The Wonder-Full God: Science, Faith, and Wonder in Youth Ministry

Knowledge is fostered by curiosity; wisdom is fostered by awe. Awe precedes faith; it is the root of faith. We must be guided by awe to be worthy of faith. Forfeit your sense of awe, let your conceit diminish your ability to revere, and the world becomes a market place for you. The loss of awe is the avoidance of insight. A return to reverence is the first prerequisite for a revival of wisdom, for the discovery of the world as an allusion to God.

Abraham Heschel, Who Is Man?

The WonderFull God

Science, Faith, and Wonder

Curiosity, awe, reverence—wonder. All of these are tied up in wonder. Together they are the desire and ability to encounter something simply because it is interesting, awesome, or holy. In my understanding , wonder is a virtue, something that we should help young people cultivate over time. Sadly, North American society disagrees with me.

A peculiar pragmatism rooted in the material reality around us structures our lives in such ways that we are not only blind to wonder, we actively avoid it, going so far as denigrating it. Shoving aside wonder and settling for its enemy, willful ignorance, leaves us with bald anti-intellectualism and a reduced sense of reality. This kind of reduction hurts us as individuals and as a church because wonder is at the root of both science and faith.

Sometimes science and faith get pitted against each other as if they are antagonists in some cosmic MMA fight. Science gets reduced to solving material problems and faith gets reduced to solving our spiritual needs in this battle royale.

To defeat willful ignorance, to overthrow anti-intellectualism and expand reality past the mere physical, science and Christianity must band together and use the power of wonder in active battle.

The Battleground of Youth Ministry

While there are many fronts to this battle, one where there is a natural overlap is in youth ministry. Young people of high school age are both discovering God at a deep level and engaging in the deeper questions of science. And isn’t it the hope of every teacher to inspire their protégés to love science so much that they pursue it all the way down? Isn’t it the prayer of every youth worker and faithful parent for their loved young person to be so enraptured with God that they become a disciple?

At the foundation of science and at the root of Christian faith is wonder, and youth ministry must pay attention to wonder for the betterment of science, Christianity, and young people.

At the foundation of science and at the root of Christian faith is wonder, and youth ministry must pay attention to wonder for the betterment of science, Christianity, and young people.

Wonder and Language

Language  of battle and wonder and anti-intellectualism can sound more dramatic than the prosaic reality. Take a conversation between two middle-aged men I overheard. I was sitting in a hospital waiting room and they entered having a loud conversation.

Blue Flannel Guy: “…there you go again using a $50.00 word, spending money like you’ve got tons. Can’t you just use a $1.00 word instead?”

Green Flannel Guy: [Awkward chuckle.] “Well it is pretty early in the morning, I’ll have to think of something.”

Blue Flannel Guy: “Seriously. Who uses ‘all-e-gor-ay’ and expects other people to understand what they mean?”

Green Flannel Guy: “Well, you know, I was just talking, you know, just…”

There are a number of problems with this scene, not least of which are sartorial. Now, stop. Really stop and honestly answer whether or not you know the word “sartorial” in that last sentence? Could you intuit its meaning? Did you look it up?

Acknowledging Ignorance

Both of those responses, contemplating the meaning of “sartorial” or researching it, call for creativity and curiosity. Ignorance can lead to wonder which in turn calls forth creativity and curiosity. Sadly, Blue Flannel Guy exhibited neither of those traits. Instead, Blue Flannel Guy made fun of his friend for using a literary term that a society that has near universal education should likely know. For Blue Flannel Guy, his ignorance was not the problem; Green Flannel Guy’s discussion of something that he had worked hard at understanding was the problem.

This kind of anti-intellectualism isn’t particularly noteworthy except that there are consequences when we, as a society and as a church, let these kinds of exchanges go on without remark or critique. Consider the number of unfamiliar terms that Blue Flannel Guy, Green Flannel Guy, and me, Know-What-”Allegory”-Is Guy will encounter as we step into the medical doctor’s office.

Addressing Ignorance

For example, I was in the doctor’s office because a friend was having an electroencephalogram. Because I know some Greek I can see that “electro” and “encephalo” and “gram” are distinct words and can piece together that an EEG, what the test is usually called, is really an electrical picture of the brain. And this is how it was described by the technician to my friend.

