Monday, November 17, 2014

The CRC's Agony

Okay, so this will be a short rant rooted in the pain of loss and frustration and love for an old friend.

The Banner, magazine of the Christian Reformed Church, arrived last week. I love this magazine for the place it has in my life and the people that worked there. I was its editor for ten years until about ten years ago.

As I noted, The Banner came in the mail. I’ve recycled it in the meantime. But not before I saw an article that insists that Genesis can be read literally (so called) and still be consistent with the observable and verifiable science of today. The article suggests that you can do science and somehow still believe in a young earth and worldwide flood. It doesn’t seem to matter to the author that all—well maybe only 99%--of the scientists who actually work on these matters disagree with him.

I wrote, years ago, that all theological propositions are under-warranted. That is, even when there is a good cases to be made for some theological proposition or another, it is likely that another theologian can make a decent case for a different point of view. Think the nature of Jesus’ presence at the Eucharist, or infant versus adult baptism, or the various views of the atonement. However, the trouble with the creationist view of science, and the theology that flows from it, is that both are unwarranted. 

How does one explain a denomination that feels the need to keep such nonsense before its members to the exclusion of even talking about the theological implications that might follow if 99% of all scientists are actually correct? This is willful pretending. It is hubris.

I feel bad for the editorial board that feels political pressure to publish such stuff and a synod that exorcises an editor for publishing articles that ask, “theologically what might it mean if every scientist out there is right and our old, traditional fall-back positions are wrong?” But I guess most denominations have their own brand of craziness. Mormons believe that Native Americans are descended from the lost tribes of Israel. Premilleniallists think Jesus is going to return any minute and usher in a thousand year millennial reign. Or maybe a tribulation. Or maybe not. Fundamentalist Christians think being homosexual is a sin, and evangelicals think that isn’t so, but homosexual acts are a sin. Roman Catholics think that Mother Mary bodily ascended to heaven and that birth control is a sin (well, at least they teach this. Most Catholics don't really believe it). If I dug around a bit, I’m sure I could find some craziness in the United Church of Canada too. Though at least in this denomination no one will hold you to it. 

Simone Weil--who, admittedly, was also a bit crazy about some stuff--got this one exactly right. She said of all "associations for promoting ideas" (things like churches and unions) that no one should be "liable to be invited to subscribe to a collection of assertions crystallized in written form." She added that excommunication should follow only for moral breaches, and not for intellectual disagreements, because, "too great a uniformity of opinion would render any such association suspect." I suppose that means that in a church creation scientists and real scientists would be invited to live in peace.

I remember the pressure to publish such articles when I was editor of that magazine. I resisted—but at a certain point, resistance was futile. The church is, after all, full of people who do believe this stuff. They can’t always be denied; but they shouldn't be given the rod of correction either. Another way of putting it is that you can sanctify this creation science stuff but you can’t excuse it.

But oh, what a mess for the CRC. This sort of article swaps modern fundamentalist myths for serious scholarship and the sort of common sense any teen can learn by taking a grade ten biology course—though it would need to be in a public school (but not one in Kansas or Texas, I suppose). And it means that any scientist who is actually “on the bench,” or doing field work (for an oil company, maybe; or like my daughter-in-law, working with DNA) will get a pit in his or her stomach and ask, “can I really trust what the church teaches about the nature of Jesus’ presence at the Lord’s Supper, or salvation, or original sin if it promotes this nonsense even to the exclusion of other widely accepted (if often secretly held) points of view?” The answer is, ultimately, "no."

The church’s insistence on such nonsense has created a culture of fear among scientists employed by the church. I remember the agony of Howard Van Till and it made an impact. We remember that John Schneider and Dan Harlow were politely shown the door (more or less) for wondering about alternatives to the current rut. I once interviewed pretty much the entire biology faculty of an CRC-connected college. Not a single person there had any sympathy for creation science views, but all of them agreed they wouldn’t say so.

