Science and faith: 9th Evolution Weekend ahead

UMNS photo illustration by Kathleen Barry, photo by Ronny Perry.

UMNS photo illustration by Kathleen Barry, photo by Ronny Perry.

By Sam Hodges*

The Rev. Paul Kottke has preached it before and he’ll preach it again Christian faith and science, including Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, are not incompatible.

“Our faith has integrity when we embrace both,” said Kottke, pastor of University Park United Methodist Church in Denver.

This year, as he has for the last several, Kottke will lead his church in observing Evolution Weekend. It’s an effort to address head on whether Christianity is called into question by Darwin’s ideas, including that humans share a common ancestor with great apes from several million years ago.

The United Methodist Church officially endorses the Clergy Letter Project, an interfaith initiative on religion and science whose projects include Evolution Weekend, which is set for Feb 7-9 this year.

Some 450 congregations are expected to participate, and United Methodist involvement typically is “robust,” said Michael Zimmerman, founder and executive director of The Clergy Letter Project, as well as a Ph.D. ecologist and vice president for academic affairs and provost at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.

The United Methodist Church’s official position, found in the Book of Discipline, is that “science’s descriptions of cosmological, geological and biological evolution are not in conflict with theology.”

Preparing for Evolution Weekend

This year marks the ninth annual Evolution Weekend. All participating congregations will address the relationship between religion and science, but many will focus on the theme this year: Different Ways of Knowing / Asking Different Questions. This year, 513 congregations — representing 13 countries — will participate.

When asked for suggestions on some commentaries that might help to stimulate thought and conversation, Michael Zimmerman, the founder and executive director of The Clergy Letter Project, suggested these five articles:

The Christian Clergy itself

The Rightful Place of Science in Church”

The Clergy Letter Project

Why Creationism Matters: Learning to Question

Evolution Weekend: An Opportunity for Reasoned Debate

General Conference 2008 approved that language, as well as a resolution opposing using “faith based theories such as creationism or intelligent design” in public school science curriculums.

The Clergy Letter Project website includes a sermon Kottke preached for Evolution Weekend 2008, arguing that Christian faith can indeed accommodate acceptance of Darwin’s theory.

“To embrace the belief, the theory, that the simple forms of primordial life sought out greater complexity and that these complex forms of life sought out even greater complexity until one has life building upon life is not a contradiction to the creative spirit of God,” Kottke said. “Rather, it is an affirmation of how God has chosen to work within Creation.”

Kottke, who decries what he calls “literalism” with regard to the Bible, said in a recent interview that he sometimes counsels parishioners who struggle with whether evolution negates Christian faith.

“If they’re anxious that their faith is going to fall apart, I assure them it won’t. God is stronger than our questions,” he said.

But the United Methodist stance regarding the theory of evolution as laid out by Darwin in his 1859 book “On the Origin of Species” and elaborated on by generations of scientists since troubles some within the denomination.

The Rev. Dale Shunk, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Somerset, Pa., introduced petitions at General Conference 2012 to remove the language about evolution from the Book of Discipline and to remove from the Book of Resolutions the call for public schools not to teach creationism or intelligent design in science courses.

Both petitions failed in committee. Another proposal, put forward by Cathy Preston of Erie, Pa., would have changed the Book of Discipline language from “We find that science’s descriptions of cosmological, geological, and biological evolution are not in conflict with theology” to “We find that science’s descriptions of cosmology, geology and biology are not in conflict with theology.” That petition passed in committee by a vote of 40 in favor and 29 against, but did not get a plenary vote.

Of his own views, Shunk said, “I would lean toward creationism because I believe in the authority of the word of God … Evolution assumes and expects only natural explanations of the processes on Earth. It excludes any supernatural explanations.”

Shunk points to Australian physicist John Hartnett and other Christian scientists who hold creationist, “young universe” views. To Shunk, the United Methodist Church errs by what he sees as its bias for evolution over other theories.

“We should open up all the doors,” he said.

But to Al Kuelling, a United Methodist layman in Fort Wayne, Ind., evolution is not just any theory, but one accepted by the overwhelming majority of scientists. (Scientists distinguish between “hypotheses” and “theories,” with the latter defined by science-dictionary.org as “well-established explanations for experimental data.”)

Those scientists include, Kuelling notes, such high-profile Christians as Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute and author of the bestseller “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.”

