Monday, April 12, 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.