Being the church in the only world we have
Photo by Aaron Burden via Unsplash

(Editor’s note: A version of this article, “Bearing Witness with the Lutheran Alliance on Faith, Science and Technology,” originally appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of Lutheran Forum)

Beginning to address the challenge

In 1987, the year before the formation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Lutheran Church in America and the Lutheran World Federation sponsored an ecumenical consultation in Cyprus to consider the implications of developments in science and technology for the life of the church.

Participants from North and South America, Europe, Asia and Africa contributed to the discussions. The papers presented there were published in The New Faith-Science Debate (Fortress & WCC Press, 1989), which was edited by John M. Mangum, a former director for planning in the LCA’s Division for World Mission and Ecumenism.

In his preface (pp.vi-vii), Mangum set out three “observations” he believed should have high priority for churches. The first sets out starkly the rationale not only for the Cyprus consultation but also for the formation of work groups on science and technology that would soon be formed by the ELCA and other churches in the United States.

“[T]oday’s churches have no other place to fulfill their mission than a world whose basic assumptions are pervaded more and more by science.”

This was not stated as an opinion but as a fact about the real world. When it was written, not much was being done about relationships among theology, science, technology and ethics, the “four-way dialogue” discussed by Robert John Russell in his contribution to the consultation (p.100). (The four partners in that conversation are often referred to briefly as “religion and science” or “faith and science.” I prefer “theology and science,” theology being the attempt to understand our faith. Similarly, the word “science” in what follows often includes science-based technologies.)

Forty years ago “religion and science” meant “creation or [sic] evolution” to many, and presentations were often of an apologetic nature. Some scholarly work was done, but beyond academia, “religion and science” tended to be seen a hobby for a few clergy rather than as an important part of the church’s work.

Mangum’s second observation was that that situation had to change because engagement with those issues was necessary if churches were to fulfill their mission in the context of a scientific world. Churches needed to develop ways to communicate effectively in this scientific setting if their message wasn’t to be dismissed as irrelevant. His third observation was that a world “flailing about in a sea of technological developments” needed appropriate ethical guidance from the church.

Shortly after the formation of the ELCA in 1988, what would eventually come to be called the Lutheran Alliance on Faith, Science and Technology (LAFST) was formed. (I will use the term “the Alliance” consistently, though sometimes anachronistically, here.) Similar groups were developed by the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church in the USA and the Episcopal in the USA. They have varied in structure, criteria for membership, activity, and relationship with their national church bodies.

These denominational groups have been loosely associated in an Ecumenical Roundtable which meets once a year in various locations, being hosted by different groups in turn. Over the years there has also been some participation from the United Methodist Church, the Reformed Church in American, the Evangelical Lutheran and Anglican Churches in Canada, and representatives from the National Council of Catholic Bishops.

The Alliance was given formal status in 1991 and is an independent Lutheran organization recognized by the ELCA. Since its founding it has had a liaison with the ELCA’s churchwide organization, currently The Rev. Dr. Roger A. Willer, Director for Theological Ethics in the Office of the Presiding Bishop. In addition to maintaining connections with the Alliance, he is the “go to guy” for the ELCA Churchwide Organization on theology-science matters.

A small budget line is provided in the national church’s budget for theology-science work, to which the Alliance has added with occasional fund appeals. Further information about the Alliance can be found here.

It should be noted that the group is called a Lutheran Alliance rather than an ELCA one. While most of the people involved in the group’s work over the years have been members of the ELCA, members of other Lutheran bodies are welcome to participate in the work.

In fact, serious involvement with theology-science work requires some ecumenical openness. For Lutherans to ignore contributions of Anglican Arthur Peacocke, Anabaptist Nancey Murphy or Roman Catholic John Haught, for example, on confessional grounds would be counterproductive.

The Alliance community has always been loosely structured. There is a core steering committee with about nine members which has been active to provide direction and resources. In the beginning, five “projects” were outlined — Scholarship and Study, Worship, International communications, Contacts with campus ministry, and Ministry to workers in science and technology.

People who had expressed support for the Alliance’s work were assigned to one of these projects, based on their stated interests, and a member of the steering committee headed up each group, staying in touch with its members. They also took turns producing a newsletter which mailed all members of the Alliance. This evolved through some name changes to the present online newsletter Covalence, now edited by Susan Barreto, which is available at the Alliance website. Members of the steering committee keep in touch and develop plans for work via emails and conference calls. Others in the community are engaged in specific tasks, and there are some who have simply expressed interest in its work and support it.

