Saturday, September 29, 2007

A Call for Restoration

AN OPEN LETTER TO THE OLIVET NAZARENE UNIVERSITY BOARD OF TRUSTEES

URGENCY AND TRUTH-TELLING. It's a bit unusual for me to post my correspondence on indybikehiker, but I feel like the situation at my college alma mater is urgent. It's the kind of travesty that thrives in secrecy and innuendo and suspicion, the kind that can only be resolved when the truth is brought out into the open and widely known. You can read previous posts regarding Random Designer to get more of the context. Here is the text of a letter I have mailed to the Olivet Nazarene University Board of Trustees:


Dear Trustees:

I am writing to request that ONU President John Bowling be directed by the Board of Trustees to immediately and fully restore Department of Biological Sciences Chair Richard Colling, Ph.D., to teach General Biology and to rescind the Presidential ban on Colling’s book Random Designer.

Please consider reasons for this urgent request:

1. Richard Colling, a distinguished scientist and member of the Church of the Nazarene, has said, done or published nothing in his teaching or writing that is at odds with either the letter or spirit of the Manual of the Church of the Nazarene. Dr. Colling is a son of the denomination and his belief and faith in orthodox Christianity is beyond doubt.

2. Dr. Colling, an alumnus and 23-year member of the faculty of Olivet Nazarene University, has demonstrated in his teaching and publishing the best principles and practices of biology and has integrated his personal Christian faith and Christian principles into his teaching and publishing in a way that brings integrity to both as well as honor to ONU. I consider it a privilege for one of my children to have been taught and influenced by Dr. Colling.

3. Colling’s teaching and writing provides a much-needed way forward amid the polarizing and untenable perspectives promoted by Fundamentalist voices in the important and ongoing discussion of the origins of life and humanity.

4. Colling's perspective and work is perhaps the best opportunity evangelicals have yet had to winningly address atheistic perspectives. The best science and scientists can--and do--easily dismiss theories of a literal six-days creation, so-called “creation science,” and “intelligent design.” These theories are dismissed not because of atheistic bias, but because they are just untenable in the most basic tests of good science. Colling’s “random designer” perspective honors both the reality and work of God as Creator and respects the undeniable truth that is observable in natural selection and adaptation.

5. Colling’s teaching and publishing represent an important bridge-building effort for scientists and Christians. Instead of questioning or undermining the reality of God or what is revealed of God and salvation through the Bible, Colling’s work makes proclaiming God’s work of redemption more relevant and winning. In contrast to Fundamentalism, Random Designer overcomes one of the greatest stumbling blocks to Christian faith for anyone who respects science. Instead of denying an evolutionary process as something un-Godlike or unbiblical, Colling draws the processes of selection and adaptation into God’s loving intention and design for life and humanity. Using the best scientific truth available, Colling posits a Creator whose out-of-chaos creative action is greater, broader, and deeper than even the most imaginative and Spirit-inspired scribe, prophet or evangelist could describe in their best scenario-casting.

6. Instead of barring Colling from teaching and banning his book, by heralding his break-through work, ONU could lead other Christian universities in equipping their students, faculty, and alumni with information and perspective that not only stands up in test tube and with reason, but also co-opts the divisive, “us vs them” perspectives and methods of Fundamentalists.

7. Colling’s labor in this particular arena is an honest and careful pursuit of truth. Colling believes what the Scriptures proclaim, “you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” ONU students under his tutelage respect this not just as a spiritual principle but as a scientific one. Colling teaches students not to see spiritual truth and scientific truth as at odds, but as complementary, with science being the test tube that has, does, and shall in time verify and honor the living Word.

8. Colling should be restored to teaching and his book ban rescinded for the sake of the academic integrity as well as the theological and ecclesiastic integrity of ONU. The long-term impact of the actions taken by President Bowling may irreversibly diminish the school’s academic standing and the caliber of future faculty who apply and students who enroll. More importantly, if the barring/banning are permitted to stand, the theological distinctiveness and ecclesiastic identification of ONU is dramatically skewed if not lost amid the current wave of Fundamentalist influences. Perhaps this is not a point some Trustees care much about, but it is a matter of considerable concern among theologians, church historians, and those who study and teach Biblical literature in the Wesleyan-holiness stream. This barring/banning is perhaps the clearest evidence to date of what Nazarene church historian Paul Bassett, Ph.D., describes as “the Fundamentalist leavening of the holiness movement.” Once again, it appears that Wesleyan-holiness leaders are not only capitulating to Fundamentalist pressure, but doing so because they really don’t know, value, or are prepared to bear witness to their distinctive heritage and what it offers the world.

