Saturday, September 15, 2007


My Alma Mater, Olivet Nazarene University, is in the news after President John Bowling barred Deparment of Biological Sciences Chair Rick Colling from teaching an introductory biology class and banned his three-year old book, Random Designer: Created from Chaos to Connect with the Creator (a thoughtful reflection on theistic evolution) from being assigned by any ONU teacher.

The issue is partly described in a current Newsweek column by Sharon Begley titled "Can God Love Darwin, Too?" Begley frames the issue well, it seems, but she doesn't get it completely right. She paints the picture of President Bowling making his barring/banning decisions in order to protect or take pressure off of Colling. But the issue, from Rick Colling's perspective in a recent blog posting on "Higgaion," is not that Bowling's decision was made to take the heat off of Colling, but to take the pressure off of Bowling and his efforts to raise money in a major funds campaign for the university.

I write about this, first, because I have two children who are students at Olivet Nazarene University. Second, because I am an alumnus of ONU. Third, because I am an evangelical Christian minister in the holiness tradition which is once again being threatened and co-opted by Fundamentalist agendas and conservative political power plays. Fourth, because I know at least one of the ONU Trustees who has made this an issue and he is not a person I consider to have integrity.

I have read Random Designer and find in it nothing for alarm or reaction. On the contrary, Colling is in solid company with scientists who are also Christian but who are unwilling for the sake of scientific and Christian integrity to let the Bible be turned into a proof-text for "scientific creationism," on the one hand, and unwilling to leave God's creative intention and design out of observable processes of natural selection or adaptation, on the other. In Random Designer, Colling is trying to offer a gracious bridge for thoughtful people of Biblical faith who also value scientific integrity and do not believe the two are exclusive.

But then come reactionary people. These Fundamentalists (in a wide variety of denominatonal and nondenominational clothing) are sure they know more, know better, and see in any deviation from their narrow, defensive perspective within what they thought were "their universities" a threat to the very core of Christian testimony. These people are out to defend God from any deviants within Christianity by condeming the deviants and their deviations. They cull out "evolutionist sympathizers." They are sure there is no such thing as natural selection. They are sure organisms never adapt in progressive or complementary ways. They are sure God is not big enough to create or imaginatively design in such a grand way. They are sure that the human species is less than 10,000 years old. They are sure all data to the contrary is distorted and not credible. They are sure that if you think--or teach--otherwise, the church--and perhaps your very soul--is in eternal peril.

And they are, simply, wrong--wrong with the facts and wrong with their intentions and wrong with their re-actions. And now they have the president of a Christian liberal arts university squirming under their thumb, caving to their religious prejudice, and moving the university under his momentary guidance further in the direction of Fundamentalism.

I suppose if Bowling is looking for money from the pockets of Fundamentalist-leaning donors, he'll save his funding campaign. But if he's looking for resources and support from those of us who think of faith and science more comprehensively, his decision to censure Colling and ban his book helps us make decisions about our relationship with ONU, too.

No doubt, Colling's job is on the line. Perhaps Bowling's job is on the line. Unfortunately, Olivet's future is in the balance, too. But there are larger issues than jobs and reputations. There are matters of truth and principle and integrity.

As this is a developing story, I may write more later.


  1. John... You know I admire you, your writing, and your active work among 'the least of these' in a WWJD sort of way. Conversely, I know virtually nothing of the institutional situation of which you speak.

    However, I ask you to consider if in your post, you've not overly loaded it with emotional labels, effectively broadbrushing many solid believers along the way.

    I wonder aloud, am I a fundamentalist simply because I admit from the outset that God's ways are much higher than my ways?

    That is, personally, I never hope to be able to totally reconcile the 'natural' system by which the Almighty turned water into wine. Or was born of a virgin. Or caused the earth to swallow Korah & his followers. Or parted the Red Sea. Or rescue guys from Nebuchadnezzar's fire... Much less, how the Almighty comes, dies on our behalf and is raised from the dead... and ascended into heaven.

    This is not to shy away from trying to learn what He wants us to know about His universe... It is simply to contextualize the creation v. evolution issue within the conversational frame that we should not presume to subject the Almighty to man's (changing) perception of what is (really) truth.

    This isn't just about the wildly-miraculous accounts in Genesis. It's also about Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Matthew, Mark, Luke... and Revelation.

  2. indychristian, thanks for your comments. I think you know I would never intentionally broadbrush "solid believers."

