In 1981, Langdon Gilkey, professor of theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School, found himself embroiled in a church-state battle in Arkansas that would eventually be known as McLean v. the Arkansas Board of Education. The case was the result of a suit filed in response to the Arkansas legislature mandating that creationism be taught alongside evolution.
Gilkey, a Baptist, was called as an expert witness. His role was to argue that creationism was in fact a religious belief and not really science. As such, the plaintiffs contended, the mandatory teaching of creationism constituted an establishment of religion and was in violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
In preparing for his testimony, Gilkey studied the proceedings from an earlier church-state battle – the 1925 Scopes trial. In this famous trial, William Jennings Bryant argued that the Bible was the final authority on all human knowledge. Therefore, subordinating biblical teaching to the findings or speculations of science, he contended, was patently wrong.
Bryant won that court case, but lost the war. In the 1950s and 60s, in response to the growing threat of communism, America began to aggressively beef up the teaching of science in public schools. As a result, science as the primary method for understanding our world marched steadily forward. We see its effects today in the technological whiz-bang that now characterizes our modern world.
But the fundamentalist branch of Christianity continued to resist the idea of evolution. They refused to accept the conclusions of science, complaining that it was a matter of “theory” rather than fact. Eventually, that resistance generated the ideas behind creationism and a way of presenting the biblical idea of a Creator in the language of science.
Gilkey found this approach surprising. Previously, in the Scopes trial, the argument put forward was that faith is superior to science. But in the Arkansas case, creationists argued that their view met the same standards of evidence as any other scientific theory. Or to say it another way, in order to have the doctrine of creation taught in public schools, creationists were willing to yield to science the role as the final arbiter of truth. If science supports biblical claims, they must be true.
This has become something of a pattern for many Christians. Out of a desire to have faith validated and affirmed by wider culture, some in the Christian community have allowed their beliefs and practices to be hijacked and used for other purposes.
Examples of this hijacking are everywhere. Worship and Scripture have been snatched away from local churches and given into the hands of political operatives. That which is intended to satisfy our deepest spiritual longings is manipulated in an effort to get votes. I don’t know which is worse – that politicians do it or that we fall for it. Either way, it is authentic faith that loses.
And the losses are serious. As we allow faith to be redefined as scientific truth, or political ideology, what we are actually doing is subordinating faith to these other realities. Faith as science or faith as politics is really just science and politics.
Faith is not a tool we use to make the world be what we want it to be. Faith and its disciplines are instruments of grace that God uses to make us into what the divine will wants us to be. Our failure to understand faith in this way will almost certainly contribute to its steady decline.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.