Presbyterians: Please Confront Reality and Embrace Evolutionary Science

Editor’s Note:  After writing about Rev. John Shuck’s efforts regarding Evolution Sunday last week, I invited him to speak for himself – and he did!  Please read what he has to say.  I think he’s the future of the liberal church –if the church has a future.


I am a minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).    I am happy to be one.   Even as I have been quite public that I do not hold supernatural beliefs, the church hasn’t defrocked me.   It is a thoughtful denomination.  It is ahead of many other denominations on social justice questions.  It is not opposed to higher criticism of the Bible.  It is not anti-evolution.

It does not however embrace evolutionary science or higher criticism of the Bible.   In my view, it tolerates these academic fields and covers them over with a thick theological veil.    For instance evolution must be addressed (if can be addressed at all) in terms of “God” and “Creation.”   The Bible – no matter what criticism is leveled at it – still is “God’s Word.”

In the meantime, anti-scientific attitudes are creating a serious social problem.  My denomination has historically been a leader in promoting public education and responding positively to social ills.   It should be a no-brainer for the PCUSA to say “yes” clearly and unequivocally to evolution at every General Assembly and “no” to creationism in all of its guises.  The last time the PCUSA addressed evolution was in 2002.   They made this statement:

The 214th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has stated that it

  • Reaffirms that God is Creator, in accordance with the witness of Scripture and the Reformed Confessions.
  • Reaffirms that there is no contradiction between an evolutionary theory of human origins and the doctrine of God as Creator.
  • Encourages State Boards of Education across the nation to establish standards for science education in public schools based on the most reliable content of scientific knowledge as determined by the scientific community.
  • Calls upon Presbyterian scientists and scientific educators to assist congregations, presbyteries, and the public to understand what constitutes reliable knowledge.

It is certainly time for an upgrade especially as our culture is besieged by anti-scientific views.   Mainline churches can assist science educators by adding their voice and influence for science, especially evolution –  as this is where the cultural battle rages.    We need to do this publically and repeatedly.

My resolution to ask the denomination to endorse The Clergy Letter Project and Evolution Sunday was solidly trounced by the Theological Issues Committee, 47-2. I wrote about it here and here . Why did it fail? There were objections to adding a day to the church calendar.  Perhaps if it had come from two concurring presbyteries rather than just me, it would have had more weight.  Fine.  Many reasons have been offered for my resolution’s defeat that I find to be red herrings.   If you don’t want to do something, one excuse is as good as another.    Nevertheless if any perceived errors were fixed and folks with nuanced political finesse were to submit something similar again, it might get a better showing.   I’ll choose to remain hopeful.    The bigger question is this:  Why is evolution not on our church’s agenda?

What I find distressing is that the most amazing and foundational scientific discovery has gone not only unheralded but also mostly unacknowledged by my beloved Presbyterians.  I get the message that evolution is just not our business.  The problem is the theological veil.  It seems that my denomination feels that it must figure out the evolution problem theologically before it can endorse evolution.    Because church theologians cannot reconcile a scientific process that needs no supernatural design, creation, intrusion or purpose with theological notions of agency, they have nothing to say.    The best they can come up with is this statement:

  • Reaffirms that there is no contradiction between an evolutionary theory of human origins and the doctrine of God as Creator.

I’ll let the reader muse over that.    The bottom line is that the church needs to embrace evolution at every opportunity.   As it does so, it can encourage creativity regarding meaning and human flourishing.    Endorse reality first then explore possible meanings.    Embrace evolution now and do the theology in response to this foundational truth.     As we might suspect, once we embrace the world that science is showing us, our theological doctrines will by necessity change.    That is what the church fears and resists.

Nonetheless, I remain hopeful and I remain engaged.    Over 15,000 clergy have signed the Clergy Letter.   That is a sign of hope.   Many creative congregations such as the one I presently serve embrace our grand evolutionary and cosmic story in worship and practice.   My hope for my denomination is that it will tear down the theological veil that keeps it from confronting reality.   As the veil is removed, we will be able to see our natural world as it is and then use the religious skills we have honed over the centuries to help humanity celebrate and care for Earth with poetry, song, liturgy and community.


