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Geologists in the Pulpit: Raising the Scientific Literacy of your Chruch

Stephen O. Moshier

Department of Geology and Environmental Science, Wheaton College

Presented at the ACG gathering at the Geological Society of America Meeting, October 1996

The decline of scientific literacy in America has been well documented. This is as much a problem in poor urban communities as in upper middle class suburbs. It is certainly not a problem limited to the evangelical Christian subculture. Yet, some manifestations of science illiteracy are particularly exaggerated in the Christian church.

At the Christian liberal arts college where I teach, I have encountered among students a pervasive fear of science. Their concern is related to a feeling that the progress of scientific knowledge has fueled the displacement of a theistic worldview by naturalism or atheism. Many of these students are the products of Christian primary and secondary education, so they are not picking this up in the public schools. They are hearing it from the pulpit, from Sunday school and (oddly enough) from Christian summer camps!

It is as if the church has bought into the secular myth that scientific progress has been hindered by religious conviction and influence in culture. Or, the view that scientific explanations of natural events, even unusual natural events, reduce or replace God's involvement in creation. This is an unbiblical consession that God only works by supernatural intervention (abruptly and miraculously). Thus, young Christians are not being encouraged by the church to pursue the sciences in their education or careers (except for medical fields, where they really become more like technicians than scientists). Ironically, I believe that this paranoia and exaggerated scientific illiteracy reflects other areas of illiteracy in the church, namely historical and theological.

First, many Christians are not aware of the glorious heritage and significant influence of Christian thought in the history of science. Study of the early men and women of science reveals this influence. Historically, the church has responded to scientific revolutions in a way that encouraged scientific investigation, while preserving essential doctrines. Such examples are well documented in Charles Hummel's book, The Galileo Connection and Dave Young's book, The Biblical Flood, A Case Study of the Church's Response to Extrabiblical Evidence.

Secondly, the average believer has a limited understanding of the doctrine of creation. Only facets of it are exposited from the pulpit, usually those which are perceived to have scientific ramifications. Rather than probe and celebrate the dynamic relationship between God and his creation and all of its meaning as to how we should live, we get sermons on "Evolution: Bloopers and Blunders." This is especially true for preaching in the broadcast media. There is little real discussion at church of the scientific issues that raise controversies, such as with the origins of the universe and life and the history of life-only what amounts to indoctrination. We are often told that there is one orthodox way to interpret the days of Genesis. We do not hear that the issue has been debated in the seminaries since before Augustine, and that the text must be interpreted in light of the cultural and linguistic setting into which it was delivered. For a masterful and comprehensive exposition of the theology of creation, I recommend Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview by Albert Walters.

I am sure that you have anticipated the direction I am heading-an evaluation of the impact of the creation science movement on science literacy in the church. For the last 30 years and possibly longer, teaching in the area of science and faith in the evangelical church has been dominated by this movement. Advocates of creation science have successfully promoted a dualism between "secular" science and self-styled creation science. The promotional theme is creation vs. evolution. It is presented as if their "creation model" is a sanctified scientific explanation against a godless and profane "evolution model." Most lay evangelicals assume that creation science is a natural and historically repudiated extension of orthodox Christian thinking. It is not.

Because this dualism is so overpowering, the average evangelical Christian, even the average evangelical pastor, is unwilling or is inadequately equipped to evaluate the scientific or theological merits of either model. Those who desire more understanding of the issues rarely look beyond the creation science movement for learning resources. As professional geologists, we know how long it has taken us to become proficient in interpreting geological phenomena. But, a pastor with little or no academic training in the sciences can, by the reading of a couple of books, pretty much master the main arguments of creation science. Or, a six-hour "Genesis Seminar" gives the lay Christian the background to become a foot soldier in the battle for the Bible. Yet, I believe that the movement has given the evangelical community a false sense of scientific literacy.

I am sure we have friends at our churches who would interject here, "What's the problem? Creation science is more consistent with the Bible, and is actually better science than evolution." But, how many of us, working scientists who are devoted followers of Christ and active in our churches, would agree with that? Creation science has won a few converts from the scientific community, but not many. [Interestingly however, creation science has drawn mostly devotees from technical fields like engineering and medicine!]

I see the following results from the influence of creation science in the church and culture.
1) Christian youth are not encouraged to seek careers in the sciences. Thus, the church is not filling the greater scientific community with laborers who would reap a harvest there for Christ's kingdom.
2) Serious spiritual seekers in the scientific and greater academic communities are often discouraged by what they perceive as anti-intellectualism in the Christian church. This is an enormous stumbling block to evangelism.
3) The Biblical worldview (with its proclamation of creation) has little influence in our culture, especially among intellectuals. Historian Mark Noll has carefully documented this demise and provided his analysis of the problem in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.

The marginalization of our worldview in contemporary culture may be attributed to: (a) this disengagement with scientific intellectual life and (b) negative public reaction to political attempts to force creation science into public education.

Those of us in the sciences, who reject the creation science movement, must do our part to encourage our congregations to consider these problems and re-evaluate the motives and "success" of creation science. I see this contribution as a ministry to the church and ultimately as a greater ministry to all. But how can we do it?


Do not shy away form sharing your feelings about these matters in your local church. I know geologists who don't even tell their church friends what they do for a living! It makes it easier to avoid conflict, but that approach has been part of the problem leading to scientific illiteracy in our churches. I also know geologists who attend churches in which the pastor delivers sermons on young earth creation or flood geology, but they never say a word. What would be the harm in having a meeting or a meal with that pastor to share your point of view and professional expertise? You could lead a series of lessons in your Sunday School class (or similar church venue) on a topic related to these matters, where you can share your understanding of the "creation controversies." You may have to do some further study yourself in areas such as Old Testament studies, theology of nature/creation, or church history.

I once had the opportunity to give four lectures before a rather large crowd at a church in my community. I tried to cover too much ground, but it was a good experience. I started by looking at what the Bible has to say about how God is involved in his creation, using Psalm 104 as an example of creation literature. Then, I reviewed how Genesis 1 has been interpreted by various Biblical scholars over the history of the church. I tried to stress that the literal interpretation is by no means exclusively orthodox. I also talked about the different ways in which Christians historically have tried to harmonize Genesis 1 and scientific explanations. Next, I took the group on a "virtual field trip" of the rocks in our region and talked about how they provided evidence for a very long earth history. Finally, I provided a brief review of some of the major theological and scientific problems in creation science. Some in the audience were hostile to my approach, but many were grateful to hear a different side of the story. The pastor and elders were supportive and proactive in making clear that this kind of discussion of the issues was appropriate for their church.

Another good idea is to lead your Sunday school class on a real (outdoor) geological field trip to visit local rocks. Invite your pastor! Talk about how the rocks would fit into an old earth or young earth framework. Alternatively, take the group to a local museum with a good collection of geological materials.

Finally, Paul Ribbe (past ACG President) has reminded us of our duty to share the gospel message, Christ's offer of salvation, with our colleagues. What could be a more effective way to raise the scientific literacy of our churches than to pack the pews with believing scientists!

Books cited:
Charles Hummel, The Galileo Connection, Resolving Conflicts between Science and the Bible. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986).
Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1994).
Davis A. Young, The Biblical Flood, A Case Study of the Church's Response to Extrabiblical Evidence (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1995)
Albert M. Walters, Creation Regained: Biblical Basis for a Reformational Worldview (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1985).


 


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