Michael Ruse is back with another post over at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Let’s take a look:
I have written before about Calvin College in Western Michigan and its troubles. I have now to tell you that things have wended their way to their expected and sad conclusion.
To give the background once again, starting with the College’s own words.
As a college that stems from the Reformed branch of Christianity, the bulk of what we believe is held in common with the Christian church around the world and throughout the ages. Three confessions adopted by Reformed Protestants centuries ago summarize important tenets of the Reformed faith: the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort. College faculty members are required to sign a Christian Reformed Church synodically-approved Form of Subscription in which they affirm these three forms of unity. Faculty pledge to teach, speak, and write in harmony with the confessions.
Now, at one level this is all fine and dandy. Calvinists started and run the college, so that their kids can get educated in the way that they want, and it seems to me that they have every right therefore to expect the faculty to toe the line. The college wouldn’t employ me and no more should it. Obviously not all church-connected colleges insist on exact subscription to their own particular beliefs. Alvin Plantinga is a strong Calvinist, yet for many years he was a professor at the University of Notre Dame. But if a college does want exact subscription, so be it.
For the purposes of this post I will avoid ranting about the propriety of requiring your faculty to make such pledges.
As suggested by Ruse’s opening, we are soon going to learn the fate of one Calvin College faculty member who was thought to be in violation of his pledge. He continues:
But equally obviously, insisting on exact subscription may bring a cost. If your religious beliefs conflict with science–deny absolutely and completely basic claims of science–and if you insist on the religion over the science, then don’t expect respect from the rest of us. Don’t expect us to think that your students are properly educated. Don’t pretend to be as good as you might like to think you are. And expect special scrutiny if ever you apply for funds from public sources, like the National Science Foundation.
Stirring words. I agree completely, of course.
The problem–and in this day and age it is embarrassing even to have to say this–is over Adam and Eve. Now let it be understood clearly and loudly. Menstruating girls are not sick. The earth is not flat. Adam and Eve, understood as literal individuals who were the first humans, created miraculously, the parents of us all, originally sinless, did not exist. Humans are part of the overall tree of life, our species may have gone through bottlenecks but we never dropped below several thousand and perhaps more, we today are descended from many co-existing ancestors, and our moral nature is part of the picture. We were not one day all nice and friendly and then the next horrid and mean.
As we know, this at odds with traditional Christian teaching about Adam and Eve and their fall into sin. Ruse now quotes the Heidelberg Catechism to show the contradiction. We have science saying one thing and tradition saying exactly the opposite. What are we to do?
So what’s to be done? Both Augustine and Calvin offered a way forward. The essential elements of faith remain unchanged but we must recognize that new thinking, new philosophy, new science, may call for reinterpretation. Augustine was strong on this. The ancient Jews did not understand science and it would have been silly of God to have spoken to them literally. In Calvin’s words, God &lldquo;accommodates” his language to the common people.
So if modern science says that a literal Adam and Eve do not exist, start thinking of ways that one can keep a good creating god, sinful humans, and the need for Jesus to die on the cross for our salvation.
Finally, we come to the meat of the matter. We have discussed this before, but portraying Calvin and Augustine as theologically moderate, fully prepared to ask “How high?” every time a scientist says jump, is a serious distortion. Neither of these gentleman believed that doctrine was infinitely malleable, or that science must always be deferred to on questions of natural history. As they saw it, where central truths of the faith were involved it was science that had to yield.
For example, in Augustine’s view, as expressed in The Literal Interpretation of Genesis, the mechanics of how God created the world were irrelevant to the central claims of the faith, and they would be incomprehensible to human beings at any rate. That is why he accepted a largely figurative interpretation of Genesis 1. But, in his view, the reality of Adam and Eve was absolutely central, and was a topic on which the Bible spoke with the utmost clarity. His understanding of Genesis 2 and 3 were very literal indeed. Augustine was a product of his time, so it is pointless to ask how he would have reacted to modern findings of science. What we can say, however, is that he viewed Adam and Eve as central and did not believe that doctrine had to yield whenever science flashed a stern look.
And this is precisely what John Schneider, until the end of last month a member of the Religion Department at Calvin, has been doing. Drawing on theology even older than Augustine, he has been speculating that perhaps we should understand human nature as something developing gradually and (from a moral viewpoint) always in need of improvement and help. He has been arguing that perhaps the coming and suffering of Jesus is not “Plan B,” a fix-it solution by God to mop up after the mistakes of Adam and Eve, but something always part of the Divine Intention.
It is this that has got him into hot water with the president of Calvin College, who thinks that Schneider has been violating the terms of his employment. You will note that I said that Schneider used to be a member of the Religion Department for he has now taken early retirement. He and the College have issued one of those po-faced statements that say everyone is concerned to work things out for the good of the group and no one is blaming anyone for anything, but goodbye and good luck.
A few paragraphs ago Ruse was telling us that it was fine and dandy for Calvin College to force its faculty to pledge their fealty to the religious authorities. Apparently, though, this approval was contingent on the College never enforcing the pledge. I have no doubt that the administrators of the College are wiling to tolerate some amount of dissent, so long as, in their judgment, it remains within the pale of orthodoxy. But, again, the doctrines are not infinitely malleable. There comes a point where the conflict is intractable and you must simply pick a side. The administration decided they were not interested in Ruse’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach to theology. At some point you are no longer reinterpreting a doctrine, but are simply discarding it and replacing it with something else.
Ruse concludes with:
As it happens, Schneider’s next stop is going to be Notre Dame, just down the road, where he has a year’s fellowship to explore in more detail some of the ideas that led to his early exit from Calvin. More importantly, he leaves his home with his head held high, a man of integrity who believes that being made in the image of God means using one’s abilities fearlessly wherever they lead. And Calvin College, an institution that in so many ways rightfully deserves to be considered a jewel in the crown of American higher education, is stained. Once again in America, dogmatic biblical literalism trumps modern science. The Enlightenment founders of this country, men like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, must be weeping in their graves.
A jewel in the crown seems a bit much, but the basic point is well-taken. Prior to this embarrassment, Calvin College would have been generally considered a serious university. This is not like Patrick Henry College, say, which is just a right-wing indoctrination center masquerading as a university. But even for them, when push came to shove, and they had to choose between the facts and evidence produced by science and the hegemony of religious authority, they chose the latter. Not only did they make that choice, but they cared so much about it that they ended the career of a scholar who suggested, not that the doctrine be discarded, but merely that it be reinterpreted. That was too much for them.
This is what religion is. This is why many of us are so suspicious of religious institutions generally, and look askance at people who endlessly try to prop them up. The remarkable intolerance Ruse is reporting on comes not from crazed, ignorant, fundamentalists, but from well-educated scholars in the administration of an institution of higher learning. This sorry incident puts the lie to the breezy rhetoric we often here about how most Christians have no problem with modern science, with only a few extremist blowhards dissenting.