John Shuck has been a minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) for 21 years.  He is the currently the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton, Tennessee. He is a member of the coordinating team for Presbyterian Voices for Justice.  He is a founding member of The Clergy Project and he hosts a radio program, Religion For Life that explores the intersection of religion, social justice, and public life.

Theistic Evolution? No Such Thing
Identifying as Atheists -- When Will We Grow Up?
How Can Seminary-Educated Pastors Preach the Bible?
Back to the Future
About Linda LaScola

Linda LaScola is co-author, with Daniel C. Dennett, of Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind (2013) and “Preachers who are not Believers” (2010). She is an independent qualitative research consultant who works out of Washington, D.C. She holds a Master’s Degree in Social Work from the Catholic University of America and is a co-founder of the Clergy Project.

  • Big Giant Head

    Why in the world give such a person this forum? Presbyterians actully do beleive in God, and this God-denier wants us to listen to him. Let him rot.

    • Linda_LaScola

      Hello Big Giant Head — All sorts of people have a forum here — believers, people who have doubts about their religion and members of the Clergy Project (a private on-line forum for current and former clergy who do not hold supernatural beliefs). John Shuck is a member, as are many other people who have posted here.

      The Rational Doubt forum is a place where people with different points of view are invited to converse with each other.


      [7/26 at 1:18 pm -- edited to reflect the correct name of the poster I was addressing -- sorry about that - just noticed the error.]

    • Chris Highland

      As a good Presbyterian, as no doubt you are, BGH, could you please give a theologically correct definition of “rot”? Thank you. (and I agree, how DID a “god-denier” get here on an Atheist website?!)

  • johnshuck

    Thank you for inviting me to post on this blog. For readers, in a few weeks Linda will be on Religion For Life speaking with me about the book she co-authored with Daniel Dennett, Caught in the Pulpit!

  • ctcss

    Let me just say up front that I am not a Presbyterian and obviously have no standing with them with regard to their theological viewpoints. Furthermore, they are certainly allowed to have whatever religious views they wish, both as a church body, and as individuals. And since I was taught what, in essence, is universal salvation, I have no problems with believers or non-believers of whatever stripe. Everyone deserves the right to choose the path that makes the most sense to them. I also have no problem with science. It’s a useful tool that helps us deal with the issues brought on by living in a material world.

    That said, I personally find it very puzzling that Rev. Shuck is so focused on what is, at best, an issue related to matter and materialism. The ToE is a jim dandy method for analyzing and predicting change in material organisms over time. That’s what makes it a theory. It describes a model for how material life works and how it changes. It’s very insightful and every public school should be teaching it as part of a sound and well thought out science curriculum. And just to make sure I am not misunderstood here, only sound and well thought out science should be taught. There is no room for religiously based views on this entirely secular subject area. Intelligent Design or Creationism and their ilk are not good science by any measure, thus they have no place in a public, secular academic setting.

    But I don’t see what the ToE has to do with God or religion. Perhaps only I have this kind of viewpoint (being from a very non-mainstream Christian religion), but I fail to see why anything to do with matter should be the focus of any church teachings about Spirit (God) and spirituality. Conceptually speaking, a person should have an eternal relationship with God since God is eternal and knows everything about His creation. Which means that long before a person is physically conceived or born, and long after they have appeared to physically die and have no remaining physical presence, they still exist. Which means that matter really has no part of their being as God knows and understands it. If it did, then matter would appear to have some sort of claim over something that God alone should have a claim on.

    The point here being, theology should be focused on that which relates to God. If, instead, it starts to focus on matter and materialism, then God gets shunted aside in favor of something very un-God-like in nature. Mindless chance gets promoted over Mindful purpose. Limited and discordant material existence gets promoted over unlimited, harmonious, and spiritual life. This is basically a tares and wheat kind of issue. (Or a wheat and chaff kind of issue, if you prefer.) Basically, what should be valued, that which has nothing to do with God, or that which has everything to do with God?

    Jesus pointed out that the kingdom of God should first be sought out rather than trying to first seek out materially needful things. (i.e. put God first in our heart and rather than putting material possessions or needs first in our heart.) And when his opponents asked him whether it was lawful to give tax money to Caesar (trying to trap him with a false dilemma), he pointed out that the money was Caesar’s in the first place and should be given to Caesar, but that which was owed to God was a very different sort of thing.