The technician was a student herself and was being apprenticed by another trained staff. The technician-in-training hooked up 29 different sensors to my friend’s head and upper body, all the while holding two conversations. One, with my friend, was describing in accessible ways what was going to happen.  She used words that were precise but not technical like, “I’m placing these sensors so that they can create an image of your brain in that computer there.” The other, with the supervising staff member, was filled with hard words that I would need to look up. She was clearly referencing different parts of the brain and methodically working through a process that involved a great deal of precision and technical expertise.

The Need for Expertise

I did not begrudge the technician her use of $50.00 words. I would never think to denigrate her for knowing them. Truth be told, I would have been scared if she hadn’t used them. She was, after all, hooking up electrical sensors to my friend’s brain. I wouldn’t want her to be ignorant of what she was doing when I have no idea what the health consequences might be for my friend.

Ignorance can lead to wonder which in turn calls forth creativity and curiosity.

I wonder if Blue Flannel Guy would be calling out his doctor for using $50.00 words rather than $1.00? Later I overheard him talking about why he was there. He had cancer. He needed a blood test to see how the treatment had gone. He was facing a 50/50 chance of dying soon and only medical science, with all its $50.00 words, could save him.

Lucky for Blue Flannel Guy, at some point someone had to wonder how the human body worked. At some point we knew very little about the human body but we wondered what made it move. We ate and wondered how that worked. We had sex and then nine months later had babies. This was a mysterious process that prompted us to wonder. The human form fascinated us and so we began to sketch it, to poke it, to prod it, to test it, and eventually dissect it so we could take our sketching, poking, prodding, and testing down, down, down, all the way to the molecular level. Once we learned some things we had to unlearn them and discover new things and then we could build knowledge from there. And in the process of wondering and studying and searching we saved millions of lives. Millions.

When Utility Overshadows Wonder

But science, when combined with capitalism, has denuded the wonder that founded it. We don’t value wonder; we value utility. Science is a tool that we use to get something that we want. We want longer life and so we invest heavily in research and development and then sell the results of that research as drugs to those who are dying.

At some level this is actually a good thing. Again, note the millions of lives saved. Science, when understood in relation to capitalism, always leads to a kind of pragmatism. This pragmatism can be the good kind or, as often is the case, the bad kind.

Good Pragmatism: Responsible Humanitarianism

The good kind poses questions that are germane to the broader human experience of life together. It uses wonder and instead of inquiring about the object—say, cancer or tuberculosis—it inquires about the humans that suffer from cancer or tuberculosis. Science is a tool to solve problems broadly held to be morally and practically important.

For example, we can think of Paul Farmer and the organization he helped found, Partners in Health. Farmer’s quest is nothing less than the eradication of tuberculosis and AIDS from the poorest of the poor in the world. His story, as told by Tracy Kidder in Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World, is one of deep, and good, pragmatism.

Farmer saw his patients dying from tuberculosis, which science had dealt with in parts of the world that could afford treatment. The problem: drugs exist to save lives but the current system means that millions will needlessly die. Besides using science to solve the problem of tuberculosis, he used science to answer a deep wondering—what would a country of Haiti be like if they did not die of tuberculosis?

Bad Pragmatism: Profiteering Oppression

In contrast, the bad kind of pragmatism limits the scope of the problem to the immediate beneficiaries. That is, it focuses strictly on those who financially benefit from a new drug rather than those who would physically and emotionally benefit from a new drug.

For example, we might remember Martin Shkreli, who raised the price of an AIDS drug by more than 5,000% overnight. When defending this decision before the United States Congress, he repeatedly invoked his Fifth Amendment rights to cover up the fact that he knew that this was immoral. Shkreli’s company maintains that they lost money on Daraprim, the AIDS drug—yet they approved $685,000 in raises for three highly compensated executives the month after raising the price and spent $23,000 to charter yacht service for a night, $6,500 in fireworks, and $250,000 on entertainment, listed on the receipt as a “celebrity performance.” This is an instance of bad pragmatism: using science to solve an immoral problem, namely, how to line the pockets of CEOs.

