Origins – A Resource (RJS)

Origins – A Resource (RJS) December 11, 2008

As those who read this blog regularly will know, I (RJS) am a scientist and a professor – at a secular University, not a Christian college.  This perspective and expertise plays a major role in my view of scripture and creation.  The question often comes up, however, of how to introduce a discussion of science, faith, and creation into a local church or a small group.  This is a hard question, because emotions run high on all sides and most pastors and church leader feel ill-equipped to deal with the topic.  Experts who have carefully considered the issues are seldom available (and some experts are not as tactful as one might wish).

Perhaps we need to take a deep breath; find a calm, sheltered place; and reflect…

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In many cases the best initial approach is not to advocate a specific view, but to introduce into conversation the wide range of views taken by sincere Christians. Information download and dueling experts are counterproductive as many, perhaps most, people have a hard time knowing who to trust or how to evaluate the experts. A recent book by Deborah B. and Loren D. Haarsma, Origins: A Reformed Look at Creation, Design, and Evolution, is a nice resource to facilitate a discussion of the issues providing time and space for calm reflection and critical thinking.

Deborah and Loren Haarsma are both physics professors at Calvin College in Grand Rapids MI. Deborah did her graduate work at MIT while Loren did his graduate work at Harvard – both reputable schools (almost on par with UC Berkeley – where I did my graduate work). Together they have written a book designed for use in small groups or Sunday classes exploring the science and theology of origins – creation, evolution, and intelligent design.

The pros of this book are an even-handed presentation of the range of views, thoughtful observation, and excellent discussion questions. The book also points the reader to online resources and contains a useful list of additional resources at the end of each chapter.

The con is the “reformed” bias. This book was written for and published by Faith Alive – the publishing ministry of the Christian Reformed Church. For most of us the emphasis on the Belgic Confession and the various statements of the CRC are a distraction. But this drawback is minor, confined primarily to the introduction and a few appendices. The book should prove a useful resource for a much broader audience.

Has anyone used this book for a group discussion?  Are there suggestions of other good resources available?

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  • RJS: I really appreciate your posts and thoughtfulness. I’d like to get this this book and see if it would be a good starting point. Usually, in small group discussions, I start the process by clarifying definitions: what does “soul” mean? Or, spirit, mind, heart, emotion, Spirit, etc? But just when I thought that was a neutral approach to discussions of science and religion, someone got right up into my face (within spitting distance) and asked me “what does ‘science’ mean, huh?'”
    Practically, can the Reformed emphasis be overlooked or bypassed?

  • Kyle

    I added this to my Amazon “maybe I’ll get it” wishlist a few days back…now I’ll just go ahead and order it.

  • Ted M. Gossard

    Thanks, RJS,
    I am completely grateful to be living in close proximity to Calvin College and Seminary. For their faults which we all have, there is plenty to be thankful for. So glad you pointed out this book, as I was unaware of it, and will eagerly take a look, and surely buy it, though I’m not in a position or place where I necessarily want to use it. Though I can imagine, maybe next year teaching a class at our church in taking us through it.
    We need voices like this. And I’m so very eager to get any kind of help like this I can, because I have relatives and some friends, many quite intelligent and very committed to the faith who believe YEC is the only viable way to go, the only way to go in honoring Scripture as the word of God. We so much need good counters like this one.
    Thanks again (not only another thanks, but I meant for another great posting).

  • I am not at all Calvinist by the way, not to say John Calvin didn’t say many wonderful things, because he most surely did. But the Calvinists from Calvin College don’t even talk about TULIP, much less jam it down one’s throat (as I’ve experienced elsewhere, sad to say, and I hate to use such a derogatory way of expressing it, and don’t claim I haven’t done the same before with my own pet beliefs!).

  • Rick

    The calming picture makes all the difference in this post 🙂
    Would this book be useful for high school and college student groups?

