Fact, Faith and Truth

In politics and elsewhere, there is an old refrain, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts.”

Today, a small university in Tennessee is arguing that, actually, yes, you are.

Bryan College, a Christian liberal arts institution with some 700 undergrads, has long required its professors to sign a Nicene Creed-like “statement of belief,” which includes such assertions as, “the origin of man was by fiat of God,” and, “the holy Bible […] is inerrant in the original writings.”

Recently, the school amended this declaration to also say that Adam and Eve are “historical persons created by God in a special formative act, and not from previously existing life-forms.”

A considerable proportion of the student body has protested the revision.  As well, two faculty members have filed suit, and one professor has resigned.

The college’s president, Stephen Livesay, for his part, has explained that the new clause is meant as a mere elucidation of Bryan’s already-existing views about the origins of the cosmos.  The impetus for it, it would seem, is the alarmingly high acceptance of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection among today’s young people.  At least that is what Livesay might be referencing when he says, “We want to make certain that we view culture through the eyes of faith, that we don’t view our faith through the eyes of culture.”

It is noteworthy—if not immediately relevant—that Bryan College is named for none other than William Jennings Bryan, the three-time presidential candidate best known for his defense of the teaching of creationism in the Scopes Trial of 1925.  The school’s campus sits in the city of Dayton, where the trial took place, and was founded, in 1930, for the purpose of “the higher education of men and women under auspices distinctly Christian and spiritual.”

On its website, the school expands on this theme thusly:

Bryan College is founded upon the belief that God is the author of truth; that He has revealed Himself to mankind through nature, conscience, the Bible and Jesus Christ; that it is His will for man to come to a knowledge of truth; and that an integrated study of the arts and sciences and the Bible, with a proper emphasis on the spiritual, mental, social and physical aspects of life, will lead to the balanced development of the whole person.

All well and good, so far as I’m concerned.  There is no reason why a Christ-centric young person shouldn’t have an institution of higher learning at which to feel at home.

Where the problem lies is in the words “historical persons.”

Of course, one is free to believe anything one wants about life, the universe and everything, and about the origins thereof.  What is more, a private college is equally free to establish a particular set of beliefs as its core philosophy, and even to require its faculty to affirm it.  (Bryan College is careful to note that “students are neither required to subscribe to any statement of belief nor placed under any duress with regard to their religious position.”)

But there is a massive difference between professing a belief to be morally true and claiming a belief to be literally true.  A university has many responsibilities, but none is greater than the pursuit of knowledge and truth in all realms, including the field of science.  In making assertions of fact—rather than professions of faith—a college, like a politician, is not entitled to its own reality.

To say Adam and Eve are “historical persons” is objectively not true, as demonstrated by every relevant study of geology and genetics from On the Origin of Species onward.  One can posit Adam and Eve and Creation as a scientific hypothesis, but it is one that has yet to bear fruit (so to speak).

By imploring its professors to accept this baseless claim as read, Bryan College is actively engaging in the promulgation of an untruth, which it may not do if it is to be taken seriously within the university system.

Then again, this inevitably calls into question the relationship between a university and religion itself, and whether the two can ever truly coexist.

As a nonbeliever, I am certainly tempted to simply answer “no” and leave it at that.  In certain essential ways, the respective core functions of churches and universities are not merely different, but are actively at odds with each other.

And yet I am also willing to take a more narrow view of the question by conceding, for instance, that one can believe both in God and in evolution, or that the denial of science does not necessarily prevent one from being a scholar in other subjects.  One should not completely dismiss F. Scott Fitzgerald’s claim, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

But this does not make the claim that Adam and Eve were living, breathing humans any less untrue.  Bryan College should knock it off.

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