by Kevin Alton
“It bothers me that somewhere on the other side of the world there’s a kid pretty much just like me that grew up believing something completely different about God just because of where he was born and who raised him in whatever religion. It bothers me more that I’m pretty sure if I was born there in his family I’d believe what he believes there just as firmly as what I believe here. And for some reason I’m just supposed to pretend I’m right and forget that kid exists.”
I was leading a program at a local church that I devised to put youth in honest conversation with parents. The trick to good, honest conversation between youth and parents is, as it turns out, to put them in different rooms and not let them talk to each other. Each room collaborates to create three questions for the other group; the questions cross the hall and are answered, also collaboratively. Eventually the two groups do come back together for a closing discussion about the answers. On this particular night, a familiar question surfaces from the parents to the youth: “What are the things that shake your faith?”
Typically when this question arises during these parent/teen conversations, the closing discussion reveals an unasked follow-up. If the parents ask, “What shakes your faith?” they for the most part also want to know, “and how can we fix that?” The youth quoted above didn’t necessarily want that tension resolved—he just wanted his spiritual community to hold it in tension with him, and not conveniently pretend it doesn’t exist.
But the church—and youth ministry in particular—does an awful lot of such pretending. Youth ministry has conditioned youth to expect the tensions they encounter in their faith to largely be ignored at church. Difficult conversations are not easily had and are often relegated to a once a year program, usually with a guest speaker. Everybody holds their breath the whole time and then more or less agrees not to talk about that again for at least 12 months. The resulting environment is one of odd “us vs. ___” spirituality, where faith falsely appears to be a fragile thing that must be protected from banging into anything real. This faith insists on being the view, rather than being the lens through which one views the world.
Easily the most damaging “us vs. ___” scenario is the perceived impasse between science and faith. In this conflict, it is somehow presumed that the natural world is opposed to any transcendent reality, instead of being an integral part of rubbing existential elbows with transcendence. The argument usually boils down to a suggestion that science explains things one way while faith explains them another.
There’s a misappropriation of terms here that has youth ministry showing up to this conversation with the wrong tools for the job. For starters, faith isn’t for explaining anything. Faith—a deeply held belief for which there is no proof—isn’t engaged until you can’t explain something. It’s an uncomfortable truth that at the center of our Christian belief system lies a huge wildcard—the mystery of God. The very nature of transcendence is that it’s just beyond our understanding or experience. Sure, it’s more palatable to iron out all the wrinkles we can and try to nail it down in ways that make sense to us. But when we try to lock up faith as fact, we’ve overstepped its definition.
Another major obstacle in this conversation is the perception that science is out to disprove transcendence. Wrong. Science, by definition, is the systematic study of the physical and natural world. Transcendence, by definition, exists (or doesn’t) beyond the physical or natural realm. Science isn’t even giving transcendence the side-eye. It’s not observable. What would the point be?
The confusion is understandable. As science continues it’s inexorable slow reveal of all that can be known, there will doubtlessly continue to be things that people held as truths in faith that are overthrown. The earth is no longer flat. The universe no longer revolves around us. Somewhere in there wherever everyone thought the afterlife took place needed a new mailing address. But these revelations shouldn’t bother us. Knowing new things in or about the natural world doesn’t chip away at transcendence. It’s totally OK to be wrong about something before you learn the truth. Faith is not the opposite of science—numbness is. Science engages our senses and reason. To stand opposed to science is to intentionally numb reason. You can trust in Jesus all you want that it’s sunny and 70° outside, but refusing to look out the window doesn’t make it so if it’s raining and 38°. Taking such a stance isn’t an exercise of faith; it’s an exercise of intentional ignorance. That kind of ignorance-mislabeled-faith is the only kind of faith threatened by science.
Obviously the subject is more complicated than that. Where it gets especially sticky is that the transcendent isn’t simply sitting off to the side, waiting for us to have faith in it, just out of arm’s reach of science. Our natural world and all that we can know of it and ourselves is infused with transcendence. It’s a bit like getting campfire smoke in your jeans. It’s the hint of mocha in your fudge. It’s the delight and awe and magnificence swirling through your existence. Faith is what allows us to hunt the divine fox, as Robert Farrar Capon would put it. Faith delights in chasing the transcendent just as much as science does in pursuing knowledge.
Today’s youth are aware of the difference, even if they can’t fully speak into it. They’re more than aware that one can live and die and even thrive without belief in God. They’re not threatened by knowledge. They’re willing to lean in to the conversation between the natural world and the transcendent, but they’re confused by a church that holds science at arms length instead of incorporating it foundationally into how we live in the natural world as people of faith.
Christian youth ministry can no longer pretend the kid on the other side of the world doesn’t exist. If we reorient youth ministry with science in the conversation—rather than maintaining a false posture of opposition—we’ll give youth the opportunity to deepen the vitality of their experience of transcendence through a better understanding of the natural world. After all, science only seeks answers for the sheer joy of unlocking the next set of questions! If we leave youth ministry as it is, these same youth will find themselves paradoxically feeling that their faith has no place in the natural world. The unnatural divide between faith and science suggests they can only pursue their faith inside of the church—handing all of creation over to science!
Fear of science has youth ministry conveying a deeply impoverished understanding of God. Our youth are unafraid. We can be more like them. It’s time for youth ministry to receive the kingdom of God like a child.
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
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Flora