Evolution and Christian Faith: Seventy-Five Years of Conversation in the American Scientific Affiliation
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://biologos.org/blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/evolution-and-christian-faith-seventy-five-years-of-conversation-in-the-american-scientific-affiliation
OK–let’s get right to the point. Who has questions about the early ASA?
Was there much of a Young Earth - Old Earth debate within the ASA in the 1940s & 1950s, i.e., before the publication of Morris and Whitcomb’s “The Genesis Flood”?
Paul, I think that will show up in the next installment. Old earth views were held and discussed from the earliest days, but there were young earth creationists resisting those views. Typically, in Christian groups old earth advocates tolerate young earth advocates, but not vice versa. Eventually, the young earth advocates started their own exclusively young earth group (Creation Research Society), many of whom were ASA members. Being open to mainstream science (old earth) marked ASA from its earliest days.
Hi, Terry – it is always good to read your material; especially about the history of an organization that has some recent meaning for me too.
The ASA was my first forum to be heavily involved with (and positively influenced by, I think it’s fair to say.) It seems like it could have been a while ago that I was on their email list-serve about everyday. I guess that was only maybe ten to fifteen years ago now as I see from googling some names. I hope all the ASA folks (and the recently retired Randy Isaac) all see sites like Biologos as good fruit from their own labors.
Some follow-up questions: which may well be addressed in your next installment, but; what kinds of lessons are there to be learned from ASA history about the coexistence (or not!) of people with widely divergent views of origins? Are splits / departures just a reality of large organizations? … a necessary evil? a good thing? or to be avoided at all costs? Have you heard any recent or current leaders in the ASA express regrets or affirmation for how things were handled a half-century ago – any lessons that organizations today could take away?
If Terry wants to weigh in, I’m all ears. My own view is that the absence of explicitly stated “acceptable” viewpoints (concerning how to relate science and the Bible) in the ASA’s founding documents was the single crucial factor in its long-term viability. That fact allowed the ASA to be, and to become, what it’s members did and do want it to be: an open forum for committed Christians to talk about science and the various issues it raises, whether those issues have to do with “world view” or ethics or Christian theology or simply being a Christian in science.
Ironically, it’s surely the absence of official viewpoints that leads many lay Christians to be suspicious of the ASA. IMO this will always be true: lay Christians will always be at least puzzled, if not conflicted, when it comes to engaging science, especially by the open-minded pursuit of truth that is characteristic of science. That’s precisely why the ASA is so important.
Thanks, Ted. The initial founders of the ASA must have faced some pressures then to specify more they did by folks who love to see all parameters clearly spelled out. It would be interesting to have been a fly on the wall at some of those early meetings to see if their resistance to those pressures was due to anticipation of the very things you can now reflect on.
Mervin, Good to hear from you. The idea of “no official position on controversial questions” got introduced into ASA early on. As Ted points out the organization strived to be an open forum on faith science issues within a fairly broad evangelical backdrop. While there were certainly young-earth creationists among the ASA’s early membership, there were also advocates of mainstream science (old earth, aspects of evolution). As in today’s ASA, members have their feet in both worlds and struggle somewhat uniquely to let both have their due authority. There certainly were efforts to push the ASA in particular directions, early on away from mainstream science in favor of traditional readings of scripture; today it seems to be toward mainstream science and away from traditional evangelical doctrinal views. Aside from a few exceptions the ASA has refused to take positions. Early leaders held this view, but it was the long tenure of Richard Bube as editor of the Journal of the ASA that solidified this view. For Bube it seemed to be to allow more progressive voices to speak, but he didn’t mute the more conservative criticism.
As Ted notes in his comment about lay Christians, there is a cost to this view. (And it’s not just among the faith/science laity.) The refusal of the organization to take a position is often seen by those who do take a position and want the ASA to take their position to mean that the ASA takes the opposite position. Thus, YEC folks felt that ASA was becoming a theistic evolutionist organization simply because they tolerated theistic evolutionists. During the “Teaching Science” booklet controversy and the ID debate in the ASA (still on-going), there are those, especially in the scientific establishment, who question the ASA’s scientific credentials because we give the critics a voice. But these are both serious misreadings of the ASA, which takes no position and desires Christians to openly discuss these matters.
Now it does appear that ASA has a trajectory, albeit unofficial. People who have strong convictions often can’t tolerate those who allow for the discussion to occur. Thus, they leave and sometimes form their own more narrowly defined organizations where there is more homogeneity of thought. While it’s unfortunate for ASA to lose those voices as sometimes happens, I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing. In such a context the particular viewpoint can get refined. We see this with YEC groups, OEC groups, EC groups, ID groups, etc. Hopefully, at some point a conversation with the broader community picks up. But there are other agendas–education and propaganda being one of them. ASA has worked very hard NOT to be a propaganda organization. This, of course, causes much hand-wringing when it comes to our mission to the church and broader Christian community (and, perhaps, our ability to grow our membership and raise money for our cause).
Well, that’s enough for now. There is more on this at the upcoming ASA meeting and in the special issue of PSCF.