Understanding The Interpretive Frame Of Faith And Science

Br. Guy and Danelle Bjornson from the Diocese of La Crosse with yours truly.

Last Friday, the Diocese of La Crosse was blessed with an all-day inservice with Br. Guy. The day was primarily meant for our Catholic School teachers, but the gathering of over 150 also included diocesan clergy and interested lay people. While listening to Br. Guy's presentations, my takeaway was of the importance of understanding the interpretive frame that many bring to questions of faith and science. After understanding and establishing a healthy framework, then an honest dialogue of truth can commence.

Many of you may be asking, "What does Fr. James mean by an 'interpretive frame?'" The late Francis Cardinal George once gave a powerful lecture on interpretive frames. The lecture focused on presentations of the Catholic Church in the media and the frustration many feel when the Church is depicted in a negative light. Cardinal George explained that media bases stories upon an interpretive narrative or frame that gives focus to the story. When an interpretive frame is established, the facts that best fit the frame are emphasized while facts that don't support the frame are discarded.

The point of the presentation was that the challenge of good media is to provide as broad and objective of a presentation as possible within the narrow confines of a frame that often needs to be presented in less than two minutes. Therefore, the difference between a good story and bad story about the Church is not only about the facts and falsehoods, but whether or not the interpretive frame presents a true interpretation of the facts.

I saw a connection between the Cardinal's lecture and Br. Guy's presentation about the presuppositions that many bring to questions of faith and science. For example, a person who wishes to argue the world was created in six, twenty-four hour days is not only making a presumption about the interpretation of Genesis, but is "waving a flag" to demonstrate what cultural worldview they represent when approaching Scripture. This cultural worldview, or interpretive frame, reveals the narrative from which people approach questions of faith and science. The same application can be done with a hard atheist who "waves the flag" of a materialist worldview, embracing the interpretive frame that there is nothing beyond the tangible world. Therefore, presumptions about questions of faith and science are not only statements of what we believe, but what "camp" we belong to that shapes our interpretive lens.

Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Host for the faith and science inservice.

Recently, I had a fascinating e-mail correspondence with someone about American apathy about climate change. The person I was corresponding with shared that one of the big problems when addressing any hot button social issue from abortion to climate change is that we have relegated them to "clubs." When one forms a club, there is a presumption that those who join are all likeminded on whatever the club believes. Outside of the club, the closed nature of the group implicitly allows for social disengagement under the interpretive frame of, "that's where all of 'them' go to express their beliefs." The danger is that the interpretive frame, both within the club and from an outsider perspective looking in, can become rather distorted without healthy engagement. The reason for this is that the lack of healthy engagement outside of the club can create false presumptions about truth that are never challenged. So deep can these presumptions become that they are embraced as truth with no real challenge to their validity.

There is more that I could say about the presentation, but a question I have been wrestling with in light of this presentation is this, "How do you move a soundbite, redacted, narrative framed culture into an engagement with a Catholic faith that does not fit nicely into a soundbite and is not reducible to a narrow, interpretive frame?" Br. Guy's starting point was to begin by understanding our biases, understand the other side's biases, and then charitably broaden our perspective through challenging these biases.

As I let these thoughts roll around in prayer, I am reminded more and more of the "bunker mentality" culture that American society is becoming. What I see in all of these engagements is something that goes far beyond discussions about faith and science, but calls us to be a culture of charitable, honest, and peaceful engagement. The problem I see is that we are increasingly becoming an emotional, inflammatory, and verbally violent culture. This leads me to wonder: How can we move away from emotionalism and volatility to embrace a mentality of honest engagement, stepping out of the safety of our "club mentality" that ultimately does nothing more than reinforce presumptions, whether true or false?

Discussion: What do you think is the pathway out of this "club" mentality? Can we engage each other in a charitable manner that steps us out of our presumptions to explore questions of truth? And can we do this in a way that promotes charity, patience, and unity instead of polemics dug into their respective bunkers?

For another perspective on engagement, Bishop Barron recently spoke to the staff at Facebook on how to have an argument. I find his principles consistent with the spirit of Br. Guy's presentation, promoting a culture of non-violent engagement in contrast to tribalist exclusion. Happy Monday!


