Being a pastor must be one of the more unenviable vocations. It is both highly stressful and spiritually demanding. Although responsible for the spiritual well-being of the members in their churches, many pastors have nowhere to turn for their own spiritual needs (or questions). This combination of factors is probably partly responsible for the high levels of burn-out and depression among the pastorate.
Pastors and the Science-Faith Dialogue
Dealing with the volatile science-faith dialogue is an area of added difficulty for the modern pastor. Ours is a rapidly changing world, and technological advances due to new scientific discoveries are responsible for most of these changes. However, even though science is such an important factor in our modern culture, few pastors seem to have adequate scientific training. And since most voices within evangelicalism (with the exception of our scientists) are so strongly anti-evolution or pro-IDM, it is no wonder that most pastors default to this anti-evolution position. In fact, given the personal and professional risks inherent in publicly defending the compatibility of science and the Christian faith, one could easily forgive those pastors who do understand this compatibility for not proclaiming it from the pulpit.
Tim Keller’s Pastoral Approach to the Dialogue on Evolution
Tim Keller should command all of our respect. I’m usually suspicious of “mega-church movements” (my odd mix of conservative anabaptist & Plymouth Brethren upbringing is probably responsible for this bias), but Keller’s approach at Redeemer in the heart of Manhattan (including his unflinching stance against consumerism) is both effective and laudable. In the past, Keller has been unafraid to enter the science-faith fray with a qualified support for theistic evolution (see our past discussion: "Would your church allow you to publicly support Evolution?"). More recently, he co-sponsored the first Biologos workshop that brought together evangelical scientists, theologians, and pastors to explore the relationship between science and faith. Many good papers were presented at this forum.
Keller’s contribution to the workshop included the paper "Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople". As any good pastor, Keller’s priority in the discussion is its effect on the Christian laity (If only all pastors were more concerned with their parishioners than with their “ministry”!). What questions about evolution are at the forefront for ordinary Christians? What are the theological implications of evolution? How will these questions, answers, and implications affect the spiritual health of the individual and the church? These are the questions Keller sets out to address.
Keller’s Advice to other Pastors
But Keller also provides important advice to other pastors as well. In his paper he states that:
… if I as a pastor want to help both believers and inquirers to relate science and faith coherently, I must read the works of scientists, exegetes, philosophers, and theologians and then interpret them for my people. Someone might counter that this is too great a burden to put on pastors, that instead they should simply refer their laypeople to the works of scholars. But if pastors are not ‘up to the job’ of distilling and understanding the writings of scholars in various disciplines, how will our laypeople do it?Now this type of response is indicative of a man that doesn’t shrink from his responsibilities. No parade of excuses (even entirely justified excuses). Keller knows the needs of “ordinary people learning to follow Jesus in our time” (part my own church’s motto) and also understands that pastors are probably in the best position to fulfill these needs.
This is one of the things that parishioners want from their pastors. We are to be a bridge between the world of scholarship and the world of the street and the pew. I’m aware of what a burden this is. I don’t know that there has ever been a culture in which the job of the pastor has been more challenging. Nevertheless, I believe this is our calling.I encourage everyone with an interest in the science / faith dialogue (especially pastors!) to read Keller’s paper. Although I’m not sure I agree with Keller’s response to the 3rd important question he articulates (the historicity of Adam and Eve), I really like the summarized answer he gives to the question:
Belief in evolution can be compatible with a belief in an historical fall and a literal Adam and Eve. There are many unanswered questions around this issue and so Christians who believe God used evolution must be open to one another’s views.This is what we need from our pastors: The courage and confidence to address difficult topics but tempered with Christian humility (we don’t have all the answers and must be prepared to admit we are sometimes wrong), and the desire to encourage Christian unity in the face of theological differences.
A Harbinger of Change?
I have often thought that my own pastor’s response to the evolution controversy was the best one could hope to hear in an evangelical church. In his message on creation a couple years ago he briefly noted that: “It doesn’t matter if God created through evolution or Intelligent Design”. Ok, not a great way to frame the choice, but at least he proclaimed a healthy view of creation that was not just about origins.
However, maybe I am being too pessimistic about the chances for positive discussions on science & faith in our churches. Maybe it is not just our scientists and theologians that are making progress here; if Keller is any indication, maybe this positive change is happening at the ground level of Evangelicalism as well.
I’d be interested in what others have to say on this. Maybe the shrill voices insisting that evolution & faith cannot be reconciled are just the loud ones and not necessarily a significant majority. Maybe having someone of Keller’s stature publicly defending the compatibility of evolution and faith will provide the impetus for other pastors to take a similar stand (or at least investigate the topic further). Is there reason to be optimistic? Are there other similar examples of agents of change? Maybe the most important question of all: How can we help our pastors start, continue, or publicize this discussion?