This essay chronicles how a freshly minted college professor navigated the many potential passageways one encounters when teaching biology at a Christian liberal arts college. It describes a journey of initial idea evasion that eventually led to academic engagement with students who collectively sought more than just textbook knowledge. In the process, the author discovered how to hold heavily contested ideas in tension without ducking hot-button issues or pushing ardent seekers away. On one level, it is a story about teaching sound biological concepts with earnest students. On another, it is about teleology, the purpose of a Christian college professor in an ever-changing and increasingly complex cultural milieu. To what extent, the author asks, should a professor divulge his own personal convictions and biases? And if he chooses to do so, how should he proceed? To answer these questions, the author examines recent assertions by renowned atheist Richard Dawkins and pits them against statements made a century-and-a-half earlier by Charles Darwin. The philosophical approach of both men is contrasted revealing a startling difference both in degree and in kind. Despite championing all things evolutionary, both men, Dawkins and Darwin, approached life very differently. Darwin did so hesitantly and carefully. Dawkins does so brashly and without remorse. Emulating Darwin’s approach, the author suggests, is a good starting point for engaging today’s students with this ever-absorbing topic. Eli J. Knapp, PhD, is a Professor of Intercultural Studies & Biology at Houghton College.
My heart sank as suddenly as my students’ heads when I announce a homework assignment. The email’s words slowly registered. “Dr. Knapp, we really like your article and believe it is a valuable addition to the creation-evolution debate. However, my personal advice is that you not publish it for matters pertaining to your academic standing and that of your affiliated institution.” My eyes roamed over the ensuing three paragraphs but my mind had already seized up. As seized-up as other biology teachers sometimes feel when teaching their trade in Christian colleges today.
Like most writers, I am no stranger to rejection letters. But this one, as I forced myself to do a second reading, was different. It had the tone of being whispered behind closed doors. Like an exasperated parent who realizes they have run out of reasons to support their admonishment of a headstrong teenager. Well, I guess you can do it. But if I were you, I would not.
The irony was palpable and distressing. The article I had written was merely to open the doors of a conversation about a topic I felt I could no longer avoid. Indeed I could not then. And I still cannot now. Why? Because to most of my colleagues in biology departments across the nation and world, “nothing in biology makes sense”—in the words of Theodosius Dobzhanksy—“except in the light of evolution.”1 Contemporary writer and renowned atheist Richard Dawkins says it equally plainly: “Evolution is a fact and this book [The Greatest Show on Earth] will demonstrate it. No reputable scientist disputes it, and no unbiased reader will close the book doubting it.”2 What a chasm this was: many in my discipline touting evolution as an indisputable fact while others in my faith strongly advising me not even to write about it.
Despite the irony, I understood this particular editor’s intention. Dealing with the concept of evolution in print while employed at a Christian institution, especially early in one’s academic career, is a fool’s errand. The fallout could be heavy with a remarkably minor upside. The reason is that the theory of evolution, for no fault of its own, is awash in a sea of deeply held convictions that touch believers and nonbelievers alike. It is like a partially submerged pier still being stumbled upon. Ever since Darwin’s Origin of Species was published in 1859, so many ideological barnacles have encrusted themselves to the concept that its essence is hard to find. These barnacles are sharp, and as the ebb and flow of Christian culture washes over it, hazards await those who engage it in a Christian college setting. The editor of this journal, to his credit, simply did not want me to get cut up with the incoming tide.
Still early in my academic foray, I do not want to get cut up either. But as I have matured in my faith and progressed in my professorship, I have come to realize that one can get sliced in several ways. At the time, I followed the editor’s advice and out of intellectual fear, shielded my ever-evolving thoughts on evolution from the public eye. But by not dealing with it, I soon realized, I was dealing with it. And besides, try as I might to dodge the issue deftly in class, there was always a gaggle of students who lingered after dismissal to ask me more. They insisted on walking me to my next appointment. They asked to share a coffee or lunch. What they wanted—what they ultimately want—are my personal beliefs. It seems that more and more of today’s students, this so-called Millennial generation, crave sincerity and long for discussion. They do not want the easy stuff; they want the controversial. Gray areas are attractive and intellectual honesty trumps all. The shrewder students noticed my evolutionary evasiveness in class. If they did not call me out on this in class, they called me out after it.
