Howard Bess

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister who lives in Palmer.

The Bible is the cherished collection of writings from both the Israelite and Christian traditions. There are both unifying and dissenting themes in that beloved volume. The greatest of all unifying themes is the voice of nature. There is no dissenting voice about nature to be found in the Bible writings. The sun, the moon, the stars, mountains, rivers, birds, animals and even insects speak to us about God, and his/her personality and power. This perspective was not significantly challenged until the 19th century and the scientific investigations of Charles Darwin.

Darwin was an English biologist and an observer of nature. He was a truly original investigator/interpreter. He was an observer of the natural world. He traveled the world with a consuming, critical eye. He took notes voluminously. His conclusion was a question. “How did all this happen? In 1859 he published his conclusions. The title of the book was “The Origin of Species.” Over the following ten years, the response of scientists was overwhelmingly positive to Darwin’s work. Darwin’s collection of facts and his interpretations of those facts were scientifically unassailable.

Darwin’s basic conclusion was that natural selection has produced an enormous variety of species over a very long period of time. Darwin’s conclusions were readily accepted in the world of science, but they set in motion waves of attacks from religious thinkers. Counter proposals to Darwin’s observations have come out of religious circles in abundance. For many Charles Darwin was the new Satan that was seeking to destroy religion. Charles Darwin became an enemy. Today, religious Fundamentalists, a century and a half since Darwin’s monumental publications, are still trying to flee from his well-documented scientific facts.

More inside

I am and have always been a Baptist. In the Baptist tradition, all believers are free to read and study the Bible for themselves. We love to assert the “priesthood of all believers.” Baptists have always been good seedbed for free thinkers. We are non-creedal Christians and are free to reach our own conclusions. When in graduate school, existential philosophy and neo-orthodox Christian theology were in vogue. However, another monumental change was taking place. As a Baptist I felt perfectly free to pursue critical thinking and new ideas. The biology of Charles Darwin had moved to other fields of study. Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead had taken evolution and constant change into the world of philosophy. Close behind Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne became the first theologian of note to apply the thinking of Darwin and Whitehead to Christian theology. He is certainly the father of what is now called “process” theology. John Cobb Jr., and Shubert Ogden became Hartshorne’s theological heirs and have made process theology a highly respected interpretation of the Christian gospel. Hartshorne, Cobb, and Ogden all hold tenaciously to their understanding that everything is in process. The entire physical world, human beings, and even God are all in process. Static understandings do not measure up to the demands of the research of Charles Darwin and the scientific acceptance of evolution. Everything is in the same reality of process.

Christians from scholars to the person in the pew have sidestepped the significance of Charles Darwin. Taking his cues from Darwin, Charles Hartshorne has challenged traditional Christian thinking like no one before him. Are Christians going to abandon their traditional teacher, the world, or are Christians going to dare to embrace the new cosmology that is demanded by the scientific world? Hartshorne’s attack on traditional Christian thinking is relentless. The great intellectual flaw, that Hartshorne finds, is with an all-powerful, absolute being of changeless perfection, whom we call God. This flies in the face of the scientific reality of constant change with unpredictable outcomes.

For Hartshorne and his intellectual heirs, every aspect of Christian theology comes under the scrutiny of process thinking. All the Christian theological giants from Augustine, to Aquinas, to Luther, to Barth and to Tillich are seen now as facilitators of a system that is totally out of sync with scientific reality. The reality of a universe in process makes absoluteness, omnipotence, changelessness, and omniscience, incompatible with an ever-changing, evolving world and universe.

Hartshorne and his followers never abandon theism, but new definitions and understandings abound. The new understandings that flow from Darwin and through a growing list of scholars, demand a new accounting from every theologian and from every religious believer. FOR THEM THE PARTNERSHIP OF SCIENCE AND RELIGION IS STILL IN TACT. Religious people of all kinds, must listen intently to what our best scientists are saying. To pit science and religion in a position of opposition to one another is foolishness. Science will continue to give us undeniable facts; it is religion, however, that can give us fresh and new meanings.

The current tragedy is that many of our best seminaries are choosing outdated meanings rather than searching for the new meanings that are being demanded by current science.

Face the facts: creedal Christianity is dead; we need a very large funeral. Statements of faith, concocted by well-meanings religious organizations, are headed for the same cemetery as are creeds. I am still an evangelical born-again Christian, who practices his faith within the Baptist tradition. I have been forced to a faith rewrite that will be functional is a real world. Religion and science are good partners and need one another badly.

The End

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. He is pastor emeritus of the Church of the Covenant, an American Baptist Church. His email address is hdbss@mtaonline.net.

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