A framework for teaching theology and science in congregations
By Aaron Burden/Public domain via Unsplash

“Teaching Faith and Science” was one of the areas for which papers were invited for the annual meeting of American Scientific Affiliation this past summer.

I gave one of the papers, as well as being a reviewer of others that were submitted. This is an important topic for those who want to help develop healthy attitudes about relationships between faith and science in congregations.  

I have been doing such teaching for a long time, in settings ranging from adult classes in congregations to seminary courses, and I thought it might be helpful to condense some of that experience for those planning to teach or lead discussions in this area.

I’ll have adult classes in mind here, but much of what will be said is of more general use.

There is a lot of material available to provide content for teaching and discussion – one could start with the Covalence archives. My focus here will be on the framework for leading classes and discussion groups.     

To begin with, there’s the question of who should teach such a class. Pastors may be involved with adult education but not be very knowledgeable about scientific matters, while laypeople trained in a scientific area may not be confident about discussing theology.  

For clergy, spending some continuing education time and funds to get more knowledgeable about modern science should be considered.  Team teaching, with the pastor taking the lead on theology in discussion with a scientist from the congregation is a possibility.

If you’re going to bill something as a “workshop,” set it up so participants do some work and contribute. Don’t make it what one adult educator called a “spongeshop” in which participants are just supposed to soak up wisdom from a leader.

I began with the common phrase “faith and science,” but that’s not an ideal term.  Science, a way of understanding the world, should be in conversation with the way we understand our faith – that is, with our theology. It’s better than to speak of “theology and science.”  This means that we need to get rid of a notion held by many people, clergy as well as laity, that theology is only something that academics get out of dusty tomes. Theology is basically “faith in search of understanding”, an attempt to make sense of what we believe.

There is really a four-way conversation among theology, science, science-based technology, and ethics. But theology and science will do for short.

I put theology first for a reason. Theology speaks of God as creator of the world, and it’s then natural to talk about science as a way we try to understand the world.  We can then ask how the two ways of looking at the world are related. But if we start with a scientific picture of the world, there’s no immediate connection with a Christian view of creation because science is properly done without explicit reference to God – even by scientists with religious beliefs.

There are a lot of different topics that can be considered under the heading of theology and science. But before plunging into specific issues, it’s important to consider some basic questions – how do we come to understand things in the world, how do we, as Christians, claim to know about God, and how should we think about God’s action in the world?

We know about the physical world through science. Sometimes “the scientific method” is made to sound like a cookbook recipe or computer program whose steps must be followed precisely.

In reality, science requires two things: observation of things in the world, especially the controlled observations we call experiments, and rational thinking about them – observation and theory. Those can be done in either order, and in practice there will be a good deal of back and forth between formulating ideas and checking them against what’s observed.

How can we know about God? That God is revealed most fully in Jesus is a basic Christian belief, but how much can our experience of the world tell us about God? There is an important difference between thinking that science can give us information about God independently of God’s historical revelation and thinking that science can help us to understand God’s presence and work when viewed in the context of that revelation. I think the latter view is preferable.

Another basic topic to be considered is divine action – how to think about God’s work in the world. Most of the other things to be discussed will depend in some way on this. It’s easy to say, for example, “God creates through evolution.” But what does God have to do with the environmental influences, genetic drift, mutations, and the processes of natural and sexual selection that scientists see in the way evolution actually takes place?

That God does act in the world is a statement of faith, not of science. (Praying for daily bread implies that God has something to do with food getting to our tables.)

In his widely used text Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues (Harper Collins, 1997), Ian Barbour discussed nine different ways of thinking about God’s action in the world.  

For an introductory orientation a good approach is a traditional one in which God is thought of as working with creatures as a human works with some tool or instrument.  (This is in Barbour’s “Neo-Thomist” category.) This is an analogy, not a literal description. God does not work with creatures in the way that two physical systems in the world interact.

Divine action can be called something else – creation. This is what Luther gives almost his entire attention to in explaining the First Article of the Creed in the Small Catechism. Discussing it at an early point can correct the common idea that “creation” has to do just with the origin of things far in the past. This also prepares the way for discussions of origins by following the example of science, which has gained knowledge of the past by studying the present and extrapolating what is learned out in space and back in time.

Another good starter for teachers and a useful reference for learners may be my own book, Toward a Christian View of a Scientific World (CSS, Lima, OH, 2001).

Learners should have had some acquaintance with the results of critical study of scripture, particularly important texts dealing with creation, before the origins of the universe and the development of living things is discussed in a theology-science context.  If that acquaintance hasn’t been provided in some previous setting, it needs to be done in the class you’re conducting. Don’t be surprised to find that some adults have just been assuming that the first chapters of Genesis are straight history. Others may be pleased that someone in the church is finally speaking positively about evolution.

I would suggest dealing with what is known about the early universe and cosmological development before getting to biological evolution. Cosmology is less threatening to people than the idea that we’re distant cousins of apes. For both those topics, convey some of the actual evidence that we now have for current scientific views.  Don’t be content with generalities, like saying that we know the age of the earth from “radioactive dating,” or that evolution is “survival of the fittest” – a phrase that can be quite misleading.

Two other important topics, the environment and biomedical issues, involve technology and ethics much more heavily. The ELCA’s social statements, on the environment and on genetics, are helpful resources.  In discussing those topics, we need to realize that when we speak of God acting in the world by cooperating with creatures, humans are often the instruments with which God works. And unlike inanimate objects, sometimes we aren’t reliable tools. If we ask why God doesn’t do something about climate change or the spread of some new pathogen, God may be asking the same question of us.

That question of why bad things happen, the topic of theodicy, is likely to come up when discussing theology-science matters. How should we think about disasters brought about through natural processes like tsunamis or earthquakes? There are bad theological answers, like saying that God isn’t involved with such processes (as I heard a bishop say on national television) or blaming it all on the sin of Adam, as well as better ones. Those challenges can’t simply be ignored, but theodicy shouldn’t be allowed to drive our theology.

I hope these suggestions will help in creating a framework for a theology-science class or forum.  Then add content and serve.   

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.

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