    This is why I have no problem with the teaching of, or learning about secular subjects. They are needful at this place and time. But the fact that they seem to be required (just as Caesar’s taxes were required to help run the empire) has no bearing whatsoever on what I need to do to learn more about God and God’s creation. I am fully capable of being able to learn more than one subject at a time. So with God, I am focused on the spiritual and the eternal, as well as other qualities I associate with God such as wisdom, truth, understanding, justice, mercy, charity, patience, consideration, compassion, etc.. These qualities of thought obviously work quite nicely in the everyday context of life as well. Given that, there is no rush to dispose of material life, nor to disregard or disparage it. In fact, the mental qualities just cited are actually necessary in order to operate effectively and harmoniously either from a spiritual perspective or a material perspective. (One does not have to set fire to one’s house or blow it up in order to exit it. It’s much more harmonious just to use the door.) So it’s far better to learn to embody the highest qualities of thought and living no matter where or when one finds ones self.

    This is why I personally see no conflict with science teaching and religious teaching. Nothing about science teaching has any real bearing on how I regard myself as God’s child. But my religious teaching (how I understand myself as God’s child, reflecting God’s qualities) has great bearing on how I conduct myself wherever I find myself to be.

    And this gets back to my confusion about what Rev. Shuck is trying to accomplish with his focus on the ToE within a religious, theological context. I wonder why he doesn’t first seek the kingdom of heaven, and then let that which is necessary here and now (secular teaching) unfold harmoniously as result of doing that?

    Just my thoughts.

    • johnshuck

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. Part of the answer does have to do with Presbyterian Reformed Theology that seeks to integrate the spiritual and the material. The “sovereignty of God” is the phrase that indicates that nothing is outside the realm of God’s interest nor ours. That is why our denomination is quite concerned with “worldly” things. While I do not hold to the supernaturalism of my theological tradition, I do appreciate its attempts not to separate meaning from matter.

      We have a social problem in that many churches are holding up the teaching of science and the appreciation of science because of their theology. The Clergy Letter Project wants to get churches to embrace science and evolution publicly and strongly so that we can help solve this social problem. That is my impetus.

      There is another part. I think that religion could be and at its best has been about human flourishing and helping people make meaningful lives rather than supernatural speculation. I am a religious naturalist, I suppose.

      I could be insane for trying to think that religion could evolve beyond supernaturalism or if it were to do so it would be something other than religion. I am OK with that. I trust for my little part that simply being honest about what I see and think in the context of my current career as minister is a good thing to do.

      • Maine_Skeptic

        “I could be insane for trying to think that religion could evolve beyond
        supernaturalism or if it were to do so it would be something other than
        religion. I am OK with that. I trust for my little part that simply
        being honest about what I see and think in the context of my current
        career as minister is a good thing to do.”

        That’s a respectable position that I hope doesn’t get you killed.

      • ctcss


        Thanks for the insight into the perspective of the Presbyterian Church. However, I still don’t understand the logic of their stance, especially since you point out that they do believe in God. The following two quotes made me want to comment further.

        We have a social problem in that many churches are holding up the teaching of science and the appreciation of science because of their theology.

        Then perhaps what might be more helpful is offering a gentle correction to those churches’ theologies (helping to convince them to remove an unnecessary focus on materialism), rather than (IMO ill-advisedly) trying to get more churches into the materialism game to “fix” things. To me, churches should be focusing on the things of God. The problems of the world can then be more effectively addressed by bringing a more spiritual mindset to bear. Basically, Jesus didn’t try to start a human political movement or a human social movement to fix the problems he encountered, even though humanly, an approach like that could have been undertaken. (But then, consider the lack of success of Bar-Kokhba’s later efforts in this regard.) Rather, Jesus seemed to be trying to point out how a greater understanding of God can bring practical healing to troubling human issues. So, other than acting kindly towards the sick, the sinners, and the outcasts, Jesus’ ministry pointed people towards God, not towards human solutions. Basically, when people focus on the purely material when seeking solutions to their problems, the laws relating to the purely material then set the bounds of what is possible or expected. However, I don’t think that Jesus’ ministry was centered around trying to cede more power and sovereignty to matter. Rather, he seemed to be saying that we should be ceding more power and sovereignty to God.

