To the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church

The Baltimore – Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church recently mailed the Pre-Conference Booklet for the 2012 Annual Conference. The Pre – Conference Booklet contains, among other things, an agenda for the conference, reports from various groups and committees within the Conference, and copies of the recommendations and resolutions before the 2012 Annual Conference. I was dismayed to find a resolution titled “Resolution on Evolutionary Scientific Thinking” included in the list of resolutions before the conference this year.

While I’m sure the resolution was well meant, I am quite concerned with both the content and the underlying assumptions of the resolution. As a person with a background in science and also the interdisciplinary field of Science and Religion, as well as a United Methodist since childhood, I am writing to address these concerns and to offer what I believe is a more constructive approach to handling some of the issues mentioned in the resolution. If you are not familiar with the resolution, I encourage you to read the resolution before continuing. The online text is slightly different from what the Pre-Conference Book contains, but is similar enough that the same concerns apply.

Unfortunately, the language of the resolution is unclear, making a point-by-point response difficult. This murkiness begins immediately with the mention of the “facts of evolutionary thinking” and the need to incorporate such thinking into our worship, songs, and teachings. What are the “facts of evolutionary thinking?” Clearly it is a fact that people think about evolution, and clearly it is a fact that sometimes a person’s thinking evolves, but neither of these facts seem to be what the resolution is attempting to convey and, indeed, there would be no need for a resolution on these matters. It is apparent that by saying “facts of evolutionary thinking,” the resolution really means, “thinking that evolution is a fact.”

The problem with “evolution” is that it’s a wiggle-word; no fewer than six meanings of the term “evolution” can easily be discerned from its common usage:

  1. Change over time; history of nature; any sequence of events in nature.
  2. Changes in the frequencies of alleles in the gene pool of a population.
  3. Limited common descent: the idea that particular groups of organisms have descended from a common ancestor.
  4. The mechanisms responsible for the change required to produce limited descent with modification, chiefly natural selection acting on random variations or mutations.
  5. Universal Common Descent: the idea that all organisms have descended from a single common ancestor.
  6. The “blind watchmaker” thesis: the idea that all organisms have descended from common ancestors solely through unguided, unintelligent, purposeless, material processes such as natural selection acting on random variations or mutations; that the mechanisms of natural selection, random variation and mutation, and perhaps other similarly naturalistic mechanisms, are completely sufficient to account for the appearance of design in living organisms.[1]

Which of these definitions are we discussing? It is impossible to tell from the resolution. Definitions 1-4 are uncontroversial, so much so that the “facts of evolutionary thinking” (under definitions 1-4) are accepted even among Young-Earth Creationists or other biblical literalists. The fifth meaning of “evolution” is significantly more controversial than the first four, and of course the sixth definition leaves no room for God in the equation at all. I’ll discuss the fifth and sixth definitions more in a moment.

Another way in which the resolution is ambiguous is in the specific actions it encourages. The stated purpose of the resolution is to “make evolutionary scientific realities of our life and knowledge a part of The United Methodist Church by rethinking and implementing “evolutionary scientific thinking” into our worship experience, our theological language, teaching, our songs and life experience….” Even assuming that we are using the fifth or sixth definition for evolution listed above, how exactly is this to be done? Shall we sing songs about universal common ancestry? Preach sermons on the brotherhood of man with apes, or teach about survival of the fittest in Sunday School? I jest of course, but my point is entirely serious; what will the actual implementation of this resolution entail? Acknowledging the current claims of science and affirming that such claims do not conflict with theology (as paragraph 160 F in the Book of Discipline, referenced by the resolution, does) is one thing, but encouraging direct teaching of evolution as scientific truth in worship, Sunday School, and Methodist schools and colleges is quite another thing.

