Learning from Young People about Science and Faith: An Interview with Andy Root
If faith is seen by youth as only for immature people, and we cannot show how a commitment to a personal God is not opposed to scientific findings and theories, then we’re in trouble.
Andy Root is a well-known leader and respected voice in youth ministry. For the past few years, his work on the intersection of science and youth ministry has brought new insight into the ways the church can begin to more effectively serve our youth in a science-saturated culture.
In 2014, he and his team received a grant to conduct research into the current landscape of how science is approached in youth groups. I talked some about this in a prior post on this blog. They asked youth pastors questions like: “How much do you agree with the statement, ‘My own religious faith has been strengthened by some of the discoveries of science’, and, “On average, how often do you have a conversation with a student in your ministry about science?” And they asked young people things like, “How much do you agree with the statement, ‘I feel like church is a safe place to ask questions about science” or “I feel like the Bible and science are in conflict.” You can glance through details of their findings here and find summaries here, but one surprising result was that it appears youth pastors and youth aren’t on the same page when it comes to science and faith.
Now Andy’s team is building on this research through a new 3- year initiative called Science for Youth Ministry: The Plausibility of Transcendence, addressing questions like “Is it logical—or even possible—for teenagers to believe that there’s a God who exists beyond the natural, material universe?”
I recently checked in with Andy to learn more about some of the most important takeaways from the earlier study and his goals for this new initiative.
Chris: What findings from your preliminary research had the most influence as you shaped the next steps for the project?
Andy: We went into that research with truly no agenda. I mean, we hoped to find something significant, and we were pretty sure that Protestant youth ministries were missing the mark on engaging young people’s scientific questions.
What we came away with were the two core realizations that have direct impact on our present project. First, we discovered that young people (especially those engaged in studying scientific findings and theories) felt little conflict between faith and science. They did sense a tension with parents and the church, but when speaking for themselves they didn’t see faith and science in conflict.
Yet our second discovery was that this lack of conflict was there because for the most part young people had given up on having any real way of articulating the possibility of divine action. Because they couldn’t really think or articulate how God acts in the world, it was hard for them to see any real conflict between faith and science. We spotted some good news, soaked in some really disturbing news. So the subtitle of our project is “the plausibility of transcendence” (picking up on Charles Taylor’s work) because we see this as a major issue to address. We do think that fronting this faith and science dialogue can help move all youth ministry into richer articulation of divine action. And that, in my mind, can really change our conceptions and actions in faith-formation.
Chris: You, along with our president and others like Dan Kimball and Mark Matlock, spoke at the fall National Youth Workers Convention in a session devoted to science and faith. Do you sense that the landscape is changing in the U.S. when it comes to the church engaging science?
Andy: Yes, I think so. I think the secular age that we live in simply will not allow us to avoid this any longer. I think youth workers particularly are moving into this conversation because they sense that science (as a social practice) is having a deeper and deeper impact on young people. And this social practice of “science” seems to assert that the universe is a very old, large, and impersonal place. But this social practice of “science” that holds to an impersonal order is different than scientific findings and theories.
Scientific findings and theories might say the universe is indeed a very old and large place, but this doesn’t presume it is impersonal and therefore we are totally alone in it. There is actually very little, in my mind, in the findings and theories of science that oppose the possibility of the universe being personal (with a divine personal mind behind it). But young people (and youth workers) need a lot of help nuancing the difference between the social practice of “science” and scientific findings and theories. The reason this all really matters is that social practice of “science” asserts loudly that anyone that believes there is a personal being behind the universe is an immature child who might, in the end, become a deranged danger to us all (this at least is what Richard Dawkins, and even someone like Neil deGrasse Tyson, seem to assume). These assertions impact adolescents who are seeking to move into maturity and responsibility for their own morality. If faith is seen as only for immature people, and we cannot show how a commitment to a personal God is not opposed to scientific findings and theories, then we’re in trouble.
Chris: Could you give us a sense of what this new project entails and those you hope to impact?
Andy: We hope to impact three groups of people—youth, youth workers, and professors of youth ministry. The main objective is to provide events, resources, and activities that can catalyze this discussion. So what we’re actually doing is a lot of different things. We’ll have a video series youth workers can use in their youth groups, we’re helping youth workers write articles that will push this conversation forward, and we’re giving mini-grants to professors to do something around faith and science in their classrooms. And this is all just to name a few things.
Chris: You’re also a Bonhoeffer scholar and I’m wondering if your immersion into his writings has impacted how you think about science and youth ministry?
Andy: It has, in two ways. First, Bonhoeffer has helped me realize that the experience of young people has an essential place in theological discussion and construction. All of Bonhoeffer’s ministry and theological work was done in the context of ministering to young people. I think this shows us that the most important and deepest conversations in the church MUST happen with young people. Second, Bonhoeffer reminds us that we must always do our deepest theology in concrete experience. I believe that the experience of both scientific findings and the social practice of “science” are two concrete locations where young people are making sense of their existence. To follow Bonhoeffer, then, is to see this as the place where theology is done.
Chris: Any advice for youth pastors who are ready to take their first steps toward engaging science?
Andy: I think the major advice is to fear not. I think it is true that there is a real tension between faith and science. But I believe this tension is more around the social practice of “science” and the practice of faith than with scientific findings. I don’t think it is the youth worker’s job to deconstruct or show the philosophical error of the social practice of “science” and its reductive take on faith as immature. But I do think it is the youth worker’s job to help young people see how scientific findings (particularly the one’s young people explore in school) can be affirmed and engaged within our commitment to the personal nature of the claims of faith. I have no misconceptions that doing this is easy. But I think we’re moving into a new day where resources and dialogue partners will be available, like right here at BioLogos and on our website (scienceym.org). But first, we all need the courage to engage.
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