Posted in reflections

A tale of two scientists

September, 1981: Prof. Keyes

Fresh off a gap year of honest but repetitive work in the produce department of a Rochester area supermarket, I drove 8 hours to Quincy, Massachusetts and waited in the freshman registration line at Eastern Nazarene College. “Principles of Biology” was the default choice for non-science majors. Chomping at the bit for an intellectual challenge, and even though I’d already declared my major as religion, I jauntily checked “Introduction to Zoology” instead, the entry course for biology and pre-med majors,

Little did I know what I’d let myself in for! Over the next semester, I painstakingly mastered the details of the Krebs cycle, encountered the Latin names of genera and species, and studied Prof. Glen Keyes’ carefully etched chalkboard drawings of cellular components and reproductive systems. Prof. came to class sporting a white lab coat, answering students’ questions, encouraging them as they diagrammed formulas or microscopic organisms in their lab books. Chapter 1 of the course textbook matter-of-factly presented Darwinian principles like natural selection and how life on earth had evolved and continued to do so. That chapter made me wonder about whether my Christian faith and evolution could be squared. I’ll always be thankful for a conversation with Dr. Alex Varughese in the religion department, an Old Testament specialist with an M.A. in Marine Biology. He sagely replied when I brought my quandary to him:

“Genesis 1-2 is not so much about how as it is about who.”

God is creator, and evolution is the mechanism God used and continues to use to create. The elegant solution of theistic evolution came clearly into view that day and has helpfully guided my thinking ever since.

After Christmas break, I registered for the new semester and headed to the bookstore to buy textbooks. Prof. Keyes walked in and spotted me, a look of concern on his face. “Greg, I just received the print-out for ‘Botany’ and your name was missing. That’s the next course for pre-med majors.” He looked surprised by my reply: “But Prof., I’m not a pre-med major. My major is religion.” He could have tried to convince me to drop religion and pursue pre-med, but he understood the value of both. His last words that day have lingered with me:

“I’m glad to know we’ll have another pastor behind the pulpit who understands that you can believe in both God and evolution.”

But back to 1981. Hard work in Zoology paid off. Going into the final exam, I stood near the top of the class of thirty plus students, down by around ten students who’d dropped the course along the way. When final grades were released, on my report card appeared a much-coveted “A.”

March 2022: Prof. Periodic Table

I drove to the memory care unit west of town. Things were going well with hospice Chaplaincy. Especially rewarding were patients’ stories, often told by their loved ones. Today would bring another story, by turns fascinating, frustrating, and tragic. This day, I would meet Prof. Periodic Table, or PT for short, a nickname the reader will soon understand.

PT was pushing a century old, but despite a faltering short-term memory, he recalled things that happened long ago. He could still recite many details related to science, especially biochemistry. On his wall he proudly displayed the Periodic Table of the Elements, a shout-out to his having taught biochemistry for nearly 4 decades at the collegiate level. At the end of each hospice visit, our tradition was for me to randomly choose one element on the chart. PT would take joy in telling me all about the chosen element and its uses in industry or space. One day, when I pointed on the chart to helium, he lamented that it’s now in short supply, and wondered how chemists would be able to do their work since it’s an element often used in the laboratory. Talking about the Periodic Table was a way to celebrate the hundreds of young scientific minds he had shaped through his expertise and fatherly guidance.

From the start, he was respectful to me, as he was to religion in general. Through his late wife, he maintained a nominal connection to a mainline Christian denomination, and sometimes donated to support their charitable causes. However, underneath the respect was a painful memory nearly 80 years old yet still fresh with emotion. PT grew up in a fundamentalist church, but he also loved chemistry. As a highschooler, his chemistry teacher let him stay after school and work in the laboratory, knowing he could trust the budding chemist not to blow it up with some ill-advised experiment. Soon, PT realized that science would be his life work. Unfortunately, his pastor took PT aside one Sunday at church and warned:

“You have to decide what it’s going to be, PT. You have to choose either science or God. You can’t believe in both.”

PT paused as he delivered the verdict: “I chose science.”

