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The Creation Wars

Working scientists agree, overwhelmingly, that evolution explains much of what we see in nature. Many Christians, including some with doctorates in science, reject this consensus.

The conflict reaches deep into Adventism, and has the potential, as everyone knows, to tear our church apart. Now a letter from Adventist minister David Assherick, addressed to church leaders and critical of the science teachers at La Sierra University, has set off an Internet brouhaha that underscores the point—underscores how divided we are, and how desperately we need new consensus. Or at least new humility.

Asscherick’s somewhat breathless fulmination includes these words: “If naturalistic evolution is true, Creation is cremated, the Sabbath is sabotaged, and our very name is neutered.” In response, La Sierra’s president, Randall Wisbey, has written, in a letter to his board and other stakeholders, that students at his university do sit under teachers who examine “the evolutionary process.” But these teachers are Christians, and what they teach is fully compatible with “a vibrant Adventist Christian faith.”

How so?

Well, that’s the project I wish we’d agree, as a community, to take on. I don’t see any future in mutual disdain—what we have plenty of just now—and I certainly don’t see how ministers (I am an ordained minister myself) can hope to keep all evolutionary theory at bay. Assherick wants church leaders to somehow threaten La Sierra, but as far as I can tell that would be like taking on a tidal wave with a teaspoon. Threats would have a complicating effort, of course, on Adventist higher education. But threats won’t destroy the consensus that Adventist science teachers—and for that matter, all modern men and women—must contend with.

Consider the following (which I offer with due trepidation and self-doubt):

  • The extreme, or most reductively materialistic, versions of evolutionary theory leave us without any, or without any truly noble, motivations; everything we know can be explained in terms of perfectly impersonal forces.
  • The theory of evolution opens doors either to despair or to the kind of self-regarding passion for which Nietzsche is famous; benevolence to all, as a basic value, has staying power that continues to animate (some of) secular humanism, but it rests, at least historically, on religious foundations that are increasingly at peril.
  • Evolutionary explanation sheds light on nature, but cannot be the ultimate explanation; ultimate explanation is beyond the purview of experimental science.
  • Although reductive evolutionary theory offers neither hope for final meaning, nor any path to spiritual transformation, human beings, or at least many human beings, still long for both of these.
  • The Bible affirms God as creator from start to finish, but is nowhere preoccupied with the age of the earth or the (precise) means of creation; the Bible acknowledges great mystery, and offers many reminders that God’s thoughts and ways are higher than ours.

Assherick takes it for granted that we cannot imagine some fresh way to be creationists, some fresh way to be (authentic) Adventists. Perhaps a fresh approach would involve some recognition of evolutionary theory, if not of reductively “naturalistic” theory. And perhaps it would involve a deeper humility than we are used to, a deeper sense of mystery. Why not look for that fresh approach?

If we don’t put imagination to work on this project, won’t we be mired forever in mutual disdain? And doesn’t mutual disdain spell doom, sooner or later, for the church?

Just yesterday I received an e-mail with the subject line, “Is Your Audience Ignoring You?” This was a reminder that my thinking about this or any topic runs a small chance of making a difference. Can I nudge anyone toward mustering the courage to search for a new consensus? Well, I am an Adventist who lives by hope, and so I venture to express myself, even though the people I most want to reach will quite possibly—quite probably—ignore me.

The danger of doing nothing is undeniable, and reminds me of a Benjamin Franklin remark. Deliberations at America’s four-month-long Constitutional Convention had been secret. When the final session was over, a Philadelphia woman approached Franklin, demanding to know what he and the other delegates had produced:

“A republic,” he answered, “if you can keep it.”

Our pioneers bequeathed us a church—if we can keep it. But I doubt that we have a chance of this unless, under God, we can say Yes to humility and Yes to imagination. When it comes to the creationism wars, both are absolutely crucial.

Charles Scriven chairs Adventist Forum.

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