IN THE GRAND CANYON- "How do you teach about evolution and creation?" That's one of the questions thoughtful parents most frequently ask when visiting Christian colleges with their high-school students.
Some colleges give straightforward answers that might startle some Christians. The biology department of Calvin College in Michigan issued a statement on May 7: "We teach evolutionary theory as the best scientific explanation for the dynamic diversity of life on Earth. . . . We teach biology from an evolutionary paradigm."
Across the border in Ohio, Cedarville University has an equally forthright statement from the other end of the spectrum: "We believe in the literal six-day account of creation, that the creation of man lies in the special, immediate, and formative acts of God and not from previously existing forms of life."
Those two positions suggest the spectrum at Christian colleges: Calvin on the left, Cedarville on the right. Many colleges are in what today comprises the center: They state not how long the process took but see God creating the different kinds of life and specially creating man. Biola's centrist doctrinal statement notes that "the existence and nature of the creation is due to the direct miraculous power of God. The origin of the universe, the origin of life, the origin of kinds of living things, and the origin of humans cannot be explained adequately apart from reference to that intelligent exercise of power."
Biola University stipulates that "creation models which seek to harmonize science and the Bible should maintain at least the following: (a) God providentially directs His creation, (b) He specially intervened in at least the above-mentioned points in the creation process, and (c) God specially created Adam and Eve (Adam's body from non-living material, and his spiritual nature immediately from God)."
Many colleges emphasize the special creation of Adam and Eve. The Wheaton College statement of faith specifies "that God directly created Adam and Eve, the historical parents of the entire human race; and that they were created in His own image, distinct from all other living creatures, and in a state of original righteousness." Biola condemns "inadequate origin models" within which "(a) God never directly intervened in creating nature and/or (b) humans share a common physical ancestry with earlier life forms."
That's clear, but what should we make of the following "Statement on Origins" from the Messiah College Department of Biological Sciences? "Families considering Messiah College sometimes ask whether it has an official policy defining our position on origins, governing what is taught in our science classes and elsewhere. We recognize the significance of this issue to many Christians and appreciate being asked about it. Few things are more important than choosing a college that will respect a family's beliefs."
True, so what is Messiah's position? "At Messiah we affirm a Christian world-view as we guide our students in the difficult process of forming their own beliefs, a process that we hope will include thoughtful reflection on various ways in which our faith interacts with other aspects of our lives, including science and other branches of knowledge." Clear? Clear as mud. Prospective students and their parents should understand that teaching is not neutral: The way colleges "guide our students" often determines where those students end up. Students and parents should understand the spectrum of creation/evolution positions.
In covering the debate over the years, WORLD has tended to come from the position that asserts God's sovereignty in creation and His special creation of the universe, life, the diversity of life, and man. Our 2009 Daniel of the Year was Steve Meyer of the Discovery Institute, who, as a leader in the Intelligent Design movement, has with rigorous scientific discipline made the case for a Creator.
We have not covered sufficiently the right and left parts of the spectrum, so this fall we're making up for it. This article will look at some young-earth creationist thinking as compared with conventional theories, and suggest how Christian colleges should react. We'll come back later this fall with an examination of theistic evolutionary beliefs.
Reporting for WORLD has taken me to some places extraordinarily different from the United States-northwest Cambodia, eastern Turkey, central Zambia, to name just three-yet the strangest place I've visited lies within our borders but deep below the surface: the Grand Canyon. In July I spent a week rafting with 25 creationists, most of whom think that God created everything not in billions of years but in six days. For nearly 200 miles we headed down the Colorado River through rapids that contain the fastest-flowing water in North America.
Young-earth creationists are frequently the butt of jokes among sophisticated evangelicals. Terry Mortensen, a Ph.D. historian of science who has eight children ("I'm a real creationist"), mentioned between rapids that even some Christians think of young-earthers as snake-handling flat-earthers. But the Colorado River reality was not that at all. The free-flowing discussions featured people with strong intellects and strong life experiences such as:
• Peter Siebsma, a Dutch scholar who knows six European languages and 20-30 ancient Middle Eastern languages like Chaldean and Aramaic. (Siebsma cannot give an exact number because he asks, "Does Moabite count as a language?")
• Andrew Snelling, an Australian Ph.D. geologist scorned by other geologists for doubting conventional understandings of radiometric dating. He points out, though, that God created plants, not seeds; people, not embryos; and wine at the wedding in Cana that had been water minutes before-but tasted like it was perfectly aged.
