Monday, 12 April 2010
This was the setting for a 7-week Adult Education class I taught in 2007 on “Science and Nature in Christian Perspective.” 20 to 25 participants attended the sessions, which is pretty typical for these offerings at my church. I had hoped to attract parents of high schoolers, college students, and lay leaders in youth ministries, but for the most part these were absent (this demographic does not tend to come to other classes, either).
Ten Lessons Learned from Teaching the Course
Following, in no particular order, are ten “lessons learned” and words of advice for those who might teach a similar class.
1) Pre-existing credibility helps. It helped that I had recently served a term as an Elder and otherwise had established that my orthodoxy and stature to teach was not in doubt. If this had been 10 years earlier, when I was just some unknown scientist fairly new to the church, it would have been easier for people to dismiss what I had to say. If you already have some stature in your church, you are ahead of the game. If not, you might first build that by serving the local church (which one should do anyway) in less controversial ways.
2) Don’t dive into the deep end. It was week 6 before I talked extensively about evolution. Discussions on difficult and controversial issues go better once one has laid a good foundation for thinking about them. I felt it was important to first talk about healthy ways of reading the Bible and what sort of questions we should and should not ask Scripture, and also about how we should view God’s action in and through nature. If you can make the case that Genesis shouldn’t be read as a science textbook, and that natural processes should not be seen as competing explanations in opposition to God, much of the basis for Christian anti-evolutionism is disarmed before you even bring up “the E-word”.
3) Establish common ground. It helped to begin the class with some things everybody could agree on, like God as author of nature and of scripture. And ground rules like the need to avoid false dichotomies and to be charitable when evaluating other positions.
4) A few points, clearly made. I tried to cover too much ground in my first session; Barbour's four ways of relating science and faith, nuances of the “two books” metaphor and a few other things. There wasn't time for all of it, and it detracted from the things I really needed to get across. In subsequent weeks, I tried to limit the scope a little more and focus on fewer key points.
5) Don't be "one-sided". I think it is important not to be just the guy pointing out how some things within the church (like "creationism") are wrong, but also to make clear your opposition to those attacking the faith from outside (like Richard Dawkins) who use science as a weapon.
6) Stick mostly to what you know. One Sunday I ventured into something I did not know enough about. I talked about the eye as something that didn't seem well "designed," and was corrected by a retired ophthalmologist. Whether his explanation was right or not, I shouldn't have tried to talk about something with which I wasn't familiar.
7) Be open to learning from people in the class. That should apply to any teaching. One man in the class came up with the metaphor "a tool that God uses" for natural processes, which I thought was so good that I used it in the rest of the class and in my write-up.
8) You never know what might cause trouble. I had a lot of trepidation prior to the week I focused on evolution, but the session was not contentious at all. However, the week I talked about the stewardship of God's creation, I was surprised that a few people were quite hostile -- I knew our church had some Rush Limbaugh disciples but I didn't expect to be a target.
9) Support helps. I am grateful for the prayer and encouragement provided by my wife and some other people with whom I was in fellowship. Leading a session on a controversial topic like this can be lonely and intimidating (especially for an introvert like me), and that support was essential.
10) Don’t assume enemies. Before the class started, I was warned by an Associate Pastor that a member I didn’t know personally (but whom I knew was very interested in apologetics and involved with Reasons to Believe) had expressed concern about what I would be teaching. I was afraid I was going to have hostile opposition. But we exchanged email and eventually spoke in person, and he ended up making constructive contributions in class. Today I consider this man a friend, even if we still see some things differently.
Writing this made me reflect on whether my class was a “success,” and I realize I have no clue. If nothing else, it helped clarify my own thoughts, and at least a few people have found the material I put on the web useful. My church has never been a hotbed of “creationist” activity, but there are a number of ID fans and “Truth Project” advocates and that is still the case. I think at least a few people had their eyes opened to a healthier perspective on science/faith issues, and more people at church are aware that I can be a resource when such issues come up. But maybe I shouldn’t worry about trying to measure the “fruit” and just be faithful to what I think God calls me to do.
Monday, 5 April 2010
For some, the question of origins is simple. For Evangelical Christians it’s complex. Evangelicals believe that the origin and development of the universe, including life on earth, is the result of the purposeful act of a benevolent Creator. They also take seriously the Biblical teaching on creation in Genesis and elsewhere. This gives Evangelicals more options on origins than others. It also means more issues to consider in evaluating those options. Evangelicals want to ask questions which others might regard as settled, or even entirely irrelevant. Questions relating to such diverse topics as philosophy of science, theological method, and ethics, to name but a few. Hence the complexity.
Complexity, however, can trouble Evangelicals. It conflicts with their sense that the Christian message is simple: so simple, in fact, that any person might understand it on a straight forward reading of the Bible. So the complexity involved in efforts to reconcile evolution and Christian faith tends to rub against the Evangelical grain. Yet this commitment to a simple Gospel message also means that Evangelicals reject any suggestion that one’s views of origins can ever be fundamental to salvation (see, for example, these remarks by Ken Ham). For Evangelicals the origins issue isn’t so much a question of science versus scripture as one of simplicity versus complexity.
One way of resolving this complexity is to dismiss evolutionary science. This is a popular approach amongst many Evangelicals. But others—particularly those working in the sciences—find this option entirely unacceptable. They accept evolution on scientific grounds and seek to make sense of it in a way faithful to their Evangelical Christian commitments. Despite different responses to evolution, however, there is a shared desire to maintain a critical principle well expressed in Martin Luther’s famous remark: “It is neither right, nor safe, to go against conscience.” Evangelicals disagree so strongly on origins precisely because personal conscience before God is a matter of utmost importance. To compromise on matters of conscience is neither right nor safe.
The Pastoral Task: A Principle from St. Paul
In the face of such conflicts, what role is the Christian pastor to play? How does the pastor responsibly address a topic where Evangelicals take so many different positions as a matter of conscience? Dogmatic pronouncements and disciplinary action can intimidate people to go against conscience, but that’s hardly to be encouraged. On the other hand, teaching the correct view of origins is difficult given that the correct view of origins is precisely the point at issue. So what’s a Christian pastor to do?
Well, I think that Paul’s discussion in First Corinthians gives us solid Biblical ground on which to stand. The Corinthians had written to Paul (7:1) for a definitive word on the divisive issue of meat sacrificed to idols (8:1). But Paul seems to sidestep that question completely. “We know that an idol is nothing,” he writes in 1 Cor. 8:4, “but there is not in everyone that knowledge” (7). Fair enough. Not everybody knows the truth about idols. But if we thought that some solid Biblical teaching on idolatry is in order, Paul surprises us by offering nothing of the sort. Instead of educating the ignorant, Paul directs his remarks to the knowledgeable and he urges them to show restraint despite their knowledge; “if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (13). Paul isn’t concerned with how much we know. It’s the impact of our behaviour on others which he thinks matters.
The Human Condition and Theological Disagreement
Underlying Paul’s discussion is the recognition of a critically important truth (the “T” word: Evangelicals take note!): the human condition, even amongst those who know Christ and his saving grace, is one of ignorance and error—“now we see in a mirror, dimly...now I know in part” (1 Cor 13:12). Indeed, 1 Corinthians is pervaded with the idea that love, not knowledge, is the greater virtue; “we all have knowledge, knowledge puffs up, but love edifies” (8:1) … “because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?” (8:11) … “though I…understand all mysteries and all knowledge...but have not love, I am nothing” (13:2) … “whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away” (13:8). And I might only add that Jesus himself criticised his opponents on pretty much the same point (cf. Jn. 5:39-40; Mat. 23:2, 23).
