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Science and the Pulpit:
Ministering to Scientifically Literate People

Here are pitfalls to avoid and positive approaches to take when speaking about science from the pulpit.

By Christina M.H. Powell

Introduction

We live in a world of specialization and technological sophistication. Long gone are the days of the Renaissance when Christian leaders were as well-versed in matters of science as they were in matters of Scripture. Yet pastors without training in the sciences find themselves addressing topics at the intersection of faith and science.

Scientific advances raise bioethical issues that deserve input from spiritual leaders. Popular secular authors claim that science can provide moral guidance and displace the need for faith. Parishioners and church visitors with technical backgrounds wonder how to integrate scientific knowledge and Christian theology. Pastors who address these concerns provide helpful guidance to their congregations. Yet cultural misunderstandings and historical inaccuracies often conspire to derail positive dialogue about matters of faith and science.

In the first part of this article I describe three pitfalls pastors need to avoid when speaking about science from the pulpit. To provide insight into the origins of these unhelpful approaches to conversations about faith and science, I offer a brief review of the historical relationship between theology and scientific thought. In the second half of this article, I propose three positive approaches to speaking about science from the pulpit. Each approach can form the basis for useful dialogue about matters of faith and science in a variety of ministry settings beyond the pulpit, such as counseling sessions and conversations with those interested in learning more about the Christian faith. Taken together, these three approaches form a philosophy for productively ministering to scientifically literate people.

Avoid Promoting Unnecessary Conflict Between Faith and Science

“If it bleeds, it leads.” This oft-used saying among journalists speaks to the role of drama and controversy in generating people’s interest in a story. No wonder most media coverage on the topic of science and theology emphasizes the conflict between the two disciplines. Historical fiction is the basis for at least one of the stories of the ongoing controversy between science and faith.

According to the Members of the Historical Association: “The idea that educated men at the time of Columbus believed that the earth was flat, and that this belief was one of the obstacles to be overcome by Columbus before he could get his project sanctioned, remains one of the hardiest errors in teaching.”1 Schools have taught generations of American school children that Christopher Columbus stood before a council of hooded theologians who warned him that he might fall off the edge of a flat earth if he set sail on his voyage. While there was a council at Salamanca in 1486, theologians did not believe the earth was flat, only that the distance to cross the ocean to the Indies was too far.2 The story of the flat-earth theologians disbelieving Columbus was constructed as historical fiction by the famous American author Washington Irving (1783–1859) in his 1828 book, A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus.3 With a few exceptions, no educated person from the third century B.C. onward believed the earth was flat. Before the 1830s, no one believed that people in Columbus’ day thought the earth was flat.4 Why did this story become one of the most persistent myths in modern education?

Beginning in the 1860s, the flat-earth myth became part of a larger story, the conflict between science and religion throughout Western history. Historian John Draper (1811–82) and his prominent followers spread this historical fiction as an accurate account in textbooks, encyclopedias, and scholarly articles. One well-known follower of Draper was Andrew Dickson White (1832–1918), the first president of Cornell University and a history professor. In his two-volume History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom published in 1896, he attempted to show how religion had thwarted the progress of science throughout Western history, using the theologians who disagreed with Columbus as one example.5

While controversy can generate interest and an audience, pastors must avoid promoting conflict between faith and science from the pulpit. Believers who work in scientific fields want to integrate faith and science. They see both the book of nature and the Bible as providing insight into reality. Unneeded conflict discounts the valuable contributions to society made by scientific advances, making the scientist feel unwelcome at church. Much of the supposed conflict between faith and science is the product of error, as the flat-earth myth demonstrates. Pastors need to promote truth instead of perpetuating popular errors. Furthermore, promoting conflict between science and theology causes believers to compartmentalize their faith and profession, instead of constructing a complete worldview where their faith permeates every aspect of their lives. In the worst case, the perceived conflict can cause people to feel the need to choose between faith and scientific truth.

Avoid Painting a Caricature of Scientists in Sermon Illustrations

A second pitfall pastors need to avoid is painting a caricature of scientists in sermon illustrations. Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll, and other fictional scientists conform to the Hollywood image of a lone, mad scientist who plays God without regard to consequences. These scientists solve problems with a flash of insight, often without the input of other colleagues. Often these characters are brilliant, but flawed, individuals.

Real-life scientists work in a community of other scientists. In many ways, the scientific community functions like the Christian community. William G. Pollard (1911–89), a physicist and Anglican priest, wrote a book in 1961 that explored the role of community in both science and faith.6 The practice of science is similar to other human endeavors, and scientists are no more or less flawed than other human beings.

