[Editor’s note: This month we are re-running one of our most popular commentary pieces from our Theological Editor George Murphy. This essay originally ran in October 2015.]
Several years ago we had a display for the Lutheran Alliance on Faith, Science and Technology at the Northeastern Ohio Synod assembly and I was standing at the table prepared to answer questions, sign people up for the newsletter and do anything else to encourage participation in this part of the faith-science conversation.
Several people expressed interest but I was struck by the response of one woman in particular. She looked at the sign and materials briefly and then said, in what seemed to me a critical tone, “I don’t think that there has to be any conflict between science and religion.”
I told her that I agreed completely — that the purpose of the Alliance wasn’t to engage in warfare but to encourage conversation and exploration of some of the difficult issues that come up in faith-science conversations. She didn’t seem particularly impressed — she’d made her point.
Hers was hardly a unique response among mainline Christians. I often get a similar response from both clergy and laity when I talk about what I do in this area. And when I encourage clergy and other church leaders to devote some attention to science-theology matters, to address them in parish education and (when appropriate) in preaching, the response is, not infrequently “We don’t have a problem with that.” Sometimes that comes in response to the specific issue of creation and evolution — “We don’t have a problem with that.”
Whether “we” is understood as an individual’s own congregation, the ELCA as a whole or mainline Christianity in general, I think “We don’t have a problem with that” is a big problem.
It should hardly be controversial to say that discoveries in scientific cosmology, biological evolution, genetics, ecology, neuroscience and other scientific areas present some challenges to traditional formulations of Christian theology. That does not mean that they require the abandonment of the historic Christian faith or make all the theological reflection of the past 2000 years obsolete. But they do raise questions about some ways in which that faith has been understood — i.e., about our theologies. These challenges demand, at the very least, that we be willing to reconsider some of the ways in which our theologies have been developed and presented.
And to respond “We don’t have a problem with that” is to say that churches don’t have to rise to that challenge. In particular, it means that pastors and educators don’t have to help people understand how those new scientific developments can be understood in a Christian context. That means that those people will have no way of dealing with the challenges of militant atheists who tell them that the successes of science in understanding the world make the idea of a God who acts in creation superfluous. Or when their friends from a conservative church tell them (correctly) that evolution would mean that humanity didn’t originate from a single couple who fell from a sinless state, and therefore (incorrectly) that that would remove the need for Christ to save us from sin, they are likely to be baffled.
This problem is especially serious when it means that young people are unprepared to face challenges like that. Superficial treatments of topics related to creation by saying “Genesis tells us who, not how” are quite inadequate. When young people who have been given no grounding in this area go off to college, or get out into the wide world more generally, they will encounter people who tell them that Christianity and modern science (or some parts of it) are incompatible, and all too many will choose science because they haven’t been prepared to deal with the issues.
The problem of mainline churches is not an incompatibility of Christianity and science. It is failure to do the work that is necessary to help people understand how they can be compatible.
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.