I can remember what it’s like to not know anything.
As a very small child—I’m not even certain I was walking yet—I stared up from my stroller in some department store at the fluorescent lighting racing along the ceiling down the aisle. On the upper left hand shelf sat a row of brightly colored motorcycle helmets. One of the adults accompanying me took down one of the helmets and approached my stroller. Everything went black for a moment as the helmet was slipped over my head. The world was suddenly tinged amber through the helmet’s visor, and I could hear the now-muffled conversation of the grownups turn to muffled laughter (presumably my baby-self wearing the helmet in the stroller was some combination of adorable and hilarious). Frightened, I screamed, loud and long.
In Born Believers, Justin Barrett argues that the best stories (and storytellers) bank on the presumed knowledge of the audience. The more a story can engage what the listener or reader already knows, the less words it needs to spend in the telling. A story beginning as simply as “A young girl…” relies on your understanding of differentiating gender, the subtle (and not subtle) differences between being old and being young, and even the notion that mentioning the girl establishes her importance as a character deserving of attention in whatever follows. If you can’t presume that knowledge, the story would become helplessly bogged down in explanation, and your audience would quickly lose interest. The story only matters if the audience matters, too.
The problem with the story about my childhood helmet memory is that its real meaningfulness to me is found in what I did not know in that moment. (Everything, in a word.) The point of the story is the mystery of it, yet here your accumulated knowledge works against you. You simply understand too much for me to efficiently describe what it was like for me to know nothing. In an odd reverse of a story whose strength relies on your prior knowledge of what a fire truck is or how movies are made or how people behave when they’re in love in order to avoid explaining everything to death, my story bogs down in needing you to un-know everything you know. You can’t, so a truer telling runs aground in explanation. Here, lose interest:
On the upper left hand shelf—except you’ve got to realize I didn’t have any notion what a store is or any concept of what display or storage methods are, so really I didn’t recognize “a shelf” (or handedness, for that matter)—sat a row of brightly colored motorcycle helmets. You’ve got to understand, of course, that I didn’t know what colors were, or helmets, or even recognize the shape of the helmets as round…
See what I mean? The 9 lines of the original story would turn into pages of over-explanation trying to get you to set aside knowledge that you can’t, all for the sake of attempting to put you in an odd state of not having any sense of self and not knowing what anything you’re perceiving with your senses is or even if it’s more important to focus your attention on the lights or the sound of your own crying. Incredible, powerfully unique experience; lousy story.
There is something similar going on with our attempts to tell the story of our faith, and too often it can become a lousy story.
If you cut through all of the noise, at the center of our faith lies a mystery. A real one, not the kind that’s easily solved by the end of the book. We can brush up against the mystery individually and corporately, but that central part is a really difficult story to tell. Yet somehow the church—youth ministry in particular—is tasked with just that: telling an untellable story.
This “untellable story” poses a real challenge to the way youth ministry balances conversations about faith and science. The most divisive of these conversations appears to focus on the origins of the universe and humanity. The division here is deceptive, I think, because—apart from the extremes of either side often being unwilling to listen to the other—the stated point of conflict isn’t really the truest point of conflict. Even the simple version of the faith/science argument isn’t simple: was the universe created, or did it evolve? Was it intelligently designed, then allowed to evolve? Did God “use” evolution to create? Are faith and science each as narrow as the assembled details of our origin?
I would argue that the tension between faith and science (at least from the faith side of things) isn’t about the creation question as much as it is about validating the source of one’s answers. For someone who holds a strict, literal understanding of human origins as revealed in the text of Genesis and the timeline for the universe, science is a threat or at the very least an unwelcome prowler poking at the root of their belief. Science is great for medical care, establishing the 10-day forecast, and knowing when to move away from the volcano. But when it suggests the universe is exponentially older than catalogued in the Bible, it’s gone a bridge too far.
The tension is obviously about how the world came to be, but that tension exists only because we have an ancient text relatively recently translated into English containing a story that relates the beginning of things. The accounts in Genesis one and two are staggeringly compact if you pause over them for a moment. They offer practically bullet-point summaries of the beginnings of the wonders of nature. Consider the delicately complex organism that a single species of tree represents. Genesis manages to describe all species of trees in shared space with “seed-bearing plants” in a couple of verses.
From the perspective of a youth, the tension must seem strange. For answers about creation—our world, and all that is in it and surrounds it—science asks this created order for answers, seeking what can be known. Why isn’t faith allowed to revel in what can’t be known? Why can’t youth ministry say, “We know some stuff about our own history and we’ve worked out a lot of theological models about how grace might work, but holy cow the most amazing thing in the room is that our God is beyond our comprehension. Isn’t that amazing?”
Unlike the mystery of faith, my helmet memory is, in all likelihood, nearly completely untrue. Eyewitness accounts are notoriously fraught with reconstructed falsehood. I was a little kid. Sure, probably some adult stuck a helmet on my head at some point in a store somewhere, but the sheer distance from that moment in years alone has certainly clouded the memory. I may very well have remembered it with clarity as a child and worked it back into a state of unknowing as I aged. What I know for certain is that my revisiting that memory has given me a lasting way of sharing with youth about faith, a way that reaches past the temptation for answers and is willing to sit and marvel for a while at the wonder of something greater than ourselves. A way to seek truth, and be comfortable with truth not necessarily able to be defined.
As called truth-seekers, Christian youth ministers are charged with helping youth and their families along this road—becoming disciples of the way of Jesus, seeking God’s truth in this world. If all truth is God’s truth, can’t faith and science both be fruitful means of seeking?