Review: Mere Science and Christian Faith

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Mere Science and Christian FaithGreg Cootsona. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: Many emerging adults think that science and faith should complement each other and are put off by church contexts that force a choice between faith and science. The book contends that it is possible to bring science and faith into fruitful conversation, and provides examples of how this is possible.

Emerging adults (18-30 year-olds) are leaving the church in record numbers. “Nones” or those who identify as “spiritual but not religious” are on the rise. There are a number of causes for this but one is that emerging adults encounter congregations where science is the enemy and the relationship between faith and science is defined as a conflict. Many of these emerging adults see beauty in creation that is enhanced by their study of science and don’t see science and faith as opposed. But if forced to choose, many choose science. Science and technology play a huge role in their lives, whether it is in their concern for their environment, their understanding of human sexuality, or the smartphones that are a ubiquitous presence and have changed their ways of relating to each other and the world.

Greg Cootsona writes about these trends and how Christians might foster a better conversation that aspires to intersection and integration rather than conflict and warfare. After profiling emerging adults, he discusses our engagement with the new atheism, often alienated by anti-science attitudes in Christian communities, principles for interpreting the Bible, recognizing both the good in technology, and where we may need to take a break from it.

These chapters are interspersed with “case studies” of engaging various contemporary developments–cognitive science, the Big Bang and fine-tuning arguments, Intelligent Design, climate change, and sexuality. Can cognitive science explain belief? How can we take fine-tuning arguments too far? What does Intelligent Design’s focus on irreducible compexity miss? How can we have a fruitful conversation about the highly politicized subject of climate change? How do we engage genetic understandings of orientation and gender?

The concluding chapter is titled “Moving Forward.” Cootsona articulates a compelling vision of telling better, true and beautiful stories that bring faith and science together. He writes:

“I do know, however, that these true, better stories are also beautiful. They will bring together the goodness and truth of the good news with the beauty of God. There truth becomes beautiful. And it should not be overlooked that rhetoric–as an engagement with beauty–should be used in concert with philosophy–as the pursuit of truth. Truth is only worth engaging if it’s beautiful, and beauty is that which allures us.” (p. 162)

This is a short, pithy book that is written conversationally rather than didactically. Quotes from emerging adults illustrative of chapter themes are sprinkled throughout the text. Pithy however does not mean light weight. Current scientists like Katherine Hayhoe and Elaine Ecklund are cited, writers on the philosophy of science like Ian Barbour, and theologians like Arthur Peacocke. Both text and footnotes point readers to further resources in both print and online form. This is an ideal introduction for those working with emerging adults as well as for emerging adults themselves who are wondering if it is possible for there to be a better conversation between science and faith. If Greg Cootsona is right, there are indeed many better conversations we might have.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Vanishing American Adult

vanishing american adult

The Vanishing American Adult, Ben Sasse. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017.

Summary: Concerned about the passivity he observes among many emerging adults, the author proposes five character building habits to foster resilient, responsible adults and wisely engaged citizens.

As a college president, Ben Sasse quickly became acquainted with the passivity, fragility and a sense of entitlement in his student body. As a U.S. Senator from Nebraska, he is deeply disturbed at the implications this has for our republic. As a parent, he writes about the steps he thinks he (and we) need to take, beginning in our own families to reverse this trend.

His first three chapters chronicle the problem of endless adolescence, using the story of Peter Pan in Neverland as a metaphor. He describes a generation on more medications, addicted to screens, and for many pornography, as well as living at home longer and marrying later if at all, and intellectually fragile, wanting “safe zones” instead of fighting for free speech. He is not at all convinced that the answer lies with our schools and writes critically of the role John Dewey played in a public school movement that relegated parents and other mediating structures to inferior and subsidiary role in the development of children. He contends most crucially that schools are failing to teach children how to learn, harking back to Dorothy Sayers’ Lost Tools of Learning, and particularly the lost focus on the trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

Sasse then proposes five habits that he believes may begin to address the deficits he observes:

  1. Fleeing Age Segregation. He believes our society has become highly age segregated, isolating generations from each other, giving emerging adults no contact with life in its different stages, the changes that occur in body and mind, and the realities of death and birth, which he believes it important to witness.
  2. Embrace Work Pain. He observes that many youth never have experiences where they have to persist through pain or struggle to complete a hard task and encourages various volunteer and work experiences from childhood on.
  3. Consume Less. He observes the paradox of material affluence and the stress and lack of happiness that walk hand in hand and proposes steps to defer material gratification to focus on more significant life priorities.
  4. Travel To See. He argues that traveling early and often and learning to travel light exposes one to the world beyond one’s own enclave that helps one define more deeply the values one wants to embrace.
  5. Build a Bookshelf. He argues that America is fundamentally an idea, and that the stock of ideas we accrue from our reading is critical not only to the richness of our own lives but to our citizenship. He describes his process of developing both his own and his children’s “bookshelves” and gives us some interesting reading suggestions.

