Christianity, Pentecostalism, Issues in Science and Religion

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Christianity, Pentecostalism, Issues in Science and Religion

Describing overall Pentecostal attitudes and relationships to science is difficult given the diversity of the movement. What historians call classical Pentecostalism (denominational groups whose origins are traced back to the Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles from 1906 to 1908) does not adequately encompass the substantially diverse noninstitutional forms of the movement featured since its beginnings, including the development of its educational structure, much less its neo-Pentecostal aspects emergent since the charismatic renewal of mainline churches during the 1950s. Further, the predominance of oral over written modes of communication, especially among non-Western Pentecostal movements, means that specific documentary evidence regarding Pentecostal attitudes of laypersons to science is relatively meager.

Because of their otherworldly orientation, Pentecostals have been either relatively silent about or dismissive of the sciences. Administrators of Pentecostal institutions have had degrees in the humanities or in education, not in the natural sciences. Pentecostalism, being a missionary religion, felt little need for scientific involvement until the last half of the twentieth century. Some Pentecostals rejected scientific learning, based upon their limited perception of what science actually was, along with some aspects of society and culture as a whole. Yet other facets of the movement, including the emerging Pentecostal educational establishment, provide substantial evidence of growth in scientific studies and applications.

Creation and evolution

Otherworldly aspirations combined with a biblicist mindset and worldview, together with the expectation of the imminent return of Christ, fostered an anti-intellectualism among the vast majority of the first generation Pentecostals. Rather than pursuing a secular education or moving up the social ladder, most early Pentecostals were motivated ideologically primarily by evangelistic concerns, and secondarily by apologetic ones. Pentecostal Bible institutes were focused first and foremost on the development of pastors, missionaries, and church workers, and only minimally, if at all, on scientific education as a liberal art.

Science, insofar as it was understood by these Pentecostals, was an enemy of the faith, primarily because of the popularized claims of evolutionary biologists and paleontologists and their apparent presupposition of the nonexistence of God. At this point in Pentecostal development, these popular claims appeared indistinguishable from the methodology and interests of other branches of science, which were totally unknown territory. Since no Pentecostal expertise was available to sort out the details of experimental evidence and interpretation, the sciences did not seem safe. As with many Christians of their time, Pentecostals rejected the Darwinian theory of evolution as being antithetical to a literal reading of the biblical creation narratives. The widespread influence of the Scofield Reference Bible (1909) among early Pentecostals led many to adopt the gap theory of temporally ambiguous intervals between the Genesis narrator's "days." Unbeknownst to the Pentecostals, and probably to the writers of the Scofield Bible, this interpretation, or one of equating the "days" with temporally ambiguous periods, was equivalent to the mainstream of contemporary European Old Testament and Torah scholarship before, during, and after the introduction, in 1859, of Charles Darwin's speculative thesis with The Origin of Species.

Beginning in the 1930s and 1940s, a handful of second and third generation Pentecostals were drawn, out of curiosity and thoughtfulness, to study the sciences at universities, primarily biology, studies not encouraged by the elder generation. It began to dawn that medical missions created the need for biological sciences. At the same time, by distancing themselves from fundamentalism and affiliating with the emergent evangelical movement in the 1940s, Pentecostals purchased some social space for members of the movement interested in the sciences.

By the 1950s and 1960s, the initial avoid-and-reject mentality toward evolutionary biology remained among Pentecostal leaders but existed in tension with the discriminating worldview prevalent among the emerging group of college educated adherents. However, the acquisition of academic history by leaders in education, theology, or various humanities did not always erase an anti-intellectual and suspicious posture toward the sciences. Yet, Bible college and Bible institute educators and administrators sensed the need for providing an alternative "Pentecostal" program of study for Pentecostals desiring a college education. This led to the development of departments in the humanities and the sciences, and the offering of degrees in most of the liberal arts.

