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the adam quest
eleven scientists who held on to a strong faith while wrestling with the mystery of human origins
By Tim Stafford
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2013 Timothy Chase Stafford a/k/a Tim Stafford
All rights reserved.
I have a son who has struggled to find peace with God.
I don't completely understand the nature of this struggle, but from the time Silas was a teenager I knew that it tormented him. I found this a very hard struggle to watch. As a believing parent, you want more than anything else for your children to build a solid foundation of faith. You can't do it for them. All you can do is encourage them and pray for them and try to open up the right kinds of opportunities for them to grow.
Silas went to church and youth group, but I don't think he ever really made deep spiritual friendships there. That was why, toward the end of Silas's high school years, my wife and I encouraged him to apply for work at a nearby Christian camp. We hoped that he would make friends with serious Christians of his own age, people who were fun and smart and able to talk about deep questions.
Silas worked at that camp for two summers. He did, as we had hoped, make good friends. I can't say that he stopped struggling with faith, but he seemed to move in good directions.
The friends stayed in touch even after they all went off to college. But then something went wrong. Silas got burned by the fight over Genesis.
During his senior year in high school, Silas had taken a class in geology at our local junior college. The professor was an excellent teacher with a passion for his subject. Silas caught the vision, and he decided to major in geology.
Geology field trips in his freshman year of college took Silas into the mountains and deserts of California. In short order he mastered the basics of reading the history of the rocks. But then he began to experience conflict with his camp friends. They insisted that the earth was young, according to the Bible. If Silas wanted to be a serious Christian, he had to get out of geology. Whatever geologists believed about the age of the earth was completely wrong.
I doubt this would have bothered Silas too deeply if the friends had just offered their point of view and then agreed to disagree. They were insistent, however. They could not let the subject alone. I imagine that they felt they were courageous Christians, speaking up for scriptural truth and refusing to let a friend go down the path of ungodliness. In practice, though, they drove Silas away from faith. He needed fellowship, but he couldn't handle their attitude.
For geologists, the earth is obviously billions of years old. Asking them to think differently is like asking your astronomer friend to believe that the sun circles around the earth. From Silas's perspective, his friends just didn't know what they were talking about. If you want to believe in nonsense, be my guest, but please don't righteously insist that everybody else believe the same nonsense.
There were probably other factors in their rift, but the clash between science and the Bible was certainly a big part of the struggle. Silas fell out with the whole circle. (Years later, at a camp reunion, they had a warm encounter. But by then the damage was done. They weren't going to pick up the friendship where they had left off years before.)
This was the first time I experienced firsthand the damage that can be done when science and faith are at odds. It hurt my son in an area of deep importance, and I felt it.
I grew up in a devout Bible-believing Christian home, where questions about human origins were only occasionally discussed. My parents were open to the possibility that Noah's flood was local, not universal, and that the six days of creation might refer to long periods of time. But they believed the creator God—not random and directionless processes —was at the center of the story. They sensed that evolution could eliminate God from that story, a possibility they would never accept.
They were not dogmatic about details of God's creation. I have the distinct impression that it did not seem all that critical to them to settle all questions about the history of the earth. They thought of it as a matter of secondary importance, like modes of baptism.
I inherited those attitudes. As far back as I can remember, questions of creation were interesting to me, and I was willing to contemplate a variety of points of view. I instinctively felt doubts about evolution, and when I read a critique like Phillip Johnson's Darwin on Trial, a seminal text in the Intelligent Design movement, I found it interesting and significant. However, I didn't become a true believer. I didn't think too much was at stake.
When Silas crashed into these questions, though, it suddenly became a big deal to me. I began to pay closer attention not only to the issues as I understood them but also to people in science and the frustrations they feel.
For years I'd held an on-and-off discussion with Bob Messing, a friend who heads a microbiology research lab associated with the University of California, San Francisco. Now I listened to Bob more carefully. I grasped how frustrated he was with his church—a solid, biblical church—and I saw how that frustration was slowly eroding Bob's faith. Bob loved that church community, who had supported him through hard times, but he felt he could not relate to their views about science. "Everything I do is based on evolution," he told me. But evolution was a conversation stopper within the walls of his church. Members there viewed evolution with uninformed skepticism, if not hostility.
Bob tried hard to change that. He volunteered to lead an adult class that looked at Christian critiques of evolution. In that class Bob tried to explain why none of those critiques had any traction in the scientific community. He felt people listened but didn't really hear.
