Saturday, October 22, 2011

Church and Modern Science

This post is inspired by a recently published report of the Barna Research Group that contains some alarming news about the number of young Christians who leave their churches. The research for the report, which is titled “Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church,” appears to have focused primarily on North American evangelical churches and groups, but the findings have relevance for other churches, including our own.

This is not to say that we are in the same position as the churches which the Barna Group investigated. According to the Barna Report, “nearly three out of every five young Christians (59%) disconnect either permanently or for an extended period of time from church life after age 15.” Our federation does not keep records of the number of people who leave and therefore, unfortunately, I cannot back up my conclusion with statistics, but it seems very unlikely to me that the number of young people leaving the CanRC comes even close to that mentioned by the Barna Group. Nor do I see evidence of the same pervasive criticism of our church by its younger members that seem to plague the churches on which the Barna Group focuses. Yes, some young adults leave – often, I believe, to join another church. But as I discussed in an earlier post on this blog (“Are We Too Isolationist?”) many others are actively involved in the church and its projects. Instead of a decrease in church- and evangelistic activity by our younger members, there has, in the last few decades, been a very significant increase.

The need for cultural involvement

Even so, we are not immune to the negative developments the Barna Group reports. Rather than assuming that it has “arrived,” a Reformed church must always be reforming. That means, among other things, that as church community we are to be fully aware of the challenges of an evolving and ever-changing culture and of our own position within that culture. Such awareness is necessary for the sake of our culture itself. In order to fulfill its task with respect to the world – that is, in order to be a salt and light – the church must know its society, interact with it, be able to deal with the questions it raises and, not in the last place, be acquainted with its needs. The church’s awareness of the surrounding culture is also necessary for the sake of the church members, not least the younger ones. Their level of education and their intense use of modern means of communication ensure that, far more than any generation before them, they are constantly involved in the world around them and exposed to the spiritual challenges it poses. In order to understand and help those in their charge, pastors, teachers, and other leaders must be sure to know the nature and the challenges of today’s culture in its widest sense.

In that respect there is room for self-examination. As the Barna Report again makes clear, by demonizing facets of our culture without further ado – that is, without proper knowledge and honest evaluation – we alienate those “in the know.” Our blog, as its readers know, has long been concerned with one such case of demonizing in our own circles, namely our church community’s negative view and sometimes actual maligning of modern science. In what follows I will focus on that issue. I am doing this with reference to Reason #3 of the Barna Report (“Churches come across as antagonistic to science”). Because to a large extent the prevailing attitude among us is inspired by the desire to protect Christians from spiritual dangers, I will give some attention also to Reason #1 (“Churches seem overprotective”). I will not, however, go into the various aspects of the church’s perceived over-protectiveness that the Report mentions. Perhaps we can return to those on another occasion, or perhaps a reader wants to comment on them. Indeed, on any of the items in the Report, and on the present essay, reader-input is most welcome.

Scripture and science

Our main concern for now is with the relationship between faith and modern science. Here follows the Barna Report’s summary of the complaints in this area:
One of the reasons young adults feel disconnected from church or from faith is the tension they feel between Christianity and science. The most common of the perceptions in this arena is “Christians are too confident they know all the answers” (35%). Three out of ten young adults with a Christian background feel that “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in” (29%). Another one-quarter embrace the perception that Christianity is anti-science” (25%). And nearly the same proportion (23%) said they have “been turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate.” Furthermore, the research shows that many science-minded young Christians are struggling to find ways of staying faithful to their beliefs and to their professional calling in science-related industries.
At least in this respect the situation in evangelical churches is quite similar to that in the CanRC. The nature of the conflicts among us is well known. On the one hand there are the proponents of what is called Young-Earth Creationism (YEC), and on the other those who believe science clearly indicates that the earth is much older than a literal reading of Genesis 1 suggests. The latter position, incidentally, was until quite recently considered lawful in Reformed circles but is now widely censored, even considered heretical. Of course, the disagreements do not stop here. In addition to the old-earthers, there are Reformed Christians, scientists and others, who conclude that the evidence for evolution is significant and accept to varying degrees one or other version of what is often called theistic evolution. They realize the problems involved in such a position but believe they cannot deny the evidence and pray that one day God will lighten their and our darkness in this respect.

