Shuck and Jive

Friday, June 27, 2014

Evolution Resolution

My commissioner's resolution regarding The Clergy Letter Project and Evolution Sunday got two votes!   We will build on that.  The vote was 47-2 against my resolution.   Nowhere to go but up.   I am hoping that interested folks in other presbyteries might craft something that will work next time around.

Here is the resolution and comments from advisory committees on PC-Biz.

The only press it received was from my friends at the Layman. The Layman wrote two articles about it.  One before the debate and a second describing what happened.

Here is the text of the speech I gave to the committee to offer the resolution's background and intent.
I am John Shuck, teaching elder commissioner from Holston Presbytery.

I am the pastor the First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton, Tennessee.
Here is the background for this resolution.

This resolution originated in our science and spirit discussion group of my congregation.  Our group meets monthly and explores the intersection of science and faith.    Three members of the group created this resolution.   Each is a science educator and has devoted his or her life to science education.

David Roane is a member on session and the founding chair of the Pharmaceutical Sciences Department at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tennessee.

Jeff Wardeska, also a member of session, is a retired Chemistry professor and former chair of the Chemistry Department at East Tennessee State University.

Julia Wade, a former member of session, is a retired biology professor at Milligan College in Johnson City, Tennessee.
They are people of faith.  They are Presbyterians.  They are asking the PCUSA for assistance in their calling as science educators in regards to evolutionary theory.

This resolution is not about science in general, which the Presbyterian Church has affirmed.  This resolution is specifically focused on evolution.    It is evolution where these scientists face the struggle with churches and popular culture in regards to teaching evolution in our institutions of learning.  Evolution is where the cultural battle rages.  That is the place where the church is being asked to help.
Biologist Michael Zimmerman created The Clergy Letter Project, the letter you have before you, because of this struggle.   The struggle is with school boards and teachers facing pressure to teach creationism, now called intelligent design, as an alternative scientific theory to evolution, which of course, it is not. 

As professor Zimmerman points out, there is no controversy within the scientific community regarding evolution through natural selection.   The controversy is with popular religious culture.   Professor Zimmerman thought if he could get clergy to sign a letter in full support of evolution that might help people of faith who are struggling with perceived conflicts of evolution and faith to support the teaching of evolution in public schools.  There have been nearly 13,000 signatures.    Many Presbyterian clergy have signed this letter including me.   I believe it has helped.
Again, the background for this resolution comes from scientists seeking support from churches and other religious authorities.  They are asking churches to educate their people that evolution in particular, and science in general, is not incompatible with faith.
The intent of this resolution has three parts:
The first is to communicate to the Presbyterian Church and to bear witness to the larger culture that faith and evolution are not incompatible and that evolution should be taught in the public schools not as one theory among many but as a foundational scientific truth. 
The second intent is to communicate to our scientists and to our students of science that the church supports them in the struggle to educate the public in matters of science, and in particular, evolution.  One does not have to set aside one’s faith to accept evolution and one does not have to leave aside what they learn from science, and in particular, evolution, to grow in faith.

The third intent is evangelism.   Endorsing the Clergy Letter and establishing the second Sunday in February on the Presbyterian calendar as Evolution Sunday will bring people to church.    Next to Easter, Evolution Sunday is the biggest Sunday of the year in our congregation.   People come to our church because of Evolution Sunday.   People who have been alienated from church because of its negative attitudes toward evolution have found a home with us.   Through lectures, sermons, worship, and outings we worship God and celebrate in a sacred celebration what we are learning about our natural world.  The scientific theory of evolution through the mechanism of natural selection has transformed the way we understand our natural world.   
The overall intent of this resolution is to communicate that evolution through natural selection is not something for people of faith to fear, or even to tolerate, but to embrace as a sacred story.    It is good news. 
It is fitting to celebrate God’s ongoing creation through the mechanism of natural selection near the birth of the individual who founded it, Charles Darwin.  Because Charles Darwin and his work has often been vilified and misunderstood by the church, it is time to welcome Charles Darwin back to church with open arms and to honor his curiosity along with the curiosity of all scientists as a gift to the church.

Mr. Moderator, thank you for allowing me to provide the background and intent for this resolution.  I will be here for the discussion and at your pleasure, I am available to respond to any questions.

Unfortunately, the committee didn't discuss the resolution when I gave this address.  They heard my speech then debated other matters and didn't come back to it until three hours later, the last thing they did before adjourning.   When the discussion finally happened, comments about it were sparse and went like this:
  1. "I think this is probably a good idea, except the Evolution Sunday part."
  2. "Will this require all clergy to agree?" 
  3. "Not all scientists agree on evolution." 
  4. "Evolution Sunday isn't a religious day." 
  5. "Evolution Sunday is the second Sunday in February and that used to be Black History Sunday. Now we have Black History Month. So I vote no." 
  6. "I have people in my family who believe in evolution and those who don't.  Why add fuel to the fire?"
And that was the show.  47-2 against.

Hey, it was a first try.  Suggestions for improvement might be to eliminate "Evolution Sunday" (even though it is so dear to my heart) and ask the GA to endorse the Clergy Letter Project alone as the United Methodist Church has already done.   Of course, we need more overture advocates and the support of presbyteries.   Other ideas?