    However, it is so-called "solid believers" who have asserted their viewpoint as the ONLY way to understand and apply God's creative manner and imposed their will restrictively on other "solid believers." That is the spirit of Fundamentalism.

    You and I both know that accepting by faith many or all of the mysteries which you mention does not make one a Fundamentalist. One of the things that identifies one as a Fundamentalist, however, is to subject divine revelation to litmus tests based on an untennable literalism and to hold that those who do not accept such literal interpretations, even in the face of truth repeatedly verified to the contrary, are heretical. That's what's going on in this situation.

    If you don't agree with the inclusion of the possibility of natural selection and adaptation within in the creative fiat of a God whose ways are beyond searching out, just disagree. That's fine. But when a person or group moves to censure me or anyone else for postulating within the range of Biblical integrity a wider vision of God's design that acknowledges what the best of science is discovering...that's sad and that's the spirit of Fundamentalism.

    I do not apologize for my emotion in this issue because I am weary of honest, intelligent, "solid Christians" being unfairly labeled, mistreated, and run out of their God-given assignments by Fundamentalists.

    I would be happy to write a piece on this for your newspaper, if you think your readership wouldn't be too offended.

  3. John,

    I too appreciate your words, being one who lived across the hall from you in Chapman, and loving this place like you.

    What I have to say is this: I'm said to see that for those in this now public forum, there is nowhere to land in this conversation, except total agreement or disagreement. So to disagree makes me a fundy? Personal shots being take aside, both are extremes, and seem to be what the church has fought within itself from it's inception.

    When one side believes they are totally right in the name of science, and the other in the name of theology, where are we to turn?

  4. Sceince and theology are at issue, to be sure, Mark, and the options may not be completely satisfying to you in any direction. But to do nothing, to remain mute, indecisive, and inactive in the face of such an attack on ONU Department of Biological Sciences Chair Rick Colling that has been led by the Chair of the Board of Trustees, is to welcome more of the same on future issues and occasions. Bowling's decisions made under pressure have defined Olivet's future, sending it in the direction of being identified as a Fundamentals-prescribed institution and less likely to be respected or chosen as fair-handed Christian liberal arts university by future students and faculty. Perhaps this situation could have been headed off if wise people would have offered directive and intensive wisdom to the ONU Chair of the Board of Trustees rather than abiding his notions, suspicions, etc. It is still not too late to speak truth to that particular segment of power in this tragic scenario. But to do nothing by complaining that the positions articulared are extreme seems to me to be a first-class cop-out.

  5. John... In recent years I've come to believe that the biggest flaw in the body of Christ is our inattention to scriptures about the unity of the body, and about how each of us belong to the rest of us. I've concluded that the devil has had his day way too long, working his 'pride & divide' scheme on us in every conceivable way. Although Paul alerts us to this, saying "for you are not unaware of the devil's schemes"... I fear we are way too often unaware of them.

    This to say, when it is crystal clear that unity will suffer... and it's only hazy about which interpretation of scripture is probably flawed... then I personally would opt for preserving unity and let truth prevail on its own.

    Creation v. Evolution? It's such a wide spectrum to be discussed -- and virtually impossible to accomplish much here in the short space allowed. Certainly I believe it's (perhaps just a hair short of) crystal clear **smile** but I'm open to discussion. And I'm open to you writing a piece which we'll feature from especially if you'll reciprocate.

    And this weekend/nextweek would be a perfect time to have that exchange. Let me know.


  6. Thanks, indychristian, but I think I was being flippant and presumptuous in my suggestion to write for your readers. I apologize.

    I have little interest in trying to win over anyone in this situation or in the so-called "creation vs evolution" contrivance (for that is what I am convinced it is--a contrivance). I have only written here about this situation to this point in expression of my grief over what is occuring at my alma mater among people I care about. I am not trying to win over anyone, but I am concerned that honest Christians as scientists of intergity in Christian liberal arts academia who articulate anything other than a Fundamentals-aligned perspective on origins, are being singled out, shut up, and sidelined. When that occurs, the Word-inspired unity we hold in common is not rescued and upheld, it is traumatized and reduced.

    I look forward to seeing you again sometime at Unleavened Bread Cafe and I appreciate your investment of time and care in lives and community in that God-graced place.

  7. Dean Cowles3:52 PM

    I'm going to pick up this book. It sounds what we've been looking for to bring reason & tradition & scripture & experience together in a faith-based approach to combat this "love it or leave it" approach to pop fundamental folk theolgy.

    Thanks John for reminding us that learning and living are both possible when we are open to God's wonder.


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