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Sunday, 20 January 2008

Promoting a Positive Relationship Between Faith and Science in Evangelical Churches

It is not often you hear a positive message on the relationship between science and faith in an Evangelical church , or at least a positive message on evolutionary science and faith. If evolution is mentioned at all, it is usually cast in a very negative light. Is there hope that this could change in the near future?

The Clergy Letter Project

Three weeks from now hundreds of Christian pastors will be preaching about evolution during their Sunday morning sermon. But rather than delivering a warning against the evils of evolution, these ministers will be promoting peaceful coexistence between the scientific theory and the Christian faith. The coordinated messages on evolution will be delivered on Feb. 10, 2008 to coincide with the 3rd annual Evolution Sunday event (renamed to Evolution Weekend for 2008). It is a event spearheaded by The Clergy letter project, a group of more than 11,000 clergy that have signed a formal letter calling for an end to the conflict between religion and science.

At first blush this project may be encouraging for those of us who wish to promote a peaceful coexistence between science and the Christian faith. After all, removing the evolution “stumbling block” should allow many seekers to reconsider the gospel, and stop many Christians from doubting or abandoning their faith. However, I suspect this initiative will be unhelpful in promoting peace between science and a specifically Evangelical expression of the Christian faith since there is very little Evangelical representation in the group and the character of statement itself is not one that will attract many Evangelicals.

a) Very Little Evangelical Presence

From my quick perusal of the thousands of clergy that have signed the letter, I suspect that very, very few of them are Evangelicals. In fact, denominations lying outside of orthodox Christianity (eg. Unitarian Universalists) are grossly overrepresented in the group while thoroughly Evangelical denominations seem entirely absent. Now denominations with historic roots that include at least a minority of Evangelicals (eg. Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal, and Baptist) are well represented, but I doubt that many of the congregations or pastors on the list come from the Evangelical end of the spectrum in their respective denominations. This may be a broad coalition of Christian clergy that promotes a positive view of evolution, but it clearly does not represent broader Evangelicalism.

b) Not an Evangelical Statement

Parts of the statement are indeed quite good. Saying that “the timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist” is a great place to start. And I would more-or-less agree with the assertion that “To argue that God’s loving plan of salvation for humanity precludes the full employment of the God-given faculty of reason is to attempt to limit God”. I realize that shared statements like these must be broad in order to enable broad participation, but a statement that does not include a single mention of Christ is clearly not written with the input of Evangelicals or with an Evangelical audience in mind. A careful reading of the statement shows more of an influence from NOMA originator Stephen Jay Gould than from prominent Evangelical Faith / Science commentators like Allister McGrath or Francis Collins. (For a more positive Evangelical assessment of The Clergy Letter Project, see Vance’s post at The Submerging Influence).

Building an Evangelical Statement

Personally I would welcome a specifically Evangelical statement regarding a positive relationship between evolutionary science and faith. A statement like this could have the same positive effect in the Evangelical community that The Evangelical Climate Initiative has had in the climate change discussion. The ASA’s statement on Creation includes a section entitled “The Theistic Evolution (Continuous Creation, Evolutionary Creation) View”, and this probably comes closest to fitting the bill right now. However, I don't believe this statement will have a dramatic effect since the positive view of evolution is included in a document that also includes anti-evolutionary statements (there is a YEC view as well), there is very little awareness of this document within the Evangelical community, and it seems unlikely that the statement will be widely promoted. Darrel Falk in his lecture Bridging the Worlds of Faith and Biology (a very interesting lecture that I recommend) hints that he and other Evangelicals may be working on an initiative like this in the near future, but I'm not aware of any details. I will definitely be watching this closely.

I am interested in hearing what others think about creating an Evangelical statement on evolution and faith. Do you think there is enough momentum in the Evangelical community for this type of proposal to garner a significant level of support? Or would it be dismissed as an initiative from the radical Evangelical fringe? What do you think is the best approach for this type of initiative? Is it something that should originate in Evangelical academia? In Evangelical denominational structures? Should Evangelical umbrella organizations like the NAE and the EFC be consulted and/or involved? Or would this work better if it originated outside of these types of organizations? After all, one positive aspect of the Evangelical movement is that grass roots initiatives can be very, very successful. Maybe the most important question of all is whether this type of initiative is constructive? Ie. will the benefits outweigh the obvious risks?

