I was one of those kids who always responded to altar calls. Being raised in a conservative Christian household during the turbulent ‘60s, I had plenty opportunities to answer them. The moving words of pastors, evangelists, youth leaders and summer camp counselors appealed to me. Some speakers made me feel unsure of my salvation and fearful of eternal torment. Others walked me down the aisle with descriptions of Christ’s love and his sacrifice for me.
Members of both communities asked, “How can you believe that stuff?”
As I entered middle school, I discovered new reasons to recommit my life to Christ at every turn. During the ‘70s, watching “A Thief in the Night” was a youth-group rite of passage. We sang “You’ve Been Left Behind” (“I Wish We’d All Been Ready”) and read Hal Lindsey. I’d say a silent prayer and hope that I was good enough to be caught up with the saints when the trump sounded. My heart would skip a beat if I walked into an empty house after school, fearful that my family was raptured and that I had been left alone to face the Great Tribulation.
In college, a deeper understanding of grace began to truly sink in. I finally believed the words of Romans 8:38-39, convinced that nothing could separate me from the love of God. However, this confidence wavered slightly as I registered for a course required of every biology student – Evolution. I was concerned that my confidence in Christ, nurtured over a lifetime, would be weakened by a diabolical professor offering me new and dangerous ways to view the world. I thought I might have to choose between my Christianity and the delight I took in learning about creation.
But that’s not what happened. The course was fairly straightforward and interesting. The theory of evolution and evidence supporting it did not push me out into the cold halls of atheism. While some of the philosophical assumptions of evolution conflicted with some aspects of my faith, I found I could quite easily compartmentalize my life in such a way that those assumptions never overlapped.
A LONELY QUEST
It wasn’t until early in graduate school that these separate worldviews came into conflict. A young-earth creationist came to our church and gave a stirring defense of his views. Aha, I thought, I need to talk with this scientist and ask how he reconciles the evidences of evolution with a literal reading of Genesis. I was curious and excited to visit with a kindred spirit – a scientist who was also a follower of Christ. But the outcome of our conversation was not pleasant. After I introduced myself and asked my question, he shook an angry finger inches from my face and soundly rebuked me for playing with the devil’s fire and committing the sin of unbelief. As we drove home, my childhood fears briefly returned, but they were tempered by the growing knowledge that my Creator gave me the ability, curiosity and opportunity to explore his world and that I shouldn’t fear what those explorations might show me.
I started to read. I read literature from the Institute for Creation Research. I read material coming out of the Intelligent Design movement. I read the works of progressive creationists, theists, deists and atheists. I read Augustine and Calvin. I went to American Scientific Affiliation meetings. I watched Christians with differing viewpoints on evolution shake their fists and angrily attack each other. Because of my earlier experience, it was particularly disheartening to see Christian brothers and sisters treat each other so poorly. I continued to study the “two books” authored by our Creator (Scripture and creation). If I assumed that all truths are God’s truth, it became easier to accept that the apparent lack of coalescence between the books is because of our shortcomings as interpreters of both books. If this is the case, shouldn’t we treat one another with more respect and approach these problems with more intellectual humility?
These attempts to integrate my scientific and spiritual lives were lonely. Other than occasional grumblings about the Moral Majority, none of my colleagues at the university were interested in discussing issues of faith. Likewise, the only discussions about science at my church revolved around whether parents should take their kids out of public schools to avoid exposure dangerous secular ideas. My university friends assumed I had some deep emotional need that could only be filled by reliance on a repressive belief system. My Christian friends thought my interests in biology were somewhat subversive to my faith. Members of both communities asked, “How can you believe that stuff?”
AN OPPORTUNITY TO INTEGRATE
While I was finishing my dissertation, an opportunity to teach biology at a Christian liberal arts college arose. Modeling integration of faith and science was an important aspect of this position. Integration of my two selves became an expectation rather than a personal calling. My experiences as product of and educator at secular academic institutions had dissuaded me from allowing textbook content and faith to interact, so I found this new opportunity both intimidating and freeing. Faculty mentors in my department modeled integrative teaching, encouraged me to ask difficult questions and offered practical advice on ways to nurture courageous curiosity in my students.
Today, I continue to teach biology at a Christian liberal arts college. Many students and parents are surprised that evolutionary theory is a component of my courses. However, I believe our students should be as prepared as those educated at secular institutions to discuss and critique evolutionary theory and the evidence used to support it. We also discuss the spectrum of Christian thought regarding evolution and the strengths and weaknesses of the varied positions (young-earth creation, intelligent design, evolutionary creation and theistic evolution). No student should fear losing his or her faith as a result of honest inquiry into the two books we’ve been given. Rather, students need to be equipped to participate in thoughtful discourse regarding the evidences and implications of evolution with fellow Christians and with those outside the Christian community.
As a professor at a Christian institution, I have a duty and a privilege to model faithful learning and to encourage students to ask their own hard questions. They want to know that their professors struggle with ambiguity – that we continue to work on difficult questions and trust that courageous inquiry will not lead us away from our Creator. As a biologist, my questions focus on the study of origins, the purpose and value of creation and our roles and responsibilities as stewards of creation. These questions can lead a curious biologist to unexpected places, but I am convinced that these places of inquiry are also part of the creation that Christ has redeemed (Colossians 1:15-20).
Laurie Furlong teaches biology at Northwestern College, Orange City, Iowa.
Image from Pixabay under CC0 Public Domain license.