Sasse makes it clear that this is not a book about policy. But neither is it simply about parenting our children. It is about the polis. He believes what makes America exceptional is its ideas. It is critical to develop a rising generation of people who assume personal responsibility, who can face challenges with resilience, and know how to think rigorously and to engage others ideas with both civility and tenacity. He then concludes the book with imagining what Teddy Roosevelt would say to a high school graduating class.

This is both an engaging and demanding book. Sasse tells stories about his own upbringing, some of the stretching things he did with his friends that shaped him, and about how he and his wife Melissa are raising their children (including experiences one daughter had castrating bulls on a ranch where she worked). With each of his five “habits” he concludes the chapter with practical “stepping stones.”

He is also a person who believes ideas have consequences and devotes significant space in each chapter to the intellectual history of the things he is talking about. This could be off-putting for some, and yet it illustrates his conviction that the ideas we embrace, and that in turn, shape us both individually and collectively, matter. Reading Sasse, you will encounter Augustine, Rousseau, Dewey and Tocqueville, among others.

Sasse is a conservative and has the third most conservative voting record in the Senate. He clearly is one who believes in limited federal government and the importance of local “mediating institutions” and in the critical importance of a virtuous, informed citizenry.  He shares the Republican Party’s suspicion of public education (but advocates for public education may want to listen to his concerns that the role of parents is often usurped by education “experts,” and that more money and more technology often is not translating into better education). But he addresses a phenomenon that has to be of concern to every public official–the character of the rising generation, and how they are being prepared for responsible adulthood.

I don’t think Ben Sasse would mind if you disagree with him. He strikes me as someone who values a good argument. His internal argument, weighing Augustine and Rousseau against each other, suggests that all he would ask is that you give him a good argument in return. That, he would think, is what adults do.

Review: After College

After College

After College, Erica Young Reitz. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Summary: A faith-oriented guide to navigating the transition from college to early adulthood, exploring issues of faith, relationships, community, work, calling and finances.

Much has been made about the loss of faith that sometimes occurs among youth who go to college. Less attention is given to the deepening of faith of others or the spiritual awakening of some that occurs during college. Even less have there been good discussions of how believing students navigate the transition to post-collegiate early adulthood. Until now.

Erica Young Reitz, who has led the Senior EXIT program, a senior year college transition program at Penn State, has given us a kind of roadmap describing the transitions post-collegians face, and what it means to live faithfully to Christ in a new situation. In her introduction, she writes:

“Leaving the gates of university life often comes with the expectation that we’re ready for what’s on the other side. But what does readiness even mean? Some students feel ready in September of their senior year (get me out of here!) while others—who may actually be more equipped for the “real world” than they realize—dread college coming to a close. In the scurry of résumé preparations and job applications, it’s easy to reduce readiness to our emotions about entering adulthood or to a list of key items necessary for life on our own.”

The first part of the book explores what faithfulness to Christ looks like in this new situation. She explores what it is like to go, like Abraham, with God into the unknown. She considers our expectations of “normal” and whether these have room for adversity, in which we might experience taking up the cross in new ways. She explores the big question of discerning God’s will, especially when faced with a myriad of choices.

Part two then explores what faithfulness looks like in community. She honestly discusses finding new friends post-college and the challenge to become hospitable people. She talks about finding a church, with some helpful material for those who have experienced different forms of abuse in their church experience. She talks about the diversity of people we will encounter and going out of our comfort zones. She gives very practical counsel on the matter of parents and moving from dependence through independence to a healthy form of interdependence. She candidly discusses dating, sex, and marriage, post-college. I especially appreciated her practical counsel about not living together while saving up for the storybook wedding, which seems to be the narrative of many young couples.

The final part of the book concerns living out our calling faithfully in the world. She includes chapters on stewarding every area of life for the kingdom, dealing with the realities of the workplace, and our handling of finances. She offers a very practical discussion of workplace realities and what it might practically mean to “bless” our co-workers. In the area of finance, she offers helpful resources including a budget planning sheet and challenges the assumption that it is necessary to take on large car loans and consumer debt, freeing one to use more resources for kingdom aspirations.

The book is informative without being preachy, using a number of stories while also giving very practical tips. Reitz helps people understand how this period is a kind of liminal space that may feel disorienting or painful, and how to live as a person of faith in this time. Each chapter concludes with “Going Deeper” questions that could be used individually or in a group discussing the book. There are passages for scripture study as well as a few additional relevant books suggested.

This is a great gift for graduating students. Even better, it would make a great discussion resource for a semester discussion with a group of seniors. The issues Reitz raises also raise important questions for those of us working in collegiate ministry. Are we waiting until senior years to talk about things like the will of God, community, work and calling, money and sexuality? We probably talk about sexuality before then, but what about the others? Are we simply mentoring students for our mission on campus or also for their mission in life? After College is a great resource to help students navigate this crucial transition from the former to the latter.

 

A Community of Character?

One of the perennial questions, at least since the 1960s is that of whether colleges and universities should play a role in the formation of the character of young, emerging adults. With the declining influence of the humanities, there is a back and forth discussion about whether the humanities in their exploration of the best of what we have thought, written or created have a role in character formation.