9. I can see that if a Trustee or members of the Church of the Nazarene accept the principles and practices of Fundamentalism, pressure would have been brought to bear upon Dr. Colling or upon President Bowling to discipline Dr. Colling. But if a Trustee or a member of the Church of the Nazarene embraces the principles and beliefs of Fundamentalism, they have gone beyond the parameters of the Manual of the Church of the Nazarene and the very spirit and intention of the Wesleyan-holiness way. It seems to me that, given the benign and bridge-building nature of Random Designer and the truth-speaking of Dr. Colling, only those who embrace and act in the spirit of Fundamentalism, in contrast to the heritage of Wesleyan-holiness faith, would seek to silence him.

Please consider my request and my stated reasons for making it. I appeal to you to rise above fear and reaction and political expediency. The outcome of this situation certainly has a future trajectory in decisions and influence for many people.

Sincerely,

John Hay, Jr., D.Min.

7 comments:

  1. Anonymous1:09 PM

    I wish I were as clear a thinker and cogent a writer as you! Your leadership on this issue has prompted me to write to the biology departments of Christian colleges my son is considering. Without identifying my own personal viewpoint, I ask the simple question--what do you teach about evolution?

    Taylor and Anderson have very clear, thoughtful responses to this question. And I'm happy to report that they teach that people of faith should never be afraid of good science.

    I pray your words will have impact.

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  2. Anonymous4:19 PM

    Awesome letter, John. I'll send you a copy of mine.

    Mark Davisson

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  3. This may not be an answer to your question, but it’s an honest response. I offer it in a spirit of grace and hope.

    Unlike you, I do not know what Anderson or Taylor Universities state regarding their beliefs or teachings on the origins of life and humanity. Without knowing, I would imagine Taylor begins at a very different place in the discussion than a Wesleyan/holiness-oriented university or church. Taylor is in the Evangelical stream, a tradition most closely identified with the teachings of John Calvin and the Anabaptists. Generally speaking, evangelicals hold a narrow perspective both on the inspiration and interpretation of Scripture. Most Evangelicals espouse verbal inspiration, i.e., that God vocally spoke all that was to be written down (some believe God actually took over the hand of the writer). Out of that perspective, Evangelicals defend a high level of Biblical inerrancy and literal interpretations and applications--often to the complete disregard for a particular Scripture’s literary genre, context of the time or situation of the writing, or the intent for the original hearers or listeners. Within the Evangelical tradition is the smaller but more strident Fundamentalist perspective and spirit. I am convinced that inspiration and interpretation of Scripture is the primary source of Evangelical and Fundamentalist alarm at the suggestion that anything but a literal six 24-hour days of creation as described in Genesis 1 is possible or likely.

    The Holiness stream, most closely identified with the teaching, focus, and practices of John Wesley, doesn’t begin with verbal inspiration. It has confidence in the plenary inspiration of Scripture. This simply means the Scriptures have come to us through many different human authors who wrote, as God moved them in various ways, in the languages and literary forms of their times. They were fallen, frail people who were inspired and moved by God to convey God’s loving desire to bring individuals into a holy relationship and all humanity into a life-giving fellowship. As the written record of God’s saving action for humanity through the people of Israel (OT) and in Jesus Christ and his church (NT), the Bible gives us everything we need to know to enter into saving relationship and eternal life—here and hereafter—with God. No other source is needed or is authoritative. As attested by the early church and subsequent councils, the Bible is the trustworthy record of God’s revelation, completely truthful in all it affirms. Its trustworthiness is not derailed by misspelled words or archaic world views or other such considerations. It has been faithfully preserved and proves itself true in human experience. Folks in the Wesleyan-holiness stream focus on the Biblical call to—and empowerment for—right relationship with God and neighbor and engaging the great social ethical challenges of the OT and NT in contemporary situations. For us, the Bible is a guide to life-giving worship and Kingdom ethics, not a book of proofs or positions needing to be defended from secular concerns or so-called “culture wars.”

    Another distinction from Evangelicals and Fundamentalists factors into this issue: Wesleyans regard the Bible as the primary but not sole source of truth. Following Wesley’s lead, we grapple with theological, scientific, and ethical issues through a Quadrilateral of (a) Scripture - the revealed and primary source of truth, (b) tradition - the insights, understandings and practices of the church handed down from one generation to another that have stood the test of time, (c) reason, and (d) experience - what is known in the heart via personal encounter with God through faith in Jesus Christ and the witness of the Holy Spirit. We can see that the Bible itself affirms and calls for tradition, reason, and experience to be employed as factors for grappling with Scripture/revealed truth when unforeseen situations, developing discoveries, or new applications arise.

    A caveat to this Wesleyan-holiness perspective: a lot of folks--including many pastors--who belong to Wesleyan/holiness denominations or fellowships are foggy about this heritage and orientation. Many presume they are Evangelicals and many espouse Fundamentalist perspectives (this is one of the problems with some of the Board of Trustees at Olivet Nazarene University). Such is the state of affairs within Christendom, for good or for ill. Those of us who have been trained theologically can appreciate and respect the distinctions but also join arms on much common ground with brothers and sisters across the full spectrum of Christian faith.

