RIP V. Elving Anderson, 1921-2014 (G.W. Carlson)

Elving Anderson
V. Elving Anderson (1921-2014)

V. Elving Anderson died on March 9, 2014 after serving a distinguished career as educator and researcher. (See his obituary here.) He was born in 1921 in Stromsburg, Nebraska, into a family deeply rooted in the Swedish Baptist heritage. He attended Bethel Junior College (A.A. degree), studied at the Seminary, and then completed his B.A. in 1945 from the University of Minnesota. Bethel’s dean encouraged Elving to study zoology in graduate school so that he could come back and teach at Bethel. He received his doctorate in 1953 from the University of Minnesota. From 1946 to 1960 Elving served on the Bethel faculty, was head of the Biology department (after Bethel became a four year college in 1948) and served a stint as Dean of Students. Later he was a member of Bethel’s Board of Regents.

In 1961 he left Bethel to be a professor in the Dight Institute for Human Genetics at the University of Minnesota. Elving’s early research dealt with the familial risk for breast cancer, and he was later known for his study of the implications of genetics for such diseases as epilepsy. Active in the American Scientific Affiliation, an organization of distinguished Christian scientists, Elving was a close friend of fellow Christian geneticist Dr. Francis S. Collins, currently head of the National Institutes of Health under President Obama. He retired from the University of Minnesota in 1991 but continued to work on epilepsy projects, present papers at major academic conferences, and reflect on the relationship between faith and science.

Elving Anderson believed that “Christians are called to ‘team up’ with Jesus Christ, in scientific work as in any other calling. Jesus offers guidance and assurance in thinking through the daily decisions each of us must make. And Jesus is a mighty good companion to have along the way.”

The following is the tribute I gave at Elving Anderson’s funeral.

– G.W. Carlson

I was at a dinner the other day and reflected on the life and interactions of Elving Anderson. One of the persons at the table suggested, “Even though he was a highly intelligent person you never felt like you were dumb.” He was a brilliant, gentle soul who wished to engage people about issues of the faith, the life of the church, the world of politics, the latest scientific discussions, and trends in Christian higher education. Elving was significantly influential in my academic and spiritual journey in four major areas.

First is Elving’s belief that science matters. Too many Christians tend to fear science and see it as something that is anti-Christian. This gets expressed in a tendency to negate the legitimacy of genetics research, deny the contributions of climate change research, forsake the efforts to explore various understandings of human origins, and seriously question a number of issues concerning human sexuality.

Elving Anderson, 1954
Elving in 1954, on receiving his doctorate in zoology from the University of Minnesota – Bethel University Digital Library

Although Dr. Anderson understood some of the dangers of a misuse of scientific research, he felt that it could and should be used for the good of the human community. While he rejected the idea of human cloning, he also believed that genetic research was essential to respond to major health crises like diabetes, breast cancer, and epilepsy.

One author wrote that Elving concluded that we should use the “new powers given to us by the science of human genetics, without misusing them. We should be realistic about new technologies, expecting them neither to solve all human problems nor to cause inevitable disaster. And we should always remember that God is the ultimate source of all knowledge and power.”

Second, Elving was committed to the value of Christian higher education.  He expressed great support for Bethel’s efforts to be faithful to God in accomplishing this task. As a Bethel faculty member, acting dean, and board member he found ways to ensure a positive input into what Bethel was doing. He especially affirmed the value of effective teaching.

Over the last decade I have edited the Baptist Pietist Clarion. Upon hearing that I was developing an issue focusing on the life and witness of C. Emanuel Carlson and Walfred Peterson, Elving asked if he could write an essay on the former. He reflected on the Modern World History class he had from Carlson in 1939, when he was a student at Bethel Junior College:

C. E. allowed me to experience the privilege of Christian Education through learning how to value the asking of good questions, appreciating the joy of teaching as a “divine vocation,” and understanding the commitments of the “free church” tradition’s commitment to religious liberty.

Elving came to value the core traits of C. E. Carlson’s vision of Christian liberal arts education: “He wanted all his students to experience the new birth, recognize the value of the insights of the Baptist heritage and cultivate a personal commitment to the Lordship of Christ. His belief in the relevance of the pietist heritage infiltrated both the curriculum of Bethel and the personal mission of the staff.” Bethel College, stated C. E. Carlson, also had a “prophetic function.” This was to “encourage Christian discipleship, ministry outreach and academic excellence.”

It is from this statement that I developed a core set of principles that were my dreams for students in my classes at Bethel: 1. They will accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior;  2. they will undertake an intentional “Christian spiritual journey”; 3. they will remain lifelong learners; and 4. they will commit themselves to serving others, particularly those on the margins of society.

