Christian theology can be described as a conversation through the centuries about God. Unfortunately, this conversation has too often has been framed in an “either/or” argument: Is Jesus human or divine? Is God transcendent or immanent? Is the Bible or evolution an accurate description of creation? This unfortunate “either/or” dialectic is now facing young Christians who ask: “Should I believe in God or science?”
“Do you think that your deep questioning is your honest attempt to seek and discover truth? And do you believe that God is ultimate truth? If these are both true, then won’t all your questions ultimately lead you back to the truth of God?”
Pew Research indicates that overall 40% of Americans do not believe in evolution and nearly 50% disagree that climate change has been driven mostly by human activity. These Americans also believe that there is no scientific evidence for global warming. The data from religious denominations shows these are particularly contentious issues. Pew research reveals:
Evangelical Protestants are among the most likely to reject evolution. According to the Religious Landscape Study, a solid majority (57%) of evangelicals say humans and other living things have always existed in their present form…By contrast, much smaller minorities of mainline Protestants (30%), Catholics (29%), Jews (16%) and the religiously unaffiliated (15%) share this view.1
These data suggest that Americans have very different ideas about who or what counts as authorities for truth. Authorities may range from Fox News to the scientific community epitomized by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This debate follows political lines where even agreement upon fact is often difficult to achieve. Unfortunately, religion has been at the center of this epistemological debate for centuries as scientific knowing is pitted against theological knowing within an “either/or” framework.
However, the history and wisdom of the Christian tradition shows that theological arguments often move from “either/or” to “both/and.” For example, the Christian tradition has come to agreement that Jesus is both human and divine. It has also come to agreement that God is both transcendent and immanent. How might those ministering to young people reframe the debate on God and science to recognize that truth comes from both science and religion?
Warning: If you, as a youth ministry leader, are solidly in the either/or camp on the issue of God and science, then this article is probably not for you. But if you already are in the both/and camp or are open to consider how you might inculcate the young Church with this perspective, then read on. This reflection seeks to help youth ministry leaders think about how they might help young people move from the dialectic of either God or science to one that includes both God and science.
Last summer at the Youth in Theology and Ministry (YTM) Summer Institute at Saint John’s University (Minnesota) 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?”
My first internal reaction to Maura Kate was, “This is a great question!” Here was a young women of faith who did not want to lose her faith, but who was also committed to asking deep questions raised by science. I thought, “How beautiful it is to see such deep faith in a young person.” Faith was clearly important to her. This faith included a keen intellectual curiosity that raised challenging questions. I thought that perhaps Maura Kate was caught in the “either/or” dialectic of God or science. It seemed to me that she was afraid she needed to choose either God or science.
My response to Maura Kate centered on three questions: “Do you think that your deep questioning is your honest attempt to seek and discover truth? And do you believe that God is ultimate truth? If these are both true, then won’t all your questions ultimately lead you back to the truth of God?”
To my surprise, a week later, during our final evaluation process of the YTM Summer Institute, Maura Kate retold this conversation to the entire community and stated how incredibly helpful it was to her to realize that questioning could actually lead her to a deeper faith. Maura Kate was transitioning from thinking she had to choose between faith and science to a new understanding that she could find truth in both science and theology.
Moving from “Either/Or” to “Both/And”
As I reflect back on this micro-story, I realize that this conversation with Maura Kate would not have occurred a few years earlier at our YTM program. In 2011, the YTM staff reviewed our curriculum which included these basic elements: morning talks by theologians and theology classes, afternoon community service, and evening sessions on Christian prayer practices.
We realized that our curriculum did not include space for engaging youth in thinking or discussing theology and science. So we made two curricular changes. We added a morning theology course on the Bible and Science (which became our most popular course) and we used the Catholic Social Teaching, Care for Creation, as an overall summer institute theme every other year. This curricular theme naturally brought theology and science into conversation it explored the biblical notions of stewardship and care for creation along with the science associated with climate change.
The evaluation data from the seventeen years of the YTM Summer Institute, shows the years focused on “Care of Creation and Christian Discipleship” were assessed most highly by the youth: 75% of the youth rated the theology component of YTM as “excellent overall,” compared to the average of 65% for the seventeen summers. Also, the overall assessment of the entire YTM experience improved during these years from an average of 88% to 94% “excellent.” These data suggest that engaging youth in thinking about theology and science positively impacts young people. It works! 2
These curricular changes helped YTM engage youth in thinking about both theology and science. The evaluation data suggests that young people are receptive to these changes. Maura Kate’s story illustrates our second step. The step of helping young people move from a position of “either/or” to “both/and.” In my next post, I share the specific strategies beyond these curricular changes that the YTM program utilized to help young people realize they are part of a “both/and” Christian community.
1. Pew Research Center, 2015 Religious Landscape Study, Found on the web at: http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/
2. To learn more about the YTM curriculum and the evaluation data we have been collecting for seventeen years see my recently publication, Youth Ministry, 2016, The Liturgical Press: Collegeville, Minnesota.
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.