    Now, more to the question of creation: as one oriented to this Holiness stream, I understand Genesis 1 as revelation and authoritative, but not literalistic or intended for scientific proof or dispute. Its poetic literary form makes it clear it was never intended for “days” to be interpreted and defended as 24-hour periods. Genesis 1 describes God, out of chaos, directing an incredible universal symphony of creatively progressing life. The point being made in Genesis 1, even in the form of an ancient story, is different and far greater than “evolution theory” or “creation science” or “intelligent design” advocates would like to disprove or prove.

    The point being made is that God is the source and sustainer of all life--life that God called “good,” life that God ultimately formed into God’s own image and gave God’s own breath and called into a sacred, intimate, life-giving relationship with its Creator.

    How God did God do it? When did it begin? How long did it take? What role and to what extent has--and does--adaptation and natural selection play in God’s creative activity? These and myriad other questions are all infinitely interesting, challenging, puzzling, and critical for understanding. These are valid questions worth searching and exploring and discussing.

    However, the point of Genesis 1 and 2--and of the entire Bible, for that matter--is not to prove or disprove any these mind-stretching questions. Genesis 1 and 2--and the authority of the Bible--are not threatened by evolutionary theory or the observations of natural selection and adaptation. Moreover, questions of human origins, beyond faith in the Creator, are simply not salvific.

    Atheistic bias and “scientism” (science’s own form of defensive Fundamentalism) aside, there now appears to be enough scientific evidence in credible archeology, paleontology, anthropology and DNA findings that make persisting in holding a view of six literal days of creation as the only way to understand creation--mounting scientific evidence to the contrary--an issue of reason and integrity within those who refuse to address truth in its broader context. I see some folks who defend as an ultimate battle a “six days” creation scenario writing, saying, and doing some very irrational and contradictory things.

    Personally, I find Rick Colling’s evidence and reasoning in Random Designer well within the intent of Scripture, affirmative of God’s saving desire described in the Bible, and also complemented by reason, tradition and experience. It begins with belief in God as the Creator and respects the ancient Bible story of creation and God’s saving activity in history and in Jesus Christ. It also respects the best observations and qualitative findings of modern science, placing what is verifiable in terms of evolution within the creative activity of God’s work and intention. Incorporating adaptation and natural selection within the methods of God’s creative work is a much larger, more encompassing scenario of creation than I learned in Sunday School. It seems to me this may well become the most plausible and winning way to approach discussions of life and human origins in relationship to the Bible and salvation as we move prayerfully forward, reaching out to unbelieving skeptics and would-be believers who have been all but inoculated from faith by some Christians equating saving faith with rejection of science and reason.

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  4. Hi John,
    Excellent letter. Have you received any response to it? I'm assuming you haven't. I also posted a letter that Richard wrote to the ONU newspaper at http://evanevodialogue.blogspot.com/2007/09/pain-tears-and-testimony-letter-from.html. As far as I'm aware, this has never been published (at least initially the ONU newspaper declined to print it).

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  5. I have been told that my letter would be given to ONU Trustees. But the responses make clear this thing is not being given fair and open treatment. Apparently the powers that be are keeping it as much out of open dialogue and awareness as possible. No doubt the political wheels and behind-the-scenes character and theological integrity rumor-mongering regarding Richard Colling are cranked to the hilt. But the truth? It appears to be, along with Richard Colling, what is being sacrificed in the name of defending God from good science.

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  6. John,

    I find ONU's actions very distrubing - though I might disagre with some of your science as well :). I told Elliot he may need to transfer - that did not go over well. Knowing the personalities, I suspect attempts at discussion or resaon are not possible - but if you have any suggestions about how we might help ...

    chris

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  7. Yeah, some of the personalities in this situation have too much "history" in previous ONU dilemmas. A small worldview based on a highly sectarian concept of religion combined with petty power struggles...that's a volatile mix.

    Colling and others have tried discussion and reason... I've read the correspondence. It's worth the effort to continue this approach, I think. People who value reason and truth need to speak up. Truth eventually breaks through not because it is louder, but because it is what it is.

    Apparently, the strategy of Bowling was/is to remove Colling from being the point of attack and try to let the furor from Fundamentalist agitators (or whatever they want to refer to themselves) eventually die down. But what and who is he sacrificing in this strategy, if, in fact, that is his strategy? Colling? Integrity?

    Interesting how organizations / institutions deal with "problems," isn't it? What does an organization perceive as a "threat?" How does it arrive at that assumption? Whose interests are looked after? What process does it use to grapple with its "problems?" Does the institution tend to promulgate pathologies in its efforts at self-preservation or transform itself, via the manner in which it responds to crises, into a catalyst for breakthrough?

    I'd hoped ONU's administrative culture might have turned some corners during Bowling's tenure, but this situation is revealing an underbelly one might have expected under Parrott's iron-fisted reign.

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