• Gordon Pennington, who did marketing for companies like Tommy Hilfiger and spent six years ingesting huge amounts of cocaine and alcohol. He had a spiritual awakening 13 years ago and immediately lost the desire for drugs and drink. He still works in marketing and notes that "science is also a fashion industry, with theories changing regularly, although not as often as hemlines. There is tremendous pressure to be academically respectable."
Others in the group did not go through radical changes but experienced pressure to be respectable. For example, Mark Thornton grew up in Arkansas and teaches at a seminary in his home state, so it's easy to see his life as sheltered-but he recalls his fourth-grade teacher talking about evolution and asking the class, "Who doesn't believe we all came from monkeys?" Thornton was the only one to raise his hand: The teacher then told every child to "turn around and look at Mark."
Ridicule of that sort sounds like child abuse, but isn't mockery sensible when addressed to adults who hold to bizarre notions and should know better? This notion of the Grand Canyon formed by Noah's flood a few thousand years ago: Isn't it absurd? After all, when I visited the south rim of the Canyon 18 years ago, about a mile above the river, I read the handy Park Service info that gave a long-ago date when the Canyon formed and explained the process. Game, set, match, right?
Maybe not. Geologist Wayne Ranney's new book, Carving Grand Canyon, has the imprimatur of the Grand Canyon Association, keeper of the official story. But Ranney is also honest enough to admit that mainstream scientists fight about the age of the Canyon, with current estimates ranging from 6 million to 80 million years. Ranney acknowledges that the "Grand Canyon is a puzzle, a mystery, an enigma. It appears to have been carved through an uplifted plateau, ignores fault lines, may have been born by a river that once flowed the other way, is possibly quite old or quite young, or both."
In other words, the conventional wisdom has the Colorado River flowing sharply uphill at one point rather than taking lines of least resistance as rivers normally do. Disagreements over the river's age have led to disconnects in the official story: Ranney asks, "How can a river be 20 million years old in one location but no more than 6 million years old downstream?"
Ranney explicitly critiques scientific research based on "the belief that the Bible is the true word of God," but he also has trouble with the standard idea of Canyon formation through "the slow and inexorable wearing away of the bedrock. . . . Very little deepening can be accomplished in this way." He argues that "rivers like the Colorado actually deepen their channels only during relatively large and intermitted large-scale floods, when huge amounts of large, rocky debris are in motion. . . . Most canyons are carved only during relatively rare flood events."
Ranney concludes that "the many geologists who have devoted their careers to studying the canyon cannot resolve its age. . . . They still debate whether it was formed rather catastrophically or over a much more extended period of time." Ranney himself writes about catastrophe: "Spectacular lava flows within the last 630,000 years. . . . The lava erupted so voluminously that huge dams were created within the Grand Canyon. One of those dams was over 2,000 feet high! Another was over 84 miles long."
Those comments get to the heart of the issue. Charles Lyell (1797-1875) argued that only present-day processes of geological change at current rates of intensity and magnitude should be used to interpret the rock record of past geological activity. This "uniformitarian" position-what we see today is the result of very long, very slow processes-has dominated geology since the 19th century. But British geologist Derek Ager (1923-1993), an atheist, challenged Lyell's assumptions and gradually picked up support for his counter-theory of catastrophic change.
Secular "neocatastrophists" are anti-uniformitarian: They see super-tsunamis or their equivalent abruptly transforming the lay of the land in radical ways. If radical changes are possible within relatively short periods of time, then ecosystems and geological strata can be born again. If not, the uniformitarian faith-that mountains can only be thrown in the sea over tens of millions of years-is true.
Carving the Canyon does not pledge allegiance to either camp, but Ranney speculates about the role of multiple floods. He also writes, "Imagine the view from the rim at the moment when a lava dam catastrophically failed and a tremendous outburst flood roared through the Grand Canyon with rubble-filled water 600 feet deep." He sees the limits of uniformitarian explanations.
We entered the Colorado River at Lee's Ferry, Ariz. We 28 argonauts on two rubber rafts headed gently down the stream for 11 miles as canyon walls began to loom above us. Then we hit Soap Creed Rapid with its 16-foot drop and felt for the first time 46-degree water surging over us. "Hold onto the ropes," came the cry of river veteran Tom Vail. Then came other rapids with evocative names and drops of 9-12 feet: Sheer Wall, Horse Rock, North Canyon . . .
