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Monday, 15 June 2009

Building a Community of Evolutionary Creationists

Many of us that accept the scientific consensus for evolution find it difficult to find like-minded individuals interested in exploring the theological implications of an evolving creation. Many others (maybe most Evangelical ECs) would risk membership in their Christian community (Church, mission, etc.) if their views were known. (See for example our past discussion on the question: Would your church allow you to publicly support evolution).

In a new post on changing beliefs, Cliff Martin comments on his frustration in finding this type of community:

So I am facing a conundrum. I am motivated to prepare my friends for what I consider an inevitable paradigm shift, and to develop a community of believers who will study the Bible with me from an evolutionary perspective. But I am having no success. And I risk alienating my own friends if I continue.
The irony is that in seeking to bring together a community that values integrity in both science and faith, we risk being ostracized from both the community of faith and the community of science.

Collins on Creating a New Community
Francis Collins is trying to rectify this problem. In a recent post on “Creating a Community to Explore the Harmony of Science and Faith”, Collins stated that he would like to:
[encourage] a new and vibrant community dedicated to finding the truth in both science and faith. The shrill voices at the poles of the science and faith discussion that claim the scientific and spiritual worldviews are incompatible have their own organized communities. But what about the vast majority that seeks a third way?
From my own limited experience / knowledge, I think Collins belief that a “vast majority” seek this 3rd way is probably overly optimistic. But he is absolutely right that the situation is much better now than it was even a decade ago. He comments that:
There are encouraging signs that people who trust both God and science are beginning to create such a community.
All of us should be thankful to Collins, Falk, Giberson, and the rest of the Biologos team for starting to provide resources for building this type of community. I’m also happy to see Collins is looking for input from other EC/TEs. He states:
These are just initial efforts to help catalyze a community devoted to seeking harmony in science and faith. We'd love to hear any ideas that could help in building this community.
A Suggestion
Well, since he asked, here is my suggestion. I think we should publish an “Evangelical Statement on Evolution” that succinctly states that an Evangelical expression of the Christian faith, and the scientific theory of evolution are compatible. This could be modeled after the Clergy Letter Project, but crafted in a way to ensure it has an explicitly Evangelical character. The statement sponsoring signatories should include evangelical leaders from 1) a broad range of denominations 2) several different academic disciplines (at least scientists, biblical scholars and theologians - yes, we definitely need those timid theologians) and 3) a cross section of Evangelical organizations (eg. missions, umbrella groups like the EFC and the NAE). The statement should also have some mechanism for allowing the rest of us to sign on as well.

And, come to think of it, that November meeting that Tim Keller, Collins and other leading scientists, biblical scholars, and theologians are having would be a great forum to launch this initiative.

Your Feedback
Ok, that’s my idea. What do you think? Do you think the time is right for an Evangelical Statement on Evolution? Would it be a positive step in the discussion, or would it serve only to raise more divisiveness? Do you have any other ideas you’d like to suggest to the Biologos team?

24 comments:

Cliff Martin said...

Great idea! The time has come for just such declaration.

Paul said...

I think it's a great idea. It would give us ECs something shorter than a book to which we could refer our-EC friends and pastors. It would be great if the the November BioLogos workshop could focus on accomplishing it (or at least a first draft).

p.s. An example of progress being made: the lead pastor at the Baptist church that my wife and I attend is doing a sermon series on basic Christian doctrine. Yesterday, the topic was God, including God the Creator, in which he (a staunch YEC) acknowledged in the sermon that there are Christians who believe in an old earth as well as Christians who believe in a young earth.

Stephen Douglas said...

Interesting idea. Such a thing would effectively seek to remove special creationism, or at least instaneous creationism, from the too-long list of unwritten evangelical sine qua nons.

I must say, though, that I wonder how effective such a statement could be if it ignores central issues about the effects of evolution on evangelical theology. It wouldn't be at all useful to just have a lot of Christians say, "Evolution is compatible with evangelicalism. 'Cause we say it is. We have myriad ways of explaining exactly how it's compatible, but it is. Just trust us."

