Controversy as Opportunity: A Symposium on Origins within a Christian Secondary School

Observers of Christian schools and the wider American culture know the depths of controversy elicited in recent debates by the topic of origins. Whether the age of the earth or the inception of human beings, concerns about the beginnings of things have led many Christians either to join in culture wars or to flee them. In fact, this topic has played a key role in some parents’ decisions to enroll their children in private Christian schools. And some of these educational institutions, for their part, have chosen to avoid the topic of evolution altogether in their science and Bible classes or to selectively expose students to material in hope that they will adopt a particular position on the issue. Earlier this year, my school decided to deal with the issue in a different way.

A Conversation on Origins

As director of the school’s institute on faith and culture, in the fall of 2015 I placed a call to the Colossian Forum (TCF), and before long the ball was rolling on a partnership to bring to the Denver metro area what TCF calls a “new kind of conversation.” On January 27, 2017, approximately 250 junior and senior high students from four different Christian schools gathered for an all-day discussion on the topic of origins. Instead of the vitriol commonly associated with the topic, we intended this annual symposium to show these young people the possibility—and necessity—for disciples of Christ to esteem and exhibit both truth and love in addressing contentious social issues.

Coming into any event on the topic of origins, we knew many in our community would likely view it within the framework of debate. They would come expecting to find a Christian creationist pitted against an atheist evolutionist, to listen attentively for errors in the “opponent’s” position, to applaud when their own side had the upper hand, and then to join in the celebration afterward as the other side slunk away, vanquished. There would be no desire to learn, except perhaps to pick up some informational tidbits that would reinforce and confirm the moral and intellectual superiority of one’s own views.

Debate as Default

In part, debate has become the default setting in our society because various stakeholders have defined the relationship between faith and science in adversarial terms. For some influential secular scientists and cultural intellectuals, religious faith is an obstacle to the progress that science can bring to the world. And some Christians highlight opposition by insisting that one must choose the Bible over the findings of science (although they may also seek to resolve the tension by embracing a creation science that does not conflict with their reading of Genesis). Finally, various media outlets promote the conflict framework since it is sensationalistic and will draw more eyes to their pages and screens than will a nuanced and less soundbite-friendly version.

While we believe there is a place for debate, with our symposium we wanted instead to facilitate a conversation that would encourage people both to speak their convictions and to listen with a posture of openness to what others might have to say. We invited two eminent scientists to join us for the day. They took very different positions on the age of the earth, the means by which God created the world, and the correct way to read the book of Genesis, yet each saw the other as a sibling in Christ. As we see it, since origins is a matter of contention not only between Christians and non-Christians but within churches and Christian educational institutions as well, it becomes imperative that we engage difficult topics in ways that bring unity to the body of Christ, even if its members don’t see eye-to-eye on everything. [This is only part of the article. Want to read more? Subscribe to the website by choosing "Register" from the menu above. It's free!]

Kevin M. Taylor (PhD, Boston University) directs the Veritas et Caritas Institute at Front Range Christian School in Littleton, CO.