Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Creation v. Evolution in Religion with a Calendrical Fixation

Seventh-Day Adventists, a mixed religious multitude if ever there was one, are mixing it up on Creation v. Evolution.

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.
Yet we regularly read student essays that do such things as:
  • 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 used to think this happened because as a teacher, we are a dismal failure. Now we conveniently blame the students for paying scant attention until the end of the term and then scampering to say something coherent to get out of jail on their third roll. In a panic, they fall back on what they've heard others say, even if they just heard it five minutes ago through a Google search. What they've heard and reproduce often has the virtue of being the very thing they've been explicitly and specifically warned against all semester, without their offering timely objection or even query.

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.


Scott said...

Well said sir. A student who puts in the time and research on their papers (whether an average or "straight A" student) can write something that is much better than the dribble most college students push out at 2AM the day a paper is due.

Anonymous said...

Well said

My favorite line that sums up both the original paper and your statement is in the student's e-mail reposnse to the profesor stating he is .."quite flabbergasted"...my first thought is of Demi Moore's character in a Few Good Men who "strenuously objected". Classic fluff.

Anthony said...

I love it. Slap 'em around, Doc. Are some less than stellar papers from Luke rolling in at this point in time?

Joel said...

ah HA! Proof positive that SWNID is a despicable polluter of the true faith, who waters down the inerrant truth of Genesis 1!! For with his second-to-last sentence he betrays himselves!

Oh . . . you merely mean that God can still be God? Well then . . .

Psalm 35:21

Q said...

Interesting...Here is the dilemma that faces me. Where I do ministry, if a person were to speak in contradiction to what is taught down at the hometown Creation Museum "heresy" would be the charge. I would be run out on a rail! How are "young earth" ideas best countered? Other than the Bible, (and wikipedia) what sources are out there that best explain creation, an old earth?


Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

Q, search this blog for hints. We recommend you get familiar with "Reasons to Believe" and "Biologos" as resources also.

Don't make this a matter of insisting on an old earth versus a young earth. That isn't the point. Just stress the real issue of creation as a deliberate act of God to create a very good world fit for human habitation. Make the main thing the main thing, as the saying goes.

Q said...

Thank you SWNID. I will bookmark those links. I appreciate the help.


Animal said...

The Creation Museum is a part of a political movement. That political movement has infected much of the church and much of peoples' faith. It does need to be contradicted over time.

STARTING with the "main thing" is a good start, but it can never end there. The whole truth has to be preached and keeping the gospel pure and untainted by false gospels is essential to your mission as a teacher / preacher.

Young earth creationism has become a false gospel. It is no less damaging to the church than the false gospels in the early church (say in Colossians). A young preacher doesn't quite have the authority / respect as the apostle Paul to preach (write a letter to the Colossians) a scathing attack on the false gospel. But ignoring the false gospel in your midst is not an option, even if you are a young Timothy in the church. Being run out on a rail is better than compromising the essentials (as these people have substituted major elements of their faith with culture war theology).

Joel said...

Whoa. Young Earth Creationism has become a false gospel? That's a pretty strong statement!

As one of my professors pointed out to me, it is important to argue about the important things. It is divisive to argue about the trivial things. What biblical truth am I giving up/contradicting if I insist on EITHER Young Earth or Old Earth Creationism?

For most of my childhood I forcefully rejected Old Earth Creationism. I was taught that the Bible says God created the earth in 6+1 literal days. My professor, however, asked "What [truth of the Bible] do I lose if God did not create the world in 7 literal days?" Conversely, he could have asked "What truth of the Bible do I lose if God did not create the world over a long period of time?"

In other words, no aspect of my faith is dependent upon the length of time that God took in creating the earth. As SWNID pointed out, the crucial matter is that God DID create the earth. That was the point of the creation account as recorded - it was not written as a scientific treatise, but rather as an account that affirmed God's creative work.

So while I am still fond of Young Earth Creationism, I no longer affirm it to anyone. I do tend to feel that Old Earth Creationism fits the facts that are being uncovered better. And either way, my faith is not impacted.

I certainly do not want to make this a stumbling block to anyone, whether it is the weak Christian, or the searching non-believer. Who am I to say that if you don't believe as I do concerning God's Creation of the world, you can't go to heaven?

Q said...

Having read through much of the websites SWNID recommended, Reasons to Believe, seems to be most consistent with scripture and sound reasoning.

Certainly I will never be an "expert" in this matter. A bigger priority is being with people and showing them the hope, and love, and peace, and joy, of the Good News of Jesus Christ. In short-Kingdom Building.