and college setting reminded us of another time we had attended a lecture at the University of Kansas in the fall of 1976 – a creation/evolution debate.

Following a short series of songs by a university choral group, there was a ten-minute pre-lecture by Sean Faircloth.  Sean is a colleague of Dawkins at the Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason. He has written a book entitled, “Attack of the Theocrats.”  His short presentation promoting his book made it very obvious that he has no use for religion and, in fact, views religion as an evil influence on American culture. He inserted his not-so-subtle “digs” at the local Liberty University fundamentalists several times.

Dawkins was much less antagonistic and used the time to talk about several chapters in his new book (just released this week), “The Magic of Reality.”  This book is geared toward younger readers and addresses questions such as: What is reality? What is Magic? Who was the first person? Why do we have winter and summer? How did everything begin? Are we alone in the universe? What is a miracle?

The first question he addressed was, “Who was the first person?” He argued that there was no “first” person (No Adam and Eve), but rather that each person arises from a previous set of parents virtually the same as them.  Then using a time- machine analogy, he described how the fossil record shows evolution and speciation events, and that if we followed the trail backward we would, 4000 generations (24 years per generation) in the past, observe a great-grandfather very similar to ourselves.  At 50,000 generations ago, the great-grandfather would be homo-erectus. 250,000 generations ago reveal chimpanzee-like ape grandfathers, and so on all the way back through the evolutionary history of life on Earth.  Dawkins is very confident of this data – as is the general scientific community.

In contrast, in addressing the second question, “Are we alone in the universe?” Dawkins is humble and openly admits that he does not know the answer.  He did provide some very interesting facts regarding the number of solar systems that might have planets similar to Earth in the universe.  The numbers are mind-numbing – billions and billions.  So his tentative thought is that, given the enormous number of possible ‘Earth-like’ planets possible, he thinks it likely that we are not alone.  That is interesting to consider, but it is depressing as well, since if Albert Einstein was right that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, even traveling at these rates, the “intelligent life planets” are so far removed from one another, they would never be able to contact one another.

The sold-out audience was an enthusiastic and engaged crowd, with frequent applause accompanying any derogatory reference to God, religion, Christians or Liberty University. During the question and answer period, one individual identified himself as a former Liberty University student who has now become a committed atheist.  The crowd burst into applause at this personal confession, and Dawkins was quick to congratulate him in his ‘deliverance’ from the evils of Christian fundamentalism.  Afterwards, while Sally and I waited in line to purchase books, I listened to the conversations of college students and locals who had attended.  Mockery and derision toward religion and Jesus and Christianity were core elements of some of these conversations.  Given the antagonism I had sensed during the evening, when I finally talked to Professor Dawkins one-on-one I asked him, “Do you believe all religion is harmful, or is it that you personally just have no use for it?” I told him the reason I asked this was because, as a lifelong Christian, I had seen so much good done in name of the faith it did not seem justified to say, in a blanket statement sort of way, that religion was primarily harmful.  His response was, “You don’t have to be religious to be good.”

Sally and I were among the last to leave, and it was quite late.  The night was quiet as we walked across the empty moonlit campus grounds to the parking lot.  The lecture had been interesting and we were both glad we had made the effort to attend.   But I was troubled by something.

It wasn’t the accuracy of the science: That was fine.  It also wasn’t the fact that Dawkins is an atheist and that the message of the night had been primarily an atheistic message.  No, what was troubling me, and that which struck me most profoundly was the extent of the pent-up anti-Christian fervor and hostility that we sensed in the audience.  The intensity of this response really was something that I had not anticipated.  As we talked, we wondered about the source of this anger toward Christians that was so pervasive in the crowd.  You could sense there was more than just anger; there was personal and emotional pain.

Then it hit me.  I turned to Sally and said, “They have been hurt.”

Maybe I am wrong, but I must confess that I departed both the 1976 creation/evolution debate and October 2011 event profoundly disappointed and, in each case, for the same reason – the failure of Christians to successfully articulate and live out a Jesus-modeling faith that welcomes and draws people rather than alienating and excluding them.