Now, lest people misunderstand me, I want to make very clear that I am not dismissing matters of truth as unimportant. But, when it comes to the origins issue, can we honestly pretend that there’s any broad agreement as to what the truth actually is? Surely the Christian pastor ought to acknowledge that this is a matter upon which Evangelicals can and do hold widely divergent views? And it’s an abuse, not a fulfilment, of the pastoral calling to behave as if it were otherwise. Here the truth is “we don’t know all the answers”—even if, perhaps, we think we should.
There is a great irony lurking here. Sometimes we become so embroiled in arguments about creation that we overlook a great theological truth that is central to any view of origins: we humans are creatures and as such limited by finitude. The implication? We all have blind spots in our thinking and can therefore never assume the mantle of judgement over others (see Romans 14:1-13). We need, in any case, to avoid falling into a kind of intellectual “salvation by works” where scientific, theological, or even biblical truth become the basis of our standing in Christ. Once we go down that path then we become, as it were, “debtors to keep the whole law” (Gal. 5:3) who are allowed no errors at all. Better we avail ourselves of Christ’s grace which is sufficient for all things, errors of belief included.
Such are only a few of the critical pastoral considerations which are often overlooked in the origins debate. There is no shortage of horror stories concerning Christians whose views on origins have made them the target of attack by fellow believers—even to the extent that some have walked away from the church or lost their faith altogether. The clear lesson is that our response to a person’s views on origins can affect their relationship with Christ far more than any error in their theory of origins ever could.
So, regardless of what you think you know about the subject of origins, please try to keep in mind Paul’s rhetorical question: “because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?” (8:11) Remember that it’s the stronger believer, the one who claims to have knowledge, who should give way to the weaker. Our failure to do so—regardless of where we stand on the origins issue—can have frightful consequences. There are all sorts of issues involved in the origins debate, but we should never allow our views to destroy the faith of others. When we do so, our lack of pastoral concern doesn’t commend us to God, but rather brings us under the judgment of the greatest pastor of all (Mk. 9:42).
Monday, 29 March 2010
Digswell Village Church: Background
Digswell Village is a small community about 27 miles north of London, England. The village itself is very old, but most of the housing was built in phases since the 1930s and so the overall development has followed a timescale similar to much of North America.
Digswell Village Church, where I am the Church of England minister, is a little unusual in that we are an ecumenical partnership, primarily between the Methodist church and the Church of England, but we also have members with Baptist, Lutheran and other church backgrounds. I mention this at the start because I think it is particularly important in determining how we approach complex issues in the church, of which the relationship between science and religion is just one. The partnership approach means that we have to take a broad view and look for strong common themes that will, as St Paul says, build up the Church. In other words we have to identify what are the primary issues in which clarity is required and those which may have their importance but are not essential, perhaps coming from one or other of the traditions represented. (In fact, I think there are very few primary issues).
The Test of Faith Course
Test of Faith is a course developed by the Faraday Institute at Cambridge University. It discusses a range of important questions in science and religion and consists of a DVD documentary presentation with supporting background information and workbooks. Evolution, human genetics and environmental issues are covered in the second of the three presentations. The first deals with cosmology and origins while the third delves into recent aspects of neuroscience so as to raise questions of the origin of individual personal identity and many related themes. The programmes are illustrated with many beautiful and meaningful images which link the contributions from scientists who are Christians, and from Christian theologians who are also scientifically qualified. A good sense of what is provided can be gained from the website.
The course promotes the view that science and religion are compatible. It does specifically acknowledge other points of view, and many of these are outlined sensitively in the supporting booklets, but the basic position remains clear and is one that as a scientist and a priest I support strongly. I think it is interesting to note that only about a third of the second unit covers issues arising directly from the interpretation of Genesis. Whilst this is a make or break issue for many, especially in evangelical circles in North America, in the UK and Western Europe the wider question of justifying a religious worldview and pointing out the limitations of science require a much wider engagement. This is about as far as I think I can get when I do presentations in schools to 16 to 18 year olds. If the Christian faith can be shown to be intellectually respectable and appreciative of science the door is open for a fuller exploration.
Teaching the Test of Faith Course at Digswell: Personal Experience
We have now run two Test of Faith courses in Digswell and a third is being planned for April/May. We were delighted that over half those attending the second course came from outside our local church community. People are interested, but challenged by the topics in the course. Will it strengthen my faith? Will it challenge it? Will it be too complicated for me to understand? These are just some of the thoughts that arise at the start of the course.
Some group building is needed at the start so that participants are comfortable in sharing their views. We had one person leave because he did not have a deep enough scientific background, but everyone else, whatever their level of scientific experience was able to find their way through. One of the most common reactions was how beautiful the science itself is, and most people had no difficulty in connecting that to God in creation, expressed for example in Psalm 19. Many were struck by how strongly people who are clearly distinguished scientists can hold a conventional faith. I know from experience that it can be very challenging in the scientific community to be seen as religious. It can feel as if one’s scientific integrity is questionable. Perhaps scientists who are Christians have kept their heads down too much, although this may be changing. I believe that Test of Faith will help.
There are church communities in England where evolution would be a contentious topic, but this was not really the case for any of our participants, so this did not dominate discussion. There was intellectual understanding of the arguments, but some were challenged by the realisation that an evolutionary world view requires a non-literal interpretation of the Garden of Eden. Perhaps they were sad to see that there may have been no golden age in the development of life on earth. One important question which can arise in any of the sessions is that of understanding why suffering exists. This year it was particularly emphasised by the earthquake in Haiti, which occurred around the same time as the course. Many found John Polkinghorne’s ideas helpful here (See for eg. his answer to the question Was the Tsunami and act of God? and these reflections on divine action and evil).
From a position of caution and possibly confusion at the start, the participants ended the course stimulated and much more confident in dealing with and attempting to integrate the insights of science into their Christian worldview. This, I think, is probably the most important thing the course can do. There are no final and complete answers to many of the questions the course raises, and this will also be true of the new problems that are bound to arise. But if we can approach scripture and nature as two aspects of God’s revelation, as the scientists and theologians in Test of Faith clearly do, we will be more integrated in our worship and prayer and in our lives as a whole.
Monday, 22 March 2010
As a third-generation evangelical, I treasure the faith heritage passed on to me, and the profound influence many wonderful pastors, teachers, and fellow believers have had on my spiritual growth. I am also intimately aware of the frustration of being a scientist in a subculture that treats serious scientific inquiry with suspicion.
This suspicion of science is only one aspect of an evangelical mindset that seems threatened by divergent opinion and comforted by conformity. There is a supposedly “evangelical Christian position” on political affiliation, gun control, taxes, global warming and, of course, evolution. And many evangelicals are incredulous that any sincere believer would ever think, act, or vote any other way.
Pressure to conform can be especially strong for evangelicals that recognize the Holy Spirit as an ever-present guide and illuminator of truth. After all, if everyone can hear from God, disagreement must imply that somebody isn’t listening properly. Those with strong opinions will naturally assume the other party is mistaken, and seek confirmation of their already arrived-upon conclusions by saturating themselves with like-minded teaching. And for those whose personal convictions aren’t as strong, an assumption that everyone else must have heard from God relieves them of the responsibility to independently think through these issues on their own.
The danger in this mindset is the ease with which a debatable opinion or interpretation of scripture can be elevated to the status of unquestioned doctrine, an error Jesus warned against (Matt 15:9). To avoid this trap, the evangelical church needs to foster an atmosphere of dialogue in which new information is welcomed, questions are allowed, and critical thinking is embraced. Such an atmosphere allows the opportunity for believers to continually subject their own beliefs to reexamination and challenge, so that legitimate doctrines can be strengthened, ambiguous ones debated, and erroneous ones corrected.