Kuelling said the need for The United Methodist Church’s statement that evolution and faith aren’t in conflict is underscored by a recent Barna Group research project focused on young adults who stopped attending church. The study found that about one in four of the young adults surveyed consider Christianity to be “anti-science,” with a similar percentage saying they are put off by the evolution-vs.-creationism debate.

“Rather than argue with the church, rather than argue with the minister, rather than argue with their parents, these young people just leave the church,” Kuelling said.

Another strong United Methodist supporter of Evolution Weekend is retired Bishop Kenneth Hicks. As leader of the Arkansas Annual (regional) Conference in 1981, Hicks testified in a successful federal lawsuit to overturn an Arkansas law requiring that creationism be given equal time with evolution in public school science instruction.

Now 90, Hicks said he finds spiritual sustenance in the Genesis creation accounts, but not a satisfactory scientific explanation.

And that’s fine, he said.

“Whenever there is new (scientific) truth to be found, God does not want us to run away from that or cover it up, but rather to open it up and use it.”


*Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org


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  1. john

    I would like to suggest that there is another option besides theistic evolution or young earth creationism.  A group of Christian scholars and scientists at Reasons to Believe  (www.reasons.org ) has developed  a testable creation model approach to integrate science and the Christian faith. Check it out for yourself……you might be pleasantly surprised !




  2. ryan

    Christianity is of course in stark opposition to the Theory of evolution. To think otherwise requires either a gross misunderstanding of Christianity or the Theory of Evolution or both. The thought that they could be compatible is simply intellectually dishonest.

    1. dmack89

      Ryan – that is simply not true – the only thing about Christianity that is incompatible with Evolution is a strict literal interpretation of Genesis. Such an interpretation is also at odds with just about any branch of science that has been able to teach us about the earth and its processes, physics, astronomy, biological sciences….etc. There are many Christians that see Genesis for what it is, the collection of ancient understandings in which men who had no understanding of science, attempted to interpret their origins through their understanding of God. For us, there is no conflict between understanding Science and Evolution as ways to better understand God’s world, and believing in the power of Christ. In fact, the ability to have the intellect to learn such thing is one of God’s gifts to humanity.

      1. ryan

        I don’t know you, but if you read anything I write here you know I am very committed to dialogue. And I welcome this opportunity to write back and forth with you. I don’t mean to bring age into this per se, but I have seen age be something that is important in how we understand the faith and science debate or interaction or however you want to phrase this ‘debate’. I am 37. So not old, but not really young either. In school, I was taught the Theory of Evolution only. I didn’t question it either. I found, like you, no real contradiction between science and faith, and I still don’t. What I came to discover is that the Theory of Evolution is anti faith. The reason is that it allows no room for supernatural or God intervention. What many call Theistic evolution is actually a form of Creationism. To say that God created the world and all that is in it, is a Christian doctrine, which I would say is foundational to the Christian faith. How God created is not necessarily something Christians have to agree on. Personally, I struggle with 6 24 hour periods of creation v. the Bible as poetry that describes long time frames of evolutionary process by which God creates. These are both Christian models of Creation, but they are both Creationism.
        Juxtapose that with the Theory of Evolution. The Theory states that there is no god or God who creates. That all matters comes about by the Big Bang (or Rainbow Gravity Theory now), and that life came about through natural selection which not only doesn’t need a Creator, but necessarily excludes any supernatural being. This position, which is what I was taught in school excludes God as Creator. It is therefore anti Christian.
        Now, why is this important, is what matters more to me. If God didn’t create than we as humans are not made in His image, there is nothing of sacred or divine worth in us. We are nothing more than a cosmic accident and as such we are nothing more than a complex biochemical reaction and there is nothing moral nor immoral in changing or manipulating a chemical reaction. We get to a place where people, rather than children of God, are nothing more than a process of biochemistry. That is very scary to me. Check out this recent article on Salon. http://www.salon.com/2013/01/23/so_what_if_abortion_ends_life/

        It is the advocacy of the acceptance of child sacrifice based on a secular view of human life.
        I probably agree with you more than you think. I just think that my wording is something that people aren’t used to hearing. But I believe that it is accurate. I appreciate your commitment to God and this conversation. May God bless you.

