Congregational Conversations

By Hofmann, Carl S. | The Christian Century, August 5, 2015 | Go to article overview

Congregational Conversations


Hofmann, Carl S., The Christian Century


THE PROGRAM Scientists in Congregations, funded by the John Templeton Foundation, sought to cultivate a conversation on science and faith within congregations. About 35 congregations participated. We asked some pastors who were involved to describe their experience and what they learned.

We called our effort the Pascal Project in honor of Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), the brilliant French mathematician often considered the first thinker to seriously consider the intersection of faith with the natural sciences. First, we recruited a group of 25 people who were interested in the topic. Calling ourselves the Pascal Forum, we read several recent books and met roughly once a month for lectures, video presentations, and discussion.

Toward the end of the first year, teams drawn from the forum met with groups in the congregation, ranging from the ushers to the confirmation class. The teams shared what they were learning in the forum and asked members what issues of science and faith were most interesting or troubling to them.

Reflecting on these conversations, the forum designed the third phase of the Pascal Project: a series of lectures open to the surrounding community as well as the congregation. These lectures were well attended and consistently engaging. They also led us to some conversations and conclusions that I and many other participants did not expect.

We found, for example, that brain science, not evolution, is the cutting-edge discipline in the conversation on science and religion. New questions posed by brain science include, Is there a God gene--a predisposition bred into our species by evolution to believe in a transcendent and unseen reality? Would such a gene be evidence for God? We also learned that there is a fascinating debate within brain science about the extent to which human beings actually exercise free will.

The seminars led many of us to a more nuanced understanding of Darwin. Many participants who thought they had reconciled evolution and their faith in God found themselves having to ask troubling questions about the terms of divine creation-by-evolution. "Survival of the fittest" implies a process strewn with pain, suffering, unnumbered individual deaths, and serial mass extinctions. How does a believer reconcile that process with a creator God of love and compassion?

Many of us were fascinated with what scientists often refer to as the "fine-tuning" of the universe. We found these cosmological discussions fascinating and to some extent faith affirming. We were also warned, however, about the danger of positing another "god of the gaps"--a god who merely occupies the space of human ignorance about the cosmos.

An overarching impression gained by members of both our congregation and the larger community is that the discussion has not been served well by the popular media, which often reduce issues to a naive dichotomy, misrepresenting the intellectual complexities and spiritual nuances.

--Michael Lindvall, pastor at the Brick Presbyterian Church in New York City

St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church launched its program in science and faith by forming a planning committee of scientists and pastors, which in turn developed a series of programs aimed at youth and adults. Scientists within the congregation shared the work they do and their views on the areas of potential compatibility of science and faith. We also brought in topflight scientists to discuss the relationship between science and religion. They covered a number of hot-button issues: God and origins, evolution and creation, what it means to be alive, what it means to be human, and how--and why--we should think about the relationship between science and faith. We developed and implemented a six-week adult education course, a four-week youth class, and a four-week sermon series, in addition to hosting four large-scale events for the community.

Some people worried that congregation members would perceive a threat to their views--especially views about the creation and the historical Adam and Eve. …

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