In part one of this series, we imagined a scenario where you find yourself on an airplane conversing with a quantum physicist. You want to dialogue about science-faith questions, but the discussion could go several different ways—or even shut down quickly depending on the level of expertise you bring to the table. I asked you to consider your audience, how you relate to that person, and how that relationship can impact your discussion. Do you have the knowledge to keep up with a conversation about quantum mechanics? Are you better equipped in a different field, like philosophy or theology? Or are you an Average Joe, fueled by a love of the truth and, perhaps, an interest in apologetics?
If you’re not a scientist, does that mean that engaging with people with greater levels of expertise is off limits? Not necessarily—however, such discussions do need to be handled carefully. Here are a few practical ideas to help you keep the conversation going with someone who has more technical knowledge.
1. Defer to the Expert
If you find yourself in a conversation with an expert, assume that the other person really does know their field. Unless you’ve had graduate training in science, it’s unwise to act like you know more about science than the scientist. So defer to his or her expertise. This will show them respect.
I’ve found that this principle is also helpful when talking to people who belong to different religions. If a family member belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), assume (at least for the sake of conversation) that they know more about LDS theology than you. Even if you’ve read books by Christians about LDS theology, chances are it’s been reinterpreted through the lens of historic Christianity, which may not be an accurate reflection of how people think inside the religion itself. It shows humility and respect when you give people the grace to be the expert in their own belief system.
2. Ask Questions
As an introvert, I have often experienced great difficulty making new friends. My mother advised me, when meeting new people, to ask questions about the other person’s life and interests to get to know them better. After all, people love talking about themselves. I have found this strategy to be very useful when engaging others in faith-related conversations, especially if they have more expertise than I do in a particular academic discipline, like science.
If you find yourself chatting with a scientist, ask thoughtful questions about his or her research interests. It’s usually easy to keep the conversation going by giving verbal invitations, such as, “That’s interesting. Tell me more,” and “What got you interested in that question?” This kind of engagement often moves the conversation from the academic to the personal realm.
When appropriate, I also find that it can be helpful to ask the scientist whether they are “religious” or if they’ve had a “personal faith journey.” This kind of language leaves the issue open to interpretation, but it is an effective way to begin to dig into their worldview a bit more. If that seems to go well, I’m not beyond inviting them to share with me about their hang-ups and even their animosity about Christianity, Christians, and organized religion in general. I’ve also been in a few situations where I apologized on behalf of the Christian in their life who abused them. Taking this step often opens new doors of care and concern.
The goal in any conversation is to land it in a graceful way. This is especially true when having conversations with family members and coworkers, where the relationships will have a long-term engagement. Your genuine curiosity shows your care for that person and builds a connection with them. It’s important to leave things in such a way that doesn’t shame the other person or create animosity.
The more willing we are to listen to a person’s difficulties, the more willing they are to give us some room later (often several conversations down the road) to share with them about our own journey to faith in Jesus.
3. Recommend Resources
When you’re a non-expert talking to an expert, don’t fall prey to pressure to have all the answers. If you’re outmatched academically, remain calm. You can always invite the expert to explore resources from qualified peers. If you are talking to a scientist, send them over to reasons.org or recommend one of our books to them. Reasons to Believe’s (RTB) team of scholars and editors work hard to put together resources that can be given away to nonbelievers to investigate on their own or to facilitate further discussion.
Consider carrying a stack of business cards with you with the RTB web address on it to give away to the experts you encounter. If appropriate, you can follow up by gifting them with an RTB book or DVD.
If you really want to step out in faith and go on a Holy Spirit adventure, ask Him before you leave for your next trip to guide you in selecting an RTB book to take with you in your carry-on bag on the plane. Don’t be surprised if God divinely appoints someone who needs that very book to sit in the seat right next to you!
I hope these ideas will spark your imagination for how you can creatively share about the God harmoniously revealed in both Scripture and nature with those you encounter in your daily life.
Dr. Jeff Zweerink outlines his apologetics strategy in RTB Live! vol. 16: 4 C’s of Science Apologetics (DVD). This is one of my favorite RTB messages.