In my opinion, it wouldn't help at all to appear like we're saying, "We'll go with science, no matter how it impacts our views on inerrancy, death before the Fall, the Adam/Christ parallel, etc."

In other words, if this is to be a useful or important way to say that acceptance of evolution can be evangelical, it would have to be constructed with the built-in rationales for how it's evangelical ( cf. The Chicago Statement's explicitly provided rationale and evidence). This can be done, but if it's not done right -- broad enough to encompass differences among the signatories but specific enough to avoid the above mentioned problem -- you'd be asking evangelical leaders and scientists, timid and otherwise, to add their signatures to a list of compromisers who don't trust the Bible and want prestige awarded by the World.

Stephen Douglas said...

BTW, that last characterization ("compromisers") was not my own, but what I fear would be attached to the document by special creationist detractors. And I'm not trying to shoot down the idea, but to outline potential pitfalls in its implementation. As I said before, it might be difficult to navigate through those waters, but it can, and probably should, be done.

Martin LaBar said...

I agree with Stephen Douglas.

joel hunter said...

Is it important to build a community of evangelical ECs or is it sufficient to build a community of ECs?

I think Stephen Douglas has his finger on this question. Trying to craft a statement that has an "explicitly evangelical character" is a notoriously slippery thing to do because 'evangelical' is an ambiguous term. Witness recent attempts to enunciate an "evangelical" statement on environmental issues.

Personally, I would advise against the moniker in this instance simply because political and ideological fault lines run deeper than any ecclesial identity connoted by 'evangelical'. Within a week of the release of the "Evangelical Statement on Evolution," a much larger coalition of conservative evangelical groups, high-profile individuals and celebrity ministers will denounce the statement and perhaps release a "Real Evangelical Statement on Creation."

Perhaps this is tolerable? I think such a statement and community is destined to remain on the margins; however, that might not be such a bad thing. It would not be unlike the situation of Christians for Biblical Equality.

Steve Martin said...

Paul: I agree that having something short that we can refer to our non-EC friends and pastors is one of the biggest benefits of a statement like this. Just as important (I think) is the list of respected Evangelicals that put their names on the document; we need our friends to understand that many of their Christian leaders have already tackled the subject and find no conflict between science and their faith.

Re: Your pastor and his acknowledgement. Did he also use the AIG line that “Some Christians may believe in an old earth but they are very wrong & it is dangerous”? Or did he imply that thoughtful, faithful Christians could end up on either side of the issue?

Steve Martin said...

Stephen: Excellent points. This is definitely something that needs to be thought out very, very carefully. We definitely can’t just say “they are compatible” and offer no other rationale. However, I’m not sure we want to (or even can) come to a detailed consensus on “how” science and faith are compatible; there are so many diverse ways that we as EC’s arrive at this compatibility. And just because we can’t come to complete agreement on, or articulate that agreement succinctly, doesn’t mean that the harmony between science and faith is an illusion. Hey, the earlier church took about 4 centuries to nail down an articulation on how Christ was both divine and human; I figure we’ve got at least 2 more centuries to come to some consensus on the evolutionary science / faith interface :-) .

As I’ve mentioned previously, I think the ASA’s statement on creation would be a good place to start (using only the General statement on creation & EC parts).

Steve Martin said...

Joel: Actually, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head for the area I am most concerned about with my proposal – the use of the word Evangelical. You’ve identified the downside (on which I agree). Let me tell you the reason why I personally would want to include the word Evangelical in the statement.

1. I believe an authentic Evangelicalism is worthwhile. See my post What is an Evangelical? Am I one? Why do I choose to wear this label? for my comments on this as well as a definition I believe is very useful (Definition is by John Stackhouse, not me)

2. I am concerned with simply defending the TE / EC term because

a) there are many that would use that term whose theology isn’t even close to Orthodox (eg. Michael Dowd, some of the members of the Clergy Letter project). Although I think we as evangelicals put too much stock in “right belief”, “right belief” is hardly irrelavent.
b) by not building a statement that is Evangelical in character, most of our target audience will simply write it off as “some more liberal blather not worth listening to”.
On the other hand, I do notice that Biologos seems to be taking pains to avoid the “Evangelical” term. So I’m not sure and would value other input on this.

