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Science and the Evangelical Mission in America, Part 2

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May 29, 2010 Tags: Pastoral Voices
Science and the Evangelical Mission in America, Part 2

Today's entry was written by Ken Wilson. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

This is the second entry of a three-part series which was adapted from an article of the same name. The full article is available at Qideas.org, and the first entry can be found here.

Feeling Out of Place

Few evangelical leaders in the United States, when pressed, would insist that rejecting evolutionary science or climate science is part of the cost of discipleship—especially when leading a person of blue sensibility to faith in Jesus. It’s just that they don’t get the chance to do this very often, because evangelical churches are populated with people who dispute the modern scientific consensus.1 This in turn, creates a cultural climate that is unfriendly to other views, and without intending to be, unfriendly to the people who hold these views.

Culture is everywhere, which makes it easy to ignore. We are most powerfully affected by culture when we are least aware of it, especially in our own faith community settings. When a person with blue sensibilities walks into a cultural setting dominated by a red sensibility, it doesn’t take long for that person to feel out of place. If Rush Limbaugh is quoted sympathetically, they feel out of place. If environmentalists are the butt-end of off-hand jokes, they feel out of place. If there’s a crackle in the atmosphere when the word “evolution” is mentioned, they feel out of place.

They may not be politically active, or scientifically literate, or feel like they have a dog in the global warming controversy. All they know is that they feel out of place, because they identify with a different crowd than this. Rare is the person who says, “I may be out of step with these people culturally, but I need their gospel.” The gospel often takes time to seep in, and they will be long gone before that ever happens.

The gospel is God’s homecoming message, but many people who don’t share a red sensibility feel out of place, marginalized, even condemned in that part of the American religious landscape named after the gospel—evangelicalism. What do people do when they feel out of place in a place? They leave the place. But even more to the point, they avoid coming to the place in the first place. People of blue sensibilities are not coming to our churches in droves. The people for whom the churches are built are not coming.

This reality places a burden on those of us who care about the gospel to examine our cultural assumptions, as any good missionary must do. Is it necessary to insist that men wear ties when they come to church? Is contemporary pop music an appropriate medium for honoring God? These questions involve cultural assumptions regarding reverence. They are easy assumptions to examine because, for the most part, cherished beliefs are not at stake; plus previous generations have done the heavy lifting on moving these sacred cows out of the gospel’s way.

Playing Defense Against Science

But the assumptions fueling our defensive posture toward modern science are more difficult to examine; perhaps this is the reason we’ve taken so long to get around to it. Especially when it comes to evolutionary science, a great deal seems to be at stake. American fundamentalism is the common ancestor of most American evangelicals. This movement was energized in reaction to the teachings of Charles Darwin in science along with the rise of higher criticism in Protestant theology. Fierce opposition to evolution lies at the heart of American fundamentalism; it is an aspect of fundamentalism that has never been directly examined or challenged by the modern evangelical movement in America.

We don’t examine our cultural assumptions in a cultural vacuum. We examine them as we find ourselves—embedded in a particular culture. Even though I am an evangelical pastor who never felt at home with young earth creationism, I hesitated to address this issue from the pulpit. I knew I was part of a quiet minority within my evangelical family and had little cultural incentive to rock the boat, even to provide a safe haven for those escaping a flood of judgment.

Invariably, when I speak to evangelicals about this, I field a flurry of objections regarding the scientific evidence for evolution and climate change. Typically, questioners ignore the missional case I am making, and instead focus on disputing the science. I enjoy a good recreational debate as much as any thoughtful evangelical, and more often than not, I get sucked into these discussions. And there are appropriate times and places to have these discussions. But when we do, more often than not, we are not thinking like evangelical missionaries. We are thinking like good American culture warriors who love nothing better than to replay the debates that can be found on any cable news channel.

As an evangelical missionary, all I really want to do is to advocate for a shift in the burden of proof that we bring to these scientific questions. Given the missional implications of a defensive posture toward science, we have a compelling reason to examine our views: are they fueled by pure faithfulness to Jesus and the Bible, unadulterated by cultural assumptions that may share nothing in common with Jesus and his book? Can we find a way to approach science less defensively and retain faithfulness to Christ?

As anyone who has served on a jury knows, the burden of proof is an important threshold. How many jury deliberations bog down in lengthy discussions on the meaning of “beyond a reasonable doubt”? Does beyond a reasonable doubt mean beyond a shadow of doubt? Does it mean beyond any doubt? Or is it something less than either? How much less? When you’re serving on a jury—let alone being judged by a jury—a great deal depends on where the burden of proof is set.2

When our perspectives on scientific matters are known to hinder the spread of the gospel among those who most need it, why is it so easy to advance these positions and link them so tightly with faithfulness to the Bible? Why don’t we experience more pause before doing so? Is it really necessary to insist that the early chapters of Genesis were written to convey a scientifically accurate perspective on the origin of species? Are we even considering the missional price that we are paying for this thoroughly modern perspective? Why are we so convinced that climate science is a big hoax, knowing that this perspective makes it more difficult for us to reach the people with the least opportunity to hear the gospel?

