Last summer at the Youth in Theology and Ministry (YTM) Summer Institute at Saint John’s University (Collegeville) Maura Kate, a rising high school senior, joined me as I was walking to lunch. She had just come from her “Bible and Science” course concerned about all the questions it raised for her. She said, “I’m afraid that if I keep asking these questions, I’ll lose my faith. What should I do?”
Dialogue about God and science ultimately fosters the formation of adult Christians who can proclaim boldly, “I believe in God and I believe my faith is informed by science.”
My response to Maura Kate (in my previous post) had been conditioned by five strategies we employ at YTM to engage youth in both theology and science. These strategies can help youth move from an either/or to a both/and understanding of theology and science.
Five Strategies for Engaging Youth in Theology and Science:
1. Identify the theological foundations for your youth ministry.
The Youth in Theology and Ministry program is one of more than 130 Lilly Endowment initiated theological programs for high school youth seeking to foster excitement for theological learning and Christian leadership for Church and society.1 A few years ago directors of these programs were asked by the Lilly Endowment to identify the theological foundations for their youth ministry programming.
One beautiful result of this exercise was having to move our theological foundations from being implicit to explicit. We established four foundational theological principles for our YTM program:
– Holy Mystery: This is basically the theology of God’s transcendence. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9). Holy mystery opens up space for dialogue, searching, questioning, and appropriation.
– Conversion: This theological foundation follows Bernard Lonergan’s theology of conversion as a shift away from what is unauthentic in life to new ways of living in the world in the radical love of Jesus Christ. Lonergan writes that intellectual conversion opens the horizon of one’s interests by asking new questions. In other words, new questions can be part of the ongoing conversion process into the radical love of Jesus Christ.
– Incarnation: God takes on human flesh in Jesus Christ and the community of faith itself is incarnated as this living body of Christ. This means we, the body of Christ, take on the responsibility of being the hands of feet of Christ for the world. This becomes particularly important in the Catholic Social Teaching on care of creation as the Church is challenged to act as stewards of creation.
– Catholic Social Teaching: The dignity of the human person is the foundation for all Christian morality. The seven themes of Catholic Social Teaching explain a moral template for Christian discipleship.2
These theological principles support a pedagogy of questioning and a pedagogy for social action. They provide youth space and permission to ask questions, and we believe their questions will lead them to ownership of their own adult faith.
However, we are sensitive to the critique that questions and deconstruction of faith risks leading young people out of the church. To address this critique, YTM surrounds these young people with adult Christian disciples who witness a vibrant faith. This provides a safety net for youth as they walk the tightrope of risky questions about faith. These adults with deep faith model an openness to questions while also witnessing that there is always more to learn about God.
Reflection Question: What are the foundational theological principles of your youth ministry and to what extent do these principles encourage youth to raise questions?
2. Assess how often your youth ministry curriculum includes conversation about science.
Five years ago, when we assessed the YTM curriculum, we were surprised to discover that we spent virtually no time during the two-week summer institute in explicit conversation about God and science.
In order to meet this need, we started offering a theology course titled, “The Bible and Science.” This turned out to be our most popular course. We also decided that every other year of the summer institute would focus on the Catholic Social Teaching theme “Care for Creation.” This theme brought the curriculum into conversation about global warming and the impact of humans on the environment.
Reflection Question: How much time does your curriculum spend engaging youth is conversation about God and science?
3. Teach youth basic biblical interpretation skills.
We have discovered that youth find it very helpful to learn about literary forms used in interpreting Scripture. The possibility of finding biblical truth in a variety of literary forms helps them understand that Scripture can be the authentic Word of God, without having to believe every word is literally or historically true.
For example, we engage youth in dialogue about the two Genesis creation accounts, their literary forms, and the truths/doctrines that flow from these accounts. Because Catholic teaching finds no inherent difficulty in accepting the science of evolution and the doctrines flowing from Genesis, we can then engage them in conversation about the relationship of these doctrines to the theory of evolution. As Pope Francis stated in a recent speech: “…theories of evolution and the Big Bang are not inconsistent with biblical teaching.”3
Reflection Question: To what extent are you teaching youth biblical interpretation skills?
4.Use metaphors from science in teaching about God.
Over the last few years we have made a conscious effort to use scientific metaphors when teaching about God. For instance, when I teach the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, I first explain the Trinity in terms of the one God being a community of love between the Father, Son, and Spirit. This relationship of love is so powerful that it draws all things to it—St. Augustine illustrated this well when he said in his Confessions, “Our hearts are restless, until they rest in you Oh Lord.”
I then explain how this community of love is creative. All creation springs from this loving communion and is endowed with a mission to bring all creation back into this loving communion. These two main concepts I teach about the Trinity—the community of love and the mission of love—are called communio and missio.
After discussing communio and missio, we look at a picture of a black hole and discuss what we know about this phenomenon. They typically know that a black hole is an object in space with gravity so dense that it draws all things into it, including light. I encourage youth to think of God this way. God has such a gravitational pull that God is always seeking to draw us into God’s love.