Anonymous said...

A first comment, although I’ve been a reader for a while. It is an encouragement to me as an evangelical that you people exist at all. I do not know if a group statement would help or hurt the effort, I am not opposed to anyone trying to craft one.
I would just ask that you continue to make your presence known. I admit that the theological questions are important but concede that maybe on this side of heaven we may not be able to work it all out.
Evangelicals need to see that some of their Christian brothers and sisters have uncertainties about the particulars of creation and yet still maintain an active vibrant faith. We are “real” Christians and we live and serve among them every day.

Allan Harvey said...

Beliefnet seems to be dead this evening so I have not seen the post by Collins that Steve references. But I wonder how Collins would see the ASA, for which he is on the Advisory Council, if not as a "community dedicated to finding the truth in both science and faith." Perhaps he is looking to build something that is not just scientists.

I agree with Steve Martin's comments about the need for an Evangelical statement. Even if that word is not used, there should be some enunciation of orthodoxy (for example, affirming the authority & inspiration of Scripture) or else it will be easily dismissed by those who most need to hear it (like the Clergy Letter Project which was easily dismissed as mostly representing liberalism and unbelief). Maybe Christians for Biblical Equality would not be a bad example.
And I agree that it is useful to have a statement of compatibility even if details are not spelled out.

I would not underestimate the potential value of such a statement. Somebody mentioned the Evangelical Statement on Climate Change. Yes, many from the Religious Right demeaned it. But I think there were also many in the pews who, for the first time, saw this as a valid Christian position because they saw a trusted name (like Rick Warren or Bill Hybels) on it. If for example a statement about evolution had Tim Keller and a few others of similar stature, it could do significant good.

Steve Martin said...

Anon:
Welcome. And thanks for your comments. Good point about demonstrating a vibrant faith. Frankly, that’s probably more important than all of our best arguments.

Allan:
My take on why Collins and Biologos are not doing this under the auspices of the ASA is that they want the freedom to strongly & unequivocally support evolution, something the ASA is reluctant to do (and I understand our reasoning for this). But again, I can only go by what I’ve read on the Biologos site.

And I’m completely with you on the point about the names on the list. When people start saying “Hey, that guy taught me during college” or “I love her books” or “I really appreciate his sermons” or “I really respect his leadership in X Christian organization” – then we will get some traction with the Evangelical community. On the other hand, we have to be sensitive to the fact that many, many people who would have no problem with the statement, may be reluctant to sign it since it may involve some risk for them personally or for their institution.

Jimpithecus said...

Steve, I think it is a wonderful idea for many reasons. For one, it would actually force us to come out of the "closet" about what we truly believe. Secondly, it would force the hand of those groups like the DI to acknowledge the existence of those of us who are not afraid of where the science leads us. One of the things that struck me about the Dissent from Darwin list that the DI is continually touting is that there were very few practitioners in biology and, if I remember, only one palaeontologist. I don't think we need to be snarky like the "Project Steve" idea of the NCSE, but at the same time, we can stand on our own feet. Please let me know if I can help.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Jim,
IMO, one of DI’s mistakes as shown by dissent from darwin is that it is largely focusing on the negative (ie. Anti-evolution). I feel that our statement should be largely positive ie. Promoting integrity in both science and theology. And letting Evangelical Christians know there is an alternative to the ICR / AIG / DI anti-evolution mantra is probably our primary objective; whether that alternative is acknowledged as legitimate is another matter altogether.

I would want to be careful about forcing anyone to “come out of the closet”. I very much understand why some people would be reluctant to sign on. If someone is at all hesitant to sign up, I’d recommend that they don’t.

