Posts

Sex, Love, and Science:
Let’s Talk About Talking About Science

Sexy Time

“So what should I say?”

I felt like a real jerk. I was hosting a discussion for parents trying to think Christianly about sex and their teenage kids. After about an hour of convincing these parents they needed to talk with their kids about sex, Melissa raised her hands and in an act of desperation, asked for the words to share with her 13 year old son. I felt bad because of course I had no simple answer.  Instead, we decided the best thing to do was to continue the discussion with one another as a community.

Parents who want to talk with their kids about sex. Impressive, right?

At my little Presbyterian church, a group of parents wanted to have an ongoing discussion about faith, sexuality, and parenting. Collectively we knew our kids needed us as parents to walk with them through their becoming sexual people- but almost none of us knew how to even begin doing this. With changes in technology, a seemingly hyper-sexual culture, and busier schedules than any of us had ever experienced- we were supposed to navigate this wildly intimate and important conversation. How could we make sense of that?

So, the parents did the most natural thing possible- they sent me to ask college kids for help.

I gathered a few rocking chairs on the porch of the church office with half a dozen college students and took out my yellow note pad. So…. How old were you when you first watched pornography? Who first told you about sex? How did that go? Did you ever hear the church comment on sexuality? What did they say? Who can you go to for questions about sex? What does being a Christian have to do with your sexuality?

The conversation was amazing! I was worried that they wouldn’t want to talk about sexuality at all, but in reality- they were desperate for someone to ask the questions and create a space for conversation. We laughed at funny moments and sat in silence with each other in a few moments of pain. They thought it was hilarious that a group of parents wanted to know what they thought, how their experience was, and if they had any parenting advice for these middle aged terrified adults in their church. At the end of our time the college students asked if we could do this again.

What a win!

Hard conversations are all around us and most of the time we avoid them like the plague. But how interesting that both the adult class on parenting and the college students gathering were hungry for more at the end of the hour. We actually agreed to schedule two more focused conversations next semester!

A common thread… no one is talking.

One big idea that both groups observed was that there was an implicit understanding that the church and sexuality had much to say to one another, but that rarely was there any helpful or productive dialogue. Most experienced nothing more than silence. Both groups, the parents and kids, left sexuality and faith as parallel but rarely intersecting aspects of our lives. The message most often communicated to kids was you shouldn’t touch, think, or talk about sex and if you do… there will be a miserably uncomfortable conversation to be had… so watch out! 

Sometimes we just need to open the door to these conversations and trust that we can take a few steps.

But these experiences described above have proven otherwise. Sometimes we just need to open the door to these conversations and trust that we can take a few steps. I was forced to also consider what other hard or scary conversations are out there for parents. While sex clearly belongs in this category- so does the relationship between science and faith. But first, Love.

Lovely Mixed Messages

We are always being formed (and de-formed).

The question, however, is this: to what (or whom) are we being formed?

Over the years in youth ministry I came across a helpful question grounded in a story. We always tell stories, right? I would recall the evening I decided to tell my girlfriend (now wife of 15 years) that I loved her. I paint the picture of a nervous 20 year old with sweaty palms trying to find the right moment to announce his love. I set up the scene and invite those listening to imagine the tension, the fear, the excitement of the moment: “Bethany, I have something I want to say to you. I love you.” Then I leave people in the horribly awkward silence… and ask them… what is the only response that I was hoping for?

Of course the room shouts out “I love you too!”

God’s “I love you” is on display in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Our “I love you too” is the only response that makes sense. “I love you too” is the beginning of spiritual formation, and love then begins to take shape in our lives. This expression of love offers a trajectory of formation, an object of our affection- namely Jesus. Saint Augustine alerts us that our loves need to be managed, intentionally oriented towards God again and again:

“But living a just and holy life requires one to be capable of an objective and impartial evaluation of things: to love things, that is to say, in the right order, so that you do not love what is not to be loved, or fail to love what is to be loved, or have a greater love for what should be loved less, or an equal love for things that should be loved less or more, or a lesser or greater love for things that should be loved equally.” (1)

Having “Ordered Love” means keeping our eyes on Jesus.

When our hearts are ordered towards God our actions should begin to follow suit. The ways in which our love is on display are what we call virtues. Virtues, as simply defined by Smith, are moral habits internally orienting us to the good. (2) The goal is to live our “I love you too” towards God and neighbor with as much continuity of word and deed as possible. To have developed virtue would mean carrying out these habits without much thought as if they were natural. To respond to a false accusation with patience would be evidence of such a virtue and the hope would be that the development of such virtues would enable the Christian to more faithfully express love as a response to the love of God.

It’s important to keep this conversation in perspective- the development of virtue is not a human achievement. Rather, we are discussing the ways in which we participate with God in the shaping of our hearts towards God.

This is a work of the Holy Spirit, a gift!

We desire to embrace these virtues and ultimately, through imitation and practice, (3) begin to integrate these ideals as part of who we have been made to be in Christ. These habits, and the implications of our orienting our hearts and minds through them, create what James K.A. Smith calls “formative love shaping rituals”. (4)  In short, this is his working definition for liturgy. Liturgies can be formative, or de-formative, love shaping rituals that draw us towards or away from God. Smith points out that our hearts are always discerning between what seems to be competing liturgies in culture.

