Engaging Science & Theology for Emerging Adult Ministries

2016 Catalina Island

For the LORD is the great God, the great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land. Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care. — Psalm 95:3-7a (NIV)

In September I had the privilege of participating in the STEAM (i.e., Science & Theology for Emerging Adult Ministries) Project Conference held at Catalina Island, CA. STEAM was initiated at Fuller Theological Seminary when Greg Cootsona and Dave Navarra

identified four main obstacles to the integration of science and faith for emerging adults:

(1) the perception (and, at times, belief) that Christianity is in conflict with science and vice versa;

(2) the seeming disconnection of science and religion from pressing life issues;

(3) the perception that the Bible is outdated and unscientific when it comes to the connection between science and religion; and

(4) the dizzying choices 18- to 30-year-olds face, which often make it difficult to decide how to relate faith and science. — Fuller hosts $2 million grant for engagement of emerging adults with science and theology

As the Emerging Scholars Network shared earlier this academic year, we are excited about the opportunity to expand our faith/science engagement. The first post in our monthly faith/science series to develop a field-tested curriculum booklet is live. Please visit, share, and discuss with others. If you desire to become more involved, please drop us a line.

To meet the STEAM directors and the other project leaders in such an encouraging context was invigatoring. Catalyzing the integration of Christian faith and science for emerging adults (18-30 years old) in college and post-college ministries is a shared passion. It is a blessing to be resourced not only to do such virtually with partner InterVarsity Graduate & Faculty Ministry chapters, but also to develop an expanded student track at the American Scientific Affiliation‘s 2017 Annual Conference (July 28 – 31, Colorado School of Mines, Golden, CO).

Through the American Scientific Affiliation and InterVarsity, I knew a number of the other participants in the 31 projects. Below is a picture of InterVarsity staff, former staff, students, and faculty with whom I had the joy of connecting with during the STEAM conference.

InterVarsity staff, former staff, students, and faculty at STEAM

InterVarsity staff, former staff, students, and faculty at the STEAM Project Conference

With regard to “take homes,” I particularly appreciated Rebecca Dorsey Sok’s Solving Conflict Through Coaching: A Faith and Science Coaching Curriculum training. The instruction and the experimentation not only enabled me to get to know my new conversation partners, but also prepared me to more deeply engage questions online and on campus. Stay tuned 🙂

In addition to the excellent programming and opportunities for in depth conversation stimulating ideas for next steps with our project (including possibilities of collaboration with new and old friends/acquaintances), I received a surprising and refreshing time of rest. Morning walks reminded me of the beauty of God’s creation and the importance of silence before the Lord, preparation for a full next several days . . . weeks . . . months . . . academic year. Thank you for engaging science and theology with us. Thank you to Greg, Dave, Rebecca, Justin Barrett, and all our friends at STEAM / STAR (Office for Science, Theology, and Religion Initiatives) for their support and encouragement.

To God be the glory!

PS. As the Lord provides, prayerfully consider investing in what ESN does / writes. You can give here or contact us here. More specifics will be shared in future posts.

STEAM logo

Updated: 10/11/2016, 8:45 am, 3:15 pm.

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Tom Grosh IV

Tom enjoys daily conversations regarding living out the Biblical Story with his wife Theresa and their four girls, around the block, at Elizabethtown Brethren in Christ Church (where he teaches adult electives and co-leads a small group), among healthcare professionals as the South Central PA Area Director for the Christian Medical & Dental Associations (CMDA), and in higher ed as a volunteer with the Emerging Scholars Network (ESN). The Christian Medical Society / CMDA at Penn State College of Medicine is the hub of his ministry with CMDA. Note: Tom served with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship / USA for 20+ years, including 6+ years as the Associate Director of ESN. He has written for the ESN blog from its launch in August 2008. He has studied Biology (B.S.), Higher Education (M.A.), Spiritual Direction (Certificate), Spiritual Formation (M.A.R.), Ministry to Emerging Generations (D.Min.). To God be the glory!

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  • jay.sorenson@gmail.com'
    Jay Sorenson commented on October 11, 2016 Reply

    How will theology resolve questions regarding dark matter/dark energy and the standard model?

    • drandrewwalsh@gmail.com'
      Andy Walsh commented on October 11, 2016 Reply

      Interesting question. Personally, I wouldn’t really expect theology to directly answer those questions, at least not in the way that scientific investigation would. Theology can potentially provide a broader framework for investigating them; for example, belief in a knowable God can create an expectation that the universe, and thus dark matter, is understandable.

