July 19 2024

Mutual Respect for the Common Good: Faith and Science in Graduate Theological Education

by Paul Louis Metzger, Multnomah University

Prefatory miniature from a moralized Bible of "God as architect of the world", folio I verso, Paris ca. 1220–1230. Ink, tempera, and gold leaf on vellum 1' 1½" × 8¼". Public Domain.

Mutual Respect: An Endangered or Emerging Species?

The Bible instructs us that God is not a “respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34–35, KJV). In other words, God does not show partiality or play favorites. If we seek to be like God, we should not be respecters of persons either. However, given how pervasive incivility and tribalism are today, a biblical text like this can easily be distorted to mean we should have no respect for persons, at least not those outside our group or guild. Just as the biological sciences warn us of the perils of driving species to premature extinction, a biblical perspective on the fabric of contemporary American society should alert us to the fact that mutual respect appears to be an endangered species.

This problem of disrespect surfaces time and again in the faith and science conversation, including in Evangelical Christian circles. Multnomah Biblical Seminary (MBS), through the Institute for Cultural Engagement: New Wine, New Wineskins, decided to address this conflict. And so, MBS applied for a grant through the Science for Seminaries project.

MBS’s aim to address the conflict involving disrespect for science, or certain domains of science, was no easy task. After all, the Fundamentalist movement from which Evangelical seminaries like Multnomah emerged viewed Darwinian thought forms with deep suspicion and consternation going all the way back to the Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925. MBS made mention of this historic problem in the grant proposal. Many fundamentalist and progressive Christians waged war over science, as highlighted at the trial. George Marsden wrote, “It would be difficult to overestimate the impact” of this trial “in transforming fundamentalism.”1

We at MBS wished to do everything possible in our context to transform the conflict involving faith and science into a constructive enterprise. After all, it was not a problem relegated to the distant past. We at MBS were convinced that the decision made by many millennials to leave their churches was in part the result of this conflict, real or imagined. David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, highlighted this perception in a book chronicling why many young people are departing. The following statement says it all: “I knew from church that I couldn’t believe in both science and God, so that was it. I didn’t believe in God anymore.”2 This was especially true for those who wished to pursue careers in the sciences. Indifference or vilification over their envisioned vocation made it difficult for them to remain. If that perception of conflict continues, mutual respect might not be the only endangered species under consideration. So, too, the Evangelical Christian movement in North America might be endangered as well.

As my colleagues Deborah Gin and Curtis Baxter mention in their essays, the research clearly indicates that many people of faith, especially Evangelical Christians, go to their spiritual leaders—such as pastors—with questions regarding science. All too often, however, the latter are ill-equipped to address scientific issues. When the faith community is uninformed on pressing cultural issues, it negatively impacts the church’s witness in a scientific age. The Science for Seminaries project provides a timely opportunity for seminaries like ours to become safe places for equipping students pursuing pastoral ministry to accompany the faithful in their own struggle to sort through both the merely apparent and very real tensions inherent in the faith-science dialectic. In particular, given our context in a very liberal and progressive city, and because Intel, Tektronix, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, and Oregon Health and Science University are located nearby, it behooved us to apply for the grant.

Upon receiving news of our successful application, MBS’s faculty and administration began work with our scientific advisors and theological mentors to advance our proposal in the most advantageous way. We developed the project in view of the following aim: to cultivate informed respect between faith and science and, where possible, to foster integration.

Challenging the “Conflict Thesis” One Class at a Time

Our approach to the subject was multifaceted, including core courses throughout the master of divinity degree curriculum. We wished to challenge many reigning presuppositions that foster the so-called “conflict thesis” which maintains that post-Enlightenment science and Christian faith are ultimately incompatible. For example, given the way in which some Christians within the Fundamentalist-Evangelical movement approach the creation narratives in Genesis, we thought it important to show in a Pentateuch course how our modern cosmologies often get in the way of what the biblical world envisions in conversation with ancient cosmologies.

Moreover, we deemed it important to show the merits of neurological study for enhancing effective pastoral care. Along with a course in pastoral theology, we hosted several forums at area churches on a variety of related themes. Contrary to the assumption in certain Fundamentalist circles that we were creating atheists through the grant initiative, we assisted pastors and pastors-in-training with retaining and revitalizing their congregants. The training encouraged scientifically minded congregants and brought science to bear on matters of mental and emotional health. Similarly, four courses spanning contemporary theology, ethics, and cultural engagement aimed to show how important and missionally meaningful it is for pastors to become more adept at engaging scientific issues with informed respect. As conservative Christians become more irenic and respectful of scientific exploration and its merits for human flourishing, the church may be viewed increasingly as an ally for cultivating the common good in society at large.

Four courses in historical theology helped to challenge the conflict thesis. The Christian faith through the centuries has demonstrated robust and varied attempts at engaging scientific themes. Far from supporting the conflict thesis proclaimed by secular and religious dogmatists respectively, the sweep of history reflects a never-ending process of promoting scientific inquiry while prizing orthodox Christian doctrine. Here it is worth noting that, contrary to the reigning historiography among some young earth creationist groups, the nineteenth-century Christian response to Darwin was far from uniform, with some respondents being quite positive and supportive. Moreover, it was shown that many of the early Fundamentalists were gap theorists, which involved the idea that the universe was actually very old. Students quickly came to realize that, whether we are talking about Draper and White or creation science, those who control the historical terms of debate, no matter how flawed their assessment, also control and shape to a large degree the contemporary discourse on these issues.