Not wanting to sabotage my sojourn—and still following the editor’s advice—I found my pedagogical evasiveness in class morphing into physical evasiveness after class. If I hustled out of class quickly and graded papers in odd locations, the inevitable conversation requests to discuss evolution would not happen, at least as often. But, as I soon found out, it is hard to hide at a small college. And if students failed in finding me in person, they found me by email. Even amidst my subconscious struggle that on the surface seemed to be about evolution, I knew I was wrestling something deeper. At the core, I was struggling to discern the role of a professor in Christian higher education.
The purpose of my profession, which I was tragically too busy to contemplate early on, was the kernel of my conundrum. Early on during one of my new faculty orientation sessions, I was given a pen, a mug, and a bag of books to assist my professorial first steps. At the time, I remember thinking how dusty the books would become. With the endless syllabi and lesson preps and labs to set up, I knew I would never get around to reading them. So I tucked the pen in my drawer, filled the mug with coffee, and placed the books on my bare office shelves. Most of them remained quietly where they were. But one of them, even as layer upon layer of dust settled, stared down at me daily reminding me that help was at hand if I would merely reach for it. It is to that book, The Soul of a Christian University, to which I finally turned. If ultimate answers were not to be found in my college’s soul, I reasoned, they were not to be found anywhere. With ‘The Soul’ in my hands, my purpose soon became clear. Unlike the professors who had trained me through my seven years of graduate school, my purpose—my sole purpose—was to integrate faith and learning. Much like guiding students through the creation-evolution debate, however, this was easy to say but hard to do well. So I kept reading.
“Integration,” state Stephen and Jane Beers in chapter three, “reaches down into the specific material being studied.”3 I stopped. I reread the line. Then I finished the authors’ sentence. “[integration] is not an auxiliary or preparatory activity to assist the student in retaining the material” (authors’ own italics). Not only was I not reaching down into the specific material being studied; I was not addressing it at all. Rather, I was selecting “safe” portions of my textbooks that I knew were not laced with spiritual formation explosives. The words of Aldo Leopold, who regularly appears in one such textbook, reverberated in my mind. “Too much safety,” he wrote, “yields only danger in the long run.”4
Every day I walked into the classroom, it slowly dawned on me, was an opportunity to reveal to my students the key issues of the discipline. More than that, I had the precious opportunity to model how a Christian deals with difficult issues. But to this point, I had played the role of the proverbial ostrich with its head securely in the sand. While I was forgoing opportunities to face reality, others, like Richard Dawkins, most decidedly were not. Dawkins, like many at secular graduate schools that soon await my students, is not always so kind. In his aforementioned book, Dawkins begins one chapter with the following: “If the history-deniers who doubt the fact of evolution are ignorant of biology, those who think the world began less than ten thousand years ago are worse than ignorant, they are deluded to the point of perversity.”5 Regardless of its potential divisiveness, evolution undergirds many chapters of the texts on which my courses depend. Dawkins awaits. Graduate school awaits. But here and now, my students had a constructive environment. Now was the time for them to begin weaving their worldview. If they did not start spinning threads now, things could get pretty tangled up later on.
It was time to lift my head out of the sand and lighten my overwrought conscience. So I finally did something. More accurately, I endeavored—and am endeavoring—to do something. Nothing revolutionary, for I am no Robespierre. Nor would such a swift sea change suddenly reveal and repair the barnacled pier of evolutionary understanding.
I have endeavored to follow a simple goal to bolster my conscience and begin my quest. It is so simple it feels embarrassing to put in print: I must foster active engagement with this issue. No more ducking and dodging. I aim not to win over students to any particular side or position. That seems more the role of a trial lawyer than a neophyte professor anyway. If my own views on evolution have evolved—and are evolving—then winning converts to a particular side or position seems folly indeed. I merely aim to make myself available. And when I am sharing that coffee or lunch, to listen more than talk. Each day I walk past a colleague’s door and read anew the Seussian quote he has left up for years. “Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.” In my case, I lost sight of the simple answer—engagement—due to the complicated nature of the questions. As The Soul of a Christian University unequivocally espouses, “the process of integrating faith and learning must be done intentionally.”6 So I have begun to be intentional. In the classroom and out.
