Help me write an article.

How do churches care well for scientists?  That’s the focus of an article I’m writing for our denominational magazine (The Banner).  How have congregations helped or hindered those involved in the sciences to pursue their vocation and calling as a distinctly Christian calling?  How can churches be (or become) hospitable places for scientists to be a follower of Jesus and pursue excellence within their scientific field/discipline?

But I need your help.  All those involved in the sciences (or if you know someone involved in the sciences forward them this post), can you help me out by commenting your feedback on the questions below (or let me know if you’d rather me email you directly):

  1. What tensions have you experienced as a scientist and follower of Christ in your congregational experience?  Any events/stories that illustrate that tension/struggle?
  2. What have congregations done well to embrace and affirm your calling as a scientist and a Christian?  How have they helped you in your ministry within the world of science?
  3. What would you have liked to see your congregation do to better understand or equip you as a scientist?

Thanks, in advance, for your help.


6 thoughts on “Help me write an article.”

  1. Phil: My brother in law is a chemist for NASA. I have forwarded this information to him. How should he get in touch with you to respond? Sheila Krygsheld

  2. My name is Clarence Menninga. I am retired from teaching (mostly) Geology and Earth Science at Calvin College. I am a member at Plymouth Heights CRC in Grand Rapids.
    I have always been treated with respect by the ministry staff at Ply Hts, and now and then have gotten questions for further information/understanding in my field. I have never received any negative comment from ministry staff. I have been elected/selected to Council as Elder, and I currently serve on the Endowment Fund Committee of Council, so I must be considered to be a member above reproach.
    I have received positive encouragement from some of my fellow congregation members, especially during the time (late 1980’s) that Howard Van Till, Davis A. Young and I were being severely criticized by some members and churches (even one classis, as I recall). I know that some of my fellow congregation members disagreed with my stance regarding the ages of rocks and the history of the development of living organisms on Earth, but I have never been subjected to personal attack, not even from a fellow member (now gone to glory) who was an outspoken opponent of the ideas of biological evolution, and with whom I have had several frank and congenial conversations on those topics.
    The very fact that Van Till, Young, and I were asked to meet with a committee of the Calvin College Board of Trustees, plus the publicity generated by overtures to Synod to curtail our activities or dismiss us from the Faculty had a damping influence on open discussion of the issues at hand. That silence, I think, is now in the process of being reversed, but there still are some pastors and a significant number of CRC church members who don’t want to learn from us scientists, nor even allow us a voice in the denomination.
    On the other hand, I have received some very unkind and, in my judgment, unchristian, criticisms by some pastors and some churches in the CRC. Such antagonisms toward science and scientists occasionally come to the surface in some places up to the present time.
    I think that the Seminary does a less than adequate job in preparing prospective pastors to deal with differences of judgment regarding scientific ideas in ways that demonstrate respect for both the scientists among us and those who disagree with the claimed results of scientific study.
    I think that the Seminary does a less than adequate job of preparing prospective pastors to present to their congregations an open and honest review of exegesis of Scripture that portrays options for alternative interpretations, and how the results of scientific investigation impact the choices that might lie before us in such alternative interpretations.
    I get the impression that pastors in some regions get together on a somewhat regular basis, but I don’t know what topics they discuss at such meetings. Is science ever on the table? I would hope that it would be, so that pastors can help each other to understanding.
    Only once have I been invited to address a section of the Minister’s Institute (is that the correct name) that takes place for a couple of days preceding Synod meetings. Only once have I had opportunity to meet with the ministry staff at the Back to God Hour, and then only after I got pretty assertive in seeking that invitation. I think we would benefit from a lot more interaction between our active pastors in the CRC and scientists. (And not just the scientists among us who are reluctant to even examine and evaluate traditional views, but also those among us who are bold and forthright in talking about established scientific understanding that calls some of our traditional views into question.) That should be done in an atmosphere of mutual respect and courtesy, of course; is that even possible?
    My email address is I’m willing to talk with you about some of these ideas, if you wish.
    Respectfully submitted,
    Clarence Menninga

  3. Hi Phil,

    (For the blog readers who don’t know who I am, I did my undergrad degree in Engineering Physics at the University of Alberta and did a MSc in Electrical Engineering also at the University of Alberta specializing in Microelectromechanical devices and Nanosystems. The bulk of my research and study over that time was based on fabrication of devices that exploit the physical phenomenon of various materials to some technological purpose. My work was largely in optical properties of nanostructured media. I am recently graduated and now working as an R&D engineer for Micralyne Inc a small microelectronics fabrication company in Edmonton.)