We need to be clear on the focus:

We need help from the church in this cultural battle over science, particularly, evolution.

This article offers a reason why.   Neil deGrasse Tyson v. the Right:  Cosmos, Christians and the Battle for American Science.

Here is my interview with Blaine Schubert of the ETSU Natural History Museum who also knows the importance of science education!

Do check out Michael Zimmerman's articles in the Huffington Post and if you are a clergy person and you have not signed the Clergy Letter, please do, and consider celebrating Evolution Sunday or Evolution Weekend next February!


  1. I think it best to write a resolution that builds on previous GA votes. I have a copy of the social policy actions of GA before 1998 and will research on line whatever else may have been said before or since. We should get Chris Iosso of ACSWP on board by fall. When we get a reasonable proposal I will take it to Albany Presbytery. Who else will take it to theirs? I may be able to find people in Chicago and Great Rivers.

  2. Dennis, this is fantastic. I think if we tried to get GA to endorse the letter as opposed to Evolution Sunday, we might have a better chance. Also, perhaps writing a Presbyterian letter might work?

  3. I just discovered this group...

  4. If I didn't do this this morning, it wasn't likely to happen! Limitations here for characters force me to break it up:

    Background for an Overture on Evolution

    So far I have learned that evolution is a matter claimed by or given to Theology and Worship, not ACSWP. The GA refers us to a PCUS statement from 1969 on "Evolution and the Bible." It says: "Neither Scripture, our Confession of Faith [Westminster], nor our Catechisms, teach the Creation of man [sic] by the direct and immediate acts of God so as to exclude the possibility of evolution as a scientific theory." It also said: "Unless it is clearly necessary to uphold a basic Biblical doctrine, the Church is not called upon and should carefully refrain from either affirming or denying the theory of evolution." Any new overture should affirm the “theory” of evolution.

    An overture in 1979 resulted in a paper entitled “The Dialogue between Science and Religion.” This paper deals with the suspicion between the two with no reference to evolution. The next to last paragraph says something that may be useful for a new overture:

    “What is needed is not only the employment of the rationality we now know. We need a new
    rationality, a faith-informed rationality applied to science and a science-informed rationality
    applied to faith. As our decisions in science may then be made in the light of faith, so our thinking in the faith may be carried out with the rigors employed in the scientific method. Faith and science thus complement one another. Faith gives us hope for survival, survival in the sense not only of life but of an acceptable level of life for everyone, and the motivation to achieve conditions for that kind of survival. Science provides the tools intellectual and material, to get on with what we have to do.”

  5. Second part:

    A 1998 Presbyterian Panel survey was done on “Science, Technology, and Faith.” Scientific knowledge of Presbyterians was limited. More than 60% strongly agree that God created the universe but less than 20% strongly agree that evolutionary theory is compatible with the belief. There were several strong anomalies among member responses.

    Some of the anomalies referred to here were highlighted by Jack Marcum in a Presbyterians Today article in November, 2013.

    The presbytery of the James overtured the 214th General Assembly (2002) to request that the General Assembly Council instruct the Office of Theology and Worship to do the following:
    1. Develop a theological statement of our faith that takes into account biblical revelation, the essential tenets of the Reformed faith, and the contemporary scientific understanding of nature, in light of the contemporary scientific understandings of such matters as the origin, physical development and ordering of the universe; the origin of life, and the process of biological evolution ; the relationship of humankind to, and responsibility toward, the rest of Creation; the psychosomatic unity of the mind-soul-body in life and after death; and how such understandings expand our awe of God’s created universe and deepen our faith.
    2. Report this statement to the 215th General Assembly (2003) with recommendations on how it might be incorporated into the ministry and witness of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

    This overture was referred to 2003, then to 2006, then to 2008. The final response in 2008 was “referred to the Office of Theology and Worship as ―guidance.. Over the past five years the Office of Theology and Worship has engaged in a variety of work to express the church‘s faith in a contemporary world. This has included ―Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ,. the book Conversations with the Confessions (Geneva Press), work on the French Confession of 1559, and a study guide to the Belhar Confession.”


    The timing is good for an overture addressing evolution. Presbyterians are moderately conflicted about it, but at the same time are more highly educated than the general public and presumably want to be informed and supportive of scientific research. The GA can probably be convinced to affirm evolutionary development of the universe, the earth, and human life. This must not be presented in any way that makes it incompatible with the non-scientific teachings of truths found in Biblical stories that are fundamental to Christian faith.

    We need to find scriptural, historical, and Confessional support for an overture to secure affirmation of evolution by Presbyterians. E.g., C-67 offers good language in 9.29. Finding help in other confessions and documents will be a stretch. There are a few good quotes from Calvin on how scripture is not science.

  6. Thanks, Dennis. This is good history. I would be happy for a presbytery to submit basically the same thing we submitted. The focus for me is to say the Presbyterian Church (USA) says yes to evolution and no to creationism in all its incarnations. The theological stuff in the rationale is fine, of course. I really think the issue is that it came from me as a commissioner's resolution. If two presbyteries sent the same thing with overture advocates it would go a lot further.