As researchers dig deeper into discovering why young people become disengaged from practicing faith, one of the most startling revelations is that, for far too many, the decision to disengage occurs between the ages of 10–13. Most often, the reason given for this disengagement is a preference on the part of young people for science or that which “can be proven.” They are, unfortunately, perceiving (and we are unintentionally communicating) a dichotomy between faith and science, which leads them to believe that they have to choose between the two. Since faith is not empirical, they are quick to dismiss it as the equivalent of fairy tales. This false dichotomy is unfortunate, since, while the Church has been guilty at times of portraying science as an enemy, in truth, some of the greatest advocates of science were devoutly religious—including the scientist who formulated what came to be known as the Big Bang theory: a Belgian Catholic priest named Georges Henri Joseph Édouard Lemaître, who was an astronomer and physicist.
What we are failing to do is to help young people recognize and embrace the reality of mystery. In the Nicene Creed, we state early on that we believe that God is the creator of all things “visible and invisible.” In other words, we acknowledge the reality of invisible realities that cannot be proven empirically. As I wrote in my book, Living the Sacraments: Finding God at the Intersection of Heaven and Earth:
There is much that science cannot measure or explain. Science will never be able to explain the meaning or a work of art, poetry, or literature. Science cannot define or explain beauty. Science will never be able to define goodness or joy. Science will never be able to explain the purpose of human life. Science cannot explain what makes something funny or sad. Science cannot define what constitutes true love.
Simply put, science explains how and faith explains why. As Einstein famously said, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” Faith teaches us that we can have a personal relationship with the One whose love is infused throughout all of creation.
So where do we begin tackling this challenging issue? I believe that the place to begin is to help young people understand the role of Scripture and the Catholic approach to interpretation of Scripture. Several years ago, when I was teaching sixth graders about the Creation story in Genesis, I asked them if this was what they learned in their science classes about how the world came to be. They quickly said no and described their understanding of the Big Bang, evolution, and so on. I then facetiously asked which of their teachers was lying to them: their religion teacher or their science teacher? They sat stunned for a moment, unsure of how to answer, before I said, “Relax, neither one is lying to you! Your science teacher is teaching you how all of creation came into being. I, as your religion teacher, am teaching you why creation exists: as a gift from a loving God.” I assured them that they do not have to choose between science and faith but rather should see the purpose of each and how they can serve each other.
To help young people—and all Catholics, for that matter—we need to do a better job of equipping them with tools for interpretation of Scripture and an understanding of the difference between truth and fact. Here’s how I introduce this notion in my book, The Bible Blueprint: A Catholic’s Guide to Understanding and Embracing God’s Word:
Let there be no doubt that the Bible communicates the absolute truth of God. At the same time, understand that truth and fact are not the same thing! Since society in biblical times did not base its sense of truth on literal interpretation, facts were often of secondary importance. In other words, biblical cultures understood that something can be true but need not be a fact!
I then go on to explain the use of figurative language in our everyday speech and how some parts of the Bible (especially the pre-history of the Book of Genesis) employ figurative language. Finally, I offer the following tips for how to identify when the Bible may be using figurative language:
When you encounter a Bible passage that you think may be using figurative language, consider the following:
- Look at the context of the passage.
- Use your own common sense and personal experience. (Is it suggesting what seems to be an impossibility, such as Adam living to be 930 years old?)
- Consider your own knowledge of language and grammar (simile, metaphor, allegory, hyperbole, and so on).
- Look for footnotes about the passage.
- Focus on the author’s overall intent.
- Read a commentary about the passage.
In general, approach the words of the Bible in their literal sense unless there is some convincing reason to consider it otherwise. And remember, behind every figure of speech, you will find a literal meaning. Even though facts may not be present in a given Scripture passage, you are encountering God’s truth!
I firmly believe that many of us catechists do not feel that we “have permission” to advocate this approach and fear that we will lead young people to dismiss Scripture as “fairy tales,” and so we avoid the issue altogether. Unfortunately, this is accomplishing precisely what we hoped to avoid: young people are deciding on their own to dismiss Scripture as fairy tales, because they have not been shown how to approach Scripture as an invitation to encounter mystery and how to embrace Scripture as truth while also understanding that some of it is not fact. Obviously, there’s much more to explore in this topic, but for starters, I recommend that you read my book, The Bible Blueprint: A Catholic’s Guide to Understanding and Embracing God’s Word, as well as a very important Church document: The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (Pontifical Biblical Commission), which “gives us permission” to approach Scripture in this manner.
How do you work to dismantle this false dichotomy between science and faith? How do you teach young people to interpret Scripture properly?