What I Learned at Exploring Origins

January 28th, 2014 / 7 Comments

The Exploring Origins conference at Point Loma Nazarene University was a great success! I’m grateful to the many who attended and to those who led in various ways. This aspect of the Nazarenes Exploring Evolution project, however, taught me some things.

My conference co-director, Mark Mann, and I put together a strong program and lineup of speakers. We emphasized table discussions, panels and workshops, and I’ve been hearing very positive reports indicating these were helpful. We included speakers from multiple perspectives. The spirits of those who left the event were, for the most part, positive and upbeat. Here’s a 2-minute video summary of the conference.

Now that the conference is over, I’ve been thinking about highlights, lessons learned, and prospects for the future. Here, in no particular order, are my reflections.

—  Nazarenes agree God is Creator but may disagree on how God creates.

The overwhelming majority of the 200+ conference attendees thought evolution was compatible with the idea that God creates. In fact, probably only a handful of young-earth creationists attended, although Answers in Genesis had a booktable and Georgia Purdom was a plenary and workshop speaker. While I’m sure the conference attendance numbers did not represent the overall percentage of young-earth creationists who are members of the Church of the Nazarene, I am confident that Christians stand united under the claim that God is our Creator.

—  Evolutionary creationists and young-earth creationists both care about the Bible.

I was pleased at how central the Bible was for so many speakers. It reminded me that what is really at stake are claims about how the Bible should be interpreted and what role it should play in relation to science. For instance, young-earth creationists typically interpret Genesis 1 and 2 in a rather straightforward, literal fashion. Evolutionary creationists tend to interpret the same Scripture as telling us theological truths but not necessarily scientific truths. They believe the genre of Genesis is different from the genre of science. Many Nazarenes Exploring Evolution essays posted online illustrate this point.

—  Most U.S. Nazarene scholars of ministry or science think evolution is compatible with believing God is Creator.

Prior to the conference, 10-question survey was sent to professors of ministry and professors of science in the universities, colleges, and seminary in the United States. A little more than half took this survey, and the full results are now available in the new book, Nazarenes Exploring Evolution.

Here, for instance are the results of one survey question: Eighty-four percent (84%) of ministry professors agreed or strongly agreed that the Church of the Nazarene should allow the theory that God creates through evolution as one acceptable view of creation among others, and only eight percent (8%) disagreed or strongly disagreed. Ninety-three percent (93%) of science professors agreed or strongly agreed that the Church of the Nazarene should allow the theory that God creates through evolution as one acceptable view of creation among others, and none (0%) disagreed or strongly disagreed.

Here is one of the ten sets of survey graphs I showed at the conference:

—  The conversation about evolution can be difficult but is important.

We began the Exploring Origins conference with worship and Eucharist. I think this set the right tone, because I heard few demeaning statements during the time we were together. In my opening presentation, I offered guidelines for conversation that urged attendees to be humble, discerning, kind, open to others, and respectful of authorities. The overwhelming majority followed these guidelines. But there were a few statements and materials that subtly sent demeaning messages about the views of others. I wished those had been otherwise. I had hoped for 100% affirmation of others even when we disagreed. I was reminded that we have work to do to speak well about those who hold contrary views.

—  The Church of the Nazarene needs a new statement about creation.

The current statement on creation in the appendix of the denomination’s Manual offers these brief words: “The Church of the Nazarene believes in the biblical account of creation (‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…’ –Genesis 1:1). We oppose any godless interpretation of the origin of the universe and of humankind (Hebrews 11:3).” A number of those at the recent Exploring Origins worked to suggest ways to enhance this statement. They offered brief but substantial ideas that seem helpful. Perhaps their work will eventually come to fruition.

—  We have more to explore and more conversations to be shared.

The Exploring Origins conference concluded with a brainstorming session about where things should go after we left PLNU. The suggestions were helpful and energizing. Many said we need ways to expand the conversation. Others emphasized the need to model Christ-like conversations on this difficult topic. The consensus was that the conversation was important not only for seeking truth, but also to encourage scientists in the pews and show young people that the denomination takes scientific and biblical truths seriously.