Therein is the rub, however. How much time does one spend on a controversial subject in the classroom? So far in this quest of active engagement, I prefer to err on reserving classroom time for the littlest amount of possible controversy. Students are at vastly different developmental stages in their thinking. While one student perks up at the faintest whiff of debate, another shuts down and is lost for the class. Due to the encrusted ideological barnacles, the concept of evolution threatens people. A mere mention of the word in class and I watch hackles rise, backs straighten, and grips tighten on pens. In one sense, it is nice to see alert faces every now and again. But not defensive and derisive faces.
Few Christians are immune to the apologetical adrenaline evolution ushers in. Eleven paragraphs in, I have written nothing about knuckle-dragging ape-men or fish with feet, but these bumper sticker images and ideas have bombarded us so relentlessly in popular culture they have become cemented. They must be intentionally chiseled off. For this essay’s title, I used the term “intelligent design” in a context we can all agree on: to foster improved discussion on a hot-button issue. I did so knowing it would draw attention to the piece due to its heavy barnacle load. Intelligent design, like creationism and naturalism, quickly conjures up deeply held convictions either pro or con.
My desire to defend my fortress of faith and philosophy started so early it became innate. I fed on apologetics. I scribbled endless notes and memorized lines from books like The Case for Christ, and, Answers to Tough Questions. I structured my evangelical life around 1 Peter 3:15, to “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”7 Apologetics, in short, formed the bulwarks of my faith. As a result, I have logged more hours crafting answers to doubters and questioners than I have to listening to the actual questions and doubts. The apologetic books I digested, however, may have ossified my faith more than strengthened it. While at first comforting, the “answers” I amassed made my belief system more brittle, weakest at its foundations. The end result of all those apologetics was a form of fundamentalism. I hope always to lean on a set of fundamentals, which I prefer to call absolutes. But the flipside—why fundamentalism has become associated with extremism—is the close-mindedness that can accompany it.
At this point on my journey, I have grown weary of endlessly arming myself with apologetics. It is a static, fear-based, and defensive faith. As Rachel Held Evans has written in Evolving in Monkey Town, faith can survive just about anything so long as it is able to evolve.8 No, I am not backsliding into wishy-washy faith in a postmodern context. Rather, I am grounding my faith in absolutes but intentionally maintaining them less defensively. And making sure it is receptive to new data and more importantly, the purveyors of such data. I grew up thinking there was one biblical worldview that must be constantly defended. As I have begun to engage evolution day to day, my students and colleagues have seemed to suggest otherwise.
Along my journey I have discovered how difficult it is, if not impossible, to prevent people from feeling threatened by evolution. It is akin to telling somebody walking across a battlefield not to duck at the sound of guns going off. The best means I have found for lowering the threat level is to begin with simple definitions. What is evolution? It is changes in allelic frequency in a population over time. What does the theory of evolution seek to do? It seeks to explain biodiversity. Once half a dozen simple definitions are laid out, the ideological barnacles that impede discussion shrink. Genuine dialogue becomes so much easier. Obviously, the classroom—even one with a low faculty-student ratio—often is not the best place for this. Some students dominate; others are shy. Some take longer to form questions and voice their convictions. The best time and place, I have learned through experience, are the interstices of the academic day. After class, walking to chapel, office visits. This mosaic of important moments is the true value of a Christian liberal arts college. They allow for relationship and integration. Integration, write Stephen and Jane Beers, “is not merely about encouraging personal relationships between educator and student.”9 It starts there but must extend beyond. It starts there because relationship, especially when dealing with controversial issues, removes the threat and allows for growth.
I have seen this all too plainly and all too painfully. In a recent semester where my wife and I were directing and teaching in a study abroad program, an obviously troubled student, who I will refer to as “Mark,” came to our house one night unannounced. An hour later, he had shared his testimony that had progressed—or regressed, rather—from a sold-out Christian in high school to a closet atheist in college. Why? Because quite literally, he had read Richard Dawkins too early in his journey. Before he had balanced the evangelical views of Dawkins with other authors of other stripes. I listened. I asked questions. I advised several books. I even mentioned Theodosius Dobzhansky, he who found that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. Most folks read Dobzhansky’s words and box him in as an atheist. But Dobzhansky, it turns out, was not actually an atheist at all. He was an evolutionary biologist and a Russian Orthodox Christian. In his own words, he called himself “an evolutionist and a creationist.”10 While I still quibble with some of his evolutionary details, Dobzhansky has convinced me there is room for nuance in the kingdom of God. It is not, as so many young readers of Dawkins errantly conclude, God or no God.
