Guest Post: Normal Congregations Need Not Apply?

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One particular conversation has happened numerous times. When I’m asked about what I do, I reply, “I’m involved with religion and science,” and I often hear a still-unexpected response, “Religion and science? That’s not for me—I’m not smart.”

It’s hard to know what to say next. I do tend to think that this dialogue requires our best thinking. But I’m also troubled by an implied resistance. Is faith and science for elitist, “heady” congregations only?

Felt Needs

In the world of shepherding churches, pastors often talk about “felt needs.” In that light, is the integration of Christian faith and mainstream science something that we, as people in the pew, feel we need? That’s the big question I’ve faced with my team as we’ve worked to bring science to church since 2010 through two large grants in the United States (Scientists in Congregationsand Science and Theology for Emerging Adult Ministries).

Being Quick to Listen

Maybe we’re speaking and not listening. I’ve learned that we have to listen to what people are actually asking for. Here’s an analogy with another “faith and” movement. A recent Christian Today article “God of the Second Shift” posed the question, “When we talk about faith and work, why are two-thirds of the workers missing?” Too often the movement ignores two-thirds of the American workforce, the working class.

Similarly, in faith and science we miss most of the congregation. Most churches aren’t situated near a university or in a science-saturated city. As this article notes, church attendance, at least in the United States, has stayed fairly steady for the college-educated in the past several decades, but has markedly declined for those without a college degree. Most importantly it concludes with the simple phrase, “Beginning to listen.”

Different Questions

And if we listen, maybe we’ll find that we don’t know the specific topics in science and faith that actually interest congregations. Scholars ponder the connection between the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo and quantum cosmology, or how Chalcedonian Christology relates to Bohr’s concept of complementarity. Despite how intensely interested I am, I’ve realized that it causes the eyes of many church members to glaze over. How about instead the studies that demonstrate a connection between smart phone usage and anxiety, or the between gratitude and happiness? That lands.

The Never Ending Reality of Warfare

There’s a recent book that just came across my desk with the apt subtitle, The Warfare Between Science and Religion: The Idea That Wouldn’t Die. How true that is. To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the end of the warfare—at least in the minds of the public—have been great exaggerated. When I do listen to the “person in the pew,” I hear concerns about apologetics and the legitimacy of Christian belief in an age of science and technology.

Despite what many who study this field believe about the “Draper and White thesis” and it died long ago, I still hear from all sides of the church that church members fear losing faith. For conservatives in the States, there’s also considerable alarm over the “e word,” evolution, that’s wound into this. “If I accept modern science, I’ll lose my Bible, Adam and Eve, and ultimately Jesus Christ.” But for liberals or mainliners who love science, the problem is frequently the presence of so many leading atheist scientists. I was speaking at an Evangelical Lutheran Church synod convocation this fall, and I heard this: “My daughter loves science, but since so many prominent scientists are atheists, she decided not to do church Confirmation because she wants to be a scientist.”

Key Influencers

In order to be heard, we also have to figure out how to engage the influencers of the congregation. So much of the work of bringing together faith and science requires not primarily intellectual and rational discourse, but engagement with group influencers or endorsers and group identity.

The integration of mere Christianity and mainstream science isn’t simply about knowledge, but, as researchers have discovered, one’s “intuitive cognitions” or “feelings of certainty” make the decision about acceptance of evolution, for example, and override rational concerns. As surprising as it sounds to me (since I’ve been a pastor, I wondered about how much people really listen to us) a ministry leader’s voice offers feelings of certainty that are central to defining a social world and thus of what can be thought or not. Here I turn to Calvin College sociologist Jonathan Hill, who (in his book, Emerging Adulthood and Faith) noted that friends, family, pastor, and other trusted voices are critical for opening college to explore mainstream science. “For most students, then, it matters little what their professor teaches… What their friends, parents, and pastor thinks is going to be far more important, because their social world is inextricably tied up with these significant others.” We believe things because those around us make them believable.