Teaching Evangelicals to Think Critically
The techniques of acquiring new information, testing hypotheses, challenging the results, and subjecting conclusions to peer review, are used by scientists to correct and advance our knowledge of the physical world. Similar techniques can be used to foster spiritual growth in the local church.
As a scientist who has had frequent opportunities to teach in a church setting, I enjoy finding opportunities to challenge my students to rethink positions they assumed were unquestionable. Of course, this teaching style must be approached with an abundance of patience and wisdom, especially when the subject is the science and theology of creation. Challenging dearly held beliefs must take place in measured steps, in keeping with the level of established trust.
Step 1: Inform
For those unaccustomed to hearing divergent viewpoints discussed in church, the first step is to simply provide objective information about those viewpoints. On the topic of origins, I find it helpful to use a two-dimensional model of creation viewpoints that decouples the assumed link between faith and young-earth creationism, and identifies respected evangelicals who hold widely divergent opinions on science. By presenting such information in a non-confrontational manner, the student is given permission to admit the potential ambiguity of issues they previously assumed were unquestionable.
It is also beneficial to bring up examples of recent scientific discoveries that they usually would not hear discussed in church. Many evangelicals blindly base their opposition to evolution on arguments from the 1960s that are no longer valid. By openly discussing recent observations of the Hubble telescope, or the sequencing of the human genome, the scientist/bible teacher can demonstrate that subjecting ones beliefs to the light of new information doesn’t have to be threatening, but can, in fact, be a very Godly pursuit.
Step 2: Challenge
The next step in the process involves a more direct challenge: leading students into states of “cognitive dissonance”, in which they are forced to deal with logical inconsistencies in their belief system. Comparing the cooperative lifestyle of the early church (Acts 4:32-35) to communism, or asking if God’s gift to humanity of free will makes him “pro-choice”, always leads to double-takes and dropped jaws. The goal here is not to change beliefs, but to help people realize that there may be subtle ambiguities in positions they assumed were black and white.
When the subject is faith and science, an appeal to historical precedent can be used to great advantage. Without any direct reference to the issue at hand, but using many of the common arguments used in the creation/evolution debate, I lay out my case, appealing to the inerrancy of scripture, the teachings of the church, and the scientific theories (that are, after all, just theories) that clearly contradict scripture. As expected, most evangelicals take a resolute stand on the side of the church. I then calmly add something I had “forgotten” to mention: that the year is 1615, and they have all just taken a stand against the heliocentric theories of Copernicus and Galileo.
Step 3: Confront
The third step, direct confrontation, must be handled with utmost sensitivity, and generally in a one-on-one setting with someone with whom you have developed a relationship of mutual trust. I was fortunate to have such a relationship with my pastor, so that when the church decided (in spite of my strong objections) to use the “Truth Project” videos, we were able to discuss my areas of disagreement in an atmosphere of respectful and mutually beneficial dialogue.
Once again, the motive of confrontation should not be to prove who is right. I have resorted to confrontation primarily to address specific behavior, statements, or teachings that, in my estimation, push away, or shut down healthy dialogue with, people holding diverse opinions on debatable issues. Because of their potentially wide distribution, it is especially important to confront politically biased or scientifically inaccurate comments in church sponsored newsletters or e-mails. Online blogs are another venue in which the scientist/bible teacher can offer respectful comments to help steer the conversation from pontification to dialogue (see this link for an example).
After 27 years in the same congregation, my wife and I recently moved to a new community where we have found a wonderfully dynamic “Spirit-filled” Lutheran church that is true to the doctrines and worship style I cherish, but at the same time refreshingly more tolerant of ambiguity and dialogue on the non-essentials.
The church I left behind is, I hope, better for having had a scientist/bible teacher in its congregation. I am blessed by the ongoing dialogue I have with the pastor; I am saddened by another church leader who broke off contact with me and encouraged others to do the same, so as to be protected from my supposedly heretical views; and I am touched by memories of a missions trip to Ukraine in which an eager young bible school student told me, in all seriousness, “I am so glad to learn that scientists aren’t evil!”
But for the most part, I am encouraged by the one reaction I heard over and over again in reaction to my teaching: “Thanks. You’ve made me think.”
To which I reply, “Mission accomplished.”
Monday, 15 March 2010
Growing up Science-Literate in the Japanese Church and encountering YEC in the American Church: A Paleontologist’s Personal Perspective.
We attended church at the local university church, which was not the liveliest house of worship. The ceiling was a good seventy feet overhead to make room for the gigantic pipe organ in the front. Voices were, subsequently, quite amplified and the general tone was quite solemn. This was probably a contributing factor in the lack of spiritual growth during my preteens.
Early Scientific Education
My school experience at the American School in Japan (ASIJ) based in Tokyo was comparable to that of a very good college prep school, with a considerable number of offerings in literature, history and science. I took biology in the ninth grade from a man very passionate about science and I came to love it as well. Along with a generous amount of comparative anatomy, there was a smattering of evolution, taking the form of systematics rather than actual instruction in the basic tenets of the theory, itself. Eldredge and Gould had produced their seminal works on punctuated equilibrium a few years before so the science world was still abuzz with the possibility that evolution as espoused by George Gaylord Simpson and Sewall Wright, names I did not know at the time but later became quite familiar with, was not the be all and end all that it appeared to be. No, Punk-eek was in. Notably lacking in my science education and in the educational climate of the high school was recent earth creationism. I simply never encountered it. Not from any of the faculty nor from my peers. There simply was no controversy.
Personal Spiritual Growth
As my walk with Christ became more serious, I left the campus church and began to go to a Tokyo branch of the Union Theological Seminary (TUTS). It became clear, after a few more years of high school, however, that this church had a somewhat liberal bent and that elements of New Age thought were quite prevalent. When one is in high school, one does not initially challenge these things and I was no exception. Especially since TUTS was where most of the attractive girls went. Nevertheless, challenge them I did.
I eventually left this church as well and began to attend house churches, based all over the city that ranged from Pentecostal to Lutheran to your good old fashioned non-denominational service. What is remarkable about these gatherings in hind sight is how little discussion there was on science. The focus was on the Lordship of Christ and even when apologetics was studied, it was only in the context of defending one’s faith in the larger sense. Science simply never entered the picture, almost as if it were a taboo subject. It may very well have been but I was none the wiser.
My senior year was spent with my academic interests neatly split between history and palaeontology but, at this stage, history won out and that is what I decided to pursue as an undergraduate once I left the confines of ASIJ. One of the papers I wrote in my senior year of high school, however, dealt heavily with paleontological material and early hominids. Although the human palaeontology bug did not bite me then, delving into that literature for the first time was exhilarating—especially since there was nobody to tell me that I shouldn’t. Even my friends at school who knew of my interests and were Christians did not seem to have any qualms about it. I am convinced that learning about this evidence at a comparatively early age deeply affected my ability to accept it in light of my Christianity.
Moving to America and Encountering YEC Ideas
I graduated from high school in 1980 and, in one of the more traumatic moments in my life, moved from the safe confines of Tokyo, Japan to the unknown wilderness that was the United States of America. Fortunately, I made friends with a growing group of Christians on campus and this mitigated the jarring experience somewhat. Two of these new friends invited me to go to church with them in the nearby town of Knoxville. A few weeks later, I walked into the sanctuary and peered at a bulletin board, on which local job adverts and news items were posted. One in particular caught my eye. It was for the East Tennessee Creation Science Association and they were advertising a meeting at a local church. The bulk of the flyer was, however, composed of several quotes from people that I have since become familiar with—Henry Morris, Duane Gish and Gary Bauer, about how bad the fossil record was, how good the evidence was for the world-wide flood of Noah, how the earth was only a few thousand years old and how evil evolution was.
I just stared…dumbfounded.
In my years of growing into my Christian faith in Japan, I had never encountered this mindset. I remember thinking “people really believe this??”