Between rapids Siebsma talked with me in one of his 20-30 languages: Happily, he chose English. Even though the Hebrew word yom usually in the Bible means "day," it can in some contexts mean a long period of time, but Siebsma is a young-earther because he believes the sentence construction in chapter 1 of Genesis (numerical modifiers, "evening and morning," etc.) requires "day" to be 24 hours or so, with light and darkness alternating.
We camped by a rapid on the sand of Shinumo Wash so we could be lulled to sleep by the sound of rushing waters. I woke up during the night and counted 250 stars overhead before falling back to sleep. The next morning at Nautiloid Canyon we peered at the fossil remains of nautiloids, 18-inch-long squid-like creatures with tapered external shells. Fossilization normally occurs when subjects are buried catastrophically and thus protected from decay; it would seem that the layer of the canyon walls containing these nautiloids had to be laid down quickly, and not-as uniformitarians say-at the bottom of a placid sea. (Exceptions occur when organisms become frozen or desiccated.)
We had a lot of time on Day 2 to talk, as the rapids were so easy that I wondered out loud why the injunction to hold onto ropes frequently came. ("Wait until Lava Falls," came the reply.) We discussed the "unconformities," contact points between different layers of rock: If one was put down millions of years after another, why are there no signs of physical or chemical erosion between the layers?
Day 3 brought major rapids: Hance (with a 30-foot drop in a half-mile), Sockdolager (my favorite name), Grapevine, and Horn Creek. I sat at the prow, held onto the ropes, and enjoyed incoming water that was over my head at times-but we didn't capsize. Between rapids British theologian Greg Haslam talked about the importance of seeing early Genesis as history. He argued that non-literal interpretations of Genesis mythologize the first three chapters and run into the stone wall of Romans 5:12-21, but that's not all: Jesus and the New Testament writers cited the first 11 chapters of Genesis 107 times, and if they were naïve . . .
And there was evening and there was morning. The fourth day brought more great rapids-Horn Creek, Granite, Hermit, Crystal-with ratings from 7 to 10 on the Grand Canyon's 1-10 scale. Blacktail Canyon brought a great view of the Great Unconformity, the contact point between the Canyon's bottom formations (largely granite) and the first sedimentary layer, which uniformitarians say was laid down nearly a billion years later.
Geologist Snelling disagrees. He talked about rock layers traced across continents, with physical features in those strata indicating they were deposited rapidly. He spoke of fast-moving water transporting sediment over long distances. He noted that rocks do not normally bend-because they are hard and brittle, they break-but pointed out rock layers that were bent without fracturing, indicating their rapid deposit and folding while still wet and pliable, before final hardening.
Day 5 brought more rapids, although not the big one: "Wait for Lava Falls." We discussed whether biblical interpretation can ever legitimately change because of scientific discoveries. We all knew of one time when it did. Many Christian leaders prior to Galileo were geocentric, thinking (as some passages from the Bible might suggest, and as Aristotle stipulated) that the sun moves around the earth, which was thought to stand still. Galileo's discoveries pointed to heliocentrism, with the earth revolving around the sun. That was an unusual situation where the Bible was unclear and the science became clear.
With evolution, the opposite is true: The Bible is clear and current science, contrary to some evolutionist claims, is muddled. We could all agree that when there's a conflict between what the Bible clearly states and what a contemporary scientific theory stipulates, we go with the Bible. The Bible clearly states that God created everything according to its kind, and specially created Adam and Eve.
But those discussions came to an end on the afternoon of the sixth day as we ran Lava Falls: During a harrowing quarter-mile the Colorado drops 37 feet over an ancient lava flow. We gripped the ropes and plunged down as the water poured over us. Then we soared, bounced many times, and were through. One final night under the firmament, a helicopter ride up and out the next morning, and we were back on what those a mile below call "rimworld," where we live by wristwatches instead of watching the sun.
What to make of young-earth creationists? As former fashion marketer Pennington observed, they have been out of fashion for a century-but that's not entirely bad when we review the frequently changing hermeneutics of science. Some producers within Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) have garnered some dollars but much sarcasm by trying to find a baptized singer who "sounds like" whatever is hot in secular pop. Contemporary Christian Science should not imitate that.
