A Plea to My Shepherds
Note: Originally posted January 25, 2010.
As I mentioned in my last post, I’m deeply troubled by my fellow conservative evangelicals’ skepticism – even hostility – towards much of modern science, and believe that barring change, this disposition will prove spiritually catastrophic to our children and grandchildren, who are today being taught that assertions of an ancient universe and macro-evolution are unequivocally incompatible with the Cross of Christ, and tomorrow will enroll in universities that powerfully demonstrate the integrity of these scientific claims, thereby setting the stage for devastating crises of faith for countless thousands of young believers.
That said, I genuinely empathize with those who are reluctant to abandon traditional theological concepts for newer, still- developing ones. Given spiritual leaders’ biblical mandate to protect their families and congregations against error, a responsibility for which God will hold them strictly accountable (James 3:1), I respect their refusal to expose their flock to ideologies they regard as conflicting with the Word of God.
I further understand pastors and theologians’ resistance to tethering theology—which is meant to provide a solid epistemological foundation—too closely to that intrinsically dynamic endeavor called science. All humans need ideological stability, perhaps especially so with respect to spiritual matters. Recognizing this, pastors rightly ask why they should abandon or substantially revise an internally-consistent systematic theology that has served the church with relative stability for many hundreds of years. Science, on the other hand, is a realm for adventurers, groundbreakers, and ideological athletes intent on not just polishing or expanding today’s body of knowledge, but shattering it when necessary. Resounding with the jousts and clashes of competing ideas and arguments, and the stunning reversals of ideas once widely held, science often appears to be a messy–even tumultuous–business. Spiritual shepherds are insistent that the epistemological dynamism that necessarily characterizes science never become the mainstay of the Christian experience, which must be fundamentally stable and dependable. They see wisdom in maintaining a safe distance between the Church and the choppy waters of science.
The question, then, is whether the waters of scientific thought, particularly with respect to the age of the earth and evolution, have sufficiently smoothed out to warrant conservative thinkers’ taking a deeper look. Of course, the catch-22 here is that this can’t be answered without actually embarking upon an expedition of exploration and investigation, much as I recently did. Once undertaken, however, the conservative explorer will likely be confronted by a formidable problem:
As I can personally attest, navigating the crowded forum of wildly-differing ideas as to how to resolve the faith-science divide can be terribly daunting. Making this especially disconcerting for the conservative is the sobering reality that amidst the chorus of conflicting theories, one finds very little substantive published input from respected conservative theologians. As a result, the conservative seeker is sure to find herself awash in an ocean of seemingly novel theological “solutions” that are fundamentally antithetical to her evangelical sensibilities. This is likely to result in the impression that there is in fact no way to reconcile the findings of modern science with the key doctrines of orthodox Christianity, and hence the termination of the endeavor. Not only was this dynamic a constant challenge to me, but has proved a stumbling block to many would-be seekers that I personally know.
Whence then change? I believe the breakthrough will begin with a particular subgroup of conservative evangelical pastors, elders, and theologians. I know firsthand that there are many who, truth be told, have not been entirely at peace with their fellow conservatives’ summary rejection of—and apologias against—the findings of mainstream science. They have a gnawing sense that devastation looms for the Church and her children unless detachment yields to engagement, and rhetoric to substance. These have likely admitted to themselves that despite stridently asserting anti-evolution/old-earth views, they actually don’t understand these views in depth (nearly every conservative pastor and elder I’ve spoken with has conceded this). To date, these shepherds and thinkers have remained silent about their misgivings, reluctant to be perceived by their congregations and peers as betraying true Christianity. Given the astonishing fruitfulness of modern science and the comparative barrenness of young-earth creationism, I believe these evangelical leaders may now finally regard themselves as justified in stepping forward and publicly questioning whether the latter is in fact the view that a truth-revealing God would have His people believe.
Indeed, if I may, I would exhort these, my fellow conservative evangelical shepherds and thinkers, to set aside all reticence and fear, emerge from anonymity, and storm the forum of discourse, engaging this most pressing matter with vigor, equanimity, and humility. In doing so, know upfront that there will be few handrails to guide; you will not be building upon an extensive precedence of published conservative thought. Rather, you will be pioneers, with the open prairie of contemplation and consideration before you and the Word of God as a faithful, orienting star. The journey will be at times confounding, often scary, and never without challenge. Yet only through such robust, self-critical analysis will you find yourself in a posture where God can correct and refine all that He would, and only after which will you be able to pass on to your flocks a cogent, truly harmonious portrait of our Lord and His Creation that finds rich consistency between His written and natural revelations. I firmly believe that the fuller, more deeply informed portrait of the Lord and His universe that emerges from this investigation will fill your congregations with an unprecedented new sense of awe at our beloved God as Creator, and profoundly enhance their worship of Him. This has certainly been the result of my own journey.