Sermon illustrations about ungodly professors trying to destroy the faith of Christian young people fall into the category of caricatures worth avoiding. Like lawyer jokes, you may get a laugh or a momentary connection with some members of your audience, but breeding anti-intellectualism in the church ultimately becomes negative. It is much more beneficial to encourage Christian students to one day become university professors. We need capable Christian thinkers who can contribute their voices to the marketplace of ideas. We need not fear education as destructive to faith.

Avoid Simplistic Answers to Difficult Questions

Parishioners and seekers with technical backgrounds have been trained to expect complex answers and to live with ambiguity. When they ask difficult questions about the Bible or the relationship of science and faith, they do not expect their pastor to have a quick answer to all their questions. They will respect someone who understands his limits and needs to research a matter further before answering. On the other hand, they have been trained to disregard simplistic answers to difficult questions. They will view as intellectually suspect a pastor who gives easy answers to the challenging questions of the ages.

A great approach to counseling people with intellectual doubts about their faith is to give them some research to do on their own. Recommend a good book to read, give them some references, or point them in the direction of another scientifically minded member of your congregation. Walk alongside them in their faith journey, but let them take their own steps and make their own discoveries.

Reach Your Listener Through Accurate Information

Avoiding preaching pitfalls is crucial to ministering to scientifically literate people. While a pastor can avoid the pitfalls by never addressing scientific topics from the pulpit, a better approach is to use science constructively in your sermons. The No. 1 rule for reaching a scientifically minded listener is to use accurate information. Like sour notes jar the ears of a musician, outdated and inaccurate data make a cacophonous noise to a scientist.

In science, information quickly becomes outdated. Scientific thinking more than 10 years old may no longer be relevant. Be careful when quoting from scientific sources published more than a few years ago. The best approach you can take when selecting a sermon illustration with scientific content is to share the story with a trusted, scientifically trained member of your congregation before telling the story from the pulpit. Your parishioner will appreciate your desire to seek his or her partnership in ministry in this way. The people in the pews on Sunday morning will appreciate the relevance of your illustration.

Recognize Scientific Truths That Can Function as Parables

Jesus taught the crowds using parables, many based on the agrarian culture of His day. Current scientific discoveries can inspire many great sermon illustrations for imparting spiritual truth. A good illustration must be scientifically accurate, provide enough information so people unfamiliar with a certain field of science can still understand the main point of the story, and relate the scientific material to the spiritual truth in a natural, unforced way.

While pastors can find material for developing such illustrations by reading popular science magazines and staying abreast of science news, the best approach to discovering scientific truths that can function as parables is by interacting with the members of your congregation with technical backgrounds. When you ask questions about their professions and their technical interests, you are pastoring them by entering into their world. The connections you establish with them by showing you care about what they do during their workweek will strengthen your ability to counsel them and provide spiritual guidance when needed. In addition, you will walk away from the conversation with great preaching material.

Respect the Limitations of Both Science and Theology

When science and faith appear to be in conflict, the reason is often that a scholar failed to respect the limitations of either science or theology. While the scientific method is a powerful tool for understanding the natural world, spiritual truth transcends technical analysis. Similarly, while the Bible is accurate, God never intended the Scriptures to serve as a scientific textbook. Together, science and theology give us a more complete view of reality and the human condition.

As pastors, teach your congregation to use science wisely without dismissing the supernatural. Show respect for the contributions of science, while leading your people to deepen their faith. Become comfortable living with unanswered questions as you journey through this life seeing “only a reflection as in a mirror” until you see Christ face to face (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Christina M.H. Powell

CHRISTINA M. H. POWELL, an ordained minister, author, medical writer, research scientist trained at Harvard Medical School and Harvard University, and the author of "Questioning Your Doubts: A Harvard Ph.D. Explores Challenges to Faith" (InterVarsity Press, 2014).She speaks in churches and conferences nationwide and addresses faith and science issues at www.questioningyourdoubts.com.

This article was adapted from the author’s presentation at the Faith and Science Conference, Springfield, Missouri. Used with permission by the author.

Notes

1. Members of the Historical Association, Common Errors in History, General Series, G.1 (London: P.S. King & Staples for the Historical Association, 1945).

2. Kathy Pelta, Discovering Christopher Columbus: How History Is Invented (Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Company, 1991), 18.

3. Washington Irving, A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (Paris: A. and W. Galignani, 1828).

4. Jeffrey Burton Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians (Santa Barbara, California: Praeger Paperback, 1991).

5. Andrew Dickson White, A History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom, Volume 1 (New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1896), 108.

6. William G. Pollard, Physicist and Christian: A Dialogue Between Communities (New York: Seabury Press, 1961).

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