I’m not yet sure about the particulars of all of this. I plan to keep facilitating the conversation and offer proposals I hope others will find helpful. I am cheered that so many believe talking about evolution and Christian faith is a central concern for the growth and maturity of the Church of the Nazarene.

I conclude by expressing my heart-felt appreciation to Sherri Walker, my colleague in this overall project. She did nearly all the essay editing, she networked, and she organized the book we co-edited. Her project activities will taper off soon, but I want to acknowledge my great gratitude to her.

Thanks, Sherri!

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Dean Cowles

Thanks Tom and Mark for putting on a great conference. A timely subject and a conversation that needs to continue to be heard in many churches, campuses, etc.  You guys have set up the kind of format and respect that will guide other conferences, forums, classes, bible studies. I think it’s appropriate that your blog title really is at the heart of these kinds of debates in the church: Love of wisdom and wisdom of love. May we agree to love one another as we come to “reason together”.

Jennifer Chase

I echo Dean’s thanks!

I do wish that we had more time for the “well, what SHOULD the manual say” discussion. For one thing, it was another version of your good table discussion questions…directing the discussion towards a positive STATEMENT. However, it (at least for the science group) was not nearly enough time for the variety of ideas to be shared. There were so many different thoughts, all good, that I wanted to hear & digest. I could imagine that I would have felt similarly if I’d gone to the theology or Bible groups.

I am looking forward to at least hearing about the next in the series of “Nazarenes in Dialogue”…. whatever topic might next need to be engaged. Thanks for all your work & leadership (particularly in the TONE of the whole meeting)

Mark Winslow

This was a great conference!  Thank you Tom and Mark!

What I really enjoyed was the discussions around the table and the opportunity to hear the hearts of our pastors who wrestle with how to respond to these issues (and other controversies) with their church members.  I was struck by the sincerity of their pastoral care and empathy. Also, what a great opportunity for scientists and theologians to mix and see that we are on the same page and have much to offer each other in the ongoing story of the Church of the Nazarene!

Ben Duarte

Hi Tom, thank you for sharing your experience at Exploring Origins. Seemed like an enjoyable conference. In the field of Natural Theology, Science, and Philosophy, of course we see ‘young and old earth theory’ and evolutionary creation. However, why does this mean that the Church of the Nazarene needs a new statement about creation? If every theory of the universe (Cosmological, Teleological, and Ontological) holds ‘God’ as the first cause? It seems that God still ‘created the heavens and the earth’ and isn’t the issue to include theories that could be considered the ‘biblical account’?

Sharon Young

The conference was great.  I enjoyed the content and also meeting old friends and making new ones.  Reading Augustine’s commentary on Genesis 1, I am struck by how similar his thoughts to our discussion.  While stating how absurd, foolish, preposterous a literal interpretation would be, he had pastoral concern for the learned debasing the common folks, and concern that the weak would have their faith undermined. There is nothing new under the sun.

Charles Marvin

Dialogue is a tool toward insightful understanding.  A “slippery slope” often becomes a risk that should not be ignored. Some who embrace theistic evolution, e.g., would also assign Adam to symbol, rather than an actual person.  That contrasts with such references as Jesus being the “second Adam,” “as in Adam all die . . .,” etc.

Pam Anderson

Thank you for having us at the conference. We have a special place in our hearts for PLNU. Thank you Mark Mann for your warm welcome and kind words.
I do have a question that immediately came up as the conference began, and I have yet to see the answer.

Does the survey of opinions of the men determine truth?

I challenge all attendees to really seek God on this. God is not far from any one of us when we call on Him, and He will uphold His word and the Glory due His name.
We owe God the honor. Its all about Him. His is the authority I would be the concerned about respecting.

Numbers 23:19 “God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent. Has He said, and will He not do? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?”

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