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Mending the Disconnect

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September 10, 2012 Tags: Education

Today's entry was written by Lara Touryan-Whelan. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Mending the Disconnect

How can it be that two things we love and treasure—two things that are absolutely central to ourselves and the lives we’ve built—seem so often to be at odds with each other? While I could be talking about my two sons (the last weeks of summer “down-time” saw their share of brotherly bickering), here I mean my faith in Christ on one hand, and my respect for science on the other. I am both a scientist and a committed Christian. I’ve spent years working in a lab, and years working with young kids in church settings. I love both worlds, and both have been paramount in shaping me and my life. But recently I’ve found myself feeling at odds with one or the other, depending on the context. Why is this, and where does it leave me? It’s that odd feeling of “disconnect” between two profoundly important communities that I’d like to write about today.

My walk in the scientific/evangelical world – Who am I?

First, a little history. While I was working towards my doctorate in Bioengineering at the University of Washington, my husband and I attended a Presbyterian church in Seattle. Young and newly married, we chose to help in Sunday School, and found our niche teaching second graders there for almost 10 years. During that time I was very involved in the scientific world and surrounded by a university community that had a real appreciation for science. Wrapped up as I was in the lab, focusing on my dissertation, and living in a climate of serious inquiry and study, I was unaware of any significant disconnections between science and faith. Science was actively integrated with faith from the pulpit of our church, and in turn, we always loved to bring little bits of science into our lessons—even to the point of using sediment deposits in the Black Sea as evidence of a regionally-based ‘flood’ event thousands of years ago during our lessons about Noah’s ark. No one complained.

As I loved research, I continued to work in a lab at UW once I finished my PhD. But I also had two babies while completing my dissertation, and eventually found it challenging to balance work and family. When my husband was relocated to San Diego, I took that difficult uprooting as an opportunity to step back from labwork and spend more time with preschoolers. Leaving life at a fast-paced urban research university for the relaxed and resort-like coastal suburbs of San Diego County was another kind of culture shock, compounded by the fact that we found looking for a new church to be particularly hard. After some consultation with friends of friends, we stepped out of our Mainstream Protestant comfort zone and visited a Calvary Chapel.

There was certainly an adjustment period (eventually we stopped doing a double-take every time we saw the board shorts and flip-flops on Sunday morning – even on the stage!), but over time we were able to plug into a dynamic evangelical community. We found the vibrant, Christ-centered church to be a great place to make deep and lasting connections with the people, both through small groups and by serving in Children’s Ministry. Making a personally quite revolutionary decision to fully step away from the busy life of a researcher, I found a new calling when I took on a part time job leading the church’s 2nd and 3rd Grade program.

A surprising disconnect in the faith community

I now find myself spending my weekends with over a hundred kids and volunteers, and it has been a great adventure. However, it has also been through this ministry that I discovered first hand the uncomfortable disconnect between science and the evangelical church. At first it was just a few throw-away comments from fellow believers in church: dismissal of museum exhibits, eye-rolling at the ancient geology of the Grand Canyon, etc. Of course, I had heard rumors of such thinking, but I was a little surprised to find it to be so common in the Evangelical community. Many people I knew were rejecting large swathes of science outright. Sometimes I give out prizes to the kids in my class—trinkets and other insignificant plastic things that kids love—and some of the items I had in our “prize box” were “dino eggs with dino facts.” To my amazement, these items brought on complaints from parents because of their reference to the age of the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago.

Meanwhile, my husband—an environmental engineer with a background in Geology—was serving at the church with older kids. In his class he often heard that favorite question from Christian kids, “How do the dinosaurs fit into the creation story?” But the only answer he’d ever heard in response was the explanation that dinosaurs were obviously on the ark, and somehow became extinct after the flood. He is the most easy-going person ever, but he was taken aback by this wholesale dismissal of geologic history and by the lack of a more nuanced discussion of Scripture. At that point we began to ask around, and learned that, yes, this is a common way of thinking in evangelical circles.