  • RJS

    Mike (#1)
    I didn’t find the “reformed” bias oppressive, but the emphasis on the Belgic confession in the beginning of the book may be problematic for some. The Haarsmas are trying to make the point that a range of views are acceptable in their Church.
    The more general theological bias shows up on occasion – but is not a major distraction.
    It would be nice if they would revise the book and publish a version aimed at a broader Christian audience.
    Rick (#5),
    The book would be very useful for college student groups.
    The book is also appropriate for High School students, especially in a context or church where a range of view are accepted.

  • Your Name

    Another good resource is a new book published in the UK by Denis Alexander entitled Creation or Evolution: Do we have to Choose? (Monarch, 2008). The author is a respected authority on genetics, an evangelical Christian, and the Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion in Cambridge. The book is very strong on the latest scientific evidence, but it also answers a series of familiar theological objections to evolution. It’s already attracted a good deal of flak from YECreationists in the UK, but that’s perhaps an indication of its weight.

  • Scott Lyons

    RJS, have you read Finding Darwin’s God by Ken Miller (prof of bio at Brown)? I haven’t yet, but was wondering how well he integrates faith and science (he’s Catholic).
    Also, how do you even broach a subject like this with family? I reverted to Catholicism a few years back and my family still struggles with that decision. I think if I talked about how I was no longer a YECer that they’d slap a “heretic” label on my forehead and be done with me. (Their literalist views of Scripture run deep.) I’ve come to the point where I just smile and nod when the subject is brought up, and for the sake of peace it might still be the best option.

  • Your Name

    I have real problems with faith based material. Truth is Truth, so why preuppose all kinds of “doctrine and dogma’ before the facts are discussed.
    Of course, that is saying that one begins without a presupposition, which agnosticism would be. Believers have a bias, as do atheistic scientists. Therefore, how one discovers “truth” is an educational endeavor, where honest agnositcism is always questioning, without assuming anything….that means that a skeptic that is committed to a community, can investigate the questions without bias, because, he is approaching with his mind and heart in the ways that are appropriately “known”, which would be a check and balance, as truth is about facts of science, and religious commitment.

  • Craig

    What’s helped in my household:
    Introductory: Beyond the Firmament – Gordon Glover; good sections on distinguishing and integrating natural revelation and Biblical revelation. And a great summary/intro into ancient near east (ANE) understanding of early Genesis.
    A little heavier but still intro: God and Evolution – David Wilcox; evolution specific.
    Thorough (but understandable) ANE discussion: The Meaning of Creation: Genesis and Modern Science – Conrad Hyers
    And thanks RJS to you for your contributions to the topic!

  • I second (or third or fourth?) the endorsement of the Haarsma’s book, particularly because it has a pastoral tone. Also I second the endorsement of Denis Alexander’s new book. On thing that can be helpful with Alexander’s book is the blurb endorsements on the book cover — strong endorsements from J.I. Packer and a Wheaton prof., which adds to the evangelical cred, as well as Gordon Glover’s. You guys have already discussed Daniel Harrell’s book, which I think is also a very good one.
    I don’t think anyone has mentioned John Walton’s Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament. This doesn’t address any of the scientific issues directly, but it’s really great for understanding the ancient ways of thinking underlying the creation narratives.

  • RJS,
    I am with others who thank the Lord for you and your faith and your expertise in these issues of science and faith. As a pastor I have little time for and training in these matters. You are a valuable member of the greater “body of Christ.” I am grateful that Scot gives you room here to hep the rest of us.
    As a pastor I am sad that so many young people are bailing from the faith because they come up against an avalanche of science in university that demolishes their proof-texted understandings.

  • Would it be an idea to look at the underlying conversation between the two worldviews, theism and atheism? In that case JJC Smart and JJ Haldane’s Atheism and Theism is a good resource for the argument that neither has a rational (rational!) argument that is ultimately convincing.
    Or maybe C.S. Lewis’ little book, God in the Dock, which has a few chapters in the beginning that pertain to the science/religion debate?
    Also, I really appreciate Alister McGrath’s chapter, “Warfare: The Natural Sciences and the Advancement of Atheism” in his book, Twilight of Atheism.

