Science and Faith: Context

I’m a geographer, pastor, theologian, and educator.

In all of those roles I need to be sensitive to context.

As a geographer, I am very aware that unique physical, historical, social, cultural, religious and economic influences make shape the physical and social character of a location. I’m writing this paragraph in Cambridge, UK, a city of 125,000, with a university founded in 1209, a rich intellectual tradition including Newton and Darwin, fascinating architecture, an incomprehensible street system, and even more baffling library cataloguing system, and a religious cultural dominated by the Church of England.

I live in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, a city of 100,000, with a university founded in 1967.  The city itself is only just over 100 years old.  Founded as a coal mining community for the Canadian Pacific Railway, Lethbridge it is an agricultural and service hub for southern Alberta, still with a pioneer mentality and rough and tumble demeanor.  It is a religious landscape shaped by mainline Christian denominations (Anglican, United Church, Presbyterian) from UK immigration, Roman Catholic immigration from southern Europe, conservative evangelical immigration from northern and eastern Europe, Mormon immigration from Utah, and Blackfoot Indigenous religious traditions. The kinds of conversations I have, the issues I deal with, the topics I address, and how I function in Lethbridge are different than in Cambridge.

As a theologian, pastor, and educator, I am sensitive to context.  When I began in full-time ministry in Truro, Nova Scotia in 1990, my church was all Caucasian, most people had lived in that community all of their lives, had been associated with First Baptist Church, Truro, for generations, had a British ethnic heritage, and were aging.  Now I pastor First Baptist Church, Lethbridge, Alberta. This congregation includes people from Africa, Latin America, China, Burma, eastern Europe, south Asia, and more.  Spiritually, many are new Christians, while others come from Anglican, Catholic, Mennonite, Presbyterian, Reformed, charismatic (and Baptist!) backgrounds. Only a handful of families have connections that go back a generation. Many are students or young families. How I approached ministry and theology in an aging “Big B” Baptist church in a traditional community like Truro, NS, is different from how I teach and preach in a culturally, theologically diverse university city in western Canada. My basic message may be the same, but how I express it may be quite different.

I say this because as we consider the relationship of science and faith, context is important, too.

  • The topics that interest people and the issues that disturb people about science and faith in one place will be different in different places. And how I would talk about those issues would be different, too.
  • Historically, we need to understand the context in which texts were written and ideas expressed.  For instance, biblical books like the Book of Job (believed to be the oldest biblical book), Genesis, Psalms, and Jeremiah were written for particular people at a particular time – not primarily for me, in western Canada, in the 21st century. To understand the wonderful contribution the inspired Word of God can make to the discussion, I need to appreciate that context.
  • Throughout history people who have explored the interaction between science and faith have written out of their context. They were speaking in response to ideas of their times, in their locations.  So to understand Augustine, Isidore, Galileo, or Paley, understanding the intellectual, spiritual, cultural, and historical context in which they wrote is important.
  • More recently, to appreciate the recent rise of Young Earth Creationism, intelligent design, or theistic evolution, appreciating the causes and context for these movements is helpful. These ideas do not emerge or exist in a contextual vacuum; they are inextricably bound to the social, cultural, and historical contexts of their time. As society changes, technology changes, ideas change, and cultures change, we will see new proposals for relating science and faith continue to emerge.
My Personal COntext

I need to be honest about my context, because my experiences, backgrounds, and influences shape who I am and how I approach my research:

  • I have spent the majority of my life in Canada, but I have traveled and studied in both the United States and the United Kingdom: each of these three countries brings a unique religious, intellectual, and historical experience that influences the shape of the science and religion relationship. Certainly within Canada, this is even more nuanced regionally, denominationally, and culturally.
  • I grew up in a home where good morals were taught, a strong work ethic was modeled and expected, education was highly valued, and religion was never discussed. My grandparents were wonderful Christian role models for me. In my teen years, as I worked through my personal sense of self-identity, purpose, and aspirations, I looked to them and their faith for inspiration. Through reading the Bible and their example, I discovered I believe in God (and later in Jesus), and began to connect with a (Baptist) church. I love the natural world and I loved God – the two seemed to me to go together seamlessly.
  • At university I studied both human and physical geography at the University of British Columbia (UBC). As a Christian in a secular environment I enjoyed the apologetic challenge of articulating my faith and inviting other people to discover God in and through His creation and His Word. I never perceived any difficulties in this relationship.  I never experienced any inherent tension between science and Christian faith either at university or church.
  • Through three degrees at public universities (UBC and University of Alberta), a Master of Divinity degree (Acadia Divinity College, Regent College, Carey Theological College), and years of pastoral ministry, my scientific interest and faith have dovetailed perfectly.
  • It was only when I began teaching geography at a Christian undergraduate college that I was confronted with an unsolicited 20 page paper decrying my “heresy” (the student’s word) and complaining to the Dean, that because I was not teaching from an explicitly Young Earth Creationist perspective – and only a young Earth perspective – I should be terminated. The Dean did not terminate me. He did have a long talk with the student.

The context of this particular encounter was interesting. That particular school had a student body that was approximately 50% from the United States. This particular student was one of those American students. In her world, this was a defining issue for her faith – and should be for the rest of us and the school, too. For me and the Dean (also a Canadian) this was not an essential point of doctrine.  The age of the Earth was a legitimate point of dialogue and potential disagreement within our theological frameworks, but was not a defining article of faith.  From this student’s cultural context, however, this was  a non-negotiable line in the doctrinal sand.  Is context important?  Absolutely.

The Canadian Context

Although I have noticed some influence from the Young Earth Creation movement in Canada, in my experience most Canadian Christians have not seen this as a critical doctrinal belief. They may well hold young Earth views, but they can accept others’ differences of opinions. Maybe it’s just “Canadian politeness” but we seem to have less consternation about scientific issues than some Americans do (a 2012 Angus Reid Poll found 30% of Americans think human beings evolved from less advanced life forms over millions of years; 51% of Americans think God created human beings in their present form within the last 10,000 years).

In contrast, I am amazed at how comfortable many British and other European  Christians have no difficulty with a theological perspective that accommodates an old Earth and evolution. For most of the Christians I know in Europe, the life-and-death battle between science and faith in the United States seems incomprehensible (the Angus Reid Poll found 69% of Britons think human beings evolved from less advanced life forms over millions of years; 17% think God created human beings in their present form within the last 10,000 years).

My observation would be that Canada is somewhere between the American and European experience. While we certainly do not have the deeply entrenched anti-science, anti-evolution, anti-old earth perspectives of many in the U.S., neither are we as comfortable with evolution (in particular) and (to a lesser extent) an old Earth as most European Christians (Angus Reid found 61% of Canadians think human beings evolved from less advanced life forms over millions of years; 22% think God created human beings in their present form within the last 10,000 years).

Since my Young Earth Creationist “encounter” a few years ago, I have been more sensitive about how I present some of the information in my geography courses and how I teach at church.  I need to respect the cultural context from which people come.

I continue to read, study, and learn widely in the growing literature and opportunities to explore science and Christian faith.

I continue to see my scientific work and my Christian faith as seamlessly integrated.

One final note on Context …

My research has focused mostly on scientists and churches in Canada. This inevitably shapes the nature of my observations, recommendations, and conclusions.

As you read this, then, that reality will make some of my thoughts relevant – or not so relevant – to your context …