How can you help? I'm not sure yet. I guess right now I'm just floating the idea and getting feedback (both here and in email). My initial thoughts were to gather some input,summarize that feedback and provide it to the biologos team to gage their reaction.

Allan Harvey said...

Steve, your point about reluctant signers is a good one, which is why any such statement should probably be modest in its claims. Not declaring boldly for evolution, but a simple message of compatibility, on the order of "science suggests that God may have used evolutionary processes to create, and from a Biblical and theological standpoint it is OK if that's how it happened." Keller for example already said approximately that in The Reason for God, but a clear "pro-evolution" stance might be intolerable with his denomination.

If Evangelicals can be moved to a position where acceptance of evolution is at least considered a tolerable option (rather than giving in to Satan), that will be the most important step.

Steve Martin said...

Allan,
I like that gentler approach of "suggesting" and the more modest goal of making the acceptance of evolution "tolerable" for Evangelicals. That is probably more practical & more likely to succeed.

Irenicum said...

I love the idea of putting together a document that affirms the compatibility of evolutionary science and a solid Christian orthodoxy. Because modern science is continually discovering new aspects of biology/cosmology, the document should be in certain respects somewhat tentative. In other words, we shouldn't hitch ourselves to a particular evolutionary model in its fine details, just the basic framework of evolutionary biology and cosmology. The obvious advantage this offers is that any future discoveries which tweak aspects of evolutionary theory won't be used as "proof" that the whole theory is wrong. But even with this said, we shouldn't be cowed by the evolutionary detractors so much that we don't clearly affirm the scientific validity of evolution. The document, if it hopes to be an "evangelical" statement, must address the thorny issues of the fall, historicity of Adam, when natural death began, nature of inspiration, and of course the centrality of Christ in salvation. A section should also be included that deals with the issue of the supernatural and miracles. That has traditionally been a common fallback for those who object to evolution. As evangelicals, we must affirm the supernatural realm and the miraculous, but clearly delineate how they might interact with the natural realm. Since this is such a disputed area among Christian theologians, it would need to be written with a spirit of humility. I look forward to seeing how this develops. God bless and be well!

Steve Martin said...

Hi Irenicum:

Welcome. A lot of food for thought in that comment. Thanks. Some brief responses to some of your points.

1. re: not hitching ourselves to a particular model in the fine details: Agreed. We probably need to define evolution at least briefly. I’d be happy to use the E2 (evolutionary mechanisms) and E3 (common descent) definitions provided by Allan. This would allow some evangelicals with an id leaning to sign the statement. I’d actually welcome that (full discussion of this is a post in itself).

2. re: addressing the thorny issues: I think we need to be careful here. There are ECs that are IMO orthodox in their theology & accept evolutionary science but still disagree on the thorny issues of for eg. the fall and the historicity of Adam.

3. re: acceptance of miracles. Yes, that probably is something that should be mentioned.

4. re: spirit of humility. Absolutely!!

Cliff Martin said...

So, what's the next step? Must we wait for the November confab to generate something?

I suggest, Steve, that you craft a preliminary statement, using the Allan Harvey definitions you refer to, and let the readers of this blog help to fine tune it. Your blog has wide readership and is the appropriate place, I think, to begin this conversation. Perhaps, by the time the November BioLogos meeting rolls around, you could submit something substantive for their consideration.

geocreationist said...

Very interesting idea! Here is my own frustration. I know that I find it very difficult, if not impossible, to discuss what I see in the scriptures with YECs. They get so stuck on certain concepts in scripture (like equating death with sin, without realizing therefore animal sacrifice must have never covered sin!) that they fail to consider any argument I put forth.

With ECs, **we** each generally have our own God-inspired reason for being on the internet, to the point where we often tend to spend our time concentrating on where we have been inspired, and not on the areas where other Christians have been inspired as well.

It seems to me that God has his own purpose in each of us, and that it would do us all a lot of good to come together and see what God's bigger picture may be for His people.

