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Genesis and Beyond Conference Report—A Panel Discussion on the Pedagogy of Origins

My apologies, this summary got lost in email and should have been posted two weeks ago after the conclusion of the Adventist Forum | Spectrum conference. —AC

On Sunday, the Genesis and Beyond conference culminated in a panel discussion to consider issues of origins as related to education of young people attending educational institutions inside and outside the Adventist system. Joe Galusha, associate vice president for graduate studies at Walla Walla University and prior Biology professor sat in the center as the panel moderator to his right was Eric, a graduate student in the Department of Physics at Purdue University, to his far right was Larry Geraty, former field archeologist and past president of La Sierra University, to his left was Alvin Kwiram, emeritus Professor of chemistry at the University of Washington and founding member of Adventist Forum, and to his far left was Tom Goodwin, professor of Paleobiology at Andrews University. 

The panel was first asked to recall a time when they were challenged and/or became comfortable with issues in faith and science from their graduate education or work as a scholar. 

Larry Geraty began the discussion. He related his experience at Harvard University of being assigned the task of writing a paper on the Israelite conquest of Palestine. His professor had written extensively on the topic in support of a late 13th century date. Given his Adventist roots, Geraty wrote a paper offering evidence for a more conservative 15th century date in direct conflict with his professor. His fellow graduate students told him he was dead. When his professor read the paper he was clearly upset. He called Geraty into his office, admitted he didn’t have good answers for the questions raised in the paper, and said it was too late for him to change, but that the important thing for Geraty to do was to be honest with the evidence. He then asked him to be his teaching assistant for the next semester.

Eric then described the chasm he felt between church and graduate school and the vast difference between large Adventist congregations in college towns and small churches away from academic centers.  The small church that he attended seemed to be answering questions he wasn’t even asking. He recalled his surprise when they brought in a physician to explain why the big bang is false without even asking the astrophysicist in their congregation about it.

Next, Tom Goodwin shared a story about preparing an e-mail for a book discussion group at Andrews. They had read a book by Nancey Murphy and were going to discuss issues of theodicy, death, and sin. After sending the e-mail he had a sinking feeling and indeed he had sent the e-mail to the entire vertebrate paleontology listserv which was decidedly anti-creationist. He quickly sent an explanatory apology and awaited his academic crucifixion. Instead he received about a dozen e-mails, all of which were positive and suggesting books, asking to be included in the e-mail list and wanting to join in the discussion. He concluded that there are many opportunities to engage questions of faith in science.

Alvin Kwiram described an experience early on in his graduate classes at Cal Tech. They were discussing the elements in the periodic table when it was noted that Technetium number 43 on the table was absent from the earth’s crust. Kwiram flipped to the back of the book assuming that the half life would be just a few hundred years at the most. Instead, he was shocked to find the longest half life of a Technetium isotope was instead listed in the millions of years. His faith shaken by revelations such as this, Kwiram along with several other young Adventist academics began the Association of Adventist Forums to help graduate students address the compelling issues that arose when going through the transition from the comparatively sheltered environment of Adventist education into graduate school.

Finally, Joe Galusha shared the compelling story of sitting for his oral examination at the completion of his three years of study at Oxford University. One of his two examiners was none other than Richard Dawkins. Dawkins first question for him was, “There are implications for the work you have done on species of gulls. How do you think they have come into being?”  When Galusha stated he thought the different species were the result of differentiation from a common type, Dawkins asked, “What would you call the process by which they came into being?” Galusha replied, “natural selection.” Dawkins accepted that answer. After the examination, Galusha’s major professor came up to him and asked him why he was a Christian. Galusha answered, “I believe that Jesus Christ is my personal savior. I see a lot of need and hurt in the world around me and I want to help.  I want to be open and honest in science with a whole world view.”  His professor admitted that there were times when he wished he too could believe.

The next question considered by the panel was what are some specific issues of greatest potential conflict between origins theory and Adventist belief? 

Geraty started the conversation on this topic by mentioning that it is important for our community to begin by exploring what is the Bible, what is it for, and what can we expect of it.  The Bible is not science, it is for more practical reasons.

Goodwin mentioned the question of theodicy, how can suffering occur in the presence of a good God.  We need an effective explanation for theodicy. 

From the perspective of an astrophysicist, the randomness of the universe seemed most troubling to Eric. He said, “The more I study the universe, the more purposeless it seems.” As one example, he mentioned the theory of the development of our solar system from a random gravitational anomaly in a nebula leading to its collapse.

It was the disconnect between Adventist scholars and the diverse membership in the church that most concerned Kwiram. He felt we are not doing a respectable job of educating the community since 99% of the church is unaware of the evidence for long ages of the earth. Yet, he opined, we cling to trivial interpretations.