It had never occurred to me that what I came to know as the primeval history of Genesis was to be taken literally. I soon found that a great many people, including some of my newfound Christian friends, did read Genesis 1 as history and believed that God created the world in 7 literal 24-hour days. This began a lifelong interest in the different approaches to interpreting the early chapters of Genesis, the geological record, and evolution.
Reflecting on the Absence of YEC ideas in the Japanese Christian Community
In hindsight, I still find it puzzling that a movement that is so prevalent in evangelical circles in the United States, and has had such a profound political impact here, was virtually irrelevant in the Japanese Christian church. That Japan is a Christian mission field is probably a factor here. While Japan has a vast history of both Buddhist and Shinto thought, Christianity was a comparative newcomer to the stage and was not accepted in any way until after the early 1900s. Up until that point, Christians had been persecuted in the best Roman fashion. Nowadays the vast majority of Japanese are areligious. Consequently, there is so much focus on evangelizing Japanese with the basic sinner’s prayer that there is little time for other things. Even among the Christian foreign community, however, there is little emphasis on science and how it should be viewed. I have recently become aware that Creation Ministries International has a chapter in Japan but I never heard about it while I was there.
Today, I view myself as an evolutionary creationist (EC) / theistic evolutionist (TE). My experiences in Japan are largely responsible for this. To be sure, as with most people that take an EC perspective, I have many unanswered questions about the historicity of Adam, the place of the “pre-Adamites,” and how the fall can be reconciled with the scientific data. I trust that those questions will be answered in due time.
Sadly, I have had very little experience with Christians who grew up in other countries where these questions were asked. I know that, recently, there have been many groups that are “evangelizing” the Old World (Ken Ham just recently went to Japan) and that, as in the United States, the YEC perspective is more prevalent than it was even twenty years ago. I would love to hear some perspectives of those who grew up as Christians in other nations and how their churches addressed these origins questions. Was my experience in Japan unique?
Wednesday, 10 March 2010
Being an Evolutionary Creationist in a Confessionally Reformed Church: Part 2 - Reflections and Becoming an Agent for Change
As I recounted in part 1 of this article, I was put on trial by the OPC church in the mid-1990’s for my Evolutionary Creationist (EC) views. This resulted in my suspension from the office of church elder, and I was reinstated only after admitting that I did not know how to reconcile human evolution with the uniqueness of Adam. This process did not lead to any resentment on my part. In fact, I was fully sympathetic and supportive with the disciplinary process.
Why I Support the Process that led to my Trial and Censure
In my ecclesiology the church has the right and responsibility to ensure that its leaders adhere to the church’s confessions. Also, church authority does not simply reside in the local church. Higher assemblies such as presbyteries, classes, synods, and General Assemblies have the right and responsibility to oversee decisions of churches and lower assemblies. As well, allegedly errant decisions made in lower assemblies may be appealed to higher assemblies. I believe that the church/denomination isn’t just a human institution. No doubt, it reflects the fallen, human condition, and hence is splintered into denominations, carries errant beliefs, has sinners among its membership, etc. However, none of this negates the fact that it is a divine institution.
The church faces new challenges and ideas in almost every generation. Part of what happens in the process of facing these new ideas is that the church wrestles with its own confession. This I believe is a good thing. We do not stand alone in our understanding of scripture. Confessions allow the church of past ages to speak. This is one of the ways to protect ourselves and our churches from being blown here and there by every wind of doctrine. The church represents a broad body of believers in which to test new ideas. There is an inherent conservatism to this process, however, and we must be patient with our fellow believers in working through these questions.
I hope that expressing my beliefs about the church’s role in articulating truth and enforcing church discipline explains some things that many people find difficult to understand about my experience. It explains why I would suffer through a heresy trial in the first place. Second, it explains why I think that the church should judge me rather than vice versa. And third, it explains why I’m willing to submit to decisions of the church with respect to my level of involvement in the church.
Personal Implications of the Trial
In general, I was pleased to see church discipline in action. I was happy with the treatment I received in the process. I was treated respectfully and my ideas and arguments were taken seriously. In the end my position was rejected, but hardly any of the “attacks” were personal. It turned out that while no one actually agreed with me, there were those who defended me and thought that my position should be allowed.
There was some pain in our local church. Two of my fellow elders were committed young earth creationists and before this time had been personal and family friends. During my trial they had difficulty keeping the disagreement from becoming personal. This was painful for me and for my wife and young children (at the time ages 12, 10, 7, 3, and 1). My two three-year terms as elder ran out at the end of 1992 and I was never re-elected. I did, however, continue to serve in various other leadership roles (pastoral search, new building committee, evangelism training, etc).
We moved from Michigan to Colorado about a year after the process was completed, so I never got to see the long term consequences of my views for involvement in the local church.
B) Becoming an Agent for Change in a Confessional Church
One advantage of being part of a confessional church is that there are specific processes for testing new ideas. On many issues there is also some denominational history (e.g. official church study reports, or the writings of church pastors, theologians, and other denominational leaders). So in the science / faith dialogue those of us that are conversant with science have mechanisms to change popular erroneous ideas about science which are neither scripturally nor confessionally warranted. Thus I am now taking the opportunity, with the support of my local elder board, to initiate a process to change what I believe to be an erroneous scientific conclusion contained in my Church’s position on Creation and Science.
Joining the Christian Reformed Church
We eventually joined the CRCNA church in Fort Collins, Colorado, and I became active in the life and ministry of that local church in the elder board, small group ministry, adult teaching and worship. Our switch to the CRCNA had little to do with my “problems” in the OPC, but rather figuring out which of the conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches in Fort Collins was the best fit for our family. The CRCNA is somewhat broader theologically than the OPC and PCA (for example, the denomination allows women pastors, elders, and deacons); however it remains evangelical and confessionally rooted.
Although in our particular local church faith/science issues are largely non-controversial, I did not seek to address these issues right away. I spent a few years teaching some courses on theology and the Bible and being involved in various ministries including church leadership. These activities allowed me to build credibility and trust within the local church community. Establishing yourself as a committed church member and a faithful lay Bible teacher and theologian is an important prerequisite to addressing more controversial topics (after all, the Christian faith and Christian discipleship is much broader than the faith/science debate). Only then did I take up the faith/science topic in our adult discipleship ministry. I have now taught a 15 week course covering many aspects of the faith/science area, ranging from origins to creation care to bioethics. Even establishing specific credibility in the faith/science area through that class was an important step in being able to proceed with the potentially more controversial proposal outlined next.
Initiating the Process to Change CRCNA Statements against Animal Ancestry of Humans
As a denomination the CRCNA issued a Creation and Science report in 1991 in the aftermath of controversies involving the teachings of some science professors at Calvin College. In general, this report, while cautious about the influence of secularism and atheism in modern science, was pro-science, recognizing the possibility of an old earth and universe and an evolutionary history for life on earth. Declarations B & C emphasize the freedom of exegesis and the freedom of science, respectively, although within the bounds of the teaching of Scripture and the confessions. These bounds were most clearly expressed in the emphasis on the “event character” (i.e. the historicity) of Adam and the Fall. Declaration F of this report (recommended by a minority of the study committee and adopted by Synod) made strong statements against animal ancestry of humans with some provisos allowing for further study.
At my request our elder board has requested that the Synod rescind Declaration F from the 1991 report. This request is currently making its way through the denominational procedures and may be taken up in the 2010 Synod. We think that Declaration F expresses a discordant note from the rest of the report, which generally is quite pro-science. It also turns out that Declaration F is lifted up as a significant part of the view of the CRCNA on the topic of Creation and Science in some denominational publications. We think this is most unfortunate. We think that the rest of the report adequately expresses a Biblical and confessional perspective on the issues involved without virtually forbidding someone from holding a view that there is some kind of evolutionary relationship between human beings and other living creatures (which is what Declaration F currently does).
