Scientific spirituality should be contagious

Scientific spirituality should be contagious

Credit: cc by VanessaC (EY) via Flickr

While there are many memories I could share about growing up on a farm and in a rural area, there are a few that I think shaped me, perhaps, more than I realized.

As many of you may know from your own experiences growing up in a small community, more often than not the person in town with the highest level of education (i.e. beyond the four years of college of a local educator) is the pastor or priest. Not only a moral authority, a pastor may be the person who interprets current events and is a key leader in the community.

Recently a memory came back to me of perhaps my 7- or 8-year-old-self. It was a recollection of me pretending to be a pastor. Mind you I had never seen a woman pastor at that point, but I had a nice size aluminum refrigerator from my play kitchen that doubled as a lectern when I turned it around along with an old Methodist hymnal that my mom bought at a church rummage sale. I remember giving plenty a sermon from my refrigerator/lectern.

But why I enjoyed playing pastor was more than just thinking I was the center of attention at that lectern, I think it was this idea of being right. Having all the answers, if you will, no matter the situation. I know many of you may be pastors, so just soak up this idea of always being RIGHT in your congregant’s eyes! Not an easy place to be, certainly.

Another early memory popped into my head recently too. I was a bit older and it was of a time of sheer joy and care free movement. I recall running and then dancing down our long driveway. Feeling the wind blow through my hair and then realizing I was my hands, arms, legs, feet, atoms, dirt, star stuff (thanks Carl Sagan), and an absolute mystery. I was in awe of myself as a part of creation yet still on the sidelines as a witness to it – a place I now realize that only God could carve out.

But I was a mystery on that day, and that curiosity was much more intriguing than having a full set of pat answers. It wasn’t until later on that I heard rumblings of a battle playing out between some people of faith and the theory of evolution and then faith and science broadly. Still that moment of ‘the dance’ was when I think I knew that I wanted to find out where my faith fit with the world. I was in the world but yet outside of the boundaries of the rest of nature. How could that be?

In my post college years, there was a need, however, to drop the “knowledge driven” or “know-it-all” mindset that can become routine for people of faith and learn to do that dance again as an adult. After all a world of sound bites with quick and easy answers loses its luster after a few years.

Here’s where science could spark something new. Discoveries about the universe and even quantum physics could hold unique truths about the world around us. That mysterious, glorious dance in awe of what is right in front of us and the presence of a creator within us (the creation) and outside of us at the same time. This is the spirituality that I see at work when it comes to having an abundant, forward-moving religion-and-science dialogue.

This scientific spirituality, as I’m calling it here, is also present in the “Affirmation of Creation” overture drafted by an organization within the Presbyterian Church (USA) that, like the Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science, and Technology, seeks to lead the church in engaging with science in productive ways. A divine dance with all of creation, if you will.

We must look closely at the “why” questions those two groups and others in the Episcopalian and United Church of Christ religion and science organizations ask all the time. These groups get together once a year in fact at a series of meetings called the Ecumenical Roundtable on Faith, Science and the Church (ERT). Here these leaders share ideas and take the time to learn more on faith-and-science topics of the day that they then can take back to their respective congregations and denominations.

ERT meetings have pondered “Why is genetic enhancement through techniques like CRISPR worth the attention of the church.” In other years they have considered whether the practice of genetic modification is ethical in the eyes of the people of faith. Likewise, a previous meeting at the Roundtable took a close look at the use of social media and its effect on congregations. Together they engage in a dance of spirituality that is enlivened through scientific curiosity. This dance is what I call “scientific spirituality.”

These are important discussions that need scientists and everyday persons alike to participate alongside pastors. It is not about having all the answers as my childlike faith may have once deemed important, but the willingness to ask the right questions at the right time — and more importantly — together.

Is science squeezing out religion in our modern society?

Is science squeezing out religion in our modern society?

The Ark Encounter’s reconstruction of Noah’s Ark. Credit: A. Larry Cross Communications

A friend of my son and recent grad from a local Jesuit high school recently exclaimed, “That just doesn’t make sense!” when I mentioned a field of scholarship called “religion-and-science.” His argument was that one is studying either one or the other, but that both disciplines do not go together. On the surface, it seems to be a reasonable argument that the two don’t need each other and apparently he is not alone, especially when looking at recent figures coming out of Pew Research.

As highlighted  in that research, there are a growing number of people who describe themselves as not being religious. About half of current religious “nones” who were raised in a religion (49%) indicate that a lack of belief led them to move away from religion, according to Pew Research. This includes many respondents who mention “science” as the reason they do not believe in religious teachings, including one who said “I’m a scientist now, and I don’t believe in miracles.” Others reference “common sense,” “logic” or a “lack of evidence” — or simply say they do not believe in God.

The answers to the Pew survey illustrate some of the most commonly accepted beliefs that are often repeated far and wide when it comes to being a scientist. That is that many scientists are not religious as “faith” and “scientific inquiry” cannot be housed in the same person. Of course this is overly simplistic. Still, the growing number of “nones” or those who do not identify with a specific religion were mostly raised in a particular religion with 78% saying they shed their religious identity in adulthood.

Then there are folks like Deborah Haarsma, who is a scientist and a Christian. She is tasked with taking on the other end of the spectrum, religious individuals who choose not to believe in science. As President of the BioLogos Foundation, she had served as professor and chair in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan prior to taking on her role at the foundation.