A Positive Evangelical Sermon on the Faith / Science relationship

For those that believe that a proposal like this is doomed to fail or fizzle, and for those whose experience in the Evangelical church is very painful when it comes to the topic of evolution, I invite you to listen to this sermon entitled “How can I reconcile Science and Faith” by Tom VanAntwerp of Grace Chapel in Lexington, MA (HT: David Opderbeck). It is an incredibly good sermon that provides an honest overview of the historical context, the modern conflict, and a way for Evangelicals to approach issues of science and faith. For those of us that have studied the science / faith dialogue closely, there is probably nothing new in the sermon. However, I doubt that many of us have heard anything this astute, wise, and pastorally helpful on the topic of science coming from the pulpit of an Evangelical church, nor could many of us do any better. I sure couldn’t.

If this sermon is any indication, there is hope that we Evangelicals can and will overcome our self-defeating battle against evolution. At least I am hopeful.


Anonymous said...

Wow, what a sadly difficult undertaking that sounds like. I remember bringing up the Clergy Letter Project with an evangelical I was talking with online, and he took it to be a complete hoax. He thought it was some online petition, and that people had falsely added names. I pleaded with him that these people could indeed be contacted, the contact information of the churches was true. He said that if they were churches, they were probably fake ones run out of people's houses, and not real Christian churches.

Anyway. I honestly don't know how to do what you're talking about. I once had a fantasy that Rick Warren could somehow be tipped over to the side of science on this... he's such a visible figure, and he's right there in Irvine, home of such a prestigious science center. What could be possible if Rick Warren stopped teaching children that dinosaurs and humans were contemporaries.


Sometimes I think that this kind of thing is impossible to teach someone. On one hand, it should be easy: bring someone to change his mind. On the other hand, in reality, it's impossible. People are really bad at this. Getting Rick Warren to change his mind on this one issue seems like it would be harder than digging the panama canal.

But anyway, that's where I'd start. Start with influential people, and get them together with scientists in their community... like a summit.

Anonymous said...

Excellent idea! I do think there's enough momentum among the evangelical intelligentsia to put a credible statement together. And there are churches here and there taking a more honest approach, but they seem to be in large cities with well educated populations. As Siamang noted, the trick is to get a couple of public figures to sign on -- and that may be very tough. There's enough on-the-ground discomfort with the religious right for statements such as the one on climate change to be viable, and even that provoked a firestorm. The danger for a statement on science and evolution would be a lack of grassroots support, a devastating PR response from the YEC publicity machine, and a resulting setback to the cause of honest truth-seeking.

(My stomach lurched when I read the stuff on the Saddleback site. Too bad, they do so much good stuff...)

Steve Martin said...

Hi Siamang,
Thanks for the link to saddleback. I was taken aback by this … I really thought that most “center” evangelicals tended to be at least agnostic when it comes to the age of the earth. Looks like Saddleback is toeing the YEC line though. Re: your evangelical friend thinking that “The Clergy Letter Project” was run by those that “weren’t real Christians”, I do understand where he is coming from (although I don’t necessarily agree). One of my points in my post is that the project is very broad in its definition of “Christian” (actually, it seems more concerned with the religion / science relationship than the Christian / science relationship) … something to which Evangelicals are very sensitive.

David, Re: risk of not getting the grass roots support. Now, THAT is a very, very pertinent point. I didn’t think of it – and it might be the killer. Personally, I think the YEC marketing in itself would not the most critical issue – but in combination with a lack of grassroots support - ya that would be devastating. Not sure if you listened to the Falk lecture but he has a very good story about a leading evangelical who made some private comments that seemed supportive of God-directed evolution. But when it came time for a public statement the Evangelical leader aggressively attacked Evolution. Falk’s point is that for most Evangelical leaders, a statement of support for evolution could wreck their career and/or their ministry’s financial support. THAT is also a very, very pertinent point in this discussion. We need prominent leaders, but who, even if they do agree with what Evolutionary Creationists are saying, is going to risk their career or ministry?

Anonymous said...

Rick Warren talks a lot about "reverse tithing": his idea of giving back 90% of what he gets from Purpose Driven line of products.

Could such a pastor be wooed to "give back" 90% of his worldly power and influence and keep only 10, if it meant standing up against this generation's Gallileo moment?

I don't know. Easy for me to hurl snowballs. It ain't my palacial megachurch we're talking about here. I'm just a (well, not so) poor atheist who's here to learn and listen. I appreciate being here and listening to your dialogue. I won't be mad-dogging you on your belief or anything.

One thing that troubles me about that Saddleback family site: The simple writing and language, and specifically about dinosaurs makes it to me read like it's written for children. And that does chill me a bit... The feeding ignorance to children when they crave knowlege... about DINOSAURS for crying out loud (have they no SHAME!). :-( To me that's like putting coke in a baby bottle. Give these children knowlege, not lies. Teach them God and Jesus if that's what you believe, but man, I draw the line at dinosaurs! ;-)

I think that educationally we may be heading backwards in this country (or maybe it's just that the other countries seem to be passing us.)

