The controversy is at La Sierra University, a California institution of the SDA, where a student has publicly protested his grade on a paper submitted as the capstone project in a capstone course dealing with paleontology. The student submitted a paper, which the professor deemed insufficient. The student then countered that he believed that his paper was downgraded (to a C: the student graduated as planned) because he was advocating a young-earth position. The professor elaborated on his critique and took responsibility for poor communication to the student about his expectations. Then all this went public, to the predictable consternation of all concerned.
To lots of folks, this appears to be yet another battle in the apocalyptic struggle between the truth and ignorance/unbelief (and note that it appears to be such from either of the two polarized sides, with designations switched). Based on what we pre-confess to be a superficial reading of the primary-source documents, we think it's a little different than that.
First, the paper is the predictable, oft-seen outcome for students who genuinely fail to engage their studies beyond the superficial. The student's paper reads to us like so many that we read--what in our weaker moments we blame for our reluctance to grade the papers that stack up on our desk. It's superficiality is suffocating. Littered with the pleasant cliches that students use to dress up their writing with what appears to them to be academic rigor, adorned by specific data that by its exclusive selection misrepresents the issue, it really just channels some very dated critiques of the evidence for an old earth which themselves fail to get down to business.
The SWNIDish academic discipline is not part of the natural sciences, of course. It's a historical, literary, theological discipline: New Testament exegesis. But SWNID has read more than his share of papers of this kind, from underclassmen, graduating seniors, and even graduate students. We share the frustration of professors at La Sierra who have spent a semester laying out the data that make an issue complex while at the same time leading students to a response to the data that is consistent with Christian faith, only to have the students (not all, not most, but more than we care for) retreat in their final written work to inaccurate, hackneyed, half-baked, over-simplified rhetoric borrowed from some internet site, trade publication (curse you, Josh McDowell!), Christian seminar, or Sunday sermon.
In our case, the student might ignore our careful exposition of such observable realities, big and little, as:
- the fact that no one today seriously argues against the resurrection of Jesus based on stolen-body, wrong-tomb or swoon theories.
- the fact that narrative works in the Bible, based on their own internal structure, are not written as compendia of things to imitate directly but must be read with respect to the themes that emerge from their compositional elements.
- the fact that "if you are the Son of God" in the temptation narrative of Matthew and Luke is not in Greek a statement of doubt about Jesus' identity.
- ignoring the real contemporary challenge to the resurrection of Jesus, that it is a visionary experience or allegorical/mythical narrative, and instead "refuting" the stolen-body, wrong-tomb and swoon theories to "prove" that Jesus really arose.
- ignoring the thematic elements of a narrative book in favor of expositions on "Jesus' method of discipleship," "Paul's leadership methods in Acts," or "church growth principles in Acts."
- discussing how Jesus' temptation shows that Satan's "first strategy is to make you doubt who you really are."
We note that our examples of such failures will strike most readers as noncontroversial. Indeed they are, though at least one was for us briefly and inconsequentially made a matter of controversy by those precious few who enjoy such inconsequential controversy. All this from our view affirms that what happened at La Sierra was nothing more than the usual student failure, except that the matter fell in a subject about which people are fighting and will continue to do so for some time.
Second, the SDA is in a tough spot. Their historic preoccupation with dates on calendars leads them to the unenviable position of having to work with statements of faith that affirm young-earth creationism explicitly. La Sierra University seems to be attempting to skirt this issue. If we were interested in the internal politics of the SDA, we'd wonder whether this controversy might lead to an open dialogue within the SDA about whether such matters really are essential to the church's belief system--as it did sometime back when many SDA members began adopting a soteriology more in tune with historic Christian (and biblical, in our view) notions of grace. It's obvious from a quick reading of the La Sierra affair that many associated with the SDA don't accept a young earth as a matter of dogma. If the SDA is to continue its commitment to maintaining universities of the arts and sciences, it'll have a tough time doing it if the church raises its commitment to a young earth to the point of revising curricula and replacing personnel.
Third, what drives this controversy, as in so many other areas, is the nefarious false choice ("Exposing the Nefarious False Choice" would be a good alternate name for this blog). Those who are taking shots at La Sierra are calling it a matter of creationism versus Darwinian evolution. Of course, we ask, Might it be possible that the God of Genesis 1-3 created the earth and the universe it occupies through a process lasting several billions of years up to the present? It only takes a tentative yes to make this issue noncontroversial for people who want their faith to be biblical.