Fr. James Kurzynski

About Fr. James Kurzynski

Fr. James Kurzynski is a priest of the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin and a hobby astronomer. Originally from the small town of Amherst in rural central Wisconsin, Fr. James completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point, majoring in Applied Music (Saxophone, Voice, and Composition). After graduating from UW-SP, Fr. James worked at the University of Nebraska at Kearney as a Hall Director and pursued a M.S.ed. in Group Counseling. After a year at UNK, Fr. James left his position to attend the University of Saint Mary of the Lake - Mundelein Seminary to discern his priestly vocation.

Fr. James earned a Bachelor in Sacred Theology, a Master of Divinity, and a License in Sacred Theology. While pursuing these degrees, Fr. James also studied Spiritual Theology with the Institute of Priestly Formation at Creighton University and completed the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

Fr. James was ordained a priest June 28, 2003. Fr. James’ first assignment was as an Associate at the Tri-Parishes of St. Mary’s - Durand, Holy Rosary Parish - Lima, and Sacred Heart Parish - Mondovi. After two years, Fr. James was assigned as Chaplain and Instructor of Religion at Regis Middle and High School and was also assigned Associate Vocation Director. In his final year at Regis, Fr. James was also appointed Parochial Administrator of Saint Raymond of Penafort Catholic Church, serving south east Eau Claire County. From 2012-2015, Fr. James served as Pastor of Roncalli Newman Parish, serving the college students of Western Technical College and the University of Wisconsin - La Crosse. In 2015, Fr. James was named Pastor of St. Joseph's Parish in Menomonie, Wisconsin, which also serves St. Joseph's Grade School (3K thru 6) and the Newman Center at the University of Wisconsin - Stout. In 2017, in addition to his responsibilities to St. Joseph Parish and StoutCatholic, Fr. James was also named Pastor of St. Luke Parish in Boyceville, Wisconsin. Fr. James also teaches Introduction to Philosophy for the Diocese of La Crosse’s diaconal formation program.

In regard to his interest in astronomy, Fr. James is a member of both the Chippewa Valley Astronomical Society and the La Crosse Area Astronomical Society. He taught an Introduction to Astronomy course during his time at Regis High School in Eau Claire. Fr. James' first involvement with the Vatican Observatory came when an inquiry led to the development of the first "Faith and Astronomy Workshop" (FAW), designed for parish educators and clergy that are not professional scientists.

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Understanding The Interpretive Frame Of Faith And Science — 1 Comment

  1. Thanks for the insightful article, Father James. The rough concepts of “interpretive frames” and “bunker mentalities” had been on my mind a great deal lately, but I hadn’t put exact names to such phenomena until reading this. On the “Faith and Science” front, I’ve certainly been struck by the confusion and even cognitive dissonance many of my atheist and agnostic friends (and even one of my brothers) have displayed over the past few years since I’ve returned to the Catholic faith – “but you’ve had a scientific education!”, “but you’re a liberal humanist!”, “but you believe in evolution and the Big Bang, don’t you?”. The centuries-long academic contributions of Jesuit, Franciscan and other priest-scientists, the rich tradition of Catholic humanism, and the fact that the church has endorsed those mentioned models of cosmology and evolutionary biology for longer than I’ve been alive, just don’t register in their worldview. I suspect even to the extent that I’ve convinced a few of them that religious faith and science can theoretically co-exist, those friends still see me as an odd, enlightened exception to a broader image of illiberal and science-hostile Catholicism that is firmly cemented in their “interpretive frames”.

    To be fair, these narrow worldview-frames exist in the other direction as well – I’ve definitely noticed a certain amount of bemusement and politely concealed disinterest when I talk about Faith and Science issues with my fellow theology students or parish members, and one student colleague (a seminarian) gently teased that I might have wandered into the wrong classroom on my way to the sciences faculty… which both amused and pained me, coming from an aspiring minister in the church of Roger Bacon, Teilhard de Chardin, and Georges Lemaître! But there you are; certainly I’m painfully aware that I’m well embedded in many manifestations of my own bunker mentality on issues that I hold strong views over, which I need to work harder at digging out of. 🙂

    As to the question “What do you think is the pathway out of this “club” mentality? Can we engage each other in a charitable manner that steps us out of our presumptions to explore questions of truth? And can we do this in a way that promotes charity, patience, and unity instead of polemics dug into their respective bunkers?” I don’t know of any easy answers, and I think the hard answer is constant recourse to the old stand-by of patient, open-minded, respectful and loving dialogue with our fellow humans. Which can be harder than ever in our modern world of polarized politics, non-overlapping social media bubbles, and aggressively clashing value systems, but we have to keep trying, and have faith that it’s the right path.

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