Mending the Disconnect

| By Lara Touryan-Whelan

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-authorWonders 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.


About the Author

Lara Touryan-Whelan

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.