Henry Green is a rarity among Southern Baptists. The pastor of Heritage Baptist church in Annapolis, Md., is openly skeptical that the Bible is the literal word of God, that the Earth was created in a few thousand years, and that Adam and Eve were created from dirt.
He says that for too long, conservatives have tried to reconcile faith and science by throwing out science.
This weekend, nearly 1,000 clerics worldwide will proclaim their belief that science and religion can coexist as they celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin during events on what has become known as Evolution Weekend.
Believing In God And Science
"Fundamentalists want to take people away from real science and put on some sort of bogus discussion about intelligent design or creationism," Green says. "Well, guess what? I believe God created. But I just happen to believe that the scientists have it right in understanding that creation."
His views haven't made him popular among his fellow ministers. He recalls that when one colleague heard about his views, he began to "witness" to Green.
"He felt like maybe I wasn't a Christian," Green says, laughing. "And he said, 'Well, Henry, if you change your mind, you'd have a lot of friends.' And I looked at him and said, 'Jim, I don't need your friendship that bad.'"
Green says he views Genesis as truth — about God as creator — but not as historical fact.
Green is the kind of clergyman Michael Zimmerman has been seeking. The biologist and dean at Butler University in Indiana organized Evolution Weekend four years ago to show that many clergy embrace science.
"With clergy weighing in, it should become clear that the issue is not a fight between religion and science," Zimmerman says, "but that most religious leaders were on the same side as the scientists. And the fight was between different religious groups."
This year, Jews have joined the Evolution Weekend mission. David Oler, the rabbi at Congregation Beth Or, a reform synagogue in Illinois, wrote a letter in July inviting rabbis to oppose creationism in schools. Oler says there is the same kind of split over Darwin within Judaism, though he says because Judaism has a tradition of interpreting stories in a variety of ways, Orthodox Jews have an easier time reconciling Genesis with evolution than do Evangelical Christians.
"It's interesting to note that the creation story goes in a progression," says Oler, who was until 2000 a Conservative rabbi. "It doesn't have human beings created first and animals later. There's water, there's light, then there's plants, then there's animals, and then there's human beings. Those who wrote the Torah, those who wrote the Bible, were genius to be able to anticipate the progression from the simple to the complex."
The Bible Belt
Tim Bagwell, pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Macon, Ga., says that even in the Bible Belt there's a quiet shift away from literalism. When he preaches about the compatibility of science and faith, he says, members of his congregation often come to him with this question: "Why didn't you tell me about this before? I've had all of these questions for all of these years and no one's ever talked with me, no one's ever given me permission to ask the questions that have been deep down inside of my soul."
It's not liberal theology, but daily life that has changed the views of some congregants at the First United Methodist Church in Jacksboro, Texas. Pastor David Weber looks out from his church at the oil fields where many of his members work.
"These people have been sitting on top of oil and fossils and the evidence of the carboniferous period all of their lives," Weber says. "They know it. They kick over fossils daily. They see ocean water that is 200 million years old coming out of the ground daily as new wells are drilled.
"They've had a hard time all their lives of putting all of that all of that many, many million-years-old evidence into 4,000-year-old stories."
Weber's sermons are broadcast on the local cable TV station, and they have attracted the attention of people who attend more conservative churches.
"Oftentimes, I notice in grocery stores or the gas station they kind of look around to see who's watching before they come to me and tell me that, 'David, really like what you say. We kind of think that, too.' So it's backward compliments not to me, but to the message of rationality."
And that's the message Weber will deliver when he steps up to the pulpit this Evolution Weekend.