I can also name thirty or forty people I'm personally acquainted with—people I grew up with, went to seminary with, and many who now worship in the United Church or who belong to other denominations—who left the CRC over this and similar issues. They just couldn’t deal with the dissonance anymore. You could probably fill Grand Rapids’ Van Andel stadium with West Michigan people who have left the CRC over such issues—or are on the verge of doing so. And if the CRC took a stand and said, “Of course, we really do need to talk about such stuff in an atmosphere of mutual respect, safety, and love,” (and actually do this, too, for talk is cheap) that same stadium could be filled with an equal number of people who would leave the CRC because they thought the CRC had left them.

It is, as I said, a mess.


  1. Rant on, my bruthuh! You do me no favors--Judy says, "See, Stan, you can too respond to this stuff without all the 'street words.' Just look at Suk!" Thanks, John! Seriously. Though emeritus, I remain an activist. Our group is working now in solidarity with Idle No More, the indigenous people's activist group. At a recent dedication of a monument actually recognizing there were humans in our area before Europeans, the ceremony, including the Native American view of our relation to the earth was deeply moving for me. I couldn't help reflecting on the similarity to our Genesis--made of the earth, in-breathed with life, sharing all life to the point of God's bringing Adam's potential mates from the animal world, given steward responsibilities--and in the wake of the Jesus-event, an earth groaning for us to take our designated place. Then the Banner came. And all the behavioral issues, and hope that goes with them, are buried again in fantasy "right thinking." As if, somehow, the "real" issues of Genesis are 24 hour days and 6000 years. (One of my OCCUPY friends asked me, "how did they know it was morning before the sun was created?" His church left him, too.) Stan VerHeul

  2. So, I don't have time to re-write the post that disappeared, but the gist of it was this - I came to believe in 10th grade, due to the teaching of my Christian High School biology teacher, that God did not create the earth in six 24 hour periods. And I think it's a shame that a scientist that's a member of the CRC has to feel that the denomination needs to "monitor" what that scientist believes. However, maybe people like you, John, and Stan, go a little beyond what's needed in your criticism. Obviously you don't agree with them, but maybe it's just a group struggling with the bigger question of what's to be taken literally. You ask what your daughter is supposed to think of the Church's teachings when they are so obviously wrong about creation; I think you can say the exact same thing regarding what I think your positions are - how am I supposed to trust anything the Bible says when the creation story is not "literal"; the traditional stance on homosexuality hangs on an obscure translation of Greek, Paul "obviously" didn't mean what he said regarding woman, etc.,etc. It just gets to point, as you said, where hey, if more people than not (the "smart" ones, anyway), think the "traditional" teaching is wrong, well, I guess it is and I have to change what I think. Anyway, I just feel for a group of people who, for many years, have struggled with the question of what to take literally. I don't agree with them on all things, but I respect their struggle and don't feel the need for condescending criticisms like "buried again in fantasy "right thinking". I think that kind of criticism is not just "I don't agree with you" (and it's certainly not discussion done in "safety" or "respect") - it's communicating the idea that those who feel that way are "stupid" or "ignorant" or just simply not educated or smart enough.

    1. Touche, at least in part. One thing I'd add, though, is that this is about the intersection of science and interpretation, not merely about the intersection of what two theologians might think about an issue. And the problem with where the CRC and other denominations are at on this one is that the science, about which there is near universal consensus requires rethinking theology--about original sin, for example; or alien guilt; or the order of God's decrees; or even about our attitude towards the cosmos. While there is freedom to wonder about the science, and even to promote (to a certain degree) approaches like theistic evolution, there is almost no freedom to publicly wonder about how contemporary science might force Christians to rethink these sort of issues. The science is slippery and dangerous, the feeling is, while the dogmas are set in stone.

