:: By Amy M. Braverman
:: Illustrations by Sterling Hundley
As American evangelicals drive the evolution-versus intelligent-design debate in public schools, religious U of C students find ways to square conviction with critical thinking.
IN HER HUMAN BEING AND CITIZEN COURSE, a core humanities class that enrolls about 250 undergraduates each year, classics lecturer Lee Behnke teaches what she calls “big, great texts”—the Iliad, Genesis, Plato’s Dialogs, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Augustine’s Confessions, and either a Shakespeare play or Dante’s Inferno. Before beginning Genesis, says Behnke, a practicing Episcopalian who has taught at Chicago for nine years, “we always give a caveat saying many people have learned this in Sunday school, and we’re reading it as a literary text.” About six years ago, after discussing Genesis in class, she instructed students to choose a woman from the text and write a character study. “Rebecca helps Jacob cheat his brother Esau out of his inheritance because Isaac is blind,” Behnke says. “Sarah sends Hagar and Ishmael off to starve in the desert. These are very flawed human beings who carry out God’s purpose. When examined through a literary or philosophical lens, interesting questions arise.” One undergraduate, a Christian Korean American, approached Behnke after class. “I can’t write a critical paper on Genesis,” she recalls him saying. “It’s the Bible.”
“God gave you reason,” she encouraged him. “You’re now at the University of Chicago, and you need to use it.” But, in a rare move for a three-quarter sequence, the student switched sections.
This unwillingness to “struggle with and think about” the text, Behnke says, was “new for me”—after 25-plus years of teaching high-school and college Latin, English, and literature. The issue has come up since then, she says, among both Asian and “heartland American” students, though not so strikingly. After she switched from the King James Bible to the more scholarly Robert Alter version of Genesis, which has footnotes and explains Hebrew verse forms and vocabulary, some students would say, “That’s not the way I learned it. I don’t think this is right.” Every year in faculty meetings, she says, first-time HBC teachers ask how to handle students’ resistance. “It’s a mistake to have them write a Sunday school paper,” Behnke advises. “Try to explain the scholarly, Enlightenment tradition.” Christian students’ “faith won’t be ruined by casting a rational eye” on a religious text. “These texts can stand up to scrutiny—and have over the years.”
Yet for an 18-year-old who’s never probed his faith, analyzing the text can be jarring. Pulling a Bible (New Revised Standard Version) from her Swift Hall office shelf, Rockefeller Memorial Chapel Dean Alison Boden opens it and notes, “There are actually two creation stories in Genesis.” It starts with “In the beginning,” she points out, but in the next chapter comes “These are the generations of the heaven and the earth when they were created,” opening the tale detailing Adam, Eve, and the Garden of Eden. In modern scholars’ opinions, Boden says, the two stories were written at different times. “For some of our students this is the first time these questions come up. It can be a radical thing, a very heavy burden. They ask, ‘Is this book true or not?’”
Christian beliefs in particular—though by no means exclusively—seem to clash more publicly with academia now than in the recent past. Teachers like Behnke have reported an upswing in religious-academic conflicts and, nationwide, public-school districts have debated teaching evolution. The University, meanwhile, values critical thinking and the life of the mind not only in the humanities and sciences but also in the Divinity School and Rockefeller Chapel. Boden recalls an entering ministry student who approached her and said, “I want to engage these texts intellectually. Do you think this will be an annoyance to my faculty?” On the contrary, Boden said, in Swift Hall “you might feel you need more faith stimulation.”
While religion “has always been in the academy in different ways,” says Divinity School Dean Richard Rosengarten, AM’88, PhD’94, the U of C has a complex relationship with religion. The institution is “avowedly nondenominational,” he notes, “but one of the major buildings on campus is a chapel.” For Rosengarten, “how one talks about religion in a research university is on my frontal lobe all the time.” The Div School, he says, “aims to be a place where discussions of religion observe the same canons of evidence that all scholarship deserves.”