Some astrophysicists theorize that stars are born out of the other end of the black hole (as in NASA’s video illustration of this phenomenon). Like the created stars, God entrusts us with God’s mission to illuminate the world with love and light. This metaphor of the Trinity has helped many of the young people better understand the complicated nature of trinitarian relationships, as well as pointing to science as a source for explanation.
Reflection Question: How might you incorporate metaphors from scientific phenomenon into your teaching, preaching, and ministry with youth?
5. Use insights from faith development theory to develop pedagogies for engaging youth in conversations about God and science.
James Fowler’s faith development theory helped me think about effective pedagogies of engaging youth in conversations about God and science. This is particularly true of his conceptualization of stages two and three.4
Stage 2: Mythic-Literal Faith is the stage in which the person begins to take on for him- or herself the stories, beliefs, and observances that symbolize belonging to his or her community. Beliefs are appropriated with literal interpretations, as are moral rules and attitudes. Symbols are taken as one-dimensional and literal in meaning.
Stage 3: Synthetic-Conventional Faith structures the ultimate environment in interpersonal terms. Its images of unifying value and power derive from the extension of qualities experienced in personal relationships. It is a “conformist” stage in the sense that it is acutely tuned to the expectations and judgments of significant others and as yet does not have a sure enough grasp on its own identity and autonomous judgment to construct and maintain an independent perspective.
There are important insights that flow from this faith development theory. Fowler suggests the transition from stage 2 to stage 3 can begin by engaging youth in conflicting stories with conflicting authorities. Juxtaposing one authority against another can lead to moving beyond literal interpretation. One pedagogically sound way of facilitating this transition is mentioned above in the example of encouraging conversation (and even debate) about both Genesis stories of creation as well as evolutionary theory. While Fowler suggests that this conflict of authorities can be disconcerting at times for young people, such conversations can lead them to move beyond a literal interpretation of Scripture.
Those in stage 3 are in a “conformist” stage having a faith that is finely tuned to the expectations and judgments of significant others. If those in their immediate faith group, or “tribe,” approach God and science in an “either/or” framework, then it is likely that youth will adopt this perspective as well. However, if young people are exposed to a tribe that takes the “both/and” perspective, then it is more likely youth will adopt this approach.
Fowler’s theory helps here, suggesting that the ability to grow fully into a “both/and” perspective on faith is a life-long process. Fowler’s faith development theory would likely argue that this “both/and” faith framework is not fully embraced for most people until mid-life. The challenge for those who minister with young people is recognizing the tribal conformist nature within the “either/or” or “both/and” perspective by youth. The benefit of the “both/and” perspective is that it sets young people on a trajectory towards adult faith.
We Need Both
In one sense, this reflection is simply repeating the progressive Protestant agenda that has evolved over the last 500 years and the progressive Catholic agenda from the last 50 years. One might also argue that this “pedagogy of questioning” is what is leading young people away from the Church and away from God in America today.
However, I reject this assessment. Helping young people transition from an either God or science framework to one that includes truth from both God and science is an essential part of faith maturation. Encouraging young people to raise and explore questions about faith and science can be formational for young people. Dialogue about God and science ultimately fosters the formation of adult Christians who can proclaim boldly, “I believe in God and I believe my faith is informed by science.” Indeed, the only risk in allowing faith and science to intersect in your youth group is for God’s truth—proclaimed by both faith and science—to be known better.
What more could the Maura Kate’s of the world ask for?
1. More information about these programs can be found at www.youththeology.org and http://fteleaders.org/networks/theological-programs-for-high-school-youth
2. Seven themes of Catholic Social Teaching, USCCB Website: http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/catholic-social-teaching/seven-themes-of-catholic-social-teaching.cfm
3. Patrick Cusworth, “Pope Francis’s comments on the Big Bang are not revolutionary. Catholic Teaching has long professed the likelihood of human evolution,” Catholic Herald Comments and Blogs, October 31, 2014, Found on the web: http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/commentandblogs/2014/10/31/pope-franciss-comments-on-the-big-bang-are-not-revolutionary-catholic-teaching-has-long-professed-the-likelihood-of-human-evolution/.
4. See Fowler, James W. Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981 and Conn, Joann Wolski. Women’s Spirituality: Resources for Christian Development. New York: Paulist Press, 1986, 226–232.
Jeffrey Kaster has served as the Director of the Youth in Theology and Ministry program at Saint John’s School of Theology and Seminary in Collegeville, Minnesota since 2000 and the Coordinator of the Lilly Youth Theology Network since 2013. He teaches practical theology courses at Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict in Christian education and youth ministry. Prior to his work at St. John’s, Jeff served as the St. Cloud Diocesan Youth Consultant for ten years and as a parish youth minister for twelve years. Jeff’s publication, Youth Ministry, Revised Edition (2016) was published by the Liturgical Press.