  3. Mr. Suk, I am a fan of yours. I enjoyed your editorship at “The Banner” and really became interested in your writing when I read your book. I follow your writing and find it insightful.
    I sympathize with what you write here, but one thing I regret is that you did not mention that in this Banner's cover story, an article by Jake Buurma (who, full disclosure, is a friend and church family member of mine), Buurma says we do NOT need to be afraid of dinosaurs, that we can rejoice in God's creation through learning more about it in science, and urging the readers to encourage Christian students to go into the STEM studies. (The article can be found here:
    It sounds as if you interpret the article as saying that you can believe the article "insists that Genesis can be read literally (so called) and still be consistent with the observable and verifiable science of today. The article suggests that you can do science and somehow still believe in a young earth and worldwide flood." I guess I can see how you could interpret it that way, but Buurma writes, “The Bible is God’s holy and divine Word, but it’s not a book of science.”
    My interpretation of the article is that Buurma is trying to help Christians see that we can be true scientists, that we can and do believe in an immensely old earth -- that we can “hold a 30 million-year-old fossil” in our hands, “Or hike into a meteor crater that is 50 thousand years old,” and at the same time, we can believe that “God is the Lord of heaven and earth. He is the creator of the natural and the supernatural, and he is both immanent—that is, in the universe—and transcendent—surpassing both space and time.”

    1. I wasn't thinking of the article you reference, though I read it. I understand that theistic evolution is an option that Christians explore. But to make room, in this day and age, for creation science as one equal option among others is what bugs me. It isn't an equal, or even a rational option; it is just rationalization in order to hang onto a view of literalism that was only invented over the past few hundred years. And, as I noted above, while there is some room to play with theistic evolution ideas, there is little to no room to really wrestle with a whole host of doctrinal difficulties that such a position poses for traditional theological formulations.

    2. So, ok, while in your original blog you seem to criticize the CRC for not even talking about the issue, now your problem is that creation science should not even be considered at all - it's not "rational". So much for having a discussion! And ok, the CRC makes "some room" to "play" with theistic evolution, but there's no way the CRC would ever wrestle with the doctrinal difficulties! Sorry, John, it just feels like nothing's good enough. And you make my other point for me; now it's not enough to offer that evolution may be the method God used to create the planet as we know it; now we have to acknowledge that Adam and Eve probably aren't real either and the "fall" in the garden of Eden is just a story God inspired Moses to write. It's kind of like any photograph you see these days - you really have to wonder if any of it is real; and that's not really a place I think is beneficial for a Christian. Maybe you do; maybe you're the kind who just simply can't accept anything as absolute fact and just can't help but "question" (criticize, maybe, at times?), but somehow I don't think God will care much if a human being decides to to believe he created the world in 144 hours and had the knowledge and power to make the world as it is? I don't personally believe it, but does it make any difference if someone else does?

  4. Hmm. Problem with these responses (for me at least) is that they are so back of the envelope. Yes, I suppose from my point of view creation science shouldn't even be on the table. But you know, if people want to hold to it, and discuss it, I suppose that while I would find that inane, I wouldn't actually object to it. People should have the right. As they should have the right to explore the theological consequences for their confessional theology in view of the universally accepted model for cosmic and human evolution. I'm not CRC anymore, so it shouldn't really matter to me at all, except that I do know so many people who, like me, left the CRC because they could no longer deal with the contradictions of their day to day work in the lab (for example) with the official line of the church. And worse, for them, was that they couldn't explore this in public, either. Because from the denominational perspective, there has to be an Adam and Eve, a real garden and snake, a fall into sin and all that. Or there has to be an Adam and Eve if our favourite interpretation of Paul is going to be correct. Ironically, not even a truly literate reading of Genesis would support such interpretations as being necessary--it is just that contemporary science has now also made such interpretations untenable.

  5. You need to get updated just like the CRC. Those te folks call themselves ec now, and id people and oec like put your blather to shame. Ranting your agenda instead of respect, safety, and love is something you aggravated as the CRC banner editor. Are you really so emotionally irrational to not even acknowledge that they had two opposite articles which is closer to respect and love than you are showing. Both those articles were trying to do damage control from the previous one-sided fork in the eye article you probably liked. Schroeder also could round out your's and the CRC tunnel writing.


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