These attitudes about science and the Bible seemed especially prevalent among the many home schooling families in our community. More than half of my church coworkers homeschool or send their kids to Christian schools. Several of these wonderful folks were homeschooled themselves, and very few attended secular universities. Many of the children and families that I minister to each week are also homeschooling families, and for the first time I became troubled by what they were learning about science and the natural world. I attended public school and secular universities both for undergraduate and graduate studies, and (after much thought and discussion) we chose to send our own kids to public schools, not least because we want them to have great training in science and math. While we are fortunate enough to live in a community with challenging public schools well equipped to prepare kids in those areas, I want the same for homeschooled kids, as well. All Christian young people should be able to both excel in science and grow in their understanding of the God of Scripture, whether they’re taught in institutional settings or at home. I only wish I could better trust available homeschooling science curriculum materials to achieve that end.

Is there cause for concern? Does it really matter?

One can correctly argue that Jesus’ incarnation and resurrection are the central beliefs and values of the Christian faith. In the end, does it matter what we teach our kids about origins or the age of the Universe? What harm is there in these black and white beliefs held by good people doing good things?

I believe that it does matter, for several reasons:

  1. We have generation of Christian young people who are not trained in scientific principles that will allow them to meaningfully contribute to fields such as cosmology, geology, biology, etc. Our universities especially need an evangelical presence!
  2. Thoughtful, scientifically-minded people—both young and old—will be pushed AWAY from the evangelical community. I know that I could not attend a church that dismisses scientific evidence in order to fit nature’s narrative into preconceived ideas, or one where scientists are actively mocked.
  3. The faith of homeschooled and other Christian kids can be challenged when they have their first college classes on geology, evolutionary biology, etc. Many will reach a point where they think they have to choose between their faith and what the scientific world tells them about the created order.
  4. Simply, evangelicals are in danger of looking a bit ridiculous to reasonable and educated people when they appear so fearful of science, making it easier for non-Christians to dismiss the gospel message.

Exploratory Efforts –Communicating God’s Revelation in Nature

Despite these experiences and concerns, my overall impression of the evangelical community’s perspective on science is that in most areas, everything is fine. But it seems that sensitivity around a few points—particularly origins, the age of the earth and climate change—limits open discussion even of more general scientific issues, and as wonderful as they are, our pastoral staff rarely invokes natural wonders to illustrate doctrine, whether speaking to adults or kids.

As a Christian, a scientist and an educator, I particularly want the kids I work with to know that it is good to wonder about the world around us and say “God Did It – But How?” More than that, I want them to know that they do not have to be afraid of the answers to those questions. So I ask myself, “Is there anything I can do?” As it turns out, I’ve concluded that there are ways that I (like any of us) can help, even if the efforts are incrementally small at first. Our church hosts a tremendous summer camp that teaches kids Bible stories and worship, but also gives children a chance to choose an “elective” and learn more about subjects like art, music, cooking, a sport, or science. Each summer more than 1,000 kids attend this outreach at our church campus, and I was privileged this past summer to be able to “coach” science and write up a fun science curriculum that dovetailed with the various Bible stories the kids were hearing.

The practice of science became a wonderful avenue for sharing God’s love and the Salvation Story whether I pulled ideas for experiments directly from the Bible (such as creating, testing and optimizing sling shots like David) or used the stories more allegorically; extracting DNA from strawberries (always a hit with kids) illustrated our uniqueness in God’s eyes, while creating a solar music box demonstrated the beauty of living in God’s light vs. hiding in the darkness. I found that this was an excellent place in which to bring young Christians (and non-Christians) into an understanding and appreciation of basic scientific principles in conjunction with communicating spiritual truth. My hope is that those lessons will open their eyes to further inquiry as they grow up and move on through junior high, high school, and—for some—beyond.

In the end, I was inspired to write out a preliminary curriculum, combining scriptural lessons with science experiments. This effort led me to co-author Wonders In Our World: Insights From God's Two Books, a book that further explains the complementarities of God’s Two Books – the book of nature and Scripture. While materials like these can be used in church settings such as the summer camp at our Calvary Chapel, my hope is that they will become a resource for Christian families all year long—especially for those homeschoolers I love so much. A full curriculum may still be a ways off (perhaps I’ll have more to share about that in a future post), but in the meantime, I’m honored to be able to draw on both Scripture and science to share my joy in Christ and his creation.


