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Review and Reflections on Science and the Spirit: A Pentecostal Engagement with the Sciences

by Dr. Jeff Hittenberger


On February 25, 2010, a thousand leaders from more than a hundred institutions belonging to the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) gathered in Atlanta, Georgia, for CCCU’s International Forum. The plenary speaker that morning was Francis Collins, a physician-geneticist who led the project that successfully mapped the human genome. Collins is a master communicator and his presentation spoke to the relationship between faith and science, a relationship he addressed in his 2006 book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (Free Press). Speaking to an evangelical audience, Collins repeated his conviction that a profound faith in Christ is fully compatible with an embrace of the scientific evidence for evolution.

Addressing the question of human origins, Collins noted that evangelicals have historically drawn the line between creationism and evolution, but argued that the appropriate line would be drawn between theistic views of origins (whether the mechanism of creation be evolution or something else) and atheistic views.

As he approached the end of his presentation, Collins brought out his acoustic guitar and began to play the tune of the hymn “Jesus, What a Friend for Sinners.” Instead of the traditional lyrics of the hymn, Collins invited us to sing alternative lyrics written by Doctor Thomas Troeger:


Praise the source of faith and learning who has sparked and stoked the mind
With a passion for discerning how the world has been designed.
Let the sense of wonder flowing from the wonders we survey
Keep our faith forever growing and renew our need to pray.

As two currents in a river fight each other's undertow
Till converging they deliver one coherent steady flow,
Blend, O God, our faith and learning till they carve a single course
While they join as one returning praise and thanks to you their source.


Baptists, Pentecostals, Nazarenes, and fellow believers from many denominations seemed to respond enthusiastically to Collins’ vision of an integration of science and Spirit. Traditional creationists might have found Collins’ embrace of theistic evolution unsettling, as would atheistic evolutionists like Richard Dawkins, who would likely have been deeply troubled to hear the Director of the National Institutes of Health champion faith in Christ as foundational to the fullest and truest understanding of the world. The scene suggested that followers of Christ are now engaged in a fresh way in the conversation about the relationship between science and faith.

Science and the Spirit makes a strong contribution to Pentecostal engagement in this conversation.

Pentecostals are increasingly immersed in higher education at every level and more Pentecostals are entering the sciences and are working in technology, engineering, medicine and other fields that require a deep understanding of science. Pentecostals are ready to talk about science in ways that go beyond the science vs. faith antipathy characteristic of the fundamentalist/modernist controversy.

Science and the Spirit’s ten chapters cover the relationship between Pentecostal worldview and a number of different disciplines: Biology, Physics, Neuroscience, Psychology, Anthropology, Sociology, and Technology. In their introductory chapter, James K.A. Smith and Amos Yong ask a thought-provoking question that frames the content of the chapters that follow: “Can a pentecostal worldview—which is focused on the miraculous and fantastic—inhabit the same world as and the same cultural space as naturalistic science? Or are the two doomed to remain sequestered in parallel universes?” (p. 5).

Not surprisingly, the authors universally assert that Pentecostalism and science can and do inhabit that world and space together, and that the dialogue between the two has the potential to enrich all concerned.

However, the authors acknowledge that conflicts remain. Pentecostals have too often denied the benefits of science in areas like the treatment of disease or mental illness, engaging in a kind of spiritual reductionism. Conversely, Pentecostals and other theists have often been excluded from scientific conversations by naturalistic reductionists.

To address both the real conflicts and the potential affinities, the editors advocate a “two-way street”: “On the one hand, our goal is to help Pentecostals appreciate why it is important for Pentecostals to not only ‘engage’ the sciences but also contribute to and participate in the project of encouraging those called to do the work of science. There is, one might say, a kind of inverse apologetic at work here, trying to ‘defend’ the sciences against common Pentecostal suspicion and antipathy. But on the other hand, many of the chapters also articulate a distinctly Pentecostal account of the sciences that sometimes requires ‘defending’ Pentecostal spirituality in the face of its cultured, scientific despisers” (p. 6).

The chapters contain many examples of creative ways Pentecostal spirituality can complement scientific inquiry. Three examples, of many that could be cited, are as follows:

-          Frederick Ware, in his chapter entitled “Can Religious Experience Be Reduced to Brain Activity? The Place and Significance of Pentecostal Narrative,” suggests a multifaceted approach to the study of human consciousness that takes seriously narrative descriptions of self-transcending experiences and goes beyond scientistic models that reduce the mind to brain chemistry. Pentecostalism is rich in such narratives of self-transcendence, and Ware highlights the experiences of Charles Mason, the founder of the Church of God in Christ.

