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Monday, 12 April 2010

Teaching a Science and Faith Course in an Evangelical Mainline Church: Lessons Learned

This is a guest post by Allan Harvey and is the tenth installment in the series "Evangelicals, Evolution, and the Church". Allan is a Ph.D. chemical engineer who works at a US government science lab in Colorado. He is on the Board of the Rocky Mountain local section of the American Scientific Affiliation. Allan is an Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA), has written several essays on the Science / Faith Dialogue, and has made available online materials based on a class he taught at his church on Science and Nature in Christian Perspective.

My church is a little schizophrenic. We are in the PCUSA, the large “mainline” Presbyterian body. Congregations in the PCUSA vary widely; my church is at the theologically (and politically) conservative end of the spectrum. We are like a hybrid between a moderate mainline Presbyterian body and a nondenominational Evangelical church. So our fairly large church (Sunday attendance about 1000) has a diversity of viewpoints, ranging from a sizable minority whom one might call fundamentalist to some who are moderately liberal.

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

Origins and the Pastoral Task: The Priority of Love over Knowledge

This is a guest post by Murray Hogg and is the ninth installment in the series "Evangelicals, Evolution, and the Church". Murray is the pastor of Camberwell East Baptist Church in Melbourne, Australia, and is the Chair of the Victorian chapter of ISCAST. He trained as a Mechanical Engineer, worked in the area of stress and vibration analysis, and then returned to school where he obtained a Master of Divinity at the Bible College of Victoria.He is currently completing a post-graduate thesis on the relationship between the modern philosophy of knowledge and the theology of John’s Gospel.

Evangelicals and the Complexity of the Origins Issue
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).