Elaine Kennedy: Dialogue with an Adventist geologist

Elaine Kennedy grew up in the plains of Enid, Oklahoma. Her lifelong love of geology began early, as she collected the fossils that are abundant in eastern Oklahoma. In 1981, she obtained a B.S. in geology, and four years later, another B.S. in education from Phillips University.

After completing an M.S. in geology from Loma Linda University (La Sierra Campus) in 1987, and a Ph.D. in geology from the University of California in 1991, Elaine joined the Geoscience Research Institute in 1991 as a research scientist. She holds memberships in the Society for Sedimentary Geology, the Geological Society of America, the International Association of Sedimentologists, and the Affiliation of Christian Geologists.

Her research projects include deep-water sedimentation for the Tapeats Sandstone (Grand Canyon, Arizona), and sedimentological study of dinosaur egg and eggshell fragment deposits in Patagonia, Argentina. Her publications range from reports in peer-reviewed scientific journals to her personal testimony in church publications.

Elaine’s husband, Dee, is a project manager for a mechanical engineering company in southern California. They have two adult daughters, Shelley and Ami. In addition to fossil-collecting, Elaine also enjoys quilting, opera, reading, and studying the cultural roots of her Scottish, English, German, and Cherokee heritage.

When did you first become aware of a potential conflict between traditional scientific interpretations of origins and your belief in God as Creator?

In my 9th-grade biology class, I became upset by the ideas in Darwin’s Origin of Species, but my teacher told me not to let one man’s opinion upset me so much. I interpreted that to mean I was intelligent enough to think for myself!

How did you resolve this challenge to your faith?

While I was still in high school, a new pastor came to town, and he explained that we (Southern Baptists) had “misunderstood” the creation account of Genesis and that God had molded and developed life through the process of evolution. His views of theistic evolution were comforting to me because I could retain both my belief in God as Creator and the overwhelming respect that I had for science.

You enrolled in college to do a major in geology. How did your views of God change as your studies continued?

I had difficulty reconciling the image of a loving Creator with all the death and destruction that appeared in the mass-mortality deposits. Though our church taught that death was the result of sin, I saw death as a natural part of the life cycle created by God—which made Him the author of death. This image of God wasn’t consistent with the One I’d come to know through personal experience.

What helped you emerge from this spiritual crisis?

I left college in my junior year to marry Dee, an Air Force pilot, and we joined a non-denominational Bible study group. Our interest in end-time events was heightened as we read Hal Lindsay’s The Late Great Planet Earth. Then we saw an advertisement for Kenneth Cox’s Prophecy Crusade. We had never heard of Seventh-day Adventists before, but thought the meetings were worth attending if we could learn more about the imminent return of Christ. Each evening we took notes and compared them with Lindsay’s book. The following evening we would corner Elder Cox and challenge him with: “Hal Lindsay says…”

He’d just smile and say, “Let’s see what the Bible has to say about that,” and he’d show us, from the Bible, where he derived his theology. Gradually, the Bible began to make sense as a complete body of work.

Eventually, this evangelistic series covered the topic of a literal six-day creation. Given your background in science, how did you respond?

One night the sermon title was “Adam’s Mother’s Birthday,” and after the meeting, I told Elder Cox that I was a student of geology and that it was crazy to present a literal creation and a short chronology for life on Earth. Instead of reaching for his Bible, he responded by saying that he wanted to give me a book to read. The book was Harold Coffin’s Creation: Accident or Design? As I skimmed through the chapters, I realized that the author was using the same data and evidence that I’d been taught, but that his interpretations and conclusions were quite different.

I was stunned to realize that I could believe in the Bible and still be a scientist. The problem wasn’t the data; it was the interpretations that were placed on the data. At last the conflict was resolved; once again God became the loving Creator described in the Bible. Both Dee and I accepted the seventh-day Sabbath as a memorial of Creation.