Smith explains this experience almost as a dichotomy. Liturgies that lead towards a faithful ordering of our hearts desire and secular liturgies that lead away. His concern is surrounding habituation- the ways in which these secular liturgies might de-form the Christian, disorder their loves away from a central and exclusive focus on Christ. While I think there is value to this concern, it also seems worthwhile to remember that God’s goodness to the Christian isn’t bound up in their ability to remain faithful, but rather in the work of Jesus Christ. Still, the task of having clear eyes in order to name these liturgies is of great importance.

And here is our problem with science.

Science is not liturgy.

There is trepidation concerning conversations about science and faith because we have experienced the discipline of science as something far more than it was ever intended to be. What was a method for discovery was pushed into being understood as an all encompassing cultural liturgy- a narrative to define all narratives. Backing up we see the internal logic of cultural liturgies and how they come to be: (5)

Step 1. Love leads to Response

Step 2. Response leads to Expression (Virtue)

Step 3. Virtue gathered becomes Liturgy

A birth story: Science as cultural liturgy…

Our pursuit of understanding has given us a love for the empirical (step 1). This embrace of the empirical has lead to a response found in the scientific method as the epistemological method par excellence (step 2). This epistemic goal, grounded in the scientific method, is exercised across multiple disciplines and universalized as the filter by which all of reality is understood and evaluated (step 3). Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

Science saved my son’s life

Don’t get me wrong. I am grateful for the scientific advances of today. I like my iPhone, and our family of 7 drives a suburban. We are all for science! The gifts of the scientific age have been amazing, and no one wants to go back to a time before the enlightenment. My son needed a heart surgery at 18 months, I sure was a fan of science the day we brought him home from the hospital. It is clear that science and the scientific method are to be appreciated, utilized, and not treated with such skepticism in conversations regarding the faith.

But…

The disciplines related to science were never meant to be universalized as virtue in total, much less an all encompassing cultural liturgy by which we measure everything. Andy Root calls these cultural liturgies social practices. He then points out that the tension between faith and science is more about the swollen place of science in culture as a “comprehensive social practice” rather than the discipline or methodology of science in it’s original form. (6) Once we distinguish between the scientific findings and theories gifted from the discipline of science versus experiencing science as the comprehensive social practice- we are able to have helpful conversations about the intersection of science and faith as constructive.

Back to Love

Once we name the temptation to choose the “comprehensive social practice of science” as a secular liturgy, then we are able relativize this misunderstanding in light of our ordered loves towards God and neighbor without losing science all together. This simply means that when science is placed in service of ministry- encountering God and the other- then we are engaging it properly and can enjoy all that it has to offer. I was grateful for science when my son needed heart surgery because I love my son! I am grateful for my suburban and iPhone because this last thanksgiving we drove down to be with family and our iPhone helped us navigate the traffic as well as listen to some great podcasts (in particular a kid friendly NPR science podcast called “Brains On!”). 

Science and Rocking Chairs…

Science doesn’t need to be scary. Those hard conversations on the porch in a rocking chair can take place now because we aren’t talking about competing ideologies- but rather questions about findings and theories and how they relate to the work of God in the world. This will still be challenging- but this is good news!

One of the major concerns of youth ministry today is that all we have invited kids into what Dr. Kenda Dean calls the “church of benign whatever-ism” where we teach “that Christianity is not a big deal, that God requires little, and the church is a helpful social institution filled with nice people focused primarily on folks like us.” (7) This indictment is echoed by Dr. Ben Conner who claims that “youth ministry, at it’s worst, is about creating sober virgins who go to college.” When Youth Ministry withdraws from difficult conversations about things that matter- like sex, or science, it’s no wonder that young people dismiss the church!

So we practice…

In the same way that my community is wrestling with how to have healthier conversations around sexuality with our teenagers, we must learn as communities of faith how to properly engage conversations about faith and science. So far, most of the time, this has been to embrace the “comprehensive social practice of science”, drinking the Kool-aid, and fighting full stop against what is perceived to be a direct affront. But this is a false dichotomy! Understanding that we are talking about placing scientific findings and theories into conversation with the work of God in the world- we are able to take a different approach. An approach of hope and joy as we seek to understand this wild gift of life and creation and one another!

My goal here has been to entice you towards the conversations that so many kids wish they could have… maybe it’s about sex, but I also think they want to explore holding science and faith together. So far… most of the time, the church has done everything it could to keep these apart not knowing how to handle the situation. My guess is that this is driven more by fear than anything. So lets be better than that- fear gets no say in a ministry held up by Jesus.

We have a chance to be intentional and thoughtful when it comes to having these conversations. My good friend and colleague in youth ministry, Rachael McNeal, has written a great blog post about this very thing. Go check it out!   

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.


(1) Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, I.27-28.

(2) Smith, You Are What You Love, 16.

(3) Smith points to imitation and practice as the primary means of acquisition for the virtuous life. This will come back into play at the end of this blog post when we discuss practices that might enable a healthier engagement with the so called “competing liturgies” of science and faith.

(4) Smith, You Are What You Love, 22.

(5) I realize that I am creating all sorts of problems in this massive reduction of understanding. My goal is to help us begin, to move towards, connecting with this much larger and more complex idea. Baby steps!

(6) Root, Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies, 55.

(7) Dean, Almost Christian, 12.


About the Author: Justin Forbes

Justin Forbes - Kindred Youth MinistryJustin serves as the director of the Youth Ministry program at Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL and has been involved in youth ministry since 1998. He’s also a co-founder of Kindred Youth Ministry. His passion is teaching and mentoring youth ministers. Click here to read more about Justin.