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Aug. 29th, 2011

These guys are, quite simply, heroes:


Inside Higher Education reports the stories of Drs. Daniel Harlowe and John Schneider, two tenured religion professors at Calvin College who wrote scholarly articles questioning some facts of the Genesis creation story. Schneider agreed to leave the college (IHE claims this was a mutual decision) "because of tensions raised by his scholarship and a desire that these tensions not create 'harm and distraction.'" Harlowe apparently is fighting it and still teaching at Calvin College.

The idea that a tenured professor could be fired for daring to suggest that the best science of our day might be true is jarring, to put it mildly. It's repulsive to me, and I say that as a Christian and as someone researching philosophy of religion. But I know from experience it's hard to react to science from within a religious community. You hear enough people not only question your belief but make fun of it and seem not to understand it at some deep level, and sooner or later a survival instinct kicks in.

I know more than once growing up I got frustrated with Christians treating theology like a scientific explanation (as in the ID vs. evolution culture wars) - only to find myself defending those same Christians when an "outsider" would accuse "Christianity" of doing exactly what those people were doing. See, to my mind, those people who thought the universe had to be thousands rather than billions of years old were outliers - brothers and sisters (to use the Christian terminology) who were wrong and needed to be corrected, but certainly didn't represent the majority. But then someone comes along and accuses the whole group of believing the universe is only 6,000 years old, and that's whee my energy goes. I think that's natural, when you see "your" group being challenged (in your opinion) unfairly. And I'm saying this as a fairly liberal Christian who has a science-heavy undergrad degree. I like science. I can empathize with those people who don't understand evolution, don't understand how science works, and so all they see is something used to attack what they do understand, often built on a misunderstanding of their faith.

That's what makes Drs. Schneider and Harlowe so courageous. They are Christians teaching at a specifically Christian school. And this isn't a Christian school like the Jesuit school I teach. Jesuits have a long tradition of framing the so-called secular disciplines as useful for understanding theology. Calvin College, not surprisingly, is part of the Reformed theology tradition. Today that's mainly the Presbyterians and Baptists. Historically, they had a high respect for what's called ecclesiology (the theology of how the church should be structured), but they thought the Catholic church had strayed too far from Biblical roots. That's the reforming: discard those added-on bits and focus instead on what the Bible actually says. And if your tradition started out with tossing out human additions to scripture, you can pretty easily imagine how the Reformed churches would react to someone saying "here's some human-discovered knowledge; believe it rather than what your Bible says.

Drs. Schneider and Harlowe aren't saying that we have to choose between the Bible and science. That's what other people are accusing them of, but it's not quite accurate. And they're not chasing after secular "respectability," as some people commenting on the article that got this whole mess started seem to think. Rather, I think that they are fighting the only culture war worth having: do religious people have a duty to make sense of scientific, anthropological, historical, and other kinds of extra-biblical evidence? My own position on that issue should be obvious (a resounding yes). As I read it, Drs. Schneider and Harlowe are basically saying that it is possible to do this - that there is a way to interpret scripture in a way that takes both the scientific evidence and the faith seriously.

That's a more difficult path than saying evolution = atheism = socialism or whatever, but difficult doesn't mean wrong. These professors are laying their jobs on the line to do it. Tenured jobs, at that. Well done.

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