        I think that religion could be and at its best has been about human flourishing and helping people make meaningful lives rather than supernatural speculation. I am a religious naturalist, I suppose.

        But, once again, Jesus seemed to be pointing out that human flourishing would be best accomplished by starting with the spiritual goal of drawing closer to God and having that goal bring about a better human situation, rather than starting with a material goal of increasing human flourishing and somehow expecting that focus to result in a greater understanding and appreciation of God.

        Humans have always sought out better material situations for themselves. But sadly (as in the story of the Israelite’s prolonged sojourn in Egypt), if the focus ends up on the good things obtained rather than on God, the good things tend to become worshiped rather than God. And in the case of this story, the end result was slavery for the children of Israel. According to the story, they were initially guided to go to Egypt for their preservation during the famine. But rather than departing when the need was past (they only needed to stay 5 years!), they stayed in Egypt because of the goodies they found there and ended up spending multiple generations in slavery as a result.

        The point being, putting the cart of matter (the goodies) before the horse (God, the source of all goodness), is not a theologically wise decision.

        Please note, my point in all this is not about ignoring matter or overlooking it. Rather, it’s about the need to put God first and then seeing where this leads. And that’s why the “Presbyterian Reformed Theology that seeks to integrate the spiritual and the material” confuses me. In other words, as I see things relating to God, matter should definitely play a subordinate role, not an equal role. Thus, God should always come first and lead the way forward. But perhaps I am misunderstanding what you were saying about the theology.

        • johnshuck

          Thank you. Quite well spoken. I am sure that some Presbyterians would agree with much of what you say. I think Jesus was exceptionally materialistic, especially given his setting. He was a social prophet and he was a product of his time. He lived in a premodern conception of the universe and likely understood a divine being in control of things. “God” is a product of that universe. Nevertheless he was all about the “kingdom of God” which was not “heaven” but life on Earth as if God’s will (justice/peace) was done. Some think Jesus was apocalyptic thinking divine action would bring this kingdom in a supernatural fashion, others thought it was more gradual as people catch on to the vision. I take forward his social prophet vision, the supernatural stuff, not so much. Regardless whether Jesus was this or that, the crucial thing for all of our institutions including the religious ones is to catch up with science and to work toward an ethical humane vision for humanity and all other Earthlings.

      • Sohahiyoh

        Thanks Johnshuck for your very thoughtful article gives much to chew on. Though raised under a strong Dr. Francis Schaeffer Reformed Presbyterian influence, i can barely stomach sitting through any church services anymore. However I think i understand where you’re coming from and respect you staying put and keeping good traditions. As Native American tribal members we hold cyclical ceremonies to “express thanks”. In these ceremonies are speeches we use to describe who we are within the realm of all the natural world..and yes, the unseen world as well. Some of these refer to our mythical beginnings and legends. We speak of our origins, but NO ONE I know “believe” we are living on the back of the moss back turtle literally! These are our stories, rich in metaphor and they unify us. These can never be exhausted of lessons and life pattern examples. Personally when i stand and speak in my language I add something , not exactly a disclaimer, but I’ll start a sentence with “the elders spoke of…” and it helps to set the stage, that we are carrying on traditions…not some sort of gotta-believe-this-creed or doctrinal stance. We allow people the freedom to believe or disbelieve however they find their experience in life. But it is in gathering together that keeps our community from drifting completely apart. we have our problems,but holding ceremonies helps in the bonding of brothers and sisters as we look to an uncertain future.

        • johnshuck

          Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Sohahiyoh! I appreciate what you said very much and that resonates with me.

  • mason

    John, Interesting blog. As an ex (I like ex rather than former as it implies a clear cut done deal divorce) fundamentalist clergy I can’t much relate to the liberal Christian society in America, though I’ve learned much about it recently. The fact the PCUSA believes in God and a PCUSA clergy member does not, seems intuitively a huge compatibility problem, but as I said, I don’t understand the liberal mind set.