We should also recognize what philosopher Alvin Plantinga points out: Untested assumptions lie behind all knowledge claims. This is particularly true about historical science, which is different from operational science. Scientists can observe laboratory experiments, but the only eyewitness to creation was God. The rest of us are detectives, scrutinizing sticks and stones and interpreting data based on beliefs that are outside of science. Calling a theory a "fact" does not make it so.
We should be particularly skeptical about science hype. Just 10 years ago the Human Genome Project declared gene sequencing victory and prophesied that individuals would soon be able to get medical treatment based on their genetic makeup. Now, biologist/entrepreneur J. Craig Venter calls that "one of these silly naïve notions" and Fortune describes "the great DNA letdown."
This is not to say that we should readily accept young-earth theories, which even young-earth scientists acknowledge need much work. Young-earthers argue that the accepted radiometric ages of rock samples are wrong. They argue that radioactive decay rates were different in the past-but they acknowledge that they don't yet fully understand how that could be so. Critics of young-earth Grand Canyon geology contend that caverns and sinkholes in some layers indicate their formation over long periods of time, that the limestone and Coconino sandstone layers took a long time to develop, etc.
And yet, conventional theories have numerous holes as well, as author Ranney and others admit. Besides, the difference between operational science that concerns present-day processes, and historical science that attempts to figure out the past, is huge: Scientists collect data but the data do not interpret themselves, and presuppositions play a huge role.
Ranney's Carving Grand Canyon, from its secular perspective, takes issue with some 80-million-year estimates and exults, "The Grand Canyon has certainly been an exciting place in the last 630,000 years!" Could it have been that exciting a place in the last 6,300 years, with Noah's flood propelling huge amounts of water at 100 miles per hour against rock walls that would come tumbling down? And if so, could the world really be only thousands of years old?
My bottom line: We need investigation, not arbitrary exclusion of what is scientifically unfashionable. In particular, Christian colleges, funding sources, and fellow scientists should not excommunicate young-earthers. We should encourage debate among all those who see the Bible as God's Word but have differences in interpretation. We should criticize those who make Science their god.
Larry Farris takes a forensic approach to his "Broken Science" class for homeschool high-school students: "Let's 'convict' God of the crime of committing the flood. What's the evidence?" The high-school students sitting in his living room engage their observational powers and also hunt for hidden evidence in peer-reviewed journals and magazines like Discover.
The irreligious are a minority among the nation's 1.5 million homeschoolers. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 83 percent of homeschooling parents say they homeschool to provide moral or religious instruction-up from 72 percent in 2003. Homeschooling lends itself to an interdisciplinary approach, so moms and dads often intertwine science and religion with the story of the earth's beginning. Here's how three homeschooling parents do it:
Farris, who manages renewable energy investments, blends logic and evidence. He describes paleontologists finding a pile of dinosaur bones, all laid in the same direction with no small bones among them and no signs of attack, and asks: How could this happen? He suggests that the Genesis flood's enormous waves came, picked up this herd of dinosaurs, and laid the medium-sized bones in the direction of the water's flow while sweeping the smaller bones away. Students give presentations using sources non-Christians would recognize as reliable. One student, a senior who hopes to teach high-school math or science one day, gave a presentation arguing that the process of piezoelectricity-a charge that accumulates in response to pressure-could have created rocks during the Flood. Farris has invited a mining geologist to speak to the class, and he takes the students to the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show where they look at fossils and quartz.
English professor Marian Anders says she and her family are Episcopalians who believe in evolution. When her daughter was young, Anders taught her the Genesis creation story along with Greek and Native American creation myths. When her daughter got older, Anders taught evolution. She uses a pedagogical method that teaches the imaginative and scientific together, calling them two different ways to look at the same thing. Her daughter learned that a star is a burning ball of fire as she learned Greek mythology concerning constellations. Anders taught insect anatomy but also hatched butterflies out of cocoons to impart a sense of wonder at creation.
Circus performer and comedian Pat Davison takes his daughter Mabelle to his performances at school assemblies across the country-and he says he wouldn't trust most with his daughter's education. He calls his daughter's Calvert School curriculum balanced but not Christian, so he integrates scientific conversations with the rest of Mabelle's education instead of teaching a class on creationism. They last discussed it while watching the Ben Stein documentary, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. He said Mabelle found the film-about the academic world suppressing critics of evolution-a little dry, but, "She's 14. Her mind is on the Jonas brothers more than anything else." God creating the world makes sense to her: "She doesn't have any problems believing what the Bible says about these things."