The scientific liberal arts, however, proved expensive to offer and did not command the enrollment and tuition dollars of other subjects. The quest for regional accreditation was a strong motivating force, but outside scrutiny and pressure did not overcome the traditional resistance to scientific competence. Faculty were sought with at least graduate, if not terminal, degrees in the humanities, mathematics, and the natural sciences, but the approach was, understandably, geared toward the primary realization that academic history had accreditational benefits. The established tradition in the world's universities and participating governments was that academic history, particularly in the natural sciences, is preparatory to the goal of academic production but this remained a totally unknown domain to Pentecostals. The established link between academic history and scholarly research and production, and between academic history, academic production, and teaching, would take at least another half century or more to be understood and become financially feasible at Pentecostal institutions. As Pentecostalism enters its second century, these scientific traditions are fairly well established at some of the leading Pentecostal institutions like Oral Roberts University (ORU) in Tulsa, Okalahoma, and Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee.

Meanwhile, Pentecostal attitudes toward creation and macroevolution have continued to develop. The appearance of Dake's Annotated Reference Bible (1963) provided further "scientific evidence" for the gap or day-age interpretation already popular among many Pentecostals. The emergence of young earth creationism in fundamentalist and conservative evangelical circles caused alarm among Pentecostal science departments, and the Society for Pentecostal Studies was warned early on by the head of the science department at Lee university, Dr. Myrtle Fleming, to "distinguish between fact and theory, original works (experimental evidence), and philosopher's thinking" (Numbers p. 307). Pentecostal administrators have considered young earth creationism an embarrassment, with some institutions refusing to hire faculty in any discipline, scientific or otherwise, who adhere to this ideology. Many prominent Pentecostal evangelists and leaders have also opposed the Darwinian theory of evolution, while others have adopted literary understandings of the creation narratives that are harmonious with science. For many Pentecostal theologians and scientists the so-called theistic evolution (macroevolution with divine guidance) also appears incompatible both with biblical interpretation and with the experimental findings of modern science.

Yet, increasingly, Pentecostals educated in the sciences are suspicious about dogmatic approaches to superimposing macroevolution upon the physical evidence. There is emerging interest in paleontology, paleoastronomy, paleobiology, and paleogeology. Old style reactionary or rhetorical polemic from evolutionary biologists against the abrupt appearance of species, especially in light of the Cambrian explosion of life forms and, for example, the recent extraction of DNA from a hominid fossil, carries less weight among Pentecostal scientists and educators. As more and more Pentecostals are receiving graduate education and achieving doctoral degrees in the sciences, there is a sense in which the older creation-evolution debates are no longer an issue. New experimental results can now be assessed in an atmosphere where the hidden presupposition of the nonexistence of God is out in the open. The ongoing study of microevolutionary mechanisms, while rejecting ideologically motivated macroevolutionary changes per se until scientific evidence strongly suggests otherwise, is a responsible position taken by the majority of Pentecostal scientists. The ideology of carte blanche macroevolution not only contradicts much scientific evidence outright, but is imbued with unnecessarily confining naturalistic, atheistic, and Darwinian presuppositions that are no longer fashionable to many in the scientific community. Further, while contemporary Pentecostalism may host a few anomalous advocates of young earth creationism, it has made little headway among Pentecostals. Pentecostal, Orthodox, and Jewish interpretation is overwhelmingly in favor of understanding the "days" of the Genesis creation narrative as deliberately ambiguous and temporally indefinite periods. This is consistent with both cosmological observations and with the sudden appearance of diverse species in the extant fossil record as continually investigated by a number of scientific disciplines.