Galusha talked about teaching a course for senior Biology majors who were each expected to write a paper on their view of origins.  They regularly expressed puzzlement over the appearance of the age of the earth and most troubling was evidence suggesting death through long ages and the difficulty of explaining the layers in the geologic column from a world wide flood. He concluded that we must look carefully at the problems on both sides. What is necessary he suggested is a respect for and understanding of evolution as a theory while at the same time understanding the Adventist church’s position.

The next question for the panel was what would you want a student to know about your discipline going into a small church?

Eric responded that it is not important that we all agree on origins. It should remain an option to be an Adventist and accept science.

Tom Goodwin mentioned that the majority of students who enter the Biology program at Andrews enter and leave with traditional perspectives. They often come in as naïve traditionalists and leave as more informed traditionalists. To facilitate this we should not force a dichotomy between the traditional view and atheism. Instead we should allow for exploration.

“We all can think of models who we want to emulate,” stated Geraty, “It is important to provide models.” If we can demonstrate living with ambiguity and be productive members of the church, that helps. As an administrator, Geraty recalled not telling his professors what to teach but rather shared with them his expectation that there would be no belittling of students and that everyone should be treated with dignity and respect.

The next question for the panel was, from my discipline, what council might I give to young Adventist scholars of the future?

Tom Goodwin began by sharing that in our community of faith there is a place for everyone. Conservatives and liberals we all have a place in the community of faith.

Kwiram encouraged the perspective that there are no prior constraints. We must provide a framework for larger issues. As best we can, we should all strive to keep the golden rule. 

Connecting with one another is the theme Galusha wanted to give to future scholars. Make sure our relationships are positive and trustworthy.

Geraty encouraged future Adventist scholars to remain humble both about what we know and what we don’t know.

Eric suggested focusing on pragmatic issues saying, “don’t sweat the details.”

The time was then opened up for the audience to ask questions. Warren Johns began by sharing his feeling that in a time of turmoil this weekend brought a new window on how to relate to issues of origins. He specifically appreciated the highlighting of the theme of the temple in Genesis which he has championed as a theme with many confluences with Adventism. 

Lisa Clark-Diller then shared that it matters who we are.  She described the challenging process of discussing the canonization of scripture with her history students. She encouraged walking with students, learning to trust them, letting them trust you, and not letting them experience undue anxiety. She then wondered how we could support Adventist students in other schools in this same way.

Kwiram answered that the Spectrum blog may play a role in helping with that.  He mentioned that this question of supporting Adventist students in non-church schools is an excellent challenge for the Adventist Forum the address.

Goodwin suggested identifying specific churches in university towns that will intentionally welcome students.

The next question came from Alexander Carpenter who shared the common quote, “It takes just as much faith to believe in evolution as it does to believe in creation,” and asked for the panel’s response.

Galusha responded that it generally doesn’t take as much faith to believe in science as it does to believe in faith; however, origins science in particular may require more unknowns than other branches of science. 

Another question then came from the audience asking the panel to reflect on another quote, this one attributed to Karl Giberson, “When you ignore science, you end up with egg on your face.”

Geraty responded with his concern particularly regarding the proposed rewriting of fundamental belief #6. This change would become particularly troubling if it was intended to be prescriptive rather than descriptive.

The Galileo affair was referenced by Eric, who said we could learn from Galileo as an example for scientists on how not to relate to religious leaders. 

Kwiram was in agreement with Giberson. He mentioned a molecular biologist who is working on origins and is developing a promising model for the development of simple life forms.  He recommended Ken Miller’s book, Only a Theory, as an excellent introduction into the issues at play in relating science and faith. 

The final comment from the audience was offered by Jim Londis, also a founding member of the Association of Adventist Forums. Londis described a conversation with a church official who expressed no interest in supporting Adventists going outside the Adventist system for advanced education. He went on to predict that only a cataclysm will make a difference in the situation with which we are faced today. Change in the church cannot happen from the top down. Officials cannot bring about change because they would only put themselves out of a job. Change must happen from the bottom up. 

Galusha closed the panel with encouragement for all of us to seek spiritual unity amidst our diversity of opinions.

In my closing thoughts on the weekend, I shared why my favorite moment of many at the conference was Roy Gane’s response to John Walton. Gane demonstrated that it is possible to listen to an ‘other’ whose views challenge our own and actually have our own perspective strengthened and enriched through the interaction. Affirming areas of common methodology and appreciating new perspectives from Walton’s work did not require Gane to give up his perspective. Rather, he found new meanings through the interaction. This struck me as a beautiful, practical, and instructive example of putting the Spectrum mission into action, “community through conversation.”

This summary concludes the reports from the Genesis and Beyond conference. All of the other 2011 summaries are linked below:

Genesis and Beyond: Friday Night Summary

Genesis and Beyond: Sabbath Summary

Genesis and Beyond: Sabbath Vespers and Saturday Night

Jacques Doukhan’s Response to John H. Walton

Roy Gane’s No Matter…What?: A Response to John Walton

Genesis and Beyond: Sunday Summary—Part 1

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