A lot of people are talking about the relation between science and theology lately. Questions about the nature of human persons, the relation between the body and soul, and the always contentious debates around “origins” are popping up with renewed fervor on blogs, in conferences, and in book publishing. Creation science, intelligent design or theistic evolution? How ought Christians think of Adam and Eve and “the Fall”? What’s the relation between divine providence, creation and natural suffering?
I approach these topics as a seminary professor who teaches theology and Christian Thought courses, including a course devoted to “Theology and Science.” I have discovered that our seminary students have had very little exposure to complex discussions of the relation between science and theology. They often come into seminary (as I did) with very little science background and often with only peripheral exposure to questions and issues around the intersection of science and religion. Some of them, having been raised in conservative Christian traditions, matriculate with the assumption that Christian faith and science don’t mix.
It is not exaggerating to say there is urgency about this issue; the urgency is related to the situation of the American church today. A consensus seems to have emerged: the American church is in a state of decline. Part of the reason for this decline is that church leaders are not equipping their congregants to intelligently engage challenging worldview issues (including, among others, theological, philosophical and ethical questions). A recent book by David Kinnaman,You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith (Baker, 2011), suggests that just over 60% of churched teenagers drop out of church after high school, often rejecting their faith altogether. One of the reasons for this, as his research shows, is a perceived “anti-science” attitude within the Church. Pastors, youth pastors, and other church leaders either ignore issues raised by science or they take an aggressive stance against it. Last year, a group of Christian sociologists studied fifty “deconversion narratives” and published those findings. For a summary and analysis of that research, see Brad Wright’s post, “Why do Christians Leave the Faith? The Fundamental Importance of Apologetics.” Like Kinnaman, they discovered that a major reason for many of these deconversions was the lack of engagement within the church regarding complex intellectual issues, like the relation between faith and science. In the words of one former Baptist in the study: “Christianity is a disease; education is the cure.”
Traditionally, apologetics has been directed primarily to non-Christians (atheists, agnostics, or adherents of other major religions). But as Brad Wright also notes, another apologetic need is arising today within the church itself. This apologetic argues that the perceived forced choice between science and faith is a false dichotomy. But it is one that is perpetuated by many pastors, youth pastors and other leaders in conservative streams of Christianity. Seminaries need to engage with science on issues like “origins” because they need to equip pastors with a sophisticated worldview and a capacity for nuanced discourse around the intersection of biblical hermeneutics, theological anthropology, and scientific explanations of cosmic, terrestrial and human origins. In short, pastors need to be able to help parishioners who are convinced by the scientific consensus on origins to realize that they can accept this consensus while simultaneously affirming the Bible’s unique, divine authority as the inspired word of God. They can acknowledge that while science helps to explain “reality” at an empirical level, theology dives deeper, into the mystical and the metaphysical. As Galileo, citing Cardinal Baronius, famously said: the Bible was written to tell us how to go to heaven; not how the heavens go.” People should not feel forced to choose between either science or faith; either science or theology; either science or Scripture.
I was encouraged to read that Tim Keller, a noted conservative evangelical pastor and apologist, recently spoke out in favor of theistic evolution at Biologos-hosted conference called”Theology of Celebration.” Keller urged pastors to develop a compelling theological narrative that takes science into account. If pastors are going to do this well, it seems that seminaries need to be in the middle of the conversation.