The Common Good

Science, Faith, and An Ongoing Conversation

In a recent post here on God's Politics, Derek Flood suggested (as many have lately) that Christian communities need to start taking this whole "faith and science" thing seriously.

I posted some relatively snarky comment on my Facebook page about it (I apologize for the snark) suggesting that the authors of these recent posts about faith and science are ignoring about a century's worth of conversation and theology. Perhaps more.

Let me give you an example of what I mean in Harry Emerson Fosdick.***

As I said just yesterday, Fosdick was famous for lots of things, particularly the  sermon "Shall The Fundamentalists Win?" which he preached on May 21, 1922.

It was a call to arms of sorts within the church, encouraging tolerance and a willingness to engage the minds of believers and unbelievers alike in a time of incredible scientific discovery. 

Science treats a young man’s [sic] mind as though it were really important. A scientist says to a young man, “Here is the universe challenging our investigation. Here are the truths which we have seen, so far. Come, study with us! See what we already have seen and then look further to see more, for science is an intellectual adventure for the truth.” Can you imagine any man who is worthwhile turning from that call to the church if the church seems to him to say, “Come, and we will feed you opinions from a spoon. No thinking is allowed here except such as brings you to certain specified, predetermined conclusions. These prescribed opinions we will give you in advance of your thinking; now think, but only so as to reach these results.”

My friends, nothing in all the world is so much worth thinking of as God, Christ, the Bible, sin and salvation, the divine purposes for humankind, life everlasting. But you cannot challenge the dedicated thinking of this generation to these sublime themes upon any such terms as are laid down by an intolerant church.

Fosdick graduated Union Theological Seminary in 1904, more than a century ago.

In the "b-side" sermon to the above, "The Church Must Go Beyond Modernism," Fosdick says that while he was a seminarian, modernism was all the rage. Science and scientific knowledge ruled the day.

Along with many of his peers, Fosdick was elated for, "youths like myself...a half century ago face an appalling lag between our generations' intellect on one side and it's religion on the other...."

Modernism was "a desperately needed way of thinking," he said. Theologies founded upon 16th-century intellectual assumptions were deemed lacking because they represented bygone ways of thinking about everything — including theology.

Fosdick continues:

"When I was a student in the seminary, the classrooms where the atmosphere grew tense with excitement concerned the higher criticism of the Bible and the harmonization of science and religion."

A century ago, students were engaged in harmonizing science and religion. A century ago!

Friends, it always should be the work of religious people to make sense of science. Why? Well, because science is about discovering more and more about the world in which we live.

To pretend that science doesn't exist is foolishness. Theology must take into account the world God loves. It's that simple. Theology has always done this and it (I hope) always will do this.

That there is an intellectual push-and-pull in religious communities is consistent throughout all of human history. Flood and others who are raising their concerns frustrate me, not because they are inappropriate concerns, but because their rhetoric suggests that this is a brand new endeavor — as if evangelical Christians never have had such a conversation before.

Fosdick and his generation of evangelicals were embroiled in precisely such a conversation.

Now, what's interesting is that Fosdick assumed that the fundamentalists had lost the debate, that they had been sent to "some backwater" (I know, not very charitable), and would never be of great influence in the United States (See: Wheaton, Ill., the rural South, etc.).

Clearly history proved him wrong. Fundamentalism has been running the table of public perception of Christianity since the 1960's and '70's. Certainly the Southern Strategy and the growth of the Religious Right demonstrates that.

No one from the Left stepped in to fill Fosdick's shoes on the national stage. (He had a popular radio broadcast funded by Rockefeller money — the same money that funded the Divinity School at the University of Chicago — and was invited to preach from John Calvin's pulpit in Geneva to the gathered delegates when the Geneva Accord was signed).

Some tried to fill Fosdick's shoes, but none would hold the same prominence. Perhaps Martin Luther King, Jr. did in some way, but his concerns were very different from Fosdick's. On the other side of the coin, there was Billy Graham (and others).

Some of you may be thinking, "Yes, and look where Fosdick's victory took liberal Christianity."

Indeed. The critique is fair.

(Ross Douthat has published another article on the aforementioned liberal Christianity, by the way, this one more measured in tone than his previous pronouncement.)

In fact (and this is why I admire him so very much), Fosdick warned the faithful about the problems of modernism and called them to move past them. He was heavily critical of modernism's lack of a theology of judgment, of sin.

And he suggested that modernists' willingness to adapt meant that modernism only ever remained shallow. Such "rapid adaptation" led one to deny anything Eternal — specifically The Eternal One.

Modernism was no answer. The church must go beyond it.

"And this comes from a modernist!"  Fosdick proclaimed.

So, here we are...all post-modern, and the same question of faith and science comes up, and I see us back-tracking, making assumptions that the discovery of quantum mechanics, dark matter, and the Higgs Boson particle means we aren't taking people seriously or science seriously.

I beg to differ. We've always done so, but we have to move beyond this conversation.

We must move beyond making this conversation the primary function of theology. That's a rat race.

If this is our primary conversation, we Christians will be ever (and only) in a position of reactivity, with nothing of depth and substance to offer the people of the world.

I've one more post to go. Fosdick doesn't stop with this statement to "go beyond." No. He has some ideas as to what that might look like.

Until then, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

What does "going beyond modernism" mean to you?

What do you recommend or does the idea sound like mere hokum?

*** Yes, I know. I've been blogging about Fosdick a lot lately. I'm reading a book of his sermons. Very interesting stuff.

Tripp Hudgins is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., and associate pastor of First Baptist Church of Palo Alto, Calif. You can read more of his writings on his longtime blog, "Conjectural Navel Gazing; Jesus in Lint Form" at AngloBaptist.orgFollow Tripp on Twitter @AngloBaptist.

Images: Jesus walking a footed fish by Jef Thompson/Shutterstock. Portrait of Harry Emerson Fosdick (taken in 1926) from the New York Public Library Digital Gallery, in: "The Pageant of America" Collection > v.10 - American idealism Item/Page/Plate Number: 10.531 Digital Image ID: 97363 Digital Record ID: 134938. Via Wiki Commons.

Sojourners relies on the support of readers like you to sustain our message and ministry.

Related Stories

Resources

Like what you're reading? Get Sojourners E-Mail updates!

Sojourners Comment Community Covenant

I will express myself with civility, courtesy, and respect for every member of the Sojourners online community, especially toward those with whom I disagree, even if I feel disrespected by them. (Romans 12:17-21)

I will express my disagreements with other community members' ideas without insulting, mocking, or slandering them personally. (Matthew 5:22)

I will not exaggerate others' beliefs nor make unfounded prejudicial assumptions based on labels, categories, or stereotypes. I will always extend the benefit of the doubt. (Ephesians 4:29)

I will hold others accountable by clicking "report" on comments that violate these principles, based not on what ideas are expressed but on how they're expressed. (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)

I understand that comments reported as abusive are reviewed by Sojourners staff and are subject to removal. Repeat offenders will be blocked from making further comments. (Proverbs 18:7)