The American Scientific Affiliation at 50
Evangelicals approached the latter half of the twentieth century ill-equipped and disinterested in grappling with issues outside the church. Fundamentalist-liberal battles of the 20's and 30's had taken their toll and the church looked inward except for the missionary enterprise.
One precursor of the way that evangelical attitudes were to change in the latter part of the century was the founding of the ASA in 1941. The initial meeting of five men at the Moody Bible Institute just prior to America's involvement in World War II could not be considered an auspicious beginning. Yet, in the providence of God, this fledgling organization was to play a significant role in the post-war evangelical resurgence.
Early ASA leadership recognized the importance of a multi-disciplinary perspective when discussing science/Christianity issues and was able to draw on the thinking of a new breed of theologians and philosophers. Bernard Ramm is a leading example of the change in evangelical thinking and the problems faced when one breaks out of a mold, yet seeks to remain faithful to orthodox roots. His 1954 work The Christian View of Science and Scripture pointed the way for a generation of ASA members.
The ASA Journal (now Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith) has served as the most visible element of ASA for four decades. The challenge to the seven editors has been to encourage scholarly contributions which reflect current thinking on science-faith issues. This melding of ideas has seldom resulted in unanimity. The Journal has always sought to be an open forum and has stoutly maintained the position that it holds "no position" on issues. Yet it is clear that we speak from the evangelical perspective on which the ASA is based. For the most part, authors come from the evangelical community, more from self-selection than editorial policy. Reviewers are responsible for maintaining appropriate standards of quality and readability. The standards continue to rise as a reflection of the increasing quality of evangelical scholarship. The "amateur" is increasingly at risk as specialization increases and the work arising from an increasing number of evangelical "think tanks" competes for space.
Advances in transporation and communication, and peace in Europe offer opportunity for international dialogue not available 50 years ago. We have much to gain from these contacts but should be quick to listen and slow to speak to cultures unfamiliar with evangelical mores and often suspicious of American motives.
Today we recognize more fully the role that culture (including Christianity) has played in scientific thought. Few are adequately equipped to deal with the complexity of broad integrative issues, suggesting that scientists need to team with biblical scholars, historians, sociologists, et al if a fuller story is to be told.
The path of the ASA has not always been certain. Changes in leadership, financial limitations, a major split in the 1960's, competition from new organizations and the inability to develop fully a national spectrum of members have served to blunt its impact. The work of ASA has gone forward because of the commitment of many women and men whose vision, writing, administrative skills, and financial support have provided a forum for discussing the interplay of science and Christian faith and an opportunity for Christian service.
ASA offers a unique potential for fellowship among those of common faith and profession. The annual meetings, local section activities, and committee work provide opportunity to build enduring friendships and to develop service projects. The ASA/CSCA Newsletter opens a window on the lives of our members, links people with positions and provides an informal way to test ideas.
The founders of ASA felt that they could contribute to the church by correcting misconceptions about science and by encouraging a more positive attitude toward science on the part of church leaders. This would remove barriers in witnessing to their peers. Today, that task seems more formidable than it may have appeared in 1941. Both science and the Church have changed and the issues have expanded in number and complexity. Today, no one sees science as savior but many find the Church irrelevent to their lives.
The ASA has often been far ahead of the Christian community in discussing
issues and ideas. Yet, we have not always been able to communicate our thinking
to the man and woman in the pew. This is compounded by a pervasive science
illiteracy factor. We need to develop new ways to more effectively speak to the
Church. The popularity of the "Sermons From Science" demonstrations and the
Moody Institute of Science films from an earlier generation suggest non-print
avenues applicable to our generation.
Over the years, the goals of the organization have been revised as new leaders and new challenges emerged. We need to ask whether ASA is primarily looking inward and is unwilling to speak to the general public and the scientific community on relevant issues. The wide distribution of the publication "Teaching Science in a Climate of Controversy," the anticipated six-hour TV series "Space, Time and God," and projected projects in Eastern Europe and Africa are representative of a larger vision. We need to remember that such efforts to enter the "market place" will not always be understood or received with approval. The challenge in the coming years is for a new generation of leadership to meet not only the challenge of scholarship but devise new ways in which the ASA constituency can serve the Church and beyond.
J. W. Haas, Jr.
Gordon College, Wenham MA 01984