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Jesus With a Genius Grant

Fuller Theological Seminary Is Teaching That Smart Christians Can Have It All--Science and the Bible, Body and Soul, Left and Right. To Some, That's Apocalypse Now. To Others, There's No Turning Back.

November 23, 2003|Alan Rifkin | Alan Rifkin is the author of "Signal Hill," a collection of short stories published by City Lights in October. He last wrote for the magazine about former UCLA football coach Bob Toledo.

The woman behind the name tag nancey murphy looks marooned, albeit cheerfully. even in a swirling sea of misfits--a New York Academy of Sciences conference on Madison Avenue--she stands out. She has green eye shadow, dumpling features, eyes that hum on the edge of surprise. Eventually a scientist from Denmark wanders over to ask a collegial question, which she answers--but in a herky, Captain Kirk cadence, as if she's replying by satellite.

Then the lights flicker and it's time for Murphy's presentation--the first slot on the day's program, which says she is a professor of Christian philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. No wonder she looks marooned. Usually Christian academics don't address international bodies of the scientific elite. If they do, they fly in from a liberal school of religion such as Claremont in Southern California or Yale, not from one of history's bellwethers of the born-again, conservative, evangelical Christian world--a place founded by a fundamentalist radio preacher, a place chartered to train pastors and missionaries and supply scholarly defenses of the Bible.

Signing a Statement of Faith every year in the miracles of the New and Old Testaments does something to a scientist's social standing. Once at a San Diego event, Murphy plugged a book by the acclaimed neuroscientist Paul Churchland--half of a team with wife Patricia Churchland who assert that religious experience is all a pack of neurons. Murphy's support was an olive branch from religion to science, but with a thorn: She also insisted there were levels of the self greater than their parts, up to and including what Christianity calls the soul. To which one scientist, invoking the scientific martyrs of the Dark Ages, complained that he would "get nervous if she asked to borrow a match."

Still, if science wanted a token Christian ambassador it could wrap its brain around, Murphy was a pretty good choice. She was vaguely postmodern. Before coming to Fuller in 1989, she had studied at Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union, a school so broad-minded that she considered marketing a bumper sticker: I LOST MY FAITH AT GTU. Hard-core fundamentalists--those whose bible on science and history is the Bible--tended to despise her. New York University neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, a self-described atheist who organized the New York conference, first warmed to Murphy at a Vatican Observatory meeting in Poland. She had been known to argue that God and Darwin were compatible--just the sort of utterance that makes biblical watchdogs groan: What next? As if to answer, she later told Reason magazine that cloning was inevitable, and that Christians should start thinking about how to use it.

Now, in Manhattan, she'd be restating her case that nothing in the Bible requires belief in any extra-physical, billowing-sheet, astral sort of soul--that smart Christians had come alongside modern science. The good news for fundamentalists was that this would make the coming resurrection a physical, Lazarus-style event after all, just like the Bible said.

Murphy's life's work, when you looked at it, was an attempt to reconcile Everything: Advance religion a little farther under the radar of the secular world. Win respect from a scientific milieu that equates Christian scholars with the people who read "Left Behind" novels. Meanwhile hold on to the conservative, born-again donor base, whose organized criticism Murphy fears.

After Murphy speaks for 20 minutes (modestly, tersely), she is swarmed by curious questioners. Even Patricia Churchland, after meeting an evangelical who doesn't believe in an afterlife with actual harps, proclaims that Murphy "seems like a sensible person." But what she seems above all else is new and strange.

For a while now, Murphy and her peers at Fuller Theological Seminary have been advancing a Christian philosophy that reconciles science and Bible, body and soul; opposes both war and abortion; goes to Hollywood parties and even hosts them; and leapfrogs the two-party political divide. All while refusing to renounce its conservative-evangelical tag.

Significantly, this philosophy has begun attracting a vocal vanguard of younger Christians who call themselves "Post-Evangelicals." Many of them Fuller graduates, many of them Murphy-trained, they have tasted the peyote of postmodern ambiguity and been steadily coming on. Now they want their intellectual heroes to seize the moment and stick flowers in the gunstocks of the evangelical Christian establishment. ("The Chuck Colsons of the world," says San Francisco neuropsychologist Kate Rankin, a former Murphy disciple, "will not be postmodernists in about 15 to 20 years, but the Christian world will.")

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