From Babel to understanding
The creation/evolution debate can resemble trench warfare, in which the different camps blindly launch their arguments like mortars. For several years, the Dutch organization ForumC (a Christian study centre for faith, science and society) has tried to get the combatants out of the trenches. A recent conference appears to confirm that this approach does work.
The approach is based on a BioLogos-sponsored conference in 2009, hosted by pastor Tim Keller, which brought together Christian leaders in a closed meeting outside the normal debating theatres. The goal was to encourage people to speak freely on the subject of creation and evolution.
In 2011, ForumC hosted such a conference with some 40 Dutch opinion leaders from different backgrounds (theologians, pastors, scientists and media) and with different views on creation, ranging from young earth creationism to evolutionary creation. The conference, part of a Templeton-funded project to stimulate the debate on creation and evolution, succeeded in getting the different factions looking over the edge of their trenches. In the following years, ForumC has been building trust and providing new information, mostly through their website on faith and science (www.geloofenwetenschap.nl).
To take matters further, a second conference was organized this year (Oct. 3-5), as part of the BioLogos sponsored project ‘From Babel to understanding’. The aim of the conference was to think about ways of communicating the creation/evolution debate to young people in (Christian) schools and churches. To that end, we also invited high school teachers and church youth workers.
Key note speaker was the Dutch-born scientist Jitse van der Meer (Redeemer University College, Canada), a biologist who over the past decade specialized in the history and philosophy of science. Van der Meer, who is a team member in the ForumC BioLogos project, discussed his own transition from young earth creationist in the 1970s. The two main reasons for this transition were the abuse of Scripture as a source of information that satisfies the requirements of twentieth-century scholarship and the abuse of the natural sciences for the construction of an alternative to mainstream science by scientific creationists.
An important conclusion that Van der Meer reached in this period was that while presuppositions are important to science, in the end they never determine the outcome of science. He listed a number of scientists who ended up proving a point that went against their own presuppositions. Also, he showed that presuppositions may shape scientific research at all levels, from overarching models to observations. In the world of immunology, for example, war-like terms like ‘Natural Killer Cell’ or ‘pathogen invasion’ outnumber more peaceful terms like ‘T-helper cell’. However, reality never surrenders to presuppositions. It is therefore unjustified to dismiss the theory of evolution by pointing to the presupposition of evolutionary scientists.
His final call to those present was to trust the Creator and the two books in which he reveals himself, even when we do not understand everything about the creative process. This trust in the Author of the book of Nature requires a living faith. And it should result in an open mind for new developments in science and humility in our knowledge claims, whether they stem from mainstream science or creation science.
Other plenary sessions included a round table with a pastor, a scientist and a religious education teacher and two lectures by theologians on Genesis. Both the young earth viewpoint and that of evolutionary creation were presented. Plenary sessions were followed by group discussion. The final sessions produced ideas for teaching materials meant for schools and churches.
We feel that the long term efforts by ForumC to bring the different factions together are beginning to bear fruit. Where the atmosphere at the first conference was at times tense, this second conference was perceived by all those present as more relaxed and open. The willingness to concede passed errors and the problems involved in the position taken was one clear sign of this.
Another sign was the fact that most groups were able to define common ground, even in the face of huge differences in opinion. When debating the facts, interpretations and extrapolations in origins science, or in the meaning of the first three chapters of Genesis, each group was able to produce a joint statement.
Although there were large differences on what could be deemed as ‘facts’ (like e.g. the Big Bang, or the evidence in favor of evolution), there was a consensus on the way these issues should be communicated at schools and in churches. Such communication should show honesty about the limits of what we do know and respect towards those holding a different viewpoint. Another issue on which everyone agreed was the fact that the use of evolution (or science in a broader sense) by some to support an ideological, atheistic position is unjustified.
In view of the Biblical creation account, common ground was found in the pervading message that God is the Creator and that He is not the source of evil on this planet. On the historicity of Adam and the Fall, participants agreed to disagree. Furthermore, the fact that God can be found in both the Bible and the Book of Nature – as stated in the Belgic Confession - was acknowledged by all.
A danger was perceived in teaching young people a simplified version of creation and the scientific evidence concerning origins. At some stage, kids will hear at high school, college or university that things are vastly more complicated and this may be a challenge to their faith. That is why it’s important to stress there are different viewpoints in Sunday school or high school biology class.
During the conference, it became clear that the science teachers that were present had all made some additional materials to discuss evolution in the light of Biblical creation in their classes. But as they lack a common platform, they were largely unaware of each others efforts. ForumC could act as intermediary, possibly by building a digital portal for Christian educators.
The most important aim of the additional material produced by these teachers is to inform students of the different positions available. This is especially important in schools where the young earth viewpoint is dominant amongst students and their parents.
To inform church youth groups, the youth leaders felt the production of new study material was not the best way, as most churches can choose from a wealth of existing materials. It was deemed wiser to work through the publishers of these study methods, or produce information leaflets to accompany such methods. Also, presence of ForumC on Christian youth festivals might be of value. At the university level, ForumC could follow the example of the ASA in North America and organize local chapters of Christian academics at Dutch universities as well as prepare them to act as mentors for students by means of continuing education.
Also, ForumC could to try to include science and religion in the continuing education program for pastors. This advice is also useful as input for the next conference ForumC will in 2014, for pastors.
For the last few years ForumC has worked towards becoming a platform where Christians with different views can meet. Our approach is to build trust and provide new information. The latter goal was achieved by the presentation of Jitse van der Meer. We conclude that this approach is beginning to pay off. The second Genesis conference has seen the participants coming out of their trenches and start a real dialogue.
Author: dr. René Fransen, science journalist and team member of ‘From Babel to Understanding’.