Defending Faith & Learning:

Baylor University's Polanyi Center comes under fire from the university's faculty

When The Chronicle of Higher Education reported last week that the faculty senate of Baylor University voted 26-2 to recommend that the administration dissolve the recently established Michael Polanyi Center for Complexity, Information, and Design, many readers must have assumed that the new hotspot in the Darwin Wars was Waco, Texas. Move over, Kansas. After all, despite much huffing and puffing about procedural matters-the center was established by administrative fiat, under the auspices of the university’s Institute for Faith and Learning, rather than through traditional faculty channels-it is clear that opposition to the center has a great deal to do with the ongoing debate over the “intelligent design” movement, which one Baylor faculty member describes as “stealth creationism.” But the controversy at Baylor is more complicated than simply a battle between defenders of the Darwinian establishment and champions of intelligent design, and those complications have much to tell us about the challenges facing Christians who are committed to excellence in scholarship-and who are convinced that their faith and their scholarship do not belong in separate compartments, sealed off from each other.

The Baylor story begins with Robert B. Sloan, Jr., who has been president of the university since 1995. Sloan, a New Testament scholar with a doctorate in theology from the University of Basel, has sought to increase Baylor’s academic excellence while re-emphasizing the university’s Christian tradition. As a result of his unapologetic statement that prospective Baylor faculty members should be “individuals who sincerely espouse and seek to express their academic and professional identities through the particularity of the Christian faith-i.e., commitment to the universal lordship of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ,” Sloan has been pilloried by faculty critics at Baylor as a “fundamentalist” (see The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 23, 1999).

Here, as at many historically Protestant and Catholic colleges and universities today, we see the convolutions of faculty who dismiss, as somehow outrageous, the very raison d’etre of the institutions they serve. To do justice to this phenomenon would require the savage satiric genius of Jonathan Swift. But this fifth column is not the only threat to genuine integration of faith and learning at Christian institutions. The fundamentalist bogeyman is all too real, as countless faculty members and administrators at Christian colleges could attest, to their sorrow. Indeed, not long before Sloan became president, Baylor’s science faculty came under fire from fundamentalist Baptists for teaching evolution.

Which brings us back to the Polanyi Center. William Dembski, the center’s director-and a familiar figure to readers of Books & Culture-is one of the leading voices of the intelligent design movement. But Dembski and Bruce Gordon, the center’s associate director, while they disagree strongly with the naturalistic assumptions that are at the foundation of mainstream Darwinism, do not want to shut down debate by quoting from Genesis (as many fundamentalist critics of evolution do), nor do they engage in the flimsy pseudo-scholarship that characterizes so-called creation science. Rather, they want to promote high-level debate on issues of “complexity, information, and design” in the universe, just as the center’s full name promises.

To that end, just before the faculty senate vote reported in the Chronicle, the Polanyi Center hosted a conference on naturalism that brought together leading Christian thinkers with robust defenders of naturalism. The conference, which featured an extraordinary lineup of influential scientists, philosophers, and scholars from other fields, should serve as a model for first-rate Christian engagement with scholarship, showing that, contra Richard Rorty, religion is not a conversation-stopper in the national conversation.

A day after the Chronicle reported the faculty vote, President Sloan gave a “State of the University” address in which he reaffirmed the university’s commitment to the center and noted that its work would be evaluated by a panel largely consisting of outside experts. That is good news. We need more centers like this, and more administrators with the vision and courage to make them a reality.

John Wilson is Editor of Books & Culture: A Christian Review.