Unraveling a Witch Hunt: La Sierra Under Seige


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On May 23, an anonymously-created website, LaSierraUniversity.net appeared attacking the school for paying biology professors who teach "naturalistic evolution." Featuring letters that have been circulating around cyberspace to church leaders as well as responses from La Sierra University President Randal Wisbey, the site documents the latest in a long series of heated clashes over the role of the academy in the mission of the church as well as the intellectual responsibilities of teachers.

Unfortunately, as often happens, the larger questions have been ignored as a small but vocal group, including a doctor, a pastor, a Southern Adventist University professor, and a small handful of laity have attacked, and called for action against--and even the firing of--one or two La Sierra professors for the content of their class.

The kerfuffle over content is nothing new as many Adventist faculty have stories about a student or parent here or there objecting to some idea, or a trustee passing on a constituency-telephone molded rumor to a president. But in the age of new media, this old story received fresh life.

The puff came from Pastor David Asscherick, a self-described former punk rocker turned Black Hills School of Evangelism graduate. Asscherick composed a letter to Jan Paulsen (President of the General Conference), Don Schneider (President of the North American Division), and Ricardo Graham (President of the Pacific Union Conference) raising questions about La Sierra University's commitment to the church given what a few unnamed students have said, the "evolutionary biologist" destination of one professor and the preamble in a syllabus of another.

The letter, now published on numerous web sites and spreading virally in Adventism by email and blog, acknowledges the administrative structure of the church. But it takes to task Union, Division and World leadership for not moving against La Sierra University for presenting scientific ideas to students with which their parents or pastors might not agree.

A college dropout, Asscherick, who has been invited to move his ministry to Central California Conference, writes that ". . .when naturalistic evolution is taught as fact or as the preferred and normative worldview, then we can be sure that the enemy has breached our lines."

Pacific Union Conference President Ricardo Graham was at a church plant, traveling and preaching during the time when Asscherick circulated his email. Graham notes that he found out about the matter when someone physically brought the letter to him.

Reflecting on the misunderstandings, Elder Graham says that he is "disappointed that the basic Christian courtesy" of direct communication was not extended to him by David Asscherick. They have subsequently exchanged emails.

In an interview with Spectrum, Elder Graham addressed the relationship of higher education to the mission of the church. Sharing that he's lately been reading up on origins, he pointed out the vast amount of evidence needed in ultimately proving either side.

Noting that an evolutionist might find him naïve, he categorically stated, "I am a Seventh-day Adventist" and in relation to our fundamental beliefs, "number six speaks to creation" and we should "not ever remove that." Given that foundation, Elder Graham suggests that teaching evolution (to understand the issues involved) does have a place in higher education, particularly for those Adventists who aspire to graduate work. After all, they have to learn to "reason for themselves."

Elder Graham addressed the issue of parental control over the collegiate classroom. Reflecting on the relationship between parents and their college-bound children and the important search for a school, Elder Graham spoke about raising his two children, one of whom attended an Adventist school and one attended a non-Adventist college. Both remain in the church. He remarks that through the journey of raising their most precious possessions, he and his wife learned to progress from their early role as controllers to later becoming consultants.

Quoting President Ronald Reagan's famous dictum, "trust but verify" which applies to teaching, research, online reading and church leadership at any level, Elder Graham stated: "I'm not interested in being a part of a witch hunt."

Who Is Behind This Witch Hunt?

In February of this year, Dr. Sean Pitman, a physician with degrees from Southern Adventist University and Loma Linda University, gave a hastily-arranged Friday night presentation on creationism to some 100 students at La Sierra University. It was his second time to speak on creationism at the university, both times at the invitation of LSU students. By the end of the presentation, fewer than 20 students remained, because the majority had prior commitments that evening, Pitman says.

Erv Taylor, executive editor of Adventist Today, told the story differently.

In his article, Fundamentalist Creationist Gets Lukewarm Reception at La Sierra University, Taylor suggested that of the 50-70 students in attendance, all but 10 or so left in disgust over what they assumed would be a balanced analysis of creation and evolution but instead came across as a diatribe against evolution and La Sierra faculty members.

