ew things are more important in an increasingly diverse world church than listening well, speaking clearly, and searching for common ground. From 2002-2004 the General Conference of the Adventist Church hosted a sequence of International Faith and Science Conferences designed to bring Adventist theologians, scientists, and administrators into conversation about some of the church’s core beliefs. Previous Adventist Review articles have reported on both the content and the voted statements that emerged from those dialogues.
Adventist Review editor Bill Knott sat down with General Conference general vice president Lowell Cooper, who chaired the organizing committee for these events, to talk about lessons learned in the International Faith and Science Conferences and the implications for future discussions. Here are excerpts from that conversation.—Editors.
BILL KNOTT: Prior to these conferences, have there been many occasions when professionals of different disciplines have been encouraged to frankly discuss their concerns?
LOWELL COOPER: It has been some time since the church took the initiative to convene a discussion about the question of origins. In an issue like this, process is extremely important. There are many voices to be heard, so many situations to be addressed. The Organizing Committee was a fine group to work with. Depending on God for guidance, we felt it would be important to get various groups of people together—administrators, theologians, scientists, particularly in the natural sciences—have some conversations, and learn how to talk to one another and with one another about deeply held convictions.
Was the goal of increasing dialogue actually bigger than resolving specific issues?
There was a realization that we weren’t going to suddenly discover a way to harmonize the views of science and the views of Scripture with respect to the origin of the earth and of life. But we had to find some ways by which we could discuss these matters together—and to recognize that there are problems for which we don’t have solutions. We can’t simply associate with a few persons having similar views to our own and then pronounce criticisms upon all others who might have a different viewpoint. Learning to listen to one another is a vital part of life in a faith community. And we must also learn how to listen to God together.
I’m guessing that the issue you addressed at the Faith and Science Conferences won’t be the last one that defies easy solution.
There are many things that hold us together as a worldwide body of believers. We must also learn how to deal with inevitable differences among us. The science/religion tension is only one illustration of things not easily resolved. Ellen White spoke about the constant conflict that will be experienced between science and religion. Her comments helped to give me a footing in going through this experience, because I didn’t sense that we were going to be able to solve things.
We have convictions as a church that are unshakable because they are founded on our sense of the revelational quality of Scripture. We don’t have the physical evidence to say, “Now this proves our understanding of Scripture.” In fact, much of the physical evidence, I suppose, could be seen or interpreted to challenge those convictions that we express out of our dependence on Scripture. So it was in that realization we felt one of our goals would be to illustrate a process by which conversation would take place.
What were the risks that made this process problematic?
The risks were that it would not be successful as a dialogue or as a process of conversation, that we would grow more isolated from one another rather than comprehending one another, and that we could go on investing common terminology with different meaning. Our first get-together focused on developing a common vocabulary. We had to understand the definition of particular terms that were used in the conversation.
Maybe it’s just a part of the way things happen in all such meetings of people, but ours seemed to follow a pattern. The first day people were somewhat cautiously getting a feel of the situation. By the second day I was aware of tensions and potential points of failure in the process. But by the end of the third day, in each case, there was a coming together, not necessarily a coming together of conviction, or resolution of problems we faced, but a realization that, after all, we were human beings seeking to serve and honor God.
That’s a sociological observation as well.
It is, and it’s not unique to these conferences. It happens in any group that addresses controversial or difficult issues. There’s a “feeling out” moment, a positioning moment, and so forth; then a coming together as we realize our calling and our common reference points. I wish I could say a lot of convictions were changed as a result, but I don’t think the convictions of many were changed. I think the realm of our understanding was enlarged and our appreciation enhanced concerning the implications of our beliefs.
So participants actually heard one another?
We all gained a greater appreciation for the fact that there’s not only one way to view every question. I think there was enormous value in listening to and talking with people representing so many different areas of expertise.
Like many other things in denominational life this was a topic that generates highly charged emotions and statements. One of the things we need to learn is how to talk carefully about things that mean a lot to us. There are ways of talking that can enhance understanding—just as there are ways that close the gates to dialogue, communication, and understanding. We went through these moments as well.
Do you think Adventists are more combative when we talk to ourselves than when Adventist theologians talk to theologians of other faiths, or when scientists talk with their peers in the scientific world? Are we less careful with one another?
Perhaps familiarity tempts us in this direction. When we talk to one another, we can be rather blunt, and, sometimes, even judgmental. It’s easy to be arrogant about knowledge and convictions. A little knowledge can be dangerous. The more difficult thing is to remain humble about the things we know for sure.
So an Adventist theologian talking to a Methodist counterpart might be more generous to the Methodist?
I think we sometimes have higher expectations of ourselves, that we should all believe exactly the same thing and in exactly the same way. It shouldn’t surprise us that this isn’t the case. Dealing with differences is difficult. We all know that ideas have consequences, and we want to be sure we don’t embrace ideas that end up unraveling our understanding of the Bible.
As far as comparing how we talk internally with how we talk with or about others outside our community—I’m reluctant to make a sweeping generalization. But I think that there’s room for us to be more charitable in our characterizations of those who differ with us. Someone once said that before we tear down another’s shack of unbelief we should build a palace of truth for him/her to live in. I see this as a very helpful principle in dialogue on difficult topics.
Was there a time in any one of the conferences, particularly the last, in which you approached a moment you weren’t sure which way it would turn?
Yes, there were moments like that. We didn’t attempt to prescribe the outcome of the conferences. Doing so would have been, at least for me, a sign of distrust in group process. At the same time, a group process, such as this was, needs reference points and a level of input that keeps the group from going off on a tangent.
What do you do at a moment like that?