In yesterday’s post, I reviewed Big Questions, Worthy Dreams by Sharon Daloz Parks. One thing that is clear is that emerging adults are undergoing significant development of moral conviction and belief during their time in the university. The book infers that the university can play an important role in that development but the question remains, what is that role?

I would propose that, unless they are faith-based institutions (which most once were but are no longer in a secularized culture), that the university stay out of the character education business as an explicit part of its agenda because character and moral conviction are rooted in deeply held beliefs, whether religiously based, or not and for the university to engage this as an institution, it will inevitably privilege a particular set of beliefs.

What I think universities and colleges can do is consider carefully the values, which are often tacit rather than explicit, which govern its life and mission and consider what qualities of character are critical to sustain this and become increasingly explicit concerning what is expected of one who as a faculty, staff, or student s a member of this community. Moreover, most people quickly figure out where there is a difference between “ideals” and “how the game is really played.” It is the latter that will have the greatest shaping influence on the character of most people in the community.

Here are a few qualities of character which I think are essential to the life of collegiate communities:

1. Honesty. Of course it is easy to recognize the importance of sanctions against cheating and plagiarism and the falsification of data.  All of these are absolutely crucial to academic inquiry, and if anything need greater clarification in our morally pluralistic climate than ever.  But honesty also extends to how our institutions run. Are the ways policies are formed and funds allocated transparent? Are whistle-blowers punished or rewarded and protected?

2. Respect.  It seems a basic premise of higher education at its best to assume the dignity of every human being in all of their complexity–their gender, orientation, beliefs, ethnicity, social class, and station in life. The real question may be whether you know the name of the person who cleans the bathrooms in your residence hall or the academic building where you spend the bulk of your time. Beyond this, do you accord others the same treatment you would want with regard to your gender, beliefs, body type, ethnicity and more? For students, it might begin with how you treat yourselves and others on a Friday night, and what consideration you give to those who have to live in the same space as you.

3. Humility. This may seem like a strange quality and it is indeed hard to find in academic settings and yet it seems essential to the flourishing of university communities. Increasingly we consider education an entitlement, rather than a blessing. A huge deal, often to the point of silliness, is made of pecking orders and credentials. And there often can be an elitism in academic circles that “looks down” on others. Might it be good to remember how much public money from hard-working non-university types make the work of a university possible? In addition, it has often been noted that it is incredible what can be accomplished when we are not concerned about who gets the credit. And should this not engender a work ethic that strives for excellence, realizing what a gift it is to be in this place? And finally, should not the wonder of what we study and the fact that the more we know, the more we realize we don’t know engender a humility of sorts?

I might be naively ideal here. Yet it seems that even without some “character education” agenda which often is dismissed as so much “window dressing” the university can and ought to uphold and function as a community of character that does have a formative influence.

 

Review: Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Emerging Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith

Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Emerging Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith
Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Emerging Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith by Sharon D. Parks
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is one of the books that higher ed professionals have mentioned to me over and over again with regard to the interest in “spirituality” among college students. So, when a friend offered to lend me a copy, I accepted. For me, there were two significant areas of “takeaway” from this book.

The first was Parks exploration of the developmental stage of “emerging adulthood.” I think many of us assume adolescents just move from adolescence to adulthood and we don’t adequately understand this period in between. Even more, we don’t consider how this developmental stage relates to faith development. We often just worry about keeping people in the faith, rather than understand the changes in thinking processes and perception of the world that are occurring and how these must be constructively engaged. Parks proposes that we go through changes in knowing, in forms of dependence, and in forms of community. In knowing, we move from authority based knowing to sometimes unqualified relativism to probing commitments to tested commitments to convictional commitments. In forms of dependence, we move from dependent or counterdependent, to fragile inner dependence to confident inner dependence to interdependence. In forms of community we move from conventional to diffuse to mentoring community to self-selected groups to an openness to the other. A challenge for many religious communities is that they often don’t move beyond the first or adolescent/conventional form in each of these categories. And if our emerging adults do, no wonder we lose them!

The second takeaway was the critical importance of mentoring relationships in this meaning-making process of wrestling with big questions and worthy dreams. Parks explores not only individual mentorship but also how the higher ed process can be a mentoring process and how mentoring occurs in culture and in whole mentoring communities.

Some wouldn’t find this a problem but the book tends to be more descriptive in broad terms than prescriptive in terms of the specifics that higher ed professionals and spiritual mentors can implement in their work. The second is that it seemed to me that the book proposes more of a “designer faith” that individuals craft with the help of supportive mentors rather than a deepening embrace of one of the established religious traditions. While not disparaging of any tradition, the majority of the models in the books are of emerging adults who are “spiritual but not religious”. This is an increasingly popular “option” but one wonders whether this has the power to sustain worthy dreams over a lifetime. At the same time, the book does provide a needed challenge for all religious leaders working with emerging adults: will you minister and mentor in a way that recognizes the developmental process occurring in the lives of these young men and women? That may be the biggest question of all for these leaders.

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