Biological research was the single most important reality in Bob's life. He loved his church community, but he lived his research. His work, Bob felt, would never be fully embraced in his church.
I realize Bob's situation is complicated. Reactions to God and to the community of believers always mix reality and rationalization. Unquestionably, though, that church's skepticism about science played an important role in Bob's drifting away.
It's so for many scientists I've talked to. Others hold them at a distance because of their work. It often stops conversations cold. When it doesn't, people who don't know enough science to properly understand the issues may nevertheless lecture them about evolution. If the scientists are committed believers, it's a constant irritant. If they start out on the far edges of faith, these attitudes will keep them there.
* * *
There's a flip side, of course. Scientists can be arrogant know-it-alls. Some of the premier scientific spokespersons today make a point of baiting Christians, proclaiming that science has disproved religious belief. When they tell the story of how life evolved, they speak as though it's a scientific fact that the whole process is pointless and godless.
While Silas and Bob lost faith because of Christians' attitudes toward science, lots of other people have lost faith because they listened to scientists. For much of the nineteenth century, what's called scientific positivism insisted that truth had to be testable and repeatable. If you couldn't run a scientific experiment on it, it wasn't worth talking about. This frame of mind came to dominate much thinking. The famous New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann wrote, "It is impossible to use electric light ... and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles." Bultmann didn't intend to undermine faith, but he did. Lots of people jumped to the conclusion that the Bible was full of unbelievable fiction from a bygone era. Once they stopped trusting Scripture, they drifted away from godly attitudes and beliefs. They embraced moral relativism and came to doubt that truth was anything more than someone's opinion. No wonder many Christians became skittish about science.
For some time, we've been in a state of cold war between science and faith, especially in America. Discussions about how evolution should be taught in school sometimes end up as court cases. When they do, the cold war flares into an apocalyptic battle. Christians who don't believe in evolution think it's unfair that evolution is the only position that is presented. Scientists and educators see those Christians as trying to sneak their religion into the curriculum.
Today's polarized environment produces less dialogue, more sound bites. Terrible sneering insults get thrown at one side or the other. Few attempt to gain mutual understanding. Many launch polemics dedicated to proving the other side wrong.
I've grown deeply concerned about this divide between faith and science. I'm concerned for our society. Are we becoming like the people of Babel, using knowledge to build wonderful towers to our own glory, without God? The more capable we are, the higher we may build our towers. The higher the towers, the more devastating their collapse. Spiritual pride may be difficult to test scientifically, but it is nonetheless real and terribly destructive.
If our civilization is built on science, and most of the people doing science are determined to scoff at God, then I fear for our civilization. I'm just as concerned for what happens among Christians. God created human beings as creatures who explore their world, learning all they can. Watch a baby experiment with sight, taste, and touch. Babies are fantastic learning machines from the day they are born. Ideally, that learning stretches outward through their lives. God made us that way.
When human societies turn their backs on knowledge of the outside world, they stagnate. It has happened more than a few times in history for religious and nonreligious motives. It doesn't turn out well. People who live in ingrown, stagnant societies can't fulfill their God-given destinies. They grow frustrated by the limits that cut them off from growth and learning. They look for someone to blame. Anger and resentment come to dominate their worldview.
Is it possible today's Christian church could become like that? I don't think it could for long. The church has the Bible and the Holy Spirit—life-giving and inspiring. The Bible is a book of love, and love impels us to engage with everything around us. Only by disregarding the fundamental truths of the Bible can you cut yourself off from the world.
Nevertheless, in the short term I feel concern. If we dig a wide ditch between the world of faith and the world of science, we will find ourselves much the poorer for it.
All truth belongs to God, and science is a powerful way of gaining truth. If it weren't, our airplanes wouldn't fly, our cell phones would never connect, and our cancer-taming drugs would heal nothing. We need science not only for airplanes and cell phones and cancer-taming drugs but also for its contact with reality in God's wonderful creation. Christians cut off from science are in trouble spiritually as well as materially.
* * *
This book is about men and women whose lives join science and faith. All of them are scientists, trained at the highest levels. All of them are serious and Bible-believing Christians. Unlike so many in our polarized world, they have high regard for both science and the Bible as sources of truth. Their ambition is to bring both sides together.