    In thinking I feel like I really only have a well formed thought about one of your questions. I can think about the others a bit more in the coming days. What tensions do I have being a scientist in Christian communities?

    No-one seems to doubt that I’m both interested an involved in science. From my little bio above, I wouldn’t think that anyone would presume that I have any interest or knowledge of biology. Yet, over all of my experience throughout the 7 years of my post-secondary education (and largely throughout the 12 years of school prior) whenever someone wants to have a discussion of “science and religion” or “science and faith” the default topic of discussion becomes the apparent incompatibilities between the two on the basis of evolutionary biology and biblical history. Have I formed an educated viewpoint on the topic, informed by both the natural sciences and biblically based thought? Yes, but that’s besides the point. I am less well informed about evolutionary biology as a scientist than vast numbers of non-scientists are who love to read all sorts of philosophical writing on the topic, so don’t bother to ask me about it. I will tell you the truth when I tell you I don’t really care and I don’t think it has any bearing on my day to day direction in life, or for that matter, my eternal direction in life. I do know that arguing about things is bad for blood pressure, or something like that (also biology, not so sharp there). When the default mode of discussing the interplay between Christian life and “science” is almost always reduced to discussing the interplay between Christian life and one ABSOLUTELY TINY slice of the scientific world, it diminishes the importance of the other very important areas of science. More importantly, it communicates to us who are involved in those areas of science that it’s less important to be a Christian in those arenas of science than it is to be a good Christian in the one that’s always center stage.

    I am involved in a world of science that has all sorts of important implications in social, economic, and environmental realms. I would love to have them become the topic of discussion sometimes. Unfortunately it’s a very very difficult thing to do. First, because evolution is on the tips of the tongues of many people when discussions go in that direction. Second, because the scientific issues that are facing us are usually pretty complicated. There’s a fair amount of effort that needs to be invested in learning the science before a legitimate discussion can take place. Sometimes it takes an awful lot of science before you can do a good job of discussing the Christian imperatives that might come along with it. Unfortunately in many situations these discussions move quickly away from the aspect of science and towards just the ethical/social/cultural questions and discussion. If it doesn’t get there quickly, those without the scientific literacy to keep up loose contact with the discussion, boom, your discussion about “Science and Christian Life” is now just a conversation about Christian life. Did the non-scientists notice? No, they think they’re having a good ‘sciency’ discussion, the scientists on the other hand did notice. We’re having a discussion about Christianity that was at one point long ago framed in the context of science. Typically we’ve lost our ability to meaningfully contribute to the discussion based on our expertise a fair while ago. Does the same thing happen when someone with a background as a psychiatrist has a discussion about depression and suicide (thinking of the young boy in Ottawa recently) and how we understand that as a Christian community? No, I think the psychiatrist has a much easier job communicating with those who are relatively illiterate when it comes to mental disorders than a typical electrical engineer has communicating with those who are similarly illiterate in my field.

    For example, in my work I’m currently developing a metallization layer for a new product, we’ll be shipping many tens of thousands, hopefully millions, of parts around the world within a few years that are based on the design that I settle on in the next few months. It’s important to come up with a good design. I don’t know how familiar you are with the issue of ColTan mining that’s going on in the Congo. (See the opening night film at MLJFF this year for more info:|mardaloop|y|2011|f|88#88 ) Well, it turns out that one of the best things to use in the metallization layer that I’m working with is Tantalum. One of the metals of interest in this conflict. This is the part of the post where I am going to be brief of the details of the science involved (see reason #2 above this is a typical problem). Tantalum is probably the best solution to the engineering decision. It’s possible to get away from using tantalum in this product if we make some other aspects of the product a bit more complicated. It might also cost the company a bit more money in the final product, which isn’t a popular decision when the whole reason we’re making this thing is to earn money. Do I, as the engineer involved in making these decisions on behalf of my company, need to be concerned with the social effects of using tantalum in my product? When I make the decision about what to use that’s the end of my involvement. I’m not the guy placing orders on where the tantalum is going to come from. When this product starts to roll on the production line we’re going to need lots of this stuff. Someone in the purchasing department is going to go and get quotes on where to get the cheapest tantalum. Are they going to think about where our tantalum comes from? Maybe, maybe not. Even if our tantalum does come from places like Australia where it is mined ethically, that means that the global supply of tantalum is going up, that means the price that the warlords in Congo are going to get for their unethically sourced tantalum is probably going to go up as well. (Let’s be clear, we’re not going to be buying up significant fractions of the world’s supply, but all of the engineers in the world that collectively make these decisions *do* collectively decide on the demand for this metal.)