Like a true Millennial, Mark pushed me for more. He wanted my story and my views. Since backing away from apologetics, I opted against arguing Mark back into the kingdom. At the time, my ideas on evolution were like liquid lava running downslope. I hoped they would one day solidify more. But I also was not sure they ever would. This was a moment for authentic engagement. A soul—both our souls—were at stake. This time, however, I made a point to deemphasize the first part of 1 Peter 3:15 “to always have an answer,” to focus on the second part I had historically ignored, “to do this with gentleness and respect.”11 So while I initially squirmed out of habit, I soon relented. Seeing how enraptured Mark was with Darwin and Dawkins, I started there.
While the two men were similar in their stance on evolution, they were remarkably dissimilar in important ways. Dawkins is an evangelical atheist who has campaigned against Christianity in his many books. Although it goes unstated, he is a positivist who views science as the only way of knowing. As an outgrowth of his all-consuming faith in science, evolution for Dawkins is unquestioned truth. Darwin, on the other hand, recognized the limits of science and exhibited far more humility in what he considered his plausible but equally fallible theory. Theories for Darwin were always provisional. Having experienced intellectual fear myself, I easily related—and relate—to Darwin’s timidity. David Quammen, one of the many Darwin biographers, may have said it best in the title of his book: The Reluctant Mr. Darwin. Darwin seemed to anticipate what his theory might do in the hands of folks like Dawkins and as a result, dragged his feet interminably in publishing On the Origin of Species. Perhaps, I suggested during my discussion with Mark, Darwin’s more open approach may be a better template to follow. Think of the incredible experiences you have had in your life, I quipped, and consider how difficult it sometimes seems to convey them to others. Experience is a pretty powerful way of knowing. Especially spiritual experience. It takes a lot of faith, I added, to assume that science is the only way of knowing.
But despite his timorous hesitancy, Darwin did eventually publish his big book – Origin of Species. So the ideas in Darwin’s book—evolution by natural selection—is what we discussed next. Since Darwin’s Origin is ponderous enough to be used as a footstool and is geared toward Victorian-era attention spans, it was not surprising that Mark had not read it, even though he had put his faith in its principles. So I opted to condense Darwin’s big ideas into a story about a single species—the duck-billed platypus—a species that has intrigued me and other like-minded souls for generations before mine. I chose the platypus because it was not just data or evidence – a cudgel to be used to defend my beliefs. I chose it because it had entered my personal narrative two decades earlier when I had discovered and devoured a small book of little acclaim by a little-known historian and Australian author, Ann Moyal. Perhaps the unadorned title, Platypus, accounted for the general public’s apathy. But for me, a lover of creatures far and wide, the book left an indelible mark and eventually drove me to Darwin’s Origin.
