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Einstein and Pentecostalism?
June 19, 2006

What does speaking in tongues have to do with the theory of relativity?

A new research initiative at Calvin College and Regent University will address that type of question and the many others found at the intersection of science and spirituality.

The two schools recently were awarded a grant of $162,078 from the John Templeton Foundation for a project called "Science and the Spirit: Pentecostal Perspectives on the Science/Religion Dialogue."

Heading up the effort will be Amos Yong, a theology professor at Regent's Divinity School, and James K.A. Smith, a philosophy professor at Calvin.

With the funding, they have assembled a team of scholars from across the country to study the places where science and Pentecostal faith meet.

The research team members will engage in individual research, then gather for a colloquium at Regent University in June 2007 to discuss their work. The fruit of the research will be published in journals in their varying fields.

The scholars will then turn attention to producing a book that will be used in science courses at Pentecostal and charismatic universities around the world.

The time is right for such a study the two say since this year marks the centenary of the Azusa Street Revival that was a catalyst for the Pentecostal movement, the fastest growing sector of Christianity in the world.

“There is a clearly a need for Pentecostal and charismatic traditions to take science seriously,” he continues. “We live in a modern world that reaps incredible benefits from science, and Pentecostal communities have been quick to avail themselves of applied science via technology. But to date, we have not reflected on science.”

Smith echoes the point.

“We believe that Pentecostals need to seriously engage the sciences as Pentecostals, and need to be involved in the science and religion dialogue. But we also believe that the need here is reciprocal: we believe that Pentecostal spirituality, with its distinct emphasis on the Spirit and pneumatology, can yield unique insights for the broader science and religion dialogue.”

They note that wider discussions in theology and science have placed increased emphasis on the role of “spirit” in discussions of evolution and emergence of new life forms.

“Pentecostals have a bit to say about the Spirit,” quips Yong.

The research team includes scholars from a wide array of fields, including biology, chemistry, psychology, anthropology, sociology, physics, as well as theology and philosophy.

Their projects include research on divine action in a world understood through quantum mechanics, how neuroscience can help explain sin and even demon possession, how science can help understand Pentecostal healing practices, and even how Pentecostal religious experiences can be understood in terms of “costly display theory” in evolutionary psychology.

The research initiative will consider how a distinctly Pentecostal worldview is both supported by recent developments in science and offers a different perspective on the natural world.

While Pentecostalism is often seen as anti-intellectual, both Yong and Smith emphasize the support they’ve received from their Pentecostal faith communities.

“My Pentecostal pastors were huge cheerleaders for my academic work,” Smith notes. “And they’re pretty jazzed by this idea.”

Yong and Smith admit that the conversation between Pentecostalism and science will have its bumpy spots, but they are encouraged by response so far.