Scientists, Pastors… & Toys?

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If your house is anything like mine, there is a lot of talk of toys right now. With Christmas just around the corner and three kids under the age of 13, I’ve got toys on the brain.

So does Tadashi Tokieda, a Stanford mathematician who shares a child-like fascination with toys. But for him, toys help him understand specific aspects of nature and to communicate math and science to non-professionals. Tokieda’s “toy collection” includes more than 100 “objects from daily life that are easy to make yet exhibit behavior so startling that they often puzzle even physicists,” according to this article.

Tokieda’s perspective got me thinking about attributes of scientists and of pastors.

The Individual Tree vs. The Great Forest

Earlier this year, Science in Congregations met with scientists and pastors to consider how we can best encourage local ministries to engage science (and scientists). In one of many poignant moments, we discussed how scientists like to take things apart and figure out how they work.

Science has evolved from its past. It was once a more encompassing art of inquiry called natural philosophy, but has become a range of disciplines and sub-disciplines with experts who specialize in narrow topics that few can comprehend. Specialization has replaced big-picture thinking. The days of the Renaissance man (or woman), or even the country parson and naturalist, are now largely a thing of the past.

Ministry has evolved similarly, with bigger churches and specialized staff. Still, the senior pastor remains less a specialist and more of a generalist. Most pastors I’ve encountered do ministry because they value the big picture, seeking to build relationships, ideas, and ways of being church.

In other words, scientists tend to pick things apart and focus on details, while pastors want to put the pieces back together and consider how each individual tree fits in God’s great forest.

Bringing that around to Christmas, a scientist might ponder questions like: did baby Jesus have a Y-chromosome? How did being “laid in a manger” impact his microbiome? What kind of stellar event guided the wise men? Such questions are of less interest to the pastor who is focused on how the Incarnation can bind up the brokenhearted, bring hope to the hopeless, and increase the witness of the church to the world.

  • Ever consider Jesus as an embryo? A scientist reflects on the birth of Christ.
  • Here’s one possibility about that “star of wonder, star of night, star of royal beauty bright.”
  • Alister McGrath unpacks the “explanatory consciousness” of Christian faith, just one of the reasons pastors are called to hold everything together.

So How Do We Work Together?

Given these tendencies, how do scientists and clergy work together for the good of the gospel? Fortunately, the Christian scientists I’ve met share a love for both their individual specialities and for the bigger-picture greater good of the Gospel of Jesus.

Still, clergy must understand that scientists will approach ministry, leadership, and education with a desire not only to take natural revelation seriously, but to look under the hood and consider the details. How do you empower them to use their skills and child-like curiosity to accomplish your ministry goals?

The future of the church in America requires careful reflection on this question. Not only are most scientists less religious, but science is a big factor contributing to the exodus of teens and young adults from the church. Fortunately, the Christ we celebrate is both the Logos in John 1—the underlying logic and laws behind all those details scientists study—but also the Christ who was born of Mary, laid in a manger, and as Emmanuel, God with us, gives us hope that we can hold it all together.

O come, O come Emmanuel.




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