      There are other ways that theology and science can interact, however. For example, science raises a variety of ethical questions to which theology can speak. As it happens, my blog post this week touches on some of these areas of potential interaction, if you’re interested.

      • David Parry commented on October 12, 2016 Reply

        I’m not qualified to comment on the science, but broadly agree with your differentiation between the roles of science and theology and learn a lot from your posts. However, I’m not sure that God being knowable implies that the universe is fully understandable by humans – this is an open question in my mind. It certainly doesn’t mean that God is fully understandable – God is knowable in the sense that we can have personal/relational knowledge of God (through his gracious self-revelation), not in the sense that we can ever fully comprehend his essence (which I suspect is in principle impossible for finite creatures such as ourselves, even in our future glorified state free from sin). I wonder if Deuteronomy 29:29 fits in here somewhere:
        “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”

        • drandrewwalsh@gmail.com'
          Andy Walsh commented on October 16, 2016 Reply

          Thanks for sharing. I certainly appreciate that full knowledge of God is most likely not attainable even in principle, let alone in practice. Still, I think it is fair to say that scientists expect to understand the world, and scientists who are Christians do so because they believe the world was created by a God who reveals himself in part through his creation. Now, just because they expect to understand the world doesn’t mean there are limits to the level of understanding that can be reached. But science, for better or worse, generally operates as if those limits don’t exist.

          I’m now wondering if that distinguishes the practice of science from some other disciplines. Are there fields of inquiry where people don’t expect to be able to fully answer the questions they pose? I suppose we’ve already established that theologians have reason to believe they can’t fully answer every question about God.

          • David Parry commented on October 17, 2016

            Thanks for engaging, Andy! I appreciate your thoughtfulness and willingness to re-examine questions from different angles.

            As a non-scientist, I don’t think I have sufficient inside knowledge of science to pontificate about its character, but it seems plausible to me that one could aspire to, say, a complete explanation of biological phenomena on the level of molecular biology. If this is the case, it might be possible in principle for the natural sciences as a whole to aspire to give complete explanations of everything in the cosmos on the levels that are within the competence of the natural sciences. (Though my instincts are doubtful that this could be achieved in practice.) However, this would still not be an exhaustive explanation of these phenomena, their causation, significance, relationships, etc., as there are levels of explanation that go beyond the competence of the natural sciences, as I think you might agree.

            I think that in the humanities (and maybe social sciences) we routinely ask questions that we can’t answer exhaustively even within the terms of our own disciplines. I am officially in literary studies (though with interdisciplinary interests), and we don’t really agree on anything of significance within the discipline, including what literature is and if/why it might be worth studying, though I find some accounts more plausible than others. Concepts such as “authorial intention” are a minefield even if one doesn’t subscribe to a radically relativist “death of the author” view – I would suggest that one can seek to establish “what the author meant” to an adequate degree but not exhaustively or with absolute certainty. Even in more factually-oriented humanities disciplines such as history, I don’t think one can give an exhaustive account of all the factors involved (for instance) in the causation of historical events. To account exhaustively for the events of the French Revolution, I think one would need to take into account the economic circumstances, family background, education, shifting political/religious convictions, psychology, and maybe even brain chemistry of hundreds or thousands of distinct individuals. I don’t suppose that any historian would even aspire to this total historical knowledge of a particular event, though they can develop and refine more adequate models of the major factors involved than the previous models.

            Am I taking “fully answer” too literally here? This might be too simplistic, but maybe the humanities are unable to give exhaustive accounts of the phenomena they study (even on the levels of explanation they attempt), because humans and their actions are inexhaustibly complex to explain. Is this helpful?

          • drandrewwalsh@gmail.com'
            Andy Walsh commented on October 19, 2016

            That is helpful, David. What you describe is consistent with my understanding of how disciplines like literary studies and history operate, but as a relative outsider I’d rather hear what folks on the inside have to say.

            Since you brought it up, I do occasionally wonder whether the “death of the author” is an influence on the philosophy of materialism or naturalism. Or maybe the other way around. Obviously we see overlap in terms of people whose metaphysics are purely materialist and whose approach to literature is purely relativist. But I wonder if ceasing to consider the intent of a Creator in nature makes it easier to reject authorial intent in literature, or vice versa, either for individuals or in terms of the development of those schools of thought. Perhaps this question has already been well studied by historians of the respective disciplines; I’ve just not seen much discussion of it.

