April Maskiewicz Cordero, PhD, Biology Professor
- PhD in Biological Science, University of California San Diego
- Professor of Biology at Point Loma Nazarene University
- Speaker and podcast presentations via BioLogos
- Co-author of Renewal in Love: Living Holy Lives in God's Good Creation, 2014
- Contributor to Responsible Teaching in Science and Mathematics, 2015
When I entered college, my plan was to become a journalist. I had been the editor of our high school newspaper for two years and a career in journalism seemed like a logical next step. I earned mostly A’s in high school including in my science courses, but I was certain I did not want a career in science. My memories of my biology and chemistry class consist of collecting, naming, and pinning insects to a Styrofoam board, and memorizing the entire periodic table. Needless to say, I wasn’t a fan of either subject.
When it was time to choose my courses for college, I enrolled in a general education biology course to try to get through all of the dreaded graduation requirements as quickly as possible. The professor of that first course, Human Nutrition, set out to unravel the mysteries of the human digestive and metabolic systems for a room full of indifferent liberal arts majors. To my surprise, I became enchanted by the complex yet strikingly elegant mechanisms that convert and transport matter and energy to all the cells throughout our bodies. While pacing back and forth on the classroom stage, always with a handful of raw almonds at the ready, Dr. Mills captivated us with explanations and stories about how plants harness the energy from sun to make carbohydrates, and how our enzymes convert the carbs, fats, and proteins we eat into biochemicals that our body's tissues can use.
I enjoyed the course so much that I enrolled in another general education biology course the next quarter, and about half way through my freshman year in college I changed my major to biology and decided I would become a physician. But shortly thereafter I confronted an unexpected challenge to my faith: biological evolution.
I have been a Christ follower since my youth. I grew up attending Catholic school through eighth grade and during high school I was an active member of Young Life, a Christian youth organization. I was a believer when I entered college, and I don’t recall having given much thought, if any, to evolution prior to college. But it was in my third biology course when the professor told the class that a person cannot believe in God and accept evolution. The basic argument was that evolution proved that there was no God. I had never heard this before and found it puzzling. So I contacted my pastor and he basically told me the same thing-- that one must choose: either faith or evolution. Being young and trusting, I accepted this rhetoric as truth, especially because these two very different people, a pastor and a scientist, shared the same view.
The more I learned in my biology courses, the more evidence pointed toward the reality that all life on Earth evolved from a common ancestor, and since both sides were telling me that evolution and faith were mutually exclusive, midway through college I made the conscious decision to give up my faith and any belief in a God and I became atheist.
Fast forward to one year after I graduated from college with a biology degree. I had taken a job teaching English in Japan to escape a bad relationship and a boring research job in the states. It didn’t take long for me to became quite lonely in Japan with no radio or TV in English—this was 1989 before the internet, email, or Netflix existed. Fortunately, I had mailed myself two large boxes of books before leaving the states. I read through all of the books rather quickly, and at the bottom of the second box was a bible. As an atheist I no longer owned a bible, so I’m not sure how it got in the box, but with nothing else to do I began to read it.
The Bible can be a pretty difficult book to make sense of if you just start on page one and work your way through it. I had a million questions about this God I was reading about in the Old Testament so I began writing letters to my sister, who had maintained her Christianity and whom I consider to be very knowledgeable. It’s important to remember that this was before the internet, so I would snail mail her questions about what I was reading and she would patiently write responses and mail them back. It was a very slow process, but I began to realize that it took just as much faith to be an atheist as it took to believe in a God. There IS no evidence to prove that there is or is not a God of the universe. Yet atheism left so many questions unanswered. Why are we here? What/who started all this? What came before it all? Why does life on Earth work so well? If you believe there is no higher power, then you can’t really answer these questions.
In college, I had come to believe that atheism was a rational decision for those with a strong character, and deism was an unintelligent decision for those weak in character. But in Japan, I began to realize that believing in a higher power could also be an intellectual move rather than an emotional one. To believe in God, I did not have to check my brain at the door, and viewing the world and the universe through the lens of a creator provided much more explanatory power for all the existential questions that I had. I like how Peter Kreeft, a professor of philosophy at Boston College talks about it: “It takes faith to believe in everything coming from nothing. It takes only reason to believe in everything coming from God.”(1) I learned that accepting that there is a higher power satisfied my desire for rationality because it provided answers to so many more questions than just the questions science can answer. So in a most unlikely place, alone in Japan, I made the decision to rededicate my life to being a Christ follower, and shortly thereafter it was time to come back to the U.S.