Aside from the murkiness of the resolution’s wording, several mistakes in understanding and reasoning are evident. Consider, for example, the resolution’s response to those who disagree: There are those who “want to insist on taking their sacred Scripture literally (as if God literally wrote or dictated the words), and they are not willing to deal with the reality that there is new knowledge (God given) and understandings coming to us.” This presents believers in special creation as benighted individuals who believe in a dictation view of inspiration and who are either unaware of any of the scientific developments of the last 2000 years or unwilling to countenance them and any new information they contribute.

This is a mischaracterization based on a false dichotomy; there are more options than the resolution considers.[2] It is quite possible that many Christians and United Methodists object to Darwinian evolution on scientific grounds, or that some merely believe that there is good reason to interpret the Genesis creation accounts literally, despite the fact that some passages in scripture are indeed metaphorical, and perhaps some believe both. It is also possible to believe in a universe billions of years old but to still believe in special creation, as do Old-Earth Creationists.

Later in the resolution, those who believe in special creation are accused of “archaic thinking.” This sort of ad hominem argument is known as poisoning the well. It serves to prevent others from taking seriously the arguments or beliefs of those who believe in special creation. It is also completely irrelevant. There are many beliefs, both scientific and theological, that are quite sound despite being very old beliefs. Calling belief in special creation “archaic” is nothing more than an insult.

Another mistake in understanding found in the resolution is the apparent assumption that the only (or even the best) possible interpretation of the scientific evidence is that either definition five or definition six of “evolution” must be true. There are two difficulties with this assumption.

The first difficulty is that there are alternative scientific interpretations to the data pertaining to biological evolution, including the aforementioned Old-Earth Creationism (OEC) and Intelligent Design (ID). Old-Earth Creationists have long argued that the best “literal” interpretation of the creation accounts in Genesis involves progressive creation over days that were much longer than 24 hours long and that the Genesis accounts provide not just theological insight into the world, but scientific insight as well. This becomes especially true once scientific evidence is included in the “hermeneutical spiral” of interpretation. OEC organizations such as Reasons To Believe have spent much time and thought in attempting to help Christians integrate science and reason with their faith in a way that maintains great respect for science and avoids utilizing the all-to-common “warfare model” of interaction between science and Christianity.

The ID interpretation of the scientific data regarding biological evolution is broadly compatible with YEC, OEC, or even, in some versions, universal common descent. The central tenet of ID is that intelligent agency is discernible in the world through the presence of complex, specified information, whether it is found in a book, in the construction of a physical machine, in a computer code, or in the cell. ID also presents powerful critiques of the ability of Darwinian processes to account for the origin of the information content of DNA (especially in origin-of-life scenarios) and to account for the rapid increases in such information represented by such saltations as the Cambrian Explosion, the Mammalian Radiation, the Angiosperm “Big Bloom” and the Marine Mesozoic Revolution.[3] Such ID positions cannot be construed as mere examples of religious antagonism towards science because the ID claims are scientific in nature.[4]

The second difficulty with assuming that definitions five and six of evolution are our only interpretive options of the scientific data is more pragmatic in nature. Suppose that we reject the “blind watchmaker” hypothesis in favor of mere universal common descent. How are we to prevent the slide of the latter into the former? If we accept the idea that all life is descended from a common ancestor, at which point will we allow for God’s creative activity?

Perhaps one might argue that God designed our DNA and was responsible for the origin of life, accepting all of the evolutionary reasoning that follows after the origin of life. If that is the case, then there must be a way of explaining why we draw the line at the origin of life. Do we accept the arguments of Intelligent Design proponents, showing that naturalistic processes cannot account for the information content in DNA? If so, then why ignore similar ID arguments that call into question the sufficiency of natural selection to create specified complexity, such as that seen in irreducibly complex structures within the cell? In addition to this inconsistency, we must also be aware of the danger posed by Ockham’s Razor. If we don’t turn to ID arguments, then by what means do we avoid the atheist claim that God was unnecessary for life, and thus his existence is an unwarranted assumption? Essentially, if we are in the habit of accepting all of the “scientific” claims about evolution, then why should we disagree with scientists who see God’s existence as wholly unnecessary, and why should we attribute his creative work to the biological realm at all? Wouldn’t such an attribution just be arbitrary?