According to her biography on the BioLogos website, as an experienced research scientist Haarsma has studied very large galaxies (at the centers of galaxy clusters), very young galaxies (undergoing rapid star formation in the early universe), and gravitational lenses (where spacetime is curved by a massive object). Her work used data from several major telescopes, including the Very Large Array radio telescope in New Mexico, the Southern Astrophysical Research optical and infrared telescope in Cerro Pachon, Chile, and the Chandra X-ray Observatory in orbit around the Earth.

Speaking to lay audiences on scientific topics, Haarsma often speaks to churches, colleges, and schools about the relationships between science and Christian faith. Most recently, she made it clear that BioLogos Foundation,founded by geneticist Francis Collins, fully affirms the authority and inspiration of the Bible, and there is no reason to believe a proper interpretation of Genesis 6-9 conflicts with modern science.

In a letter posted on her blog, Haarsma responded to the opening of a unique theme park created by Ken Ham’s group “Answers in Genesis.” The Ark Encounter features a large wooden reconstruction of Noah’s Ark and is based on the flood story in Genesis 6-9

She also discussed Christianity’s legacy of encouraging scientific research that was built on the belief that all of nature is God’s creation. According to Haarsma’s blog, hundreds of years of research in geology, paleontology, biology, and many other fields have produced abundant evidence that the earth is billions of years old and that fossils and geological features formed through many processes over eons of time. Today, she writes, 99% of Ph.D. biologists agree that plants, animals, and humans formed through evolutionary processes.

Rev George Murphy, Covalence’s theological editor, also contradicts the common belief about incompatibility. He is both a pastor and also a physicist who has recently published a scientific paper. In this edition of Covalence, he writes about the age of the earth. While the essay is from several years ago, it is evident that being a pastor didn’t mean Murphy felt the need to leave behind his life as a scientist.

While Haarsma and Murphy may seem to be an anomaly in the scientific and religious communities to pollsters, if there is anything I’ve learned over the years, it is that the idea that science and religion are unique and distinct enterprises is a myth. That myth seems easier to believe than the stories of the people of faith who also work in the sciences. And because of this misconception, it makes the jobs of both Haarsma and Murphy all that more challenging and rewarding for all of us willing to listen to what they have to say.

Let’s talk about resources

Let’s talk about resources

Credit: cc by Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr

Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink

– Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

No, this isn’t an essay on the scarcity of clean water or natural resources. Rather, let me reflect here on how to rethink the availability of resources necessary for communicating about and teaching of faith and science basics to all ages.

This month as we read about Clint Schnekloth’s Faith & Science VBS experience this summer, it is clear that it takes lots of resources to pull off a distinctive summer program such as this. To create and distribute a top-notch curriculum or faith-and-science oriented program, people, processes and careful forethought are musts. But possibly the greatest stumbling block at the moment is the lack of access to fully vetted and time-tested materials that can be used in congregations, Sunday schools or in other public settings to open up a forward-moving dialogue in the arena of faith and science.

Sure the web is home to a number of free resources that have been developed by a number of groups over the years. We at the Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology have such a section on our website as well and recently have been discussing what it takes to put together a more comprehensive repository of information. As a group we are in the early stages, but perhaps there is something to be learned just in the process of gathering online and print information.

What’s important? This is always up for debate. Breaking it down into categories of information related to people across the faith/science dialogue is tricky. Of course curricula, essays and even educational videos are all of interest. What it comes down to though, is determining how such material can be adequately used. Going back to our Coleridge allusion, everyone is thirsty, but perhaps each water glass differs in size and what satisfies others thirst only mildly quenches other.

For our purposes today, let’s hypothetically break it down into three types of people with an interest in using religion and science resources — the educator, the couch scholar and the community builder/member.

The educator may be a Sunday School teacher, a pastor or even a deaconess. In fact, it was a deaconess I know who got me thinking about the versatility of the materials out there and the difficulty in some instances to adapt them to various audiences. It is great to have a bunch of ideas on a website, but actually applying them to differing age groups, educational levels and interests can be a challenge. For pastors, many whom lead adult education forums or confirmation, it is tricky as well. This is because while some congregations may be mostly made up of college-educated members, others perhaps outside of college towns or metropolitan areas may have a real interest in just what science is and how it works rather than the intricacies of physics or new technological implications.

The couch scholar is representative of a lot of passionate religion and science audience members. Some are science teachers and others seminarians. Others may just have an affinity for both theological and scientific matters. While they are often well read on a variety of topics, for this group it is all about finding new sources for the latest ideas on new scientific discoveries as well as historical information related to the faith and science dialogue. Scholarly papers on transhumanism, may be of interest but for the most part this group is interested in complex topics boiled down in layman’s terminology with footnotes for further reading.

Last but not least, the community builder/member. Some folks are just looking to join something larger than themselves and work on a project within a group. Just knowing that there is a dialogue provides enough excitement and material for learning that this group can easily be enriched. Still what they may need is a feel for uncovering the whole scope of religion and science in its entirety. Today many groups specialize on set topics or a grouping of topics at any one point in time — which can be off-putting if it isn’t a topic of interest.

So back to the drawing board. How can groups, such as the Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology, serve the broad needs of church communities? What materials already exist that can be combined and used for the greatest impact?

Is there a need for more development in the gathering of resources? Certainly. Are the resources available? Yes, for the most part. Where can one find them? All over the web, but a number of good offline materials are available too.

As with anything that is worth doing, it is a process. With enough interested parties in gathering and creating faith and science educational resources the job is likely getting easier.

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