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In creation-evolution debate America needs a Day of Listening

I appeared as a guest on a Christian radio talk show recently, hoping the host would find the life and faith stories of prominent scientists intriguing. (That's the subject of my book, "The Adam Quest: Eleven Scientists Who Held on to a Strong Faith While Wrestling with the Mystery of Human Origins," which profiles scientists on all sides of the evolution-creation debate.) Instead I found that he wanted to tell me what he found wrong with scientists: that they wouldn't even consider important evidence that the earth is just thousands, not millions, of years old. I could hardly get a word in edgewise.

Life is full of missed opportunities -- the kind where you lie awake thinking of what you should have said. After it was too late, I wished I had asked him whether he knew any working scientists, and whether he had ever listened to them explain their thinking.

One thing is clear to me, the righteousness of both sides is not getting us anywhere.

I wished I had asked him how he would react if I came on his radio show and told him that he was doing the show all wrong--that all those commercials running every 12 minutes were unnecessary and annoying.

How patiently would he listen to me with my amateur opinions about radio, lecturing him with his decades of experience in the industry?

Such one-sided conversations are not just the property of young-earth creationists. Jumping the fence, I recently read The Huffington Post quoting Bill Nye on the Texas textbook controversy. Nye said that those that believe the earth is 10,000 years old are "jeopardizing the future of the United States economy" and that the very idea of granting them a voice in school is "inane, silly, outrageous." 

Both sides of the creation-evolution debate want to lecture the other. And they do! The Internet has vastly increased the level of intemperance.

Those who believe the Earth is old are astonished and outraged that some large percentage of Americans (the number varies depending on whose survey you believe) remains convinced the earth is young and that dinosaurs roamed our planet with Adam and Eve.

Those who believe the Earth is young are equally outraged that creation scientists can't get their papers published in mainstream science journals -- and that their narrative of Earth's history can't even get a mention in science textbooks as an alternative theory.

Both sides can (and do) give you an earful about the strong evidence for their position, and the shocking and willful ignorance of those who won't listen. What I can't find, anywhere, are people listening to each other.

I would like to propose, therefore, a Day of Listening. The format is simple. Those who care about issues of creation and evolution will seek out somebody on the other side and seek merely to understand.

There's a technique in marriage counseling known as "Speaker-Listener." The Speaker gets to hold the "microphone" -- it can be a coffee mug, or a rolled up newspaper--and express an important concern.

The Listener cannot interrupt nor rebut. He or she can only ask clarifying questions, and then paraphrase as well as possible what the Speaker is saying. Only after the Listener has paraphrased the Speaker's concern to the Speaker's satisfaction does the "microphone" change hands. Then the rules apply the other way.

It's an awkward format but it helps couples filled with emotion actually listen to each other. I think it might help people in the Evolution-Creation debates -- if they want to be helped.

I know there is small likelihood that issues of creation and evolution will be solved through such an exercise. It's not even clear that people are capable of understanding each other on these complex issues. 

One thing is clear to me, however: the righteousness of both sides is not getting us anywhere. 

People have been shouting across the barricades for decades, and nobody has budged an inch. It only makes people more angry. 

It only makes young people who grow up in religious homes avoid science careers. It only makes those who go into science avoid church and the insights that faith can offer.

I know the objections. "We already know what they say, and they are wrong, wrong, wrong! Why should I waste time listening to them?"

Interestingly, people on both sides say it.

Maybe if they pulled back their vituperation and committed to a Day of Listening, they might make space for understanding. 

Not agreement, but understanding. Because the world was made, by whatever method and in whatever time frame. 

It's done. We live in it! What matters much more than the method by which it was made is how we live in it together.

Tim Stafford is Senior Writer for Christianity Today Magazine, where he has published many profiles of significant Christian leaders including Tim Keller, N.T. Wright, Lesslie Newbigin, Phillip Johnson, and Jack Hayford. He is the author of the forthcoming book "The Adam Quest: Eleven Scientists Who Held on to a Strong Faith While Wrestling with the Mystery of Human Origins" (Thomas Nelson Dec. 31, 2013). He has won two Gold Medallions for his work on "The Student Bible" (with Philip Yancey, Zondervan) and "Comeback" (with Dave Dravecky, Zondervan). His most recent publications are "Miracles: A Journalist Looks at Modern-Day Experiences of God’s Power" and "Birmingham" (a novel). Tim and his wife, Popie, have three children and live in Santa Rosa, California.