Science, Youth Ministry, and Prayer

Recently Andy Root wrote Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies: Youth Ministry in the Age of Science, an interesting and timely addition to an ongoing conversation surrounding the relationship between faith and science.  Root’s charge to us in youth ministry is simple: we stay silent on this contested relationship to our own peril.  Kids have questions about the universe—micro- and macroscopically—and we in youth ministry have not only an obligation to attend to those questions, but with Andy Root’s help, also a unique and exciting opportunity to share the gospel in relevant ways.

But why talk about science?

No doubt a few of you reading this need some encouragement.  Let’s name and respond to some of the reasons that might keep you from picking up this book:

But none of my kids are asking science questions of their faith…

Yes they are.  Maybe not to you, but they are asking these questions.  Would you really rather they went elsewhere to get the answers?

But I’m not a scientist, I’m not equipped to handle the conversation…

You’re likely also not an economist, but I bet you’ve talked to kids about how to use their money.  You’re likely not a licensed sex therapist, but I bet you’ve talked to kids about sex.  There are an endless number of things outside your training that ministry requires you to weigh in on.  Science might be more intimidating or confusing than others, but it’s still something we’ve got to address.

But we’ve already got a policy at our church/institution that clearly states what we should say

The most successful folks in ministry are those that keep digging deeper.  This doesn’t mean your opinion ought to always change.  There are things we ought not budge an inch on.  This also doesn’t mean you should be insubordinate with those you work under.  Even so, continuing to come back to important topics by reading and interacting with thoughtful folks is always a good tactic in ministry.  This is an important topic.  And this is a thoughtful account of how to talk about it.

There are an endless number of things outside your training that ministry requires you to weigh in on.

Put another way, Root is not so much telling youth pastors what to say (as in, the “answer” to questions surrounding Noah’s arc and the theory of evolution) but how to have the conversation.  The latter is often a much, much more difficult thing to do.

So how do science and faith relate?

Convinced?

Let’s assume you are, that you’re past the threshold of wondering if you should read about science and faith.  Let’s move on, then, to what it is that Andy’s telling us (of course it’d be infinitely better for you to simply read this book on your own or as a staff, but here’s a rough sketch).

Move #1: Getting us on the same page regarding science and ‘science’

Andy Root gets his project off the ground with some much-needed brush clearing.  There’s a lot of unhelpful talk surrounding science and faith and he wants to make sure we’re all on the same page.  As is the case in all good arguments, Root reminds us that in this debate it’s often the case that folks are using the same terms but in different ways.  In other words, Andy tells us that often times when we talk about science, we don’t actually mean, science.  Let’s explain.

According to Root, there’s a world of difference between scientific findings and ‘science.’  Contrary to much popular belief, there is no essential rivalry between science (as a method for the pursuit of knowledge regarding some material reality) and faith (an encounter with God).  As a methodology, science isn’t a good or a bad thing, it isn’t necessarily for or against faith.  That there are scientists all along the spectrum of belief testifies, in some sense, to this reality.

‘Science,’ however, is a different story.  According to Root, what most of us have in mind when we talk about “faith and science” are not specific scientific findings.  Instead, we’ve got ‘science’ in mind: to borrow his phrase, a “comprehensive social practice.”  In other words, often when we talk about science we’ve got in mind something that more closely resembles a religion-like thing insofar as it makes claims on what we ought to live and do and why.  Which is to say that religion and ‘science’ both require loyalties and, unlike (neutral) scientific findings and faith, these two are at odds.

At its most basic, the Christian faith tells us we live in a personal universe, one made and sustained by a God who is intimately related to what He makes.  ‘Science,’ on the other hand, promotes and assumes an impersonal universe.  See the bind?  These two ways of seeing and participating in the world—faith and ‘science’—are diametrically opposed when it comes to describing that very world, and so anyone caught in their crosshairs must make a choice: faith or ‘science.’

The effects of this dilemma in the church are obvious and often polarizing: should I choose faith (and thus downplay the import of scientific findings) or should I choose science (and thus downplay the import of faith)?  At its worst, the first option leaves a church on a lonely, overly skeptical island, completely cut off from the insights of entire scientific community.  And the second option, at its worst, leaves individuals with a withered or non-existent faith.

By making a distinction between scientific findings and ‘science,’ then, Root helps us to get the heart of the matter.  The issue is less one between faith and science.  There are a host of ways that we can make meaningful connections between the findings in biology, chemistry, and physics, for example, and our faith.  The issue, instead, is with the assumption of ‘science’ that since the universe is impersonal, to be a faithful Christian is to intentionally choose to be mute, immoral, or childish when it comes to dealing with how things really are.  Without making this distinction, then, we see far too many kids thinking they must make a false choice between believing in the gospel of Jesus Christ or believing in the Big Bang theory, for example.

