Scientists and Church: Opportunities

What are the opportunities for churches to connect well with people in the sciences?  What are the opportunities for scientists to be positive contributors to the lives of their churches?

Some of the key themes that emerged from my research are these:

1. Defining the Essentials

Churches, pastors, individual Christians, and scientists who are Christians need to work together to define what are essential Christian doctrines and beliefs and what are doctrinal issues on which people may not necessarily agree.  Formally some churches have doctrinal statements.  Informally, churches often have strong convictions that may or may not be officially codified in writing, but are implicitly or explicitly valued as essential doctrines by church leaders or the majority of the congregation.  These unofficial, informal “statements of faith” can be just as important in determining the welcoming (or non-welcoming) culture of a church as any formal document.  Often these informal beliefs go examined and unquestioned.

All of the scientists whom I interviewed held a high view of the inspiration and authority of Scripture, held orthodox Christian views on the Trinity, human sinfulness, salvation through faith in Jesus, and eternal life.  They would have no problem affirming the historic creeds of the church (e.g. the Nicene Creed) or more modern doctrinal statements such as the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada Statement of Faith, or that of an interdenominational school such as Tyndale University College and Seminary.

However all the scientists also believed that passages in Scripture sometimes held up as “science” (Genesis 1-2, Job 38-42, etc.) were not intended to be read as literal historic-scientific texts.  They are true and essential as deeply theological expressions of the character of God, His role as Creator, and the nature of His creation.  These passages are inspired Scripture, but describe the world as it appears and in terms the original readers could understand.  They would hold, in various forms, a nonconcordist interpretative framework:  no scientific implications of biblical statements are presupposed.

These biblical texts, when read as profoundly theological truth not scientific descriptions, can accommodate modern scientific evidence for an 13.8 billion year old universe, 4.5 billion year old Earth, and evolutionary theory.  A high view of Scripture is entirely compatible with modern scientific theory.

Scientists were aware that many people in their churches would interpret Scripture differently, concluding the Earth (and universe) are much younger, and that God used other means than evolution to create various life forms.  They were perfectly comfortable knowing others in their congregations held different perspectives.  What irked them was when some of  people who held different views aggressively confronted them, implying – or directly accusing – that the scientists were wrong and (in a couple of cases) not even Christian because of their old-universe/Earth and theistic evolutionary views.

  • What are the essential doctrines that define Christian faith?
  • Are doctrines about the age of the universe/Earth and evolution tests of authentic faith?

a. If a young-universe/Earth and anti-evolutionary stance IS a core doctrine, there will be consequences for scientists already in the congregation and community.  Many scientists in church will be in (at best) internal conflict and (at worst) in explicit conflict with the church’s doctrine.  In a couple of my interviews people commented that, while some churches did not have an “official” stance on these issues, there was a powerful unofficial commitment to younger-creation, anti-evolutionary, anti-mainstream-science perspective that led to scientists feeling conflicted or that they had to leave those congregations.

From my conversations with science students and practicing scientists, It is unlikely that a church which emphasizes a Young Earth, anti-evolution perspective will make much meaningful contact with people in the sciences – Christian or non-Christian.   To be blunt, if a church has an anti-mainstream-science culture and is committed to a Young Earth/anti-evolutionary perspective, explicitly or implicitly, it will probably not have a meaningful ministry or mission to people called by God to a vocation in the sciences.

This has a couple of implications:

  • Trying to “convert” Christians in the sciences away from an old universe/theistic evolutionary understanding is perceived as an assault on their intellectual integrity, spiritual journey, and life experience.   Christians in science typically have given a lot of thought to the connections between their faith and their work – arguing with them from the latest blog from a Young Earth/anti-evolution website is an attack on their spiritual and professional lives.
  • Trying to convert non-Christians to Jesus with a focus on Young Earth/anti-evolution theory as the primary tool is not helpful.  One local church regularly brings a “Young Earth evangelist” to our public university campus (personally I’m not sure how or why the church has decided that the most effective evangelistic tool for a public university campus is a singular focus on the age of the Earth).  After the last event, I talked with several students:
    • Most non-Christian students found it laughable.  The displays and speaker reinforced their opinion that Christians are basically anti-intellectual and that Christianity is not reasonably credible.  It created barriers for authentic evangelism, not bridges.
    • Some Christian students in the sciences avoided the displays, got tired of apologizing to their non-Christian friends and having to explain that not all Christians think like that.  One student said, “I couldn’t wait til it was over.  It was the most stressful week of my university career.  I got so tired of saying, ‘I’m sorry’ to my friends.  It has made my life as a Christian on campus so much harder.”
    • Some Christian young adults (ironically with no post-secondary education or aspirations) thought it was fantastic.  It reinforced their previously held beliefs and, they believed, brilliantly “defended the faith.”

b. If the age of the universe/Earth and evolutionary theory are NOT essentials, is there safe space for people who hold different perspectives?  The scientists I spoke with were fine with other people holding other views.  None of them wanted to convince people who held young Earth, anti-evolution views to accept an older universe, evolutionary theology.  They simply wanted the mutual respect to be able to work within their own understanding of Scripture and science.

In a church, do people who hold different views treat one another well?  Do they feel safe and respected for their different understandings?  Or do they experience intimidation?

Several key issues emerge from this discussion, which provide opportunities for dialogue, reflection, and prayer:

  • What are the essential doctrines in your church – officially (statement of faith, etc)?  What do they say about scientific issues?
  • What are the essential doctrines in your church – unofficially.  How welcome are people with different views on the age of the Earth, evolution, end times, politics, etc.?
  • What is the experience of people in the sciences in your church?  (Do you have any scientists in your church?  If not, what does that say?  If you do, talk with them about their experiences).
  • Do people in your church who have different views on all sorts of things – from scientific issues to politics – feel safe and respected?
  • Are there ways or forums in which differing views can be discussed – even celebrated – in positive, affirming ways?
  • If someone feels judged or attacked for their views – as an old-Earth or a young-Earth, a theistic evolutionist or a non-evolutionist – how do they deal with that?  How does the church leadership deal with that?
2. Support for people in the Sciences

In the Methodist tradition, the first general rule is “Do no harm and avoid evil of every kind.”  This might be a great starting point for churches working with people in the sciences:  do no harm.  Be a place where scientists feel safe, where they are respected, and where they can worship, fellowship, serve, and grow, honoured with the same dignity everyone else receives.

This has not been the experience of some scientists who have felt shunned, judged, even attacked by those who oppose some of their views.  Some scientists are careful just to “shut up” at church because they know their views will lead to stressful debates.  One pastor I spoke with (who has a science background)  is careful not to express publicly his view that science and biblical Christianity are complementary because he is afraid he will (at best) lose people from his congregation, and (at worst) have some people agitating for his removal.  For him differences of belief around the age of Earth and evolution are “non-salvation issues,” but he suspects that for some a critical mass in his congregation they are perceived to be essential tenets of faith.

The second general rule in Methodism is “Do good … be in every kind merciful, do good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all men.”  More than just being a safe place, can church “do good” for scientists.

  • Can church be a community where people in the sciences are commissioned and celebrated in their vocation?
  • Can a church proactively find ways to honour and encourage scientists by having them share about their work and their faith?
  • Can a church find ways to tell stories of other Christians who integrate their faith with their research to encourage younger people who may be interested in a career in the sciences?
  • Can science be a normal and natural part of church life through children’s stories, day camps, speakers at special events, short- (or long-) term classes?

The third and final general rule in Methodism is to “attend upon all the ordinances of God”to be part of a church community.

  • How can we help scientists find Christian community and worship God?
  • How can we actively support busy people, under a lot of pressure, with many family and professional obligations (in all walks of life, not just the sciences)?
  • How can church be a safe, supportive,  enriching place for everyone?

These are challenging times for all people to connect well with church.  How can churches “be the church” in the mid-21st century?