Third, Elving supported a strong belief in the value of the Baptist tradition, especially as it is reflected in the advocacy of religious liberty and the separation of church and state as a political norm. He learned to value this from his relationship with C. Emanuel Carlson and Walfred Peterson. C. Emanuel Carlson left Bethel as dean in 1953 and served as Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee until 1971. Elving wrote several essays for Baptist Joint Committee journals.  Of most importance was an essay on “Emerging Patterns of Rights and Responsibilities Affecting Church and State.”

Anderson reflected on that experience by concluding that C. E. Carlson framed a set of important questions concerning the “free church perspective on religious liberty and church-state issues.” He understood well “the history of religious persecution within the western Christian heritage and endorsed the values of the American experiment, which emphasized religious freedom. The state church tradition is neither good for the religious community nor for the search for the common good.”

This remains good advice for today as we explore ways to integrate the new immigrant communities who bring to the United States a more diverse set of religious expressions. We ought never desire that our government endorse and impose the  “supremacy” of a single religious tradition.

Elving Anderson in 1980
Elving in 1980, on being elected president of Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society of America – Bethel University Digital Library

Finally, Elving believed in “intentionalizing” our spiritual, professional, and citizenship journey. I wrote an essay for the Baptist Pietist Clarion in March 2012 honoring Elving and reflecting on a speech that he gave to a freshman class in the early 1980s. He challenged students and faculty to intentionalize their academic and spiritual journeys by seeking to ask and answer a quality question each week.  The question needed to be significant, answerable in a reasonable timeframe and would have to have an impact on how we lived.  We need to remember, stated Elving, that each day is a gift given to us by God and we are to be good stewards.

I am not sure how the freshmen reacted to this giant of a scholar suggesting in his calm, deliberate, and reflective voice this set of recommendations. However, I later learned that this too had been a contribution of C. Emanuel Carlson to Elving’s academic journey. He commented that, “in answering and asking good questions,” C. E. was following the teaching style of Jesus, who was also famous for such questions as: Who do you say that I am? What must I do to be saved? Can you drink my cup? For Elving the “asking and answering good questions is a major aspect of maturing as a Christian, a lesson I learned from my favorite history teacher.”

For the next decade my own journey was centered on the question of what paradigms of beliefs and experiences enable some Christians to become courageous Christian dissenters and challenge the injustices of their day?  This commenced a study of such lives as Francis of Assisi, John Woolman, Clarence Jordan, Fannie Lou Hamer, Oscar Romero, Desmund Tutu, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer as they dissented on issues of totalitarianism, economic injustice, and institutional segregation.

A paradigm of beliefs developed from my study of these “courageous” Christian experiences. The paradigm includes the following: an early identification with people in need or people who are unacceptable to mainstream societal norms; a serious discontent with the witness of the established Christian church in their community and a desire to recover a more authentic faith; a desire to follow in the footsteps of Christ and faithfully live out the principles of the Sermon on the Mount; a need to develop an alternative faith community to provide a “counter-culture” Christian witness, encourage responsible discipleship, and develop support networks; a faith journey that integrates Christian spirituality with a commitment to social and economic justice; a theological commitment to the “sacredness of life” and the dangers of hedonism and materialism; and a belief in a “servanthood” model of leadership.

One afternoon I shared my journey with Elving and concluded the discussion with a story told by Jimmy Allen, a former President of the Southern Baptist Convention, as he reflected on the “tears of Jesus.” Jesus shed tears at the grave of Lazarus and during his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Jesus cares for those who suffer and grieves for those who reject His message of redemption.

Allen concluded his essay by telling the story of Alice Gahana, a Holocaust survivor. Allen asked Gahana what she remembered most about her experience. She replied, “the empty windows.” As she walked down the street she noticed that the windows were empty. No one came to the windows. Where were her friends and colleagues?

The tears of God, stated Allen, are often “falling today because we are not even going to the windows to see the people who are hurting today. We don’t want to know. And God cries.” Elving and I concluded that an eighth characteristic of “courageous” Christian living is that we intentionally look out the windows. We should cry when people encounter economic and social injustice.

Elving was “always” looking out the window, seeing the joys and the hurts, attempting to recognize the tragic in our community and seeking ways to provide for a Christian response. Elving wrote a powerful testimony of this commitment:

The great advantage that the Christian has over the scientist who will not look at the Word of God is that the Christian believes in the sovereignty of God; he can live in this world with thanksgiving and with some degree of wonder. Several prominent writers now say, and I agree, that the solution to the environmental problem will not come from technology alone. There must first be the step of admitting the seriousness of the problem. The second step is repentance, a change of heart. This is central to really getting at environmental problems and environmental change. But then as a third step we need a sense of hope to replace the discouragement that sometimes sets in. We need to point out that in God there is hope, in this as in other areas.


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