Can God Love Darwin, Too?

There may be some battlefields where the gospel's "blessed are the peacemakers" holds true. But despite the work of a growing number of scholars and millions of dollars in foundation funding to find harmony between science and faith, evolution still isn't one of them. Just ask biologist Richard Colling. A professor at Olivet Nazarene University in Illinois and a lifelong member of the evangelical Church of the Nazarene, Colling wrote a 2004 book called "Random Designer" because—as he said in a letter to students and colleagues this year—"I want you to know the truth that God is bigger, far more profound and vastly more creative than you may have known." Moreover, he said, God "cares enough about creation to harness even the forces of [Darwinian] randomness."

For all the good it's done him, Colling might as well have thrown a book party for Christopher Hitchens ("God Is Not Great") and Richard Dawkins ("The God Delusion"). Anger over his work had been building for two years. When classes resumed in late August, things finally came to a head. Colling is prohibited from teaching the general biology class, a version of which he had taught since 1991, and college president John Bowling has banned professors from assigning his book. At least one local Nazarene church called for Colling to be fired and threatened to withhold financial support from the college. In a letter to Bowling, ministers in Caro, Mo., expressed "deep concern regarding the teaching of evolutionary theory as a scientifically proven fact," calling it "a philosophy that is godless, contrary to scripture and scientifically unverifiable." Irate parents, pastors and others complained to Bowling, while a meeting between church leaders and Colling "led to some tension and misunderstanding," Bowling said in a letter to trustees. (Well, "misunderstanding" in the sense that the Noachian flood was a little puddle.) It's a rude awakening to scientists who thought the Galilean gulf was closing.

Colling's troubles come as more and more researchers are fighting the "godless" rap, emphasizing that evolution does not preclude a deity (though neither does it require one). One approach is to interpret evolution as the mechanism by which a creator creates. Physicist Karl Giberson of Eastern Nazarene College takes this tack in "Saving Darwin," which will be published next year. Michael Dowd, a former anti-evolution crusader who is now an itinerant minister, argues in "Thank God for Evolution!," out in November, that understanding evolution can deepen and strengthen faith. He's in good company. Biochemist and Anglican priest Arthur Peacocke, who died last year, saw in random mutation and natural selection—the core of Darwinian evolution—a hint of God's nature: by making mutations the raw material of evolution from which natural selection picks winners and losers, God freely opted to limit his omnipotence. It was evidence, Peacocke said, of divine humility.

Colling tried something similar with "Random Designer." He explained that "evolution has stood the test of time and considerable scrutiny," and that evolution through random mutation and natural selection is "fully compatible with" faith. In particular, his designing God uses the laws of nature he created "to accomplish his goals" of, among other things, a wondrous diversity of nature and an ever-changing living world.

An odd aspect of the controversy over Colling is that, since its founding in 1908, the Church of the Nazarene has deemed knowledge acquired by science and human inquiry equal to that acquired by divine revelation. And although Nazarene theology "believes in the Biblical account of creation" and holds that God is the sole creator, it allows latitude "regarding the 'how' of creation," as president Bowling put it in a letter to trustees. Yet with the new term, Bowling banned "Random Designer" from all courses; it had been used in at least one history class, an advanced biology course and the general biology course. "In the last few months [objections to Colling] took on a new life and became a distraction, and things were deteriorating in terms of confidence in the university," Bowling says. He banned the book in order to "get the bull's-eye off Colling and let the storm die down."

Animosity toward evolution shows no sign of abating. Until a few weeks ago, the Web site of a Kentucky tourism agency described the state's recently opened Creation Museum as striving to "counter evolutionary natural history museums that turn countless minds against Christ and Scripture." In a NEWSWEEK Poll in March, 48 percent of those asked said God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years (this was in our cover about human evolution, which discussed fossils of human ancestors dating back 6 million years). Peacemakers have their work cut out for them.