You and Dee joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Eventually you decided to finish your college degree…

Dee was unable to keep both the Sabbath and his military career; so he decided to get a Master’s degree in math education. By then, we’d also started a family; so my own educational plans were sidetracked. After our youngest daughter started attending preschool, Dee encouraged me to resume my studies, one class at a time. Later I completed a second bachelor’s degree in education, while teaching earth science at a local junior high school.

Did you intend to remain an earth-science teacher for the rest of your career?

I thought so, but earlier, while we were living in Texas, Harold Coffin came to Southwestern Adventist College to introduce a new academy science textbook. We were overjoyed to meet the author of the book that had changed my life, and continued to correspond with him. Dr. Coffin encouraged me to pursue a doctorate in geology, with the eventual goal of joining the Geoscience Research Institute. Ultimately that dream became a reality.

While earning your Ph.D., you probably encountered Sabbath issues, with scheduled field trips or even examinations. Did you also have difficulty remaining in the program because you were a committed creationist?

My professors were understanding about my Sabbath convictions, and one even went out of his way to ensure that I could participate in a required field trip and still keep the Sabbath. It was more difficult to be a creationist in an area of study that is dominated by evolutionary teaching. Before I entered the program, I told God that I was placing my degree in His hands and that I would openly share my faith. I didn’t believe I was there to be aggressively evangelistic, but I had a Christian poster on the wall of my cubicle; and a Bible and a copy of Steps to Christ on my desk. The door was always open for discussion with whomever God’s Spirit sent my way.

What advice do you have for Adventist students who might be facing challenges to their faith, either from Sabbath keeping, or more ideological issues?

You don’t have to be a closet Christian to attend a public university. The worst mistakes I’ve ever seen are those committed by students with a very limited understanding of an issue who decide to take on a university professor and “set him or her straight.” If one’s faith is being challenged, one must make a stand, but there are many ways to do this without trying to humiliate a professor in public. If emotions are pushing you to respond, back off and pray for the Holy Spirit’s leading. You really need God’s wisdom and strength in these instances. When it comes to God’s laws, you simply cannot compromise.

From the viewpoint of a Christian geologist, what has convinced you that the biblical account of Creation and the Flood (Genesis 1-11) is valid and factual?

First, I believe that the Bible is the divinely inspired Word of God and that the biblical account is absolutely true with respect to Earth history. I also believe that the short chronology for life that is required by this view is valid.

Second, I see catastrophism written all over Earth’s surface. I look at the Precambrian rocks, the “oldest” rocks on Earth, and I think of Day 3 of Creation week. I look at mountains and mass mortalities and think of the Genesis flood. Paraconformities, megasequences, zones of rupture of Earth’s crust (the global ridge rift system), and the unique global deposits (redbeds, fossil fuels, chalks, black shales, etc.) provide evidence for a highly complex global catastrophe. I also see time in the rock record, and this reinforces my concepts with regard to the complexity of the event.

Third, I know that time is the crucial issue in these discussions. The long ages of the standard Earth-history model reside more and more between the rock layers, not in them.

Fourth, there are things I do not know and cannot explain. The biggest one is this: Why do the sequences in the rock record and the sequences in the fossil record match worldwide? I have plenty of ideas, but not scientifically acceptable answers. I believe it will take a team of researchers to put this together.

Does working for the Seventh-day Adventist Church affect your work as a geologist?

Definitely! The church has supported my research with funding and encouragement. Church leaders have neither told me what or where to research, nor what conclusions to draw. My theological perspective raises questions that would not be considered at any other institution, but here at the Geoscience Research Institute, I am free to seek the answers. Consequently, I believe that my research makes contributions to the body of scientific knowledge and to the church’s mission.

Kathy Ching is the publications/graphics editor for the Geoscience Research Institute. Elaine Kennedy may be contacted at the Geoscience Research Institute; 11060 Campus Street; Loma Linda, California 92350; U.S.A. Email: ekennedy@univ.llu.edu.