An Interview with Mark Labberton on Courageous, Science-Engaged Faith

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Science for the Church received a Calvin University grant to bring the insights of science to preaching. With this grant, we’re interviewing Christian leaders about this practice, and we’re kicking off with Dr. Mark Labberton. Mark just retired as president of Fuller Theological Seminary. Of his many books, two are particularly relevant: The Dangerous Act of Worship and The Dangerous Act of Loving Your Neighbor. On a personal note, Mark is a good friend that I met when he was my college pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley.

Given how many compelling insights Mark expressed, this will be the first of two parts.

Making Great Things Small

I hear you say that your dad concluded that many religious people make great things small. Can you elaborate?

Dad was very much a man of science, and I jokingly said that he saved certain neck veins for the discussion of religion. He really wanted his two sons to do everything possible to avoid religion. His critique was what you’ve just said—namely, that religious people have a particular inclination to take great things and make them small. What he meant by that was you could take something like the cosmos and the nature of creation itself and ask all kinds of questions about theological framing. But to try to get it into human manipulable categories suggests that the whole thing gets reduced. Is it a six-day creation or not? Or you take the mystery of what it means to be human, and you reduce it to a small moral category—that human existence only matters in moral language. Are we people who do good? Or are we people who do bad?

If you want a capacious life, that is, a life that has an openness and engagement, that has the discovery an adventure, then you don’t close it down with all these human labels. Honestly, over the years Dad’s insight has just been a tremendously important warning to me. There’s hardly a day, literally, that goes by without remembering that—because the church does tend to take great things and make them small. We’re talking about the God of the universe, and we invite people to a balloon party.

It’s just this tendency, which is part of our frailty and our finitude. What are frail, dusty creatures like us going to do with a reality that we couldn’t even begin to give language to describe? On one level: fair enough. We have to work, as philosophers call it, in “the world of middle-sized objects,” which is also just called normal reality. Sometimes, therefore, balloons and clowns seem like the right thing.

But often when we’re doing that, we’re oblivious to the fact that we have taken something truly grand and made it really, really small. In doing so, we close off mystery. We try to be reductionist about who God is. God is a series of my theological affirmations about God, my favorite quotes from the Bible, whatever it might be. It all becomes this sad little project of just getting a few ducks in order, rather than actually standing in awe before the God of the universe.

I recently preached on Ezekiel 1 and 2 at the Calvin Symposium on Christian worship. In the text, God appears to Ezekiel in a way that is completely overwhelming to Ezekiel the prophet, who then just falls on his face and is silent. It’s a magnificent portrait of how to respond. That’s a much better response, just to actually just fall in silence and not speak.

Critical Issues

If you were to name a few issues from science and technology, what are they?

One of the things that we did at Fuller while I was president was to sponsor a conference on preaching in a science-shaped world. It laid out the fact that we are embodied creatures who live in a physical world, which is gargantuan beyond imagination, and which is the most intimate and practical and literally touchable part of our humanity. As a result, science intersects with that whole array, subatomic to cosmic, which is all at play continuously. Period.

The question becomes, how, in a world that’s shaped by the empirical method, and by the standards of science, and by the rigors of science—how does preaching in a science-shaped world actually work? So, it tees up a lot of the other questions. How do you deal with the complexities of humanity? How do you deal with the discoveries of science that help us get a sharper and sharper picture of many of the material elements of our human existence, while simultaneously acknowledging that science doesn’t ask or necessarily answer the why questions?

Just last month, scientists shared that they are beginning to think that possibly the brightest object in the universe has actually been in our sights for a long, long time, but it was understood to be a star. It was thought to be relatively distant but nothing like what it is. It is something like 12 billion light years away and is 500 trillion times brighter than our sun. These are just beyond staggering numbers. The question, then, of what it means to preach in a universe that’s that big is a human-shaped question. How do we acknowledge the discoveries of science, cosmologically or genetically?

We’re having this conversation in the season of Lent, which is a season when we are reminded of the character of our human condition in its frailty, vulnerability, finitude, and sinfulness. We come to a season like Lent with a still more astounding set of insights into our humanity— cosmological or subatomic—that in some ways are setting the table for our worship.

You have to have a very robust understanding of a God, who—in the language of Colossians 1—in Christ, holds all things together. Christ is the first born from creation, the first born from the dead. These are material images in the terrain of science and of human experience and knowledge. But how do we understand them theologically?

There is no escaping that we live in this kind of a universe, and we can be grateful for the discoveries of science across that enormous spectrum of material existence. So that puts it squarely on the table.

The question is, can the church join in? Is it going to step toward that reality—the awesome, really beyond imagination, kind of reality? Or are we going to just avoid it? Or are we going to blame science, as if it is the problem? Behind science is the question of the universe itself and the nature of human experience. Science is another very important way of telling the human story.

This is the first part of our two-part newsletter. More next week… Greg

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