Translators Please Apply

Finally, it will require those of us who are specialists to translateour concept and especially to use clarity and simplicity in language. C. S. Lewis, who to many is the brilliant Christian apologist and author of The Chronicles of Narnia,had a day job of being a prominent Oxford and Cambridge scholar. Lewis learned how to translate, among other means, through his talks to the Royal Air Force during World War II as well in speaking about religion to a broad audience through the BBC—which, of course, later became his most well-read nonfiction book, Mere Christianity­. As he later wrote, “My task was therefore simply that of a translator—one turning Christian doctrine, or what he believed to be such, into the vernacular, into language that unscholarly people would attend to and could understand.” Translation, for Lewis, required less nuance in language and simpler sentence structure. For many of us, it also requires simplifying ideas, even rounding off some edges of scholarly controversy.

Lewis observed, “People praise me for being a translator. But where are the others? I wanted to start a school of translation.” My hope is to be part of translating this conversation of faith and science to the wider church so that talking about science becomes just something congregations naturally do. But even more, I’m looking to start a movement of translation.

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Greg Cootsona is a lecturer in religion, philosophy, and humanities at California State University, Chico. If you have comments, feel free to connect with him Greg blogs at cootsona.blogspot.comand tweets at GregCootsona

The Incarnation: Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

© Alan Handyside, Wellcome Images

My frame was not hidden from you

when I was made in the secret place,

when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes saw my unformed body;

all the days ordained for me were written in your book

before one of them came to be.

Psalm 139:15-16

You began life as a single cell – a fertilised egg with mother and father’s DNA mingled together in a unique combination. This miniscule blob was all of you for a few hours, until it began to divide: 2 cells, 4, 8, 16, a ball, a hollow ball, and then something more complex. You were still tiny, but developing a nervous system, a head, a body, arms and legs. By that point your mother would be only too aware she was expecting a baby – the physical symptoms would have been hard to ignore. Continue reading

Guest Post: How Science Works – Evidence for the earliest life on Earth

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Science is a quest for truth about the natural world, and for the scientist this search for understanding an exciting adventure. In much of my work it begins with a search for patterns: patterns which are consistent and from which meaning can be extracted. This consistency coupled with a straightforward way of uniting and integrating the data they provide underlies much of scientific logic and draws heavily on the idea of an ordered world.  For the scientist who is a Christian, this is God’s ordered world, and understanding the natural world leads to a better understanding of how God works. Continue reading

If Curiosity Were a Crime…

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© Szorstki,

What would life be like if British society had taken a different path in the mid-nineteenth century? What if science was seen as having all the answers, subjects like phrenology continued to be taken seriously, and other branches of knowledge were outlawed completely? A number of things might have gone off the rails: asking questions about meaning or belief in a deity could have been seen as so shameful they were made illegal, perhaps women would have been denied any kind of education, and people of other races might have been treated with even more suspicion than they were already.

This scenario is the setting for The Curious Crime, Continue reading

Wild Advent: Watch a Murmuration

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© Dan Dzurisin, flickr,

The flocks of starlings over the winter create one of the most impressive spectacles of nature seen in the UK. From being a noisy, chaotic, chattering muddle, when it’s dusk, they gather in great numbers to roost. Moving as one, they take to the air, forming a pattern that swirls and shifts in the sky before suddenly all dropping back down to the land. Continue reading

Randomness Keeps You Breathing: A physicist’s perspective on the richness of the created order


People love order. Whether it involves a garden, a filing system, or an alphabetical bookshelf, we often get a sense of satisfaction from a good tidying-up job. If you’re thinking “That description doesn’t fit me”, I bet there is at least one area of your life where you are geekily, control-freakily, organised. What about your hard drive, the ‘filing system’ that only you understand which extends off your desk onto the floor and any other available surface in the room, or even aspects of the way you store things away in your memory?

Perhaps this love of structure is why Christians tend to see randomness in nature as a bad thing. Continue reading

Guest Post: Caretakers of the Deep

2016 Deepwater Exploration of the Marianas
Tube worms. Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, 2016 Deepwater Exploration of the Marianas

How do you imagine a coral reef? Have you had the privilege of seeing one through your own dive mask, or have you sat in the comfort of your living room watching beautifully shot images set to dramatic full orchestra soundtracks?

Healthy coral reefs are a festival of colour, shape, sound, and activity. They are full of interesting characters, each playing their part in the functioning of the ecosystem – from the sponge that filters out harmful viruses from the water column to Continue reading