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Vibrant Dance: Not Just Origins

The first plenary on Wednesday was by Deborah Haarsma from Calvin College, on “Not Just Origins:  Engaging Science in the Life of Your Congregation through Creation Care, Worship and Education.” It was designed to give the audience take home ideas for applying science to the various ministries of the local church—outreach, worship, and discipleship. As Haarsma pointed out, science and faith intersect on more than origins. As stewards of Creation, what we learn about it through science, illuminated by the practice of our faith inspired by the Spirit, should impact how we take care of the parts of the world with which we have influence.

Creation Care:
Many Biblical commands have a scientific component: care for the poor, sick, young, old (i.e. “least of these”), species extinction, deforestation/agricultural issues, pollution, sea level rise, natural evil, AIDS, global access to health care resources, cloning, etc.

Many Christians, when faced with this laundry list, ask, ‘what can the church do?’ The first answer is ‘not everything.’ However, every one of these issues is complex and neither end of the political spectrum has ‘the answer.’ Politics and media love sound-bite solutions, but the church uniquely understands that human issues are extremely complex, and should be equipped to bring a compassionate voice to minister to multiple parties.

Take deforestation/agriculture for instance. Third world farmers are trying to improve their standard of living and would like to do so quickly so they can enjoy the benefits we now take for granted. It is not reasonable, much less compassionate for us as the first world to dictate to them environmental policy for sustainability and biodiversity. Their justified response is that who are we to talk—we already raped our landscape, and can afford to go back and fix things. They are just trying do to more than survive. What the developed world needs to do is to come alongside with solutions to accomplish both purposes and get our hands dirty with them to help lift them up in a way that preserves the beauty and biodiversity, potentially helping them to capitalize on their unique biodiversity rather than just copying what works somewhere else.

The first step for us as believers is of course, is to pray. Second, get educated on an issue, really educated. Too often we shoot off our mouths on topics we have only a 30 second news bite understanding of things and we react. It is appropriate to respond rather than react. Start by reading 2-3 books on a particular topic that is on your heart. Prayerfully read from different perspectives to get a sense of the various issues involved and different takes on them, without neglecting those outside of Christendom.

A second step is to partner with ministries of denominational groups who address science issues. For most issues, there is already someone working as Christ’s hands there. Don’t start from scratch; help multiply what they are doing.

Remember, Creation Care is the application of stewardship-a response could result in changes in lifestyle, not just a collection of ideas. Don’t make it political. By reading even one competent book on a subject will make you more informed than pretty much everyone else, yet it is still only one book. Humility with a teachable spirit is key here, too.

Science and faith should not be primarily about controversy or apologetics. In fact, most Biblical references to the natural world are in the context of worship and understanding God’s character—the ‘sense of the divine’ we experience when we look at the natural world. Therefore, we should encourage Christians to enter all fields of science. As Kepler said, we get to “think God’s thoughts after Him.”

There some pitfalls Haarsma warned against. 1) Don’t make a sermon a science lesson. Instead, weave it into one’s preaching/teaching. Use science in illustrations. She gave the following example—when describing the Holy Spirit as breath, describe what happens in lungs when we breathe air. Also, nature is a revelation about God—i.e.-a supernova explosion as a demonstration of God’s power. We can use science to discuss loving the poor with appropriate technology. Focus on God. Use science to illustrate points.

Science stretches the imagination. Seeing the wonders of nature inspires worship. One site to use as a reference/for inspiration— She also recommended

Science itself speaks of nature in neutral language. Some scientists will use atheistic language, yet Christians will speak of nature as God’s creation. It helps to understand the vocabulary. Science and technology reveal parts of nature that we cannot detect with our unaided senses and illustrate God’s attributes even more dramatically. Haarsma offered the idea of using science illustration/terms in congregational prayer that worships God as Creator.

Ptifall #2: Scientific explanations do not replace God and conversely, do not worship the god-of-the-gaps—i.e.- praising God mainly for things that science can not explain. The danger here is that when a scientific explanation is found, faith is reduced/damaged. Instead, praise Him for all of Creation, both what science can and cannot explain currently.

Haarsma pointed to Psalm 104, which sees things occurring both ‘naturally’ and by the Hand of God, and what’s more, does so interchangeably. Above all, she begged repeatedly and emphatically, “Please, PLEASE, do not praise God for your scientific ignorance!” (Pitfall #3!)

Other ways to include science in congregational life include going on a nature walk after a church picnic and ending with a song of praise, host a star party after evening worship where a local astronomer can set up their telescope and show what is in that season’s sky, use scientific images in sanctuary banners, work with local health care resources, convert vacant lots near church to gardens/parks, and so on. 

Regardless, always connect activities back to Biblical principles. Showing an informed interest in science will help break down barriers to the Gospel. It can also help equip our youth to better hold on to their faith when in college science classes. It gives us more opportunities to let Christ’s light shine to the world and gives opportunities to praise God for the Glory displayed in nature. Of all people, it is the Bride of Christ who should be the best steward of Creation.

Haarsma concluded with the admonition from Micah 6:8—“Do justice, and love mercy.”

RJW note:  I have very much merged my thoughts and extrapolations with Haarsma’s in this post, more than in others. The nature of the topic and length made it a bit pedantic to keep them fully separate. One thing I do want to add is a strong caution that some of these areas are sufficiently controversial that sincere believers are deeply emotionally connected to different sides of an issue, and just bringing up some topics can trigger strong responses. I recommend before embarking on a science-inclusion campaign that church leadership spend several months preparing a congregation for this, through occasional messages, notes in bulletins, emails, etc. Even bringing the topic of science up can invoke reactions because of the strong anti-science bias even on some elder boards. This is not meant as a discouragement, but an encouragement of a critical area of ministry—moving God’s people from darkness to light, milk to solid food. There will likely be growing pains, so extravagant love and grace are needed.

Similarly, particularly in environmental related issues, there is much that is popular but scientifically uncertain or even disputed or debunked. As you are getting started, stick to principles rather than concrete recommendations and as you learn more, gradually shift. Science is dynamic, and some ‘discoveries’ made one day are shown the next to have significant holes. Think about how often the medical journals report something as healthy or dangerous only to have it reversed in the next study.

For example, one area of which I am highly skeptical is that of the CFL lightbulbs. My experience is they rarely last significantly longer than traditional bulbs. Also, their manufacturing is much more involved, taking more resources to make them, use much more hazardous materials (primarily mercury) which are disposal hazards, are typically made in parts of the world where manufacturing standards are not as environmentally friendly, which makes them more dangerous than incandescent bulbs for the manufacturing environment, and the price difference is not offsetting for the supposed benefit. It is important to consider the ‘cradle-to-grave’ impact of ‘green’ technology, not just the user’s impact. I have a lot of hope in the new LED light bulbs. They are cheaper, more versatile, simpler, and less hazardous. Their key drawback now is brightness. In time, this should be corrected. In the meantime, I’m stocking up on incandescent bulbs before they are banned in 2012. There are similar issues regarding the electric and hybrid cars. Start with awareness and principles, love and grace, glorifying God, and see where He leads on specifics.


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