Science and the Spirit: A Pentecostal Engagement with the Sciences

By: Candace Laughinghouse
Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

James K. A. Smith and Amos Yong (eds.), Science and the Spirit: A Pentecostal Engagement with the Sciences. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2010.

In the past, intellectual discussions have either tried to construct a dominant theory or remove individuality and nest all contributions into one box. In Science and the Spirit, the discussion of science and religion is expanded to include the contributions of Pentecostals. In its introduction, the question is posed: “What would be unique about a distinctively Pentecostal foray into the science/theology dialogue?” Can Pentecostals contribute to the discussion? Or will Pentecostals and their reliance upon an unscientific representation of God – the Holy Spirit – widen the divide between science and theology? The primary purpose of the book is to speak affirmatively to Pentecostal students and scholars in various scientific disciplines. The book is put forward with the belief that Pentecostals will benefit from this text and increase the chances of raising Pentecostal contributions to the science and theology dialogue.

The book’s ten chapters are written by an interdisciplinary team of scholars and science faculty and is divided into three sections: 1) meta reflection, 2) natural sciences, and 3) human and technological sciences. Smith and Yong have gathered a group of contributors on a wide range of topics, including empirical research, origins, mental illness, and beyond. After reading Science and the Spirit, I have come to appreciate the varying fields represented as a rigorous scientific work required to substantiate further Pentecostal contribution. In the introduction, Smith and Yong propose that the time for engagement with science is now upon Pentecostals. Amidst this encounter, “conceptual space emerges both for creative theological reflection that is informed by the sciences and for rigorous scientific work that does not ignore theological perspectives and contributions” (p. 7).

Smith’s chapter addresses the miscommunication between science and Pentecostal theology. This miscommunication is explained as a conflict between Pentecostalism and naturalism – not Pentecostalism and science. Smith challenges Pentecostals to consider the possibility of accepting the practice of natural science without adopting metaphysical naturalism. Naturalism suggests that “nature is all there is” while Pentecostals rely on God as creator of nature. In his conclusion, Smith suggests that Pentecostals may have more in common with science than popularly believed. For Smith, “a healthy dose of minimal disenchantment and methodological naturalism might actually be a better way to recognize all the ways that the Spirit is dynamically present in creation” (p. 45).

In Yong’s chapter, the phenomenon of speaking in tongues – glossolalia – is offered as a metaphor that potentially wards of the threat that scientific explanations post to theology in general and Pentecostal theology in particular. This reinterpretation and reapplication of the symbol of glossolalia suggests that “the many scientific disciplines present a multiplicity of discourses that also reveal how nature declares the glory of God (Psalm 91.1)” (p. 58). The positing of the many scientific disciplines as functioning like many tongues may open up opportunity for genuine encounter between science and religion, one that is inspired by and perhaps for further Pentecostal thought. In a similar vein, other chapters discuss the use of scientific knowledge in theological contexts, the relationship of physics and pneumatology, issues on Pentecostals and biological evolution, the link between religious experience and brain activity, a Pentecostal approach to mental illness, as well as the possibility of Pentecostal participation in the social sciences, sociology, and technology.

Science and the Spirit offers groundbreaking research positing the need for Pentecostal contributions to the discussion of science and theology. Each author presents material to stimulate further discussion and future scholarly contributions. Instead of placing origins, intellectual design, metaphysical naturalism, cultural anthropology, and physics as incidental to Pentecostal theology, the authors suggest a consideration of other perspectives to ultimately reach God’s plan for humankind and the earth. Without losing the particularity of the various perspectives, Science and the Spirit provides a model for respectful discussion between science and religion.

My hope is that clergy will embrace this book and scholars become empowered to acknowledge the mutual relevance of science and theology. As Pentecostals, we already believe in the productive capabilities of the Spirit in our lives. This book reminds us to remain open to the Spirit’s creative possibilities while being empowered by the Spirit to contribute to science from a Pentecostal perspective.

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Candace Laughinghouse
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