2004 International Faith and Science Conference


Summary and Commentary

By John Thomas McLarty

Enumclaw, WA September 13, 2004: I am writing this two weeks after the close of the 2004 International Faith and Science Conference, working from my notes and from memory. In previous reports I’ve tried to give rather objective information about the specific events of each day. In this report, I will be more comprehensive and subjective.

Sitting through the deliberations on the final day of the conference, I could not escape the feeling that I was watching a contest between scientists and theologians. With the debates and struggles within Islam in the back of my mind, I listened to theologians vigorously asserting the authority of the church over any science that might question the traditional teachings of the church. I heard scientists timidly responding that they could only bend their view of reality so far in an effort to bring it into line with what they were supposed to observe.

This was in marked contrast to the conference sponsored by the North American Division (NAD) of last year. There, I heard eloquent, forceful defenses of Adventist tradition and pointed, unmistakable challenges to that tradition. In this conference, it seemed that the church leaders and conference organizers had deliberately structured this conference to insure a conservative outcome. This was especially evident on the last day of the conference.

It was clear the theologians would win. They were in the clear numerical majority (if you include the administrators with the academic theologians). They claimed to hold the high ground theologically. (Their God was more just and more merciful than the god of long ages.) They unquestionably held the high ground politically. (They were re-affirming Adventist history and our historic identity and knew that they enjoyed the support of the vast majority of Adventist laity.) They attacked those with more liberal positions with impunity, knowing that theologians rarely lose their jobs for being too conservative.

As the rhetoric of the conservatives grew more strident, there were cautions from surprising sources. Several older men with strong reputations as defenders of conservative views, rose to caution against the narrowing of the church called for by the younger hotheads. Because of their unquestionable stature as defenders of conservative views, their protests against the lurching to the right appeared to have some effect. There were a few speeches by progressives, but they lacked the fiery call to arms that characterized the most outspoken conservatives, and did not seem to find much resonance in the room.

The day ended with a statement by the General Conference president. In his remarks he clearly sided with the theologians: Our church is not going to change its theology. It is not going to soften its commitment to teaching that life first originated on earth during a single creation week about six thousand years ago. He could not have been more unequivocal. But after declaring the immutability of Adventist doctrine, he spoke pastorally to the scientists and other scholars whose work involves them in areas of study which raise questions about the church’s historic teachings. To them he said, "The church needs you. Please do not walk away."

In my view, Elder Paulsen’s speech was a masterpiece of pastoral guidance. He preserved the theology which holds our church together, and he created space within our church family for the on-going work of scientists (and other scholars) even if it is controversial and troubling for conservative theologians.

All that I have written so far has to be qualified. My statements about the conference being a contest between theologians and scientists reflect the way I "felt" it on Thursday. The reality, however, is much more complex than that. The conservative position (that all of life first appeared during a single week a few thousand years ago) is strongly advocated by scientists as well as theologians. The liberal position (that our understanding of the time and processes of creation should be informed by science) is strongly advocated by theologians as well as scientists. But having acknowledged this diversity among the people advocating various positions, I must tell you that as I sat and listened on that final Thursday, I could not help seeing in my mind’s eye pictures of Galileo on trial before the Dominicans and thinking of reports of the tyranny of Iran’s ayatollahs and Afghanistan’s Taliban.

There was one significant difference in this conference from Adventist creation science rhetoric of thirty or forty years ago. In the "old days," Adventists regularly dismissed scientists who talked of a long chronology or evolution as evil people. These evolutionists were trying to prove there was no God so they could sin with impunity. Their science was a defense against moral accountability.

In this conference there was talk of the way one’s presuppositions drive one’s interpretation of data. If you begin with a paradigm that excludes divine activity, it is not likely that you will notice any evidence of God’s involvement in the process. But there was public recognition by even stout conservatives that people came to the "wrong" conclusions through honest study and sometimes because of very strong evidence.

Church leaders and conservative theologians repeatedly talked about the danger of changing any of our religious understandings. They did not make the fine distinctions that historians of theology might, between doctrine and theology. There was no notice given by the conservatives to the fact that if they themselves were tried by the standards of "Adventist Creation Science" extant in 1930, nearly all of them would have been ruled unfit to teach in Adventist schools. In 1930, Adventists, under the tutelage of George McCready Price, denied the reality of the geologic column. Most Adventists believed that the sun was actually created on the fourth day of creation week, after the earth had been formed and vegetated.

In contrast, nearly all the conservative theologians at the seminary believe the universe, our galaxy and the solar system including earth are billions of years old. They dispute conventional geochronology only when it is applied to life on earth.

There has been movement in the thinking of the church. And there will continue to be. One definition used by Roman Catholics to define orthodoxy is that which has always been believed by all Catholics everywhere. When the doctrine of papal infallibility was voted in the 1870, and when the bodily assumption of Mary was declared to be dogma in 1950, the Catholic Church asserted they were simply making a public statement about what the church had always believed. Historians would call this historical fiction. Adventists should eschew historical fiction. We have changed over time. We have changed our understanding of the gospel (1888), the judgment (Shut Door) and the nature of God (from Arian to Trinitarian). These are not trivial matters. And in the case of our belief about judgment, the older view was explicitly, publicly affirmed by Ellen White speaking as a prophet.

"Never Changing" is not an appropriate objective for the church. Pursuit of the truth and love is. Our love for each other will constrain the "prophets" among us who want to remodel the church according to their "new light." On the other hand, if love of the communal status quo blinds us to new, even iconoclastic truth, our love may become dysfunctional, and eventually we will be handicapped in our mission to represent God in the world.

This conference ended where the first began one three years ago, with a strong affirmation that the Adventist Church believes and teaches what it always has: Life first appeared on earth during a week-long creation a few thousand years ago. The final document will give voice to this conclusion. The majority of those present share this conviction.

What will only be hinted in the final document is another fact: A significant percentage of the teachers in Adventist colleges and universities in North America find that the more they study, the less confident they are that our traditional views can be supported. These teachers love the church and its message and mission. They demonstrate that love by working under daunting academic loads for a fraction of the pay they could receive elsewhere. They were nearly invisible at the two international conferences. But they are the backbone of science education in Adventist schools. These conferences came up with no new initiatives to ferret out and purge these questioners. Nor did anyone offer a serious proposal for how the church might craft a program of science education that will be both scientifically effective and ecclesiastically "safe."

With the conferences concluded, the church faces an old challenge: How do people who believe God has called them together to be a community which proclaims the truth, continue to pursue the truth without losing the community? How does the church pursue "purity" in its message and mission without falling into the destructive "tare-pulling" zeal rebuked by Jesus? I believe it can be done, but only with a supernatural mixture of strong leadership and humility.