Something greater than the science is at stake here. Access to the gospel is at stake.

In his next post, Wilson will discuss steps that the Church needs to take in order to become more missionally effective.


1. Nearly two-thirds of Americans who attend church at least weekly dispute the evolutionary science; presumably the proportion would be even higher in evangelical churches (“Almost Half of Americans Believe Humans Did Not Evolve” by Frank Newport, Gallup News Service, June 05 2006)

2. Think of the threshold for the burden proof as the fulcrum of a lever (picture a see-saw in a schoolyard). If the fulcrum is in the middle, it takes equal weight on each side of the see-saw to balance. If the fulcrum is shifted to one side, that side can maintain balance with less weight. When the burden of proof shifts, so does the weight of the evidence needed to arrive at a given conclusion.

Ken Wilson is senior pastor of Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor and serves on the national board of Vineyard, A Community of Churches. Before entering the pastorate, he worked in community mental health. Ken is the author of Jesus Brand Spirituality: He Wants His Religion Back (Thomas Nelson, 2008) and Mystically Wired: Exploring New Realms in Prayer (Thomas Nelson, May 2010).

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Nick (Matzke) - #15567

May 30th 2010

But my sense of it is that the typical old-earth creationist solution, shared even with theistic evolutionists, is that at whatever key point that “consciousness”/“souls” were created/evolved, right along with that came capacity for sin, guilt, forgiveness, and the rest.  And of course sin soon followed.  I.e. with knowledge of good and evil intrinsically comes capacity for evil.  This is a far more profound reading of Genesis than the literalist one, and contains deep insights even for nontheists.

And it makes far more sense of the idea that the capacity for sin is inherited—whereas strict literalist belief that Adam & Eve’s choice was somehow mystically passed onto their descendents, like some sort of tribal curse, never made a whole lot of sense anyway.

LRH - #15655

May 31st 2010

    So was Jesus seen as “pro Roman” in politics because he did not specifically speak out against Rome’s policy’s or was he pro Jewish political aspirations because he was crucified by Rome? It has to be one way or the other, right? Same way in the pulpit? I do not think it is so simple. The principles Jesus taught cannot be ascribed to any one party because they are apolitical or better yet, they transcend politics. Should not what we are taught in church reflect that, or are WE trying to twist His message just as the jewish leaders did in the days of Jesus?

Alan Fox - #15661

May 31st 2010

Can we find a way to approach science less defensively and retain faithfulness to Christ?

As Nick Matzke says:

“The weird thing is that logically and theologically, the problem is not really that hard—evolution doesn’t really create any new theological problems.”

Science just deals with facts - facts anyone with appropriate skills and equipment can verify. So long as people don’t insist on their own facts, there really is no problem.

Gregory - #15703

May 31st 2010

Evolution *does* create theological problems when it infringes on fields of the Academy that relate to origins, meaning, purpose, and morality.

If you are saying it doesn’t do this, Alan, then I’m willing to agree with you. Otherwise, I think if you look at the misuses of ‘evolution’ in fields ranging from psychology to anthropology, from political science to economics and sociology, then you’ll see that theists are actually right to be cautious about ‘universal evolutionism.’

If you are saying that ‘universal evolutionism’ is wrong, then you’ll need to address recent writings by E.O. and David Sloan Wilson, among others.

And no, Alan, you may be a scientist, but ‘science’ does not *just* deal with facts. It deals with opinions, interpretations, politics, funding, controversies, anomalies and a whole host of other things to boot. Let’s not suggest that ‘science is neutral’ like obsolete objectivists do, o.k.?

Alan Fox - #15726

June 1st 2010

Science is neutral ,done well. Scientists may not be; they are only human after all. That’s why experiments are repeated. Try the converse. Science cannot deal with anything other than real phenomena; it doesn’t have the tools. The scientist is only the messenger and you shouldn’t blame the messenger.

Gregory - #15932

June 2nd 2010


How much philosophy and sociology of science have you read? I doubt very much if you sincerely hold the position expressed in #15726.

Here’s a syllogism for your rational mind to juggle:
A) Science is done by scientists.
B) Scientists are not neutral.
C) Therefore, science is not neutral.

Add to this the question: who interprets the results of science done by scientists?

It is humans-people, who are not neutral.

Surely I am not blaming the ‘messenger.’ I am rather celebrating the messenger. Being ‘only human’ is a great gift of God, wouldn’t you say, Alan?

Alan Fox - #15956

June 2nd 2010

I doubt very much if you sincerely hold the position expressed in #15726.

