STEAM Grant Series: How can we engage origins questions well?

earth photoESN is currently creating a Faith/Science curriculum for young adult small groups. We’ve partnered with InterVarsity graduate student discussion groups to identify faith/science questions that are important to emerging scholars, and we’re commissioning thoughtful Christians in science or theology/philosophy/history of science to explore those questions in this series at the ESN blog. We will then publish these posts as a booklet curriculum for campus groups. You can find previous posts in the series and related posts here. Today, we are delighted to feature chemistry professor and friend of ESN Dave Vosburg

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.

Are you interested in talking about origins issues, but don’t know where to start? If so, you’re not alone. As Gerald Rau will describe in forthcoming posts, there are several different views that Christians hold on origins. Perhaps you have friends that disagree on this topic, or you’re anxious about being credible in this science-faith area both in the university and at church, despite the very different perspectives you encounter in each setting. In this post, I’ll discuss some suggestions for engaging origins questions well.

First, pray about when and how to engage a group on origins. Perhaps you sense that God is leading you forward on this, or the Holy Spirit may nudge you to wait. Even better, pray with the group about it. Doing so will model for the others an openness to God’s leading rather than pushing an agenda of your own.

Second, cultivate a culture of grace in community. Choose a welcoming space and set group expectations. These might include staying on topic, letting everyone participate fully, being honest, listening respectfully when others are speaking, taking both the Bible and science seriously, accepting disagreement, and treating each other with grace and humility. Encourage your group into a dialogue in which everyone can learn from God and from each other. This will be much more productive than a debate where people are trying to convince each other of the correctness of their own positions. God is not afraid of these conversations, so if we can enter into dialogue in Jesus’ presence, we can do so with a spirit of hope and not of fear.

Cropped portion of Jesus, Beginnings and Science title treatment.

Jesus, Beginnings, and Science: A Guide for Group Conversation by David and Kate Vosburg (Pier Press, 2017). For Andy Walsh’s ESN review click here.

Third, if most people in your group are Christians, start with the Bible, not science—and begin with Jesus, not Genesis. The Bible has much more to say about origins than just Genesis 1-2, and you’re more likely to build trust within a group of Christians by turning first to the New Testament. John (1:1-10 and 17:24), Acts (17:24-28), Romans (8:18-25), 1 Corinthians (8:6), Colossians (1:15-17), Hebrews (1:2-3), 1 Peter (1:20), 2 Peter (3:3-16), and Revelation (21-22) are all great passages to consider God’s creation and new creation. Old Testament texts on origins include Job (38-41), Psalms (8, 19, 33, 74, 104, and 148), Proverbs (3:19-21 and 8:22-31), Ecclesiastes (1:2-11 and 12:1-7), and Isaiah (40-55 and 65:17-25). In Jesus, Beginnings, and Science: A Guide for Group Conversation, we start with John 1, Colossians 1, and Hebrews 1. Many readers may be surprised at the emphasis these passages place on Jesus’ very present role in creating and sustaining the world.

Fourth, be aware that Christians may disagree about science-faith issues for reasons that are neither scientific nor theological. If their church promotes a particular position on origins, either explicitly or implicitly, they may be reluctant to consider other options. Their family, friends, or political party may seem more aligned with a certain set of beliefs, and they may fear straining those relationships. For these reasons, be sure to communicate to members of your group that your conversations about origins are not intended to change their minds, only to open their eyes to different perspectives and to build bridges of understanding. The lessons we learn in engaging origins issues can also help us have positive conversations on other controversial topics in the church.

Perhaps you are intimidated about addressing origins or other science-faith issues in your group. Is it important enough to take this risk? I would respond that it is important to build unity within the church, to reinforce the faith of Christians as they continue to learn more about science, and to present a more coherent and compelling articulation of the gospel to others that might be considering Christianity. In fact, my engagement with origins and other science-faith questions encouraged two of my non-Christian students to explore faith and ultimately to accept Jesus.

I was hesitant to give much thought to questions of origins when I was an undergraduate, but God helped me face those fears and trust his promises. As a result, I have learned more about God through Scripture and more about his creation through science. I used to see biological evolution as a threat to Christian faith, but now I see it as a wonderful means by which God has chosen to make life on earth abundant and diverse. To me, it reflects God’s loving, patient, and ongoing interaction with creation much like his relationship with the people of Israel throughout biblical history. I have many Christian friends with a range of views on origins—including all of those that Gerald Rau will outline in his post—yet those differences are not an obstacle to our fellowship with one another, nor our respect for each other. I am sure that when we are together with God in the new creation, we will all be surprised at how little we knew in this life!

Summary: How can we engage origins questions well?

  1. Pray about it, with others if possible.
  2. Cultivate a culture of grace in community.
  3. Start with the Bible, not science—and with Jesus, not Genesis.
  4. Christians may disagree about science-faith issues for reasons that are neither scientific nor theological.
  5. There is much to be gained personally and collectively through exploring God’s Word and world!

Group Discussion Questions

  1. How would you describe the group with whom you’d like to discuss origins?
  2. What are your hopes and fears for discussing origins with this group?
  3. What resources (discussion guide, film, etc.) would help you engage this topic well?

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Dave Vosburg

David Vosburg is a Professor of Chemistry at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California. He has a PhD in chemistry from The Scripps Research Institute and was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School. His research involves the synthesis of medicinal natural products and molecular containers using environmentally friendly and/or biomimetic methods. David is a Fellow of the American Scientific Affiliation, a Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar, and an Associate of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. He and his wife Kate (a campus minister) recently published Jesus, Beginnings, and Science: A Guide for Group Conversation, which is specifically aimed at facilitating the positive conversations recommended above.

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  • Gerry Rau commented on May 18, 2018 Reply

    “I am sure that when we are together with God in the new creation, we will all be surprised at how little we knew in this life!” Amen!

      davosburg commented on May 18, 2018 Reply

      Gerry, I’m looking forward to your post(s) in this series, too! I enjoyed reading “Mapping the Origins Debate”!

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