    Much of what I read by liberal clergy sounds like speaking glossolalia while performing mental apologist gymnastics, trying to salvage the irrational, while in a constant mental state of cognitive dissonance; it seems to me this would be an exhaustive mental state to be in, especially while the true believer wolf pack must be ripping at such a clergy’s heels. So how are the heels doing John? :) Is the defrocking a constant threat? Surely there are those who want you out of the job. Do you think PCUSA will one day declare”there is no monotheist God, no supernatural, the theory of evolution is proven scientific fact, Creationism is a fairy tale, and we will continue doing what we do, sans the mythology.”

    As to the idea science and religion are compatible, I agree with Neil Tyson, that they are irreconcilable. However, any step away from the irrational-supernatural IMHO is a step in the right, or is it left, direction. :).

    • johnshuck

      Mason, I ask that question whether the PCUSA will move beyond supernaturalism often. I tend to doubt it. The PCUSA will probably die out one day as a species. Some mutation of it might survive in the environment of science. Dennett says that while dinosaurs went extinct, they still live on in a sense in modern birds. In the meantime, I don’t think religion is going away anytime soon. I hope to be a mutation.

      • mason

        Thanks John, it’s an interesting ecclesiastical world you live in with PCUSA. Maybe PCUSA and some other groups will surprise us and have an epiphany, suddenly realizing “we can be good without the God mythology”.

    • Linda_LaScola

      “speaking glossolalia while performing mental apologist gymnastics, trying to salvage the irrational, while in a constant mental state of cognitive dissonance;”

      Thanks, Mason, that’s a very vivid image — and much more straightforward than what is often heard from liberal clergy.

      • mason

        Linda, you’ll notice the colorful oratorical clerical juggler is on a tight rope with no net below, has five arms, a trash sorting bid below, smoke coming out of his ears, and a congregation below screaming for more and better tricks, some praying for him to fall. In his pocket is a small piece of folded paper with TheClergyProject written on it in code. :)

    • Chris Highland

      Mason, I appreciate this incisiveness, but offer another way of understanding liberal christianism. Often the theology and creedal stuff is a mask for good people doing good work. Almost that simple, in my experience. Nothing insidious, nothing deceptive really. Some very nice people who are, in a sense, trapped (as John may be–smile to John) in a nice “church family” enjoying a good feeling while singing beautiful nonsense. So, the mask is a mask, but mostly a happy mask! Those who hold tight to the lingo, waving Lord and Christ over every last god-blessed thing including the potato salad, generally mean well and want to have meaning and heaven too.
      As for the Presbys ever being cured of Presbyopia or emerging from the primeval glop of supernaturalism: No, I just don’t see that. IF that was EVER to happen, it’s simply no longer anything we could call “church” or even “religion.”

      • Linda_LaScola

        Chris — if not “church” or “religion” — what would you call it — or what do you think they would call it?

        • Chris Highland

          Frances Wright (1820′s) suggested closing churches and renaming them “Halls of Science or Knowledge.” Maybe Human Community? TED Talks with dessert? (smile)

      • mason

        Chris, thanks for the eloquent biopic of Presby world. I’d agree, in general it’s probably a mask facilitating theater of the mind.

  • Maine_Skeptic

    I didn’t realize there was such a thing as a liberal Reformed church. The Reform movement has seemed to me to be in brotherhood with the dominionist movement, which seeks the religious takeover of societal institutions like government, education, entertainment, etc.

  • Chris Highland

    I was in the Presby Church for many a year. It is in slowwww evolution itself, but will never evolve beyond the God-language. And why should it? It’s a “Christian” Church! Those of us who have been deeply involved know that Presbys will never do anything without the almighty Creeds and the incessant bow to the “theological veil” as you name it, God-Jesus Christ-Spirit-Lord-Lord-Lord. . .and crown Him with MANY crowns!

    I remain impressed that you serve in a very liberalized congregation in Tennessee! Yet, I must say reverend sir, I see no future with a reformed church (with limited reformation potential) that would need to sever its calvinistic roots to ever, ever move forward in any significant way, or to speak to the world with any relevant, truly relevant voice. I had your hope once. But I can no longer share any of the hope that the “veil” will ever be torn while “Christ is Lord.”

    Having said this, I wish you well in your efforts!

