Based on the Bible, we have the story correct. So how do we deal with people who don’t believe that Genesis is right about creation and the flood? Jesus had some harsh things to say to the Pharisees who refused to accept him, but he used a very different approach to other people he dealt with. How do we fit that into our scenario today? We will return to that question after some stories about real encounters that illustrate a possible answer.
Some years ago a graduate student asked me, “What are the best arguments to use to win an argument about creation?”
My response was, “None. That’s the wrong approach. You should first become the person’s friend. Then if they reach a point where they begin asking questions about creation, be ready to give thoughtful answers.”
If we win an argument, it may seem satisfying. We have defended the Word of God. But we may have lost a friend, and lost the opportunity to be a positive influence.
In the early 1970s, there was underway a national debate over the teaching of such topics as creation in public schools. There was also a government-sponsored group preparing high school biology textbooks with an increased presence of evolution as the theme throughout the books. Some Adventists were seeking for someone to debate William Mayer, Ph.D., a leader in the preparation of these BSCS textbooks. The topic of the debate was to be creation vs. evolution.
Arial Roth, Ph.D., who was at that time the chair of the biology department at Loma Linda University (later he joined the Geoscience Research Institute), was invited to participate in the debate. Roth believed strongly in creation, but he did not think debates were a constructive endeavor and was hesitant to accept this task. There had been too many such debates that did not seem to display a Christian spirit. I remember that as he pondered what to do, he decided that it was better to partake in the debate with a positive attitude than to leave it to someone else who might take a more aggressively negative position. Roth agreed to participate if it was a friendly discussion between scholars.
After the “debate” Mayer said to Roth, “You and I are not too far apart.” Mayer did not become a creationist, but they left as friends, not as enemies.
Paul Buchheim, Ph.D., and I were conducting geology/paleontology research in Wyoming. A National Monument in that area appointed a new park paleontologist, whom we will call Mary. To get Mary acquainted with the geology of the area, the monument allowed her to spend a summer working with us in our research. Mary was a secular scientist and, at times, made jokes about creationists. She often listened politely, however, to the devotional sessions with which we began our workdays. We diligently pursued our research and did not challenge her sarcasm about creationists.
During the summer, several from the group, including Mary, drove to a paleontology conference. As they drove, Mary asked Paul some questions.
“Do you people believe that humans evolved from other primates?” she asked.
Paul responded that we do not. She asked other questions, and later we noticed that she no longer joked about creationists. We treated her as a friend, and as she saw that our research and the papers we published were scientific work she could respect, she became respectful and receptive of other ideas that went beyond the physical research we were doing. I don’t know just what she now thinks about creation, but as the years have gone by she remains a good friend, and we never know what the ultimate result of this relationship will be. If we had argued with her, the result would likely have been quite different.
Searching for More Than Fossils
A group of scientists from Loma Linda University (LLU), Geoscience Research Institute, and Southwestern Adventist University spent about a decade in research on fossil whales in the coastal plain of Peru. Early in this research, we met a Peruvian paleontologist we will call Sergio. Sergio seemed to know very little about theology; however, he listened politely to our devotional sessions in the mornings, and helped us cook vegetarian food when we camped. Over several years he became a dear friend.
Sergio is from the Natural History Museum in Lima and is a productive paleontology researcher. He was a valuable scientific consultant and also provided priceless help in dealing with the local culture.
Our interaction with Sergio was a long saga — I will only share some highlights. Several times through the years, while with us, he found a type of fossil for which he said he’d been looking for many years.
“This always happens when you guys are here!” he exclaimed, and he attributed it to our God he observed us serving.
After one such trip, I received an email from Sergio, describing some problems he was having. He said, “Please pray for me.” You can bet we did pray for him.
Sergio knew almost nothing about theology, but the way he lived his life reminded me of Matthew 25:40: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (NIV). I found an opportunity to tell him so. Sergio was very poor; he had almost nothing. His work at the museum was volunteer work, as they had no money to pay him. He lived from such things as the contract pay we gave him. At the end of one of our research trips I paid him and said “I hope this keeps you supplied with food.”
He replied, “Oh, no, I use this money to hire local people to help me with my fossil hunting. That way it gets recycled to people who are poorer than I.”
After some years of this partnership, Sergio was also communicating with two European paleontologists. He hoped to convince them to come to study his fossil seals. They wrote back after looking us up online and said, “Those guys are creationists. Don’t work with them; get rid of them. They will ruin your reputation.”
He responded, “They have their beliefs, and I don’t care what they believe. In the field they work like other scientists — and better.” He kept us and removed the naysayers from his list of collaborators.
After my last trip to Peru, I received an email from Sergio. He wrote, “It is an honor to have known you...in this life.” What does that say? We didn’t lecture him, but there is reason to believe that he is thinking of another life after this. I can’t wait to see Sergio in heaven!
The Holy Spirit’s Work
Several of us biologists or geologists at LLU collaborate as researchers in one way or another with unbelievers. Our consistent experience is that although they may think our beliefs odd, as they learn about the science we do, they respect us. That would not be the case if we were argumentative and tried to prove them wrong. If we become their friends, that relationship can, if they are open, someday lead them to begin asking questions. And it will be by their choice.
Jesus’ responses that seem harsh were directed toward Jewish leaders who should have been an example for others, but they were arrogant and self-righteous. They saw themselves as better than other people, especially the poor and those who were struggling spiritually. Jesus’ kind and loving spirit were always displayed to anyone willing to learn. We never know who is willing to learn, and our task is to reach out with a loving spirit to all our contacts.
What happens after that is the Holy Spirit’s work.
— Leonard Brand, Ph.D., is professor of biology and paleontology in the Department of Earth and Biological Sciences, Loma Linda University.