The Scientific Method as a Tool for Faith Formation
If we don’t interrogate our faith, we run the risk of living a divided life and never fully embodying God’s deepest desire for creation.
An “aha” moment
I came to understand who I am and what I was created to do through youth ministry. As a child growing up in the Lutheran Church, I was an active participant in the youth group and engaged in various leadership roles within the congregation. Not only did my home congregation have dedicated volunteer youth group leaders, the church itself was supportive of young people in leadership. Some of my best memories were from Bible studies, confirmation classes, summer camp, and trips with my youth group.
My youth group leaders were emphatic about young people asking questions and being curious about the faith. We rarely sat and listened to adults lecture at us. We were not expected to echo their thoughts; instead, we were always a part of an unfolding conversation and were expected to think critically about what we heard.
We were challenged to uncover how what we encountered in church connected to our everyday lived reality. We participated in a rigorous testing, experimenting, reflecting, and questioning process of all matters related to faith. This process was not a theological exercise intended to make us work for our salvation or any other esoteric outcome. Rather, we were invited to consider how our beliefs impacted our values and practices. The goal was to deepen our faith and recognition that God could handle our doubts, wonderings, and questions. These kinds of practices led to young people who could articulate what they believed and why they believed it. Our faith was not something “out there.” It was a living, breathing reality that made meaning in our daily lives.
Looking back, I realize that this way of approaching things has some distinct similarities to the scientific method. According to the scientific method, to find out if what one thinks is true, an experiment testing the validity of an argument must be designed. An experiment will give evidence for the hypothesis being true, false, or inconclusive. If an experiment is inconclusive, the hypothesis must be altered or a new experiment must be created. What might this process offer us as we consider faith formation?
Testing our faith
We begin with inviting people to be curious about the world and happenings around them. God can take our questions and created us to be critical beings. Creating space that nurtures a community of questioners invites people to experience the humanity of another.
These questions lead us to form a hypothesis—the creation of an answer to the questions that we hold. One of the most frequently asked questions is, “Why do bad things happen?” Many people have formed a hypothesis that goes something like this: “Bad things happen because God doesn’t care about humanity.”
Because we are committed to a particular tradition, we may begin by looking to the rituals and sacred texts of our faith to provide insight. But this is only a starting point. We also want to test the hypothesis in the realm of lived experience. We should invite our young people to ask more questions:
- Where have we seen evidence that God doesn’t care about humanity?
- Where have we seen evidence that God does care about humanity?
The experiment that we design for this question might be more focused on collecting qualitative data that is uncovered through asking the people in our life to give us their thoughts to the question that led to our hypothesis. It would be important to ask people for diverse life experiences and backgrounds to answer our questions if we want to get a diverse sample of responses. We have a lived reality with suffering. We can examine who has shown up in our life during difficult times and reflect on how we got through it and what we learned.
It’s not enough just to gather data, we must analyze it and critique it to find meaning. How did we feel about what we heard? What did we learn about ourselves? About others? About God? The answers to these questions should lead to the development of values and practices that inform how we live out our faith. More than likely, this process creates an additional set of questions that we then seek to answer. We also learn that so much of faith isn’t about what we know but who we are and how we live out our beliefs in the world.
Integrating experience and head knowledge
For too many Christians, their faith operates primarily in the realm of theological correctness and has not delved into a person’s lived experience. We have not done an adequate job of inviting people to imagine and articulate the ways in which faith is interwoven through their life. Our head knowledge has not become embodied. We are the epitome of people living a divided life.
According to Parker Palmer, living a divided life comes at a cost:
I pay a steep price when I live a divided life, feeling fraudulent, anxious about being found out, and depressed by the fact that I am denying my own selfhood. The people around me pay a price as well, for now they walk on ground made unstable by my dividedness. How can I affirm another’s integrity when I defy my own? A fault line runs down the middle of my life, and whenever it cracks open—divorcing my words and actions from the truth I hold within—things around me get shaky and start to fall apart.1
This sums up what has been happening across communities of Christian faith. We are living divided lives that have fractured our communities and disconnected us from each other. Our young people see this clearly and refuse to engage with something that is unstable and ungrounded. While of course “right” theology is important, I believe that integration is most important. We are missing the mark when it comes to a critical faith that is tested and practiced; reflected upon and strengthened; dismembered and “re-membered” and ultimately deepened.
An ongoing process
For many of us, faith is a foundational building block, so critically examining it might come with soul-shaking consequences. However, I believe that if we don’t interrogate our faith, we run the risk of living a divided life and never fully embodying God’s deepest desire for creation—connection that transforms.
Does the critical method always lead to integration and embodiment? No; not if the method doesn’t include reflection and the formation of values that connect with practices. A Scientific Method of Faith Formation includes questioning, experimentation, analysis, critique, reflection and practice.
How might our faith and the faith of our young people be different if we engaged in critical inquiry and lived life as an experiment meant to reveal foundational truths, values and ways of being that changed us for the better?