My personal take on the "evangelizing" aspect is that we do not have to convince YECs that the earth is old and Evolution is true in order for them to go to Heaven. Thankfully, no one is saying that, but I consider it an important point. There is just so much YEC baggage wrapped up in their faith, that quite often it actually serves to keep them rooted in Christ, albeit appearing foolish to the world and often to us. And so if helping people get saved is the main thrust of being an Evangelical, then YECs themselves should not end up being treated as a target by us... nor should they be spoken of condescendingly. I am not saying that that you do, but pointing out that it is a hard balance to strike, and something that should be embraced as part of any manifesto or creed EC's might adopt.

Then who to focus on? My choice has been to target two groups. One is Christians who are in danger of losing their faith because their YEC community is telling them not to believe their observations about the world God created. They need to know to be kept in the fold, by mature EC Christians who can help them re-establish their walk with God. The other group to target is open-minded scientists who would otherwise be Christian if not for their unfortunate systematic exclusion from the Church.

As for divisiveness, well this will contribute to it some, but such divisivenss already exists. We won't be creating it... I guess it's evolved LOL, my point being that this can serve a real purpose if those already divided from God's Body can be shown that God is not excluding them, and that He has something wonderful to reveal to them.

Bottom line: I believe such a group is necessary, and it needs to focus on the evangelism aspect, not just the science, not just the scripture. Otherwise, there is a danger of it reducing to an exclusionary click, perhaps not in spirit, but in appearance.

Go for it!

Mike

Steve Martin said...

Hi Mike,
Welcome back. On the target of this statement, yes those are two groups that could benefit from this statement. (See for example: Evangelicalism and Evolution: Why the discussion matters). On the other hand, our objective needs to be broader. As others have pointed out (eg. Cliff), this has implications for the entire Evangelical church.

Good point on the fact that divisiveness already exists. This should make us doubly sensitive however to not exacerbate that divisiveness. That is why I think the statement must be positive in tone and inclusive rather than exclusive.

Cliff:
IMHO, I don’t think the next step for anyone (least of all me) is to craft a preliminary statement. I think we first need very broad agreement that such a statement is a positive step. There are a tonne of minefields for us in crafting this statement & it is going to take a lot of thought, effort, cooperation between people with different ideas, sensitivity, wisdom, and prayer to get it right. If we do this wrong, I believe it could backfire and only serve as a lightening rod to make matters worse for ECs within the Evangelical community.

If we can get that conference in November to start discussing this, that would be great. Yes, I too would like to have something sooner but I doubt that is achievable.

Paul Bruggink said...

Steve,
Re: "Your pastor and his acknowledgement. Did he also use the AIG line that “Some Christians may believe in an old earth but they are very wrong & it is dangerous”? Or did he imply that thoughtful, faithful Christians could end up on either side of the issue?"

He essentially STATED that thoughtful, faithful Christians could end up on either side off the issue. He followed that by saying that if anyone wanted to know how he personally believes, they could ask him privately. I see him as an example of someone for whom a declaration could help to nudge him a little further toward evolutionary creationism. He probably would not accept the belief himself but might eventually accept that this is another one of those theological issues over which Christians can agree to disagree. To my mind, that would be significant progress in that it would be a far cry from Ken Ham's position.

Karl A. said...

Greetings. As a missionary whose support base comes nearly exclusively from the U.S., I am apprehensive about "coming out of the closet" about my evolutionary beliefs for fear of losing support. Not speaking specifically to whether the specifics proposed here are best, I certainly support efforts to make this position less "shameful". I also appreciate this blog as I find it lonely not knowing where to take my struggle with these issues.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Karl,
Welcome and thanks. I understand your concern re: allowing your position to become public (that is what the "Would your church allow you to publicly support evolution" is about ... but it could have easily been called "Would your mission .. etc.". ) I am hopeful that in a generation or so, this will not be an issue ... not sure if I'm naive or just optimistic.