            I don’t think you’re being too literal about “fully answer.” To me, it’s a question about limits, so it makes sense to push the answer as far as possible. As any 4 year old knows, you can ask ‘why?’ seemingly indefinitely. That perhaps suggests a need for levels of explanation. If we ask why the earth orbits the sun, on one level the explanation is ‘gravity.’ But on another level, ‘gravity’ is just the label we assign to the phenomenon that explains orbits, so as an answer it’s just a tautology. We can go into more detail on the curving of spacetime, why the Sun has mass in the first place to induce that curving, where the energy came from to initiation orbital movement, and so on. Eventually we might get to a level of “because the nature of the universe is such that it permits the formation of planets that orbit stars” at which point one might ask why the universe is that way. On certain levels, we might be able to achieve an arbitrary level of detail in our explanation to the point of being satisfying, but we cannot eliminate the possibility of popping up or dropping down to other levels. I think this is what you were getting at when discussing explanations which are complete within a sphere of competence but not exhaustive. Does that sound right?

            And I think a similar analysis could be applied to other disciplines, such as your example of the French Revolution. We can understand causes of the Revolution fairly well at certain levels, but you’re right that we can always probe deeper until we get to a point where the details simply aren’t accessible. And even then, I gather that there isn’t even agreement on which details would need to known, for example whether we need to know what individual people were thinking or if large scale historical events are effectively independent of the thoughts and actions of specific individuals.

  • David Parry commented on October 24, 2016 Reply

    Thanks for reply – it took me a few days to see this.

    On authorial intention, I think you may be right. The “death of the author” has in fact been linked to the “death of God” by some of its proponents, though Christians reacting against this may have been overly suspicious of any approach that stresses the perspectival and partial nature of our access to textual meaning. I am inclined to go along with Kevin Vanhoozer’s proposal in his 1998 book Is There a Meaning in this Text? that we should adopt a “critical realist” approach to literary interpretation – just as in the philosophy of science, critical realism posits that there is an objectively real world but that our perception of it is subjective and sometimes flawed (against naive realism on the one side and complete skepticism/relativism on the other), so a critical realist approach to texts would say that texts have publicly available meanings, but that our perception of what a text means is perspectival, partial, and sometimes mistaken. I’ve passed on this model to students when teaching literary theory (not always telling them it comes from a theologian) and they seem to find it a plausible account.

    I think that in practical terms it is possible in principle to establish an adequate and sufficiently comprehensive account of the economic factors involved in the French Revolution (for instance) that can be defended against rival accounts, although, knowing the fractiousness of the humanities, it would probably still be disputed.

    My friend Alicia Smith’s post today on the UK Faith in Scholarship blog speaks to some of these questions. Alicia is beginning an Oxford doctorate in medieval literature, and her post explores how questions of truth and honest research take different forms in the natural sciences and the humanities:

    • drandrewwalsh@gmail.com'
      Andy Walsh commented on October 25, 2016 Reply

      Thanks largely to John Polkinghorne, I consider myself a critical realist when it comes to science. So a critical realist approach to literary theory makes a lot of sense to me. I suppose there’s also a certain pragmatism that makes it appealing to me as well. I can see the relativists’ point to the extent that you don’t have to consider authorial intent to find meaning — after all, humans are very good at finding patterns and meaning even where none exists — but practically it makes it difficult to have conversations about that meaning if we are only interested in our own reading. Or to put it another way, I don’t just want to learn more about myself, I want to learn about others which means that I want to try to understand the intended meaning and to have that common ground for conversations with other readers. And on the other end of pure realism, well, let’s just say I’ve made far too many puns to believe in completely unambiguous communication.

      (How to I reconcile critical realism with my earlier comments about understanding nature? Perhaps I’m an optimistic critical realist; I operate as if the gap between objective reality and our flawed perception can be arbitrarily narrowed, at least in theory. Or perhaps I’m just a contradiction.)

      As for a link between “death of the author” and “death of God” I’m glad to know I’m not off in the weeds to see a connection. I can also appreciate that they shouldn’t be coupled too tightly. I don’t think that some amount of skepticism about textual meaning necessary leads one down a slippery slope to atheism, but I can understand how connecting those two ideas too closely could lead to a concern about such a slippery slope.

      I enjoyed your friend’s blog post; thanks for sharing. A compelling narrative or model or theory is very alluring, which is probably related to our ability to find patterns and meaning wherever we look. And even those models and narratives which we accept as valid downplay certain details or data points as extraneous or noise or “items to be explained later” for the sake of simplicity. So knowing where to draw the line on what needs to be explained can be tricky, and I appreciate Alicia’s transparency about that process.

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