You doubt my sincerity? Little I can do about that except to tell you that whenever I comment, I write what I honestly believe when write it. If anyone points out factual errors i certainly try to acknowledge and correct them. Opinions and navel gazing are another matter.

I at least extend you the courtesy of not being insincere without evidence to the contrary.

Alan Fox - #15957

June 2nd 2010

Errata: spelling and omission “...extend you the courtesy of not assuming you are insincere…”


How much philosophy and sociology of science have you read?

In the first 55 years of my life, almost nothing; history of science,  quite a lot. Since visiting US blogsites, I have come across a vast amount of philosophical jargon.

Gregory, have you read any Tacitus, Suetonius, Herodotus?

Alan Fox - #15958

June 2nd 2010

@ Gregory:

On the substantive point:

Here’s a syllogism for your rational mind to juggle:
A) Science is done by scientists.
B) Scientists are not neutral.
C) Therefore, science is not neutral.

It may work as logic, but it does not make sense as reality. Science is a method of studying real phenomena. Anyone can do science. Anyone can challenge any result by repeating any experiment. (Cold fusion?). Anyone can propose any hypothesis or interpret any result in any way that makes sense to them. If someone has scientific evidence that the Earth is 6000 years old they can present that evidence. Science is neutral, people are not.

Alan Fox - #15959

June 2nd 2010

PS Gregory

Have you read about Lysenko? The ultimate exercise in fraudulent science resulting in the deaths of innumerable innocent Ukrainians.

Gregory - #15979

June 2nd 2010

Yes, I’ve read quite a bit about Lysenko and I’ve also read Lysenko in English and in Russian.

“Science is a method of studying real phenomena…that is done by human beings.” Why do you forget the fact of practice as if science happens in a vacuum?

Science cannot be ‘neutral’ if it is done by people, who are not neutral. Sorry, Alan, but this is the reality.

Philosophers and sociologists of science have clarified this at length and convincingly through their writings, conference and colleague discussions.

You may not like it, you may wish to play the ‘objectivist scientist.’ That’s fine as a hollywood role. But it is *not* ‘reality.’

p.s. it was not only ‘innocent Ukrainians’ who died due to Lysenko’s science, but also many Russian scientists because of Lysenko’s politics (gotta have a friend in Stalin).

p.p.s. my poor sentence: I wasn’t questioning your sincerity. Should have read: I doubt you’ve read very much Phil-Soc of Science.

p.p.p.s. I could live with ‘Science aims to be objective, but not always…’

Alan Fox - #16002

June 2nd 2010

Science cannot be ‘neutral’ if it is done by people, who are not neutral. Sorry, Alan, but this is the reality.

I disagree, Gregory. Perhaps the disagreement is semantic, but I can certainly separate what scientists do from what scientists are. I’ll compromise on “science is objective; scientists are not” if you like.

PS if you were not questioning my sincerity then please excuse my huffiness.

Alan Fox - #16004

June 2nd 2010

Re Lysenko. I have often wondered whether Stalin was fully aware (even complicit) that Lysenko’s “vernalisation” nonsense was bogus and he saw it as away of enforcing rapid collectivization on the unwilling Ukrainian farming community. Starving and dying peasants are less troublesome. The fact that Lysenko enjoyed a continuing career under Stalin then Khrushchev right seems shameful.

Gregory - #16007

June 2nd 2010

Huffiness excused, Alan. My apology also for the confusion.

“I can certainly separate what scientists do from what scientists are.” - Alan

How do you make this separation? Should I first assume you are a scientist?

Granted, there are some ‘sciences’ which depend more on physical tools (i.e. artefacts), e.g. to perform experiments, than others. But the main point is that human are *always* and unavoidably involved in doing science. Even computer simulation was initially programmed by persons, otherwise it would not work.

Again, PSS has shown that ‘objectivism’ in science is a false idol. ‘Purely objective science’ does not correspond with reality. But like I said, we may aim at it, as an ideal, in some sciences.

I was searching for another quote, but this one get to the point too:
“It is a mistake to think that hermeneutic methods play a role only in the human sciences; in fact, they factor in the physical sciences as well.” - Brian Fay (2006)

ken Wilson - #16198

June 3rd 2010

Response to JHM #15540: Thanks for getting to the nub of my post with this comment: My impression of this post was that it was encouraging “red” churches to become more “blue” in order to reach “blue sensibilities”.  Why would one not just start a “blue” church? If people aren’t comfortable with the political climate of a church, why not find one they will be comfortable in? If you turn your church into a “blue” church, while the “red sensibilities” be comfortable?

The question is: are culturally red evangelicals only interested in reaching those who share their culture, or are they interested in reaching beyond their culture to reach those who have fewer opportunities to hear the gospel?  Surely churches not interested in reaching beyond their current cultural framework, need not. But are they evangelical?

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