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FIRST-PERSON: In Minsk, a passion for learning

MOUNT VERNON, Ga. (BP)–Our ministries sometimes turn provincial far too quickly, especially when we avert our eyes from God’s work apart from our little corner of the world. Venturing to Belarus earlier this year, I had the privilege of conducting apologetics seminars for students at Minsk University in the capital city. What a place! It is a city of surviving communist yet fledgling capitalist influences, an amalgam of East meets West. I also spent two days teaching in Hrodna, a smaller city four hours to the west. Once called White Russia, Belarus is blanketed in snow for much of the year, but the hearts of the students were warm beyond measure.

Most of the students were Christians, but atheists also were invited to the sessions, with a good number actually participating. To have an American professor tutoring them in Christian apologetics was a novelty, something they had never considered as a possibility before much less encountered.

The Belarussian way is to be “in your face” about intellectual ideas, not literally but figuratively. If you’re critiqued openly, it can’t be taken personally. It’s just their way of discussing important matters. Yet undergrads there aren’t allowed to challenge their teachers, so they apparently decided to challenge me instead as their invited American prof.

Challenges from the Christian students came in the form of much-needed clarification about apologetics-type issues they’d never been exposed to previously. Challenges from the atheist students were more in terms of “I don’t trust a thing you’re saying!” But seeds for the Gospel were planted, even as I put the Apostle Peter’s words into practice by treating each of them with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15).

As expected, some wanted to know why there’s so much evil in the world, framing their concern for my sake, I suppose, in light of America’s 9/11 experience. Talk about a loaded question, one that led easily enough to the redemptive story found only in the cross of Christ!

During the spirited session on scientific apologetics, I covered evolutionary theory and its weaknesses as thoroughly as possible in our short time together, and apparently I scratched where they itched. Again as expected, Belarussian young people are indoctrinated from day one with the tenets of neo-Darwinism. The molecules-to-man evolution of species, apart from any divine means or creative fiat, is part and parcel of their entrenched curricula.

To combat evolution effectively, however, intelligent design (ID) must surely be brought into the 21st-century global classroom. At bottom, ID involves reformulating arguments for a created order more along the lines of scientific theory. In addition, it uncovers interpretations of data that render the designs of an intelligent agent detectable. But the Belarussian students knew nothing whatsoever about ID and its contemporary impact. Belarus, then, is a field ripe for harvest, so to speak, regarding the extended apologetic value of intelligent design.

With old-style, Soviet-tinged teaching methods still firmly in place, western textbooks still are disallowed as tools for learning. The only information students receive is what professors dictate via lecture, and it’s by no means ID-friendly. Evangelical students simply have to put up with what they know intuitively to be untruths, with little or no recourse to attend some other institution.

All this to say, there are now roughly 90 Belarussian students who know a great deal more about intelligent design’s escalating presence and effectiveness within the worldwide scientific community. As a part of ID, Michael Behe’s irreducible complexity and William Dembski’s specified complexity intrigued them to a person. Behe basically says that biochemical systems can be shown to have been designed by an intelligent agent, while Dembski shows us mathematically how highly improbable it is for complex patterns to arise by chance.

I also supplied them with the names of other ID movers and shakers, explaining their diverse contributions to the growing movement. The Belarussian thirst for knowledge was striking, and Googling for major articles by ID authors, they told me, will be a priority item on their download agenda.

Interestingly, learning how to defeat atheism, evolution and naturalism on their own grounds by way of logic and evidence -– as opposed to getting backed into a corner with words like “But the Bible says …” as their only means of defense -– was a bona fide concern for these students. The incisiveness and scope of their questions betrayed their hunger for a wide-ranging apologetic strategy, one that’s unafraid to make use of either logic or evidence as the occasion demands. This was a door they had never walked through before — learning to apply the tandem power of common grace and general revelation as a Spirit-led means to help demolish anti-Christian strongholds.

One last observation. The Belarussian students are seemingly way ahead of American students their same age, at least in maturity and inquisitiveness. Many are as smart as can be, able to speak Russian, Belarussian and English to varying degrees. And why is this? Because they have absolutely no opportunity to squander time and money on all the stuff that American youth deem so necessary to purchase and pursue. All the vain things that charm our young people most, even ministerial students, are of no consideration to them. As a consequence, they’ve grown up in a hurry, and “fun” in the American sense is awfully hard to come by. They are full-fledged, thinking adults occupying college student bodies.

Plans to return to Minsk in 2005 are underway, this time also getting older seminarians involved with apologetics training. American students from around the nation will link up with us as well, sitting alongside the Belarussians in all the same training sessions while earning three hours college credit for their efforts.

Today’s descendants of the White Russians are a unique breed. Their smarts, their appetite for information and their intrinsic resolve as a people made for the perfect backdrop to teach them the first principles of intelligent design and apologetics in general as well as some biblical basics. I can only say, “Bol’shoe spasibo!” “Many thanks,” Belarussian saints, for your pursuit of genuine knowledge for the sake of the Kingdom.
Hal Ostrander is chair of the religion and philosophy division at Brewton-Parker College in Mount Vernon, Ga.

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  • Hal Ostrander