Pitman Goes to the Top In response to Taylor’s piece in AToday and following a subsequent exchange of words on that site, Pitman decided to write some letters, as he had done following his first visit to La Sierra three years before. He wrote open letters to his own E-mail contact list as well as to Pacific Union President Ricardo Graham, and General Conference President Jan Paulsen. He sent a separate letter to Randal Wisbey. Pitman received responses from Graham and Paulsen, which have also been leaked via the Internet.

Paulsen’s letter, which was initially posted on Pitman’s personal website (detectingdesign.com), but was later removed at Paulsen’s request, indicated that Paulsen would not intervene. The letter said in part:

My only suggestion to you would be to take up this matter with Dr. Randal Wisbey, whom I know to be a fine, upright, and approachable person. He may be able to articulate to you, clearer than I can, how the University views this matter and how they plan to address it.

Pitman did not receive reply from Randal Wisbey, and concerning Ricardo Graham’s response, Pitman says this in a letter posted in his website:

“Elder Ricardo Graham also seems unable or unwilling to substantively address this issue at the current time. It is only because I found no other willing party of support who can directly affect this issue that I bring it to your attention.”

The limited response to Pitman’s letters prompted the participation of David Asscherick, an Adventist pastor and director of his ARISE Institute, whom Pitman calls “a good friend” and "genius."

Asscherick Weighs In In a phone conversation with Spectrum, Asscherick says that after a 2004 presentation he gave entitled Evolution and the Emperor’s New Clothes at “Restoration Ministry,” a program run by students at Loma Linda University, some approached him with stories of learning about evolution in biology classes in Adventist schools.

A college dropout and former pastor in the Michigan Conference, Asscherick's perusal of course outlines obtained from students and the Internet persuaded him to send letters to Graham, Paulsen, and NAD president Don C. Schneider.*

He writes:

Perhaps you feel that your hands are tied by policy and protocol. But surely they cannot be tied completely. What should I, as a church pastor, do if someone is teaching doctrine that undermines the church’s biblical positions in one of my Sabbath School classes? Wouldn’t it be expected of me, the pastor—shepherd—of the flock, to address it? … My conference president, to say nothing of my Lord, would surely hold me in contempt if I told him lamely that my hands were tied, no?

Furthermore, the greater the errancy, the greater the urgency... If naturalistic evolution is true, Creation is cremated, the Sabbath is sabotaged, and our very name is neutered.

Asscherick told Spectrum that it was never his intent for the letter addressed to the three leaders to go public. However, Asscherick sent the letter to four friends for input, and in the process the letter leaked. Within a day, Asscherick says, he received nearly 100 responses from people across the country. Elder Graham notes that Asscherick also did not ask that the four keep the letter confidential.

Asked whether he had received response from the church leaders, Asscherick noted that Graham responded only by saying that he was “looking into it.” Paulsen and Schneider had not yet replied. Asscherick pointed out that his letter to the leaders went by snail mail, and that replies might be somewhere in the mail (Asscherick is currently moving to a new address).

Wisbey Responds

Because Asscherick’s letter and the charges it levels against La Sierra went public, LSU president Randal Wisbey responded with an open letter of his own. In it, Wisbey made these points (among others):

  1. La Sierra University takes seriously the challenge of integrating science and faith development.
  2. La Sierra University’s goal is to help students develop a personal relationship with their Creator.
  3. La Sierra University is deeply committed to helping our students find during their experience at La Sierra University a vibrant faith that will deepen throughout their lives and lead them to the life to come.
  4. La Sierra University expects that students will be introduced to the prevailing scientific views within a supportive classroom environment that values the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s contribution to the understanding of biblical creation.
  5. La Sierra University, as a Seventh-day Adventist university, provides an excellent setting for examining evolutionary process — a subject that is foundational to the modern biological and behavioral sciences because—
  6. At La Sierra University, students investigate this process surrounded by faculty, staff, and peers who care about their whole person, not just their academic life. They have opportunities to ask hard questions and to address these issues in a supportive Adventist Christian environment.
  7. People of faith who look at scientific data can reach differing conclusions and still be collegial as brothers and sisters in the church.