3. Building Bridges to scientists

Building bridges to scientists with faith Several of the scientists I interviewed felt very isolated and alone in their identity as Christians in the sciences.    On the hand, as Christians, they felt under attack for their faith at work.  On the other hand, as scientists, they felt under attack for their work at church.  Some had left at least one church because they felt judged and unwelcome.  Most had reconnected – at least somewhat – at another congregation.  Some had not.  There is a tremendous opportunity for churches to support, encourage, and minister to people in the sciences who are Christian.  Many are hurting.  Some feel misunderstood.  A few feel unwelcome.

Building bridges to scientists who are not Christian.  The majority of scientists – the majority of Canadians! – are not Christian.  However by positively supporting the sciences, churches can build bridges and begin meaningful conversations with everyone.

For instance, in my geography teaching, I suggest that studying the natural environment provides a common ground or a point of contact between Christians and people of other (or no) faiths.  As Christians we believe in God as creator.   By studying creation, we can engage in a knowledgeable and healthy discussion with others who are interested in the environment.  Some non-Christians are critical of Christians because they see us as uncaring about the natural environment.  I suggest we ought to care!  This is God’s world and we are His trusted stewards of it (Genesis 1:28,  2:15, Psalm 8).  Christians, I propose, ought be leaders in wise environmental stewardship, not laggards.  As we care for our environment, we can develop relationships with non-Christians.  Having a high view of creation as God’s handiwork builds evangelistic, missional bridges to people in our world.  Not caring about creation is a stumbling block to people coming to faith because there is logical contradiction when we claim to love God, the Creator, but do not care about His creation.

4. Encouraging and mentoring young people

As a pastor and a scientist – and as a father of three young men, now all in their 20s (two of whom are professional scientists) – I have a deep pastoral and personal concern for children, youth, and young adults who love science and who feel called to pursue education and careers in science.

How do we, as churches, encourage, support, disciple, and equip young scientists to live their faith, integrate their faith, and be obedient to their God-given vocation?

One option is to actively discourage young people from scientific education and careers.  One home-schooling parent’s main motivation for teaching their kids at home was to “protect” their kids from teaching about evolution in public schools.  They were incredibly stressed that one of their daughters was interested in nursing:  she would have to study biology, learn about evolution, and inevitably (in this parent’s mind) be convinced by some college or university professor to become an atheist.  The  parent’s solution was to actively discourage their daughter from studying nursing.  Personally, I don’t think this is a helpful strategy for all sorts of reasons, from being dishonest to their daughter’s God-given vocational call, to depriving the world of a great nurse, to creating greater stress for their daughter when she does confront  issues around science and faith.

A better option is to find ways to integrate science into the life of the church (and family) in positive ways, actively teaching younger people (and older people) how science and faith can actually come together in positive ways.  We also need to develop a healthy theology of vocation and calling that includes the sciences.

Here are some strategies that emerged from my research and personal pastoral (and parental) experience:

a. Don’t ignore or avoid science.  Two of my three sons have always been wired for education and careers in the sciences – that is who God gifted them to be (I am a geographer, my wife is a math educator – what chance did they have?!?!). Among the young adults at my church, several are in nursing, others are in neuroscience, general biology, physics, immunology, geography, medicine, and engineering.  As I talk with school-age youth at church, several are also gifted in the sciences and would like to pursue higher education in scientific fields.  From media, peers, home, school, and church they know there can be issues for some Christians with science and for some non-Christian scientists with Christianity.

Not talking about these issues, avoiding them, or trying to push these believers out of the science are not helpful, positive, long-term strategies.

How can we have healthy, positive conversations with youth and young adults about science and faith?  We need to engage positively with these issues, helping students explore various approaches, appreciating that there are ways of positively integrating science and biblical faith.

b. Make science part of the story.  I love preaching and talking about God’s creation and our role in it.  So much of Scripture is a celebration of God’s creation:  Job 38-42, Psalms 8, 19, 24, 33, 104, 148, 150, Isaiah 40 and 45, Jeremiah 10, Hosea 2, John 1, Jesus’ stories and parables, Colossians 1, Revelation 21-22, as well as Genesis 1-2.

