When the ELCA was just getting started, the late John Mangum was instrumental in starting a work group which eventually became the Lutheran Alliance on Faith, Science and Technology. Over the past 27 years I have frequently quoted a statement that he made in introducing a book about faith-science conversations. “Today’s churches have no other place to fulfill their mission than a world whose basic assumptions are pervaded more and more by science.”1
That sentence — the accuracy of which is, I think, pretty much beyond dispute — makes it clear that understanding the relationships between a Christian view of reality and the current state of science and technology is essential if the church is to do what it is called to do as we move into the future. The dialogue between science and theology cannot be left to hobbyists or academic specialists. It is something that all pastors and teachers of the church, indeed all who are concerned about the church’s life and work, need to be concerned with.
What does that mean in practice? I suggest here four implications, using metaphors of location which may have some mnemonic value.
The church needs to be on top of scientific developments
Pastors and other church leaders need to have basic knowledge of contemporary scientific understandings of the world. This doesn’t mean knowing the mathematics used by theoretical physics or all the intricacies of modern genetics (which go way beyond the old brown eye/blue eye business!) It does mean having an intelligent knowledge appropriate to a layperson in scientific matters of important areas of science and their applications, to the extent of being able to read articles in resources like Scientific American with some comprehension and being comfortable if such matters come up in conversation. I’ve heard comments in sermons that suggest that the preacher didn’t know the difference between the scales of planets and of galaxies. That won’t go over well with scientifically literate hearers.
The church needs to surround science theologically
Science doesn’t need theology to do its work, but the church needs to put science in a theological context in order to do its tasks. We should not just know basic facts and theories about global warming and climate change, but ought to have a way of thinking about those things in the context of the doctrine of creation and a corresponding ethic. This will require some study (and perhaps continuing education) in the area of theology and science. We should understand divine action in the world in a way that takes seriously the ability of science to describe thoroughly, with no appeal to the concept of God, what happens in the world.
The church needs to be up front about science
Being “up front” about something implies being honest about it, and the church certainly needs to be honest when it speaks about challenges of developments in science and technology. We may sometimes have to say “We haven’t gotten our heads around that yet” about some new development.
But the church must also address issues raised by science and technology. The basic purpose of theology is to inform and support proclamation and instruction. Such preaching and teaching should not just be reactive, a response to parishioners’ concerns. For example, a pastor should, on occasion, speak about a Christian understanding of the realities of human evolution, even if no one in the congregation has raised the topic. And issues involving science should be dealt with routinely in age appropriate ways in Christian education.
Sometimes, of course, a pastor or teacher won’t know the answer to a question with a scientific component. It’s quite all right to say “I don’t really have an answer for that but I’ll look into it” (if, of course, it is looked into). The message that the church is interested in such matters and not afraid to explore new territory is as important as having a good answer. Giving the impression that it’s all right to raise tough questions in church is especially important for young people.
The church needs occasionally to get out in front of science
The church should not just play catch up but should look ahead and think about how it might respond to future scientific discoveries and technological developments. This might be largely the task of academic theologians, but parish pastors are likely to be the first ones who have an opportunity to respond to new things. What, for example, might a preacher say from the pulpit on Sunday if the big news of the previous week has been an announcement about unmistakable evidence of radio contact with extraterrestrials?
George Murphy received his Ph.D. in physics from Johns Hopkins for work on general relativity in 1972. He taught at Westminster College (PA), The University of Western Australia and Luther College and did research for eleven years before entering Wartburg seminary. Ordained in 1983, he has served as a pastor in Lutheran and Episcopal congregations. His first article on theology and science was published in 1977 and he has since published six books and numerous articles and continues to speak and lead workshops in this area. His most recent book, Models of Atonement: Speaking about Salvation in a Scientific World (Lutheran University Press, 2013), discusses ways of understanding the saving work of Christ in an evolving world.
- John M. Mangum (ed.), The New Faith-Science Debate: Probing Cosmology, Technology, and Theology (Fortress, Minneapolis, 1989), p.vi. ↩