Thursday, February 20, 2014

Tim Stafford’s “The Adam Quest”

Years ago when I was in a Masters program at Washington University in St. Louis, my very first course was one called “Science, Creation Science and Pseudoscience.” It was essentially a philosophy of science course, and the heart of it was how science was defined.

A respected member of the university’s Physics Department taught the course, and while he made it very clear he embraced evolution, he spoke respectfully of other beliefs, avoiding ridicule and derision. What that allowed the students to do was explore and discuss science, evolution, creationism and related subjects without much of the heated rhetoric that often attends these subjects.

And I learned one definition of science that I’ve never forgotten: science is what scientists say it is. In other words, what constitutes science is determined by broad consensus among those who practice it. And when it comes to evolution, the broad consensus in the scientific community is that evolution is the explanation. It doesn’t mean that Charles Darwin was right in everything he postulated, but his basic ideas are still accepted by the large majority of scientists as science.

The church (speaking in the broadest possible sense) has a wide and varied history when it comes to human origins. The Roman Catholic Church long ago made peace with evolution. The response of the Protestant wing has been more diverse, ranging from eventual acceptance to ongoing rejection and hostility. In recent decades we’ve seen the rise of creationism and intelligent design (which are different despite what they have in common).

Tim Stafford, senior writer for Christianity Today magazine, took a look at the subject of human origins and how it’s addressed with the church today. But he took a rather different route than what might be expected – he talked with eleven scientists who also happen to be Christians. Their understanding of human origins range across the spectrum, from young earth creationism to full-blown evolution. The result is The Adam Quest.

Stafford doesn’t simply interview the eleven scientists about their understanding and work in the various related fields surrounding origins. Instead, he profiles them, and considers their families, their backgrounds, their faith, what they believe about origins and how they came to their understanding and beliefs. What emerges from this engaging and well-written discussion are at least two basic ideas. First, science and faith are not enemies. Second, the eleven scientists have more in common than they have differences, suggesting that faith can provide a common ground for very different understandings and approaches to the subject of origins.

The eleven scientists include young earth creationists, intelligent design creationists, and evolutionary creationists. They include:

·       Kurt Wise, who is a young earth creationist who studied geology at the University of Chicago and went on, with the recommendation of his professors, to study at Harvard under one of the most well known evolutionary scientists of the modern era, Stephen Jay Gould.

·       Georgia Purdom, who has a PhD in molecular genetics from Ohio State University and is executive director of the Creation Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio.

·       Fazale Rana, who was raised a Muslim in West Virginia, earned a degree in biochemistry from Ohio University, became a Christian through his then-fiancée and now-wife, and now expounds a positive view of intelligent design.

·       Mary Schweitzer, who was a Montana mother who wanted to learn about dinosaurs, studied under paleontologist Jack Horner, and turned the world of dinosaur paleontology upside down.

·       Simon Conway Morris, a British geologist led to Christ through the writings of C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield (the four men here being the “Inklings” at Oxford) and who accepts evolution.

Reading The Adam Quest is like an exercise in civility. And Stafford notes the eleven were chosen partially on the basis of the high regard they have for both science and the Bible and are not quick to condemn others who don’t believe as they do – something rare in this polarized culture live in today.

It is possible to disagree, and do so respectfully. Stafford knows what emotions can be provoked in the church on the subject of human origins, emotions that often lead to a “take no prisoners” mentality. And he suggests that this isn’t a positive thing, or even necessary. Young earth creationists may not be accepted by mainstream science, but they are not yahoos from the backwoods. Evolutionists are not disparaging spokesman against faith (Richard Dawkins and a few of his fellow atheists notwithstanding).

In that sense of civility and intelligent discourse, Stafford’s book takes me back to my course at Washington University. That class was not an exercise in polarized polemics and screaming rhetoric. Instead, believers and non-believers alike could come together, study together, work together and learn. No one lost their faith during the course, and no one came to faith. But we did learn to respect each other and learn from one another.

And The Adam Quest offers that same civility and intelligent discourse.

Photograph by Irina Pechkareva via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.


Maureen said...

Some time ago I read a similar book by Krista Tibbett in which she interviewed scientists about their belief or lack thereof. I don't happen to think it's impossible to hold the two in the mind.

Good post, Glynn.

diana said...

Oh, well done, Glynn. You make me want to read this book ASAP. We are blessed in our congregation to have several profs from a nearby Christian college and we're in the midst of a 12 week teaching session from 3 of them right now. Jeff Schloss is one - maybe he's in this book? I'm adding it to my wish list now.

Glynn said...

Diana - Jeff Schloss is not int he book.

H. Gillham said...

Sounds like an interesting book -- thanks for the review.

I believe God gave us the privilege to think, wonder, and discuss. He wants us to have discourse with others on "theories" like this -- or otherwise, we wouldn't have a scientific community. :-)

Anonymous said...

what came first...
science or the scientist?