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Monday, 29 March 2010

Using the "Test of Faith Course" to Explore the Compatibility Between Science and Faith

This is a guest post by Keith Suckling and is the eighth installment in the series "Evangelicals, Evolution, and the Church". Keith trained as an organic chemist and has published numerous scientific papers. He worked in biochemistry and pharmacology in universities, and for nearly 20 years in the pharmaceutical industry where he led research into drugs to treat heart disease, two of which are now in late stage clinical trials. He is also an ordained Anglican minister and a member of the Society of Ordained Scientists.

I am a minister in a church in the UK. Like most of Western Europe, ours is a predominantly secular society. Whereas the relationship between science and faith can be a hotly debated topic, one must often first address the question “Is faith and religion even relevant anymore?” As both a Christian minister and a scientist, I strongly support not only the relevance of the Christian faith, but the compatibility between science and this faith. The Test of Faith course offers a great opportunity to promote this perspective and I’ve had the opportunity to lead this course twice in my Church.

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.


Anonymous said...

It's fascinating to hear how the course is working out in practice. For groups where evolution is a more contentious subject, this is what I usually say -

All the writers and people involved in developing Test of Faith were Christians (you can see more about the ethos of the writing in the introduction to the Leader's Guide, which is included in the Leader's Guide sample on the Test of Faith website, but a high view of Scripture was key here). There are a number of issues in science and faith where there is more than one Christian view. So what we did is to let the scientists have a say in the DVD, and then it's over to you in the course. In the course books we lay out all the different views and relevant Bible passages etc and then it's up to you to think, pray, and discuss together and come to your own conclusions.

Ruth Bancewicz

Ron said...

Hi Keith,
Very interesting. When I first heard of this course, I assumed evolution would be the main focus – given the evolution wars in the US, I am guessing most Americans would have the same assumption. That the course (and I guess the doc as well) has a much broader focus is probably a good thing – there is so much more about the science and faith relationship that can be discussed. Sounds like most of your course participants started out with a prior faith commitment (not unusual given the course was offered in a church). Do you think the course would work in a setting where participants did not necessarily have this prior faith commitment?


Keith at Digswell said...


I think in a non-church environment you would have to present the material differently and would need to assume much less knowledge of Christianity, but I think the DVD presentations could be used without difficulty. In a modified way, this is what I have done in schools, and it gets a good reaction.

You are right about the broader focus of the course, and from reading the comments to this series, I think it is important for people to recognise that there is much more to be discussed. We can easily get too fixed on one specific point of debate.


Irenicum said...

Kudos for the work you're doing. It sounds like you serve a parish I'd be happy to be a part of. Here in the US contra the UK the evolutionary debate is straightaway much more central in any science/faith debate. I hope the Test of Faith will be available in the US soon. The moment it is, I will certainly buy it and use it to help both my fellow Christians better understand scientific issues, but also, I hope, let my non-Christian friends know that there are Christians who take modern science seriously.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Ruth,
Like Irenicum, I’m looking forward to the US (and Canadian?) release. Are there any plans to modify any of the course material to cater it to the different environment here across the pond? (Although frankly, I’m guessing multicultural & very secular Toronto would have a similar profile to London).

Ron, Keith: re: the broader focus of the science / faith discussion, yes I agree. Actually, I am hopeful that in 10 or 15 years “An Evangelical Dialogue on Evolution” will be as weird a discussion as “An Evangelical Dialogue on Geocentricism” – (yes I am chronically optimistic :-) ) , but until then there is probably a (very broad) niche for this discussion – at least in North America.

Keith: I am intrigued by the fact that a third of the course looks at:

“recent aspects of neuroscience so as to raise questions of the origin of individual personal identity and many related themes”

… were these discussions even more challenging for the participants than the topic of evolution?

Dennis Venema said...

Steve, I think the equivalent title would be "An Evangelical Dialogue on Heliocentrism", no?


Just today in class I raised the question: following on from Galileo's observations in 1609, when would it have been appropriate to teach heliocentrism in a Catholic school? It made for some interesting discussion.

Keith, thanks for sharing about this series. I'm also very much looking forward to seeing it released in Canada. I was disappointed not to be able to make the ToF workshop that preceded the ASA meeting last year. Once it becomes available, I'm considering requesting to lead this at my church as an adult sunday school class.

Karl A. said...

Thank you for your contribution. The course looks fascinating. I bet it would go over well in my church.

I note that the list of contributors overlaps significantly with those who have contributed to the BioLogos blog, and also includes William Dempski, the well-known ID proponent.

I think you are dead-on about the need to show that faith is relevant, and not just in your culture. One can see the same need in the urban U.S., for example.

I note the two sticking points you mentioned, one the "loss of Eden" and the other, the problem of evil. In my journey from a young-earth creationist position to wrestling with the implications of modern science for my faith, those two related issues are the ones I also am stuck on.

Steve Martin said...

