While many people view faith and science as competing, they can co-exist and even flourish in a Christian college, say professors at two liberal-arts schools with teaching under investigation by the Tennessee Baptist Convention.
Tennessee Baptists last month authorized a study of Belmont University in Nashville, Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City and Union University in Jackson after messengers questioned whether teachers at Carson-Newman were too liberal.
One critic, a Carson-Newman student, earlier wrote a letter to the editor complaining the biology department lacked balance because all the professors are "theistic evolutionists."
Contacted by EthicsDaily.com, Stephen Karr, chair of Carson-Newman's biology department, said he has concerns with terms like "theistic evolution," which leaves room for many possible viewpoints about to what extent God was involved in creation.
Nevertheless, Karr said, the student bringing the complaint "has not polled all members of the department and therefore is not in a position to make a blanket statement about their beliefs."
Karr said Carson-Newman believes, however, that Christian beliefs and liberal arts can complement each other. To be true academically, science must be presented as it is understood today, he said. The school also believes in priesthood of the believer, where individuals are responsible to seek and follow God as God is revealed to them.
While Union University is regarded as more conservative than the other two Tennessee Baptist colleges, the biology chair there espoused a similar view.
Union includes professors with a variety of views on evolution and creation, said James Huggins, who also directs the Hammons Center for Scientific Studies, so the Carson-Newman student's complaint about all professors being theistic evolutionists would not apply at Union.
Huggins said Union's faculty includes perspectives of "young earth" creationism and "old earth" creationism, which views evolutionary process as a possible method used by God in creating life. In addition, some professors adopt a hybrid view called "progressive" creationism, that God created over long periods of time but was involved in every act of creation along the way.
Union President David Dockery was quoted recently as saying that the university's professors hold a variety of views about creation, but they don't include evolution. But Dockery apparently referred to evolution as presented by Charles Darwin, who argued that life developed by natural processes without help from a Creator.
Huggins said no professors at Union accept atheistic or Darwinian evolution. "Though we may not see eye to eye on every point, we each recognize the evidence of an 'intelligent design' found within virtually every aspect of biology," he said.
Karr described the faculty at Carson-Newman similarly. "Every teacher in the biology department is a Christian and believes God is the Creator," he said. "We do not see evolution as contradictory to that."
Karr said the Carson-Newman faculty focuses on "biological" evolution, as compared to other types of change, which refers to change in genetic makeup of populations over generations. As changes occur, eventually populations emerge with descendants that differ from their ancestors.
To ignore the topic, Karr said, would "constitute academic fraud and would not be true to our calling as a liberal arts college."
"Evolution represents the best scientific explanation of vast amounts of observations and data," Karr said. Practical reasons for teaching evolution include preparing students for standardized tests, ensuring that credits will transfer, licensing requirements for teachers and to better equip students to live in today's world.
Union's Huggins agreed that evolution has a place in even a conservative Christian college.
"Because the majority of the world accepts evolution as fact, and as an educator who sends Christian biologists into the workplace and to graduate education every year, it is absolutely necessary for a student to know 'about' evolution," Huggins said. "The fundamentals of the theory will serve them well on entrance exams (they don't have to believe in it) and when witnessing to a colleague."
Huggins said Union presents evolution as a "theory, albeit a prevalent one in our society."
Huggins said the department's approach has been healthy for students. "It exposes them to a variety of biblical interpretations at the intersection of science and religion and forces them to solidify their own beliefs," he said. "I have found that such an exercise within a Christian environment only strengthens one's faith."
Karr said Carson-Newman professors begin by saying they don't view faith and evolution as contradictory but acknowledging that not everyone agrees. They don't go into their personal views in detail in an authoritative setting like a classroom but will discuss them one on one with students outside of class.
"In class, we do present some of the many positions that have been put forth that reconcile (or don't) evolutionary evidence with biblical accounts of creation to give students and idea of how others have dealt with the issue," Karr said. "We do not advocate one view—even our own—over the other. We respect the right of individuals to have a personal theology that differs from other Christians on a variety of topics."
Some evolution critics say it is impossible to square the theory with a literal reading of Genesis, where God creates the world directly in six days.
Union President Dockery told EthicsDaily.com that the word translated "day" in Genesis doesn't necessarily refer to a 24-hour day. "It may be, but it doesn't have to be," he said.
Dockery said all faculty at Union "believe in God the Father, Maker of heaven and earth."
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.