An Opportunity to Work Together as the Body of Christ
While re-opening this discussion may be uncomfortable and controversial, it allows us to again ask the relevant Biblical and theological questions in community. In my opinion there are not any confessional issues at stake here. Questions about the historicity of Adam and the Fall would bring up confession issues, but our request is somewhat limited and does not ask the church to address those questions. We believe that the church mistakenly adopted a Declaration on this subject that was narrower than Scripture or the confessions and we are asking the church to correct that mistake.
What the outcome will be remains to be seen, but this current situation illustrates ways in which ECs can work within the church to effect change. This involves studying together, discussing together, and sometimes participating in formal decision-making processes where denominational positions are forged. In short, it is an opportunity to work together as the Body of Christ.
Monday, 8 March 2010
Evangelicalism is a big tent. It covers many denominations and traditions, including the more conservative end of most mainline denominations. One component of Evangelicalism is the confessional tradition, where the teachings of a church are reflected in a creed or confession. Examples include Presbyterian and Reformed churches (Westminster Standards, Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dort), Lutheran churches (Augsburg Confession and the Formula of Concord), and Anglican/Episcopal churches (Thirty-Nine Articles).
Historically these confessional traditions take their confessions very seriously. They believe that the confessions are accurate summaries of the teaching of Scripture. They are not just historically relative documents that “guide” the church, but represent the living confession of the church and are believed to be time-tested guides to the church’s teaching and ministry. As time-tested guides, these confessions stand as “tests of orthodoxy” for pastors, elders, deacons, and other church leaders.
This is different than for many evangelical churches, which sometimes claim to have “no creed but Christ” or to say that the Bible is their creed. In many evangelical churches and denominations there may be a statement of faith but it will often focus on the basic elements of the Christian faith.
The stories I recount are almost all in the context of Reformed confessional churches or denominations and are from the perspective of one who is fully supportive of the confessional viewpoint.
My Personal Background in the Science / Faith Dialogue within the Reformed Confessional Tradition
I grew up in the mainline Presbyterian denomination, but moved toward conservative Reformed denominations in my adult years. This has meant membership and/or involvement in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA), the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), and the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA). I was a also a faculty member at Calvin College, owned and operated by the CRCNA, from 1986-1997. For most of my life I have been at ease with evolution as an evangelical Christian. In fact I wrote a “tract” in 7th grade for my fellow public school students explaining how to reconcile the Biblical account of Adam and Eve with modern evolutionary biology.
While doing my undergraduate studies at Purdue University, I attended an RPCNA church whose “Testimony”, a contemporary commentary on the Westminster Confession, is strongly anti-evolutionary. The pastor at this church was staunchly YEC, and, knowing that I was studying biology, tried to convince me of the young earth position. Although I neither became a member at this church, nor active in church leadership, I appreciated the preaching, teaching, and fellowship. The challenge to thinking Christianly about my specific discipline was beneficial even though the pastor and I disagreed on some of the particulars.
In graduate school in the 1980’s at the University of Oregon and during my years at Calvin College I was a member, and eventually an elder, in the OPC. I was comfortable there with my old earth views and my evolutionary science. After all, the OPC had been the home of Davis Young (Christianity and the Age of the Earth) and Mark Noll (The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind) and was the spiritual heir of B.B. Warfield who was able to see his way to reconcile evolutionary biology with the theology of the Westminster Standards. Meredith G. Kline was an Old Testament Biblical scholar in the OPC who advocated a more literary view of Genesis 1 and in the process removed some of the Biblical foundation for the young earth position. I also knew of one prominent pastor and denominational leader who would carry a small fossil in his pocket and ask prospective pastors during the theology examination for ordination how they explained such things, pressing for an old earth view of creation if they responded with a young earth creationist perspective.
Ecclesiastical Charges Resulting from my Evolutionary Creationist Views
But the harmony between my position in the OPC and my views on science and faith would not last. In 1992, while serving as an elder in the church, my EC views were challenged. That spring I wrote a review of Philip Johnson’s book Darwin on Trial for the Banner, the denominational magazine of the CRCNA. In this article I applauded Johnson’s critique of atheistic naturalism but at the same time critiqued his critique of biological evolution. As an aside, I suggested that the arguments for evolution might extend to human beings. A letter from the Presbytery of Northern California soon followed urging the Presbytery of the Midwest (our church was in Grand Rapids, Michigan) to investigate my views. This began a four year long process involving our local church elders, pastors and elders from the Presbytery of the Midwest, and eventually, pastors and elders from the whole denomination. Many of the details of this process are recounted on the web.
It should be noted that my views would not have been scrutinized if I were not an officer in the church (i.e. had I been “just” as member). Like all elders in the OPC I had expressed adherence to the Westminster Standards – and it was charged that my views could not be reconciled with these standards. I was accused “of stating that Adam had primate ancestors–contrary to the Word of God…and the doctrinal standards of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church” and “with regard to the process and method by which God created Adam, Dr. Gray subordinates Scripture to alleged empirical evidence.”
The Trial, My Censure, and Recantation
The process ended up being fairly complicated. Because I was an elder and not a pastor, the “court of original jurisdiction” was the local elder board. A preliminary hearing was held to determine whether or not the charges warranted a trial. Our local church elders determined that a trial was not warranted. However, this was appealed to the Presbytery and they overruled that decision and a trial was conducted. In the meantime, the membership of the elder board had changed, so that at the trial, I was found guilty of the first charge (stating that Adam had primate ancestors)—I admitted stating so, but denied that it was contrary to the Confessions or to the Word of God. (I was found not guilty of the second charge concerning “subordinating Scripture to alleged empirical evidence.”) I appealed the guilty verdict to Presbytery, lost there, then appealed to General Assembly and lost there as well.
The censure was to suspend me indefinitely from the office of ruling elder. I remained in that state until January 1998 when I was restored after recanting of my views. My recantation was not a denial of primate ancestry, but rather an admission that I did not know how to hold my views about human evolution together with the uniqueness of Adam as taught in the Confessions and in Scripture. This small step back from my previous assertion was satisfactory to the church elders. I did not violate my conscience in this and continue to this day to have no firm idea about how to put all the pieces together.
To Be Continued
In part two of this article to be published later this week, I will reflect back on the events of my trial. I was fully sympathetic with the process, and believe I was treated fairly. This may be surprising for others (particularly those not from a confessional church background) and probably deserves some explanation. I will also outline a proposal I recently initiated to modify one section of the CRCNA Creation and Science report that was adopted in 1991.
Monday, 1 March 2010
Promoting a Positive Relationship between an Evangelical Faith and Biological Evolution in the Local Church
The creation / evolution topic can be very divisive within a church community. Because of this, the approach I’ve generally taken at my church is to discuss the issue only when asked, and only with those who ask. Raising this topic can be unhelpful at times, and cause problems for those not adequately prepared to deal with the implications. As Steve has ably discussed here before, the choice on whether to engage in this discussion needs to be approached carefully and with wisdom. Until recently, given that the Creation/evolution discussion was not a major focus of my local congregation, I felt no pressing need to voice my views on the matter. Rather, I discussed it privately and informally with those who expressed an interest in the subject.
A Time to Speak Up
This situation changed for me last year when my local church announced it would be running The Truth Project (hereafter “TTP”), a DVD series from Focus on the Family. TTP covers a lot of ground, but my primary concern was how the series handled evolution. TTP very clearly presents evolution as a demonic lie that is in direct conflict with the Christian perspective that humans are created in the image of God. Moreover, TTP spends a significant amount of time discussing evolution, identifying it as an example of godless philosophy in several of the videos, including the “science” lectures (where of course it is the prime focus). For those not familiar with TTP, Mike Beidler is currently blogging his way through the series.