Pragmatism Neuters Wonder

This combination of science and capitalism that leads to pragmatism, either good or bad, is one of the main culprits of the willful ignorance that leads to anti-intellectualism in our society. We risk fundamentally misunderstanding science when we reduce it to its pragmatic benefits for us, however good those benefits might be. We willfully look past the fact that the giants of the science world have moved well beyond a simple mechanistic vision of the universe because we can easily see the benefits of that simple mechanistic view.

What has quantum mechanics done for making my life better? More than four dimensions are possible? So what? Does it make my phone get a better signal? If not, it’s too hard. Too much deep thinking for so little pragmatic benefit. As long as the doctor can cure us of cancer or find out what is wrong with our brain, we don’t care what words they use, what got them to that point, how the body fits into the rest of the matter of the universe. We just want results. Because we conceive of science pragmatically, we miss that a science rooted in wonder isn’t asking the same questions.

Pragmatic Faith?

If we are honest, Christianity falls victim to the same dangers as science does. Christianity plus capitalism  equals a certain kind of pragmatism. Our faith becomes something that helps us to do something else, but does not have value in and for itself.

God can help us when we struggle. We search the Psalms and find comfort knowing that God is our rock and our fortress because we really want God to be that in our life at that time. God becomes a cosmic soother or blankie because we are scared and frightened.

God can help us when we have an ethical dilemma. We think and meditate on the Ten Commandments or the double love commandment that Jesus gives us, distill them to life principles, and apply them to whatever situation we face. God becomes an ethical principle because we need to do the right thing. Whatever the case, God is anything but God, since pragmatism will always start with our problems, our needs, and our wants.

God Is No Pragmatist

This reduction of God to something based on us as humans inherently reduces the role of wonder in our faith. We cease to be captivated and awed by God as God, we stop wondering how the divine can take shape in the material world, we cease our search for understanding how God and time interact or how atonement works or how sanctification really plays out or … well you get the picture. We find answers and settle for them because they work. Providence becomes palliative and grace transforms into an ethical principle.

God was never interested in being simply a principle.

It turns out that God was never interested in being simply the answers to our needs. God was never interested in being simply a principle. God insists on being so much more—the power that creates, sustains, and accompanies all things. That God does not come to us as a principle but as a person—namely, Jesus Christ—is far from pragmatic. It is wonderful and lavish.

Mountain or Molehill?

Presenting it this baldly likely has some protesting. “Hey, I read my Bible! I let God be God!” And this may be true for you. But consider whether it is easier to lead a youth program based on God being God or on the pragmatic God?

Education: How Can I Apply This?

Two experiences jump to mind for me. First, for a number of years I taught youth ministry to undergraduates. Many of those students were amazing and it was a privilege to be present with them as they started out their university education (I taught an Intro to Youth Ministry course). However, I am sure that many of them would tell you that they struggled to see how some of what we discussed “applied” to what they imagined youth ministry to be.

When discussing youth culture, “postmodernism” was a catch-all phrase meaning all things bad. Universally the students had learned in their churches that postmodernism was antithetical to the Gospel, that Jesus had nothing to do with it, and that it was dangerous. I took that as a challenge and assigned Foucault, Derrida, and Lyotard. To a student the response was, well, incredulous. “Why are we studying this! How can I apply this!”

Any time someone skips straight to application, you know you are deep in the grip of pragmatism which cannot wonder about reality outside the narrow criteria of utilitarian value. And this was my response. We study these thinkers because they are asking deep and significant questions about reality, a reality that young people live in. We might disagree with their answers but unless we wonder alongside them, how do we really know that Derrida is the devil? Wonder was not a virtue that their churches had inculcated within them.

Congregations: Challenged to Wonder

The second has less to do with youth ministry and more to do with the church culture at large. I sit on a committee of my denomination charged with considering church doctrine. It is largely made up of academics, ministers who have graduate degrees, and lay people with advanced education. These are not dumb people.