Contributions of the Alliance

My current role, after three periods on the steering committee from 1989 until 2015, is as theological editor for Covalence and occasional contributor there. My primary responsibility in the early years was with the worship project. This involved dissemination of information about appropriate liturgical material, hymns and resources for preaching that engaged issues of science and technology. (That doesn’t mean hymns in praise of technology or science lectures disguised as sermons, but material that uses images from a scientific world and addresses questions that scientific developments pose for Christian faith.)

One result was a collection of commentaries on biblical texts in the lectionary that might be relevant in this regard for preachers and educators. It was developed and published through cooperation between members of the Lutheran group and that of the UCC. (George L. Murphy, LaVonne Althouse, and Russell Willis, Cosmic Witness [CSS, 1995].)

Other material of educational value, both for clergy and for laity, was produced by groups in the Ecumenical Roundtable. One resource from the Alliance in the 1990s was a collection of articles on science-theology relationships that we called “The Packet”. This was sent via postal mail to those who requested it. Some items were by Lutheran authors, but we also used an earlier collection from the UCC. Another good resource developed later by the Episcopalians, A Catechism of Creation, is now available here.

In the 1990s two major efforts were made to reach beyond the church bodies represented in the Roundtable. In the summer of 1993 a conference on “Science, Technology, and the Christian Faith” was held at Concordia College in Moorhead, MN with the sponsorship of the Roundtable and the CHARIS Ecumenical Center of the College. The plenary speakers were two physicist-theologians, Ian Barbour (considered the father of modern American religion-science work) and John Polkinghorne, theologian Vitor Westhelle, biblical scholar Pheme Perkins, ethicist Karen Lebacqz and sociologist Troy Duster.

That listing of speakers should indicate the scope of the matters being addressed. It would be expanded if a listing of the topics of 33 seminars conducted during the conference were included.

The Concordia conference was followed four years later by another with a wider range of topics and interfaith participation. George Koch, then the editor of the Alliance’s newsletter and Lutheran campus pastor at Syracuse University, was instrumental in organizing “ReDiscovering Cosmos: Science, Religion and the Search for Human Integrity” there. Sponsors were Hendricks Chapel and Lutheran Campus Ministry at Syracuse University, the Alliance and other groups in the Ecumenical Roundtable, with some additional funding from the ELCA’s Division for Ministry. Plenary talks addressed ways of relating science and religion, eschatology and teleology in light of scientific developments, ethical and social issues with genetics, and relationships between neuroscience and religion. A wide variety of workshops was also offered.

It is important to emphasize that relationships between science and Christian faith are important for the work of the entire church and are not simply the concern of a special interest group. For several years the ELCA has held meetings of a theological roundtable consisting of representatives of several groups associated with the church, and the Alliance has been a participant. Beginning in 2002 there were smaller consultations of scientists and church leaders in Chicago to increase awareness of issues raised by science and pave the way for further efforts in the church. As astronomer Grace Wolf-Chase commented in an article about the first of these gatherings (Covalence, 1st Quarter 2002), “Being ‘science literate’ enhances the credibility of the church.”

Credibility with regard to science and technology is important in a time when, due in part to unfortunate words and actions of some Christians, religion is seen as an opponent by some scientists. For some time the Alliance, together with other groups from the Roundtable, has sponsored a display along with those of other organizations at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Some scientists in attendance are surprised by this and their reactions aren’t always positive, but it’s important to do our best to convey the message that for understanding the natural world, we’re on their side.

One way to increase the scientific literacy of the church at the grassroots is to get members of congregations who are trained and work in scientific and technological fields to make use of their expertise in educational work and other activities. That has sometimes been difficult in the past because those whose work might provoke controversy have been hesitant to speak up, and pastors haven’t given much thought to how such expertise could be used.

A former ELCA bishop with a doctorate in nuclear chemistry who worked in that area before seeking ordination told of asking his pastor how he could contribute more to the life and work of the congregation. “Well,” the pastor said after some thought, “We do need more ushers.”

With no disrespect to ushers, leading a class or discussion group on some scientific issues, or perhaps team teaching with the pastor as theologian, would also be an important contribution. One result of the consultations that I’ve mentioned was the organization, with the support of Alliance members, of several “Sunday Scientist symposia” in different locales to get scientists as scientists more involved in the lives of congregations.

In other ways the Alliance has made persons knowledgeable about theology-science issues available to the church for particular tasks. Members of the steering committee have served on the task forces which developed two of the church’s social statements on issues involving science and technology, 1993’s “Caring for Creation” and 2011’s “Genetics, Faith and Responsibility.” And from 1999 into 2010 I was given the opportunity to write a “Handiwork” column about scientific and technological matters in the ELCA’s magazine for pastors and other church leaders, Lutheran Partners.

