published Sunday, March 2nd, 2014

Bryan College takes stand on creation that has professors worried for their jobs

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    A statue of William Jennings Bryan, the namesake of Bryan College, stands on the Rhea County Courthouse lawn in Dayton, Tenn. The Bryan College Board of Trustees is amending the college's statement of belief, which must be signed by faculty members each year as a condition of employment, to include belief in creationism.
    Photo by Doug Strickland.
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LANGUAGE CHANGE

The current Statement of Belief at Bryan College addresses the matter of origins in its fourth section. It reads:

“that the origin of man was by fiat of God in the act of creation as related in the Book of Genesis; that he was created in the image of God; that he sinned and thereby incurred physical and spiritual death;”

The board of trustees recently approved a clarification to that statement. That clarification was included in faculty contract packets that were delivered Friday. Professors were told that in signing the original statement of belief, they are affirming their agreement with the clarification. The clarification reads:

“We believe that all humanity is descended from Adam and Eve. They are historical persons created by God in a special formative act, and not from previously existing life forms.”

STATEMENTS OF FAITH

It’s common for Christian colleges to pen statements of faith that lay out the beliefs that define their respective campuses. Sometimes those documents address issues of human origins, sometimes they don’t. Here are excerpts from some statements of faith or belief from Christian colleges and universities in the area:

“We believe that the rich diversity of the living world is rooted in historical supernatural creative acts recorded in Genesis 1 and 2.”

— Statement of Community Belief, Covenant College, Lookout Mountain, Ga.

“God originally created mankind in His image, and free from son; but through the temptation of Satan, they transgressed the command of God, and fell from their original righteousness…”

— Statement of Faith, Union University, Jackson, Tenn.

We believe there is only one God, who created, preserves, and rules over the universe. The historical account of creation found in Genesis declares that God is the personal and direct Creator of all that exists, including the first humans Adam and Eve, from whom all human beings have come.

— Statement of Faith, Shorter University, Rome, Ga.

DAYTON, Tenn. — Bryan College was founded on the back of the country’s most famous debate over creation and evolution.

And the biblical literalists, the stalwarts, the six-day creationists flocked here even when society began tipping toward a more scientific understanding of human origins, when Darwin, not Genesis, became the more convincing explanation for many.

But over the years, more diverse views on Genesis 1 and 2 crept in. Some professors, staff and students didn’t just identify as young-Earth creationists. Their views became more nuanced. They called themselves progressive evolutionists and theistic evolutionists and old-Earth creationists; they found ways to reconcile faith and science.

Now the administration is making a statement against these aberrations. The board of trustees is requiring professors and staff to sign a statement saying that they believe Adam and Eve were created in an instant by God and that humans shared no ancestry with other life forms. If they don’t sign, they fear that jobs could be on the line.

You might think everyone at Bryan College disavowed Darwin years ago. After all, the liberal arts school is named in honor of William Jennings Bryan, the man who helped prosecute the 1925 Scopes Trial. The college was founded in 1930, and Bryan’s legacy is one of the first things that comes up on campus tours.

But ideas evolve, even at Bryan.

And conservative Christians, some experts say, are increasingly finding ways to come to terms with evolution’s possible role in the creation story. Sixty percent of Americans believe in some form of evolution, whether it was divinely inspired or not, according to the Pew Research Center.

“The position they’re staking out with this new statement is not shared among all evangelicals, all Christians,” said Josh Rosenau, programs and policy director at the National Center for Science Education, which advocates teaching of evolution and climate science. “The evangelical position doesn’t have to be an outright rejection of human evolution. There are ways to be a Bible-believing literalist without being at odds with science.”

Rosenau said evangelicals are increasingly grappling with issues like evolution, and he said schools like Bryan should be host to debate and inquiry.

“They can try to expand that conversation and see where it goes without leaving that deep commitment to evangelical Christianity,” he said. “I think it would be a really helpful conversation to have and it would be a shame if policies like this cut it off.”

Bryan’s statement of faith, more than 80 years old, isn’t allowed to be amended or changed, according to its charter. So the clarification, announced by President Stephen Livesay in a Feb. 23 news release, shocked the Bryan community. Even those who agree with the clarification say they think the administration has misstepped and that the change is unnecessary.

“This is an educational institution. In order for us to do our jobs, we have to be open to a variety of positions on things and many people would see this as a narrowing of a position that doesn’t need to be narrowed,” said John Carpenter, a journalism professor at Bryan.

Although the nondenominational school has always been conservative, forbidding lip piercings up until a few years ago and not allowing the opposite sex in dorms, alumni said many diverse beliefs — as long as they were rooted in Christianity — seemed welcomed by faculty. Professors don’t tell students what they have to believe. “If you pigeonhole, that cuts off the conversation,” said 1980 graduate David Tromanhauser. “Then it’s not an academic pursuit. It’s indoctrination. There are schools that do that. But they’re not involved much in intellectual pursuit.”

Tromanhauser, once the school’s alumni director, said this change will set an entirely new tone and direction for Bryan. He believes the move will squelch debate and discovery in many subjects, not just the sciences.

“I think the professors that stay will be fearful of teaching the way they always have,” he said. ““It’s divisive. God’s people should not be doing this.”