Jesus was indeed a man who challenged the religious authorities of his day with his knowledge, but his condemnation of them was not for their lack of understanding the new knowledge he brought, but for their failure to understand the old knowledge with which they had been entrusted. In John 5:38-40 Jesus tells them “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life.” Had they understood the old knowledge, they would also have understood the new. His stinging condemnation of the Sadducees should serve as a warning for us as well: “Is this not why you are wrong? You know neither the scriptures nor the power of God.”

What scriptures have we not known? In 1 Peter 3:15 we are instructed: “sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence…” while in 2 Corinthians 10:5 we read “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” This has particularly important implications for our young people, whose religious education has, for most of them, completely ignored the intellectual defense of the faith.

The exodus of young people from the church is part of the motivation for the “Resolution on Scientific Evolutionary Thinking,” and I am grateful that others are aware of this deeply troubling phenomenon and share my concern over it. Unfortunately, I don’t believe this exodus can be fixed by integrating “evolutionary scientific thinking” into our songs, education, and worship. Having taught physics and math in secular colleges for the last five years, I can tell you from my experience that young people (especially millennials) are searching for something sound and solid to believe in. A weak stance in holding only to Biblical minimalism gives them the impression that we don’t really believe in anything solid and enduring, while incorporating evolution in our beliefs makes church and Christianity no more relevant for their daily lives.

No, if young adults are leaving the church, it is because they are not being given a foundation of truth on which to stand as they enter college, the moral morass therein, and the wider world beyond. In fact, the transition away from the church and the Christian faith is beginning even sooner than college, often starting in high school. If we have not prepared our young people with critical thinking skills or the conviction that Christianity is a rationally defensible worldview, how can we expect them to hold fast to their faith in a world so increasingly hostile to the foundational truths of Christianity?

The solution is to again take seriously the commands to always be “ready to make a defense” – we must turn to the study of apologetics. We need initiatives to teach our young people that their faith isn’t based merely on wishing; it is based on sound reason and on evidence! If faith is being willing to “place weight” on the gospel message, how can we expect anyone to place weight on something that feels shaky and that they believe can’t hold them?  By the time they reach college many young adults are already starting to doubt their faith because they don’t really believe Christianity is true, so let’s give them reasons to believe that it is true. Strong apologetics cases can now be made for the existence of God, the resurrection of Jesus, the reliability of scripture, and the existence of the soul – in short, for the truth of Christianity. And if we are not committed to the truth of Christianity, we should go home now.

Can science be integrated into church activities and teachings, or into such apologetics as are mentioned above? Absolutely, and I myself enjoy doing so! But it should be done in a balanced way that accounts for the fact that controversy and differences of opinion still exist, not only within the church, but among scientists as well. There are ways of handling the disputes in a sensitive manner so that ultimately the Body of Christ is enriched.

[1] Meyer, Stephen and Michael Newton Keas, “The Meanings of Evolution,” in Darwinism, Design, and Public Education, ed. by John Angus Campbell and Stephen C. Meyer, (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press), 136-137.

[2] Not only that, but the resolution again muddies the issues, conflating a literal interpretation of scripture with a dictation view of scriptural inspiration.

[3] For an excellent full-length and detailed discussion of these arguments, as well as an exciting account of the discovery of the information content in DNA, see Stephen C. Meyer’s Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design, named to the “Top Books of 2009” list of the Times Literary Supplement and one of’s top-10 science best-sellers for 2009.

[4] It is relevant to the resolution (as printed in the Pre-Conference Booklet) that even Alfred Russell Wallace himself, the co-discoverer with Charles Darwin of evolution, believed that there must have been an intelligent agent at work in the biological realm to fully account for the biological complexity he observed. Russell apparently wasn’t a Christian but rather a secular Marxist.

One thought on “To the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church

  1. Pingback: Rachel Held Evans and Rehoboam | The Feral Apologist

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *