Southern Baptist Voices: Looking Back and Looking Ahead
Laying the groundwork for a better interaction between science and Christianity begins with gathering together to worship, study, and think, despite our differences.
Kenneth Keathley and I first met in June, 2011, when I was leading BioLogos and he was responsible for academic programs at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Many Southern Baptist scholars believe the universe is less than ten thousand years old and virtually all are opposed to evolution—the notion of God having created all life forms, including humans, through a process that includes common descent from microbial life. BioLogos, on the other hand, is an organization specifically dedicated to showing that mainstream science—including evolutionary biology—and a conservative biblically-grounded Christian faith are fully compatible. With our respective institutional affiliations, one would have expected Dr. Keathley and I to be at opposite poles in the science and faith dialogue, and on some issues we were. Yet in the brief time we had together that day, we came to see that on the matters that were most fundamental to our Christian faith, we weren’t poles apart at all. Because we were both followers of Jesus who fully respected the Bible as the divinely inspired Word of God, the ties that bound us together were stronger than the forces which seemed to push us apart.
Still, we could not ignore those forces that were pushing us apart: Dr. Keathley had legitimate concerns about theistic evolution1 and we both believed it important to reflect on those concerns. In response to our conversation, I wrote the following note to him a few days after our initial meeting:
I am very concerned that we (those who are less skeptical about mainstream science) be thinking along with leaders like yourself about the theological issues in a respectful, indeed earnestly prayerful manner. I think we very much need the help of conservative theologians. We cannot rerun the slide towards a watered-down liberal Christianity! I also sensed that you would be willing to listen and explore with us how best to engage mainstream science in a manner different than most evangelicals have done so far.
With those aims of true dialogue in mind, I proposed that Dr. Keathley request a set of articles from his colleagues which would outline their concerns about the evolutionary creation view. The series, which included a set of BioLogos responses to the essays from the Southern Baptist theologians, began in March on 2012 and has continued intermittently throughout the year.
I am grateful to Dr. Keathley for arranging the submission of these papers, and to the authors for taking the time to articulate their concerns. As we have developed our responses, our own thinking has been clarified and this has given us an opportunity to outline our commonalities as well as our differences. I think each of us—Southern Baptist scholars and evolutionary creation scholars alike—would agree that we are nowhere near as far apart as we had thought. Indeed, I think a significant portion of what was perceived as a gulf separating us was due to the fact that we at BioLogos had not yet laid out our positions clearly enough, not least because BioLogos itself has been growing, adapting, and finding our place in the public square. Indeed, we have changed some of our focus as we have carefully weighed the concerns raised by our Southern Baptist colleagues and others to whom we want to be accountable as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Now, along with this overview of the project, we shared the last article of this series. Written in the Fall of 2011 by Dr. Steve Lemke, provost at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, it shows just how far we’ve come in clarifying our positions and addressing key issues other believers have about evolutionary creation. Virtually all of the issues that Dr. Lemke raised at that point have now been addressed in our responses to previous posts in the series. As you read his article, you’ll see highlighted phrases that are followed by responses to each point from the other articles in the series. Indeed, I think Dr. Lemke’s article is a great ending for the series; it re-states clearly both the major concerns and the misconceptions that many evangelical Christians have about evolutionary creation.
This final piece in the Southern Baptist Voices Series is also a fitting ending to my term as the as President of The BioLogos Foundation. My goal in leading the organization for these past three and a half years has been to lay the groundwork to help my fellow evangelicals see that the conflict between our faith and mainstream science is not as great as many perceive it to be. In the process, my thinking has been significantly shaped by listening to people who think differently than I do. Some of the people I came to respect and admire the most still believe the universe is less than ten thousand years old. Others believe it is old, but they do not believe that God created life’s diversity through the evolutionary process, and they don’t believe in common descent. Though I think they are wrong about those important facts (even as they think I am wrong about the findings of mainstream science), I have appreciated my interaction with them. After all, laying the groundwork for a more fruitful interaction between science and evangelical Christianity begins with gathering together at the Table to worship, to pray, to study, to think, and to be a manifestation of God’s love together, especially in and through our differences.
We believe that the Southern Baptist Voices project should and will continue, and we’re currently in conversation about the best steps to take to ensure that it does. Moreover there are several other important projects of this sort that have not been quite so visible—at least on the website—and I remain very enthusiastic about them as well. One of my favorite projects has been carried out in conjunction with my colleagues at Point Loma Nazarene University: our annual week-long workshop for fifty Christian school science teachers. Another is our work alongside of our brothers and sisters in Christ at Reasons to Believe. This kind of cooperation—between BioLogos and those who think quite differently about creation than we do—is important for the Church’s witness to our Creator and Savior; the foundation is now in place and we’ll be able to build upon it going forward—laying out our similarities and differences together, rather than building walls between us.
Looking back, leading BioLogos at this very critical junction in the history of the Church has been the greatest privilege of my career. A couple of weeks ago I was with my 96 year old father and we were going through some of his old files. We found a reference to a dream he had in September, 1977, while I was a brand-new Assistant Professor at Syracuse University. At the time, my career as a molecular geneticist was focused on trying to understand how genes worked in engineering the process of development from a fertilized egg. My father dream was that I had made an all-important discovery about the nature of life. Like most dreams, it never came true in the way he expected it might. But a few weeks later in mid-October 1977, I decided to visit a small evangelical church—a move I thought might be my last desperate attempt to find a church for my family and me that would equip me to function as both a scientist and an evangelical Christian: before that day I had all but given up my search for such a community. Yet it was finding that church, not something that happened (or ever could happen) in my lab, that constituted my single most important discovery about the nature of life. Much better than my father’s dream about genes, I discovered there was room for people like me in a Bible-focused church after all.
The Church must not lose its scientists and its many university-educated young people who go on to accept the findings at the core of biology, geology, physical anthropology and astronomy. But we who accept the foundations of these disciplines need the Church to affirm and hold fast to the centrality of Scripture and the truths of the faith, even as the Church, in turn, needs to listen closely to what science has to say about the creation we scientists study so intricately.
I continue to be in regular dialog with people who are somewhat leery about those science textbooks, and I have come to understand the basis of that leeriness. It is not that the science books are wrong, it’s that we scientists have done a somewhat lousy job of sitting down with those who are not scientists and talking about the contents of those books; moreover, it is that we scientists have done too much talking to each other and not enough listening to the legitimate concerns that others raise. We now need to move towards a new reality—a reality which begins with conversation.
That’s what this Southern Baptist series has been about. I know of no better way to end my leadership role in BioLogos than with the final posting of this series. However, even this ending is just the beginning. For all of us, the real work lies up ahead—just around the next bend.
Dr. Lemke’s essay may be found here. Please keep in mind that it was written about fourteen months ago, before the series began. Together with the work of all of the Southern Baptist scholars, this essay shows how important it has been to clarify our positions. Again, as you read the essay, each highlighted section is followed by a response. In each case, the comment will show where one of the previous BioLogos responses in this series has addressed the point Dr. Lemke has made. This does not mean that the matter is settled—not by any stretch. It simply means that we’re thinking about the issues he raises and it shows some of our thoughts so far.
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