Creating a Third Culture
by Paul Kindstedt
The battle between creationism and evolution began long before I was born, but during my lifetime I have observed the proliferation, and growing embrace by conservative Christians, of alternative sources of scientific information in controversial areas, especially evolution science. The infiltration of “alternative science” and spread of the conspiracy mentality have undermined my credibility as a scientist to speak openly within my faith community on matters where faith and science intersect. Frankly, I am very reluctant to express my views on evolution openly within my church family; I generally share my thoughts and concerns solely on a “need to know” basis with my Pastor and the Deacons/Elders, along with a few trusted members of the congregation. Why? Because the temperature in the room can get very warm very quickly when I attempt to be transparent, which in turn can rapidly degenerate into mistrust and division.
It is within this context that I read John Pohl’s article “Why We Need A Third Culture in Church” (1) with great interest. This wonderful article lays out a vision for a “third culture” that provides “a bridge between science education and faith issues in congregations...mainly by fostering and providing improved communication for issues that are often misunderstood by the public in general, and by church laity in particular.” The pathway to this third culture traverses profound issues of Biblical interpretation and theology, and that means that it is a treacherous road indeed, which we must tread with great care.
A personal example illustrates my concerns. About 15 years ago I was asked by the Christian Education Committee of my church to teach a Sunday school course on understanding and living a Biblical worldview. This was to be a combined high school and adult class that would allow parents and their youth to jointly tackle difficult issues in theology, philosophy, biology and other foundational areas. I was presented with a curriculum that a well-respected Christian ministry had recently developed, which included extensive teaching resources such as elaborately produced video segments. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to foster the type of “third culture” envisioned by Pohl.
I was encouraged as I perused the lesson plans on theology and philosophy, topics in which I am keenly interested. The curriculum contained much that was good in my view, and I envisioned many ways that I could expand on the material to make it more personal. But when I came to the lesson plan on biology, which concentrated on origin of life issues, my heart sank because the curriculum equated evolution theory with naturalism (i.e., the view that nature is the totality of reality). My immediate reaction was: why must evolution theory be conflated with naturalism; isn’t it possible that God may have used evolutionary mechanisms to accomplish his plan? The lesson plan went on to explain that if evolution is true, then the Genesis account of the Garden of Eden and original sin must be viewed as nothing more than allegory, which undermines the significance of Christ’s sinless life and sacrificial death on the cross.
The message was thus clear. According to this curriculum, the very idea of evolution is an attack on the inerrancy of Scripture and on Christ himself. This was a clarion call to plant the flag of Christianity on the hill of Biblical literalism and creationist theology and defend it against evolution at all costs. Such an assignment was untenable for me, because it crossed over the line from fostering an intellectual climate that encouraged wrestling with profound questions to delivering unquestioning indoctrination. As I continued to read the lesson plan and then viewed the accompanying video segment, I was troubled by the places that these sincere, well-meaning Christians had to go in order to fit the findings of science into the box that they had created by conflating evolution theory with naturalism.
Thus, I was a nervous wreck as the class on biology got underway, with 40-50 high school students and adults in attendance. I began the class with the video segment provided for the lesson. When the clip ended, one of the high school students spontaneously burst out in a heated commentary on the superficiality, one-sidedness, and naivety of the video. The class was stunned, and when he finished speaking you could have heard a pin drop in the room. After a moment or two I found myself calmly telling this student that I had some of the same reactions to the video and that I had decided from this point forward to develop my own lesson plan.
This student’s reaction was a wake-up call for the parents in the room, and it gave me the cover I needed to jettison the lesson plan without having to explain my views on evolution. Instead of having one lesson on biology as planned in the original curriculum, we ended up spending the remainder of the fall term exploring science and evolution theory, different forms of creationism, their intersection with Christian philosophy and theology, the perspective of scholars in the field of the philosophy of science, and the wide diversity of viewpoints found among committed Christians. It was the closest thing that I have experienced to Pohl’s vision for a third culture. The problem was, it almost certainly would have turned out very differently had I transparently shared my views on evolution, because I likely would have lost my credibility as a trusted source of information in the eyes of many in the room, especially the adults who were rightfully concerned about the spiritual well-being of their children.
So how do we create that third culture that Pohl envisions, where scientists attend churches, and congregations utilize their expertise in issues involving science and faith? Here are a few thoughts to begin that conversation:
1. Pastors need to lead the way, and we need to help them. I have been blessed with pastors who have given me permission to wrestle with science and faith issues without looking down upon or judging me. Pastors should seek to nurture that same attitude broadly in their congregations, but they also need to tread very lightly because these issues can be extremely divisive. We scientists need to be patient, gentle, and prepared to support our pastors in whatever way we can to help them navigate these treacherous waters.
2. Exegesis, hermeneutics, and theology must be part of the conversation. Lurking behind the conservative Christian rejection of science is fear fueled by theology, and true dialogue cannot blossom in a climate of fear. Just as pastors need the help of scientists in their congregations to navigate matters of science, so too they need the support of lay members in their congregation who are knowledgeable in areas of Biblical interpretation and theology, to help wrestle through the issues and hone in on what is genuinely non-negotiable to a Christian faith rooted in the inerrancy of the Bible versus what can remain disputable because we are human and can only see dimly.
3. Although the creation of Pohl’s third culture must occur at one local church at a time, the effort cannot stop there. The broader Church needs to be engaged in this issue at a time such as this. As Pohl points out, many young people are losing confidence in Christianity in part because they see the Christian Church as antagonistic to science.
4. Humility, humility, humility: None of us have all the answers; at best we see dimly and live with uncertainty. Therefore, I have to keep reminding myself to never look down upon my brothers and sisters in Christ who disagree over issues of science because they lack scientific training - or for any other reason.
1. Pohl, J. 2018. Why we need a third culture in church. God and Nature, Spring 2018.
Paul Kindstedt is a Professor in the Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences at the University of Vermont. His research over the past 30 years has focused on cheese chemistry, structure, function and crystallography. He has authored or co-authored over 120 peer-reviewed journal articles and invited conference proceedings, numerous book chapters and 2 books.
Over the years Paul has served as faculty advisor to the Navigators and Intervarsity Christian Fellowship student groups on campus. Paul and his wife Christina are blessed with three children who are the joy of their lives.