-          Donald F. Calbreath, in his chapter entitled “Serotonin and the Spirit: Can there be a Holistic Pentecostal Approach to Mental Illness?” offers an integrative view of depression and a new paradigm for dealing with depression that integrates the work of the Holy Spirit with cognitive behavioral therapy and its pastoral counseling equivalent.

-          Craig Scandret-Letterman, in his chapter entitled “Can Social Scientists Dance? Participating in Science, Spirit, and Social Reconstruction as an Anthropologist and Afropentecostal,” ( I note parenthetically that the chapter titles alone are worth the price of the book) draws on Michael Polanyi’s work to show that anthropology and Pentecostalism share a belief in the value of participation as a means of knowing. Following Polanyi, Scandret-Letterman rejects the modernist belief that “if you can’t say it, you don’t know it.” In fact, both anthropology and Pentecostalism recognize that much truth goes deeper than what can be articulated in propositional language and must simply be lived. “In Polanyi’s language, tacit or embodied knowledge takes primacy over verbal or explicit knowledge. Glossolalia,” writes Scandret-Letterman, “is both the body’s most primitive communicative act and an esoteric spiritual language” (p. 165).

The intent of the editors is that this book be accessible to undergraduate students in Pentecostal institutions. How well will the book work for that purpose? On the plus side, many chapters contain vignettes that highlight the challenges facing undergraduates as they seek to integrate their faith with science in a world that has dichotomized the two. Fine examples of such vignettes are those in the chapters written by Steve Badger and Mike Tenneson, “Does the Spirit Create Through Evolutionary Processes? Pentecostals and Biological Evolution” and by Dennis Cheek, “Is there Room for the Spirit in a World Dominated by Technology? Pentecostals and the Technological World.” Also on the plus side, the authors generally offer clear language and cogent arguments. The volume is well-edited and of high academic quality. Furthermore, Science and the Spirit offers an unwavering commitment to the centrality of Christ and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, such that it will serve not only as an academic inquiry, but also a resource for spiritual formation. As a father, I’d be delighted to have my daughter study this book in a Pentecostal college. As a Provost, I’d be delighted to have the book as a resource in classes at Vanguard University.

With regard to challenges, I would suggest that most freshmen would struggle with the language and concepts in the book. Advanced students would get it, but most students would need, I think, scaffolding that is not provided within the book, scaffolding that could be provided by skilled instructors, certainly. My inclination would be to use this book in upper division classes that assume some theological and scientific literacy based on the completion of the general education sequence.

A final reflection has to do with the treatment of the topic of evolution in Science and the Spirit. This remains, I believe, the stickiest wicket in the relationship between Pentecostalism and science. The authors who mention the topic seem to share Francis Collins’ perspective that theistic evolution is a viable option for Christians.

Badger and Tenneson’s chapter on Pentecostals and biological evolution provides a particularly helpful overview of five alternative perspectives of origins, three of which are theistic and two of which are atheistic. The third of these is represented by those they refer to as “evolutionary creationists.” Badger and Tenneson discuss the results of surveys of Pentecostal professors that show a significant number embracing this perspective, as well as the “young earth” and “old earth” creationist perspectives. They also provide helpful distinctions between the concept of microevolution, small genetic changes over time, and macroevolution, common descent with modifications. They point out some of the evidence that leads Christians to embrace the idea of macroevolution and offer some of the critiques of that perspective offered by young earth and old earth creationists. The authors do not advocate for any of the three, but instead provide a framework for civil discussion among Pentecostals about the scientific evidence as well as the parallel theological and moral issues. “Pentecostals should seek and anticipate the guidance of the Holy Spirit,” they write, “as they participate in enterprises that attempt to integrate the truth revealed in God’s Word with the truth revealed in God’s creation (Romans 1:18-20). The Spirit may have played a greater creative role through evolutionary processes than we previously thought” (p. 109).

 This question, like many others raised in Science and the Spirit, is far from settled. As the editors point out, the book lacks a thorough discussion of biblical hermeneutics in reference to issues of origins. It also lacks a substantive discussion of the theological and ethical implications of an understanding of origins based on the mechanism of natural selection or ‘survival of the fittest.’

Pentecostals and other followers of Christ who rightly wish to more fully engage with science will need to grapple more with the still thorny issues surrounding theology and evolution. The serious discussion of issues like these will be enhanced by the kind of careful thinking at work in this collection.

In conclusion, Science and the Spirit offers Pentecostals and others an outstanding resource for more fully exploring all that science has to offer people of the Spirit and all that the Spirit has to offer to people of science. The final stanza of Collins’ CCCU hymn reminds us that all these discussions must be informed by the acknowledgement of our human limitations and our utter reliance on the God of creation:


God of wisdom, we acknowledge that our science and our art
And the breadth of human knowledge only partial truth impart.
Far beyond our calculation lies a depth we cannot sound
Where Your purpose for creation and the pulse of life are found.


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