From Suspicion to Curiosity: Pastors, Faith, and Science

Consider the varve. It’s basically a rock with layers, every layer representing the sediment of a year. A six-inch wedge of stone with roughly 2700 layers—a humble specimen of history and geology, but it brought together two historically estranged worldviews for conversation, learning, and growth.

Evangelical Christianity remains a powerful religious, cultural, and political movement across the country. The conversation about science and its discoveries, particularly within conservative faith communities, has been fraught. The estrangement between between religious and scientific communities has become deeply polarized.

Conservative pastors are placed in difficult positions with incredibly high stakes as spiritual leaders when science is the topic at hand: perhaps some congregants are curious about evolution, but even acknowledging the question puts the congregation’s leader at risk for others questioning his or her interpretation of scripture, and even his or her faith.

How can they speak constructively to a high school student who will go to college and learn what science says about the age of the earth, but also discuss these issues with the student’s very conservative grandparents?

Church leaders face the risk of alienating their congregation, losing their pastoral legitimacy, and risking their identity and community; there are few opportunities for curiosity, for scientific study, or safe conversation.

Pastors + Scientists = Understanding

Enter the BioLogos Foundation, which invites the church and the world to see the harmony between science and biblical faith. BioLogos partnered with Gordon College, led by biology professor Craig M. Story—himself a Christian—to offer the first “Pastors, Faith, and Science” course in the summer of 2014.

The one-week, intensive course sought to create a space for 20 pastors from across the country to learn from scientists, have permission to ask questions without jeopardizing their deepest convictions or putting them at risk of alienation from their spiritual communities.

Essential Partners was brought in to plan and facilitate the retreat at Gordon College to pay special attention to creating an atmosphere that promotes learning, inquiry, and open conversation with world-class scientists from the National Institute of Health, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and other institutions of higher learning.

EP practitioners John Sarrouf and Bob Stains approached the group with a clear understanding that the goal was not to convince pastors about particular scientific truths, but to provide insights into the scientific process and its findings.

In a depoliticized setting, scientists and clergy were able to talk to each other and explore new ways to understand one another more deeply. Pastors could become students, ask questions, and explore new ideas without the responsibility to a public position.

One of the first activities was examining the varve. The implications of that rock are significant for people who want to reconcile scripture with scientific findings. Another activity involved discussion of the mapping of the human genome, and explored how speciation might be understood in the context of the Genesis story.

Pastors paired up and talked about what excited them, what unsettled them, and which questions the new discoveries brought up for them as individual believers and as community leaders.

A Space of Trust and Discovery

Pastors found a space to discover the world in a new way, within a community of fellow learners and believers. In particular, they noted a growing confidence to support the spiritual and intellectual development of younger parishioners who are navigating questions about modern science.

No longer did scientific inquiry seem untouchable; rather, there was a very deep commitment on behalf of the pastors to continue learning, bridging these perceived differences, and approaching both science and with scripture with openness and curiosity.

If a growing portion of the United States population distrust science because it sees that enterprise as fundamentally in opposition to their identities, any benefits from such discoveries is jeopardized. Similarly, scientific discovery will fall on deaf ears if scientists don’t have the skills to communicate in ways that make space for people’s beliefs.

Said one participant, “I think one of the biggest mistakes we make in the world today, coming out of the enlightenment, is we have this idea that if we study enough, if we learn enough, we will answer all the questions…but it’s not the whole story.”

Gatherings like this illuminate the value of engaging across differences. Polarization deepens when we cling to positions without listening to or honoring other people, their multitude of experiences, and their nuanced set of beliefs.