Cliff Martin said...

I have had the same thought that Siamang has. How helpful it would be if a high profile evangelical leader were to at least become friendly with science and evolution. I do have an address by Hugh Ross which he gave at The Church on the Way. Jack Hayford introduces him on the audio, and he makes some strong statements about openness to science. But, of course, many leaders will find Ross's Progressive Creationism more palatable than Darwinian Evolution. Still, it would be a start if a few leaders would simply acknowledge big bang cosmology.

I fear for movements which are founded upon YEC (such as Calvary Chapel) and have so much history invested in this brand of Creationism. The coming train wreck for believers in those movements could be disastrous. If Chuck Smith is off the scene when DNA evidence filters down to the average person, what will become of the movement he founded which is so married to YEC? The only hope I have for that movement is for Chuck Smith to wake up before he is gone.

Anonymous said...

One thing that makes it hard is that the anti-evolution folks really make way too big a deal about the randomness. Or maybe it's the intelligent design people's 'contribution' to the issue... but I don't remember the randomness being a big concern in years past. I think where they have 'succeeded' is in getting people to disregard utterly natural selection, and take randomness and sheer brutality of nature red in tooth and claw as the sum total of evolution.

They've done such good yeoman work in miseducating the public. We've got to jiu-jitsu that. I say harp on the randomness.

"Yes, it's partially random. Are you telling me that God can't use randomness? Is there randomness in the universe, clearly yes. Then God has a purpose there, don't you suspect? Are you the judge of what God can and can't use as part of His Creation?"

Cliff Martin said...

I concur with your observations about randomness. Randomness helps me, as a believer, to deal with the theodicy issues of natural evil. It also adds fresh new dimensions to theology, especially teleology. The title of the next book on my "must read" list (Richard G. Colling's Random Designer) expresses the paradox which believers must come to understand.

Randomness plays an important role in the development of my thoughts about God as expressed on my own blog site.

But in our culture, randomness has been seized by the materialist. Skeptics see it as their little baby. They are sometimes startled to hear me (and other believers) speak of randomness as a marvelous truth that opens the doorways of our understandings about God and what he is doing here. Most Christians, meanwhile, are repulsed by the idea of randomness. But if it is true, it belongs to the theist as much as the atheist.

The Christianity most of us were raised in makes less and less sense in this modern age. But when I apply what science is telling us to the Scriptures, the truth of Christianity becomes fuller, richer, more and more meaningful.

Siamang, perhaps you abandoned Christianity because the brand you were raised in failed to line up with reality. I am convinced that many (most?) Christians-turned-agnostics have reacted to a caricature of Christian truth, not the real thing. Is this possibly true in your case?

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I'd like to hear more about your take on randomness and the so-called problem of evil. I suspect there's quite an illuminating discussion there. Might not God use randomness? Of course He would! What kind of God would we be talking about if he couldn't create using randomness? We see randomness woven right into the fabric of the universe. If we see intention in that fact, then the conclusion cannot be anything other than "it's there for a reason."

You wrote:
"But in our culture, randomness has been seized by the materialist. Skeptics see it as their little baby. "

Well, I don't seize anything. I only occupy the rich, fertile and extremely expansive philosophical ground ceded by the monotheisms! They are always welcome to step out of their cages and join me, and claim our shared world as their own. How can a fact belong to anyone? How can a piece of knowlege about the world serve only one group? Only those who deny knowlege cannot claim it... that is a prison of their own making.

I'm not going to discuss my beliefs here, Cliff, as I'm here to listen and learn and not to plead my case. My contributions of thoughts here, I'm going to try to keep to the areas where I see common purpose with the blog author: bettering scientific understanding of the world we find ourselves in.

There are myriad other sites on the internet where Christians and atheists try to convince each other. What I didn't have was a place to go and learn specifically how an evangelical Christian approaches the disconnect between current teaching within the tradition, and the findings of modern biology.

I'm thankful for this place, to be able to come and listen. I blog for a Christian ministry, and that blog can be found in the link from my name. We frequently discuss my beliefs there. You are welcome to visit.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I would like to add...

The place I linked to is also a safe, respectful place of discussion. It being a Christian ministry (albeit a slightly unconventional one!), it's attempting to put up a place where people with different beliefs can meet and discuss. I'm not trying to get you to come to a wild and wooly debate.

Cliff Martin said...

