'Darwin feet' project an attention-grabber for campus church

By Susan Barreto

Students entering a campus church for the first time may be drawn to finding those answers to life’s big questions. Others may be seeking community. Increasingly, though, campus congregations have been exploring the tough questions about science and how they relate to faith as a way to spark new ministry opportunities.

Leading up to the first days of school, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina held an end of summer book club to discuss Greg Cootsona’s book Mere Science and Christian Faith. The event also hosted a live online Q&A session with the author.

Pastor Will Rose at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church has led the effort to foster faith and science discussions as part of the STEAM program — Science and Theology for Emerging Adults Ministries. STEAM is supported by both a John Templeton Foundation grant and Fuller Seminary.

At Holy Trinity, the grant’s final project was launching a website full of resources, yet the work goes on via a number of events including a “We are Stardust” sing-along at a Durham brewery.

The grant process itself led to the establishment of a faith and science team that Rose says “will continue to move forward with what we have learned and what we have been working on.”

He recalls noticing about four or five years ago that there were a lot of faith and science questions coming from students, members and professors.

Q&A panels were created and drew in scientists, who in turn offered the support the church needed to ultimately win the STEAM grant. Panels included those individuals behind popular podcasts such as The Liturgists and Science Mike.

Joining Rose on the Holy Trinity faith and science team are: Duke University physics professor Al Goshaw; University of North Carolina (UNC) ecology professor Karin Pfennig; UNC chemistry professor Josh Beaver and astrophysicist Matthew Goodson.

The theme of the groups’ work is reconciling the tension in faith and science in a university setting as Holy Trinity doubles as the campus ministry for the University of North Carolina.

Over the summer 12 youth from Holy Trinity attended the 2018 ELCA Youth Gathering and Rose brought copies of Andrew Root’s book, Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs and Zombies: Youth Ministry in the Age of Science that were given away in a drawing at the booth set up by the Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology.

Despite the interest in Root’s book, Rose views his pastoral role as of support to those asking faith and science questions. “I could give students a book or offer up pat answers, but it is best to be a safe welcoming place to ask questions,” he says.

Meanwhile on the quad of the University of Illinois’s Urbana-Champaign campus, a newly outfitted bike rack is likely sparking another set of questions among new students this fall.

The rack outside of Saint Andrew’s Lutheran Campus Center originally was in the shape of the ancient Christian symbol of a fish, but earlier this year was given an addition by students to include “Darwin feet,” which is a recognized image that is used to signify a theological perspective of evolutionary creation.

Saint Andrew’s is home to long-time religion and science dialogue called the Rheticus Forum and congregational leaders felt the bike rack enhancements made an appropriate statement regarding the interaction between faith and science.

Saint Andrew’s Pastor Amy Thoren has led the faith and science dialogue at the campus church in recent years and has a bin of composting worms that welcomes new students and members on any given Sunday.

“At St. Andrew’s, we hope to interrupt and challenge the popular narrative that says faith and science are mutually exclusive and should therefore be antagonistic toward each other,” says Thoren.

“We believe respectful dialogue, probing questions, mutual desire to learn from each other, and common affirmation of the mysteries of this life can bear much fruit in a world of misunderstanding and distrust. By putting feet on our Christian fish bike rack, we hope to pique interest, stimulate desire for conversation, and express our willingness to forge a path less traveled. We also hope others will join us on that path.”

The Rheticus Forum has welcomed scientists to openly discuss their work and faith as well as theologians pointing to important issues such as atheism in science.

Meanwhile, students returning to CalTech are welcomed to participate in its SAFE ministry — Science and Faith Examined — that also asks important questions at the intersection of science, philosophy, ethics and religion.

Monthly meetings have been hosted during the school year by Mission Community Church, a Presbyterian congregation in Pasadena. The student-targeted gatherings include dinner and an expert speaker that is typically a scientist and the effort, like that of Holy Trinity is funded via the STEAM project.

Past presenters included astrophysicist Hugh Ross and Robert Marks, a professor of electrical and computer engineer at Baylor University. After the main presentation, students break up into small groups to explore the topics further.

The group also openly shares videos of its talks on its website.

While the grant period is coming to an end, as Holy Trinity’s Rose points out, future events are in the works for the coming school year.

For Rose, the satisfaction has been in connecting with others already involved with faith and science work. With that in mind, his group is promoting a Homebrewed Christianity event on November 8 through the 10 in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Dubbed the Cosmic Campfire, the event promises to look at humanity’s biggest questions via the lens of faith and science.

Topics will include cosmic origins, human evolution and ‘deep ecology’, according to organizers. They say, it’s what would happen if Rumi, Julian of Norwich, Darwin, Lao Tzu, Socrates and Jesus made s’mores together.

S’mores or not, the gathering will likely draw students from the college community and that in turn may spark some interesting discussions around God, science and new forms of community.

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