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Banff Dispatches: Macroevolution, Long Chronology, Humility

On Friday evening at the Banff Science and Religion Conference, hosted by the Geoscience Research Institute, dean of Loma Linda University’s School of Religion Dr. Jon Paulien presented a paper he had considered publishing two years ago. He was counselled against publishing it at the time, but now the GRI is encouraging Paulien to publish it.  The full paper is not yet ready for publication, but what follows is Dr. Kenneth Wright’s summary of Paulien’s presentation.

The teaching of Science and particularly of Origins has become a major issue of contention in the Adventist church in recent years. Although though Paulien works at a faith-based health science university, he  doesn’t feel qualified to deal with issues of origins, since he isn’t an expert in the field.  One thing he has noticed is that as this issue has become politicized, extremists on both ends of the spectrum have taken control of the conversation, and the moderate people in the middle have been too intimidated to speak out.  However, this is the very time when moderates need to speak out.  We must not confuse rudeness and disparaging speech with integrity. Genuine integrity is combined with respect for those with whom we disagree.

There are three different approaches to the origins problem: 

  1. Some find the evidence for evolution and the long age of the earth overwhelming. These people would then seek other than traditional ways of reading the Biblical narrative. 
  2. The second group finds the traditional reading of the Bible clear and compelling, and put their energy into pointing out the flaws of contemporary scientific understanding.
  3. The third group is made up of scientists who are people of faith, but who respect both the Bible and scientific evidence.

We need to be cognizant that there is a gap between our understanding of the universe and God’s.  The mark of a true scholar is the recognition how little he knows.  Great knowledge leads to great humility, and great humility leads to great knowledge.  Paulien describes a “Ladder of Humility”.  The bottom rung represents the amount of information that I know.  The next rung is the amount of knowledge that all the people in the world have.  The third rung is the amount of knowledge all the people in the world could have if they had infinite time and opportunity to learn.  The fourth rung what everyone in the universe knows (assuming there are other intelligent beings in the universe).  The fifth rung is everything that God knows.  There is a nearly infinite gap between each of these levels.  Therefore, we must be humble in the amount of understanding we have, realizing that there is “infinitely” more.  Even the prophets didn’t know everything about God.

Few question the reality of “microevolution”–that small changes occur in species. So that is not a problem for creationists. However, there is significant evidence that points to “macroevolution.”  Because of this, humility is the appropriate approach for both science and faith. The “short earth” creationists don’t have an adequate scientific model to explain origins. This is where faith must come in.  We must take the evidence of both the Bible and science seriously. We must realize that there is evidence we do not yet have the tools to examine. Paulien believes that the Bible points to a creator and to a fairly recent creation. His reading of the the Genesis account suggests God as creator and that he did it fairly rapidly and recently. He believes to complexity and beauty of the natural world is the product of a loving and intelligent designer, rather than the product of random events over long time periods.

Although the preponderance of scientific data is not necessarily hostile to the idea of design, it is hard to reconcile with short earth.  He sees faith as the inner conviction of things we do not see (Heb. 11:1), of things we cannot necessarily prove.  He chooses to give the Bible 51% of the weight of his personal faith decisions.  He defines theology as faith seeking to understand.  Faith is both a standpoint and a process.  People of faith must learn to live with a certain amount of tension.  Our interpretation of data also depends on personal experience.  It’s easier for someone surrounded by beauty and happiness to believe in a loving creator God than it is for someone who has only know sorrow, adversity and hardship.  He gives Job a lot of credit because he recognized the tension, struggled with it, and still believed, whereas his wife gave up belief, and his “friends” denied the tension.  Faith needs to be generous to those with intellectual struggles.

There are three possible ways to deal with the origins issue in our schools:

  1. Teach it the traditional Adventist way, don’t expose the students to evolutionary theory.  The result is that students will lose faith when they go to graduate school or work in a secular institution
  2. Teach origins the same way secular universities do, but if we do that, what is the point of attending a faith-based school?
  3. Teach evolutionary theory, but explain how you have been able to maintain your faith in the face of evidence to the contrary.  That is, teach evolution, but give a faith-based perspective.  This might result in controversy because the conservatives might not be happy, and some students might “fall away” as they are exposed to these ideas, but it will better prepare students to deal with the real world, and it is really the only responsible way to do it.

In these days, instead of honestly seeking for truth, people prefer cherry-picking only the evidence that supports a predetermined conclusion.  This happens on both sides of the origins debate.  We must be honest enough to present both sides of the issue.  Helping students sort out the strengths and weaknesses of both sides will help them to learn to evaluate arguments later on.

—Kenneth Wright is Associate Professor of Anatomy at Loma Linda University.

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