Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Trouble At My Alma Mater

Calvin College has a flare up over views on creation/evolution. A professor of biology has left and another one is under a cloud for writing about evolution and Christianity. The college has a statement saying all professors must affirm the Bible is the authoritative, Spirit-breathed Word of God, and fully reliable. But many people think that implies you reject evolution and many think it does not. These professors are in the ladder camp but many Calvin Alumni are in the former. So who is right? No way to know.

This is a good example of how my thinking has changed so much since becoming Catholic. As a protestant I would have one of two reactions to this. One would be to declare it unimportant. The other would be to pick a side. So I would end up disrespecting something. Either disrespecting the doctrinal question or disrespecting the people on one side of the argument. I might have said what one of the professors involved said:
Harlow, who like Schneider has tenure and considers himself a committed Christian, said that the backlash reflects the views of fundamentalists within the Reformed denomination, not what most people think. "I work in the mainstream of Biblical scholarship, and we believe that the early chapters of Genesis are divinely inspired stories which imagine the human condition and creation of the world. Their intent is to make theological statements. They weren't written to provide geological or biological information," Harlow said. "My college freshmen seem to be able to handle this, but fundamentalists get all bent out of shape over this."
Notice how the fundamentalist group is being disrespected. It is not a good dynamic. But he is reacting to people who want him fired from his job and have already gotten his colleague to resign. So you can understand the frustration. Another faculty member takes a shot at colleges that have affirmed the more fundamentalist position.

This faculty member said he is not sure what the future holds for colleges like Calvin. While it may be more difficult to reconcile science and faith, he said that he sees some Christian colleges that "are thriving by ignoring the scientific evidence."
But this goes to the heart of the problem. Why is it so difficult to reconcile science and faith? It comes from Sole Scriptura. When do you change your biblical interpretation to account for scientific discoveries? Sola Scriptura not only does not provide an answer but it rules out any potential answer. Why? Because under Sola Scriptura any bible-based argument is infallible. The college can't overrule it. The synod of the church can't. Nobody can even set out what questions are to be addressed by the church and what questions are properly addressed by science. The fundamentalist has his proof texts and that settles it in his mind. It just does not matter who tells them what.

In the Catholic world there is at least a chance of charity. The church makes clear what the faith is. We are not allowed to ignore dogma but we are not allowed to create dogma either. We might think everyone should believe in a literal six-day creation but we don't have the authority to impose that on anyone. We can save our angry letter writing campaigns for when someone explicitly denies church teaching. But in those cases the professors should know they are doing that and they have excluded themselves as reliable teachers of the faith. So even then there need not be a lack of charity. You are not saying they are lousy or dishonest bible interpreters. The church's teaching's on these matters are clear.

Now that is how is should work. Often it does not. Sadly many Catholic schools have drifted into liberalism. Why? Because many people didn't trust dogma. Just as Catholicism gives you the chance to be charitable it gives you the chance to respect truth. It does not guarantee either. This is a case of Catholicism not being tried and found wanting but being found difficult and left untried.

So at the end of the day I have to admit Calvin College has done better than many schools in avoiding the twin pitfalls of liberalism and fundamentalism. They have chosen a middle ground and have been right on many issues. But they are relying on human discernment to find that middle ground. What is more everyone recognizes that as fallible so they feel free to attack it. So as human effort goes I think they have done pretty well. It is just that human effort is not enough. We need grace and the particular grace needed is only available through the Catholic church. So their effort is ultimately going to fail. It has already failed on issues like contraception and divorce. They unknowingly embraced error on those issue. That will keep happening. But they do better than most and remarkably well given the lights they have.

This is why I am grateful for the few orthodox Catholic schools we have. They seem to be growing but they are still quite a small blip on the overall Catholic higher education scene. Protestants need to see how Catholics can reconcile science and religion quite beautifully and naturally. They can avoid fundamentalism and liberalism. It is not going to happen unless Catholic schools as a whole get a lot more Catholic.

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