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A Black Mark for Calvin College

Those of us who work at secular institutions sometimes forget, or perhaps we were never really aware in the first place, how difficult it can be for our colleagues in church-affiliated institutions, especially when they want to go beyond the strict bounds of the comfortable norm.  A good (if that is the right word) instance of that to which I refer is going on right now, with whistles and bells, at Calvin College in Michigan.

I have often said that I would have given my eye teeth to have been educated as an undergraduate at one of America’s top liberal arts colleges, and I have always thought of Calvin as a good reason why.  Academically the faculty is top notch – I think the Philosophy Department is right up there with the very best in the nation – and the dedication to teaching is simply humbling.  Add a great campus and good facilities and you know why I rate it so highly.  It is of course affiliated with the Reform Church – the western part of Michigan was heavily colonized by Dutch Protestants – and faculty members are expected to subscribe to articles of that branch of the Christian faith.  Speaking now as a non-believer, that seems to me to be perfectly reasonable.  I don’t see why they should be expected to accept someone like me.

John Schneider has been a professor in the Department of Religion for the past twenty-five years.  With a doctoral degree from Cambridge, he has written on such topics as the use of rhetoric by Philip Melanchthon (Luther’s sidekick) and Christian responses to and behavior in affluent societies.  For the past 10 years or so he has been engaged in the relationship between science and religion (the reason why I know of him and his work).  Most recently he has been wrestling with the implications of modern understandings about human evolution for Christians, especially for Christians in the Reformed Tradition.

Although Calvinists believe in sola scriptura (by scripture alone), because of the great influence on Calvin of St. Augustine, they have always been wary of simple literalism.  It has always been accepted that God spoke to the people of the Bible in language that they could understand – in Calvin’s term, he “accommodated” himself to them – and that we of later generations might need to interpret things in the light of modern knowledge.  However, modern claims that humans today are the children of a group of about 20,000 ancestors some 150,000 years ago do pose difficulties. 

This is because of the doctrine of original sin, another thing which goes back to Augustine.  Faced with the need to explain why it was that Jesus had to die on the cross, he explained it is because we are sinful, and the reason why we are sinful goes back to that fateful apple that Adam bit into in direct defiance of God’s orders.  From that moment on, all humans are tainted and the possibility of eternal salvation came only because of Jesus’ sacrifice for the sake of us all.  Brushing aside a host of questions that arise here (like why Jesus’ death helps us), you can see why there are big problems if you deny that there was one and only one unique couple from whom we are all descended. 

What about all of those other proto-humans that go unmentioned in Genesis?  Were they free of sin, in which case why don’t we inherit their innocence rather than the guilt of Adam and Eve?  

In a recent article, Schneider explores – floats but does not endorse – an alternative explanation.  This is one with roots in another tradition than that of Augustine, to be found in the thinking of Irenaeus and favored in the Eastern Christian tradition.  This is one that sees the fall as in some sense built into the scheme of things, rather than an unfortunately contingent occurrence, and that leads the way to an already-determined atonement on the cross.  It is one that, rather than seeing Adam and Eve as fully formed moral beings who get seduced by the serpent, sees Adam and Eve as in some sense immature and part of a gradual build up to the coming of Jesus and to his willingness to suffer for us. 

Working from this theological alternative, Schneider suggests that we could then see original sin less as an individual act of disobedience but more as a state of evolving human nature, one that (in the light of modern evolutionary biology) sees us as the uneasy compromise between forces of natural selection that make us innately selfish and greedy and forces of selection that make us altruists, with the emotions and abilities to function in groups.  And with this kind of understanding, the need for one unique couple vanishes and theological belief and evolutionary biology can be brought into harmony.

Although I confess that I was then working in happy ignorance of much of the Christian theological tradition, this is a solution I endorsed fully in my Can a Darwinian be a Christian?  (Endorsed it in the sense that I argued that if one is a Christian this is an obvious move to take to harmonize science and faith.)  So I certainly think Schneider is onto something.  But I stress again that he floats the idea without accepting it.

Unfortunately, even going this far has got him into hot water at Calvin.  The work comes out of a sabbatical project, validated by his college (at a committee which included the provost).  The president however was absent and now he has returned and read what Schneider has written and published does not like it at all.  He thinks that Schneider is going against the strict understanding of what it is to be a Calvinist, and as such is grounds for dismissal, which is his aim. 

I hope very much that this will blow over.  I hope even more that if it does blow over it will not be with the understanding, implicit or explicit, that neither Schneider nor any other Calvin faculty member ever again try to reconcile science and religion.  These days it is not easy for those of us who argue that science and religion can live in harmony.  For my pains, I have been likened to Neville Chamberlain – the pusillanimous appeaser of Munich. 

Just last week, the editor of the British magazine the New Humanist, who argued for some modicum of accommodation, was called a quisling – after the Norwegian Nazi who supported the Germans in their Second World War occupation of his country.  But really, what does this matter to us?  I rather thrive on abuse.  The case of a brave scholar like John Schneider shows too well that even today, at top-quality institutions, being willing to push the boundaries of understanding can come at great personal stress and possible cost.  Such people will never get any respect from the New Atheists, who simply hate everything and anything to do with religion and who have nothing but contempt for believers.  The rest of us should realize just how very perverting religion can be in even the best places and should applaud those who are believers who stand up against its misuse.     

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