An Adventist student enters a graduate program at a large, secular university and becomes frustrated by the misinformation he received as an undergraduate biology major at an Adventist college. One day his frustration turns to anger. He beats the wall of his apartment and cries, “They lied to me! They lied to me!”
A team of Adventist scientists discovers a site containing the bones of Ice Age mammals associated with ancient hominid tools. The team is intrigued but decides to pass the study off to a non-Adventist team because the old age of the find conflicts with an assumed Adventist chronology of the past.
A denominationally employed Adventist scientist writes a piece about her deep faith for an independent Adventist publication. But she writes under a pseudonym because she approvingly refers to several well-informed, data-driven scientific interpretations that diverge from standard Adventist views.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church has produced an impressive cast of stellar scientists, but many of these truth-searchers have come into conflict with Adventist Church dogma. Those who do come into conflict either leave denominational employ or feel constrained to keep their heads low. Scientists who limit their professional focus to present-day processes in, for example, medicine, functional biology, chemical mechanisms, and structural relationships may avoid these difficulties, but those of us interested in geology, paleontology, biology, and other sciences that deal with the past often face conflict within the church.
Although they claim otherwise, Adventist administrators and lay people frequently operate within a paradigm of biblical and “Spirit of Prophecy” inerrancy. This imposes an intellectual straitjacket that severely limits the range of realistic possibilities when interpreting the natural world. These same people often wish to impose their constricted views on Adventist scientists and others who have alternate ways of interpreting evidence and the sacred writings.
In an age of remarkably accurate analytic techniques, powerfully predictive statistical and mathematical methods, massive quantities of interrelated and mutually reinforcing data, and the discernment of critical peer review, well-trained Adventist scientists find it impossible to ignore well-supported scientific interpretations. These interpretations sometimes counter church-sanctioned interpretations. This is not to say standard interpretations are always correct―sometimes they are not―but over time, faulty interpretations are corrected.
In a memoir published a couple of years ago, I briefly reviewed the immense wealth of interrelated evidence from which contemporary conclusions about the past have been shaped, so here I will refrain. Suffice it to say, this evidence is impressive to anyone willing to give it a fair hearing. Aside from published criticisms by Clifford Goldstein (General Conference) and L. James Gibson (retired director, Geoscience Research Institute), well over a hundred unsolicited written responses to the book from pastors, theologians, former church administrators, scientists, educators, and rank-and-file church members have been overwhelmingly positive. This tells me that many Adventists long for open and honest communication regarding the earth and past life. My two critics ignored, or only superficially engaged, the science in my book and seemed more concerned about my non-fundamentalist perspectives on Scripture.
It is important to note that a cadre of Adventist scientists do conform their conclusions to church dogma. Personal commitments to literal interpretations of Scripture and/or the power of church authority make conformity imperative for these folks. Some of these individuals do good science and publish their work in standard journals. I applaud the genuine and often creative scientific efforts of these people, efforts commonly motivated by conservative perspectives. Nonetheless, I think their focused projects often lack context and integration with larger, relevant spheres of scientific inquiry because of a commitment to rigid, inerrantist interpretations of sacred texts.
I have experienced the power of science. I also have experienced the power of faith evidenced by the positive change it makes in people’s lives and the spiritual peace that infuses my life. I am both a person of science and a person of faith. But so-called “faith” positions that are contradicted by massive quantities of physical evidence fail for me to pass the credibility test. Faith is “the substance of things hoped for, evidence of things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1). It has nothing to do with fossil sequences, radiometric dates, dinosaurs, evolutionary processes, or many other subjects—the “seen.”
I write as a biologist. Aside from theology, my profession, along with that of earth scientists, seems to attract the most attention from Adventist heretic hunters. Regrettably, it is only because I am retired that I can be open and without fear of recrimination. I am encouraged, however, by the forthrightness of people like Reinder Bruinsma, Michael Campbell, Donald Casebolt, Jack Hoehn, Bill Johnsson, George Knight, Gil Valentine, and others who convey unvarnished truth; by listening to presentations by Adventist scientists and theologians who spoke truth at the 2021 Age of Life on Earth Conference sponsored by the Sidney Adventist Forum; and by independent publications such as Spectrum and Adventist Today, which publish “present truth” for our community.
Adventism fosters positive virtues that could enhance the quality of life worldwide―Adventists are a hope-filled people in a world overcome with worry and fear; Adventists engage in Sabbath rest, a ritual envied by those who feel the need to rush around seven days a week; Adventists promote eating low on the food chain, a practice with powerful implications for the well-being of inhabitants of our small planet; Adventists emphasize holistic living, an attitude that enhances one’s quality of life; and Adventists emphasize the importance of nature, thus fostering care of the creation on which all life depends. Regretfully, a seemingly endless focus on minor details of biblical interpretation and lifestyle—details that make little or no difference in how we treat people and the rest of creation—occupies substantial Adventist time and effort. This focus on minutia nullifies the potential impact of Adventist heritage on Adventist young people and on the larger society. It also stifles the progress of scholarship in the sciences and other disciplines within Adventist institutions.
From the beginning, Adventists have proclaimed an allegiance to truth. Could it be that someday integrity in all things will win out over fear and assert control over church councils? That Adventist scholars will someday be free to pursue truth in an atmosphere of kindness, truthfulness, trust, humility, and willingness to explore a variety of perspectives? That positive Adventist principles of living will spread through the world fostered by the positive witness of Adventist people? What a wonderful church this would be!
James L. Hayward is an emeritus professor of biology at Andrews University. His memoir, Dinosaurs, Volcanoes, and Holy Writ: A Boy-Turned-Scientist Journeys from Fundamentalism to Faith, was published in 2020.
Photo illustration by Spectrum
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