Church ill-equipped on science issues, task force says
A task force exploring the relationship between science and theology has discovered that a majority of United Methodist congregations are ill-equipped to form theological perspectives on the matter.
More than 125 people with expertise in that area contributed ideas and provided input for the report coming to the April 27-May 7 legislative meeting of the United Methodist General Conference.
In its report, the nine-member task force, mandated by the 2000 General Conference, examines how people of faith and a culture of scientific exploration and advancement can co-exist in healthy and productive ways.
Church leaders were concerned "that science and religion are becoming culturally estranged, and, in fact, are competing with each other," said the Rev. Dan Dick, chairperson and primary researcher of the task force and a staff member of the United Methodist Board of Discipleship.
"Science and theology are impacting our culture significantly," he said, noting that the frontiers of genetics, artificial intelligence, robotics and cloning raise new questions regarding the meaning of human life.
According to Dick, the two primary issues for the task force were defining the parameters for discourse on the relationship between science and theology and integrating sound theological reasoning with the disciplines of good scientific methods.
"The United Methodist Church has not done a good job of equipping people to think theologically and to apply the best methods of critical thinking to their faith," he said. Because truth and opinion are often confused, he added, dialogue with members of the scientific community is "extremely" difficult.
The difficulty stems from the position of belief in a creator God. "The major dispute from this base is whether science is a gift from God or is a human construct allowing us to 'play God,'" Dick explained.
The opinion formed by the task force is that humans reflect the image of God, he said, and that it is not imperative to arrive at a single belief about whether God initiated all things and then stepped back to allow natural laws to drive creation or whether God is continuously interacting with the natural order as it exists today.
"At this point in our human development, neither science nor theology offers much to prove or disapprove God," he added.
United Methodists must develop a theological sophistication about science if their mission to the world is to be effective, according to the task force report. The church has the responsibility to think theologically and ethically about the implications of cloning, genetic engineering, biological weaponry, space exploration and the extension of human life. These issues will impact pastoral care and counseling in the future as well as challenge the realm of social justice.
"We can do almost anything conceivable, but does it mean we should?" Dick asked.
In the report to General Conference, the task force findings include the discovery that false barriers between science and theology are being erected. Science and theology also are treated as abstract concepts instead of being part of daily life.
During the past four years, Dick said he has been asked to state the official position of the United Methodist Church on variety of scientific issues. Other than the Social Principles and related passages in the United Methodist Book of Discipline, the denomination has no official position, "leaving the people called Methodists to wrestle with monumental questions," he said.
The task force is recommending that an appropriate body be formed or appointed to create a theological statement for the denomination about the relationship between science and theology.
The task force also is sponsoring resolutions asking General Conference to delegate responsibility to several churchwide agencies to create some specific resources for congregations. "Our hope is that we might draw from the best expertise within our denomination to assist churches in the exploration of the relationship between science and theology," Dick said.
The entire report may be read online at www.gbod.org/legislation/s&t.doc.
*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer in Nashville, Tenn. News media can contact Linda Green at (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.