“He develops the ideas and practices for transforming divisive issues into opportunities for discipleship.” That is the job description for Rob Barrett, the Chief Programming and Innovation Officer at The Colossian Forum. He shares his thoughts on faith and science and how churches can lean into and benefit from engaging difficult, potentially polarizing issues.
Tell us about your background in faith and science.
I started off in science and technology, on a trajectory to be a physicist, with lots of computer programming on the side, leading to a doctorate in Applied Physics at Stanford in atomic-scale imaging. I then went on to work on data storage technology at IBM Research. No matter the project, I love using basic physics to invent solutions to real-world problems.
As I was getting into that career, I had a growing interest in humanities and theology. I’d been raised as a Christian but came to adult faith in college, which led to me doing a two-year Biblical studies program at my church. I focused on science by day and on Bible by night. These interests intersected as the social impact of internet technologies became ever clearer, and IBM began asking not what we could invent but what we should invent, a question I felt unready as a Christian to answer.
How did your journey bring you to The Colossian Forum?
IBM graciously allowed me to take two years to study theology. I wanted to wrestle with the questions of thoughtful faith, which led me to do a second PhD in Old Testament, always focusing on what it means to live well as Christians—to be faithful to God—in all the complexities of life. I had discovered that the goals of technology were insufficient for guiding my life’s work.
The technical focus asked us how to store more data more densely, with lower power, higher reliability, and lower costs. Through the technologist’s eyes, these are obviously good things. But what should we do with all of these new capabilities? I was working on some natural language processing algorithms, and I needed a big text. This was before the web was around, so I dug up a digital copy of the Bible. And I thought, this 5-megabyte file, this “nano-droplet” within the sea of data, is of incomparable value, yet it’s so hard to keep a sense of proportion about what’s important in life.
So I struggled with where to invest my energy. Academic theology was disconnected from the everyday struggles of Christian living, and technology had too narrow a focus. Then an opportunity at The Colossian Forum came along, where we could invite Christians to work out their lives together before God in the middle of the conflicts over faith and science. It seemed like a perfect next step for me.
So after a career in technology, a second Ph.D. in Old Testament and some gigs teaching and researching, you eventually landed in Grand Rapids, MI. Tell us about The Colossian Forum.
The Colossian Forum was born out of the experiences of Christian leaders seeing churches and even their own families being torn apart by polarizing conflicts. Our initial practice was focused on faith and science but has grown into lots of other areas (origins, politics, sexuality).
The starting point for our methodology is that we aren’t so much lacking solutions to our problems. It’s that we lack the necessary Christian formation to engage challenging problems in faithful ways. Our poor Christian formation leads to all sorts of problematic behaviors and outcomes—including division—as we face life’s challenges.
Our mission is to equip leaders to transform concerns, conflicts, and controversies into opportunities for spiritual growth in witness. Can we face into these tensions in truly Christian ways, so as to discover God more deeply and testify to the difference the Gospel makes in our conflicts? We have this vision of a Christian community that acts Christian, especially under the pressure of conflict.
We see conflicts as places of insight and formation. I use the metaphors of searchlight and classroom. You step into a conflict, such as the age of the earth or evolution, and next thing you know, you’re treating those on the other side with contempt. You judge them as not very smart and maybe even as not real Christians. The pressure of the conflict shines a searchlight on our hearts and souls. Sometimes, it reveals good things; sometimes, it reveals things we don’t care to see, like our selfishness, pride, and anger. But conflicts also provide an ideal classroom for learning new ways. As Christians, when confronted by our sin, we know what to do. We have confession and repentance. We have loving our enemies. We have forgiveness. We have all these ways of turning toward healing.
What is The Colossian Way?
This is the framework we use. Whether applied through one of our small group curricula or our WayFinder program, we set three goals when engaging a deep conflict: (1) we gather in the name of Jesus; (2) we practice loving God and loving neighbor while engaging difficult problems; and (3) we witness the Body of Christ built up.
We gather because we know, deep in our bones, that we belong to each other as Christians. No matter how divided we are, we can’t quite write each other off. If Jesus can break down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile, then he can break down the wall between young-earth and evolutionary creationists!
The second element, practice, has three aspects. It’s a practice, like many other Christian disciplines, for learning to live as Christians and being formed more fully into the image of Christ. We practice because, while we’re never going to get it completely right, we’re going to pursue God’s glory—over and over. What we practice is this: holding together our love for God and neighbor—Jesus’s summary of the way of life for Christians—and the difficult conflicts we face. This sounds easy, but it’s hard to both love and engage at the same time. We’re tempted to love and ignore the problems. Or to dive into the problems and not love one another. Or we forget to keep God’s priorities front and center. It’s this practicing that shapes us.
