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.

Greg Cootsona small
© G Cootsona

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

Guest Post: Doing Faith and Science Like It’s 1718

659px-Les_Astronomes_Jesuit_astronomers_with_Chinese_scholars_Beauvais_18th_century crop

I was seated in the Bell Memorial Union at California State University, Chico, on a beautifully sunny fall day, interviewing one of my students, Giovanni, 19, who grew up in a devoted Catholic family and attended one of the finest Catholic high schools in the Silicon Valley before heading to Chico State.

These conversations always fascinate me because so many emerging adults—those 18-30 year olds among us (perhaps even reading this blog)—are declining to affiliate with any religion. When asked which box to check in response to “What religion are you?” 35-40% will mark “none.” I want to find out why. One key reason, noted by David Kinnaman of the Barna Group,emerging adults are becoming “nones” because they see the church as “antagonistic to science,” unwilling to take in, or take on, its insights and challenges. Continue reading

Guest Post: Conversation Piece

a messy desk
© DG Empl, Flickr, cropped. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“Come in.” He looked at me over the top of his glasses as I entered the office. “And who have we here.”

“I was looking for Dr. Purcell,” I said. “I’m George, her new PhD student.”

“Ah.” The man put down his pen and folded his arms on the desk. “Trish has just popped out for vital caffeine supplies. She won’t be long. Make yourself comfortable.”

I took the only chair that wasn’t covered in paper. The room was small and stuffy. One of the two desks – the one my companion was sitting behind – was covered in files and pens and folders. The other, presumably belonging to my new supervisor, was empty apart from a laptop and fountain pen. I glanced at the man. He was the epitome of a mad professor, all wild hair and half-moon glasses, but there had been no name on the door other than Dr. T. Purcell. Continue reading

Guest Post: Is the World Predictably Random?


Uncertainty by Nicu Buculei, Flickr. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

You’re flipping a coin. How many heads in a row would it take for you to start getting suspicious?

HHHHH: Five?



Continue reading

Rare Earth: Why ‘simple’ life may be common in the universe, but animals may be unique to our planet

Cropped from: Artist’s impression of a M dwarf star surrounded by planets. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Anyone who has watched enough nature documentaries will know that life can exist pretty much anywhere on Earth. One episode of the Blue Planet II series showed a hydrothermal vent – a crack in the mid-ocean ridge where hot gases and water pour out. Bacteria thrive in the scalding water around the vents, getting their energy from chemicals like hydrogen and sulphur, and enabling a rich ecosystem of bacteria-eating crabs, shrimps, and other animals to build up to such a density that it rivals Continue reading

Book Preview – Reason and Wonder: Why science and faith need each other

© Ruth Bancewicz

‘from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved’

Charles Darwin

…the origins of all species, including our own, are found in natural processes that can be observed and studied scientifically. In other words, evolution demonstrates that our own existence is woven into the very fabric of the natural world. Seen in this light, the human presence is not a mistake of nature or a random accident, but a direct consequence of the characteristics of the universe. What evolution tells us is that we are part of the grand, dynamic and ever-changing fabric of life that covers our planet. To a person of faith, an understanding of the evolutionary process only deepens our appreciation of the scope and wisdom of the Creator’s work.

For Christians today, the scientific successes of evolutionary theory present Continue reading

Thoughts on Discipleship from a Marine Conservationist

Cara Daneel. Naifaru, Maldives

When I left university, I was a budding conservationist armed with good intentions, theoretical head knowledge, and an enthusiasm to change the world. I then entered a real world where human hearts were not so easy to sway. After firsthand experience in a variety of contexts, I was left wondering how to negotiate that space between understanding facts and inspiring a sacrificial love which is powerful enough to change our ways. It is not a simple step, but our Christian faith can help this conversation, and possibly the whole planet, in a big way.

My introduction to practical marine conservation began in the tropical waters around Madagascar and the Maldives. Here…

Continue reading this article now (free, no signup required) in Christianity Today.