The Line That Defines Us


“Intelligent design is overwhelmingly deemed by the scientific community as a religious belief and not a scientific theory,” President Jo Ann Gora said. “Therefore, intelligent design is not appropriate content for science courses.”

With this announcement, Ball State President Jo Ann Gora last week brought closure to the university’s investigation of Eric Hedin, assistant professor of physics and astronomy.  Professor Hedin had been accused of “crossing the line from teaching science to teaching Christianity.”  The charge was brought not by Professor Hedin’s colleagues but by an external interested party, the Freedom from Religion Foundation.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation said it did not object to the nature of the course but to the way it was being taught, “based on reports that Hedin was sharing his personal beliefs and endorsing a Christian viewpoint over others presented.”

The course bibliography included readings about intelligent design – the idea that at least some of the evidence amassed by scientific inquiry suggests the presence of an intelligent designer.

shaferIn their ruling on the matter, Ball State University leaders praised Professor Hedin’s credentials and affirmed his place on their faculty. But they made it clear that neither Professor Hedin nor any other Ball State University faculty member may teach intelligent design “as a scientific theory,” or teach about intelligent design in a science course.  Faculty may teach about intelligent design in humanities or social science courses, but even then, not in a way that advances any one “worldview” over another.

My purpose here isn’t to find fault with President Gora, Provost Terry King, or the faculty panel who investigated Professor Hedin.  From all appearances President Gora and Provost King have handled this case in a measured, thoughtful, and dignified way.  The outcome they reached is not surprising and is consistent with the broad educational approach that undergirds secular universities.

What I found interesting is the way this case illustrates three surprising ways that our universities are alike, and one hugely important way we are very different.

We each have interested constituents who will go to great lengths to shape what we teach and how we teach it.

If I had $100 for every time a constituent of one of the Christian universities I have served took us to task about what we were teaching or the way we were teaching it, I’d have a tidy scholarship fund to offer our students.  Some challenge us because they believe our faculty teach ideas that do not accord with the doctrines of the Christian faith.  But the popular perception is that only Christian universities constrain what the faculty may teach.  Professor Hedin’s case illustrates the fact that even secular universities are willing to define what and how their faculty may teach, apparently regardless of what their individual faculty members may believe to be true (or at least plausible) about those ideas.

We each are expected to provide watchful care over the learning of our students who rely on the validity of our teaching.

Creation_of_Light_Detail_2There is a noble and endearing conviction underlying the work that Ball State faculty and administrators have done in this case.  It is the conviction that some ideas are true and others are not.

If everyone concerned with this case truly believed that naturalistic evolution, theistic evolution (the idea that God used evolution as a means of creation), intelligent design, and creation science are all equally valid representations of the truth about this world, there would have been no case.  There is an unspoken assumption here that those of us who work in universities have an obligation to our students.  We are obligated not to allow untruth to be put forward in the name of truth.

This is a conviction that we share in common, even when we hold different convictions about the truth.

We each attempt to maintain the university as a civil intellectual commons in which ideas may be examined and offered for public embrace.

I applaud President Gora and Provost King for the even-handed way in which they have affirmed Professor Hedin and attempted to mark out the proper way in which teaching about intelligent design may occur at their university.  They are doing what responsible university faculty and administrators must do.  They are caring for one of the most precious assets of a democratic society – a civil intellectual commons in which ideas may safely be examined and offered to the public as our best approximations of the truth.  For that I applaud them.

But this event also gives me reason to be thankful that, in its wisdom, American society has provided the freedom for my Christian university to shape a civil intellectual commons in which the rich framework provided by our Christian heritage and our Biblical convictions may be brought to bear on our examination of the world’s important questions.

We each have an interpretive framework that we use to establish the legitimacy of what we teach and how we teach it.

bluemarbleIn her statement President Gora offered important rationale for Ball State’s decision.  Here is an example: “The gravity of this issue and the level of concern among scientists are demonstrated by more than 80 national and state scientific societies’ independent statements that intelligent design and creation science do not qualify as science.”

I find it helpful to note that there is an interpretive framework in play here providing legitimacy for some ideas (this qualifies as science), and marking other ideas as illegitimate (this does not qualify as science).  My point here is not to quarrel with the fact that a legitimizing framework is in play.  This is simply the way that human knowledge is discovered, advanced, and codified.

My point is to notice that Ball State University does have an interpretive framework, and that it is willing to apply that framework to constrain the teaching of its faculty.  We seldom get to see this done so clearly and overtly at a secular university.

The Line That Defines Us

This brings me to the most telling point in this case.  Both Ball State and Indiana Wesleyan have “a line” that defines the education we offer to our students.

At Ball State, science faculty may not teach intelligent design as a scientific theory, nor may they teach their students that at least some serious observers of the scientific evidence come to the conclusion that there is an intelligent design at work in creation.

This begs some questions.

Where are students to go who wish to explore these questions?

What must a scientist do who, for reasons that remain opaque to the majority of the secular science establishment, is convinced that there is a creator God and that science is the human exploration of God’s creation?

crossWhat is a scientist to do who wishes to place the evidence produced by her inquiry within a larger context of meaning and purpose?

This is where a secular university like Ball State, and a Christian university like Indiana Wesleyan University differ markedly.

At IWU we expect our science faculty to teach the sciences with rigor and honesty.  We expect them to provide students with the intellectual framework and resources they need to place this important discipline and the great questions it asks within the context of our collective conviction that our universe is God’s creation.

The line that defines us is the one we use either to include or exclude God from our most serious and important inquiries.

I am grateful that there is room in our American system of higher education for us to pursue truth in the way that seems best to us.  We will do so with respect for those who hold different convictions.  In the end, we seek the same noble end – to know the truth and thus to be set free.