Both inside and outside the academy, the country has a strong tradition of evangelical Christianity—Protestants who emphasize the Bible’s authority, personal conviction, and salvation by faith. As a group evangelicals have remained a fairly constant proportion of Americans over the past 25 years, according to Tom W. Smith, who directs the U of C–based National Opinion Research Center’s (NORC) General Social Survey. When asked if people believe the Bible is infallible, if they’ve had a born-again experience, or if they proselytize, about 18 percent answer affirmatively; about 33 percent of Americans, meanwhile, belong to denominations considered evangelical. Within U.S. Protestantism—which in 2004 NORC found to be shrinking in proportion to the population—conservative denominations such as Southern Baptists, Assemblies of God, and the Pentecostal and Holiness churches have grown, according to a 2001 study by Berkeley’s Michael Hout, the U of C’s Andrew Greeley, AM’61, PhD’62, and Indiana’s Melissa J. Wilde. More mainline groups like Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians have declined.
Evangelicals may appear to be on the rise because they make news more often these days: President George W. Bush speaks openly about his Christianity, and activists campaign against “happy holidays” greetings and teaching evolution in public schools. “Evangelicals seem to be everywhere today because they are experts at publicizing their message on television, on the radio, in popular religious periodicals like Christianity Today, and on the Internet,” says Catherine Brekus, associate professor of the history of Christianity in the Divinity School. They also are more politically active now than in the 1970s, and though historians are still assessing their mobilization, Brekus says, “Roe v. Wade was certainly one of the catalysts.” In addition, evangelicals have become more visible as they’ve risen in class status: “As a group they seem to be wealthier, better educated, and more politically astute than evangelicals 30 years ago.”
While Chicago students are not as religious as the rest of the country—42.6 percent of first-years in a 2004 survey said they followed no religion—many still profess strong beliefs. About 23 percent were affiliated with some form of Protestant Christianity, while 19 percent were Roman Catholic, 7.4 percent were Jewish, 2.1 percent Islamic, 1.7 percent Hindu, 1.6 percent Buddhist, and 3.1 percent chose “other religion.” A sizable 67.3 percent of first-years said they had attended a religious service in the past year. And while a 2003 survey of all enrolled students found that 42 percent had “seriously questioned” their own religious beliefs, the next year 23 percent of Chicago students reported actively participating in a religious group during college, compared to 18 percent in 2002 and 26 percent in 1998.
Anecdotal evidence suggests Behnke’s reluctant student remains the exception to the rule. Perhaps self-selecting, Chicago students—even those who identify as evangelicals—prefer the critical-thinking route. Several such students, in fact, say they find the Human Being and Citizen approach useful, forcing them to probe, and ultimately strengthen, their faith.
“DO YOU MIND IF I PRAY?” inquires Kirstin Guidero, AB’03, before lunch at the Medici. She hasn’t touched her cabbage soup. Waiting politely for a pause in the conversation before making the request, she’s given the go-ahead and rests her forearms on the table, lowers her head, and asks the Lord to bless several people, including her lunch companion.
Guidero, slender with short-cropped hair, edits business textbooks in Chicago’s western suburbs. In her spare time she volunteers with the University’s undergraduate Intervarsity Christian Fellowship group, leading Monday-evening prayer meetings every other week. An Intervarsity member during college, she co-led a dorm Bible study her second year and helped to plan group social events her third year. Now living with three other women from her church, she speaks of being in constant “communication with God,” of life as “a journey,” and of coworkers who have asked her to pray for them. As a student she had no religious objections to her HBC teaching assistant’s approach to Genesis. When HBC or other courses come up in Intervarsity meetings, she and other group leaders advise Christian students to “let your faith be tested,” she says. “It can’t grow if you don’t ask the tough questions. That’s the whole point.”
In fact, says Intervarsity Campus Staff Joel Selking, AB’99, he often uses the class’s approach in prayer or group meetings. “I use HBC all the time to teach people how to study the Bible,” Selking says in a phone conversation from a Campus Ministers conference in Wisconsin. In the Iliad, for example, “you observe a repetition of anger. Achilles does different things with his anger, and Homer seems really concerned about it. In HBC you don’t go on to application: How should I live? That’s what we do in Bible study.” He’s rarely heard Intervarsity students complain that their courses—be they humanities or sciences—contradict their religious teachings. “My students are more concerned with what they can learn about integrating faith and reason.” An occasional student, he says, will send an e-mail about feeling uncomfortable in class.
