Friday, September 12, 2014

A Few Reflections on Scientists in Congregations

Just a few months ago, I wrapped up my work as co-director of a three and half year, $2 million grant project, Scientists in Congregations (or SinC). This project funded 37 congregations with over 6,000 members in 25 states (and two other countries) to create programs that catalyzed the engagement of science and faith. 

Time offers the opportunity to reflect. So I've started to meditate on what I've learned. Here's the beginning of those thoughts...

Where did SinC discover an impasse or gaps in understanding science? The facts of science can be daunting. Celebrated MIT historian of science Thomas Kuhn noted 50 years ago that part of being involved in science is to learn its dominant paradigms and procedures. And those are complicated. So few outside of the community “get it.” And conversely, most scientists are neither taught, nor rewarded to communicate to the wider public.

And the reverse is true: few churches asked scientists to reveal their discoveries. SinC also had some discoveries about the task before us, and here I cite the noted Rice sociologist, Elaine Ecklund from Sciencevs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think

Dispelling stereotypes of atheists, reaching out to the spiritual-but-not-religious scientists, and mentoring and involving scientists within faith communities would mean that leaders within houses of worship would need to do a better job of integrating science and scientists within congregational life.
And I repeat: "integrating science and scientists within congregational life" since most scientists don’t feel all that integrated. Fascinating to me were the scientists who declared that the SinC project let them “come out of the closet” (their words). I mean, when over half of church youth are destined for a science-related field and only 1% of youth ministries offer one science-related topic per year, it’s no wonder that becoming a scientist as a churchgoer sometimes seems as supported as starting a career as pawn shop owner. One solution would be for the church to invite scientists to tell us more about their discoveries of this glorious world that God has created.

I’m reminded of my brilliant pastor-theologian colleague at First Presbyterian Church in Boulder Colorado, Carl Hofmann, who pastors in a town that has more PhDs (I’m told) per capita than anywhere else in the country. That presumably means more doctorates in science. We put together a dinner with their planning team in beautiful downtown Boulder nestled just below stunning mountains (but I’m beginning to digress), and the scientists kept telling us, “This feels so confirming to everything I do as a Christian.”

And so it does. And so it should. It would to Nicholas Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, and James Clerk Maxwell. And to John Calvin too, who wrote of insights from authors outside the Biblical texts, 
If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God.
I also discovered that few parishioners had a means of interpreting the Bible as instructive as Calvin’s—one that integrates truth from other fields effectively. The idea that Scripture may not ever be intended, or read through the centuries, as a scientific text—but instead one that radiates profounder meaning—escapes many parishioners. So the people in the pews either leave aside the text as irrelevant or reject science as antithetical to faith. 

SinC worked to provide something beyond these two dismal options. And I'm glad to say it did--it has to be a primary reason that 96% of our congregations told us they would continue programs in science and faith after their grant money ran out. 

1 comment:

Weight Loss Guru said...

SinC clearly presented a unique perspective on the congregational peculiarities existing between science and Christianity. In referring to Thomas Kuhn, you quite rightly remind us that scientists, "are neither taught, nor rewarded to communicate.." and that few churches ask scientists to reveal their discoveries. My scientific training speaks this truth and Christian experience, a testimony.

This project has opened my eyes to the complexity of the challenge you have undertaken in your ministry. I agree that maybe one solution is to invite scientists to share about their discoveries, but I would also add, that may be that message should come from the pulpit, the symbol of spiritual authority.

The next 10 years will undoubtably yield much in the way of value delivered from the SinC project. I encourage you to continue pushing the boundaries at the intersect of Christian theology and science. The 99% of youth programs need it!