Photo by Ken McAllister
Why Science Matters at Regent College
With the receipt of a Templeton Foundation grant in 2009, Regent College embarked on a Pastoral Science program to make sophisticated scientific knowledge accessible to non-scientists like pastors and lay people, believing that scientific understanding can actually foster Christian growth in that it makes us human persons "fully alive." The program now enters a new phase as its resources become incorporated into Regent’s Marketplace Institute.
"When I sit and doodle, when a meeting is boring or whatever," says Ross Hastings, Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Regent College, "this is the kind of stuff I doodle." The norbornadiene molecule or the cyclohexane molecule.
Sketching one on a notepad, he explains that the cyclohexane ring can appear in either a "chair" form or a "boat" form. It has six carbon atoms, each with its own hydrogen atoms, and in reality oscillates between these two structures. "Creation has been created beautifully," he remarks.
While the average lecture-goer may not be inclined to doodle complex molecules, Ross Hastings has a PhD in theology and another in organometallic chemistry. He is particularly interested in the insights that trinitarian theology can provide for the science-theology interface, and in the work of John Polkinghorne especially. He was a co-leader with Jennie McLaurin, former Dean of Students, of the Pastoral Science program at Regent College, which was designed to help transform the dialogue between theology and science.
COSMOS: REFAITHING SCIENCE
The Pastoral Science initiative was funded by the John Templeton Foundation’s Science for Ministry Program, with the goal of vigorously educating pastors on scientific topics. The Templeton Foundation approached Regent in 2008 to initiate the in-house program and funding was secured for three years (2009–2011).
When the grant expired, the Pastoral Science project continued to run on a skeleton budget—it was just too important to let go. But in the past year, the Marketplace Institute (MI) at Regent took over the management of the program and its website Cosmos: reFaithing Science. Over the next few months, the best of the Cosmos website, which published an extensive collection of resources and articles, will be moved to the MI’s Ideas and Media section. Believing that scientific understanding can foster Christian growth, the MI, along with Ross Hastings and the rest of the College, will continue to make sophisticated scientific knowledge accessible to non-scientists like pastors and lay people.
But it’s really the Pastoral Science program that built the firm foundation for the current work at Regent in the area of science and faith. The program was founded on the firm belief that "science and theology are not opposed" and that "creation is best understood through learning from both God's word and God's world." The program brought together cohorts of twelve to fifteen pastors each year, intentionally chosen to represent a diversity of gender, denomination, and nationality. Cohorts convened for a week-long module at Rosewoods or on Galiano Island, BC, followed by monthly conference calls, and were charged with spreading their new knowledge to a wider base of pastors, youth workers, and students.
Content experts included prominent scientists Bem Culiat and Mark Henkelman, who explained topics like human genetics, evolutionary biology, and astrophysics. The lead team comprised theologians, teaching experts, and biblical experts. Iain Provan discussed the proper reading of the creation account in Genesis Chapters 1 and 2. Loren Wilkinson, Paul Teel, Jennie McLaurin, Ross Hastings, and others covered the integration of trinitarian theology and science, the science of origins, creation care, and the need for unity amongst believers when approaching these conversations.
The topic of Christian unity is an important one to Hastings. He was invited to speak on unity at the Vibrant Dance of Science and Faith Symposium in Austin, Texas in 2010. The event, attended by believers of every creation view, facilitated fruitful dialogue on the theology of science and origins. His talk, which has since been republished multiple times, most recently on the Biologos.org forum, began with a quotation from Thomas Merton: "If the truth can be clearly seen it can very well take care of itself. Fear is perhaps the greatest enemy of candour." In light of the growing congruence of theology and science, but also the potential for division that lies therein, Hastings stated: "We Protestants have enough divisions and schisms as it is—we don't need another one based on the speculative matter of how God created. That God created is the confessional issue that must unite us as we dialogue over how God created."
In Hastings’s plenary session at the same conference, Andy Crouch, editor of Christianity Today and author of Culture Making, tweeted his agreement and affirmed Regent’s quality. In his own session, Crouch said, "Christianity and science are like neighbours who share a long, contested border," and called for graceful discourse. "Yet, precisely because of our faith, we are able to engage these significant issues with grace instead of legalism, hope instead of fear, and love for our neighbours, both in the secular world and within the diversity of the Christian community."
Hastings, who was a pastor for twenty years before coming to Regent, says his interest in Christian unity on the dialogue of origins comes from serving churches in which all shades of opinion were present. Today, he charges both congregants and scientists to be fearless discoverers of truth.
"Fledgling Christian scientists (or lay people for that matter) may pursue truth fearlessly in careers in science, assured that no discovery will ever surprise or outsmart the cosmic Christ. In light of this, it is only appropriate for Christians to develop a curiosity for knowledge about creation and science that will evoke a sense of wonder and worship," he wrote in a Faith Today article.