The ongoing task

As I indicated at the beginning of this article, the relationships between science and theology had a rather low profile in the church as a whole at the time the Ecumenical Roundtable and Alliance got started. There weren’t many courses in colleges or in seminaries preparing people for the ministry, not a lot of quality publications, and few publications or conferences devoted to theology-science matters. Nearly 40 years later, the situation has changed dramatically.

Now there are numerous conferences in this area, and colleges and seminaries offer courses and sometimes graduate studies dealing with it. Some of that is the result of generous funding by the John Templeton Foundation. There are plenty of books, including introductory treatments, technical monographs and apologetic works on specific issues such as evolution and creation, cosmology, biomedical ethics, environmental theology, and implications of brain research for religion, as well as general surveys of religion and science. Journals deal with the area and there are organizations and institutions devoted to work in it.

With all those resources, however, the challenges for the church that John Mangum pointed out in 1989 when the Alliance and other denominational groups were started still remain. Involvement with theology-science issues in the ELCA has not been limited to the Alliance. As I’ve indicated, it pervades the churchwide organization. It has, for example, been given some attention in connection with global missions. But making these issues part of the thinking and work of congregations, their pastors and other leaders in the local church still needs work.

Pastors may be hesitant to speak about scientific matters, perhaps because they don’t want to stir up what they see as unnecessary controversy and perhaps because they’re afraid of revealing their ignorance — or both. But sometimes a little debate about a topic like climate change or evolution may be needed. Science tries to provide an accurate description of the world that is God’s creation, and as Aquinas said in the Summa against the Pagans (quoted in Josef Pieper, Guide to Thomas Aquinas [Mentor-Omega, 1964], 48), “An error concerning the Creation ends as false thinking about God.”

And while it’s desirable for church leaders to have some basic knowledge about important scientific concepts, it’s perhaps more valuable for them to show an interest in the subject and convey the impression that it’s all right to talk about such things in church. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “I don’t know the answer to that, but I’ll look into it” (if it is looked into!) As I’ve already said, those in the congregation who do have scientific expertise can be resources both for teaching and discussion.

One obstacle we sometimes face in talking to clergy or laity about this is what I call the “We don’t have a problem” problem. “We don’t have a problem” — with science generally or often with evolution in particular — usually means that it’s all right to accept scientific claims with no thought about their significance for theology. But science does raise questions that need to be wrestled with because they don’t fit with the way people may think about their faith. If science can thoroughly describe the way things happen in the world without reference to God, why do we need to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread”? I remember being asked that not by an atheistic scientist but by a high school student in a Sunday class in my first year of parish ministry. Such a question deserves serious discussion and shouldn’t be dismissed as “Not a problem.”

High school students and youth in general are, as we often say, “the future of the church.” Seven years ago, the Barna Group published the results of a study, “Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church.” The third reason was, “Churches come across as antagonistic to science.” That sense of antagonism may come from vocal conservative Christians who oppose some scientific results in the name of biblical truth, but I think few ELCA congregations would seem antagonistic to science.

However, “uninterested in”, “indifferent to” or “embarrassed about” may be the impression that young people get from their pastors and teachers. The result will be that they are ill prepared for higher education and a world in which they’ll encounter claims that science disposes of religion or that Christians have to reject some scientific conclusions.

The Alliance has made efforts to address this concern. Two “Faith and science youth curriculums” are available on this website.

Members of the Alliance have made a priority of leading interactive booths at the ELCA’s national Youth Gatherings, including the one in 2018 in Houston.

And the Alliance continues to work in other ways. Covalence provides relevant news and informative and provocative articles. Steering committee members attended the Luther Seminary Mid-Winter colloquium on faith and science in early 2018.

So I conclude on positive notes, but they are just notes. The challenge that John Mangum expressed four decades ago has not been ignored, but much still remains to be done. Churches are faced today with declining memberships and funding, and it would be easy to see involvement with theology-science matters as a luxury that can be cut. I would suggest instead that dealing adequately with those issues is part of the answer to the problems we face.

In the church’s early years, the apostolic witness to Jesus Christ, originating in the language and culture of Israel, had to be proclaimed to people of other cultures and languages. There were dangers involved in developing a Christian theology using concepts from Hellenistic philosophy, dangers that were not always avoided. But the fundamental Christian message had to be expressed in a way that was understandable to people in the culture in which it was proclaimed. The same is true today in a world in which the cultures of all nations continue to be “pervaded more and more by science.”

*I want to express my thanks to some of those associated with the Alliance, Susan Barreto, Karl Evans, George Koch, and Roger Willer for refreshment of my memory and updating me on some matters.

George Murphy

Theological Editor

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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