Seminaries and Science: Challenges and Opportunities
Science and technology have an enormous impact on society, and many citizens seek guidance on these issues from trusted religious leaders. Many pastors and religious leaders, however, don’t feel prepared to discuss science because their own experience with it has been limited. They may not have encountered science in their theological education, nor do they have practical sources of reliable scientific information.
Given these concerns, AAAS and the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) co-hosted a panel discussion on November 18 that explored the role of science in seminary education. Panelists included research scientists, clergy, seminary professors, students, and administrators. This event coincided with the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) annual conference in San Francisco, the world’s largest meeting for religious studies scholars, with more than 10,000 attendees. The AAAS panel drew a standing-room only crowd of students and professors.
Panelist Christina Powell, a bioinformatics scientist, medical writer, and ordained minister, pointed out that it is not sufficient–nor practical–for pastors to keep track of all up-to-the-minute scientific breakthroughs. Instead, seminaries need to prepare them to think through the fundamental questions posed by science and ethics. By better understanding the foundations of science, clergy will be better prepared to address the ramifications of new discoveries.
Panelist Doug Strong, Dean of the School of Theology at Seattle Pacific University, described a number of lingering barriers to science in seminaries. One obstacle is that certain congregations and denominations are unsupportive of students learning natural science. Another challenge is that the majority of students come to seminary with a background in the humanities, not the natural sciences. Additionally, seminary professors themselves rarely have sufficient training in science to effectively incorporate it into their courses. Finally, substantial changes to curricula require additional funding. With educational institutions already struggling with finances, most are looking to cut costs, not increase them.
Panelist Ron Cole-Turner, a professor of theology and ethics at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, argued that what seminaries need are not science classes, nor “science and religion” classes, but rather an enriched theology. He cautioned that theological doctrines have always been filled with philosophical assumptions about the natural world, and instead of perpetuating these assumptions, we should regularly re-assess them. In fact, we should cultivate a habit in educators and students to explore how scientific discoveries impact doctrinal traditions and teach theology “as if science actually mattered.” Not only would this approach enliven theological studies, but it would also prepare future clergy for the challenges and opportunities they face in our contemporary culture.
Panelist Blake Horridge, an ordained minister and director of the Science in the Sanctuary Project, noted that in many church communities where there are high rates of poverty, violence, and sickness, scientific literacy is a low priority. How is a proper understanding of science relevant to people with such urgent needs? Answering that question must start in seminaries.
Panelist Bianca Quezada is a recent graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and also has a degree in physics and astronomy. She explained that most students who attend seminary do so because they have great interest in the personal and social dimensions of society. Therefore, in order for science to take root in seminaries, we have to find ways to present it in a more personally engaging manner, not merely as a product of cold, disinterested logic.
All panelists were quick to acknowledge the many challenges seminaries face in trying to modify their curricula. Dr. Cole-Turner joked. “I come from an institution that is rooted in the 16th century, and I sometimes wonder whether we are still preparing our students to live in the 16th century.” Still, all were optimistic and insistent that such changes should take place. This sentiment was shared by the audience, as demonstrated in a lively Q and A.
Dr. Deborah Gill, a professor of biblical studies at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, asked, “Where do we add science to the seminary curriculum?” Dr. Cole-Turner answered that we need to modify the way that we teach theology—this includes our theological method, our doctrine of God, and our conception of human nature. Another audience member asked where there might be opportunities for interfaith efforts. Dr. Horridge responded that there is great potential for creating consensus over ethical issues. DoSER Director Jennifer Wiseman added that environmental issues are also a rich source of interfaith collaboration.
By the end of the session the room contained a palpable sense of excitement about the possibilities of enhancing the role of science in seminary education.