An Open Letter to La Sierra University


(system) #1

I am writing in response to your May 28 statement that addresses allegations raised that La Sierra University is in apostasy (1). I have studied everything posted on all of the relevant websites I am aware of concerning this controversy (2). I agree with your statement that “there has been little genuine conversation, and far too much anger, criticism, and recrimination (3).” I hope that my letter will be seen as a meaningful contribution to the type of conversation that you seek.

We met for the first time and chatted briefly in Atlanta in the exhibit hall. I do not have a personal acquaintance with any faculty member of your school. And I am not an alumnus of La Sierra.

My standing to comment is based in part on my membership in the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the Michigan Conference. I feel inspired as a gesture in good faith to bolster my standing by becoming a donor. Please accept on behalf of your school the enclosed check in the amount of $1000 for professional development and continuing education opportunities for your teachers in the biology department.

A good starting point for a meaningful conversation is the position paper recently published by the Seminary faculty at Andrews University: A Statement on the Biblical Doctrine of Creation (4). My review of the Statement informs the following points I make for your consideration:

1. The tone of the Statement is thoughtful, measured, and respectful. The Seminary faculty members present themselves in this Statement as persons with whom one can have a reasonable conversation. No one in the Statement is called an apostate or compared to the idolatrous kings of the Old Testament. I encourage you and your teachers to maintain a similar tone of civility and respect in response to critics.

2. The Statement affirms Adventist scientists and the work that they do (5). The study of science in the various disciplines is not incompatible with the spiritual walk of an SDA Christian. I fear that the allegations made against your school may have already begun to foster a culture of suspicion and negativity in the Church toward Adventist scientists (6). We can thank the Seminary faculty for affirming that our scientists are entitled to respect.

3. The Statement recognizes that scientists are methodological materialists: they limit their methods of studying the world to natural tools and mechanisms (7). The Church has never proposed an alternative science methodology and no alternative or refinement is suggested by the Seminary faculty. It is important that your science teachers instill in their students an appreciation for science methodologies as carefully-constructed ways of producing findings that are objective and reliable.

4. The Statement also recognizes that a methodological materialist need not and should not be a philosophical materialist—one who believes that nature is all there is to understanding the world (8). The Bible, the inspired writings of Ellen White, miracles, fulfillments of prophecy, answered prayer, a sanctified life, and the counsel of the Holy Spirit all constitute different types of supernatural evidence that are available for examination in one’s quest for truth.

While reading the syllabus for General Biology II, I was impressed to see that students are encouraged to form beliefs that do not rest exclusively on natural evidence (9). Philosophical materialism is rejected, as follows:

It is vitally important for you to realize that this course—as a science course—is describing evidence from mainstream science, and is not dealing with beliefs. Some will decide they cannot “believe” the scientific evidence, and your right to decide that is encouraged and supported (10).

It is important that this openness to faith remains an integral characteristic of the La Sierra science faculty and community at large.

5. The Seminary faculty members do not opine outside of their field of expertise by attempting to declare what science is (11). It is noteworthy that they do not argue that Creationism and Intelligent Design constitute science (12). Creationism is a religious belief and Intelligent Design is Creationism under a different label. The efforts undertaken to secure a place in public school science classes for Creationism and Intelligent Design have sought to fundamentally alter our understanding of what science is. These efforts to date have been rejected by the courts, and rightfully so (13).

It is important that your science teachers resist the encroachment and power politics from those who seek to mischaracterize the field of science.

6. The Seminary faculty members do not opine outside of their field of expertise by declaring what constitutes mainstream science (14).

Professor McCloskey in General Biology II class identifies the natural theory of evolution as mainstream science (15): There is nothing “theoretical” about the evidence supporting evolution. The research about evolution is ongoing and continues to support and refine Darwin’s original ideas. No data have been found to refute the idea. It is the single unifying explanation of the living world, and nothing makes much, if any, sense outside of this unifying theory (16).

The National Academy of Sciences in its text Science, Evolution, and Creationism confirms this assessment, specifically stating, “There is no scientific controversy about the basic facts of evolution (17).” That evolution is firmly established as mainstream science can not be denied.