The next visit when PT told the story again, I found the right moment to tell my own story of Zoology, and the wise words of Prof. Keyes and Dr. Varughese to a young, eager college freshman. He listened carefully, and when I was done, he tearfully remarked: “You don’t know how much I wish I could have heard that many years ago.” That science and religion could be simultaneously affirmed was something that PT appears to have never heard clearly articulated. Instead, at a crucial moment, his pastor had tragically given him a false choice.

Later, taking an out-of-state job, I said goodbyes to PT and other hospice patients. Not long after moving, one day my phone pinged with a text message from a former coworker: “Mr. Periodic Table passed away today.” I grieved my friend’s passing and thanked the Lord that our paths had crossed. Whether PT adopted theistic evolution or rediscovered Christian faith, I’ll never know, but his openness to my prayers gives me hope that his earthly journey ended in a peaceful acceptance of God’s reality and gentle embrace.

False dilemmas

To the question, “Is it science or faith?” many answer YES. exists to explore the nexus between scientific inquiry and faith, creating a space for scholars who understand that being forced to choose between the two is a false dilemma. From Gregor Mendel, the Catholic monk who bred peas and became the father of modern genetics, to John Polkinghorne, the British theoretical physicist turned theologian and Anglican minister, to Francis Collins, an American physician and geneticist who spear-headed the Human Genome Project and directed the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the history of science includes persons of faith who saw no conflict between science and religion.

When your Christian teenager comes to you and expresses their intent to pursue a career in ministry, I hope that you’ll find wise words like my Zoology professor did for me that day in the bookstore, words that encourage. Likewise, when your daughter or son excitedly tells you they want to pursue the sciences, I hope you’ll affirm them and not discourage them. Both are paths to God’s truth, and neither profession is an easy path. They’ll need all the support that they can get.


Image credits

test tubes and periodic table — Via Wikimedia, and the Creative Commons Licence, accessible here.

Posted in book reviews

Square Peg: “Wesleyan” fundamentalists?

Dr Morris Weigelt taught my “Hermeneutics” course at Nazarene Theological Seminary. One day he advised: “When reading anyone’s work, ask yourself this question: What are they reacting to?”

Weigelt’s advice has served me well across the years, and his question is relevant when considering the book edited by Al Truesdale, Square Peg: Why Wesleyans Aren’t Fundamentalists, Amazon Kindle edition (Beacon Hill Press, 2012). Eight writers take up diverse topics including the historic meaning of Fundamentalism, Christian faith and science, unity/diversity in the Church, and the authority of Scripture. In-turn, formal responses give the book the feel of a dialogue. Square Peg responds to what Paul Bassett called the “Fundamentalist leavening of the Holiness Movement” [see Wesleyan Theological Journal 13 (Spring 1978):65-91], which has manifested itself most recently in the activities of groups like the “Concerned Nazarenes.” [See also my essay, “Nazarene or Baptarene? When Traditions Collide,” available here].

In the introduction (p. 8), Al Truesdale lays out the book’s thesis:

“We shall see that differences between fundamentalism and Wesleyan theology are so important that denominations in the Wesleyan tradition cannot adopt fundamentalism without forfeiting essential parts of what it means to be Wesleyan.”

The volume’s strengths are several. Fred Cawthorne’s chapter, “The Harmony of Science and the Christian Faith,” is alone worth the book’s price, as he ably takes the reader through cosmology (including the “Big Bang”) and evolutionary biology from a theistic perspective, making a convincing case for the compatibility of Christian faith and scientific inquiry. I especially appreciated how he validated the role of the Creator God as both “upholding and sustaining,” affirming that God not only began the creative evolutionary process but actively oversees and shepherds the emerging universe. Cawthorne (pp. 104-105) contends:

“If we say that God cannot create through a gradual, progressive process such as evolution, then we limit God’s transcendence and immanence…his full participation in nature and his gracious empowerment of nature…Consideration of evolution should deepen our affirmation that God works above, in, and through creation; it should strengthen, not threaten, our faith.”