Livesay and other administrators didn’t respond to requests for comment, but the president has told students that he has been thinking about this clarification for years. In a statement, both Livesay and board President Col. John Haynes downplayed the significance of the clarification.

In the statement, Livesay rejected the idea that the change would alter the quality of academics.

“This clarification will not hinder the rigorous teaching and discussions that are and will continue to be a hallmark of a Bryan education,” he wrote. “We want current and future generations of Bryan students and faculty to experience a robust learning environment enjoyed by the generations before them.”

In an interview Friday, Haynes said the clarification simply reinforces long-held views.

“I totally believe it’s exactly what the school was founded on,” he said.

And students who enroll at Bryan understand the school’s history.

Students say professors have seemed visibly depressed and upset since the announcement was made. Some staff, who wouldn’t give their names out of fear of retaliation, said their consciences may not allow them to sign the clarified statement, and they are unsure what action the administration might take against them. They have a few weeks to decide whether to sign.

Letters from alumni have flooded the student newspaper, and there’s a lively debate on the alumni Facebook page.

“As presently worded, the statement affirms traditional Christian doctrines regarding creation while allowing for diversity on the how and when. In other words, the statement is fine as it is,” wrote Paul Gutacker, a 2008 graduate who now lives in Vancouver, B.C.

Nearly 300 of the school’s 800 students signed a petition within a few days asking the trustees to reconsider the change. Joseph Murphy, in a Student Government Association letter to the administration, said the decision was made without faculty input and that the president and trustees were threatening academic freedom. He called the move unjust, uncharitable and unscriptural.

“We believe that this sets a precedent of fear and distrust in our community,” the petition read. “We believe that this will discourage potential faculty and staff from serving at Bryan and potential students from coming here.”

But Kevin Clauson wrote a letter to the student newspaper, the Triangle, urging students not to sign the petition. He said the wider culture is waging a battle for the “heart and soul” of evangelical higher education.

“If an Evangelical Christian college wants to remain such, it must of necessity limit ‘academic freedom’ to some extent,” he wrote. “This is more or less done through doctrinal statements that must be subscribed to. If the attitude was “believe whatever you wish–anything”, then there would be no way to guard the institution against error or even heresy.”

Many members of the Bryan community are confused over the timing of the change. Why is this happening now, just as next year’s contracts are being delivered?

But some recent events may explain the move.

In 2010, Ken Ham, a nationally known creationist who runs the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., wrote a scathing article criticizing Bryan College because of a graduate’s book. The graduate, Rachel Held Evans, wrote about how she had questioned the nuances of her evangelical upbringing and had come to new realizations about the world, including the belief that evolution was part of God’s creation plan.

Ham also criticized biology professor Brian Eisenback, who was quoted in USA Today saying that he taught all origin views and theories — including Genesis and evolution — without revealing his own beliefs.

“There are many colleges/seminaries — like Bryan College — across the nation with professors who compromise God’s word in Genesis and/or will not teach the authority of God’s Word in Genesis as they should. It’s about time that these colleges were held accountable for allowing such undermining of the authority of Scripture to the coming generation,” Ham wrote in a 2010 blog post.

Eisenback and Bible professor Ken Turner gained attention last year for their grant from the BioLogos Foundation to write a new curriculum on science education that will marry scientific evidence with evangelical Christian perspectives on interpreting Scripture and science. BioLogos is a nonprofit that believes God created the world over billions of years and works to further the ideas of evolutionary creationism.

In the same year, Bryan’s Center for Origins Research was eliminated amid budget cuts. Todd Wood, who is one of the most well-respected young-earth creationist researchers in the country, was left without a job.

Last month, a chapel talk at Bryan featured a discussion with Wood and well-known evolutionary creationist Darrel Falk. At the end of their conversation, Livesay said he wanted to make a statement about Bryan College’s stance on origins. He said he did not agree with the views of BioLogos.

“Scripture always rises above anything else. Scripture rises above science. ... Science at some point will catch up with the scripture,” Livesay said, according to an online podcast of the event.

Haynes, the trustee, said Livesay has brought up the need for clarification several times to the board. Christians have increasingly begun to question traditional interpretations of Genesis, though he believes the Bible is clear on the matter.

“When you review these things, the first thing you must do is go back to the scripture and make sure what you’re saying is compatible with scripture,” he said. “Scripture judges you.”

To those who see the board’s clarification as a substantive change, Haynes again pointed to scripture.

“That’s the question I have to ask them: Who moved?” he said. “Did scripture move or did you move?”

Students who believe in a six-day creation said they know some of their professors don’t hold that view, but they have never felt pressured to ascribe to any set of beliefs.

“It challenged me. It made me not so complacent, but I didn’t feel like my fundamental beliefs were threatened,” said one student who didn’t want to give her name.

Eisenback said he brings Genesis 1 and other passages to his biology courses, along with evolution and the different belief sets people use to reconcile the two. His new book is aimed at getting Christians more interested in science, because all too often they are taught that science and faith are incompatible. “In my view, God gave us science to learn about the physical world,” Eisenback said. “When people embrace that, science is our way of understanding God’s handiwork, so to speak, then science isn’t threatening. It becomes exciting.”

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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