“We need to get to a level where it gets personal or painful because that’s more where God is able to work.”
When you see how the Bible defines faith – “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1) – it’s easy to understand why scientists who are also Christians quickly run into issues reconciling their belief system with their work.
“Young scientists at a secular university can really struggle with what their faith means in a university context,” said Sarah Bodbyl Roels, a research associate and senior scientist at Michigan State University. “They struggle with whether to let others in their departments know that they’re Christians or have certain ideas, when the common perception is that religion has no place in science departments at secular universities.”
Others are able to harmonize their Christian and scientific beliefs, but find it difficult to know how to talk about science with fellow Christians who may strongly reject evolution or other beliefs that scientists consider fundamental.
So when Sarah heard about a group in Grand Rapids whose goal was to help Christians on both sides of this issue move past stubborn debate, she was immediately intrigued. She and her husband attended one of The Colossian Forum’s first sessions, and were impressed by how leaders framed conflict as an opportunity to grow in grace and love toward one another.
“I don’t think you can ever get everyone to agree. There are certain topics I know I will never agree with someone else on.
But The Colossian Forum has shown me that you can get people to love each other enough to be respectful of one another, and to see the other person’s point of view,” Sarah said.
“I’ve seen that happen many times now with The Colossian Forum, and also as I’ve started trying some of these listening and engagement techniques.”
She cites as an example a faith-science integration talk she gave at her church, River Terrace. Most of the time, when someone gives such a talk, they set themselves up as an expert. Instead, Sarah tried to reframe it as more of a personal story – here’s where I come from, here’s what contributed to the way I think now – and a community discussion instead of a one-way authoritative flow of information. She encouraged audience participation, asking people what they thought, what they were afraid of, and expressing some of her own fears.
“There were a few individuals in the crowd where I thought, ‘Oh boy, this isn’t going to go well because I know what they think, and they have very different opinions than I do,’” she said. “But those folks were so thoughtful and really contributed to the discussion instead of polarizing it like I had seen in the past.
“Setting up a framework of respectful discussion led to change.”
Encouraged by those positive experiences, Sarah is now planning to co-lead a Colossian Way workshop on origins with MSU campus pastor Brenda Kronemeijer-Heyink. Their plan is to have both academic and non-academic participants: people from River Terrace Church and graduate students from Campus Edge, a Christian organization at MSU.
Although Campus Edge includes grad students from all disciplines, the current makeup is composed heavily of scientists, many of whom struggle to know how to talk to creationists. Conversely, some of the River Terrace attendees find it hard to believe a Christian could be anything other than a creationist.
What will be challenging, Brenda said, is getting both groups to the point where they can be honest about why this topic bothers them so much. “’What are the issues I’m bringing to the table? Why is it so hard for me to have a conversation about this?’ We need to get to a level where it gets personal or painful because that’s more where God is able to work.”
Success will be getting participants to push through that tension and start trusting one another. “What will be interesting and challenging will be to say to people in the group, ‘Maybe there is some truth in this other view, and what have you been missing? Is there another way to look at this outside the framework you’re used to with the university? It doesn’t invalidate the truth you’ve come to conclude, but it does raise the question of whether there might be another way of looking at it,’” Brenda said.
“The hardest thing I’ve found is understanding that you have much more in common with this person you think of as ‘other’ than you think you do. Once you learn to talk to that person and find your commonality – that you’re really trying to protect the same thing – they no longer seem as alien.”
Sarah and Brenda are interested in learning how to get not just creationists and scientists to dialogue, but academics and non-academics. “We want to understand how to help those two groups of people understand each other,” Sarah said. “For instance, we know one technique is getting each group to realize what their trained sense of authority is.”
Academics and non-academics tend to have very different sources of information. While academics are trained to look to sources like peer-reviewed journals, non-academics tend to get information from people they know and trust.
“Once you start understanding your different frames of reference and why you think those authority sources are good, you can start to understand some of the belief systems you’ve formed,” Sarah said. “It all goes back to determining commonalities you have, and keeping those in mind as you interact.”
Regardless of how the The Colossian Way pilot goes, Sarah said she’ll never stop using the TCF techniques she’s learned. “That’s become part of how I talk to people now, and I hope that will be true of others who go through this workshop,” she said.
“It would be nice to have this catch on so much, we almost didn’t have to talk about it anymore because it just becomes the way we do things as Christians.”