    • johnshuck

      While this post was about my request of the PCUSA to embrace evolution, it isn’t so much about the PCUSA. It is about human beings embracing evolution and modern cosmology and seeing it all as a meaningful way to enhance human flourishing. Whatever our setting, this is a good task. Human institutions including the various religions have had success in helping human beings create meaning given their pre-modern view of the universe. I don’t think all religion has been all bad all the time. There are some positive things in our religions (including my own PCUSA) that we can use for this common human project. My individual project is both grand and modest. Grand in the sense of the human species embracing our great story and modest in that I present it in whatever setting I find myself. My integrity in this is to try to be honest about what I see and hear and do at least some of the time amidst pressure to dissemble. So I talk about evolution, cosmology, higher criticism of scriptures, etc. from the pulpit. Whatever happens to me or to the PCUSA is minor in comparison with the larger project.

  • Guest

    The reality is there is no such thing as evolution.

    • keithjfinger

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    • Lee

      if you really want to make that assertion we welcome some evidence to support your claim.

    • Without Malice

      Uh huh, no such thing as gravity either, or the germ theory of disease. Let us know when you crawl up out of the 15th century.

  • Margaret

    Is this really the “future of the liberal church”? I am a PCUSA member, and I find that notion so disheartening and sad. From what I’m reading here – and in the comment boxes – John Shuck is a nice man with a love of humanity and a high regard for science (both good!) … but he doesn’t believe in God, and he certainly doesn’t believe that Jesus Christ is God incarnate. Fair enough. I have many friends who share that belief. But they don’t call themselves Christians and they sure don’t serve as ministers. There are plenty of places to do good humanitarian work outside the church of Jesus Christ. I go to church because I believe there is something more – that a divine love created and moves the world. I call that divine love God, and yes, I believe it is supernatural – though I see its work everywhere in nature. What’s wrong with the church reaffirming that “there is no contradiction between an evolutionary theory of human origins and the doctrine of God as Creator”? Why should a CHRISTIAN church move beyond that statement? Maybe the reason his fellow Presbyterians aren’t as eager as Rev. Shuck to make evolution “part of the agenda” is that many of them still believe that which he no longer does. That God created the world. Perhaps they simply still have faith. It seems that Rev. Shuck has lost his, which, again, leads me to wonder why he’s still working as a Christian minister.

    • johnshuck

      Thanks, Margaret. I am sure there are people including Presbyterians who affirm a belief in supernatural theism and who affirm evolutionary theory and modern science. There are those of us for whom supernatural theism doesn’t work. One solution to this dilemma is to get rid of clergy who no longer can affirm a belief in supernatural theism. I think the problem is bigger than a few wayward clergy. I happen to like my religious tradition. I have learned much from it and I think it has made me a better person than I would be without it. I do think it needs to adapt to a modern world. I choose to stay in my religious tradition in the midst of this adaptation and communicate what I see. I am happy to have fellow travelers such as Lloyd Geering, a Presbyterian clergy person from New Zealand. His new book is coming out, called Re-Imagining God: The Faith Journey of A Modern Heretic. Professor Geering and I make up at least a church of two. There may be more of us.

      • Margaret

        Thank you for you honest response, John. I’m sorry if I came across sounding harsh. I grew up in the Methodist Church, started losing my faith in college, completely lost it in graduate school, then found it again 20 years later – or maybe it found me? It has been such a profound and difficult journey – and has cost me a lot. So when I see clergy actively working to chip away at belief…

        I agree with you that the church needs to adapt to the modern world, but I don’t understand why that must mean abandoning the belief that we are created and beloved by God? It makes perfect and beautiful sense to me that a creator God would choose to work through his creation – would reveal himself in it and through it. For me, the more that science reveals, the greater and more wondrous God appears. I understand that there are many, many people who can’t resolve the tension between religion and science, but I believe they go hand in hand. Recognizing that simpatico relationship, I think, is the future of the church – not getting rid of the “God side” of the equation. But, again… I’m just a lay person.

        Anyway, we won’t resolve this here in the comboxes. Again, I appreciate your response and wish you well. Thank you.

        • johnshuck

          Thank you and I wish you well, too!

          • Fred Garvin

            Religion is boring. Stop wasting your time and money on it.
            Did it save your son? Then what good is it?

    • Without Malice

      Although it is not illogical to believe in both evolution and a creator God of some sort, it is illogical to believe in both evolution and the need for an atoning sacrifice on the part of a god/man to appease the wrath of said creator God.