        1. dmack89

          Ryan – you are actually confusing several things in your understanding of evolution. First, the Theory makes no statement about God at all, except that biblical literalism does not fit the scientific facts. There are many that believe in Evolution that also believe in God. For us God is an amazing mystery – and how God “created” and God’s relationship to the process of evolution are beyond our understanding. Some may not accept that, but many do. Second – the Theory really makes not no connection to the Big Bang. While many may make that connection as a furtherance of the Theory – all it says is that life on earth started with single celled oraganism that arose from the “primordial ooze”. The Big Ban is actually a theory in Astronomy/Astrophysics – and should not be included in the Theory of evolution. That is not to say that it may be just as valid, but all I deal with Evolution as that is the field I have knowledge of and have viewed the evidence of personally.

          Ultimately, even though I believe in God, I agree with the premise of this article – that Evolution is science but Creationist theories of any kind are not and should not be taught in science class. The reason is simple. Creationist views are based on a belief in a creator God – something that is not confined to Christianity, but something that is based on BELIEF of some kind – not on science. In order for something to be considered science – there must be a potential for it to be disproven. Where faith is concerned, proof (of the ability to disprove) need not exist. Thus Creationism is not science and should not be taught in science classes.

  3. Kevin

    The UMC position works well enough for me.
    “We find that science’s descriptions of cosmological, geological, and biological evolution are not in conflict with theology.”

    1. ryan

      I agree with you to large extent. I don’t think that any single or collective grouping of scientific data ever conflicts with theology, but rather is actually evidence towards theology. What I do find troubling is the philosophical extrapolations or claims made under the guise of science that do conflict with Christian theology.
      Americans are woefully ignorant of forming a cohesive worldview that enables information to be formed into a consistent way of looking at the world. This is deeply troubling to me as a pastor. For instance, the Theory of Evolution is opposed to Christianity. That is true. That doesn’t mean the process of evolution doesn’t or hasn’t happened. There is great evidence for the reality of the evolutionary process. Even the most right wing young earth people I know believe in the evolutionary process. They just disagree with the worldview that the Theory of Evolution is predicated upon. This worldview underlying the theory is what is in opposition with Christianity.

    2. Mark

      Kevin and Ryan, I agree with both of you.

      The worldview aspect is often missed in this debate. With Francis Collins being a rare exception, most evolutionists have developed an anti-faith prejudice. Many literalist Christians have an anti-science attitude even though they are pro-faith. The two groups tend to define each other based on extremes, thereby worsening the divide. It’s reasonable to assume that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

      As Christians we need to be careful about 1) aligning with someone just because we agree with them 10 percent of the time, while ignoring the other 90 percent when they trash Christianity, and 2) drawing firm conclusions from incomplete data.

      We know in our bones there is no final conflict between science and faith–in its infancy western science was shepherded by many strong Christians–but we see through a dim glass.

  4. Kevin

    I was educated as an engineer. I love science. The “Universe” series on cable is one of my favorites. I am a sucker for anything that has to do with black holes, planetary formulation and motion, colliding galaxies and so on. When it comes to philosophy not so much. I have tried but I find the language and nuances to be of little interest. I see your point but I do not peel the philosophical onion as far as you do. I simply view evolution as one of God’s tools and leave it at that. Taking it to the zero point does not interest me.

    1. ryan

      We are very much approaching this from opposite sides, but I will say I believe we agree largely. I come from a theological and history and philosophy background. I am not so good at math so that stunted my science learning. I will ask if you have read any Brian Greene. He has written a few kind of popular works even as a theoretical physicist. I find his work very very interesting. And I find nothing in it that contradicts God either. He never proclaims faith at all, I think he considers himself agnostic. But to me it paints a wonderful picture of the world God has made. The Fabric of the Cosmos is a book I highly recommend.

      1. Kevin

        I found the book, CD version. I will give it a try.

  5. theenemyhatesclarity

    Part of the problem for those who claim there is a conflict between faith and science is the definition of “science.” If science is defined as “the systematic study of the natural world through observation and experiment,” (a fairly standard definition), there is no conflict. However, by that definition, evolution is not science. It has the same set of facts as faith, but different presuppositions. Evolution, like christianity, is a faith based belief system. If evolution is defined as “change in the genetic composition of a population during succesive generations, as a result of natural selection acting on the genetic variation among individuals, and resulting in the development of new species,” then it is not science because it is neither observable nor replicable through experimentation. And unless you contort the Bible, it is also contrary to scripture.

    I do not believe it is a salvation issue, but notwithstanding Francis Collins, it is easy to lose your faith in Jesus Christ if one is committed to an evolutionary viewpoint.

    The enemy hates clarity

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