The concern I had then (and still have now) is that presenting evolution and Creation as a dichotomous choice is both false, and potentially dangerous for believers and non-believers. I decided that it was time to address the issue at the congregational level. One email (among several) I sent to my church leadership on this issue contained the following:
I would hold that the “either evolution or God” is a false dichotomy. I would also hold that it is a dangerous one. In TTP, evolution and God’s creation are held out as mutually exclusive options: in this mindset, then, evidence for evolution becomes evidence against God. I have seen students struggle with this issue as they study biology. This is a mindset we would do well not to saddle young people with (or anyone, for that matter).Later I requested an opportunity to present an Evolutionary Creationist viewpoint on biology at the church, but that request was denied. As an alternative, a church member hosted a unofficial evening at his home where I gave this presentation. The evening was a pleasure – not because we were all in agreement (indeed, the material was very challenging for most attendees) but because of the charity that surrounded the discussion. If nothing else, the evening demonstrated that constructive dialogue within an Evangelical congregation is possible (and everyone still shakes my hand on Sunday; so, so far, so good).
Contrary to what you hear through many Christian channels, there is ample evidence for evolution, human evolution included. When students encounter this evidence with the either/or mindset, it can shipwreck their faith. When outsiders who know Biology come into the church, they write us off as ignorant and dismiss the claims of Christ along with our flawed Biology. In both cases, our poor handling of science raises unnecessary barriers to faith.
I would suggest, especially for the science section of TTP, that there be a willingness to engage a discussion in the church about the full range of Christian responses to evolution, and even explore some of the reasons why Christians in the biological sciences feel that evolution is a valid scientific theory. I’m not normally one for pushing these discussions, but we’ve never had the opposing views taught through an official venue before either.
On the down side, however, our congregation is currently running TTP again as an adult Sunday School class. C’est la vie.
A Tale of Two Congregations
In contrast to the situation at my own church, I recently received an invitation from the leadership of another local congregation to provide a presentation on evolution and Evolutionary Creationism. This congregation runs a “theology café” every so often at a local coffee shop owned by some of their members. This allows them to engage in interesting and controversial issues from a Christian perspective in a public setting.
I’ll admit that I was a little wary when first approached (wondering if perhaps they were looking for an ID/anti-evolutionary view) but those fears were quickly laid to rest. Over coffee (at the venue, of course) it became clear that what they wanted was a discussion from an evangelical perspective that was accepting of evolution. Their motivation? Many in the congregation had read Brian McClaren’s trilogy (A New Kind of Christian; The Story We Find Ourselves In; The Last Word and the Word After That). The second book in the series showcases a positive relationship between Christianity and evolution as a major plot component, and this left the congregation wanting to explore things further. I presented essentially the same material as I had to my own congregants, and the evening generated very fruitful discussions on faith, science and approaching Genesis on its own terms.
The next day I received the following feedback from the church leadership:
Dennis, Thanks so much for an excellent evening. I have heard many express real appreciation not only for the content but also for your grace and the very interesting and understandable way in which you presented it. I think this will not only open up thinking in the science realm but will help get us all excited again about the early chapters of Genesis and what God is communicating there.A Time of Transition
Dennis, I would echo those thanks. Our community is really growing in its ability to face these kinds of questions and you enriched that journey for us. Thanks for taking the time.
A belief in God as Creator is a bedrock, non-negotiable assumption of Christianity. Many believers, however, conflate this belief with a specific mechanism by which God created. Untangling those two ideas cuts to the heart of the nature of Scripture and how it should be approached. Perhaps the greatest tragedy in the evangelical church is not that we, on the whole, reject evolution: worse still, we have not prepared our congregants to deal with the exegetical and hermeneutical issues that evolution engenders, despite the many opportunities Scripture itself gives us for such preparation.
A second bedrock belief, however, is that God’s works are also a form of His revelation. Since Scripture and nature have the same Author, they cannot conflict with each other. Reading God’s words in nature clearly shows that evolution, including human evolution, was part of His creative strategy. Given the overwhelming evidence for human evolution, it is only a matter of time before the evangelical church comes around to this method of creation. The only question is how long this transition will take, and how much damage will ensue in the process.
While I don’t see this as a fast transition, I see good reasons for hope. More and more voices (e.g. Biologos) are chiming in to affirm that science and Christian faith are not at odds, and that one can rejoice in God’s Word in nature and God’s Word in Scripture without falsely pitting one against the other. Resources to address this issue at a congregational level are becoming available as well (e.g. Test of Faith). Already, there are rare evangelical congregations that affirm a positive relationship between the science of evolution and the Good News of Jesus Christ. This affirmation removes a potential stumbling block for believers, and tears down a barrier to faith for non-believers. At the end of the day, these are part and parcel of what being an Evangelical is all about.
Saturday, 27 February 2010
Because of the nature of the internet, blog conversations can sometimes be truly exasperating, banal, nasty, or worse. I am thankful that this type of interaction has been almost completely absent from this blog. A big thanks to all my readers, commenters, and guest contributors.
However, it seems to me that I should publish some type of guideline to refer to when a comment is inappropriate. I have now published the The Evangelical Dialogue on Evolution Commenting Guidelines and put this on the blog home page sidebar. This is draft number 1 and is subject to change – particularly if I get a good suggestion from a reader. Your feedback is welcome.
Secondly, a while ago I created a “comments feed” so that I could receive comments on the blog in my RSS reader. I never publicly announced this, but I guess some people found it. And that made me think, hmm, maybe some others would like to receive these comments in an RSS feed as well rather than constantly looking at my site to see if a new comment has arrived. So here is the RSS comment feed (also available on the sidebar under the subscribe heading).
Monday, 22 February 2010
I know. I still haven't found a permanent church home in "Springfield", Illinois where I've lived for the past 10 years.
The Contemporary Evangelical Church: Culturally but not Intellectually Welcoming
Mind you, I have plenty of evangelical churches to choose from in Springfield (Christian, Evangelical Free, Evangelical Covenant, Assembly of God, Baptist, Lutheran, etc.). And they aren't all tightwad conservative churches, either. Some are cutting-edge, Starbucks-biscotti, black-light, fog-machine, rock-n-roll churches. Culturally relevant and progressive, to be sure...except when it comes to certain intellectual matters and the epistemological nuances that my scientific awareness requires me to take seriously.
I commend contemporary evangelical churches for their willingness to re-evaluate 20th century assumptions about what the Bible really teaches (i.e., exegesis) and how it applies to our generation (i.e., hermeneutics). Unfortunately, for the most part, they seem rather immature in their methodology. Simply put, the church's fundamental problem is its sophomoric understanding of critical realism. Somehow, all truth claims, whether scientific or scriptural, are naively understood as speaking the same language and competing for identical territory.
I am a native evangelical, and those are the types churches that I've generally sought to join. (Mainline churches have different challenges, which I'm not attempting to address here.) My church experiences in Springfield have varied in several ways, and my identity as an evolutionary creationist (EC) is only one factor that has affected the success or failure of these episodes. Yet, I've come to realize that the way in which a church reacts to my identity as an EC provides an accurate indication of how well my family will fit in overall. Indeed, a church's suspicion of my Christian devotion and essential orthodoxy based solely on my EC views is a diagnostic marker for incompatibility in other areas as well.
Becoming Unwanted: Parting Ways with My Local Evangelical Church
That’s my hypothesis: EC is a sort of litmus test for assessing an evangelical church’s theological maturity about many things.
