Greg Cootsona: A Recipe for Enduring Success - Science for the Church
The ingredients for macaroons aren’t enough by themselves. One of the critical elements (I’m told), is to be sure to whip the egg whites and sugar long enough. Recipes often show photographs of “stiff peaks” because if you don’t get that step right, the meringue-based cookies will deflate and fail to deliver their signature texture.
What’s the recipe for lasting change in discussing thorny topics in general, but especially those in faith and science—whether human origins, climate change, or racism? The recipe, we’ve found at Science for the Church, includes endorsers, translators, and storytellers. (And you’ll quickly note that all three have to do with people and relationships.)
I can’t produce a magic pill that we’d take and suddenly grasp how to integrate mere Christianity and mainstream science—like what Morpheus offers Neo in the famous scene from The Matrix. I can’t promise you’ll succeed at perfect unity in this fractured time. But I can report what we’ve found in our experience and our research and thus what works. Aren’t we all hungry to move beyond division and more deeply into spiritual growth and congregational unity?
Key are endorsers, that is, people who are influential in our congregations. If they endorse a topic’s importance, we’ll stick around and listen. Endorsers ensure we’ll remain in the conversation and keep learning, transforming, and growing together.
Let’s think about endorsers and complicated faith-science issues. If you hear Ellen talking about evolution, and she’s also an amazing youth group leader for your daughter, you’re much more likely to think she’s not out to undermine Christian faith. If Bob is a cognitive scientist who leads the lay counseling ministry, and he describes the close connection between mind and brain, we’re less inclined to believe he’s undermining our faith in the soul.
...I adapted this material from a chapter in Mere Science and Christian Faith.
...Sociologists have shown the effectiveness of “celebrity scientists” as endorsers.
...Veritas Forum has a library of translators and storytellers who speak widely on college campuses.
...Influenced by the rhetorically masterful translator C.S. Lewis, Francis Collins is among the best-known endorsers.
...Here I describe the art of translation.
...Youth can help us do this important task, like Katie Lillemon’s piece last summer.
The endorser’s role can include translation. But those can also be separated. The particular task of translators is to speak in languages that make sense to non-specialists. To keep making positive change, we need people who can bring the complicated concepts and insights and make them comprehensible. Too often talk about science is boarded off by “ribosomes,” “spacetime manifold,” and the scariest of all for many of us, mathematics!
Of course, I realize that even if I’ve nicknamed him “St. Clive,” C. S. Lewis wasn’t perfect, nor was he a scientist—in fact, he was dreadful at math. Nonetheless, he grasped the effects of science on the wider culture and expertly articulated Christian faith in that context. Lewis learned specific techniques about speaking to a broad audience during World War II through, among other means, the British Broadcasting Company. (Later these “Broadcast Talks” were published as the bestseller, Mere Christianity.) As he reflected on this and his various books for the public (meaning not the intellectual elites at Oxford and Cambridge), Lewis highlighted this theme: “My task was therefore simply that of a translator—one turning Christian doctrine, or what he believed to be such, into the vernacular, into language that unscholarly people would attend to and could understand.”
But Lewis raised a challenge that resonates still: “People praise me for being a translator. But where are the others? I wanted to start a school of translation.” Where indeed are these translators who understand the glories, challenges, and intricacies of science and who bring mere Christianity to a scientifically and technologically saturated age? Are you one?
Finally, congregations need to hear stories about faith and science. It’s particularly hard to dismiss a person who’s integrated the splendors of science into their life of faith. This doesn’t mean, by the way, “let’s make up a story.” As Stephen Jay Gould wrote about scientists, “We think that we are reading nature by applying rules of logic and laws of matter to our observations. But we are often telling stories—in the good sense, but stories nonetheless.”
Our churches need storytellers who engage the convincing, true narratives we learn from what God has authored in the book of Scripture and the book of Nature.
I’ll lean on my friend, biologist Gary Fugle, who I’d invite to various classes (in and out of churches) to talk about his life. “I grew up in lightly Christian (Presbyterian) household: my mom would go to church sometimes, and my dad would stay home. In high school, I was more interested in sports and girls than science.” The beauty and stunning intricacy of nature captivated him as he pursued a Ph.D. in biology. At U.C. Santa Barbara, he met thoughtful Christians who didn’t have every answer, but had a confidence that what was true—whether discovered in the Bible or through the sciences—would point to Christ. And here’s the surprise: In studying evolutionary biology, Gary became a Christian. One listener, Susan, summarized what hearing his biography meant: It “was absolutely eye opening for me… that it is possible to be a man of faith as well as science.”
My point is that people like Gary are already in our congregations and that they can break open difficult conversations about faith and science. Notice that this storytelling is cascading—Gary first heard and saw lived stories that then transformed him. Even more, we need skilled storytellers to stay in the conversation.
In our congregations, let’s keep at this recipe, and in the process, make something good—maybe something that allows a hungry world to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).
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Strengthening the church through engaging with science
We believe that churches are strengthened by engaging with science. Science for the Church looks to a day when science accompanies Scripture as a tool for discipleship, catalyzes expressions of worship, illustrates sermons, elucidates biblical teachings, and supplements theological wisdom for the life of the world. We even wonder if wrestling with science might draw some of the “nones” (those who affiliate with no religion) and the “dones” (those who have left the church) to Christian communities once again.