In difficult moments it’s always a privilege to be able to consult with colleagues and to seek the guidance of God. Our praying for wisdom is accompanied by the realization that God is in charge of the church. God leads the church and is able to do so even through group processes. I admit that I felt stressed because I didn’t want this exercise to end in an atmosphere in which participants saw no value in coming together to talk about sensitive issues. So I prayed a lot, but I know I wasn’t alone in doing so.
I came through it with the sense that God leads through people getting together, with the willingness to pray, to talk, to learn, and to affirm. I had doubts at certain points along the way as to what might be the result of this whole process. Coming to the conviction that there needed to be a report and a statement and so forth, then finding the words to go into that, was very challenging. Words can be so helpful and yet so inadequate in communication.
We reaffirmed our belief in the Creation account in Genesis. Many questions remain—and may not be resolvable until we dwell in eternity. But I think for the General Conference Executive Committee that received and accepted the report, and many of those who attended the conference, there was a degree of satisfaction that, yes, we can look at some very difficult things in our fellowship. And while we may not readily resolve them, in looking at them and being gracious with one another in thinking about them, we can also realize that we have been helped.
Tell me about a favorite moment in the conferences.
One such moment for me occurred during the second conference. A feature of this conference was to break out into groups on the basis of professions or expertise. Each group was then tasked with identifying issues that needed to be addressed from that group’s area of expertise. It was a very special moment for me to see how much we really agreed on. Even though we had been vigorously debating certain issues, there were many things upon which we were totally agreed. That was encouraging. I hadn’t seen that in the development of the papers, the agendas, and the discussions at that point. But when we could come together and just sit informally talking about things, there was huge affirmation about what we hold in common. There is something that holds us together in spite of our intellectual debates. It’s our experience of the lordship of Jesus in our lives and the desire to honor Him in all that we do.
When the church looks for language to encompass those who honestly want to dialogue, it has to look for language that may dissatisfy people on either wing. By its nature, that language has to be generous, inclusive—and potentially ambiguous.
That’s true. We have to find ways of admitting that we don’t know as much as we wish we knew in these areas. Our language, while it has to be clear about our convictions, also has to acknowledge that there are some questions for which we don’t have answers.
During this three-year period I did more reading in theology and science books dealing with origins than I ever realized was available. I just made it part of my own discipline to get more educated about the terminology and the approaches to these kinds of questions.
I was caught, as is often the case, by a quote from C. S. Lewis in which he says something like ‘I believe in the sunrise, not alone because I see it, but because by it I can see everything else.’ That stuck in my mind. That’s really a description of how we view the book of Genesis, particularly those first three chapters. It creates our worldview; that’s why this story is important to us.
Are you saying that our belief in creationism, in its central components, is a nonnegotiable fundamental truth?
Yes, it’s indeed foundational. I say that knowing the challenge it represents to some persons. Our understanding of the Creation story is tied so directly into everything else we believe. You can’t scatter our beliefs into separate and unrelated pieces of information. When we examine, review, or challenge our understanding of origins we cannot do so in isolation from the rest of the Bible teachings. Our view of origins carries with it implications about other realities such as sin and salvation. Our beliefs are interconnected. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think deeply about each one and address challenges that might be raised. But we don’t separate things from the whole body of truth.
The next time Elder Paulsen assigns someone to handle one of these dialogues, will your hand go up first?
[Laughter] I’d probably suggest that others need that experience, too. But I did enjoy that task; it was very challenging. I’ve gained a new appreciation for the scientists and theologians in our midst. We are blessed with people of great intellect and great commitment. It’s a privilege to be in their company.
We don’t always do these things well. I suppose if this dialogue process were done over again, it might be done differently. Yet there are many ways in which things would be done the same. Ultimately, in human community, issues of process are as important as issues of substance; you can’t separate the two. It was a growing experience for me. Many others have also spoken of their intellectual and spiritual journey being stimulated at these conferences.
Do you think in the aftermath of these conversations that Adventists in the scientific community believe they have an ear at the General Conference—that there’s someone they can talk with?
The interesting thing to me, ironically, is that the whole idea for this kind of conversation came out of the Geoscience Research Institute (GRI) when Jan Paulsen was the board chair. He was the one who wrote a letter to the [then] General Conference president suggesting that something may need to be done along this line. When he wrote the letter, he didn’t realize that shortly thereafter he would be the General Conference president. Not long after he asked me to serve as board chair for GRI, I brought the matter to his attention. That conversation started us along the path that ultimately led to the series of conferences. Church leadership felt it was time to take the initiative in having open discussion on a difficult topic.
Elder Paulsen himself was involved in the two international conferences. His addresses to the conferences were very helpful. I would hope that the signal that goes to the church at large, not just to members of the science or theology community, is that church leadership has an ear, and is listening.
You sense that the openness you saw to this process is true of the broader group of church leaders?
The presence of church administrators was an encouragement to both scientists and theologians. I believe we can establish a climate in the church in which dialogue is the safe thing; in which we don’t close our eyes and ears to the issues of communication.
There have been people who have responded to these conferences and to the outcome with very gracious words. There are some who, in an attempt to be gracious, have also been very pointed about what they thought were the shortcomings. That’s a part of life as a global church community.
We haven’t arrived at the same point in our spiritual journey and our understanding. We come from all points of the compass and from varied pathways of experience and learning. The marvelous thing about it all is that God leads all of us closer and closer to Himself. As we get there, we realize how much there is yet to learn about understanding Him and living together with one another. Differences shouldn’t surprise us, nor should they be allowed to fragment us.
As a worldwide family, we need to address sensitive issues while preserving our commitment to worshipping and serving the Lord together. And as we do so, we can expect and experience the guidance and blessing of God.