  • Pat

    When I led a discussion of this in an episcopalian church, we focused on people’s changing views of disease through history and how it had gone from being viewed as an act of God to being viewed as the result of infection. We talked about what the role of God was in events for which we accepted ‘natural’ explanations. After that discussion, evolution was discussed as a similar case. It worked pretty well.
    The episcopal church is not a tough audience, though.
    Still, i think the big question is why scientific explanations are OK in some areas, and blows at the root of one’s faith in others. Everybody is able to reconcile science and religion when it comes to engineering, most reconcile them when it comes to medicine and hurricane prediction. Why is science suddenly wicked when it comes to global warming and evolution? This is a lot more interesting to me than whether we can find evidence to quibble with – because there is quite as much quibble-worthy evidence in areas of science that people don’t choose to question.

  • Ron

    Pat (#15) wrote, “Why is science suddenly wicked when it comes to global warming and evolution?”
    I (a physicist) am puzzled also by the condemnation of global warming along with evolution. It has been pointed out earlier (I think by RJS) that arguments about the age of the earth — which presumably are important to Christians because of evolution’s requirement of an old earth — are simply wrong scientifically. The arguments against global warming are similarly ridiculous, amounting in many cases to denial of the basic physics which lead to the conclusion that global warming will occur in the first place.
    I’ve imagined two possible mechanisms driving the Christian hostility to global warming: 1) Like evolution, the scientific understanding of global warming requires the assumption of an earth millions of years old, at least. An old earth, whether it is part of evolution or climate science, is unacceptable to a “literal” interpretation of Genesis; or, 2) the Christian right, in its alliance with the secular, business-controlled piece of the Republican party, has found it easy to buy into the “Climate Debate” that is funded by business interests. There has been a successful but scientifically impoverished effort to publicize and teach “the controversy” — even a “conspiracy” — about global warming, much as the Discovery Institute and the likes of Philip Johnson propagate a similar picture with respect to evolution.
    I suppose I believe that each of these mechanisms contributes to the hostility to global warming, but its pervasiveness and the depth of the hostility within the evangelical subculture is remarkable.

  • Dianne P

    It’s been my experience that professions that deal in more concrete things, such as engineering and medicine, are well represented in evangelical circles. But scientists are rare birds. Make of that what you will….
    We formerly attended a church that was in the shadow of two major pharmaceutical companies. Just by virtue of statistical distribution, you’d expect many scientists to have been at that good-sized church. Financial types, sales, some engineers – but scientists were few and far between. Were they better represented at the mainline denominations? Can’t say for sure, but I do know that when we had attended a mainline denomination in the same town, there were more scientists. At the EC, we had to choose to overlook the disapproval from some, but there was never any anti-science or YEC preached from the pulpit, so I think that was helpful. (The pastor had been a pre-med, chem major in college.)

  • Pat Ron and Dianne,
    Evolution is considered “wicked” because it affects so many aspects of Christianity. 1) age of the earth 2) creation account 3) original sin 4) death, pain, sickness, etc. from the very beginning 5) how are humans any different from animals 6) physiological evolution (i.e. morality) 7) evolution of human religiosity
    I’m sure there are more. Granted some of these are more developed than others, but you can see how these things rock many fundamental Christian beliefs unlike other fields like engineering.

  • RJS,
    Thanks for the book suggestion. I went to Calvin College, so it is weird seeing people discuss Calvin College. I never had Deborah or Loren as professors, but they have many excellent science professors there who don’t shy away from controversy. Another good book (that also has them in it) is “Perspectives on an Evolving Creation” ed by Keith B. Miller. The chapters are by different Christian experts in the field. It supports evolution from a Christian perspective and even has mini devotionals with a science twist. It covers many topics like original sin, animal suffering, environmentalism, neuroscience, etc. There’s even a chapter titled “Christology, Evolution, and the Cross”! It is a great, but sometimes technical book.

