Who’s getting expelled, again?

Inside Higher Ed reports on an incident stemming from two articles written by professors at Calvin College and published in what is apparently a scholarly journal, the American Scientific Affiliation‘s Perspectives on Science & Christian Faith. (I have never heard of the American Scientific Affiliation or any of its journals, but then I am not generally familiar with “scientific” organizations that declare their a priori allegiance to particular sets of beliefs about the supernatural.) Daniel Harlow and John Schneider questioned the literal truth of the Biblical story of Adam and Eve and of the Fall (links go to their papers) in light of what biology has revealed about human genetic origins and evolution. The IHE article clarifies that the professors “were not disavowing the role of God or of their church, but were arguing that modern science challenges traditional, literal readings of the Book of Genesis in ways that may require theological shifts.” That sounds to me like a pretty gentle and noncontroversial stance to take — I would certainly have gone much farther — but of course the primary response from Christian Reformed Church members was outrage:

Nonetheless, the reaction from readers of The Banner, as expressed in many (but not all) comments on the website, was clear: no deviation from Genesis as literal truth could be tolerated. “To protect the church and college from false teachers and contrary orthodox beliefs it would be right to let these guys go,” said one comment. “Clearly, professors who deny the scriptures as interpreted by our creeds and who have broken the promise they made when they signed the Form of Subscription should be fired,” said another.

One recent post says: “Why is it that so many Christians and academics in Christian colleges seem more concerned about keeping in step with what the world teaches than they are about what God’s Word teaches? Are we ashamed of God’s Word in the face of the beliefs of our worldly peers?”

Of course, it didn’t stop with angry comments on The Banner‘s website. These Reformed Christians took their protests to the root of the “problem” and tried to get these professors into some career trouble. They actually succeeded in getting one kicked out of his (tenured) job — though of course it is being billed as an “agreement” which everyone involved is just tickled pink about.

Such comments … were also sent to college officials, where the two professors were investigated. One — John Schneider — has now left the tenured position he held for 25 years, as part of an agreement with the college. The other religion professor, Daniel Harlow, remains at the college, and is refusing to back down from his views.

A joint statement from Schneider and the college says that the parties mutually agreed that Schneider should leave Calvin because of tensions raised by his scholarship and a desire that these tensions not create “harm and distraction.” While the statement praises Schneider’s commitment to the college, it also says that his “recent and proposed scholarly work addressing issues in genetic science and Christian theology, as they relate to human origin, have engendered legitimate concerns within the college community and its constituencies.”

Let’s rewind a moment. What Schneider and Harlow did was point out that when religious doctrine disagrees with an overwhelming amount of scientific evidence, that doctrine should be reexamined and slightly tweaked so as to accommodate our improved understanding of reality. Is this really such an immodest proposal? Are we truly at the point when Christians will rebel against the notion that observably false beliefs should be discarded? Calvin College already teaches evolutionary biology! And yet, worries about the “harm and distraction” brought about by anyone mentioning the obvious Biblical implications of evolution are endorsed as “legitimate concerns.”

Meanwhile, many Christians object to what they see as discrimination faced by religious scientists supposedly “expelled” from academia. Real science is about examining the evidence to make inferences about the nature of reality, whatever those may be. Secular institutions of higher learning are not the ones making scientists sign a Form of Subscription to particular dogma. The doublethink … it is breathtaking.

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  1. kind of Gil

     /  September 5, 2011 at 1:42 pm

    Nice post. I spent some time studying ancient Judaism and Jewish writing styles in grad school (although I’m no expert). I’m not sure why western Christians have such an impossible time understanding that people have had different communication paradigms to their own – especially those who lived in the Middle East thousands of years ago! The Torah is about as scientific as anything was five thousand (or whatever) years ago! It written in an oral tradition with the intention of communicating moral narratives. Taking the creation story at face value is silly, although I think there is a lot of anecdotal value there.

    What you wrote about is an example of college administrations being pushed around by the masses who pay their bills. I’ll bet every one of those administrators believe what those professors taught, but Almighty Dollar has more influence than perhaps they care to admit!

  2. Thanks. You raise a really good point, about what the administrators and other leaders actually believe. That’s one of the issues that really baffles me. And I think it makes the difference between someone who is tragically confused and someone who is a deliberate scammer.

    I’m curious, what do you mean by “a lot of anecdotal value”? What kinds of messages do you extract from things with anecdotal value, vs. things you take at face value? (Just trying to understand what you mean.)

  3. kind of Gil

     /  September 5, 2011 at 4:37 pm

    Thanks for asking that, it did make me think. I suppose the necessary starting point is whether or not you believe the message of the Bible. If you don’t, then the creation story holds little to no anecdotal value.

    I personally do subscribe to the message of the Bible, although I don’t think my views fit into the scope of conventional Christianity. I wouldn’t say I “believe” in evolution, because there’re nothing to believe – it’s a fact that all life on this planet is a result of evolution – we know that to be true. Additionally, we know by studying human genomes that there was not any one pair of humans who started it all, one of whom was built from clay and the other from that first guy’s rib.

    With that said, and with an understanding that the writers of that story had no scientific knowledge to go on, I can contextualize the content and see the point. In fact, knowing that God did not simply wave his magic wand and “poof” create everything in 6 days makes the story even more amazing to me. The point is that God made everything we see – which gets even more amazing the more I learn about how complex this universe is.

    How do I choose what I take at face value and what I take as anecdotal? I look at how understandable things were to the writers. The creation of the universe and humanity (big bang, evolution, etc) was not understandable to people of that day, so I’m not going to read that literally. However other parts of the Torah and remainder of the bible are historic records. Again, they still were not as obsessed at literal accuracy and chronology as we are now, but we’re getting closer to face value.

    I’ll wrap this up.. None of what I wrote matters if God is not real to you in life – but it’s what happens in life that I DO take at face value.

    Also, a quick side note. Sit down some time and watch History Channel’s “How the Earth Was Made” and follow along with the creation story in the Bible. I found it remarkably similar!

  4. Excellent find! These “Forms of Subscription” are only slightly different in tone from the creationist statements of faith which require that their signers reject any evidence which contradicts their religious beliefs. As Answers in Genesis phrases it, “No apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the Scriptural record.”

  5. Aristarchus

     /  September 5, 2011 at 11:06 pm

    Also, a quick side note. Sit down some time and watch History Channel’s “How the Earth Was Made” and follow along with the creation story in the Bible. I found it remarkably similar!

    …. really? I’ve seen the show, and the show isn’t anything special. It’s just basic geology, cosmology/astrophysics, etc. And it seems very different (to put it mildly) from Genesis.

  6. St. Augustine said that very thing when he wrote that if evidence from nature conflicted with scripture one must reevaluate one’s interpretation of said scripture. But why would any Christian want to listen to one of their own saints?

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