Monday, March 24, 2014

Discussing Taboo Topics in Church (Guest Post)

It is terribly important for congregations to cultivate a substantive engagement with religion and science.  Throughout history and for various reasons, a line has been drawn between the disciplines of science and faith keeping them from engaging constructively.  This has barred these two disciplines from mutually shaping and encouraging each other.  Because of this academic fissure, both disciplines seemingly threaten each other giving the false impression that these areas of study are incompatible.  Faith and science need not be engaged polemically, but rather can, and should, be engaged charitably as they learn from each other in a mutually beneficial manner.  This destructive faith-versus-science worldview gives evidence of a deeper, more ubiquitous problem: the proclivity of western minds to compartmentalize various aspects of life resulting in the lack of integration of deeper human existence.  By unmasking the faith-science dichotomy, individuals, academic communities, and faith communities will step into a more expansive understanding of God, the world, and their place in it.  In turn, individuals and communities will become further characterized by integrity and autonomy as their worldviews are enriched, enhanced, and deepened.

My work with the Scientists in Congregations grant produced a series of adult education classes addressing the faith-science conversation as well as a large conference.  The “Faithful Science” weekly class included scientists of faith from the church and surrounding community.  Our conference, Faithful Science: Science and Theology in Conversation, was a capstone event from the weekly classes.  This symposium was open to the Spokane community consisting of two well-known thinkers engaged in the faith-science conversation.  Our first speaker was Dr. Darrel Falk, president of the BioLogos Forum.  Our second speaker was Dr. Jennifer Wiseman, director of the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion at the American Association for the Advancement of Science and who works with NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope program. 

Because of these efforts, Whitworth Church has been energized by the number of people flooding through the doors for the classes and conference.  Our congregation has moved into a place where these types of so-called “sensitive” and taboo topics can be discussed with reduced anxiety.  There are still some in our midst who believe one can only be either a faithful Christian or an atheistic scientist.  However, this is a smaller group in the midst of our large congregation which has a fairly broad theological spectrum.  Generally, however, this work has ignited the congregation to engage in the conversation and has largely discarded the fear and discomfort of asking potentially difficult worldview questions.  By exposing the false faith-science dichotomy, individuals within Whitworth Church are equipped to embrace a more expansive understanding of God, the world, and their place in it.

As a pastor, this work has given me a stronger credibility in the eyes of my congregation for the academic work I am currently engaged in.  It has also allowed me to be more involved in the faith-science conversation with individuals in our congregation who share this interest of mine and now are aware of it.  In this way, science professionals have become more open in our midst about their experiences of science and faith.  I have heard anecdotal comments from participants in our midst who metaphorically came out of the “science closet” essentially saying, “I am a scientists, but I didn’t know I could talk about this stuff here!”  Our church has become more of a place where serious academic engagement can be undertaken by truly thinking, intelligent Christians.

In addition, because of the highly publicized nature of the Faithful Science conference, our church has become somewhat higher profile in the community.  Whitworth Church is already associated with Whitworth University by name and location, but now the community recognizes the serious engagement people of faith can have with academia.  This work has broken down the secular assumptions regarding Christens as simplistic non-thinkers allowing those dubious of spirituality and faith to be more willing to engage in this conversation.

(Guest Post by Rev. Mark McIlraith, Ph.D.) 

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