Christian scientists are of course not the only Christians to consider the possibility of a divinely guided process of evolution. Their position is shared by an increasing number of orthodox theologians and apologists who adopt it not just for scientific, but also, and especially, for evangelistic and pastoral reasons. Names that come to mind are those of Tim Keller, John Stott, Bruce Waltke, and N.T. Wright. Among the theologians who have publicly explained their position on the issue is Tim Keller, whose “apologia” has been announced and posted on our blog (“Tim Keller on Evolution and the Bible”). Keller’s position is tentative; he admits the difficulties evolution poses for Bible-believing Christians and insists that under all circumstances the Bible, properly interpreted, must have the last word. Meanwhile he looks for possibilities of reconciling Scripture and modern science, and in the introduction to his paper he shows the necessity of such a reconciliation for the sake both of believing Christians and of unbelievers we seek to draw to the church. To quote from his introduction:
Many believers…see the medical and technological advances achieved through science and are grateful for them. They have a very positive view of science. How then can they reconcile what science seems to tell them about evolution with their theological beliefs? Seekers and inquirers about Christianity can be even more perplexed. They may be drawn to many things about the Christian faith, but, they say, ‘I don’t see how I can believe the Bible if that means I have to reject science.’
Keller’s arguments warrant our attention. We are usually told that upholding the YEC position is necessary to protect our youth. Letting go of a literalist interpretation of Genesis 1, we are warned, means establishing a slippery slope: all of Scripture may then be interpreted symbolically. That risk indeed exists, especially if no theological help is forthcoming for those who struggle with the problem (and if the work of Christians who do try to find an answer is being censored, as happens far too often among us). On the other hand, we hardly ever hear of the opposite danger, as described by Tim Keller and as noted in the Barna Report. Also worthy of notice is the negative implication our present position has for evangelism. This is true not only when we are bringing the gospel to intellectuals. I have met the same objection when involved in evangelism in a downtown area where the level of education is very low. It does not surprise me that evangelists and apologists are in the forefront of those who work at bridging the perceived chasm between science and Scripture.

Of course, the challenges of modern science must not be underestimated. They come not only from biology (especially genetics), but also from other areas such as paleontology, geology, astronomy, and nuclear physics. We should not forget, however, that orthodox Christians have faced serious conflicts between Scripture and science before and have, to the best of their ability, resolved them. As a result, Christian scientists in the past could pursue their vocation with their church’s blessing. It is time for us to do what we can to follow that example. This means that with Augustine, Calvin, and their numberless followers we stop rejecting science and prayerfully support Christian scientists who attempt to do their work as part of the cultural mandate, and at the same time try to resolve the problems to which we referred. And of course, we should learn from the work of other Christian scholars involved in this area, such as theologians, philosophers, and apologists – including those belonging to other churches. After all, we do not have to resolve these difficulties on our own; we may and should do it “together with all the saints.” Reconciling faith and science is not an easy job, but if other Christians are attempting it, and if our ancestors were willing to tackle it, so should we. If we don’t, I fear that we will succumb to sectarianism and lose all possibilities of properly interacting with our culture.

Getting to know modern science

In brief, I suggest that instead of maligning science we learn to see it, as our Reformed ancestors did, as a gift of God and give thanks for it. It is true that God’s gifts can be and often are abused, and our attitude toward science (and especially to the ideologies to which it has given rise) must always be a critical one. But we should be sure that we know what we are criticizing, and why we do it, which means that we must do our utmost to know what modern science is really about.

How are we to effect a change in our attitude toward science? A first step for Reformed Christians may well be to consult the past and get acquainted with the history of both Young-Earth Creationism and of the much older Christian (and Reformed) tradition on the relation between science and Scripture. In the latter tradition, as I already mentioned, science was taken seriously. Realizing that many of its findings could not be gainsaid, the majority of orthodox theologians and other scholars accepted these findings and helped believers to deal with them. A case in point is the theory of a non-central and moving earth in the 16th and 17th centuries, and the apparent problems connected with geological and other evidence of an ancient earth some 200 or 300 years later.

Such, then, was the attitude to science in the Reformed past. It was only later that young-earth creationism with its rejection of modern science appeared on the scene, presented itself as providing the only acceptable biblical approach to science, and was accepted as true not just in adventist and other fundamentalist churches (although there first of all) but even in some Reformed circles. Some years ago I wrote about these developments in a paper titled “Young-Earth Creationism: A History.” The story is instructive and I suggest you read it. The paper was introduced via this blog posting, and you can find it on our blog under our “Collected Papers”.