Lara Touryan-Whelan provides remote web administration support for the Media Group of Outreach, Inc. in Colorado Springs, while also serving as a children’s ministry leader at a Calvary Chapel in San Diego County, CA, overseeing the weekend planning, curriculum, family outreach and volunteers for 2nd and 3rd graders. She received her B.S. in Materials Engineering from the Colorado School of Mines, her M.S. in Ceramic Engineering from Georgia Tech, and her PhD in Bioengineering from the University of Washington. She lives in Oceanside, CA with her husband and two boys.


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Loren Haas - #72615

September 10th 2012

     I found myself in just such a church as the one you describe. Their antipathy towards science, expressed ignorance on basic scientific facts and unwillingness to examine that they might be wrong led me to question their ability to interpret scripture. This plus other obstacles led me out the door and down the street to a church that celebrates creation and the intellectual capacity God granted us through the work of His creation.

     Some say I should stay to be an agent of change, but this kind of thinking is part of the church culture. I would rather work to reinforce a church on the right track than participate in the Sisyphean task of pushing this issue against imbedded resistance.


wesseldawn - #72620

September 10th 2012

I too felt at one time as you both do until I saw that evolution (survival of the fittest) is contrary to God’s benevolent nature. Evolution is the creative force (mutation due to adapation) so what need have we of God?

I mean no disrespect to God but wars, disease, natural disasters and man’s inhumanity to man makes me seriously question where God is. Too if this were God’s world then Jesus would never have had to die. Instead this world killed the Lord of Glory, and He said of it:

Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence. (John 18:36)

At the same time I am not conflicted in the least as I study the Bible and evolution, realizing they are two very different things. I know that God is not here but that when He comes to earth, He does so through those that have His spirit: called to be lights in a dark and fallen world.


D.U. Litz - #72626

September 10th 2012

Are you saying if natural process of evolution is true there is no need for God?


wesseldawn - #72669

September 11th 2012

Well, yes! That’s what evolution is (and always has been) all about and that’s why I protest so strongly when Christians try to fit God into the equation.


bren - #72787

September 14th 2012

Wesseldawn,

Having a bit of trouble getting a read on your position; so evolution is true (it happened), it is a creative force and it results in there being no need for God in the picture.  Sounds like a pretty common position, but the next part confuses me; evolution is the process of a dark and fallen world that is separate from God.  So the dark and fallen process is the actual creator of complexity in the world, but God will swing though and bail us out at some point or his spirit will redeam creation through us.  Is that about right, or did I misunderstand the above points?


wesseldawn - #72829

September 16th 2012

Bren,

According to the Bible, this world is a psuedo-paradise, a deception caused by Satan as a result of Adam’s forfeiture.

I don’t view evolution as evil per se as our human self/primate came from the dust (primordial soup) and in that respect I am quite comfortable here, but we’re not just evolved primate…we have a higher consciousness. According to the Bible, our higher self did not develop as a result of evolution but because “man” entered a garden and there got God’s image.

Do you doubt that politics (the strong rule) is the process by which things are accomplished in this world? We’ve polished it from our primate beginnings but it’s as prevalent as ever. Strengths not weaknesses create and maintain position but that would not be God’s way.

It does reveal a magnificent complexity, doesn’t it?...but then if you’re going to create a lie, you’d better make it plausible!! I think there’s a good deal more to it though (parallel-universes)!

And, yes, according to what I see in the Bible, this psuedo-reality (lie) will someday be exposed for what it is.

 


wesseldawn - #72868

September 17th 2012

That’s not to say that I think that non-religious evolutionists are (as non-religious people are so often referred to by religious people), “sinners”. God is a reasonable being and would welcome anyone that was likewise. Religion is more suspect than anything else!