In a Facebook comment, John R. Jones, PhD, Associate Professor of New Testament Studies at the LSU School of Religion writes:

Yesterday afternoon I spent an hour and a half in a meeting with President Wisbey and the biology and a number of other faculty discussing these allegations. . . . I think I can honestly and sincerely say that the answer is Yes — in the sense that they teach ABOUT evolutionary theory, as I’m sure you would want any responsible Christian biologist to do. But that of course is a very different matter from advocacy. Our professors are dedicated believers who really do teach with great integrity, and who help our students find their way through the issues and see the ways in which genuine faith can and does work in their teachers’ lives. Anything less — in either direction — would be indoctrination. And a serious university, a serious Adventist Christian university — that accepts the sacrificial tuition payments of our church members has no business shortchanging our students with mere indoctrination on either side of such important issues.

According to sources inside the university, Dr. Wisbey discussed the issue with the university board this week. Nevertheless, the issue seems far from settled in the eyes of many observers.

The Witch Hunt Spreads

Debates about the teaching of evolution in Adventist institutions of higher education have ignited the Web. Sensing that administrators would not intervene, a very small number took matters into their own hands, launching a full-scale vigilante-style public relations offensive on the Internet.

Including La Sierra science syllabi, statements from David Asscherick and Clifford Goldstein, video from Sean Pitman’s creationist presentation, and links to several university board members, the LaSierraUniversity.net web site clearly aims at bullying La Sierra’s board and leadership into taking action, and the implied action is removal of teachers in question. Spectrum’s queries about the ownership of the web site have gone unanswered. Pitman and Asscherick both deny any involvement with the site.

Emotion-based witch hunts are nothing new in Adventist higher education. “One of the first great Adventist academic purges occurred at Walla Walla College in 1938,” according to historian Terrie Dopp Aamodt. The President of the College William Landeen and three of the college’s theology faculty lost their jobs. The General Conference President James McElhany, and Malcolm Campbell, vice president of the General Conference for the North American Division, played key roles.

Every ten years or so another witch hunt occurs. In the seventies, it was at Andrews University with key Seminary faculty being pushed about.

The presidents of Southern Missionary College and Pacific Union College were granted leaves of absence at the end of the 1982-83 school year as their campuses came under siege. Walla Walla had another witch hunt in the 1990s.

Now it is La Sierra’s turn. And this time it is science faculty who are being personally attacked.

Playing into that history, pastor and televangelist Doug Batchelor, like Asscherick, a convert with little experience in Adventist higher ed, has also weighed-in using new media.

Batchelor's Facebook page has included the following:

Happy Sabbath Friends. Can someone help me with a question? I have been hearing second-hand reports that La Sierra University is openly teaching evolution as a fact. Is this true?

Someone sent me a website that answered most of my questions about La Sierra teaching evolution. We really need to pray for our schools. Thanks everyone

http://www.lasierrauniversity.net/

La Sierra University Evolution vs Creationism - Is it Enlightenment or Apostasy?

As a result of the way that new media disburses these controversies, New England-based Adventist pastor Shawn Brace has generated a heated conversation about the appropriateness of evolution in Adventist higher education. Brace supports Asscherick on his blog (newenglandpastor.blogspot.com), and Asscherick has weighed in there as well, commenting:

Keep speaking up. If lots of people and pastors make enough (sanctified) noise about this, something may actually happen. And even if something doesn't change, since we are not the actual leaders/ policy-makers, our moral responsibility is not in changing things, but in speaking up. And the more voices the better. I don't know how any committed SDA member, who has heard of these things, can sit idly by. Our name, our doctrines, our reason for existence, our eschatology, and even our soteriology are in being undermined [sic].

Reflecting on apostasy and heresy some time before this little brouhaha, another Adventist pastor from New England wrote:

The first step of apostasy is to get up a creed, telling us what we shall believe. The second is to make that creed a test of fellowship. The third is to try members by that creed. The fourth is to denounce as heretics those who do not believe that creed, and fifth, to commence persecution against such.

-John Loughborough Review and Herald 18 (19): 148. October 8, 1861

Bonnie Dwyer, Jared Wright and Alexander Carpenter contributed to this report.

*Contra the now deleted clause, in a conversation with Spectrum, Pastor Asscherick stated that he supports Adventist higher education.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/1663