Also particularly helpful is Joel Green’s contribution, “A Wesleyan Understanding of Biblical Authority: The Formation of Holy Lives.” It is one thing to mentally assent to God’s Word as “authoritative,” but what does that mean if we rarely crack open a Bible or meditate upon Scripture? Green laments (p. 128): “…there is no necessary path from claims about the trustworthiness of the Bible to living lives oriented toward the Scriptures.” Yet John Wesley taught that the “written word of God” is the “sufficient rule of both Christian faith and practice” [see Wesley’s “The Character of a Methodist,” cited by Green, p. 131). Practically speaking, this means adopting “habits of reading and prayer that lead to the conformity of our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and behaviors to God’s will revealed in Scripture” (Green, p. 134). In short, it is the life-transforming nature of our engagement with Scripture that validates Holy Writ as inspired by God. In the wording of the old saying : “The proof is in the pudding.”

Square Peg, though valuable, could have been better. The introduction gives no explanation of the “Why it Matters” responses to each chapter nor how they work. Some responders mention the focus group format, even naming the participants. Others write as if they alone are responding, making no mention of having processed the material with others. This is confusing, and makes for a disjointed format. Also, there are no discussion questions included, diminishing the value of the book as a tool for Bible studies, adult Sunday School, or small groups.

Though not perfect, Square Peg opens up a conversation that is long overdue among us. Wesleyan-Holiness pastors would do well to put it in the hands of every new member, particularly those coming from other ecclesiastical backgrounds. To remain true to our Wesleyan theological heritage, we will need to be more intentional than we have been. To that end, Al Truesdale and company have rendered all denominations in the Wesleyan-Holiness orbit a service.


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Posted in book reviews

‘The Language of Science and Faith’ – a review

We love either/or thinking. Problems are solved either in one way, or in another. When someone comes along and offers a third possibility, it’s like a breath of fresh air in a stuffy room. Karl W. Giberson’s and Francis S. Collins’ The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions (InterVarsity, 2011) is one such book.

Giberson (a physicist) and Collins (a geneticist) organize their discussion around responses to frequently asked questions. These include:

Can we really know the earth is billions of years old?

– How does God fine-tune the universe?

– Why is Darwin’s theory so controversial?

Concluding that the term “theistic evolution” now carries too much baggage, the authors substitute BioLogos, but the meaning is the same: God created all that is, and when it comes to life on earth, the means by which God did so was evolution.

Continue reading “‘The Language of Science and Faith’ – a review”

Posted in book reviews

‘Summer for the Gods’

Like a stubborn weed refusing to be uprooted, the debate between creationism and evolution sprouts up periodically and demands attention. Edward Larson’s Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion(Harvard University Press, 1997) revisits the 1925 “trial of the century,” carefully reconstructing the players and issues at-stake in an iconic clash between the forces of fundamentalism and agnosticism.

Williams Jennings Bryan (1860-1925) and Clarence Darrow (1857-1938) squared off in the town of Dayton, Tennessee. The former had been Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson, and came to defend a statute outlawing the teaching of evolution in Tennessee public schools. The latter was a brilliant trial lawyer, determined to embarrass those who favored a literal interpretation of the Bible’s view of the cosmos. What Edward Larson does masterfully is to tease out nuances in the Scopes trial that the 1960 film, Inherit the Wind, either ignored or purposely misrepresented. For example, the film makes Bryan out to be a young earth, six day creationist. In reality, he accepted that the “days” mentioned in Genesis likely were long, indefinite periods of time corresponding to geological ages. Further, the townspeople of Dayton, Tennessee are presented as raving lunatics, whereas in real life they were welcoming to both sides in the Scopes trial. Finally, the defense team in Dayton included those who accepted a theistic view of evolution, namely, that evolution could have been the means that God used to create humans. Unfortunately, by focusing on the agnostic Darrow, Hollywood’s version set up an either/or understanding, a battle of science vs. religion, an antagonistic view of the question that lingers to this day.

Continue reading “‘Summer for the Gods’”