It is important that your science teachers recognize as part of their ministry the imperative to honestly and objectively identify what mainstream science is. Your teachers should also explain in class why the scientific community finds the natural evidence for mainstream science to be compelling and probative. It is notable that the Seminary faculty members do not join the chorus of those who argue that mainstream science should not be taught in an SDA university science class (18). We also notice that the Seminary faculty members in their Statement do not join critics who argue that evolution, as mainstream science, should be caricatured in science class as lacking factual validity (19).

7. The Statement articulates a hypothesis regarding origins that differs from mainstream science in two respects. First, the Statement embraces Creationism (20): all life forms originated on earth in a state of perfection within a time period of six ordinary and historical days several thousand years ago. After Adam and Eve sinned, God cursed the animal and plant world and the ground itself, subjecting life forms to disease, decay and death. God later caused a worldwide flood that destroyed all life forms that were not aboard Noah’s ark or otherwise capable of surviving on their own. Second, the Statement reflects that the evidentiary basis for this hypothesis is supernatural rather than natural (21).

8. The Statement, by setting forth this hypothesis, expressly rejects the Nonoverlapping Magisteria approach to science and religion advocated by evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould (22). He argued that the net of science covers all empirical and factual reality, whereas the net of religion is restricted to matters concerning morality, values, and purpose (23). In further arguing that science and religion should never overlap, he urged that issues regarding origins, the age of the earth, and biological change should only be addressed by science and lie outside the purview of religion (24).

Gould’s approach is difficult for a Christian to accept. Of the supernatural evidence that informs religious thought, matters concerning empirical and factual reality are discussed, such as in the very first sentence in Genesis: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

I was impressed to see that your science teachers recognize that science and religion can inform each other, as shown by General Biology Seminar BIOL 111A (25). Class presentations on how one should constructively relate science with religion can be useful and informative. It is important that your science teachers continue to cultivate respect for theologians and the contributions they make in understanding the world.

9. The Statement reflects the Seminary faculty’s reliance upon the Historical-Grammatical methodology of interpreting scripture (26). A fine introduction to this methodology is Richard Davidson’s essay—Interpreting Scripture According to the Scriptures: Toward an Understanding of Seventh-day Adventist Hermeneutics (27).

Your science teachers should come to understand this methodology utilized by Church theologians and develop an appreciation for its soundness, rigor, and reliability. It is important for your science teachers to recognize that adopting a different interpretation of the Creationist texts in the Bible, consistent with Historical-Grammatical methodology, would be an incredible feat. And for the Church to adopt a different methodology for interpreting the Bible, a methodology that is extra-biblical and uninformed by the scriptural text itself, would be revolutionary.

10. The supernatural evidence for the Seminary faculty’s hypothesis is overwhelming. One cannot casually dismiss the Creationism theme that runs throughout scripture any more than one can ignore an accumulation of data that supports a scientific theory.

I was impressed with the Creationism presentation given by Elder Wilson in Atlanta. The words he spoke were deserving of the conviction in which he spoke them as he lead the audience through the scriptures. His reverential demeanor toward the Bible set an example for those of us in attendance, as recommended in Isaiah 66:2: “But this is the man to whom I will look, he that is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.”

La Sierra should continue to be a biblically-centered environment where faith in the Word of God is strengthened and celebrated.

11. The Seminary faculty’s approach to reconciling science and Creationism is tenable. They accept as much of the prevailing scientific evidence as they comfortably can.28 They cite some scientific evidence, however thin it may be, for their hypothesis (29). They express a willingness to continue their study of the sacred text (30). And they choose to resolve conflicts by giving primacy to the Bible, with the hope that as more research and study are done, the conflicts will eventually be harmonized (31).

In the face of great uncertainty, the Seminary faculty members are careful to state that their position paper is not their final word on the subject (32).

12. The Seminary’s Statement is a thoughtful and helpful contribution to the present discussion. The Seminary faculty members have incurred considerable risk in publishing their Statement, unsigned as it is, and have subjected themselves to possible criticism and ridicule. We need to join together in rejecting the hysterics and hyperbole that chills and discourages our theologians and scientists in this important interdisciplinary study. We should not attempt to strengthen faith by suppressing inquiry and embracing ignorance.

13. After reviewing all of the allegations against La Sierra in this matter, my judgment is that your science teachers have not erred by teaching mainstream science in the various science classes. I suggest that class presentations regarding the relationship between science and religion should be continually refined and sharpened. To be rejected are the extreme allegations that your science teachers are undermining Church doctrine and leading La Sierra and its students into apostasy.

This entire controversy has elevated the standing of your science teachers at La Sierra University. I encourage your science teachers to continue in their work, instructing their students how to become intelligent and faithful Adventist Christian scientists. And I look forward to your school’s continued success. __ A graduate of Andrews University and The University of Texas Law School at Austin, Phillip Brantley is an attorney.

1 See “La Sierra Responds to the Michigan Conference Action”. 2 The websites I have perused are www.spectrummagazine.org, www.atoday.com, www.adventistreview.org, www.educatetruth.com, www.insidehighered.com, and sites linked and referenced by these websites. 3 See n. 1, 7th paragraph. 4 See http://www.andrews.edu/sem/site/1/docs/Seminary_Statement%20_on_%20Creat... ; 04/30/10. 5 See n.4, p. 6. 6 For an example of this, see Pitman, Sean, “Faith Without Evidence: Are We Really a Bunch of ‘Flat- Earthers’,” (denouncing the Geoscience Research Institute and several of its scientists) at http://www.educatetruth.com/la-sierra-evidence/faith-without-evidence-ar... earthers/; 07/31/10. 7 See n. 4, p. 6; See also “In Defense of Evolution” (an interview of Dr. Kenneth Miller) at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/evolution/defense-evolution.html; 10/01/07. 8 Id. 9 See http://www.educatetruth.com/la-sierra-evidence/syllabi/class-syllabus-fr... department-chair/; 06/03/09. 10 Id. 11 See n. 4. 12 See n. 4, p. 6 (religion and science are two “separate fields of discourse”). 13 See Edwards v. Aguillard (1987) found online at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/historics/USSC_CR_0482_0578_ZS.html, and Kitzmiller, et al. v. Dover Area School District, et al. (2005) at http://www.pamd.uscourts.gov/kitzmiller/kitzmiller_342.pdf (which sets forth an excellent discussion demonstrating that Intelligent Design is not science. This court opinion also provides the historical background necessary to understanding what is happening now concerning La Sierra and is must reading for anyone interested in this controversy). 14 See n. 4. 15 See n. 9. 16 Id. 17 See http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=11876, (2008), p. 52. 18 See n. 4. 19 Id. 20 See n. 4, p. 2-5. The importance of creationism to other Church doctrines is also discussed at p. 9-11. 21 Id. The evidence cited and relied on are biblical texts. 22 See n. 4, p. 5-7. 23 Stephen Jay Gould, "Nonoverlapping Magisteria," Natural History 106 (March 1997): p. 16-22, at http://www.stephenjaygould.org/library/gould_noma.html 24 Id. 25 See http://www.educatetruth.com/la-sierra-evidence/presentations/biology-seminar-111a-class-videos; 05/13/10. 26 Seen.4,p.9. 27 Published in 2003 and can be found online at http://biblicalresearch.gc.adventist.org under the Bible and Interpretation headings. 28 See n. 4, p 7, stating their belief in the “empirically verifiable actuality of microevolution.” 29 See n. 4, p. 9, but making the concession that “We do not claim to have the answers to all the questions.” 30 See n. 4, p. 2 promising us a paper on Hebrew cosmology that refutes the notion that the ancient Israelites believed the earth is flat. 31 See n. 4, p. 6-7. 32 See n. 4, p. 1. The integrity reflected by this cautious statement was also in evidence during the presentation of Elder Wilson, who disclaimed having formal expertise in science or theology. I think his self-effacement, unnecessary as it probably was, strengthened his presentation. I also disclose herein that neither science nor theology is my formal area of expertise.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2731