Sam Park, AB’96, who leads the affiliated Asian American Intervarsity group on campus, says religion in the classroom comes up frequently among group members. Students he knows sometimes complain that their social-science professors come off as antireligious, suggesting faith is more of a psychological condition than a mainstream pursuit. Although Park didn’t take HBC, his Christian friends would discuss how Genesis was presented. “They’d wrestle with [the ideas] because they were new,” he says, “especially if they came from a conservative background.” One friend wrote a paper that was “more of a preaching allegory,” he says, “and had to do a rewrite.” Like many Chicago students, though, both his friends and the students he now advises are “first of all concerned about getting a good grade. How do I get an A? What do they want?” And if what the professor wanted “differed from your beliefs, could you write something you didn’t believe in?” Koreans especially, he says, “tend to come from a church background,” and attending the U of C creates “a bit of a paradigm shift: the school wants to challenge your rational capability, to get you to think critically and use reason. That hits all students, but especially Asian students from a religious background.” Park tries to present the sciences, like biochemistry and physics, as consistent with faith. “If you believe God created order,” he says, “wouldn’t that make sense as an example?” Students usually respond that they’ve never looked at it that way before.
With the sciences, Park feels, making that argument is easier. Many Asian students are pre-med. “They can say, ‘That makes sense. There’s a beautiful order in science.’” But many also major in economics, which makes for tougher religious navigation. “How do I incorporate my econ or poli-sci major with my faith?” Park tries to buck their preconceptions and point out the commonalities. When Intervarsity undergraduates read Marx as first-years, they often believe Marx is godless, remembering that he called religion “the opiate of the masses.” Park challenges them “to see what aspects of faith are present,” he says. “Marx had insight that labor dehumanizes people, that it reduces people to a cog in the system. Christianity is congruent with the observation that there’s fundamentally something broken in the world.” Similarly, he takes on Kant: “I’ll say, let’s look at that—human agency, made in the image of God.” In fact, he says, “Almost every aspect of the sciences and humanities has a glimpse of truth.”
ALTHOUGH PARK—LIKE MANY OTHER BELIEVERS—finds science and Christianity compatible, pockets of the country have struggled to reconcile the theory of evolution, for example, with the Judeo-Christian creation story. In 2005 the intelligent design philosophy—the idea that many life systems are too complex to have evolved randomly and some sort of creator must have had a hand—made national headlines as proponents in Georgia, Kansas, and Pennsylvania attempted to introduce the notion into public-school classrooms. In Dover, Pennsylvania, this past December, a federal court ruled that it was a religious, not scientific, claim and therefore could not be taught as an evolution alternative in science class. Jerry Coyne, a professor in ecology and evolution, has been a prolific writer of editorials and articles arguing against ID as a scientific enterprise. In the August 22 and 29 New Republic Coyne laid out a 13-page argument, detailing the U.S. creationist-evolution debate from William Jennings Bryan through the present, explaining the scientific view of Darwin and evolution, and proclaiming ID to be “disguised creationism.” In the article he refuted a primary ID textbook, Of Pandas and People (1989, 2nd edition 1993), point by point, noting, for example, that several of the fossil record’s “missing links” the books cites are no longer missing.
Unlike Behnke, Coyne does not see religious conflicts with academia as relatively new. “I’ve been teaching evolution for 25 years,” he writes in an e-mail while on sabbatical in France, “and the first lectures I give in this course are ‘What is the evidence for evolution?’ I do that not to counter creationists but because most students (including some professional evolutionists) don’t know the depth and extent of this immense evidence. I became active against creationists in the early ’80s, well before ID surfaced, simply because I saw that they were misinforming the public about evolution.” A few Chicago students, he says, have questioned evolution in his class. If students make repeated inquiries that “interrupt the flow of the lecture,” he speaks with them privately. “If they have religious concerns,” he says, “I direct them to see a minister or theologian as I am not equipped to deal with those questions and wouldn’t want to destroy somebody’s faith through mishandling a discussion.” When some of his students asked if they could announce to the class that they were holding an “anti-evolution study group” to counteract his teachings, he agreed. “I’m not trying to suppress anyone’s religious beliefs,” he says. “I just want to present the facts as they exist.” And intelligent design, he says, “is not a serious scientific controversy; it is a religious controversy. Therefore it belongs in a class on comparative religion or the sociology of science. Having it in an evolution class would be like including the flood theory or the flat-earth theory in a geology class.”
