Scott Jaschik has a long and interesting story in today’s Inside Higher Ed about efforts to spur greater dialogue within Christian colleges and universities between those Christian biologists who (broadly defined) believe that God created the heavens and earth through evolutionary processes, those who believe in a six-24-hour-day creation and a “young earth,” and those who fall somewhere in between. Scott does a better job than most at reporting these kinds of issues, avoiding the “rational and respectable Christians versus fundamentalists” slant that so many reporters take. I have a few thoughts:
First, when biologists find themselves “under fire” for allegedly defying the “literal” creation story, the actual events are often much, much more complex than the simple “I took on the creationists and they sacked me” tale told after the fact. As one commenter notes, there was in fact more to the story of the professor who resigned from Olivet Nazarene College, and there is evidence from within the college that it hardly bans teaching different scientific perspectives.
Second, while civil, intramural debates can be quite healthy, it is important to note the institutional academic freedom interests in play. Different Christian universities have different mission statements and statements of faith. This is, of course, their right, and it is their right — as independent religious organizations — to adhere to those mission statements and ask their faculty to do so as well. No one is required to attend any religious school, no one is required to teach at any religious school, and you are not treating faculty unfairly if you ask them to uphold the school’s mission. In many ways, the community of Christian schools represents a “marketplace of ideas” far more open than the parallel community of secular schools — where ideological orthodoxy is rigidly enforced not just within but among the institutions.
Third, I would be surprised if the principles of evolutionary biology were not taught even at schools dominated by a “young Earth” viewpoint. Professors know evolutionary biology and students learn it. They may learn it from a critical standpoint, but they still learn it. It’s hardly the case that students at Christian universities leave with yawning gaps in their knowledge. After all, many of them go on to receive doctorates from secular universities. Thus, while the theological/scientific debate is important, the actual impact on classroom instruction — as a rule — is far less material than what outside observers believe.
Finally — and this is a pet peeve of mine — I hate the use of the term “literal” or “literalist” when describing those who believe the Bible is God’s word. I have never in my entire life met any single person who believed there was no metaphor in the Bible. So, the actual debate within orthodox Christianity is not between “literalists” and others; it’s between those who disagree over the meaning and intent of words, when both sides believe those are the words God intended to use.