From Suspicion to Curiosity: Pastors, Faith and Science

The Challenge

Consider the varve. It’s basically a rock with layers, every layer representing the sediment of a year. A six-inch wedge of stone with roughly 2700 layers – a humble specimen of history and geology, but it brought together two historically estranged worldviews for conversation, learning, and growth. As evangelical Christianity remains a powerful religious, cultural and political movement across the country, the conversation about science and its discoveries, particularly within conservative faith communities, has been fraught. The fear and estrangement between between religious and scientific communities has always been present; in today’s climate, it has become needlessly polarizing.

Conservative pastors are placed in difficult positions with incredibly high stakes as spiritual leaders when science is the topic at hand: perhaps some congregants are curious about evolution, but even acknowledging the question puts the congregation’s leader at risk for others questioning his or her interpretation of scripture, and even his or her faith.

How can they speak constructively to a high school student who will go to college and learn what science says about the age of the earth, but also discuss these issues with the student’s very conservative grandparents?

Church leaders face the risk of alienating their congregation, losing their pastoral legitimacy, and risking their identity and community; there are few opportunities for curiosity, for scientific study, or safe conversation.

The Action

Enter the BioLogos Foundation, which invites the church and the world to see the harmony between science and biblical faith. BioLogos partnered with Gordon College, led by biology professor Craig M. Story – himself a Christian - to offer the first “Pastors, Faith, and Science” course in the summer of 2014. The one-week, intensive course sought to create a space for 20 pastors from across the country to learn from scientists, have permission to ask questions without jeopardizing their deepest convictions or putting them at risk of alienation from their spiritual communities. Public Conversations Project was brought in to plan and facilitate the retreat at Gordon College to pay special attention to creating an atmosphere that promotes learning, inquiry, and open conversation with world-class scientists from the National Institute of Health, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and other institutions of higher learning.

Public Conversations Project’s practitioners John Sarrouf and Bob Stains approached the group with a clear understanding that the project’s goal was not to convince pastors about particular scientific truths, but to provide insights into the scientific process and its findings. In a depoliticized setting, scientists and clergy were able to talk to each other and explore new ways to understand one another more deeply. Pastors could become students, ask questions, and explore new ideas without the responsibility to a public position.

One of the first activities, for instance, was examining the varve, a specimen of rock with layers that show that our earth was millions of years in the making. The implications of that single rock are quite significant for people who struggle to reconcile early scripture with these scientific findings. Another scientist discussed the mapping of the human genome, and explored how speciation might be understood in the context of the Genesis story of Adam and Eve. Pastors paired up and talked about what excited them, what unsettled them, and which questions the new discoveries brought up for them as individual believers and as community leaders.

The Shift

Pastors found a space to discover the world in a new way, amongst a community of fellow learners and believers. In particular, they named a growing confidence to support the spiritual and intellectual development of younger parishioners navigating questions about modern science. No longer did scientific inquiry seem untouchable; rather, there was a very deep commitment on behalf of the pastors to continue learning, bridging these perceived differences, and approaching both science and with scripture with openness and curiosity. The conversation has started, but its continuation is critical, as highlighted in a recent feature about the project by WGBH.

If a growing part of our country distrusts the scientific enterprise because it sees that enterprise as fundamentally in opposition to the identity of believers, any benefits from such discoveries is jeopardized and rendered obsolete. Similarly, scientific discovery will fall on increasingly deaf ears if scientists don’t communicate in ways that make space for people’s beliefs, and immediately assume a similar worldview.

Said one participant, “I think one of the biggest mistakes we make in the world today, coming out of the enlightenment, is we have this idea that if we study enough, if we learn enough, we will answer all the questions…but it’s not the whole story.”

The impact of dialogue is often hard to quantify, but it’s gatherings like this one that illuminate the value of engaging across differences. Polarization deepens while clinging to position without hearing or honoring people, their multitude of experiences, and their nuanced set of beliefs. Conversations like the ones at Gordon need to be more broadly possible, and can be, if we are willing to abandon judgment and nurture curiosity.

Practitioner perspective

My hope is that every church hall in the country becomes a safe enough space to learn more about science and what it offers to our understanding of the world.

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One of the best conversations I had this year was at a course for pastors on Science and Faith funded by BioLogos and hosted by Gordon College. Here safe space was created for pastors and church leaders to wrestle with topics like evolution which are all too often “off limits” or believed to be antagonistic to the faith. I had the honor of sharing my own work on the science of sex difference and was met with thoughtful engagement as we wrestled together with biology, neuroscience, and Biblical interpretation.

There is a need not only for safe space within our churches but for our church leaders who often feel alone, or who may feel their job could be at risk if they engage in controversial conversations. How are they to make safe spaces in their own congregations for healthy dialogue if they rarely experience safe space to do the same? 

Megan DeFranza, Gordon College

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