As Coyne points out, plenty of scientists are religious. Take Donald York, PhD’71, the Horace B. Horton professor in astronomy & astrophysics, the Enrico Fermi Institute, and the College. Founding director of both the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and the Apache Point Observatory, York is also an evangelical Christian who served as Intervarsity’s faculty sponsor from the mid-’80s through mid-’90s. “I don’t try to make the literal resolution” between science and Christianity, he says. “We’re always changing and growing, and some things are acceptable at different times.” To him, “Science is a story just like the religious stories. We are trying to find out how things happened biologically and physically. In every age there’s a story.” As he notes in talks to small colleges and religious groups, what scientists believe now is different than 100, 20, and even five years ago. “In many ways it’s an act of faith that the rational process will lead men to a higher place,” he says. “That thesis has never been proven.” As for intelligent design, he notes, “In science there’s almost unanimous agreement on what the process is. On the ID side there are 50 to 100 camps who would not agree on the process, what is scripture and what isn’t. It’s not their career but a belief.” The scientific process may “take hundreds of years,” he says, “but it works.” Yet while the media label IDers as “straight creationists,” he says, “I don’t think all the evidence is in, and it won’t be in our lifetimes.”
In his classes York can remember only a few times, most while teaching about the history of religious and scientific conflicts in Princeton’s “underground” C. S. Lewis curriculum, that “people would get negative” on science. Those students, like Behnke’s HBC student, exhibit “irrational thinking,” he says, and “can’t be countered. It’s the ID mentality of ‘I’m right, you’re wrong.’” Since coming to Chicago in 1983, he can recall only three or four students who have raised the biblical-versus-physical-creation issue. He tells them, “You are in this class because you chose to learn about the scientific process and what we have learned.” He talks about how understanding has changed over time, and that science is “a process, not perfect.” No student has tried to argue that point, and the subject usually gets dropped.
York’s approach seems similar to what Rockefeller Dean Boden would suggest. She’d tell a student who writes a “preaching allegory,” as Park’s friend did, “You’ve been asked to do a legitimate academic exercise. Your faith can inform your academics without making it into a testimony.” She also hopes that faculty remain sensitive to religious students. “If a student has a problem with how a text is proposed in class, then the student should be able to talk with the professor about how to write a paper that disagrees intellectually,” she says. A professor can “encourage the student to delve into that and present an intellectual argument against it.”
Some teachers have used precisely that method. In 2004 two first-years, Sarah Bramsen and Josh Sauerman, approached their HBC teacher and helped spark a wider lesson. When instructor Thomas Bartscherer, AM’97, a doctoral student in the Committee on Social Thought, briefly mentioned the documentary hypothesis—the theory that multiple hands, rather than one, contributed to the five books of Moses—Bramsen and Sauerman asked Bartscherer about it after class. Bramsen, who grew up in Indiana and Illinois attending multiple Christian-denomination churches, had never heard that Moses may not have been the sole author of the Pentateuch. Bartscherer discussed the theory a bit, suggested research sources, but admitted it wasn’t his field of expertise. He offered to help set up an optional supplemental session, asking Divinity School PhD student Cabell King, AM’99, to discuss the theory more. “It was clearly something they were very interested in but not a main focus of this seminar,” Bartscherer says. “I wanted to give them the opportunity to pursue it.”
