It is no secret that the American religious landscape is in the midst of a profound shift, as “faith transitions” have become a regular cultural phenomenon. Significant percentages of young people raised in the Church are “graduating” from their faith as they graduate from high school and into adulthood. The factors behind this trend are numerous and complex. Emerging adults are immersed into a dizzying world of diverse worldviews and opinions, and the process of developing an adult identity is growing ever more difficult. Far too many Christian youth enter this phase of life underprepared and overwhelmed. Their faith no longer makes sense of the world. In many cases, they simply drift away from the faith sometime between age 18-30, becoming one of the myriad “nones.”
According to many of these “nones,” a key issue that drove them away from faith was an inability to understand how science and faith could be in harmony. Pastor, author, and scholar Greg Cootsona wants to change this. In his new book Mere Science and Christian Faith: Bridging the Divide with Emerging Adults, Cootsona tackles the tough issues head on: evolution, Adam and Eve, Intelligent Design, the Big Bang, and even the intersection of faith and technology. His goal? To equip the Church—and particularly those who minister to “emerging adults”—to engage modern science faithfully and winsomely.
Below, Cootsona explains what motivated him to write this book, and his vision for how it might impact the conversation about faith and science.
In the introductory chapter we get a glimpse of your unique story of coming to Christianity. What was your path to belief and how did it impact your writing of this book?
I grew up outside of church and became a Christian at U.C. Berkeley, a fabulous—but by no means overtly Christian—university. For that reason, I’ve always believed that faith needs to engage the best of academic culture. In addition, at Berkeley, I heard that science is antithetical to faith and so I knew, as a Christian engaged in academic culture, that I needed to see the influence of scientific discoveries and thinking as cultural forces.
Your book focuses on issues of science and faith among emerging adults in the church. Why is it so important for the Church to be well-informed about modern scientific discoveries, and conversant about science in our churches?
This might sound overly simple, but here it is: because Jesus Christ is Lord of all. I learned this early in my emerging adult faith, and it demands that we take all of our experience—whether in business, in the arts, or in the sciences (just to name a few)—and connect them with our faith in Jesus. Not to do so is not to be fully alive in Christ.
What are the distinct features of the “emerging adult” generation? Why focus a book specifically on reaching them?
As so many people know, 35-40% of 18-30 year olds check the box “None” when asked “What religious affiliation are you?” They’ve also told researchers, like David Kinnaman of the Barna Group, that one of the top six reasons they are walking out of the doors of congregations is that they think the church is “anti-science.” Can I be part of changing that perception? I hope so.
In addition to discussing traditional science-and-faith questions like the Big Bang and historical Adam and Eve, you also focus attention on the relationship between technology and the church. Why this focus? How does it relate to your emphasis on “emerging adults”?
To purists, science and technology are of different orders, because technology derives from science. That’s just not sustainable anymore. Where do you put Artificial Intelligence and genetic technologies? Even more, as a strategic point, technology is much closer to 18-30 year olds than pure science. I have to work to make the connection of Big Bang cosmology and the doctrine of creation compelling—and believe me, I try because I think it is! But when I address whether AI is possible—and show the film Ex Machina—my college students sit up and achieve the highest form of engagement, at least in California speak: they “share.” So the church will be wise to look at tech and its vast influence on our lives.
One challenge that you present for the church as it engages with emerging adults is appealing to people whose belief systems tend to be more open and pluralistic. Do you know of churches that are effectively engaging science and technology while remaining committed to “mere Christianity”? How do they balance a deep understanding of current cultural trends with a commitment to orthodox Christianity?
I don’t think this is much different in many ways from what the church has always faced. To re-read 1 and 2 Corinthians (as I’ve done recently for another project) is to see Paul in the midst of pluralistic culture of many gods and lords. So we shouldn’t fool ourselves that Christianity has always been the center of attention—that’s a luxury of Christendom that we don’t have anymore. What the internet does do, however, is to offer an enormous array of possibilities. After twenty years in church ministry with college and post-college young adults, I don’t frankly think it is an effective strategy to focus your energies on defeating relativism and the idea that “Jesus is one truth among many.” It’s much better to look at Jesus directly and let his winsome message does its work.
The position for which you explicitly advocate is integration of faith and science (as opposed to conflict or independence). But you also maintain that “before we seek to integrate science and faith, we have to grasp their inherent differences.” What are some of those differences?
Simply put, theology (as systematic elaboration of our faith) looks at God. Science looks at the natural world (which is key to my commitment to methodological naturalism). This is the famous “two books” approach. God has written the book of Scripture and the “book” of nature. They have the same author and don’t contradict, but they speak differently. The book of nature, for example, does not tell us how to be saved in Jesus Christ. On the other hand, Scripture leads us to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thes. 5:18) and science reveals how gratitude is good for us.
Put another way, we shouldn’t expect science to prove God, although it can be a witness. At the same time, we shouldn’t expect Scripture to answer our scientific questions, let’s allow science to do that. To read both books together demonstrates that they can challenge and enhance one another—and that’s a good way to describe Mere Science and Christian Faith.
In your later chapters you support the practice of setting aside technology to allow for meditation and reflection. What tips do you have for people who desire to do this but can’t figure out how to cut back on technology in daily life?
I have a sort of “ten commandments” for restricting technology’s reach that first appeared in my book Say Yes to No, but I think it can be summarized in an appropriation of Jesus’s words: “Technology is made for us, not us for technology.” So say “yes to no” to technology—turn off your email regularly, don’t use your cell phone for an hour, watch TV (or other streaming services) as little as possible, and don’t leave it as background noise. My friend, Elaine Ecklund, also encouraged me “to call out the good in tech.” Use it to spread the message of Jesus, stay connected with friends (but don’t rely only on virtual relationships), see how your knowledge of tech can solve issues of poverty and disease, and by all means, be a cultural influencer in video games, film, and YouTube!
What’s a good first step for ministry leaders trying to engage issues of faith and modern science with emerging adults?
Be humble and seek to learn what emerging adults are experiencing. Seek to hear what science and tech is influencing them. And speaking of influence, find the group influencers —which, by the way, can absolutely be their pastor or college group leader. Work through relationships, which has been a key strategy in both large-scale projects I’ve been a part of, Scientists in Congregations (SinC) and Science and Theology for Emerging Adult Ministries (STEAM). In both our team has worked to connect scientists within Christian communities to work with Christian leaders and bring mainstream science to engage with mere Christianity.