THE FAITH-SCIENCE DIVIDE
But when it comes to preaching science, pastors are often quickly absorbed with the hermeneutics of Genesis and science, particularly in light of the Big Bang and evolutionary theory. The Pastoral Science program states that harmony depends on a proper reading of Genesis, taking into account both its literary genre and intent.
"The best answer science can give us at the moment is evolution," says Hastings. "Many people believe that God may have used evolution as his way of creating, and that’s compatible with Genesis 1 and 2—when it’s properly interpreted," he emphasizes.
"The point of view of the literal six-day creation, that the earth was created 6,000 years ago, clearly violates science," he continues. "The earth is most definitely old, we know that with a pretty high level of assurance, and the fossil record is strong. People will say, 'evolution is just a theory.'" He becomes animated, his Scottish brogue more discernible. "Well sorry, it’s not just a theory. In science, a hypothesis doesn’t reach the level of a theory without a lot of evidence and reproducibility or the ability to predict results."
So how is that accounted for if you believe in a literal six-day creationism?
"You can't account for that," answers Hastings. "And so we end up with a warfare model. But if you interpret the creation account properly, if you listen to scholars like Iain Provan and Bruce Waltke, you will hear them say Genesis 1 is in a genre that is not a scientific genre. It wasn't written to answer the questions we ask of it in our modern day. As Iain [Provan] says, 'It has nothing to do with chronology, but everything to do with theology.'"
Paraphrasing Provan further, he continues: "The six days are not meant to be taken as a literal six days. In fact, there are many ancient Near Eastern stories of creation that share a great similarity with Genesis."
But Genesis 1 and 2 is different from the ancient Near Eastern records, says Hastings, because God is the source of creation.
"It's not as if you have God and creation, or God and the disorder of creation, like two equal forces in the universe, which is what you find in the Near Eastern view," explains Hastings. "It's actually God who is controlling, God who is drawing out of the disorder, taking the tohu vav bohu—'without form and void'—and crafting it and shaping it. It's a theology of God who is both distinct from creation and yet Lord over it and vitally engaged in it."
"So trusted OT scholars like Iain Provan and others are suggesting that [the Genesis creation account] was never intended for a literalistic interpretation," continues Hastings. "But that's not to say there aren't lots of questions to be asked—huge questions to be asked—and this is where humility comes about. The Biologos.org website is very helpful in seeking to answer some of the harder questions. But if evolution is true—that God created by evolution—then evolution isn't dysteleological. It's not just random chance. God is working carefully with it. He is involved all the time."
Competing creation theories have always persisted amongst believers: Young Earth Creationism, Old Earth Creationism, Intelligent Design (ID), and evolutionary creation. Earliest debates reach back to Augustine, who in the fourth century A.D. questioned whether the Genesis account was not intended as a literal text, but an allegorical one. He was certain the days could not be literal 24-hour-days because God would not need that long to bring things into being—Augustine was a fiat creationist. Despite these differences, all Christians agree that God created the heavens and the earth and that he is continually active in the universe, though they differ on the extent of that activity.
Theistic evolutionists, or better, evolutionary creationists, believe God used evolution to create all life on earth. Young Earth Creationists hold to a literal interpretation of the Genesis account, believing that the earth is between 6,000 and 10,000 years old based on biblical genealogies. Old Earth Creationists believe in a literal account as well, but allow for the interpretation of "days" to mean very long periods of time, or long gaps between those days, to explain scientific consensus of an old earth. Intelligent Design theorists accept some or all of evolutionary science, but believe certain complex features of the universe are best explained by an intelligent, external guide, and not a wholly self-contained and undirected process like evolution.
"The difference between evolutionary creation and Intelligent Design," states Hastings, is that Intelligent Design suggests that "every now and then God needs to intervene. But this begs the question, 'Where is He the rest of the time?' The trouble with the 'God of the Gaps' theory is if you say, 'There's a gap here, we're going to invoke God into this gap,' and then science discovers what the gap really is about, and then we're in trouble."
One example of such a "gap" is the recent discovery of the Higgs boson by the CERN scientists in Switzerland. The elusive "god particle," which substantiates the Standard Model of physics (describing the events immediately after the Big Bang occurred), is made from twelve sub-atomic particles that provide the building blocks for all matter. Before CERN's announcement last summer, eleven of the particles had been proven in scientific experiments, but not the Higgs boson. Finding the Higgs boson explains the origin of mass, meaning the ability of particles to bind together and form planets and stars. But prior to the discovery, a missing element like this may have simply been explained by ID theorists as God's intervening orchestration.
"Evolutionary creationists [on the other hand]," insists Hastings, "believe that God is there all the time, at work, supervising the process."
On that day of the momentous CERN announcement, internet jokes like this one began to appear:"A Higgs boson walks into a church. The priest stops the particle and says, 'We don't allow your kind in here.'
Undeterred, the particle responds: 'But without me, you can't have mass!'"
Which seems to condense, with great humour, much of the faith-science tension at present.