Thank you, Siamang. I apologize if my question caused any offense.

I do discuss the problem of evil on my blog, and my approach is different from that of most believers. I have discussed randomness some, but this is an area that I want to expand upon in the coming days.

I do not engage in debates with skeptics. I communicate with a number of them, and the discussions are nearly always congenial and open-minded. Because my nature is to be skeptical, I sometimes find more in common with skeptics than typical believers. I'm sure that I would find that to be the case with you.

I accept what you have written. This is not the place for further discussion of belief/non-belief. But you mistake my purpose if you think I was trying to draw you into a debate. I am always interested in the reasons for belief, and the reasons for non-belief. I sometimes find poorly laid foundations for both! In the meantime, I may take you up on your invitation to join the conversation at the site where you contribute.

Anonymous said...

No offense taken, Cliff!

"I am always interested in the reasons for belief, and the reasons for non-belief. I sometimes find poorly laid foundations for both! "

Well, we fasten our grasp on this world in whichever way we best can. Some test their grasp, and others hold tight fearing the slightest ill breeze. You sound like a tester, and that takes bravery.

But as long as folks aren't treating others poorly, I don't begrudge whatever grip they have on this world. Such is our need to understand ourselves and our position in life. Peace to everyone who seeks peace, and in whatever way they find it.

Anonymous said...

I don't think that convincing high profile leaders is the way either - if it ever happens it will percolate up from the bottom. If you have no financial stake, maybe the thing to do is irritate people as much as possible. That is my plan in the future with regard to my evangelical friends. If someone they regard as a peer turns out to have views they don't expect, maybe that will make them think (certain people at least).

As I have been educating myself about this I am coming to regard evangelicalism as we know it more and more as a religious cult. As another post on here said recently, people are willfully ignorant, which is less excusable than just ignorant.

Steve Martin said...

Hey Siamang & Cliff: Any chance I can get a word in here? :-)

Glad to have you back after your time off - it definitely adds to the action, and as always, you have excellent contributions. BTW, the http://www.otmatheist.com/ website is pretty interesting. Make sure you don’t use IE though … mine kept crashing on that site .. I finally gave up and installed firefox.

Re: randomness, both Cliff and I were part of a discussion on Tom’s “Recovery Young Earth Creationists Anonymous” blog – see the extended comments in http://recoveringyoungearthers.blogspot.com/2007/11/flip-coin.html post. You may want to check that out.

“Re: Could such a pastor be wooed to "give back" 90% of his worldly power and influence and keep only 10, if it meant standing up against this generation's Galileo moment?”. Frankly, as I alluded to above, I believe this is a big problem for evangelical ministries ie. not willing to risk the money and power that comes with the ministry (but aren’t we all tempted with stuff like this at times?). However, when speaking specifically of Rick Warren, I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt – I didn’t really like his book at all but I’m convinced he has great integrity. I suspect that the origins issue isn’t high on his personal plate at all and he (or his staff) are simply toeing the party line (hey, Saddleback is SBC after all!).

Steve Ranney:
Welcome. You touch on a point that I think is key. Convincing rank-and-file Evangelicals that their anti-evolutionism is wrong and that it need not be tied to faith in Christ, is going to be tough & won’t happen primarily top-down. It’s going to take lots, and lots, and lots of other rank-and-file Evangelicals sharing their own stories and journeys – which is one of the reasons why I started this blog in the first place. On the other hand, this objective could get a great kick start with some type of statement by Evangelical leaders (including scientists, pastors, theologians, biblical scholars, and denominational leaders). Unfortunately, I believe that although there are a significant number of the Evangelical scientists in agreement, there are precious few Evangelicals from the other groups.

Anonymous said...

I just listened to the Darrell Falk link you cited, in which he also is very optimistic about a project he and Francis Collins are hoping to develop which will encourage dialogue between YEC types and OEE (old earth evolutionism?) types. Various members of the audience I think are more astute to question his otimism that 'people who are very sincere' will be willing to listen to the other side. One guy in the audience who says he has taught OT since the 1960s says something like 'what is needed is people who will pay the price to do the work on Old Testament backgrounds.'

This was probably not his main point but I think 'pay the price' is key. Of course it is easy for me to say, not having my bread and butter on the line, but I think if ever large numbers of scientists in Christian institutions would come out of the closet and say, 'fire me if you need to, but this is what I believe,' then something might over time change. The schools would have to say 'well we can either close down the scientist department or take another look at this issue.'

Steve Martin said...

Steve: Actually, I didn’t listen to the Q&A. Maybe I should have. Thanks for the info.