Yet, when I used the word “apophaticism” in a paper meant for them, more than one essentially pulled a Blue Flannel Guy. “While I have access to a dictionary right here on my computer, this is an unfamiliar word and should be excluded.” Really? Apophaticism is a form of mysticism that approaches questions of God through the negative. If you have ever uttered the phrase, “dark night of the soul,” then you have uttered an apophatic statement. There are large chunks of Scripture that witness to God in an apophatic way (think Wisdom literature). Throughout Christian tradition there have always been those who have wondered about God this way. Yet, in a forum filled with educated people discussing theology, I am instructed to dumb it down?

Wonder as Respecting the Other

Wonder, at least as I am presenting it, requires that we encounter the other as a subject and an agent in its own right. We don’t wonder about an object without respecting that it is other than us, that its existence is complex, that there is a mystery inherent because we can never wholly capture it, that there are limits to our own knowledge and therefore limits that the object we encounter cannot transcend as well. If this sounds a lot like what Andy Root argues in places like Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry or The Relational Pastor, then good. Where Andy focuses on our relationships with each other and therefore with God, I am extending part of that logic to science and Christianity.

Andy’s critique of youth ministry is that it has been captured by a certain kind of pragmatism, the same kind that I tried to describe that has also captured science. There are better and worse forms of it, but at the end, it is all problematic because it reduces something that is far more complex, mysterious, tragic, and wondrous to an expression of our own perceived needs. Frankly, we don’t know ourselves very well when we reduce our own needs to that which we can easily understand or articulate.

Real Living Requires Wonder

Both science and Christianity, at least in their best forms, reject a kind of pragmatism infused with capitalism. Rather, both science and Christianity beg for an encounter that starts in wonder and leads to curiosity and diligent study. When pragmatism reduces us to our own poorly understood needs it also reduces the possibility of wonder as wonder.

So how do we “apply” this? How can we inculcate wonder? I have three suggestions:

1) Wilderness

First, I think that we do not make sufficient use of North American wilderness and young people. It takes days, perhaps weeks, of exposure, but we can help young people get close to wonder by removing them from the distractions of modern convenience . To sit on rocks as a raging river rumbles at your feet, to cross over a pass among the Rockies, or to contemplate the intricacy of a spider web—all can induce wonder, awe even. This is not some kind of natural theology, but it does force someone to take the natural world as it is and not as it serves us.

We have a God who is ceaselessly, unpragmatically creative, so let yourself be formed in the image of this God, rather than the God of American pragmatism.

2) Wrestling

Second, we should not shy away from pushing young people to grapple with some of the great questions of faith. This includes grappling directly with Scripture. Of course not everyone will become great theologians or scholars; however, programs that push young people not only to make a commitment to Jesus Christ, but also to think broadly about what discipleship means in their context, can only help dispel the anti-intellectualism that permeates much of youth ministry.

3) Widening

Third, we can model an alliance between science and Christianity. By broadening our own understanding in the areas that we are weak in, either science or Christianity, we can exercise our own wonder. If we are not curious, if we are only interested in applying whatever we learn, then how can we expect young people to do anything but? Clearly, we operate within a world dominated by economic pragmatism, so wholesale rebellion is not likely, perhaps not desirable. But it is a worthy goal of wondering broadly, of searching for answers to questions that entice us into areas of ignorance, and for appreciating the mystery of science or Christianity. The reality of both depends on it.

The Capacity for Wonder

So don’t be satisfied simply with application. Model wonder for your young people, drawing them to the tremendous God you love and want them to learn to love as well. Be willing to explore those vistas of ignorance in your life, and cultivate your capacity to wonder. We have a God who is ceaselessly, unpragmatically creative, so let yourself be formed in the image of this God, rather than the God of American pragmatism.

 


About the Author: Blair Bertrand

Blair BertrandBlair has been doing youth ministry since he was a youth, a time when his beloved Montreal Canadians were still winning Stanley Cups. While working in churches as a youth director, he discovered that he wasn’t bad at school. He now has an M.Div., and M.A. in Youth Ministry, and a Ph.D. in Practical Theology, all from Princeton Theological Seminary. His last call was to be the minister at congregation doing a big building project in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia and his next call is overseas; Blair, with his wife and three kids, are all moving to Malawi so he can teach at a seminary and consult in the denominational youth office.

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