Along with the forums at area churches, New Wine, New Wineskins hosted a major conference titled “Church and Science: Partners for the Common Good.” The conference brought together scientists, historians, biblical scholars, theologians, and philosophers. The conference aim and topics selected for consideration reflected well on MBS’s entire grant enterprise. The aim of the conference was to foster a constructive dialogue involving faith and science in contemporary society. Participants noted that two distinct dimensions of American culture are a keen spiritual intuition on the one hand, and a passionate pursuit of scientific inquiry on the other. We tackled head-on the perception that these two domains are always in conflict with one another. While acknowledging that some conflict is inevitable in any discourse involving very different disciplines, it is important to try and build bridges of respectful understanding between the faith and science communities. We recognized that nothing less than human flourishing and the common good are at stake.

The conference organizers chose to highlight the following themes: a keen awareness of the history of faith and science; hermeneutical humility involving biblical interpretation related to scientific questions; literacy with respect to the scientific method; and a commitment to the art of pursuing common values shared by the faith and science communities in the midst of tension. The long-term goal of the conference was in keeping with the MBS seminary grant as a whole: to foster respectful, informed dialogue between the church and science, and where possible, integration of the two spheres for the common good. Two issues of New Wine’s journal, Cultural Encounters: A Journal for the Theology of Culture, were dedicated to the conference themes.

Embracing Difficulties for the Common Good

If one wishes to avoid important but highly sensitive areas of inquiry, one might not suffer any short-term losses. But the long-term costs can be devastating. In our estimation, it was best not to avoid the difficult conversations, but to embrace them in an attempt to transform the narrative involving faith and science. It was important, however, that we did not approach the problem hastily, throwing all caution to the wind. The best way to proceed courageously yet cautiously is in community.

As I alluded to above, the guiding ethos of the Science for Seminaries praxis at MBS was a commitment to cultivate and inhabit a spirit of respect between different individuals, groups, and guilds. Equally important was the imperative to cultivate respect and trust within one’s own group. Our accrediting body, the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) shows great respect for the respective family trees or “ecclesial families” of Christian seminary education in North America. In no way, shape, or form did ATS or American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) seek to alter MBS’s Protestant Evangelical Christian beliefs and values. Rather, both ATS and AAAS encouraged us to honor our seminary’s distinctive doctrinal beliefs and mission, vision, and values. How else could we serve the pastors-in-training who represent our heritage? The focus on incorporating science into our curriculum was not to make us something we are not, but to make us better at who we are and what we do as Evangelical Christians.

In addition to honoring our Evangelical movement and seminary’s heritage, we also respected the wisdom of administrators at Multnomah as well as of the institution’s outside consultants. These advisors urged us to create and disseminate FAQs at the time of the official press release for our Science for Seminaries initiative. In this way, we were able to alleviate the fears of well-meaning people who were willing to dialogue with us about the grant rather than dismiss it out of hand. Unfortunately, some individuals in the surrounding community refused to reason with us, but instead hastily dismissed the project and made inappropriate demands. Gratefully, our president and board of trustees advocated for us and stayed the course. The old saying “It takes a whole village to raise a child” can be extended here to read “It takes a whole academic institution to raise a grant” to successful completion.

Contrary to what some Evangelicals feared, we were not attempting to turn our Christian seminarians into atheists, thereby confirming a long-standing bias in certain circles that a “seminary is a cemetery.” The faculty incorporated science into core classes of the curriculum with the substantial counsel of scientists and theological educators already well-versed in faith and science discourse. Through these various individuals, key institutional stakeholders, and the collaborative endeavors of the faith and science guilds, we were able to complete our Science for Seminaries grant in a very satisfactory manner.

The various criticisms and challenges that we endured paled in comparison with the long-term benefits. Far from losing our faith, the Science for Seminaries grant increased our sense of wonder in the mystery of creation along with intellectual humility. We also learned how to approach misunderstandings generated by the conflict thesis in progressively redemptive and complexifying terms for the sake of historic Evangelical Christian witness.3 As we engaged fears and criticisms of the Science for Seminaries initiative with the aim of positive institutional and cultural transformation, we helped model for our student body a meaningful way forward as they serve their church communities. Only as they transform presumed faith and science conflicts in respectful and creative ways will they be able to equip their congregants for effective ministry in a scientific age.

1 George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism — 1870–1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 184.

2 David Kinnaman, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…And Rethinking Faith (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011), 138.

3 John Brooke’s complexity thesis has gained increasing ground not simply in the professional guild of history of science, but also in our own Evangelical circles. Even so, much more work needs to be done to debunk the conflict thesis in other domains in the surrounding society, “not least in the popular mind.” Gary B. Ferngren, ed. Science & Religion: A Historical Introduction (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), x.

Paul Lous MetzgerPaul Louis Metzger, PhD is professor of Christian theology and theology of culture and director of the Institute for Cultural Engagement: New Wine, New Wineskins at Multnomah University and Multnomah Biblical Seminary in Portland, Oregon. His published works include: The Word of Christ and the World of Culture: Sacred and Secular through the Theology of Karl Barth (Eerdmans, 2003); Exploring Ecclesiology: An Evangelical and Ecumenical Introduction (Brazos, 2009); Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths (Thomas Nelson, 2012); and Evangelical Zen: A Christian’s Spiritual Travels with a Buddhist Friend (Patheos, 2015). He is the editor of Cultural Encounters: A Journal for the Theology of Culture and blogs regularly at his Patheos column titled Uncommon God, Common Good. He has a wide range of research and teaching interests including: Trinitarian theology; theology of culture; ethics; faith and science; and multifaith discourse involving interdisciplinary work in realms like social psychology.