Faith and Science: Sharing My Questions (STEAM Grant Series Intro)

academy of natural sciences photo

A stained glass mural at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, PA . Photo by PMillera4

This academic year, ESN is creating a Faith/Science curriculum for young adult small groups. We’re partnering with InterVarsity graduate student discussion groups to identify faith/science questions that are important to emerging scholars, and then commissioning thoughtful Christians in science or theology/philosophy to explore those questions in a series at the ESN blog. We will publish these posts as a  booklet curriculum for campus groups. This project was made possible through the support of an award from the Science and Theology for Emerging Adult Ministries project at Fuller Theological Seminary. The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fuller or the STEAM project.

Please pray for Tom Grosh and another team member as they attend the kickoff retreat for STEAM grant participants in California this coming week, and please pray for the retreat to be a great time of encouragement for all the STEAM grant participants.

To start off the ESN STEAM grant blog series this month, we asked a current graduate student to write about his own faith/science questions and share some brief reflections about how he is exploring them. These reflections are shared anonymously, and our hope is that they inspire local groups to share their own questions and experiences. Our goal at this point is not to achieve full answers for these questions (though we do hope in the course of the series to offer at least some possible answers students may consider), but to provide a springboard for discussion groups to share their own faith/science explorations. To that end, suggested group discussion questions follow.

Faith and Science: Sharing My Questions

I’m a senior graduate student studying Developmental Biology. Throughout my life I’ve always had an interest in the mechanisms by which our bodies are formed. Grad school is an incredible time for any aspiring academic; it is a time to learn and grow your mind and who you are. The journey has definitely had its highs and lows, but in the midst of all of the frenetic chaos I am still seeking to find God in everything I do. Throughout my journey in grad school I’ve faced a number of internal and external questions. To keep this inaugural post relatively short, I’m going to keep the list reasonably brief and focused on three questions/issues: Self identity, reconciling conflicting narratives, and finding my Calling.

Big Picture Question 1: Identity and self-worthwhere do I derive my identity from and what determines my worth?

One question that has always been hovering over my shoulder strikes at the heart: “Who am I? What are the things that define me?” Clearly my scientific work and interests are important parts of my identity, but I also derive many more parts of my life from more than my dissertation work. I have had to reflect on whether or not my works and interests are manifestations of a deeper part of me (a curious nature and a desire to learn more about life); or are they external entities that force me into specific molds regarding how I behave and think (carefully controlled experimentation and an inherent skepticism regarding most if not all claims)? I’m coming to the conclusion that my identity is both something that wells up from my internal self yet is also something shaped by the training I’m undergoing to sharpen who I am.

Closely related to my own journey regarding my self-identity is my journey asking “who or what defines my worth?” For all of my interests, knowledge, and skills I have developed here in grad school, I still have yet to publish a paper. I admit this is a hurdle that must be overcome for me to proceed onto the next stage of my career, but self-doubt readily inserts itself into my mind and makes me question my own individual worth. There are days where I feel that it would be better for me to quit and do something else without finishing my dissertation work, but I also do fight back knowing that what I’m trying to accomplish is not something that is achievable in a short period of time. I cannot derive my worth from my accomplishments (or lack thereof). Rather, my worth must be derived from something even deeper and more abiding than the uncertainty of being published or getting the next promotion.

Big Picture Question 2: Reconciling Conflicting NarrativesEvolution and Faith

There’s no avoiding the proverbial elephant in the room as a biologist in training: evolution and faith. I’m not going to dive into this particular debate/dialogue/storm in this post because that would be beyond the scope and intent of this post (plus, there are many more people who are diving into this dialogue). However I do acknowledge that I stand at the intersection between two communities who often have very harsh and dismissive words regarding the other. I’ve personally come to the point where I’m synthesizing and merging both narratives: I believe the conflict is an artificial one and in fact proper understanding of both evolution and faith brings forward a perspective with greater appreciation and awe of life and God.

Personally I wish to see this reconciliation primarily out of a desire to see peace between some voices within the church and the laboratories of the university. How can people find the truth when both camps demonize and dehumanize each other? Additionally, I think this desire to see a synthesis might also have its roots in my own Asian American identity (another place where I think synthesis is something that needs to be pursued). Maybe one day I can further explain and dive into this topic in greater detail.