The darkness I referred to is of a spiritual nature…the idea that there is nothing after this reality (and that this reality is the be all and end all) when the Bible speaks of a reality (the true/original one) beyond this one.

I do think there’s more to our universe than meets the eye.


bren - #72897

September 18th 2012

Thanks for offering some clarification wesseldawn.  Still, I’m not sure it entirely matches the theological lessons that may be drawn from Genesis.  I get the impression that if God declares the results to be good and very good, and this occurs specifically after the production of all of the complexity we see (the results of evolution, which I get the impression you view as a neutral process untethered from God’s activity), then we must include the creative process itself under the umbrella of God’s assessment.  Also, the Bible specifically attributes the creative activity to God, so it seems to make sense that God at the very least sustains and approves of the process…  I agree that there are fundamental qualitative differences between say politics and the ways of the kingdom of God as described in the NT, but I’m not sure this point in anyway affects God’s vision of the natural world in Genesis.  Thoughts?


wesseldawn - #72902

September 18th 2012

I don’t disagree that the Bible initially (in the beginning) attributes the “good” as coming from God but that something occurred that changed the good and evolution was the result.

If God made it then it would have been perfect, as God is. Evolution is hardly perfect in the sense of “survival of the fittest/brute force”, which is opposite to benevolence.

The Bible makes a distinction between corruptible (mortal) and incorruptible (immortal)...a perfect/good world would be incorruptible (eternal), not subject to corruption (time and death/evolution).

As Paradise is the intended goal then obviously something is lacking where the earth (evolution) is concerned…Too if God made it (perfection) there would be no need to “make all things new”!


wesseldawn - #72903

September 18th 2012

Bren, I should also add that the complexity (in nature), which is often awe-inspiring, may still be remnants of God’s initial creation… but only in the sense of something imperfect…how much more incredible the other world must be!


bren - #72948

September 20th 2012

Wesseldawn, the problem is, I think, that you can’t call God the Creator, when he only took care of starting things and it was really evolution which took over when things went bad, producing all of the startling complexity and wonderous variety in the world in a way that was disconnected from God’s activity.  This would make God a creator, while arguably the more interesting part would be the result of a mechanical process that is linked to the fall.  I think the Bible is clear in calling God the Creator and in extending his creative activity to the formation of the many species we see today.


wesseldawn - #72950

September 20th 2012

Do you really want to attribute the Bubonic Plague to God?

How about the martyrs of the Bible? Did God ultimately kill them (He could have intervened but did not)?

What about the mouse that my cat just killed, or my cat that the fox almost killed?

Shall we visit Uganda or Rwanda and see the results of man’s inhumanity to man? 

Or perhaps we should visit the Children’s Hospital where infants are dying of horrible diseases before ever having had a chance to live!!

Should we attribute all of that (and more) to God?

The universe is amazing but if you attribute its creativity to God then you are saying that God is cruel and unjust.


bren - #72972

September 21st 2012

Hi wesseldawn,

 

Ahh, the problem of theodicy.  Very difficult problem that we’ve struggled with since Job and I have no intention of pawning myself off as being qualified to summarize the literature on the subject.  But it is not an answer to my question.

 

My concern is that the Bible presents God as being responsible for the complexity we see in the natural world but since evolution is not really in question, we only have two rational, theistic choices; either (a) God was involved in this evolutionary process in an intimate and critical manner, and we can therefore continue to follow the Bible in calling him the Creator of all things and all creatures or (b) We reject the theological conclusions of the Bible and assert that God is not the Creator of the complexity and the biological diversity in the world, but only the one who set up the initial framework (this is not an ambiguous point in the Bible, since the many complex aspects of the natural world are directly attributed to God time after time).  There is no third choice here that I can see.

 

It seems to me that you are strongly leaning towards the second option, whatever your reasons, and that you do not agree with the Bible that the biological creation and complexity is a direct consequence of the will of God, viewing it instead as a mechanical process that is part and parcel of the fall (although I’m not clear on when the fall might have happened if humans had not yet evolved) and therefore fundamentally disconnected from the perfect will and plan of God.  Is this a correct assessment of your view?


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