Hopefully there is a better future for the faith.

Posted in Science Religion | 9 Comments

Molecular Marvels and Miracles of Life

Ripken James Colling

On this momentous day celebrating the arrival of our 7th grandchild, Ripken James Colling, it stirs deep emotional recollections of times gone past.  It seemed appropriate to share the opening text from my book Random Designer excerpted from Chapter 20 and 16 respectively.

From Chapter 20: Something magical and even sacred seems to surround the creation of a brand new human being.  On a sub-cellular level, a microscopic tango is initiated within the nucleus of living cells, where replicating chromosomes, which provide the instructions for making living cells and determining a person’s unique individual characteristics, reside.  As sperm cells in males and egg cells in females are formed, these information-packed chromosomes vibrate, jostle, and slip over one another in an apparent disorganized heap within the nuclear confines of the reproductive cells.  Following this delicate but deliberate dance, the chromosomes then randomly segregate from one another, miraculously finding their way into the newly-formed sperm or egg cell.

Later, at the instant of conception when a sperm and egg productively collide, a completely new and absolutely unique human genetic identity possessing unimaginable potential comes into existence.  In fact, using the term unique to describe this new living being is a huge understatement.  Other than identical twins (and even these are not truly identical), no one else on the planet is put together in precisely the same way as you or me – never has been and never will be.  The mathematical odds against such a genetic event are simply too great.

From Chapter 16: I remember the vivid event as if it were only yesterday, although twenty-six years have passed since the arrival of our very first son.  Everything happened so fast.  It started with a positive pregnancy test for my wife, Sally.  The test was followed by regular prenatal visits to the doctor, horse-sized vitamin pills, regular physical exercise, baby showers, a baby crib, and lots of tender loving care from the father-to-be.  The weeks and months went by like a blur.  Then, before we knew it, he was here.

As he gasped for his first breath in this new world, I saw his bright eyes light up with life and energy.  He did not cry, but rather whimpered softly as the doctor passed him to the kind delivery room nurse, who then placed this brand new human creation into the waiting and loving arms of an incredulous young mother.  Our emotions in that moment were overpowering.  Though Sally was totally spent physically, all the discomfort and pain preceding the delivery instantly vanished from her face.  “Look at my baby!  Look at my baby!  Oh, look at my beautiful beautiful baby!”   She exclaimed over and over and over again.  As I looked into her soft blue eyes, tears streamed like torrents down our smiling faces.  Gently, I held the arm of this beautiful mother as we gazed in awe upon this tiny creation we had just brought into the world – our first son, Jeremiah, a miraculous mixture of us.

The powerful images of that day are burned indelibly into my memory and consciousness.  They are so vivid that even now, after all of these years, the emotions of that rainy morning in October return to me in full force as I think and write about them.

And the tears are flowing again right now as I write this on July 23, 2011!

Landon and Amber,  as you nurture your new son, Ripken James, may God bless you and grant to you the same sense of joy and fulfillment that your mother and I have been privileged to experience in raising and being a part of each/all of our sons from that moment of conception until today.

Life is good. And each of our sons, daughters-in-law and now grandchildren make life the most amazing miracle and joy ever!  We are blessed and we are thankful for these many blessings. You complete us.

Love, Mom and Dad

Posted in Personal Commentary | 1 Comment

Communicating Compatibility Between Evolution and Faith in Christian Higher Education

[[I wrote this piece a couple years ago as part of an on-line discussion in which the participants were trying to make the case that "science and religion" or "biology and the Bible" need never be at war.  From my many years of experience teaching students in a Christian college setting, I was asked to make a contribution.  It was also published on the Biologos Web Blog.]]

“God has 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 veteran biology educator at a Christian university I can attest that something is tragically amiss: A peripheral issue (evolution) is getting in the way. Indeed, an ungodly and consuming fear of evolution has engulfed the Christian community. And when fear reigns, power, love, and sound thinking are casualties. In addition, this disabling fear is as contagious as influenza or AIDS – blindly passed from generation to generation, hence not easy to overcome.