AWAY FROM THE HOT SPOTS, TOWARDS UNITY
But efforts through the Pastoral Science program to diffuse those tensions between Christian faith and science are already multiplying and producing fruit. The primary terms for participation of all cohort members was a commitment to go forth, after completing the program, and to share their new scientific knowledge within their existing faith communities and beyond.
"The cohort experience has freed me to preach God's truth in science confidently," says John Van Sloten, founding pastor of New Hope Christian Reformed Church in Calgary, who has been passionately preaching science for years, but found new affirmation in the Pastoral Science program. "When I first heard the talks that Loren Wilkinson, Ross Hastings, and Iain Provan gave, I was trembling as I listened, thinking, 'I'm not the only one who thinks this way.'"
"Change needs to come from the pulpit," adds Van Sloten, whose science sermons were featured in a five-part series on CBC last year.
"All of the sermons I've preached on science so far are on topics that most people wouldn't have too big a beef with: the kidney, our genes, neurons, the hydrology of a river, the human leg. Who's got anything against a human leg?" he asks.
"Too often the church approaches science by diving right into the high-conflict areas," he adds. "I'm thinking it might be better to build up trust in science by starting with texts we all agree on."
"Starting with the hotspots is a problem. By choosing the most complex and most hotly debated starting points—origins, ethics—we doom ourselves to failure. Start simple. Preach a kidney. And preach the pure science of it, not the need for kidney donations," suggests Van Sloten.
However the "hotspots" are all too often where people want to go.
Another program participant, David Opderbeck, learned this shortly after his cohort experience. Opderbeck is professor of law at Seton Hall University and director of the Gibbons Institute of Law, Science and Technology in New Jersey. While preparing an adult education class at his church called "God in Creation," he describes the potential for dialogue to become contentious:
"During one class session I specifically discussed different models for thinking about origins issues, and a group of Young Earth Creationist folks showed up, loaded for bear. It was nerve-wracking, but resulted in good and respectful conversation rather than strife or division," he says. "I couldn't have been at the centre of this sort of thing without my cohort's support."
Opderbeck believes strongly that Christians should be able to converse productively about science. "This is a Great Commission issue," he insists, part and parcel of being able to "offer an account" of the coherent truth of our faith.
"The modern sciences possess extraordinary explanatory power, and the institutions of the modern sciences possess extraordinary cultural power. If the church can't explain how the gospel coheres with what the modern sciences disclose, why should people take the church seriously? In fact, I think this is a significant aspect of the secularization of Western society."
Opderbeck believes the hindrance to this is twofold. "I think there are two basic fears, which many people are even afraid to express," he states. "One: am I losing my faith? And two: does this mean Christianity isn't true after all?"
"Most Christian students I have met are trapped in a black/white dichotomy," echoes Dan Guenther, a cohort participant and campus pastor at Central Washington University. "That is, a Christian must believe in a seven-day creation story, because to believe otherwise means to embrace evolutionary atheism and lose one's faith."
Guenther says that half of his students have a church background, and of those, the majority have a built-in uncertainty about the modern sciences. Most avoid science majors entirely, or take science classes that have limited exposure to questions of earth and human origins.
"I regularly have Christian college students ask me for help in their science classes. Usually they don't know how to participate in the classroom—whether to trust, ignore, or challenge what they learn. Most are evangelical Christians who have unsettled questions about the age of the planet, the fossils in the rocks, and any number of diverse issues in the Bible, which don’t go away. I came to the program after finding that many of these Christians are confused about where to start."
Guenther wants to challenge the church culture that makes faith/science conversations feel unsafe, for two reasons.
"First, Christians ought to be at the forefront of the scientific enterprise. Science is inherently truth-centered, and therefore God-honouring. Christians ought to delight in their role as garden keepers in the creation," he says.
"Second, as St. Augustine points out in his Literal Commentary on Genesis, the way Christians talk about science affects our witness to a non-believing world. We need to act out of informed love. When we act ignorantly, we leave a bitter taste in others' mouths—toward the Bible, and toward the revealed truth of Jesus Christ."
Guenther believes the Pastoral Science program, and its spin-offs, will have a crucial role in encouraging more young Christians to become scientists.
Ross Hastings agrees.
"Christians should, of all people, engage in science fearlessly. Christians should be the most fearless people," he emphasizes with passion.
Hastings expounds on the essential need for believers to recover inquisitiveness and the wonder of being priests of creation. God gave us the ability to discern, to discover the intricate beauty of everything, from the Milky Way Galaxy to a cyclohexane molecule. We should not be afraid of the answers that our inquiring minds will find, but be fearless sky gazers and x-ray crystallographers, reclaiming and cultivating a childlike sense of wonder and awe.
"Christians need have no fear of engaging in the world of science, for we should have no fear of truth. The truth ascertained from special revelation, when properly interpreted, and the truth from creation cannot ultimately contradict, for God is the author of both. We are simply worshippers of the Storyteller behind the cosmic story," concludes Hastings.