by Greg Cootsona
I know there’s a lot of bad news in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) these days, but I’m about to deliver some good news about our denomination.
We are pro-science, and an anti-science mentality is driving emerging adults away from church.
I take this to be good news, and I’ll speak personally. I’m Presbyterian pastor with an evangelical-mainline mix, who completed a doctorate in theology with an emphasis on the dialogue with science. As a result, I’ve also taught theology and science in congregations for the past 20 years. And I can affirm there is definitely gospel in bringing together faith and the insights of science.
I’ll say a bit more about my experience in a bit, but let me start with the second part of my sentence above, namely, the problem facing the church: president of the Barna research Group David Kinnaman, in “You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving the Church,” pursued the problem of why our 18-30 year olds don’t seem to find church congregations very interesting or worth their time. Kinnaman specifies, in six chapters, why emerging adults are exiting congregations. One of these is simply titled, “Antiscience.” The Christian church is seen as resisting the findings of science, afraid that they might endanger cherished doctrines. As Mike, one of the subjects of this research, commented, “To be honest, I think that learning about science was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I knew from church I couldn’t believe in both science and God, so that was it. I didn’t believe in God anymore.”
“I couldn’t believe in science and God anymore.” How did Mike come to this conclusion? I’m reasonably sure he learned that outside the PC(USA), because I know our denomination boldly engages science. How do I know this? I and another pastoral colleague, David Wood, are wrapping up a $2 million John Templeton Foundation sponsored grant, Scientists in Congregations (SinC), which funded 37 congregations in 25 states and two other countries to catalyze the dialogue of theology and science in their churches. Despite the fact that we looked for interested parties from any Protestant denomination and the Catholic communion, almost half were PC(USA) churches. And I think there are good reasons for this.
First of all, we have some good foundations. The other day I was reading John Calvin’s “Institutes of the Christian Religion” (as we all ought to do regularly), and I came across this bold sentence from Book II, in a sub-section devoted to the sciences, “If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God.” Stunning! Calvin’s not talking about casually picking up a few scientific facts because they seem interesting; he’s addressing the question of honoring (or dishonoring) God’s Spirit through the way we engage the scientific study of nature.
Secondly, we have some amazing examples. Let me tell you about my experience with four of those congregations that are following Calvin’s dictum and honoring the Spirit by engaging in the truths that science discovers:
- In addition to an ongoing class on faith and science and a specific fellowship for scientists in their congregation, last fall, First Presbyterian Church of Boulder, Colorado, under the able direction of Carl Hofmann, their associate for education, hosted a conference on health care and faith. The Director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health and of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at Duke University, Harold Koenig, as well as the bestselling author, Philip Yancey, who has a profound interest in faith and science, both spoke. Two hundred fifty attended.
- St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Houston presented a talk on evolution and the Christian by Kenneth Miller, noted Brown biologist, which proved to be a major outreach to the community nearby. I preached the next day on “Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace,” which called participants to reconcile faith and science in our lives, not least because our kids are engaging in science — 52% of youth-group teens aspire to science-related careers like biology, chemistry, engineering, technology, as well as medical and health-related careers. My own daughter has just started a program at Barnard College of Columbia University in Neuroscience and Behavior. So I preached with conviction.
- My own church, Bidwell Presbyterian in Chico, California, hosts the Chico Triad, a group of scholars from the two local academic institutions that meets monthly to discuss issues of science and faith and presents an annual Science and Religion conference (which will happen in February.) This year’s topic is “Science and Scripture.” I also teach a yearly course on science, using a book I wrote commissioned by the PC(USA) on theology and science, “Creation and Last Things: At the Intersection of Theology and Science.”
- One of my favorite stories comes from a smaller PC(USA) church in Randolph, New York, which emerged at a SinC conference co-sponsored last May with Fuller Theological Seminary on preaching and science called “Talk of God, Talk of Science.” When we interviewed our SinC congregations, the team at Randolph, pastor Leslie Latham and scientist Ruth Wahl commented that, first of all, when they started talking science, the men showed up (who make up only 1/3rd of our PC(USA) congregations) and then said something that demonstrated the importance of having scientists who emerge out of the congregation because they have trust: “Oh, it’s Marie. She taught my kids. She’s not going to do anything anti-Christian.”
When we zoom out to the wider world, we realize that the church has not engaged with one of the most important theories that guide scientific inquiry, and which has stood 150 years of scrutiny, the theory of evolution through natural selection. (Need I add that evolution doesn’t have to embrace Richard Dawkins’ “God doesn’t exist” naturalism?) It’s been a Presbyterian standard for decades that evolutionary science and our confession that God is Creator are compatible: “Neither Scripture, our Confession of Faith, nor our Catechisms, teach the Creation of man by the direct and immediate acts of God so as to exclude the possibility of evolution as a scientific theory.” That’s one of our General Assembly’s “Selected Theological Statements” from 1969. It’s still good 45 years later.
Along those lines, a recent Pew research poll on evolution revealed stunning truths: 60% of the U.S. population believes that human beings and other living things evolved over time. While only 27% of white evangelical Protestants concur, 78% of white mainline Protestants accept evolution in this sense. (I want to add a disclaimer: I’m not sure why Pew focused on “white Protestants,” but that’s what they did. Nevertheless, the numbers are revealing.) My own background — with this combo of a mainline Protestant willingness to dialogue with all forms of knowledge, an evangelical love for Scripture and personal renewal in Christ, and a passion for “mere Christianity” or the “faith once delivered” — leads me to this conclusion: Mainliners must not let go of our engagement with legitimate science as a faithful calling (which the vast majority of our congregants hold to), while the evangelical voice in the PC(USA) needs to jettison any refusal to countenance true science and at the same time can keep us all true to the confession of the authority of Scripture and that Christ is Lord and Head of the Church. These strands have deep roots in the PC(USA). All together, they qualify as good news for us … and the Church Universal.
GREG COOTSONA is associate pastor of adult discipleship at Bidwell Presbyterian Church. You can read about Scientists in Congregations on their Facebook page (and soon their revised website) or about Greg on his blog: cootsona.blogspot.com.