Finally, if we’re following the ways of Jesus, we expect to witness the body of Christ built up. So, at the end of every small group and WayFinder session, we stop and ask, “What has happened here that testifies to the power of the Gospel and the truth of Christ?” We hope to witness spiritual fruit, even in the midst of conflict, which is very counter-intuitive. We think conflict only rips us apart.
What are some fruits of this work?
In one of our first faith/science forums, one of the scientists made an uncharitable judgment against the education of one of the other scientists. Because we guided the forum within the framing of The Colossian Way, he immediately knew what he’d done was wrong, which led to sincere apology and repentance and forgiveness from the other. It sounds trivial, but it was a tiny miracle that built up the body of Christ.
They didn’t resolve their disagreements over the age of the Earth to everyone’s satisfaction, not by a long way! But they did make progress in the truth in important ways. For example, one participant had thought that the young-earth creationist couldn’t possibly be a competent scientist. After several days of working together as brothers in Christ, the skeptical scientist publicly testified that the young-earth creationist was no fool and actually knew the science very well.
The opposite also happened. The young-earth creationist had questioned whether the evolutionary creationist was really a Christian. But through participating in this intentional process, he became convinced that he is his brother in Christ. Again, Christ’s body built up.
This isn’t necessarily the progress you might have been looking for in resolving the truth about evolution, but it was important progress in living faithfully before God, and that is our goal.
We’ve learned it’s no small victory to reach the point where someone on one side can ask an honest question of the other, be understood, and make an attempt to give an honest answer.
What are some challenges?
Some people turn down our invitation to engage in this sort of work. They’ve invested a lot of time trying to change the minds of others in the name of Jesus. As one faith/science advocate told us, he’d only seen people get hardened against each other and absolutely no good results. So we lay that challenge in front of us: Are we honestly seeing good results from this? My experience says yes.
One surprising challenge comes from people in conflict starting to love each other. They begin to value their relationship so much that they withdraw from saying the hard things. It feels so risky to speak plainly about the harm they believe the other side is doing to the church. Those things can be hard to say and hard to hear, but it’s a huge step forward in pursuing truth in love together. It might feel like a violation of Christian charity, but that sort of transparency is crucial.
Having done this work on origins and human sexuality, what have you learned that you are now applying to politics?
While every topic has its own contours and proportions, human character and the ways of sin remain much the same. So, what you learn in one applies to another. In fact, I commented to our faith and science friends that I get the feeling that they’ve been doing for 30 years what all of us are now immersed in—politically polarized, entrenched, conflicted views of reality. They agreed that what they have been struggling through for so long is now everybody’s struggle. Their experiences can help us to engage these struggles faithfully.
For many people, faith/science conflicts are kind of abstract and disembodied. But political conflicts strike right at the heart of our deeply held values and our vision for living well. Our friends in the faith/science groups have blazed a trail for the rest of us to follow as we receive political conflicts as searchlights and classrooms for following Jesus more faithfully.
What is one practical bit of advice you would give church leaders trying to navigate divisive cultural issues?
There’s one practice that we find tremendously helpful when a conflict is heating up too fast and going too far. We call it “the love behind the fear.” Conflicts are often driven by unspoken fears. We’re afraid something we really care about, something valuable and vulnerable, is being damaged. That deep desire to protect that thing drives a lot of the heat of conflict.
We’ve learned to pause and ask, “What are you afraid is going wrong? What is being lost here?” That does a couple of things.
First, when we express a fear, it naturally invites compassion from others, so it changes the tone from argument to one of listening to and caring about the other. It naturally promotes love, even for our enemies.
Second, it provides a lens into what the other’s argument is trying to protect, what the other loves. Often, to our surprise, we discover that both sides love the same things. In our faith/science discussions, it quickly becomes obvious that everybody values science as an important way of discerning reality. Nobody wants to throw science away. At the same time, all sides believe the Bible is the unique revelation of God. Nobody wants to disregard the Bible.
Once you get that out there, you’re like, “Gosh, that’s an awfully great starting point. We both respect the power of science, and we both want to preserve God’s Word, to listen to it and adhere to it and follow it.” That changes the conversation completely.
We thank Rob Barrett for sharing his experience and insight, and we hope it will help to completely change the conversations you have in your church.