In Platypus, I became exposed to the person of Darwin before I was walloped by his ideas. Darwin, I learned, was a firm adherent of Archdeacon William Paley, who championed the ideas of natural theology, in a book he penned in 1802. Essentially, natural theology espousers viewed the universe as static, immutable, and created by an intelligent and benign Creator. All the intricate design we see around us—a duck’s bill, a mammal’s hair, a snake’s venom—are the result of a designer who had popped up throughout history to reinvent his creatures occasionally after mass extinctions. Early on, Darwin believed in Paley’s precepts hook, line, and sinker. In his journals Darwin wrote of “one overseeing Designer” whose “one hand has surely worked over the whole world.”12 But then Darwin visited Australia. While there he watched an actual platypus diving and hunting. In the platypus he saw an animal that appeared to be made of a little bit of everything. It had a duck’s bill, mammalian hair, and was even capable of injecting venom from behind its feet. He was moved and wrote that night:
I had been lying on a sunny bank & reflecting on the strange character of the animals of the country as compared to the rest of the world. A disbeliever in everything beyond his own reason might exclaim, “Surely two distinct Creators must have been at work.”13
In his journals, Darwin displayed just how open his mind really was. He had begun the difficult work of revising his convictions, something I was hoping Mark would see the wisdom in doing himself. Darwin’s neat and tidy categories of mammals, birds, and reptiles were unraveling and would continue to do so with every fossil he found. Paley’s view of a static world of separately created immutable species troubled him. Where others saw black and white, Darwin, like many in the Millennial generation of today, saw endless shades of gray. But Darwin did not jump to conclusions. He moved with the speed of a glacier but with none of its bulldozing force. Rather than publish anything half-baked, he studied more, experimented more, and read more widely. For eight years—eight years!—he devoted himself to the study of barnacles to see if they supported his developing theories of natural selection and descent with modification. Rather than settle with ideological barnacles that nowadays encrust his ideas, Darwin dissected real barnacles that filled up his cluttered office. Follow Darwin’s lead, I subtly advised Mark, before you allow your convictions to crystallize.
Despite championing Darwin’s work, Richard Dawkins could not be any more different from the man about which he writes so earnestly. To Dawkins, people today are one of two things: They are a young-earth creationist with their head in the sand, or, they are like him, a superior-minded and enlightened atheist. Despite lacking a moral basis to do so, Dawkins crusades in a recent book to stamp out the agenda of all the closed-minded creationists that pepper the earth. Only in the appendix of his book, The Greatest Show on Earth, does he acknowledge that there might be other believers with more nuanced views.14 This is despite Dawkins’ adulation of the human genome project, a project pioneered by Francis Collins, a Christian who accepts evolution and made his views public in The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. It is the closed mind of Richard Dawkins, wrote fellow atheist John Gray, which is its own kind of narrow religion.15
The hour ran late as I sat with Mark discussing my journey through Darwin and Dawkins, natural theology and platypuses. I couched it all as my story—which it most definitely is—and decided to end with a series of questions I hoped were provocative. If William Paley was wrong about natural theology, I began, and the only static part of our universe is its perpetual dynamism, would not Darwinian evolution by natural selection be a pretty neat creation? Knowing the environment is going to change over millennia, what kind of system would you create if you were God? One of separate static creations that need to be recreated at various intervals? Or a simpler system of descent with modification? And if so, why could not God—the Judeo-Christian God revealed in the Bible—have created it? Evolution or no evolution, do you really have enough faith to believe that all the complexity around you, and all the complexity that is you, could come about apart from a greater being? I had intentionally pitted Darwin against Dawkins. I wanted Mark to see that a thinking person did not necessarily have to swallow the ideas of both men together, even if Dawkins so desperately wants it to be so. In short, I wanted to enlarge the canvas Mark was painting on and give him more space and more ideas to work with.
It has now been several years since I have embarked on this journey of active engagement with the hot-button issues of our day. It has also been several years since I have heard from Mark. While I do not know where he currently is on his faith journey, I have at least secured a little peace of mind. For I know that even though my words were not perfect, I did not duck the issue that had driven him to atheism. And now a little of my faith journey—and hopefully my faith—is woven into his.
Cite this article
- Theodosius Dobzhansky, “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution,” American Biology Teacher 35.3 (1973): 125-129.
- Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution (New York City: Free Press, 2009), 8-9.
- Stephen Beers and Jane Beers, The Soul of a Christian University: A Field Guide for Educators (Texas: Abilene Christian University Press, 2008).
- Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1949), 149.
- Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth.
- Stephen and Jane Beers, The Soul of a Christian University.
- Holy Bible, New Living Translation (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2006).
- Rachel Held Evans, Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010).
- Stephen and Jane Beers, The Soul of a Christian University.
- Theodosius Dobzhansky, “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.”
- Holy Bible, New Living Translation (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2006).
- Ann Moyal, Platypus: The Extraordinary Story of how a Curious Creature Baffled the World (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001).
- Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth.
- John Gray, The Closed Mind of Richard Dawkins (2015). Available at: http://www.newrepub-lic.com/article/119596/appetite-wonder-review-closed-mind-richard-dawkins.