  • RJS

    Some day I need to read Keith Miller’s book. I know about it, but don’t have it and (obviously) haven’t read it. There are a number of books mentioned in comments above that should go on my list to be read (Ken Miller’s book, Denis Alexander’s book, John Walton’s book, the books Craig (#10) mentioned…the Bouteneff book Scot mentioned in his post) Some of these I knew about already, some are new to me.
    Reading this blog keeps my “to be read” list growing steadily, and my deficit is increasing (# of pages to be read is growing faster than reading rate times hours available …much faster).
    And I still have work to do.

  • Rebeccat

    Craig (#10): thanks for the recommendations. Huge chunks of Beyond the Firmament by Gordon Glover are available on google books. So I, of course spent a while reading it tonight. (Yes, I know, I’m putting publishers out of business. But my book allowance is pitifully small and the library isn’t open at 9 pm!) Like you said, the part on ANE creation stories and such is particularly good. Thanks for the recommendation!

  • Pat

    I understand the list of issues that evolution raises. I simply question whether it is any more impressive, or more challenging to faith, than the list of issues raised by medicine and the germ theory. Medicine makes us face questions like: Did God create these pathogens? If not, who created them? If so, why? If God meant disease to happen, why does it afflict particular individuals? Why does it particularly afflict innocent children? And if God means it to happen, why are we able to cure it? Does God pass a less severe judgment on the generations born after penicillin than He passed on the previous generations?
    When one begins to think about the religious implications of medicine, it’s hard to avoid viewing it as an inherently atheistic enterprise – not that the people involved are necessarily atheists, but that medicine itself is a concerted attempt to take control of things we do not trust God to take care of for us. And once I’ve put on these spectacles, almost every human enterprise looks the same through them. Yet this does not seem to trouble anybody else, even those who are trying hard to promote God’s sovereignty in the evolution classroom. Why?

  • Jason

    You really do raise some good points. My pastor recently went a seizer from which he did not wake up. He was in this state for half a week and we would receive daily updates about his status and prayer requests. We are always praying for God to heal him, and this was usually placed in the context of God “helping” the doctors figure out what was wrong with him. Eventually, he needed surgery, got it, and recovered shortly thereafter, albeit with some massive headaches. The last few emails praised God for delivering him and making sure to give God all the glory. It is hard for me not to ask some hard questions at this situation. My pastor was kept alive through modern medicine, and only recovered after a surgery which was probably not available as little as a hundred years ago. So if this were 1750, or pretty much any other time in human history, my pastor would have died. It seems God would only answer this particular prayer after a time secular medical researchers developed a procedure to combat it. Perhaps God would have intervened more “supernaturally” in centuries past, though considering our average life spans are increasing in part do to medical technology, that would not be my first guess. I was struggling with this even as my pastor was still sick, so I prayed specifically that instead of waiting for the doctors my pastor would immediately, undeniably, in the presence of many witnesses, completly recover, stand up, and be completly healed. I even prayed it would happen at an exact time. God went for the 21st century medicine root.
    As for evolution though, evolution when considered in full demands that some of the “historical” sections of the Bible not be historical, which is unacceptable for large portions of the church. That is why it is so under fire.
    So, I’m new around here, is it public knowledge where you teach and what subject?

  • RJS

    Many who read and interact regularly know who I am and/or where I teach. It isn’t a secret – except that I do value my privacy to an extent, and I do not like the way google and other web search engines can make anything on the web excruciatingly and more or less permanently public. But to answer the question implicit in yours – I teach chemistry at U. Mich.

  • Zathras

    I am applying for a teaching position at Calvin College, so I find the comments above about the school very intriguing, and they make me hope more that I get an interview there.
    On the other hand, this blog is causing me trouble. Too many recommendations of excellent books to read 😉 I guess that’s what Christmas break is for….

  • Jason

    U.Mich hugh. My brother did his postdoc there in Math and I almost went there for a Ph.D. in electrical engineering (ended up elsewhere and never did a Ph.D.).
    …and now I’m off to the Mich website to see if I can figure out what the RJS initials might find:)

  • Mark Lefers

    What teaching position are you applying for? I have many fond memories of Calvin, it’s a great place.

  • Zathras

    I am applying for a position in the math department.

  • Zathras

    Mark, I am applying for a faculty position in the Math department.