Every Tuesday during the school year, since the spring of 2000, Science and Religion Lunch Seminars (SRLS) have been hosted over the lunch hour at North Dakota State University. The event website describes SRLS as “a formal discussion group for controversial topics in science and religion,” with the motivation being that “controversial subjects deserve public discussion.”
“Our great hope is that open examination will enable people of good will to resolve their differences and reach agreement,” the organizer notes. “Or, if agreement cannot be reached, that differences will be clarified, an understanding of other views will be gained, and a due respect for such other views will develop.”
I have another Tuesday obligation which prevents me from going to many of these, but I’ve been to a few. The setting can be somewhat contentious, with the majority of participants coming from a perspective heavily influenced by the scientific method of examining issues, and that only. If you’re a person of faith, in other words, enter at your own risk.
To be fair, the organizer really tries to keep things even and sticks to the rules of dialogue to keep things from getting unruly. And yet in past sessions, I’ve observed how the person of faith doesn’t stand much of a chance. With different starting points, factions of “the scientific” and “the religious” arise, creating challenging discourse.
I happen to believe the two can and should intermingle, but divide and conquer seems to be the mindset. I’m not sure why this is, or if it has anything to do with this tendency, but a good portion of participants are male.
A few years ago I was asked to consider being one of the speakers. After a bit of discernment, I declined. I am more reflective thinker than debater, and don’t know that I would have fared well in that setting. But when I heard that my fellow pro-life friend John Trandem would be giving it his best shot this week, I wanted to support him and be part of the conversation.
His topic also interested me: “21st Century Equality: The Right to Life.” It touched on the history of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, recent videos that exposed Planned Parenthood’s selling of fetal body parts for profit, and the larger pro-life position.
As John was speaking, laying out his case with facts and quotes rather than Scripture passages, which really is the only way to engage with secularists, I prayed for him. I noticed a fair amount of squirming from the audience as he talked; it seemed he was hitting a nerve or two. I didn’t envy him at that point.
Watching John, the story of Daniel in the Lion’s Den came to mind. It takes some kind of courage to go into the lion’s den, especially when you’ve entered at lunch time. I sensed that the lions were ready to pounce, salivating over what John was sharing and how they might refute it. As he continued with the allotted time for his talk, I sensed some of them licking their chops. I held my breath and prayed a few silent Hail Marys.
But John pushed on with no visible signs of feeling the pressure. Grace, I thought. It had to be.
When it was time for the Q and A portion, I waited for the vicious attack. And waited. And waited some more. Sure, attempts were made to discredit parts of his talk, but they seemed on the weak side. Though this wasn’t a debate to be won, if it had been so, it seemed clear that John was the winner.
Each question that came was met with thoughtfulness and tact. “That’s a good point,” he would say if it merited it, or, “That’s a good question.” He honored those who approached him even when their viewpoints contradicted his own.
When he was challenged, John didn’t back down. But he stayed solidly composed, returning with off-the-cuff answers filled with fairness and thoughtfulness.
I took notes and I have the sheet of “evidence” he provided to everyone there, but at the end of the day, the gems I came away with were not those that were spoken but what I observed. John, despite lunching with lions, was spared, for he’d brought the strength of Christ with him, and through that power, rather than being gnashed and gnarled, he was given space and grace.
My biggest thought in leaving was gratitude for John’s witness.
When we stand alone, we can do very little. But when we stand with God, anything is possible. Through his example, John — a husband, father and businessman — showed us what is possible when we say “yes” with belief at our backs.
No, this doesn’t mean I’ll be grabbing the mic at the SRLS anytime soon. I think I’ve discerned rightly that it’s not the right setting for my gifts. But perhaps I will be less reluctant when I am mingling with those who do not think as I do, to not feel I must hold things up on my own, but rather, recall, like Daniel did, the power of God that goes with me, and each brave step that I take.