I formulated this hypothesis as a result of my most recent church experience. A few months ago my wife and I felt compelled to leave the evangelical church that we had called home and had been actively involved in for more than a year. I wrote about this experience on my personal blog in a series called "Becoming Unwanted". In the first post I described the background and setting for the overall situation. Originally my family was optimistic about our prospects at this church, but a change in leadership occurred that undermined nearly everything that we had come to value there. My second post provided a detailed account of my evaluation by the new leadership (elders) upon submission of my completed "Questionnaire for Prospective Sunday School Teachers". (I had wanted to help lead my son's highschool discipleship group.) The evaluation became a mutual trial of the elders' and my beliefs. The verdict they reached was that I would not be allowed to teach in the church; the verdict I reached was that my family needed a new church home.
I may have exhausted my options for fellowship in an evangelical church here in Springfield, but I think I've now developed a specific strategy and some guiding principles to help me evaluate my prospects at evangelical churches that I visit in the future. Perhaps you will find these tips helpful for your situation.
Church-hunting Tips for the EC
1. Apply the evolution "litmus test": Disclose your vocation and EC status to church leaders at the earliest opportunity (e.g., the first time you have the pastor over for dinner). After first assuring them of your belief in creation, ask point-blank if they have a major issue with your EC views. Don't expect them to be EC themselves; that's not the point of the test. You just want to assess their response. Can they handle the challenge, or do they suddenly regard you as an unbeliever and attempt to aggressively debate the point? Even if the pastor and elders pass the test, ask if there are others on staff or in leadership who are passionate defenders of young-earth creationism (YEC). If anyone of established influence in the church has such a passion for YEC, pursue church membership no further. Your presence will simply create division.
2. Apply the epistemology test: Ask the leadership about baptism and communion. These are perfect topics for assessing the nature of the church's critical realism. No need to bring up controversial issues like abortion, homosexuality, body-piercing or even women in the church. A discussion of modes and meanings of baptism and communion will immediately reveal if and how the leadership delineates between biblically sound practice and absolute truth. If they cannot concede that there is a difference between these (e.g., if they cannot accept as valid the fact that you regard your infant baptism as meaningful and sufficient for yourself), then move on.
3. Decide your level of engagement: Evaluate from the start if your goal is simply acceptance in the community of believers or if you also feel called to actively teach and promote serious consideration of science-theology issues. Some churches will marginally pass tests 1 & 2 and will accept your presence as long as you don't plan to teach and openly discuss your views. If that's acceptable, you can assure the pastor of this when you conduct tests 1 & 2. If you feel called to have greater influence, then make that clear from the start. In deciding between these two paths, be sure to consider other aspects of your personal situation, such as the impact on your spouse and children.
4. Honor the cause: Don't speak up or speak out about EC unless you're willing to live and demonstrate a genuine Christian life. If you want to be an ambassador for EC, then don't give the church any cause to dismiss your testimony. Commit to holy living, humble service (e.g., help in the nursery) and having a gracious demeanor.
5. Love the church: Find some way to cultivate and maintain your love for Christ's church. Given my situation, this is a difficult thing for me to do at the moment. Nevertheless, I'm intentionally reading and interacting with others to stir up this grace within me. As infuriating as your church tradition may be, it is your immediate family and part of the one holy, catholic and apostolic church, even Christ's bride. I recommend a soon-to-be released book by John Armstrong (I have read an advanced copy) called “Your Church is Too Small: Why unity in Christ's mission is vital to the future of the church”.
Submitted for Your Approval
In part three of my Becoming Unwanted story, I attempted to draw some tentative conclusions and to ask some difficult questions about what to do next. Like the Psalmist, I wrote that post with some degree of angst and unbridled emotion. My conclusions there were tentative; my assertions and hypothesis in the current essay are only slightly less tentative.
I welcome your participation in testing my thoughts. May we proclaim to one another the words of the apostle Paul: “
Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
Tuesday, 16 February 2010
This is the first post is a 10-part guest-post series on Evangelicals, Evolution, and the Church.
For those of us that are Evangelicals, the Church is not a cultural or ethnic club, an institution to provide moral guidance, or even a religious organization. Although each of these aspects can be true of the Church (for better or worse), this is not what defines it. The Church is the corporate body of Christ, the collection of all sinners saved by grace and mandated to further the kingdom of God on earth. It manifests itself worldwide and more intimately at the local level. We look to the Church to feed us spiritually, even as we as individuals provide support to others in the body. We celebrate together, grieve together, share similar fears and dreams, and help each other when in need. We share a common purpose and a common spiritual ancestory.
In short, the Church is our family.
And problems within this family affect us at that deepest level. When the family rejects us, it can cause loneliness and despair. When the family is acting in a way that is unhealthy, we want to intervene to change that direction. And when members of the family are struggling in some way, we are eager to help. These problems are only too familiar for Evolutionary Creationists (EC) as we struggle to find our place in the evangelical family.
An Evolutionary Creationist Returns Home to the Evangelical Community
In a poignant article called Surprised by Joy, biologist Darrel Falk recounts how he returned to the Christian faith, but felt he could not return to the evangelical church.
So I got back on the road which leads to God—I began once more the life of faith. I never expected though that I could be a part of an evangelical community again; the differences between the facts of biology and the views of evangelical Christians seemed too great. So I did my best to live the life of an evangelical Christian without being in an evangelical fellowship. I had a deep and meaningful personal relationship with God, but corporate evangelicalism, I was certain, would have to be a thing of the past.But God has created us to be in relationships, relationships with both himself and with each other. Falk quickly realized that he was missing out on something essential; being part of the body is vital for both spiritual health and fulfillment and he longed to be part of the evangelical community. He was able to finally return to that community, and that return was surprising as it was joyous.
Eight Perspectives on the Relationship between Evolutionary Creationists and the Church
Over the next two months, 8 guest contributors will discuss various aspects of the relationship between evangelical ECs and their spiritual family, the evangelical church. Starting next Monday, evolutionary biologist Douglas Hayworth will discuss his own challenge in finding a church home within the evangelical community. Very few evangelical churches welcome the active participation of ECs, and Doug will provide some guidance on how an EC can approach this search for a welcoming community. I believe his points will be helpful to other ECs, but I am also hoping other ECs can provide Doug with some feedback of their own as his own journey has reached somewhat of a crisis point.
The next two contributors will discuss how they have responded to anti-evolutionism within the evangelical church. TWU biology chair Dennis Venema will talk about his experiences addressing unhealthy views of science and God’s creation in the local church. He will use the particular example of how he provided an alternative view to the “Focus on the Family Truth Project” classes in both his own church community and in a neighbouring church. ASA webmaster Terry Gray will then consider the response at the denominational level. In the 1990’s, Gray was an elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) and was put on trial by his denominational body for his views on evolution. Today, Gray is part of an effort within his current denomination (the Christian Reformed Church – CRC) to take a positive stand on the compatibility between evolutionary biology and the Christian faith. Gray will discuss both of these experiences in his article.
The first half of the series will conclude with an article by palaeoanthropologist and evolutionary biologist Jim Kidder. Jim encountered Christ while in Japan, and then anti-evolutionism within the American evangelical church. He will provide some personal perspectives on his journey and relationship with the church.
The second half of the series will focus on how we as EC’s can help our brothers and sisters in Christ develop a healthy view of the science / faith relationship. Engineer, scientist, and bible teacher Phil Wala’s article will discuss how evangelical scientists can help their fellow evangelicals in this area. Critical thinking has never been a strong-point within our community (to put it mildly!), but this skill (required by all good scientists) will be very helpful for evangelicals trying to come to grips with a constantly changing modern world.