Many Christians feel closest to God in God’s creation (see Gary Thomas’ Sacred Pathways) – we can honour and talk about that.

We can have Christians in the sciences talk about how they integrate their faith and their research and work.  We can have fun science-y activities with children.  There are many amazing examples of Christians who integrate their faith and science well (see the Scientists and Faith Resource Page).  We can tell these stories and celebrate that God’s creation is a blessings He gives us to enjoy and to care for.

I recently led one service that blended readings from the psalms, video clips (from Test of Faith), brief reflections, and music celebrating God’s creation and our role within it.  Afterwards one guest, who really appreciate it, commented, “I have never experienced anything like that before.  It was so cool to see just how natural and normal you made science and faith come together for me.  I wish we did this more.  Thank you.”  (There is lots of great worship music from traditional hymns lie “All Creatures of our God and King” and “This is my Father’s World,” to more modern songs like “God of Wonders,” “God of All Creation,” and “Creation Calls“).

c. Develop a theology of creation.  Celebrating that the natural world IS God’s creation changes how we see it, live in it, and talk about it.  I encourage my geography students in Christian colleges to stop thinking in terms of and using the words “nature” or “environment.”  Instead, I encourage them to mentally and substitute the phrase “God’s creation.”  Seeing the world as God’s creation changes how we feel about and see the world around us.  It also changes how we interact with and treat the world around us. Rather than being some neutral source of natural resources or economic gain, God’s creation becomes a treasure to be cared for, enjoyed, and celebrated.

Because the universe is God’s creation, as we study His handiwork we are getting to know the Creator better.  Good science helps us know God in new and exciting ways.  Science is a tool for theology.

Having a theology of the world as God’s creation also means we have the privilege and responsibility to study God’s creation well so we can care for His world well.

Scientists are a tremendous resource to us.  We need to honour and celebrate those who love science.  Doing scientific research is seen as a form of worship as we get to know the Creator better through His creation.

We can help young adults understand that we don’t need to fear science as some existential threat to our faith.  Instead, getting to know the natural world better can form and enrich our faith.

As biochemist and pastor Victoria Johnson says, “I think science as a discipline in itself is a God-given gift of an enquiring mind. We were trying to promote the idea that we have been given minds to think, wonder, and ask questions about creation – and then use it, care for it and enjoy it.”

d. Talk ethics.  God is ethical and calls us to be ethical people.  There are biblical moral principles that ought govern our behaviour.  Our challenge is applying the general wisdom and ethical values of the Bible to specific issues in the 21st Century.   For instance, there are lots of ethical issues that come up through t:he sciences that are not directly commented upon in Scripture:  research ethics, biomedical ethics, engineering ethics, technology ethics, and (in my geographical world) environmental ethics.

All of us should be interested in how our Christian faith intersects with ethical issues, including challenges posed by the sciences.  I find younger people are passionate about many of these issues.   For instance, if this world is God’s creation, and if we have a biblical mandate to be stewards of His creation (Genesis 1:17 and 2:15, Psalm 8).  Young adults get this.  Often they have a great environmental ethic from their schooling; as churches we can provide a theological foundation for their passion.

Our challenge is to take on ethical issues as more than just words, but to put them into practice.  For instance, as Christians who love God’s creation, we can be advocates for and practitioners of wise, sustainable living (see the Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation and Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home).  The Church of Scotland’s Society, Religion, and Technology Page is a great resource.

e. Talk about the tough issues.  Young adults know there are tensions around whether or not scientists can also be Christians.  They know about the conversation and controversies within the church around the age of the universe/Earth and evolution.  Talk about them honestly, openly, and humbly.  Invite a scientist to talk about these issues.  When I have had these conversations – with individuals or in a group/class setting – I have always had differences of opinion.  I’m OK with that.  I don’t believe these are essential doctrines of the faith.

