What About the Dinosaurs?
Questions of Faith & Science

Each year my wife and I lead membership classes at the church where we serve as pastors. This past year we had a twelve-year-old boy ask about as earnest a question as I’ve ever heard in any study, class, group, or program. He asked, “But what about the dinosaurs?” As he continued talking, it became apparent that the question behind his question was this, “If God created the world exactly as is written, where do dinosaurs enter and exit the history of the world, and why can’t I find them in the Bible?” It was a big, and meaningful question. Perhaps the question really was, “If dinosaurs don’t appear in the Bible, can I trust that it’s actually true?” Big questions for a twelve-year-old, and yet not uncommon at all.

What about the dinosaurs? It’s one of many meaningful and earnest scientific questions that our youth and young adults are asking in the church and of the church; and sadly, I don’t think we’re always offering well thought out, meaningful answers. Was the world created in six, literal, twenty-four hour days, or did the universe evolve over millions of years? Did Jesus actually rise from the dead? Was there really a flood? Are miracles real? Why am I here? How does it all end?

These are just a few of many questions that are being asked by youth as they grow up and interact with the world around them. Again, the question behind many of the questions is: “What is the meaning of life and where do I fit into it?” This is the crucial question we live our lives trying to answer. We might not all ask it in the same way or come to the same conclusion, but we’re all trying to figure out how we fit into the world around us.

In The Transforming Vision, Brian Walsh and Richard Middleton suggest that everyone has a worldview which includes four basic questions: “Who Am I? Where am I? What’s Wrong? What is the Remedy?”[1] Sadly, I think these questions expose a truth about the church—it is largely unsafe to express doubt in church.

Why Might This Be the Case?

The opening scene depicted in Mark Clark’s book, The Problem of God: Answering a Skeptic’s Challenge to Christianity, comically captures the popular idea that science and religion are fundamentally opposed. He writes,

How often have we turned on the television and heard the host say, “Tonight we will be talking about faith versus science. Or first guest is a former University of Oxford professor, evolutionary biologist, and bestselling author. He believes that science, not faith, holds the answers to all questions. On the other side of the aisle we have Joe Smith, who will speak for the legitimacy of faith and Christianity. Joe home schools his kids, thinks Oprah is the Antichrist, and lives in a swamp.[2]

This is the common myth: science and faith, like oil and water, simply don’t mix. Science is based on cold, hard fact, while faith is based on hopeful fantasy. Sadly, this idea permeates the church when we don’t offer a forum for questions to be asked and meaningful answers sought. Instead, and too often, we offer one answer, “the Bible tells me so,” and without realizing it we communicate to our youth and young adults that there is no place for questions or doubt within the church. When we fail to engage in meaningful conversations about science and faith, we miss an opportunity to use doubt as a moment for growth. Instead, we fear doubt and pretend it doesn’t exist or that it can be explained away with simple answers. In the process, we alienate those who are asking the tough questions and expecting meaningful answers.

What is Doubt?

Doubt is a feeling of uncertainty or lack of conviction. Interestingly, older definitions also include the word fear. I want to suggest that doubt is a problem in the church today, not because it necessarily leads to disbelief, a lack of faith, or a turning away from the church, but rather because we’re raising up a generation that doesn’t know what to do with its doubt. The church, I believe, has wrongly associated doubt with disbelief; thinking it is one step on the necessary path to atheism, or worse, leaving the church. In this sense, doubt has become something to avoid and fear. If, on the other hand, we were to embrace doubt, would we rather see an increase and flourishing of faith? The science and religion discussion, I think, opens up a conversation around a more fundamental issue in the church, “How do we deal with our doubt?” And more to the point of this post, “How do we encourage our youth to express and explore their doubt?”

When we fail to engage in meaningful conversations about science and faith, we miss an opportunity to use doubt as a moment for growth.

Doubt, rightly understood, can be a church term—a theological term that helps us understand God, the world, and our unique place inside of creation. Doubt helps foster faith, but only if it is engaged. When the twelve-year-old, or anyone for that matter, asks the question, “What about the dinosaurs,” the youth leader is faced with their own question, “Do I lean in and embrace the potential for doubt or do I shy away in fear of doubt?” When we engage doubt we create the environment for our youth and young adults to sharpen their faith. Doubt acts like a catalyst for greater faith to grow. If, on the other hand, we fear doubt, we create an environment where it is unsafe to ask questions and where we hinder the growth of faith. So, there really are two kinds of doubt; good doubt and bad doubt. Good doubt is used to foster faith and it arises when doubt is engaged. Bad doubt, on the other hand, is a doubt that is left largely unaddressed and unengaged.

