Caring for Our Scientists

Some postures and practices of science-friendly churches

January 20, 2012 — The perceived conflict between faith and science is so commonplace that it’s a given in popular culture. Caught up in this false choice, churches are sometimes inhospitable places for people trained in the sciences.

So how can congregations create a welcoming space where people celebrate God’s scientific truth, and where all those involved in the sciences (including engineers, teachers, lab technicians, researchers, health care professionals, and others) can grow as disciples and embrace their work as a holy vocation?

Although some might think of a hospitable attitude toward science and faith as an option package, it is an essential facet of the church’s witness. It is vital to the spiritual formation of those who are engaged in the sciences. It is critical for a compelling Christian witness in a culture where the dogma of the scientific worldview mostly goes unchallenged. And it is integral to developing a robust faith centered on the God who reveals his glory within the created world.

A Science-Friendly Church

Becoming a science-friendly church is not so far out of reach—it doesn’t require a conference or a shiny new program. Most congregations and pastors can draw on Christ-centered practices and postures cultivated over centuries, mindfully extending them toward the sciences. Following are a few of those practices and postures that might be helpful.

Repent. Humble repentance is a good place to start. For many, fear and suspicion lurk beneath the faith-science conversation. This posture never allows us to extend love to others, to experience candor in our conversations, or to express gratitude for the wisdom in God’s two books of revelation. Those in the sciences can repent of the idolatry of the scientific worldview; others can repent of a suspicious attitude toward the sciences. All of us can ask God for a heart ready to celebrate the goodness of the scientific endeavor and to affirm the priestly work done by those in the sciences as they give voice to the Word of God inherent in creation.

Cultivate wonder, delight, and play. Christians worship God. Our worship emerges from a deep sense of wonder in God and delight in God’s creating and saving work. All week long, science-friendly congregations bring that posture of wonder to the created world and to the discoveries of the sciences.

This practice is pivotal because conversations on faith and science often turn to the issue of origins. No doubt this is an important issue—but there is so much more to delight in! Before discussing the question of origins, perhaps we should first spend time leisurely gawking at photos from the Hubble space telescope, closely observing an ant colony at work, enjoying a visit to the zoo, or finding out what goes on inside our digestive systems. Let a deep sense of worshipful wonder properly set the table for important theological conversations.

And don’t forget to play! Simply enjoying the world through our bodies and senses is an important worship practice. The careers of many scientists began by hovering over a tide pool, staring up at a star-filled night sky, or curiously observing a scab form. Undoubtedly the “re-faithing” of science for many Christians will begin in similar places.

Curiosity is a homing device implanted in the human soul, calling us back to our Creator.

Encourage curiosity. Part of the goodness of human life is our immense hunger to know God and the universe God created. Curiosity is a homing device implanted in the human soul, calling us back to our Creator. Every time we encourage curiosity, questions, and learning (whether pursued through God’s book of creation or Scripture), we practice humility and steer people toward a larger understanding of God.

Healthy churches are learning communities. We ask questions about God; we teach the story of God in Scripture; we expand our knowledge through Bible studies and adult education; we discourage ignorance. It’s no stretch to extend that learning posture toward God’s created world, humbly learning all we can from sound science, even embracing the common grace of a learned scientist who doesn’t believe what we believe.

Practice hospitality. Churches are supposed to be welcoming places of grace for all people. The practice of hospitality creates a spacious place for others to know the embrace of Christ, and it opens wide our world to the views of others. Simply taking an interest in the world and work of scientists by asking them questions about what they do is a generous act of hospitality.

Admittedly, science can be intimidating; for many, scientific knowledge can seem overly complex and out of reach. Yet scientists are not that scary—likely they would love the chance to tell you about their work. Ask where they see God in their research, or how their work encourages or hinders their spiritual formation.

To make all feel welcome, many churches include diverse expressions and perspectives in their common life and worship: perhaps inviting a dancer to embody the congregation’s prayers, banner-makers and graphic artists to add beauty to worship spaces, and visual artists and photographers to create media. Why not include a scientist on the worship team or as part of the sermon planning process? Every day, Christian scientists note the grandeur of God in molecular genetics, chemical reactions, or particle physics. They are perfect allies for giving voice to God’s Word within creation through the church’s ministry.