Which is not to say that they agree with one another. In fact, they have widely varying views. Our eleven scientists provide a good sample of the whole spectrum of Christian beliefs about evolution and creation.
1. Young earth creationists, who believe that the world is less than ten thousand years old and that Noah's flood explains most of the geology and fossil distribution that we see today. They also insist that the species of life are not all cousins but were created separately.
2. Intelligent design creationists, most of whom believe that the earth is billions of years old but that evolution cannot explain the development of life. Some intelligence must have intervened.
3. Evolutionary creationists, who believe that God created life, using evolution. They believe that all creatures are cousin to each other and that the process of variation and selection produces gradual change over millions of years.
Along with their varied understandings of the history of the earth, these scientists vary in their interpretations of Scripture.
The subject of human origins is hot, and Christians get as hot as anybody. You can't look it up on the Internet without hearing one side or the other declaring somebody a heretic or an ignoramus.
I have chosen to profile people who hold strong opinions but aren't quick to condemn others. Some of them admit to seeing weaknesses in their own arguments. Fundamentally, they take seriously the reality that we, the human race, are still learning. Our understanding is partial.
And that understanding must be filled out through ever deeper study of the Bible and of the world God made. These are the "two books" of God's revelation. Those who study both books, seeking truth, stand in the middle of the rift that tries to pull the Bible and the cosmos apart.
* * *
I call this book The Adam Quest. By that I do not mean the fast-moving search to identify the first human beings through the study of humanlike fossils (like Lucy) and more recently through extrapolations of data from human DNA that suggest humanity first developed as an African tribe of perhaps ten thousand individuals.
Those searches are very specific, but I am engaged with a much broader search. By the Adam Quest I mean the attempt to understand where we come from. Adam is the father of all humanity. The search for him is a search for our roots. Metaphorically, he stands for everything in our deepest history.
The Adam Quest involves astrophysics—how did the earth come to be a planet that could sustain life? The search involves geology, especially when considering Noah's flood. It involves paleontology, the hybrid between geology and biology that studies fossils and thus the historical development of life. It involves physics, to tell the age of the earth and to study the molecular forces at work in the cell. It involves biology, to study the living creatures, and biochemistry, to study DNA and proteins and all the extraordinary complexities of the cell. I'm sure I have left out some disciplines. All science gets involved in this attempt to understand our origins, to make historical sense of ourselves.
And, of course, other, nonscientific disciplines join the quest. Biblical studies come first. It is joined by philosophy, which helps us untangle the arguments. (The philosophy of science is particularly valuable, helping explain what science can and can't do.)
Each discipline makes important contributions to the Adam Quest, but unfortunately, each expert sees the quest from only one point of view. Each person's specialization limits his or her ability to see the whole picture. A world-famous biologist may know no more about geology than I do. Even within a single field, each scientist is really an expert only on a very small piece. A microbiologist may know one process of protein formation; he probably knows very little about another.
None of these scientists is truly a Bible scholar, however much they may have read and studied the Bible. Of those I profile, the only one with any trained expertise in biblical texts is John Polkinghorne. The rest, when they say anything about how to read Genesis, are relying on secondhand information. I interviewed several specialists in fields of biblical studies and philosophy, and I read many more, but for the sake of simplicity I am sticking to scientists here.
My point is that the Adam Quest is a team effort. Each person sees it from his or her small area of knowledge. When it comes to each other's fields of knowledge, they can hardly even argue with each other, and when they argue with each other about broader issues, they are not really experts. We can grow in understanding our roots only as we share knowledge together and work together—through debate sometimes—to put the pieces together.
Some will claim that there is nothing to argue about. The Bible settles it, some say; only the details remain. Others take the opposite point of view: science has definitively shown how life developed on earth, and everything else must adjust to fit. To these I can only say that I don't think it's that simple. The lives of the scientists I have profiled suggest that it's not.
As you read about their lives, I hope the Adam Quest will be humanized for you, indeed Christianized. I don't think it's possible to encounter these individuals without knowing them to be devout, Bible-believing Christians who are extremely knowledgeable. There are no fools, knaves, or heretics here. I have found them to be extremely fascinating personalities. They are very smart and very highly trained. I like them all. And their stories are often fascinating.
Excerpted from the adam quest by Tim Stafford. Copyright © 2013 Timothy Chase Stafford a/k/a Tim Stafford. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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