The problem as I see it is that we don’t give ample space for our children, youth and young adults to ask meaningful scientific questions about reality. In doing so we inadvertently maintain their child-like faith with childish answers. When we avoid these questions in the church, people looks to find answers elsewhere. They often turn to science for answers to their questions about life and death. Ask any teenager what books they’re reading or podcasts they’re listening to and more often than not it will be a science based program.[3] One of the main reasons this happens is because by its very nature, science is a process of asking questions and seeking answers. It is safe to ask questions of science. What we need to seriously reflect on is whether it is safe to ask those same questions of faith.

So the burden largely falls on the church to develop strategies for engaging the questions, doubts, and scientific interests of its children, youth, and young adults. One such strategy might be reclaimed from science itself, the scientific method, which is founded on the first step of asking meaningful questions.

The Scientific Method

The scientific method is the process by which scientific experiment is carried out. It involves formulating questions based on observations, making hypothesis, deriving predictions for logical consequences, and carrying out experiments to prove or refute the original hypothesis. 1. Begin with a question: “Why is the sky blue?” 2. Develop a hypothesis: Because light refracts through gaseous particles in the atmosphere. 3. Develop an experiment: Shine light through a solution of water and milk demonstrating that the blue light is scattered further than the other colors within the light spectrum making it visible.

My rudimentary (at best) scientific knowledge aside, what is apparent in the scientific experiment is a deep rooted hunger for knowledge and understanding. What I want to suggest is that it is that very spirit that we need to reclaim within the church today. In a sense, we need to reclaim the scientific method within the church; a fearlessness to address questions that might raise doubts about the things we believe.

A Potential Starting Point

As we continue to do faithful  ministry in the local church, we need to reclaim the spirit of the scientific method and ask bold questions. As pastors and leaders we need to be the first to admit that we don’t have all the answers and that the Bible doesn’t contain every single answer to every single scientific question that can be raised. Humility, I believe, is the first step in embracing a culture within the church where there can be open and honest conversation about doubt, science and faith. Humility deescalates and disarms conflict, largely before it has even begun. Humility is also the very spirit that allows us to ask questions, for by asking questions we admit that there are things we do not yet know. When we address doubt from a place of humility we convey that it is safe to have meaningful discussion without a fear of judgement.

In the ministry I lead, one of our values is “No question is off limits.” It doesn’t mean we’ll answer all of the questions that come our way, or that we need to know the answers to every single question that can be asked. It does mean that we work hard to create a culture that embraces questions and isn’t afraid of searching for answers. If we are to steward the faith of the next generation well, we need to embrace dialogue between science and religion. We need to create cultures and environments where no question is off limits. We need to lean into doubt and recognize it as a crucial part of Christian formation.

Here are five things you can do right now to create environments for youth and young adults to ask questions, explore doubt, and foster faith.

5 Things You Can Do Right Now

1. Commit to the hard and sometimes awkward conversations

When we commit to the awkward conversation and awkward places in ministry, we do justice to people’s doubt and honor their process of learning and engaging with God.

2. Practice humility

Humility, I believe, is the best place from which to have awkward conversations. Acknowledging that it’s okay to struggle with doubt and okay to ask difficult questions is the starting point for dialogue.

3. No questions are off limits

We can communicate in many different ways that certain questions are off limits; explicitly and implicitly. One of the things I’m convinced of more and more is that youth and children especially need to know what is on the table and what is off the table. They need consistency. We need to affirm and reaffirm that there are no questions we won’t address and that every question is an opportunity for growth — both for the leader and the youth.

4. Pastor people through their doubt

Doubt is a part of a developing spiritual life. Pastoring people through their doubt well necessarily means leaning into doubt and embracing it rather than fearfully avoiding topics that might create or address doubt. The best practice is to approach it as a non-anxious presence, ready and willing to have meaningful discussion around issues of faith, science, and doubt.

5. Invite your parents to do the same

Again, we want to communicate a consistent message that doubt is okay and the church is a safe place to ask questions. Inviting the parents of our youth and children into the same awkward conversations gives consistency to that message. It is important to continually invite parents into the faith development of their children and youth. So equip your parents to sit well inside of the tensions that arise out of meaningful questions. They’ll be glad you did.

[1] Brian J. Walsh, J. Richard Middleton, Transforming Vision 35

[2] Mark Clark, The Problem of God: Answering a Skeptics Challenge to Christianity

[3] If you look at the top 10 most downloaded podcasts the list continues to include shows like “Stuff You Should Know,” and “RadioLab” which include conversations surrounding science and the meaning of life.

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: Grant Vissers

Grant Vissers is a husband and pastor at St. Paul’s Leaskdale North of Toronto. Growing up he wanted to be anything but a pastor. Really, anything. After graduating high school he finally accepted that he was being called into ministry.

Along the way Grant worked at camp for seven years and as a worship pastor for two in Montreal, Canada. In 2014, he graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary with his Master of Divinity degree and stepped back into ministry, but not before getting married in July 2014.

He loves Jesus and believe that even if you’ve given up on the church, God hasn’t given up on you.

 

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