Pray. Churches are communities of prayer. Together we lift prayers to God for our world and its hot spots, for government leaders, natural disasters, personal needs, and for people as they pursue their vocations. Why not pray specifically for those serving in the sciences in our congregations and beyond—praising God for recent scientific discoveries in the news, and praying for the faithful witness of Christians in the world of science?

Community. Churches are communities where we encourage, care for, and support each other, where we bear one another’s burdens. Christians who are active in the sciences regularly wade through complex ethical issues, and many are involved in high-level discussions that impact public policy. These followers of Jesus feel the weight of demanding careers and of where their work and research may lead. The burden can be heavy. Like busy single parents, partners in a struggling marriage, or lonely seniors, people in the sciences sometimes experience matters beyond their capacity to carry. Can we compassionately come alongside these fellow disciples, providing supportive Christian community and a safe place to explore how the gospel shapes these important issues?

The way beyond the perceived conflict of science versus faith is the way of Jesus, the way of living Jesus’ generosity, patience, humility, and love. Why not make an experiment of it in your church and see what surprising new discoveries emerge?

One of the best expressions of Christian hospitality to those in the sciences is to get informed. Here are a few resources to begin with:

  • Real Scientists, Real Faith, ed. R.J. Berry (Monarch Books, 2009). Seventeen scientists tell of the impact of their Christian faith.
  • Ministry Theorem website. Calvin Theological Seminary hosts a fine website with good resources, particularly the “What I wish my pastor knew” series of articles. ministrytheorem.calvinseminary.edu/essays/wiwmpk/.
  • Cosmos: Refaithing Science website. Regent College’s Pastoral Science project hosts a site rich with resources to further the faith-science conversation. cosmos.regent-college.edu/
  • The Colossian Forum. Dedicated to cultivating the needed Christian character to engage the faith-science conversations. colossianforum.org/.

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Not a bad article, Phil, although you almost lost me in the "priestly work of scientists". Like the priestly work of mechanics or electricians....

I think your first paragraph illustrates the false choice between faith and science, but then the rest of your article fails to set it right. The real choice is not between faith and science, but between truth and falsehood. Many people would like it to appear to be between faith and science, to divert the battle between truth and falsehood. Science led to engines and mechanics, and electricity and electricians, as well as to Holstein cows, to crop fertilizers, and printing presses, paper, printed bibles, and the crc network. Science is not a problem. It is false conclusions that are a problem.

Just as faith is not a problem. Faith leads to trust in God, and love for Christ, and prayer, and love for one another. It is only false faith and false gods, and false ideologies, that are problems.

This article begins by (correctly) pointing out that the relationship between science and faith is largely misunderstood ("so commonplace"), but then it doesn't bother to either explain the "false choice" or explicate the proper relationship. Huh? What can be profitably said after leaving the fundamental question unanswered?

The other thing that bothers me a bit is how this article literally initiates the idea of classifying people, on account of their occupations, as those worthy of the special attention of local churches and, impliedly, those not. (Unless there is going to be series of these articles that will "make everyone special"???)

What about "sales professionals," perhaps the most denigrated occupations, or my own, lawyers. We need love too, don't we? Sorry, I'm not meaning to sound trite, but I'm not sure we're not declaring division where none exists. The suggestion, "Why not include a scientist on the worship team or as part of the sermon planning process?" is a bit baffling. By this article's the definition of "scientist," our worship team is dominated by "scientists," not that anyone in our congregation would have stopped to think about it, so much their supposed lack of regard for "scientists."

While I want to believe this article was written with the intent to reconcile the scientifically literate and illiterate among the CRC, the execution had the opposite effect.

For example, asking a scientist to repent his or her "idolatry of the scientific worldview" smacks of asking to help with the splinter in his/her eye to the neglect of the timber in his own. This is especially true, since he neglected to established what exactly is idolatrous about science in the first place. To confuse the discussion more, the author then praises the "priestly work done by those in the sciences" in the very next sentence. So which is it, idolatry or priesthood?

The only conclusion I can come to is that he is pandering to both the scientifically illiterate (whose objection to science is palpable and resolute) and the scientifically literate (whom he hopes to include). Giving any credence to the idea that scientific inquiry is somehow sinful destroys any bridge the author hoped to build, and makes me (as a Calvin-educated engineer/scientist) feel no more included in the church I grew up in.