A second step is to get acquainted with the work not just of Young-Earth Creationists, but also of other scientists – especially Christian ones, including theistic evolutionists. Please note: I recommend this not because I endorse the point of view of every possible Christian scientist, which I don’t, but because it may help to ensure a sorely needed informed discussion on the matter in question. Young-Earth Creationism and even “creation science” are widely proclaimed in our church media, and occasionally even from our pulpits, as the one and only orthodox position, while a serious discussion on their background and validity is lacking. Opposite opinions are routinely censored, and the “official” position is in fact established by what amounts to majority vote. One of the saddest incidents in this area happened when a few years ago non-YEC positions that had been discussed on an academic blog run by church members were officially attacked in our church magazine, and when that magazine refused to publish a response by the “accused,” while continuing to open its pages to further attacks on them. Such things ought not to happen among us, and I believe they can be avoided if spiritual leaders and church members at large are willing to study the issue from both sides. This includes, as I suggested, acquainting themselves with the arguments of Christian non-YEC scholars. A good number of them have described their work in a way that is accessible to the lay reader. I am thinking of authors like Francis Collins (The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence of Belief), Owen Gingerich (God’s Universe), and Davis A. Young (Christianity and the Age of the Earth), to mention only a few.

And then there are of course the blogs. Many in our churches are well acquainted with Young-Earth Creationist Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis (at least one church even promotes it publicly). It should indeed be consulted, but so should blogs by Christians that present a non-YEC position. The blog of an OPC church member and geologist, Questioning Answers in Genesis, and Biologos are examples, as is our blog, Reformed Academic. Not in the last place, we should give attention to explanations given by the contemporary pastors and evangelists who consider the possibility of theistic evolution. We may well disagree with them, but rather than rejecting their work out of hand, we should listen to their arguments, be aware of the reasons they give for their choice, realize the difficulties they are contending with, and (not in the last place!) join them in thinking about possible solutions. We need each other’s help. And within our church community we should be allowed, openly and publicly, to extend that help.

To conclude: my request is for a less fearful, more honest, and more open approach to the issue in question, and therefore for the intellectual freedom that we enjoyed in the past. This would mean that young-earth creationism is tolerated and discussed, but that the public discussion of other views is also tolerated – and indeed facilitated. The present situation smacks of censorship and entails dangers that we cannot afford to ignore any longer. It tends to sectarianism, alienates many of our students, creates serious difficulties for our scientists and for others who cannot accept the established Creationist view, makes it hard for us to interact with our culture, separates us from much of both Christian and secular scholarship, and can be a serious stumbling block in our evangelistic efforts. If the Barna Report helps convince our church community of the need to rethink its position and policies in the area of science, then it has served us well.


Chemostrat1646 said...

Thank you for commenting on this study. When I first read the Barna report, it prompted self-reflection on my own experience in high school, college, etc., where I saw so many lose interest in the faith for all the reasons listed. Why didn't I follow step? I still find this question difficult to answer, but I do thank God for His faithfulness.

I highly appreciate your call to semper reformanda. In the last paragraph, I think you hit the nail on the head with regard to fellowship and constructive dialogue. The general hostility to discussion on all sides needs to be abandoned in favor of Christian humility. Philippians 2 comes to mind, not least for its exposition on Adam.

Jon Baker
Las Vegas, NV

Bill DeJong said...

Thanks for this thoughtful piece. The present suspicion of science and the inclination to young earth creationism within confessionally Reformed churches is understandable. Much of liberalism in the last century was spawned by scientism. Moreover, those promoting young earth creationism are faithful believers who love Scripture and see much of today's science as an attack on Scripture that needs to be refuted. Though I don't agree with their science or their interpretation of Scripture, I feel a kinship with these people. They are also correct to identify, within the orbit of secular science, an anti-theistic mindset. Richard Dawkins is one person for whom evidence for the evolutionary theory is inescapably bound to an anti-theistic crusade.

What confessionally Reformed believers need to understand is that young earth creationism has its origin in a theological movement at odds with Reformed theology. Our Reformed forefathers had a different approach to these questions and were surprisingly far more conciliatory to the possibilities of an old-earth and some form of evolutionary development. To support this claim, I would appeal to the Princeton theologians, Charles Hodge and B.B. Warfield. In terms of Dutch Reformed theology I would mention Herman Bavinck. Even though the evidence in Bavinck's day was scant, Bavinck was hospitable to aspects of evolutionary theory. In his essay, "Evolutie," he wrote, "For the fact that there is evolution, provided it is not restricted to mechanical motion and to chemical combination and separation, is demonstrated by every organism that is born and dies, and by the history of nations and of humanity . . . Therefore the species which we currently assume in the world of plants and animals certainly do not coincide with those which were called into existence in the beginning by the creative power of God."

