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Saturday, 27 February 2010

A Quick Comment on Comments

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

Is there an Evangelical Church Home for the Evolutionary Creationist?

This is a guest-post by Douglas Hayworth and is the second installment in the series "Evangelicals, Evolution, and the Church". Doug grew up as an MK/PK (missionary/pastor kid) and lived in Iran as a child. He has a PhD in evolutionary biology from Washington University in St. Louis. While in St. Louis, he was part of a PCA church, where he served as missions committee chairman, deacon, and children's Sunday school teacher. He currently lives in Rockford, Illinois where he works as a protein research technical writer and content specialist for Thermo Fisher Scientific.

I think it's fair to say that evangelical churches aren't welcoming places for scientists whose areas of expertise and research have anything to do with evolution. Where there are exceptional churches, they are primarily in metropolitan areas near large universities that provide a wide diversity of intellectual expertise. Unless you're fortunate enough to live in such a place, finding a church fellowship that values and supports the whole of who you are may be extremely difficult.

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

Evangelicals, Evolution, and the Church: Introduction

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

Science and Worship ... and a New Series on Evangelicals, Evolution, and the Church

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.