Evangelical Evolutionists … and an Opportunity

Tim Stafford wrote a short, but nice, piece for the web-only edition of Christianity Today Evangelical Evolutionists Meet in New York on the recent BioLogos Theology of Celebration III Workshop in New York City. I don’t really like the phrase “Evangelical Evolutionists”  or the term evolutionist in general but the phrase has a certain headline ring … so perhaps we can let it slide. I had the opportunity to attend this workshop and found it both encouraging and challenging. Although most of the people in attendance support the idea of evolutionary creation – it is important to note that at least a few of those who were there are open to the possibility of evolutionary creation, but uncertain whether this is the right understanding of creation.

In his CT article Stafford suggests that the most sobering point in the meeting was the report by David Kinnaman of Barna Research that  more than half of protestant pastors in the US support young earth creationism or lean strongly toward that position. The poll includes the entire range of protestants, so we can safely assume that well over half of evangelical pastors lean toward the young earth view.

The most sobering point for me though, was not this particular finding (which was not unexpected), but the realization that the vast majority of this “more than half” of evangelical pastors, more than three-quarters of them, believe that they understand both the theological issues and the scientific issues involved in the creation/evolution discussion very well.  This is sobering because as a practicing scientist I find the general level of understanding of the science rather low.  As a result I see a mountain range resembling the Grand Tetons (if not the Himalayas) looming ahead as we try to find ways to communicate in the church.

In the rest of this post I would like to reflect on a few of the peaks in that mountain range that hinder progress and perhaps a few of the the passes that may take us through the range.

What do you see as the important peaks in the mountain range?

How do you think these issues can be effectively addressed? Where might we find the passes?

My post a couple of weeks ago, What Do We Have To Offer, was inspired by the insight offered by Tim Keller at the workshop. This is summarized nicely by Stafford in his article.

Few Christian colleges or seminaries teach young earth creationism (YEC), participants noted during discussion groups. But less formal, grassroots educational initiatives, often centered on homeschooling, have won over the majority of evangelicals. “We have arguments, but they have a narrative,” noted Tim Keller. Both young earth creationists and atheistic evolutionists tell a story tapping into an existing cultural narrative of decline. To develop a Biologos narrative is “the job of pastors,” Keller said.

I think Keller is dead on right here – we need a narrative, a way of casting the story of the gospel of Jesus Christ, that takes science seriously, with the respect that knowledge of God’s creation deserves, and can catch the imagination and interest of broad groups of Christians.  This is, if not the job of pastors alone, certainly a job that requires the leadership and active engagement of pastors.  Powerful preaching and the ability to communicate the vision to large groups of people is an important part of the calling of pastors.

I am encouraged that people like Tim Keller, John Ortberg, Joel Hunter, N. T. Wright, and others are engaged in this effort. But we need more. And here Stafford is right – it is sobering that more than half of the pastors surveyed lean to the young earth view. This points to a need that extends beyond the narrative and must involve more than pastors alone.

We need biblical scholars and theologians as well – and I am encouraged that people like Scot McKnight, John Walton, Alister McGrath, N. T. Wright, Peter Enns and others are actively thinking about these issues. No one person in any area of biblical studies or theology will arrive at all the right answers alone. Again we need more. The biblical and theological issues arising from the interaction of  Christian faith with evolutionary biology are significant peaks in the mountain range.

We need scientists; those who can explain the science carefully and clearly for a lay audience. Here I find Dennis Venema’s articles on the BioLogos site to be excellent examples and provide a valuable resource.

But we need more than just scientists who know science. I had a conversation with a younger colleague a few weeks ago who was frustrated that when he tried to discuss these issues (science, faith, and evolution) with his pastor he was told to first read and study a large, dense book on systematic theology and then return and they could have a discussion. This seemed a bit much.

I agree with his pastor though … to an extent at least. Some rather unfortunate things have been said by scientists, even Christian scientists, confident in their understanding of the science, who seem to think that settles it and others should simply accept the truth. Arrogance is a rather common trait and this is another significant, but avoidable, peak in the mountain range.

Although assignment of this particular large dense book on systematic theology may not have been the best approach, we need scientists who have a general understanding of the theological questions engaging in the conversation. This doesn’t require attending seminary (or learning Greek and Hebrew) but it does require serious and scholarly engagement with doctrines of our faith. We need Christians with expertise in science who take the same professional attitude toward their understanding of Christian faith. I have spent a great deal of time over the last eight years or so studying and writing in an ongoing effort to come up to speed and move forward on many of these issues.

There is a corollary of course – and this returns to the sobering observation I opened the post with. Most pastors understand rather little science, but many feel they have a firm grasp on the scientific issues. Unless willing to study the science seriously they should respect the expertise of those who do understand and practice science. The need for humility and a willingness to learn must go both ways. Arrogance is not a vice restricted to scientists.

Beyond science, theology, and biblical studies – we need Christian scholars in other disciplines, philosophy, history, psychology, and sociology for example, who are willing to engage and bring their expertise to the church as well.

An Opportunity. The task of finding passes through the mountain range of issues involved in the discussion of science, evolution, and Christian faith is a job for the church as a whole and requires the gifts of many. Pastors alone, scholars alone, scientists alone will have little impact. There are no fast and easy solutions. As a start to help facilitate this process the BioLogos Foundation, with funding support from The John Templeton Foundation, has announced a grants program, “Evolution and Christian Faith,” for 2012-2015. Awards will range from $30,000 to $300,000 for 34 months with the larger number of awards at the lower end of this range. Preproposals are due June 15th, full proposals October 1.

The program is described more completely through the link above. It targets both Christian scholars and pastors or parachurch leaders. Examples of topics of interest include intra-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary scholarship in biblical theology, philosophical theology and biology, history and sociology, psychology and neuroscience. The program will also provide funds for translational projects involving pastors, churches, or parachurch ministries, that encourage Christians to engage in meaningful and productive dialogue to reduce tensions between Christian faith and mainstream science.

Questions about the program can be addressed to BioLogos staff at ecf@biologos.org.

It is a small step – but a step in the right direction.

Where do you see the greatest needs in the discussion of science and faith?

What kinds of teams are needed to make an impact?

If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

If you have comments please visit Evangelical Evolutionists … and an Opportunity at Jesus Creed.

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