It was 1990 and I was back in the states hiding my love of all things biology from my church friends and hiding my Christian beliefs from my science colleagues. I lived this secret double life all because of the prevailing narrative that evolution and faith are incompatible. For the next decade, my biggest challenge was to learn how to live out the Christian command to love the Lord with all my mind. I was successful at the heart, soul, and strength, but I had to find a way to reconcile my faith, the bible, and my acceptance of evolution. At the time, none of the pastors I knew would open-mindedly discuss evolution with me, and I couldn’t find any over-the-counter (or lay person) books on reconciling evolution and faith because, remember, this is before we had Google.
As I prayed for insight and sought answers anywhere I could find them, I discovered that a large number of theologians and biblical scholars believe that many parts of the bible are not meant to be interpreted literally. I came to understand that Genesis is not written as a scientific explanation of creation. In fact, the order of creation explained in Genesis 1 and 2 are quite different. I also learned that different books of the bible were written at different times, for different groups of people, and when viewed within their context, the messages from these books were even more beautiful and profound than without this perspective. In other words, I came to realize that taking the bible on its own terms—not forcing it to answer questions or provide information it’s not intended to address—allowed me to take science on its own terms.
And the best tools science has available to us reveal that the immeasurable variety of biological diversity we see on earth is the result of evolution—a well-tested and well-confirmed explanation. In short, over three billion years, through mutations, natural selection, genetic drift, mass extinctions, and other processes, evolution has filled practically every niche on Earth with life. The incredibly complex, intricate, and elegant mechanisms of evolution explain the changes we see in organisms over time, and lead us to conclude that very diverse living organisms descended and diversified from earlier forms during the history of the earth. And more importantly for us, evolution is silent about God. Therefore, if we view creation through the lens that God was and is the creator, we can courageously explore evolution and appreciate God’s handiwork.
Now, more than 20 years later, I believe it is my calling to help Christian students and others understand that Christian faith and evolution do not need to conflict. But I wasn’t always enthusiastic about teaching this controversial topic.
After returning from Japan, I decided to become a high school biology teacher, blending my passion for biology with my nascent experience as an instructor. For the next several years, as I prepared my school calendar, I intentionally scheduled the evolution unit for the very end of the school year so that I would run out of time to teach it. While I had found a way to reconcile my own faith with biological evolution, I did not feel comfortable explaining to others how they might reconcile evolution and faith. Instead, I felt anxious talking with students, and parents, trying to convince them that a Christian can accept evolution. I was intimidated by the topic because the surrounding controversy felt like confrontation; so I avoided teaching evolution altogether. But God had a different plan for my life.
Slowly over the past 20 years, I gained a desire to be more proactive in changing the narrative that evolution and Christian faith are not compatible. And I learned how to enjoy communicating with Christians about evolution issues. In fact, I’ve spent the last several years researching the best approaches for guiding and supporting students as they navigate the evolution and Christianity terrain so that their faith is strengthened and not threatened. Most of my college biology students harbor some fear and resistance toward learning evolution. They come from conservative home churches that have told them the same thing I heard in the 1980’s: that one must choose between evolution and Christianity. But I try to help them appreciate how fortunate we are that in the 21st century we have the opportunity to gain a glimpse into some of the mechanisms of how God created.
I do all this because I can imagine a future when evolution labs are filled with Christians who are searching for truth knowing that whatever they find, it will always reveal the magnificence of God’s power. I do all this because I want it to be the norm that Christian parents and youth pastors encourage young people to study biology, anthropology, and geology because there is so much we can learn about God’s processes and mechanisms of creation.
Personal reflection: Following the path of truth is a profound act of faith for the Christian, not an act of rebellion against God and religion. The Christian thinker boldly explores truth bolstered by the absolute faith that this ISGod’s creation and that all truth, ultimately, will lead us to marvel at Him who created the world.