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.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org