Ouch!!! Unbelievable! What can I say? I guess I am unique - the only person in history that accepted both biological evolution and the geocentric model of Ptolemy. Definitely time to get some sleep before I claim the earth is spherical.

Keith at Digswell said...

Thanks to everyone for their comments.

Irenicum - thank you. I like your thumbnail path picture. It looks like some in the woods just outside my house.

Steve - the neuroscience discussion was interesting. After the first part of the DVD one of the participants said she found the questions raised disturbing but by the end of the session she was quite happy because she had got a more complete perspective.
As I said, evolution as a mechanism was not a problem for people, but they still have to think through the implications.

Karl A - I understand your concerns. One of the things I have been getting used to (which is perhaps easier being a scientist) is becoming aware of what level of certainty we have about things and recognising that we cannot expect to have everything laid out neatly like an airline timetable. The Church (overall) has given a bad lead on this. A little more modesty would help both science and religion. St Paul knew that our knowledge is partial, we see through a glass darkly, and many have recognised this since (Augustine, Aquinas to name just two quite influential people!)

Greg said...

The Test of Faith series definitely looks like one to look forward too. Every time I read a new post here or at Biologos, and see the views of others, I feel more optimistic that progress is being made.

Then however I come across things like this. One step forward and two steps back.

Jimpithecus said...

It is interesting how different the ideas behind those of the Test of Faith are from those of The Truth Project, which is making inroads here in the United States and vexing biologists and palaeontologists all over the place. My church hasn't brought it up yet but the time may come. I would like to have a counter proposal on hand. Steve, I think your review of The Truth Project ought to be required reading for any church that is thinking about bringing it in.

Jimpithecus said...

Greg, I went to that page that you linked and read some of the comments. Here is one that really struck me:

"I think professing Christians who believe in evolution are just not aware of what it truly means and how it conflicts with God's Word. They are also not not aware of the severity of evolutions implications to God's Word because they are not being taught the Word."

In that analysis there is absolutely no understanding of evolution as a biological process. So many have been led to believe that evolution should be viewed as a first cause and, therefore, antithetical to God. Would the same person view the volcanic processes that destroyed Pompeii the same way? I bet not.

Steve Martin said...

An even better idea might be to have all Churches that use the Truth Project, also use Test of Faith. It might give many Evangelicals their first chance to use those critical thinking skills Phil talked about last week.

If / when you do this, I'd love to hear how things went. Hey, your church might be the one ever to use both!

Ruth: You might want to contact Focus on the Family and see if they want to do a joint marketing campaign with your team :-)

Unknown said...

I viewed the videos posted on the web which I think comprise a majority if not the complete video portion of the course.
The production values were very high, a real plus, and I think it's helpful for those of us on the U.S. side of the Atlantic to see what our fellow believers are doing in the UK.
I think your fellowship, broadly evangelical but sharing core historic commitments, is an interesting venue to test out the series.
Keith, I agree with you that the integration of Scripture and nature as both revealing God but in different ways is a key issue - it's a challenge for some who see "integration" as tantamount to syncretism.
One thing that may be outside the course itself that seems intriguing, and that is the discussion of theodicy as a didactic tool.
Rev. Dr. Polkinghorne's question about the tsunami in the context of God's providence, and its updating by using the Haiti earthquake (and I suppose the Chilean one too) seems a good way to introduce the idea that God's providence need not comply with our ideas of what God ought or ought not to do. When we think that way when faced with questions of theodicy, we really put ourselves in the judge's seat and God in the dock, don't we? It comes down to being able to trust God's character even if we don't understand what he's up to.
It seems that the same question could be asked vis a vis evolution as a biological process, at least for the sake of discussion.
Very intriguing post. I too look forward with interest to the release of the Test of Faith series here in the Americas.

Keith at Digswell said...

Rob - Your comments also hit the mark. The church has always changed, and its leaders have responded to the situation of their time. This is what Paul did, and then (as I already noted) Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Wesley etc. This is the process we are in and it can be tricky at times.

ToF opens the door to many discussions. Although I have run it as a four session introductory course, there is material for following up areas of interest to individual groups, so you could easily double the number of sessions. And then there are ofther topics that could be studied.

You are absolutely right that we cannot put ourselves in a position to see things from God's own perspective. He was quite severe with Job when challenged in this way! In a corresponding way, the common position suggested by some scientists (often in print) that we will have a 'complete' understanding of one topic or another is not tenable. We need to avoid the temptation of chasing 'complete' knowledge, whatever that may be theologically or scientifically and get on with our prayers and service on the one hand and our research on the other.

Unknown said...

Pardon the off-topic post, but this UK Telegraph article reports the discovery of a "missing link" (their words, not mine) between australopithecenes and homo habilis, to be unveiled this week.


The article says the find by Dr. Lee Berger of the University of Witwatersrand includes a complete skeleton and remains from several individuals.

This is quite intriguing.

Ted said...

Journalists of all kinds, or anyone reporting on any area of science, should be forever forbidden from using the term "missing link."