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. This is the first of a three part series.
In high school I was on the track and field team, throwing shot put and discus. Most of us throwers got to the track early and just hung out waiting for our coach before practice. As a bunch of bored high school throwers, our conversations were rarely substantive. But one day, the conversation reached a little deeper level.
One of the guys on the team, a freshman, was an atheist. I was a Christian. And not just any Christian—I was the Christian club president, a leader in my youth group, and an aspiring pastor looking forward to going to Christian college. You can probably guess where this is heading. We found ourselves in a little debate. You could say it became an argument (at the time, I would’ve I called it “witnessing”). Our debate ranged from the historicity of the apostle Paul, to the scientific plausibility of the resurrection, to the “intelligently designed” creation of the world. My teammate (my opponent in this debate), raised some big challenges, but I’d read my Josh McDowell, so I had an answer for everything! Every challenge my atheist teammate brought to the table, I met with unbridled confidence (the best confidence that ignorance can buy). This is how I had been taught to engage in these conversations.
Winning!? Is that what was going on? Is that what we should call it when someone can answer every question? Is that the win?
My teammate tried to refute the bodily resurrection of Christ, claiming its scientific implausibility and bringing up other possible rational explanations for the historical data, and I quickly shut him down—“if you’re willing to believe these outlandish explanations, why can’t you believe the one that says God did it?” He brought up evolution and I shut him down by giving him some odds (Lord knows where I got them)—“life springing up randomly from lifeless material is as likely as putting 1,000 monkeys in a room of computers and having them invent Microsoft” (I still wonder where I heard that one).
As the conversation went on, another member of our team showed up. Behind the sound of my arrogant rambling, I heard him ask a bystander, “What are they talking about?”
“They’re arguing about God… and Wes is winning.”
This has stuck with me ever since—“…Wes is winning”—and even at the time it struck me as problematic. Winning!? Is that what was going on? Is that what we should call it when someone can answer every question? Is that the win?
I would like to suggest that having the answer to every question is not, in fact, the win, but the problem. We, as Christians, should be concerned when we find ourselves too confident and too quick to respond to every question. We believe, after all, in a transcendent God—a God of mystery who runs deeper than any of our rational and immanent explanations. By “immanent,” here, I am talking about the world of material objects—things we can “know” according to rules and laws. The immanent is the side of reality that can be verified, falsified, and generalized. However, reality includes not only immanence but also transcendence—that part of reality that doesn’t consist of material objects and rules of verifiability. Natural sciences that take their bearings only from what can be verified and/or falsified in the physical world, cannot speak fully of reality. But when it comes to challenges and questions from science and rationality, we are far too eager to offer scientific and rational explanations. Confronted with immanent questions, we offer immanent answers.
When we try to respond to these immanent questions by offering proofs for the existence of God, then transcendence—that which is beyond neat explanation and eludes the categories of “proof”– is excluded from the conversation. Indeed we conflate the transcendent—we conflate God—into the immanence of what human beings know and construct, and in doing so, we cast God in our image. This is exactly what was happening in my conversation with my teammate by the shot put ring. My teammate had immanent challenges—“prove it!”—and I had immanent answers—“here’s some odds and statistics that prove the resurrection happened!” As I saw it, he’d taken God out and I was simply going to put God back in. But the truth is, I wasn’t just facing the absence of God, I was facing a whole matrix of epistemic obstacles to the very thought of God—a matrix of beliefs (not just unbelief) and ways of seeing the world from which I myself was not exempt but to which I was blind. I was facing a way of thinking—a way we’re all prone to think, really—that univocally associates the “real” with the immanent. By indulging immanent concerns without any transcendent response, I was not “winning” anything. I was, in fact, reifying the very structure of knowledge that gives rise to the contestability of faith in God in the first place. Though youth ministry taught me to defend God’s existence, in reality, I wasn’t faced with the immanent problem of the existence of God, I was faced with the transcendent problem of meaning.
So what is the real win? Even though I “won” the argument with my teammate, he remained an atheist and I remained arrogantly protected from his doubts and concerns. We talked a whole lot about God, but nothing in our debate was open to an encounter with God. How did we get to this place? How did God get excluded from the conversation about God? And how can youth ministry find its way back to God in its conversation about God?
Wes Ellis is a Member in Discernment in the United Church of Christ and an M.Div. student at Princeton Theological Seminary. He has served in youth ministry and adult Christian education in UCC, UMC, and PCUSA settings, as well as evangelical ministry settings. He is passionate about theology and youth ministry and is convinced that the two belong to each other.