I pray for a day when confessionally Reformed theologians and confessionally Reformed scientists can sit at a table, without mentally excommunicating the other, and humbly and charitably discuss faith-science questions, possibly even concocting a theologically sound, critically realist methodology for harvesting the fruit of science. Naturalism and other metaphysical presuppositions need to be exposed, but the facts need to be accounted for. This is what Hodge, Warfield, and Bavinck strove to do. Somewhere along the way this project was hijacked and we've lost an important component of our heritage.

Bill DeJong
Hamilton, ON

Bill Bartels said...

I acknowledge that your article “Church and Modern Science” was interesting and revealing. Interesting because the Canadian Reformed churches do not fall into the category of the statistics and we are thankful for that. There are members that leave our church, but they are in all age groups, not just the young people, although they are more vulnerable. The article seems to indicate that members leave the church because the church is not open to modern-day science. Maybe with all your access to information you could dig up what the statistics are of those who left the faith because the Bible is not in tune with modern-day science or those who will no longer submit to the infallible word of God.

In my experience as an office bearer over the years, I have yet to experience when the church needs to admonish or apply discipline that the role is not turned around and the blame is put on the church. There is always a minister or an office bearer who did not show enough love and tolerance, the church is always criticized for not having enough patience. When a marriage breaks up, the church never handles it right. When young people leave the church it is because the church is not in tune with the young people, etc. If all fails, then the complaint is that “the consistory simply doesn’t understand.”

Now when modern-day science comes along and embraces the theistic evolutionary theory, then it is the church that needs to compromise, and if not the church must carry the blame that members leave because of this issue. It is not the church that puts God’s word in doubt.

Rev. Bill DeJong states in his final remarks that he prays for unity, which is good, but unity only as it has been revealed to us in scripture.

With regards,

Bill Bartels
Ancaster, ON

Arnold Sikkema said...

I would like to thank br. Bill Bartels for his comment, as it does reflect the reality of many situations in which members leave one of our congregations, either for another church outside of our federation, or to leave the faith altogether. Thankfully there are, however, cases in which those who have been admonished have been restored to a right relationship with God and with their brothers and sisters in Christ; that is indeed the ultimate positive goal of church discipline.

Another reason I’m glad br. Bartels commented is that it gives me an opportunity to correct a common misunderstanding of our position on the relationship between the church and modern science. The suggestion is that some (perhaps we, or perhaps those who are wanting to leave the faith) are concerned that “the Bible is not in tune with modern-day science” or that modern-day science “puts God’s word in doubt”.

There are certainly those who reject the Scriptures because they believe that what it teaches is not in agreement with what has been discovered through modern scientific investigations, whether it be the earth rotating and revolving about the sun (which some think replaces Scriptural teaching on the structure of the universe), or the role of brain function in human experience and identity (which some suppose requires the rejection of Scriptural teaching about the soul), or results of biological studies (which some believe displaces Scriptural teaching about the special character of humanity), etc.

But we absolutely refuse to reject or compromise the Bible’s teachings. Instead, we ask for a careful and honest investigation of the actual claims of Scripture and the actual claims of science, both on their own terms and insofar as they relate to one another. In our view, the Scriptures do not in fact teach the doctrine of Young-Earth Creationism, despite the fact that many people, and increasingly more so even within our own circles, think so. While for centuries many people did indeed think that the world was really young, it is inappropriate that this kind of thinking be raised to the level of Scripture itself.

Prior to Copernicus and Galileo, the cosmology of the day had been imported into and made into a single unit with Christian theology. This taught that the heavenly bodies were perfect spheres traveling in perfect circles (or circles upon circles) about the imperfect earth, and that these heavenly bodies were composed materially of a completely different type of substance than the earth, water, air, and fire of our daily experience; this kind of thinking was completely obvious to everyone in western civilization and was largely believed to be what Scripture itself taught. Copernicus’s idea of a sun-centred universe and Galileo’s observations of earth-like features on the moon, were seen as heretical and in need of correction only because extra-Biblical teachings had been imported into the church’s teachings.

Could it be that, due to the significant influence of the modern-day Young-Earth Creationist movement (whose history Freda has been trying to explain clearly for many years, and which Clarion refuses to publish), many Christians today have been led to think that it is completely clear that the Bible teaches their specific interpretation? It is important to remember that, since exegesis always takes place within a context, there is always the need for critical reflection on the interpretation of Scripture. I confess the clarity of Scripture (and the Reformed doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture has never meant that it’s absolutely clear on all points; see for example recent pieces by Evans and by Gordon), but it is clear to me that the glasses through which certain passages are sometimes read have the wrong prescription.

Arnold Sikkema
Langley, BC