Encouraged by the individual attention, Bramsen says, “We asked if it would be OK if we brought someone in from the other side.” Bartscherer agreed, and Bramsen’s Bible-study teacher at Holy Trinity Church (which meets at Hyde Park’s K.A.M. Isaiah Israel Temple) helped her find a seminarian professor to present the Mosaic-authorship view. Geoffrey Rees, an HBC instructor, and Edward Silver, AM’99, a Div School biblical scholar, provided additional expertise. About 30 people attended, including HBC, Div School, and Social Thought students and teachers. It was an “informal, robust debate,” Bartscherer says, “and a very cordial debate.”
“This was my first quarter,” Bramsen says. “It really taught me how important it is to think about my faith. It’s so easy to grow up and read things and not question them.” And Behnke, who then coordinated the HBC sections, asked Bartscherer to give his colleagues a brief presentation on the session’s results.
Science faculty too, says Divinity School Dean Rosengarten notes, must tread carefully. The questions asked by both scientists and religious believers are important: “Where does science begin? How do we know the truth in science? How do we set up parameters? Scientists have important things to say to theologians, but theologians also have important things to say to biologists.” The two camps need to engage each other. “If I don’t understand Darwin well, then I’m not doing my job,” he says. “And biologists who don’t take seriously the inherent rigor of philosophy and theology do an equal disservice.”
Noting that “all the great universities of the world were founded with explicit reference to religious commitment of some sort,” Rosengarten stresses that “millions of religious people have thought they could be religious and engage in” intellectual pursuits simultaneously. “The most important philosopher for Aquinas was that pagan Aristotle,” he says, whose ideas “revolutionized Catholic theology and became the orthodox expression of Catholic thought.”
Though perhaps not sparking a revolution, Chicago’s students and faculty still follow that tradition, asking complex questions—and coming up with new ways to shape their answers.
Not only Christians (or evangelicals) face classroom conflicts. As this snapshot shows, academia presents different challenges for Muslims, Hindus, and Jews.
Qaid Hassan, a Divinity School master’s degree candidate who serves as liaison between the undergraduate and graduate members of the Muslim Students Association, recalls feeling uncomfortable in an undergraduate course at Haverford College. Studying Islamic literature, the class discussed Qur’an imagery, including beasts that “could move through the earth in seconds” and an “angel that has wings spanning from earth to heaven,” Hassan says. “To hear students talk about it strictly as allegory, something made up,” he says, at first offended him. Eventually, he realized that “when forced to think critically about” narratives he had “taken for granted” growing up, his faith grew stronger by “actually knowing the religion inside and out.”
At Chicago, he says, Muslim students sometimes avoid Islamic-studies courses. A student might attend the first few sessions to “see how the professor approaches” the subject. Many Muslims, he says, “don’t want to talk about political issues” in class. They generally believe in “preserving your din,” or way of life, he says, so they “justify not taking such classes because you don’t question your religion.” Hassan, however, disagrees. In a classroom filled with differing perspectives, he says, “you see your own subjectivity.”
Although Wendy Doniger, the Mircea Eliade distinguished service professor of the history of religions, has been criticized by Hindus outside the University for what they see as sexually infused readings of Hindu texts, she hasn’t faced religious-based problems in her classes. “All of my students, Hindus or non-Hindus, find many occasions to disagree with me, and we have great arguments about many things,” she says. “But I have never had at the U of C a Hindu student who challenged me, accused me of being wrong in what I said about Hinduism, on the basis of his or her religious beliefs.” Students who offer conflicting interpretations, she says, have “a good reason for it that they can back up with some sort of reliable evidence.”
Jewish students, meanwhile, have a history of analyzing and reinterpreting sacred texts. “Academic study of Jewish texts often diverges from traditional interpretation,” says Hillel Rabbi David Rosenberg. “Jewish tradition sets great store on commentary and doesn’t look for a definitive interpretation.” In his eight-plus years at Chicago, he has never heard a student protest what a teacher has taught. “Students with a traditional view of the nature of the Bible, God, and the world appreciate that an academic course is not going to confirm what they’ve learned in Jewish schools,” Rosenberg says. Not that they might not have their faith shaken: “I’m sure that happens all the time—a silent population.”—A.M.B.