Move #2: Getting a picture for how faith and science do relate, then

To put it far too briefly, ultimately Root ends up arguing for an asymmetrical but generally harmonious relationship between science and faith wherein the claims of the former can and do fit quite nicely within the broader context of the former.  It’s an asymmetrical relationship precisely because once we get straight what it is we’re doing in faith—“seek[ing] the face of God in mystery”—we’re poised to be able to rightly weigh in on the “faceless answers” of science. 

The bulk of the book is thus devoted to exploring just how it is that the faithful can, have, and perhaps ought to relate to a small sample set of scientific claims that intersect with core Christian beliefs.  That Root does this through both argument and imaginative conversations between a youth pastor named Jared and a host of his youth group attendees keeps the book lively and engaging.  I could imagine a church or lay leadership team taking up the narratival portions of the book as a focus for discussion: reading the fictional conversations that prompt Jared’s own journey and reflecting on how his conclusions/foibles/confusions do or do not mirror the their own.

A friendly critique

As much as I would recommend this book as a source for churches and faith-based organizations working with kids, I’d still like to offer a friendly challenge to the essential distinction Root draws between faith and science.  According to Root, what best accounts for the salient difference between faith and science is seen when their aims or goals are made explicit.  Whereas faith “seeks the face of God in mystery (this is its soteriological goal),” the scientific “can only offer faceless answers” (139-40).  Elsewhere, faith has a “moral goal” (144) whereas the “goal of the scientific is to empirically deliverer results, solutions, answers.  But faith has little of this as its pursuit.  Faith reaches out not for results, solutions and clear answers, but for encounter with a transcendent personal reality that remains always shrouded in mystery” (112).  Generally speaking, Root’s claims are sound.  There’s an intuitive logic nicely captured in his image of “faceless answers.”  So to be clear, I am not saying that what Root claims here is wrong, per se.  I am saying, however, that at important points his rhetoric runs the risk of outpacing his argument.

Take prayer, for instance.  As a reminder, Root tells us that the “goal of the scientific is to empirically deliver results, solutions, answers.  But faith has little of this as its pursuit” (112; emphasis mine).  To drive home his point Root returns to the life and death (fictional) drama surrounding Gena and her cancer:

The health sciences see Gena mainly as her illness, and see her illness as the problem of low white blood cells.  But faith sees Gena as a person who must be ministered to.  The goal for the scientific in relation to Gena is to functionally overcome her sickness (something Jared, Aly, and her family yearn for).  But faith, on the other hand, asks, Who is Gena, and how does she live and participate in this personal world?  What kind of life and death upholds her personhood in love and mercy?  And in life and death, how might we help her commune with this personal God and those she loves?  These are quite different aims. (112)

In laudable effort to distance faith from mere instrumentalization (I pray X and I’m guaranteed Y) and emphasize its personal, experiential aims, Root runs the risk of blunting the scandal of petitionary prayer.  In other words, petitionary prayer—where we ask for things we do not have, for things to be different than they currently are—is certainly more than functional in its goal, but it is never less than that. 

Indeed, the practice of prayer perhaps pushes back even further on Root’s essential distinction between faith and science as one of aim or goal.  From the ancient world to the present, prayer has been described—with rare monotony!—as a dialogue between God and humanity.  Importantly, our prayers are always a response to a conversation God prompts (by the teaching and example of Christ), maintains (by the Spirit who speaks when we cannot (Rom 8)), and answers (by the Father to whom we direct our pleas).

If prayer is, as Robert Jenson argues, a distinctively human act, then perhaps one way of accounting for the difference between science and faith (as both human endeavors) rests not so much in aim as in object.  For in faith—of which prayer is its principal act, so says Augustine, Thomas, and Barth, for example—we approach truth (as an aim) in, through, and by our interaction with God as Truth (as Object).  In other words, what accounts for the most important distinction between faith and science is that in the former, its Object talks back.  In faith our truth-seeking is a response and so a secondary, not principle, move.

This article was made possible by Science for Youth Ministry in association with Luther Seminary and the John Templeton Foundation. Learn more at www.scienceym.org or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/scienceforYM.


About the Author: Lindsey Hankins

Lindsey Hankins is a PhD candidate at Princeton Theological Seminary with previous degrees in Historical and Systematic Theology (MA) and Christian History (MA) from Wheaton College and Biblical and Theological Studies from Bethel University, MN (BA). Her MA thesis, Making Martyrs Male: A Reappraisal of Gendered Rhetoric in Ancient Martyrdom Accounts, was written under the support of Wheaton’s Center for Early Christian Studies fellowship grant. She is currently completing a dissertation on Thomas Aquinas and prayer.

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