Younger people need to learn to distinguish between the essentials and non-essentials.  And I want to teach younger people to learn how to work through difficult issues, use good research tools, and think for themselves.  While some have their minds already made up and others seem to accept whatever the teacher (or pastor) says, others get really excited about learning how to study, research, and learn to think for themselves.  We can challenge them to read the Bible.  We can help them learn good biblical study skills (including using good commentaries).  We can help them learn from wiser, more mature believers.  These are skills they can apply to many different situations in the decades to come.

By helping young adults engage positively with the tough issues, as leaders and teachers, we become lifelong mentors for people as they face new challenges.

f. Find mentors.  I am developing a course on science and Christianity for a Christian college on the campus of a major public university.  One of the assignments is “to write a 6-8 page biography of a scientist whose faith informs their research or a person of faith who has a particular interest in the sciences.   This may be an historical person or a contemporary person.  If you know a scientist who has a religious perspective, you are welcome to propose interviewing that person and connecting their experience with your readings.”
I would love it if each students found a real live scientist to interview, in part because that scientist might become a mentor to that student.  The student would be blessed by having a more experience and wise Christian who can answer questions, provide encouragement, and give some guidance.  The mentor would be blessed to be able to share their wisdom, experiences, and insights with a younger person.

Can we do that in churches?  Can we find Christians in the sciences who can mentor younger people?  Wouldn’t that be amazing for both the younger person and the mentor?

g, Be creative.  There are lots of possibilities!

  1. Ask scientists!  When I asked one scientist in my congregation, “How can we make science a more normal part of church?” he had no answer.  No one had ever asked him that question before.  However as we brainstormed, shared ideas, and talked about our experiences ideas emerged (included below).  Why not ask a scientist about how faith and science could come together in your congregation?  Note:  don’t expect a quick and easy answer; it’s not a question most people have thought about, so be prepared to share, brainstorm – and dream – together.
  2. Have a scientist share.  Most scientists I talked with really did feel they called to a vocation in the sciences.  They were passionate about their work. They had given intentional thought to how their faith and theology were interrelated.  Very few had ever had the opportunity to share their work or their reflections with anyone in church – in a small group, through a lecture, or in a service.  Invite a scientist to share about their work – and about their faith.
  3. Engage kids.  I love to “normalize” science into the life of the church science is as much a part of normal life as family life, reading, movies, or the internet.  One of the great ways to do this is with kids.  One of our chemists has done amazing children’s moments in services with (safe!) experiments.  We have done two summer cay camps (Vacation Bible Schools) with science themes – one more generic and another specifically on the science of sound (and music).
  4. Hold a science festival.  Ely Cathedral, England, held a month long science festival in 2017 including  a schools art exhibition, an exhibition of scientific instruments, local artifacts, fossils, molecular models and scientific artwork, lectures, events for families and children and hands-on experiments.   In an interview, Victoria Johnson, residentiary Canon the cathedral comments, “It was a whole range of different kinds of events which allowed people, whatever their age and background, to engage in science in some way.”  She adds,  “We could have approached it … and made it more explicitly a science and religion debate, but what we actually wanted to do was to celebrate science in the context of our living faith … Somebody said ‘there’s lots of science going on, but where’s the religious bit?’, and that exactly picked up on the point we were trying to make. The religious bit was how people interacted with the content of the science festival in that wonderful space of Ely Cathedral. We want to give people some credit that they can wonder and think for themselves, and ponder the questions that the science festival raised.I was talking to someone who at first had some doubts about exploring science in a cathedral, and together we talked through those doubts and started thinking about the God we both believed in. Is that God over all things or do we believe in a God who only works on some days in the church? We both agreed we believe in a God over all things and in and throughout all of creation. The science festival was provoking that kind of question. In some ways it was challenging people as to how they place science in the context of a living faith.”
  5. If you have other ides, let me know!  I’ll add them to the list!