Pentecostalism and medical technology

Another window into the relationship between Pentecostalism and the sciences is provided by Pentecostal attitudes toward the use of medicine and the emerging medical establishment. The biblicism of early Pentecostalism led many to embrace the belief of divine healing insofar as this was explicitly connected with the New Testament practice of speaking in tongues (inspired speech in unlearned language, both human and divine, as conceptually interpreted in the book of Acts, and, differently, in the first epistle of Paul to the Corinthians). In part, given their lack of medical knowledge and the inaccessibility and unaffordability of medicinal supplies, early Pentecostals looked to God for their healing. As such, early Pentecostal attitudes toward medical practitioners and their arts resonated well with faith healer John Alexander Dowie's (18471907) widely circulated pamphlet, which identified the most dreaded disease as the "bacillis lunaticus medicus " (ridiculous bacteria of medicine). The result was that many sectarian Pentecostal groups, especially in the rural Appalachian part of America, rejected medicine and relied solely on the healing power of God, sometimes resulting in the loss of life.

Yet such early Pentecostal polemics were rampant against not only the emergent class of medical doctors, who often made mistakes and appeared unreliable to some, but also against the spiritual healing technologies of the Christian Science movement. Ironically, whereas North American Pentecostals were wary of combining faith and spiritual healing, throughout Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America, Pentecostals have combined the belief in divine healing with shamanistic practices in order to address physical, emotional, and psychological ailments.

However, Pentecostals have always negotiated the tension between a robust belief in faith healing, which repudiated medical technology entirely, and the belief that faith healing and the use of medicine were indeed compatible. As Grant Wacker points out in Heaven Below (2001), medical doctors were found attending early Pentecostal revival services and even participating as members in Pentecostal communities of faith. Over the generations, both the upward social mobility of many Pentecostals and their medical missionary emphases led to an increasing acceptance of the use of medicine. In the 1970s, the establishment of a medical graduate program at ORU, a vanguard institution for neo-Pentecostal and charismatic higher education, followed soon after by their City of Faith Medical and Research Center, signaled the full engagement of the medical sciences among Pentecostals. Yet the ORU motto of educating "the whole man in spirit, mind and body" reflected at the same time the Pentecostal concern for holistic health care strategies. Unsurprisingly, then, polls conducted in the mid 1990s among Pentecostal ministers in Britain revealed that 93.7 percent believe that "modern medicine is a God-given blessing" (Kay, p. 121). It is fair to assume that this percentage is reflective at least of Western Pentecostal attitudes toward the medical sciences.

Arguably, given the emergence of the Pentecostal movement at the turn of the twentieth century, early Pentecostalism can be understood, at least in part, as a reaction to the scientific and technological rationality of that time. Glossolalia (speaking in tongues) is symbolic of the resistance of the masses against the hegemonic discourse of Enlightenment rationalism, as well as of a prayerful desire to be filled with the Holy Spirit. The belief in divine healing could be seen by sociologists as a protest against the failures of medical technology to heal the ills associated with the modernization and urbanization of the nineteenth century, as well as an appropriation of New Testament thought regarding spiritual gifts. As such, Pentecostal spirituality signifies an eruption in the Western world of the nonrational elements of human feeling, expression, and experience that opposes not the rational scientific methodology of science and engineering disciplines but the overextended popular claims of biological science.

In the meantime, however, the limits of scientific rationality have been recognized and acknowledged by the scientific community. For many, the impersonal is no longer preferred to the personal in the new "Era of the Glimpse of God" that began in 1965 with the paradigm-shifting discovery of the cosmic microwave background, followed by its spectacular finely tuned variations in 1992. This new era may have reopened the door for the dialogue that is taking place between humanities scholars in the inexact sciences who are studying Pentecostalism and between the many Pentecostals who are studying and practicing the various sciences. At the beginning of the second century of the Pentecostal "reformation," with over a million churches throughout the world, one of the classical Pentecostal institutions, the Church of God Theological Seminary in Cleveland, Tennessee, now offers a Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry course in Theology and Science.

See also Creationism; Spirituality; Spirituality and Faith Healing


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amos yong

paul elbert

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Christianity, Pentecostalism, Issues in Science and Religion

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Christianity, Pentecostalism, Issues in Science and Religion