[[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!