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 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. Now, for the first time in history, we have acquired the letter-by-letter document revealing 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 how do Christian educators in the sciences help people recognize that their fear of evolution is unnecessary?

Teaching with Truth and Love

I believe that education is the key, 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, but we must also do so with a sensitive, loving, and accepting spirit – actively engaging students where they find themselves in an increasingly complex culture.

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 understandings 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 they have been taught growing up. For students coming from very conservative Christian backgrounds where evolution is routinely pronounced as evil and 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 and acceptance.

The Importance of Language, Words, and Emotions

As suggested above, 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.

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 you would take it kindly if someone called you a mutant! In addition, 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.

At Stake: A Credible Faith

Twenty-first century college students are a savvy and discerning lot: They can smell a fraud a mile away. On the other hand, they appreciate a Christian educator who respects and cares 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. Then, armed with actual knowledge and understanding, they can intelligently make up their own minds how to put it all together. My experience is that they do this very well.

It is a truly sad day in the life of a Christian community when new understanding and insights into God’s marvelous creation revealed by biology and genetics – including evolution – are viewed as a threat to faith especially at Christian universities where all truth is regarded as God’s truth. Such views are neither accurate, nor scriptural.

No doubt, as has forever been the case, the findings of science often raise legitimate theological questions as we seek to more clearly understand our world, God, and ourselves.  These questions must be honestly and openly addressed. However, continued denial of evolution by the Christian community is a sure-fire losing proposition for the credibility of the gospel and our Christian faith. We can, and must do better. As Christian leaders, we must summon new courage.  The next generation is depending on us to confidently speak the truth in love – and with no fear!

Posted in Science Religion | 7 Comments

Love Wins! or Is Rob Bell Going to Hell?

Rob Bell – that popular heretic pastor from Grand Rapids, Michigan – is at it again! Or at least that’s the pronouncement of the 21st century religious Pharisees.

Alarms have sounded from the pulpits; blogs are ablazin’; and mass emails have circulated warning folks to resist the flawed teaching of this uber-radical teacher/preacher.  The spark igniting all this hoopla?  Rob Bell’s new book “Love Wins”.

In “Love Wins”, Bell has the audacity to suggest that judgmental orthodox Christian theology concerning hell and damnation might actually be emphasizing the wrong things and turning people off to the Christian faith.  Imagine that…

Instead, Bell suggests that an accurate reading, interpretation, and understanding of scripture tells us that Jesus’ model for living is something altogether different. Bell’s previous best-known book “Velvet Elvis” was a big hit among college students and others searching for a realistic, credible, and personally meaningful version of Christianity.

So what is so sinister about Rob Bell and his teaching?  Is he truly a subtle, but ominous threat to Christianity as his detractors suggest?  If his critics are right and he is truly a “false-teacher”, the bigger question is this: Is Rob Bell going to Hell?

The truth is that I don’t know Rob Bell’s final fate. Honestly, neither do his so-called  ‘Christian’ detractors.  And I think that is precisely Rob Bell’s point: This “in or out”, “saved or lost”, “secular or sacred”, “good or evil” judgmental spirit authoritatively promulgated by perhaps well-meaning Christians is a substantial obstacle to the Christian faith.  The truth is that this condemning character directed towards those who do not conform to the critic’s limited and narrow tribal definitions of the Christian faith is, in fact, profoundly at odds with both the words, teaching, and spirit of Jesus’ life and teaching.

History always seems to repeat itself.  The truth is that the most ardent critics of Jesus over 2000 years ago were the same crowd that is attacking Rob Bell today.  They are the self-righteous authoritative defenders of religious tradition and organizational authority and power – never open to new insight, inspiration, or interpretation of scripture.  It is not surprising that Jesus reserved his harshest critique for these folks.  The damage they do to the faith can be profound!