Big Picture Question 3: What is my mission? What is God’s Call in my life?

For this final question, I think this is something that while not unique to graduate students, is something that is especially felt by graduate students: “Where and how do we apply the skills and knowledge that we have built and accrued for the kingdom of God? Will it be in the halls of academia? Will it be in finding that niche in industry and crafting something specific? Will it be using our knowledge and applying it in the government for the improvement of our fellow humans?” The list goes on and on. How do we discern between the various options and at the end of the day choose a path to go forward on? This question weighs more heavily on my mind right now as I seek to not only finish my degree but also discern where I want to go next. Confounding this search for my specific calling is also my struggle with worth and identity. Often we tie our identities and worth to our careers and career trajectories. However I also do realize that this is a question that may never be answered immediately and clearly. Likely this is one place where I must step forward in faith after weighing my options and seeking God’s guidance and call.

These are just some of the questions that I’m still wrestling with in some form or another. I’m not sure when I will see the resolution to my questions and issues, and possibly they may be things I will ponder for years to come. However I’m firm in my belief that I’m not alone in experiencing these questions (in some alternate form or another) and I hope that by writing them down further dialogue can grow out of this effort and become a resource for other graduate students and future graduate students.

Group Discussion Questions

These questions are provided as a springboard to group discussion, but feel free to skip around, explore the ones that are most interesting to your particular group, and raise your own questions as well. These are meant to provide starting points.

Getting Started

  • What stood out to you? Share one thing that stood out to you in the article, and describe briefly why it interested you.
  • Jot down 1 or 2 questions you have about faith and science, or break into pairs and describe 1 or 2 questions to a neighbor.
  • If you feel comfortable, share one or both questions with the whole group, and briefly describe where you are with that question. Have you just started exploring it? Is it something you’ve studied for many years and feel you are close to having a personal answer to? Or are you somewhere in between?

Exploring Categories: General Category Questions

  • Think about the questions you just listed. Do they fall into one of the three categories of “big picture” questions the author of the article has about science and faith? Or would you say that your “big picture” categories are different? (Note: the categories are: 1. Identity and Self-worth 2. Reconciling apparently conflicting narratives about science and faith and 3. Finding your calling or vocation.)
  • Of the three categories and any others that you came up, which one(s) do you find yourself most exploring as you ask your own faith/science questions? Can you name one or two things that have helped you make progress in exploring that category? (This could be reading about it, talking with people, observing patterns over time, etc.)

Exploring Categories: Questions on Identity and Self Worth  

  • How do you think science attempts to answer questions of identity? Which identity issues does it address well and which of its answers are incomplete?
  • How do other students or faculty in the sciences find their identity? Is that process similar or different for peers in other fields—humanities, arts, etc.?

Exploring Categories: Questions on Reconciling Apparently Conflicting Narratives About Science and Faith

  • The graduate student who wrote the article mentions that for him as a biologist, the relationship between evolution and faith is one of the big questions that his field poses. Do you think that the details of your scientific field raise certain questions about faith and science for you? Or for you is it less about the details of your particular discipline and more about other questions?
  • What questions do others most often ask you about faith and science? How do you usually answer them? Which questions from others about faith and science seem easy to answer for you? Which ones seem harder?

Finding Your Calling or Vocation

  • Are there scientific career paths that seem more or less consistent with following Jesus? Are there certain fields or disciplines that need a stronger Christian presence? Are there certain fields or disciplines that Christians should avoid? For instance, some Christians might disagree with the use of animal research in some fields or have concerns about the possibility of inappropriate military applications in some disciplines, etc.
  • Are there ways in which a science career opens up opportunities for growth in faith or spiritual disciplines? For instance, is a career built around frequent grant cycles and uncertain long-term funding an act of faith?
  • Where do you see evidence of God’s calling/purpose in your graduate studies (either scientifically or personally)?

Wrap Up Questions

  • What are some ongoing questions you hope to explore in this study group this year?
  • What growth would you like to see in your life through this group?

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