This is the story of how I invited a chemist to my youth group.
The gym walls were lined with a dozen poster boards, labeled with headings like: Bible, God, Jesus, Heaven & Hell, Other Religions, and Science & Faith. Each middle school student had a small stack of sticky notes, and was invited to write down any question they’d ever wanted to ask about each topic—nothing was off limits, no judgements would be made. The adult leaders promised to take every question seriously. They might not have answers, but they would make space for the group to be curious and see what happened.
When the last student went home the leaders rushed back into the gym excited to see where the students would lead the conversation in the coming weeks. Many of the notes were predictable:
Why does God let bad things happen?
What did Jesus look like?
Can God make a rock God can’t lift?
Is God male or female?
Are heaven and hell real?
And some were unpredictably delightful, because teenagers are delightfully unpredictable:
Did Jesus have a pet?Did Jesus invent sausage?Did Jesus know about memes before they were created?How many shades of blue and green are there?Would God be with you in hell? (wow…that’s actually really deep)
But the poster with the most notes, by far, was Science & Faith (this is unedited, by the way):
Was there chemistry in the Bible? (cue one of the leaders making a water-into-wine joke)Is evolution real?Is it okay to believe science and creation?Were there dinosaurs when Adam and Eve were on earth?Why do scientists believe they are always right?Did Jesus take a science class, or go to school at all?How many more galaxies are out there that we don’t know about?
I am a youth pastor, not a scientist. While these questions don’t necessarily scare me, they intrigue and humble me because they’re so far outside the realm of my expertise. What am I supposed to do with questions like that? And beyond that, how do I answer the question behind the questions: Is this faith thing real, and if it is, why does it matter?
I doubt very much that I am the only youth ministry professional who feels out of my depth when it comes to bringing science into conversation with faith. Perhaps that’s why it has been so easy for this dichotomy to evolve between the two. It’s simpler to build a wall between science and faith, setting them against each other, than to imagine the possibility, complexity, and beauty of how they might dance together.
Perhaps there is an interconnectedness, rhythm, and dynamic unfolding to faith and science which, rather than being a liability to one another, is actually an invitation to meaning and mystery. Ancient rabbis used to speak of the Torah as a many-sided jewel: precious, beautiful, and revealing something new with every turn toward the light. What if conversations with our students were framed with the idea that faith and science are different angles of the same unfolding reality?
An ancient theologian we know as Gregory of Nazianzus came up with a way to try and describe how things that are unique can also be in dynamic relation to each other. He used the Greek verb perichoreo (Greek: to rotate around, to make room for, or to contain) to describe the relationship between Jesus’ divinity and humanity. He had a sense that these two aspects, which seem like they could never work together, instead relate graciously with one another in an inherently reciprocal and mutual relationship. By some miracle of paradox, in the tradition of our Jewish brothers and sisters, Christians have been able to hold that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. This theology of perichoresis has continued and expanded over centuries, and is now more widely used to describe the indescribable relationship of the persons of Trinity to one another: three distinct persons, with one being, co-inherent to one another and dancing together.
It’s no wonder so many young people struggle with the possibility of God, let alone the possibility of the Christian God. Many want to believe, but they are also being taught incredible, true things in their science and math classes at school. They are being formed in such a way that there is usually a right answer that makes sense and stands up to the most rigorous demands of logic.
So to say:
100% human + 100% divine = 100% Jesus. It’s not mathematically sound.
Creator + Son + Holy Spirit = one God. It’s just not logical, and yet it’s true.
The church knows how to hold tension and deal with paradoxes, it’s written into our faith and theology. At some point someone decided there was a reason to panic over paradox, but teenagers are all capable of navigating nuance, whether about the Trinity or the intersection of faith and science.
Teenagers know how to believe amazing scientific things that aren’t logical, that can’t be completely proven, and which call into question the things we take for granted. The above doctrinal statements are no different, in many ways, than some of the most amazing scientific facts around.
For example, an incredibly complex concept in quantum physics can lead us toward awe, wonder, and perhaps even faith. In very general terms, a photon can be split in two. The halves can remain so connected that doing something to one will affect the other almost instantaneously, even when separated by extraordinary distance. Even Einstein was so bothered by this that he called it “spooky action at a distance.”
This is a kind of enchantment we are all wired for. Our youth are already attuned to the possibility that impossible things are possible, even if they don’t fully understand how or why. They are used to the processes of observation and investigation that science is so good at teaching, and if there is enough evidence or experience they can accept something as true which cannot be fully proven.
If we believe that God is good, true, loving, living, and beautiful, then there is something of God to be experienced wherever goodness, truth, love, life, and beauty is found. Our challenge becomes connecting the dots and helping teenagers see that God is in the midst of what they love, in the midst of what they find good, in the midst of what they know to be true, in the midst of what they find beautiful, and in the midst of their very lives. It’s in this generous spaciousness that we have room to play, imagine, and dance with all that faith and science bring us about our experience.
One of my volunteer leaders also happens to have her Masters in Chemistry, and uses her abilities to create pediatric cancer drugs. I had her come in and share with my students the night we discussed faith and science. They listened to her in a way they never could have heard me as she told them:
I’m a scientist and a Christian, and you can be too. I believe God made us curious, and gave us amazing brains and eyes to see, and that God wants us to discover everything we can about the world we live in. I accept evolution as true, but I also believe that God has been a part of the human story from the very beginning, and that what God wants us to know most of all is that we are made from love, to be loved, and to love the world around us. For me, science is like a giant scavenger hunt that God invites us into, and I believe God is delighted when we discover something new. Science has taught me so much, and it’s so good. But I need my faith, too. Because science hasn’t taught me how to be a good neighbor, or how to be generous, or how to love. They work together: if you pay close attention you might find God in the midst of science, and science in the midst of God.
We can’t wrap our minds around it, but there is a dance going on in our midst. May we come to see the perichoresis of science, faith, and wonder. May we encourage our students’ desires and curiosities. May we become skilled in helping them connect the dots between the things they know and the things they believe. May we teach them to look for goodness, love, truth, beauty, and life all around them—and to know that God is in their midst, even if it’s labeled Science.
And may we be bold enough to invite a scientist to youth group.