In one of their songs, the 1990’s contemporary Christian vocal group DC Talk spoke this message of Jesus with succinct clarity:

“The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today
Is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips
Then walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle.
That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”

Bell may be wrong about Hell – or he may be doing humanity a great service by renewing and enlightening our paths.  Either way, what is the harm in considering legitimate questions that arise from different interpretations of scripture?  Does any religion have everything all figured out?  Who knows, perhaps God still speaks today to and through those with open hearts and minds. Or, alternatively, perhaps Bell’s religious critics are afraid that his teaching may undermine and threaten their religious authority paradigm along with the prestige, money, power, and control that typically accompanies the privileged position of Christian clergy in American culture. Mmmm… food for thought. What do you think?

One of the reasons I have written this piece is that the entire situation resonates with me: When I published “Random Designer”, many of the same types of “Christians” attacking Bell condemned me to hell as well.  So I guess if they are right, Colling and Bell might share an eternal Hell cell.  Fortunately, I don’t think they are right, and if more people come to understand that God is bigger and more amazing than puny self-serving religious traditions, well, I think that would be just swell!

Posted in Personal Commentary | 7 Comments

I’m Back

Many of you know that Sally and I moved to Virginia this past May.  Here we live close to two sons and daughters-in-law, and also some adorable grandchildren. We absolutely love Virginia and the super-friendly people who have welcomed us.  We have a brand new home in a small rural subdivision overlooking the Roanoke valley, and resting in the late-afternoon shadows of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  In addition, the responsible people of Virginia finished the 2010 budget year in the black.  We miss our friends, but do you think I miss Ill-in-Noise?  Not.

A winding twenty minute drive due west along a steep forested route leads to the base of historic Sharptop Mountain.  Here a cozy lodge is nestled next to a tranquil lake, a picnic area, and a park ranger outpost that doubles as a children’s museum – complete with live birds, insects, and really cool (and big!) snakes.  The museum is also the starting point for those adventurous souls with enough courage and stamina to engage the strenuous 3-hour, 3875 foot elevation hike to the bare-boulder summit of Sharptop.  The hike is not easy, but definitely worth the effort as the view from the top is positively breathtaking!  To the north the multiple peaks of the Blue Ridge Parkway seem to extend in a distant line forever.  To the south and east the valley floor rolls out like a colorful Google Earth satellite mosaic of forest, roads, ponds, towns and farms – the panorama extending for as far as the eyes can see in the warm summer haze.

I remember the first time I climbed Sharptop back around 2004.  I was just finishing writing Random Designer.  As I stood on the summit and gazed upon the valley below, I could not help but ponder the parallels between what I was observing and what I was writing.  There before me was a world that was both big and small – painted with bold majestic strokes of grandeur, yet also comprised of intricate, barely visible and seemingly inaccessible details that seamlessly gave way to one overall grand design.

Honestly, I love standing at the summit of Sharptop Mountain where I can really see and appreciate the importance of a “Big Picture” perspective. When I am there, I feel a special sense of closeness to God.  Nevertheless, I also recognize that in both the physical and spiritual domains of life, the really significant secrets about life and about God are often revealed only in the minute details. As a career microbiologist, I have been privileged to discover many of these deep-hidden secrets.  And here, for we who believe in God, one is able to gain a greater appreciation for the magnificence and majesty of the God’s grand design.

I have learned much in the past several years: About our world’s rich and ancient history; how life progresses from molecules to man; about true love and self-deluding depraved selfishness simultaneously competing and displayed in human behavior; about the virtues and evils of organized religion, and about a loving merciful compassionate God who is our only hope to make some sense of it all.  And whose nature and ways are sometimes so very hard to understand. In this blog, I want to explore all of these things more.

I am new to the blogosphere, but my hope is that many of you will join me here and consider/contribute to the discussion.  And if you find value, please invite your friends. I think we might also have a lot of fun along the way.

Posted in Personal Commentary | 2 Comments