Two pastors will then provide their perspectives on the science / faith dialogue. Baptist minister Murray Hogg will discuss the challenge of tackling this difficult and controversial topic. If not handled with wisdom, care and humility, EC’s “eagerness to help” may be counterproductive. Using the Apostle Paul’s approach to Christian maturity and the “weaker brother”, Murray will discuss how we can be helpful without being hurtful. Keith Suckling, an Anglican priest, will then discuss his experiences leading a Test of Faith course in his church. "Test of Faith" has just released several new curricula and teaching materials, and it will be interesting to hear some feedback from one of the early users of this material. (Note: The material is not yet available in North America but should be available soon).
The series will conclude with a post by church elder and chemical engineer Allan Harvey. Allan taught a science and faith course in his Presbyterian church several years ago. His lesson on evolution contains the best simplified overview of “definitions of evolution” for Christians that I have seen. Allan will provide a post on “10 lessons learned on teaching a science / faith course in the church”.
Promoting Health in the Family
Many of the series published on this blog (with the exception of the student series) have been somewhat academic in nature – academic in the sense that one can interact with the posts without necessarily making a huge personal investment. This one may be somewhat different. All of the posts will share very personal perspectives on the science / faith dialogue, and challenge each of us in various personal ways. How could it be any other way? The topic of evolution and the Church is about our relationship with our spiritual family, our desire to help our family grow in its relationship with its Creator, and our longing to remove the stumbling-block of antievolutionism so that faith in Christ is considered both viable and desirable.
We want to be part of the family; we want our family to be healthy; we want to see our family grow.
Enjoy the series.
Tuesday, 9 February 2010
Last Friday I had the opportunity to attend Jennifer Wiseman’s lecture and presentation “Universe of Wonder, Universe of Mystery” at McMaster University. Wiseman is Chief of the Laboratory for Exoplanets and Stellar Astrophysics at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center – meaning she get’s to play with the Hubble whenever she wants. (Disclaimer: I believe she describes her job somewhat differently). This was a thoroughly enjoyable experience to not only see how “the incredible tools of modern astronomy are revealing a universe of staggering beauty and baffling mysteries”, but also to hear anecdotes from someone “on the inside” studying this staggering beauty and helping to answer some of these baffling mysteries.
Science should be an Instrument of Worship
Biologos recently published Wiseman’s paper “Science as an Instrument of Worship” which asks the question “Can recent scientific discovery inform and inspire worship and service”? The obvious answer is “of course”; Christians have always been inspired to worship God because of his creation. However, as Wiseman notes, Evangelicalism’s ambivalence toward science has in some sense muted our praise rather than, as advances in science should, enhance it. This is due to a combination of factors, including a) our general ignorance of science (the standard Evangelical is relatively uninformed in this discipline) b) the controversy over science within evangelicalism (many voices are trying to “inform the uninformed” but these voices do not agree on the correct information), and c) the uncertainty of church leaders on how to approach the topic, a timidity to address scientific issues when “there is no clear way to bring closure to the discussion”. On the last, Wiseman notes that:
There is simply no easy theological answer for why genetic codes get fouled up, why the plate tectonics that continually shape our continents also drive earthquakes and destruction, which technologies are ethical, and whether God may sustain and redeem life in other star systems. The fact that the “natural processes” that God has created can sometimes enable and sometimes destroy life is difficult to explain when you are facing someone suffering directly from disease or natural disaster. The idea that human life has only been around for a small fraction of the history of life on earth or an even tinier fraction of the history of the universe is hard to address, given that our Scriptures focus on God’s relationship to humans.But these uncertainties and difficult questions should not make us timid; God never promised to answer all our questions, only that he is in control and that all things will be right in the end. And the controversy over the “how” of creation (even though to many of us, this “controversy” is manufactured) should not stop us from joining in unison in praise for the Creator. As to the lack of scientific knowledge, and an unhealthy view towards science? Well, many of us are trying to address this.
Dealing with Science in the Church
This unhealthy view of science within the evangelical church is a very personal problem for many evangelical Evolutionary Creationists (ECs). How do we let our Christian family see that creation is even more amazing than they currently imagine? How do we deal with hostility towards certain aspects of creation within the local church? Within our denominations? How can we ensure that science, all of science, is an instrument of worship rather than a distraction from worship, or worse, an instrument of disunity?
Starting next week, a new series called “Evangelicals, Evolution, and the Church” will be published on this blog. The series will include guest contributions from 8 other Evangelicals who have grappled with (and in most cases are still grappling with) some of these questions. But each of these participants will also provide answers to some of these questions, answers that I think will be helpful to other ECs grappling with these questions. These ECs come from a wide variety of denominational backgrounds and include scientists, pastors, church leaders, and ordinary “evangelicals in the pew”. But all of them share a passion for promoting a positive relationship between science and the Christian faith. In the end, we want our church family to appreciate God’s creation for what it is, and not for what we think it should be.
Sunday, 31 January 2010
This is the 13th post in a series on the writings of John Polkinghorne.
Last Sunday morning Dave Toycen, president of World Vision Canada, was interviewed by our pastor. Dave had just returned from Haiti and was providing us with some first hand accounts of the devastation caused by the earthquake that had rocked Haiti a couple of weeks earlier. The stories were heartrending.
The first song we sang that morning was Indescribable. Now, this isn’t my favourite worship song and I usually simply stop singing when the second verse starts with “Who has told every lightning bolt where it should go …”. I’m always surprised that more people don’t find this line a little uncomfortable (Anyone here been hit by lightening? Anyone have someone they love killed by lightening?), but given current events, I was sure others must also see the problem.
Apparently not. The song continued without even a hint of irony. Ok, how about we change that line to “Who has told every tectonic plate when is should slide …”. Does that help illustrate the problem? Maybe we need to be a little blunter: “Did God kill all those people in Port-au-Prince?”
Divine Action and Evil
Polkinghorne is acutely aware of the problem of Divine action and evil. As he indicates:
The more strongly one is able to speak of God’s particular action in the world, the more firmly one asserts that world to be subject to his purposive will, so much the more forceful becomes the problem of the widespread evil within it. (Science and Providence, page 59)As orthodox Christians (and in opposition to those who hold to process theology), we believe that God acts: he upholds his creation, he is continually creating, and he has acted in very particular ways in history (most notably the incarnation). But must we speak of particular “natural” disasters as “acts of God”? Was it “God’s will” that all those Haitians died? If God is good, why is there “natural” evil?
I doubt that the “Problem of Evil” will ever fully make sense to us, at least this side of paradise. However, I do think that Polkinghorne’s free-process defence is the closest we may get. As he says:
I think the only possible solution lies in a variation of the free-will defence, applied to the whole created world. One might call it ‘the free-process defence’. In his great act of creation I believe that God allows the physical world to be itself, not in Manichaean opposition to him, but in that independence which is Love’s gift of freedom to the one beloved.Just as God gives humanity the freedom to be itself and to make choices (even when those choices are not the one’s God wishes his children would make), so too God gives the whole of his creation the freedom to be itself. And the evil in this world (both moral and natural), is the price of this freedom. I suspect the same reasoning that applies to the free-will defence (See Plantinga's “God, Freedom, and Evil” ) applies for the most part to the free-process defence.
The Cosmos is given the opportunity to be itself. (Science and Providence, page 66)
Actually, that is NOT God’s Will
When evil occurs, Christians often say “It must be God’s will”. But I am not sure this is necessarily true. In fact, I am sure that many of the choices that God’s creatures make are not the choices God would make. As Polkinghorne notes:
God no more expressly wills the growth of a cancer than he expressly wills the act of a murderer, but he allows both to happen. He is not puppetmaster of either men or matter. (Science and Providence, page 68)So in the face of tragedy, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to opine “It must be God’s will”. And just as we shouldn’t accuse God of causing the genocide in Rawanda, neither should we accuse him of causing the earthquake in Haiti.
And while we are at it, maybe we should make sure our worship songs do not slander God.