    So, there you go, we’re ready to start to have a discussion about science and Christian life. Depending on who you have the discussion with, the “engineering challenge” of not using tantalum is probably going to be thought of pretty abstractly. For some people bent on politics and government the question could become not allowing the import of any tantalum that isn’t certified “Warlord free”. For others, the interesting part is the economics of how you might set the prices of some goods that are indistinguishable from others but come with a clean conscience. Still others are interested in public education surrounding ColTan and the importance of recycling your electronics (especially old cellphones) so that a portion of the global demand for this metal is not so heavily reliant on the unethical trade in the DRC. The interesting thing for me though, is exactly the science part of the discussion. How much effort and expense is worth it to avoid this metal entirely, and how much isn’t. Some engineering challenges demand the use of this stuff, some don’t, when is it warranted? What if we don’t continue to develop scientific understanding and competence using this stuff because at this point in history it’s problematic?

  4. Phil:
    My daughter Karen in Calgary alerted me to the existence of your blog and the questions you raised there. Here are some responses.
    For the record, I am a retired academic, educated initially as a plant biologist in agriculture, then as a plant physiologist. I worked during my entire career at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, teaching and doing research in weed biology and control, with special emphasis on the action of herbicides used to control weeds. Both my teaching and my research combined the practical and theoretical (‘pure’ science) aspects of weed control.
    The short answer to each of your three questions is “nothing”. But let me explain that a bit.
    1. The tensions I experienced ‘as a scientist and follower of Christ’ were totally within myself and had no connection with my life as a member of a worshiping community, the ‘congregational experience’. No one in that worship community ever questioned either my Christian or my scientific integrity or the integral connection between them. One person, not a member of that worship community, once asked me why I did not have any problem with being a Christian and teaching in a secular university (implicitly suggesting that I should have a big problem with that). During my graduate student years I had begun to understand, with the help of others, that a Christian perspective on my scientific work was both possible and appropriate, without any conflict. With respect to the congregation where my wife and I worshiped after I began my academic career, there were no tensions and, therefore, no stories to illustrate them.
    2. The congregation per sé never did anything ‘to embrace and affirm my calling as a scientist’, nor did I expect it to do that. Individual members of the congregation certainly did, not in any overt fashion, but simply by never questioning the appropriateness of what I was doing. A few times I was asked to speak to one or other group and my presentations were generally well received. An exception occurred when a group of people within one organization (not a congregation) got on the ‘organic farming’ bandwagon and I took issue with some of the premises they worked with, especially the inappropriate exploitation of the phrase itself and the notion that organic or natural is by definition to be preferred over the conventional alternative. My ideas, including some factual information to support them, did not go over well with that group at the time.
    3. I had no expectation then or now for my congregation to “better understand or equip me as a scientist? The help I had received in earlier years, both as a graduate student and during my early years as a professor, came from oral and written presentations by people associated with Calvin College and the earlier versions of what now is the Institute for Christian Studies. They included discussions at student group sessions and at summer study conferences, and I consider those experiences invaluable in shaping my Christian scientific thinking. For me, looking back, it would have been very helpful during my undergraduate student years to have someone who could and would point out to me that there actually was a Christian way to look at things scientific (apart from the inappropriately narrow focus on the historical areas of conflict over the interpretation of the biblical account of creation by God). I can only speculate now on how receptive or otherwise I would have been to such pointing out at a time when I did not have the slightest idea about what I might be doing after graduation, and when I certainly had no expectation whatsoever of becoming one of those professors by whom I was then being taught.

    Perhaps the questions you listed could be rephrased as follows:
    1. As written except for deleting the words ‘in our congregational experience’.
    2. As written except for replacing the word ‘congregations’ with ‘members of your worship community’.
    3. What kind of help would you have wished for (perhaps only in hindsight) in becoming equipped as a Christian working in science?

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