AAAS Assesses Cooperative Strategies for Incorporating Science into Theological Education

What does it mean to live in a universe that is ever-expanding? Will discoveries about early galaxy formation and extrasolar planets change our assumptions about our place in the world? If believing in the power of a placebo can trigger the body’s immune-system responses, could religious faith help promote healing, too?

Exploring such questions during their training could assist future religious leaders in talking about science with their congregations, said astrophysicist Jennifer Wiseman, director of the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion. Incorporating more science into the theological instruction of clergy also might prove useful to churches struggling to remain helpful and relevant to youth, she said at a recent workshop.

The pilot event, convened 7 October by AAAS in collaboration with the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) and the Washington Theological Consortium (WTC), brought together Washington, D.C.,- area seminary professors and students, clergy, and scientists.

“We’re gathering information and ideas on what we, as scientists, can do to help theological schools that are seeking to enhance the presence of science, not just as auxiliary courses, but incorporated into the core of their curricula,” Wiseman explained. She noted that “many people look to religious leaders for guidance on life issues, nearly all of which are influenced today by science and technology.”

AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner, executive publisher of Science, emphasized that the initiative will focus on promoting civil dialogue within society by preparing clergy to communicate science. “It is not about proselytizing to each other, but rather, serving common needs,” he said. “We find it is counterproductive to advancing science to have tension at the science-religion interface. We want to figure out how we can be helpful in smoothing that relationship.”

Stephen Graham of ATS, which serves 261 Christian theology schools in the United States and Canada, agreed that easing societal conflicts should be a key goal of the AAAS program. “We are convinced, as I know you are, that there is no inherent conflict” between religious faith and scientific discovery, said Graham, the group’s director of faculty development and initiatives in theological education. “We want to have the whole spectrum [of world views] around the table.”

Topics such as climate change, neuroscience, astrophysics, and health-related research could serve as “intellectual sweet spots” for stimulating dialogue if they are matched with the institutional goals of seminaries, said Larry Golemon, executive director of WTS, which serves 11 seminaries and related institutions in Washington, D.C. In the past, he noted, theological texts were often interpreted within their broader societal context. But times have changed since the end of the 19th century, when many seminaries were still integrated with universities, said Golemon.

Participants at the AAAS workshop identified a wide range of both challenges and opportunities associated with integrating science into today’s theological instruction.

For example, Deirdre Hainsworth, assistant professor of Christian Ethics and director of the Center for Business, Religion and Public Life at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, expressed an interest in more definitive educational resources related to science and designed to meet the needs of seminary students. “If we can create windows of credible, reliable scientific information that my students can look through, that would be so helpful,” said Hainsworth, whose seminary offers a Doctor of Ministry program encompassing theology and science.

Continuing education for religious leaders was another strategy proposed by Pastor Doug Bratt of the Silver Spring Christian Reformed Church and others. “Twenty-five years ago when I was at the seminary, I got no input on the nexus of science and society,” Bratt said. “Seminaries need to think seriously about continuing education. There’s only so much content you can jam into a limited time-period leading up to a degree.”

In fact, several participants asked whether it would be feasible for seminary faculty to get through all required content while also adding new science components to their offerings. Hainsworth advised against delivering “five-minute science chunks.” Instead, she proposed integrating science, and an understanding of scientific practices, into the study of theological topics such as ethics. Including science as part of “contextual” and “reflective” components of theological curriculum, as well as outsourcing scientific courses, or recruiting scientists as guest speakers, were also discussed.

How best to keep abreast of rapidly changing scientific developments was identified as a key challenge, along with the reluctance of some religious people to question authority. Astrophysicist Joan Centrella pointed out that scientists are trained to ask probing questions, yet this can sometimes seem out of place in a church setting. “My understanding of authority is very different, as a scientist,” she noted.

In response, Goleman said there may be a need for increased knowledge of both scientific content and “scientific practices and thought processes.” An understanding of the need for continual reassessment and questioning in science could help clergy to better interpret science to their congregations, he said.

Four speakers offered updates on scientific advances in the fields of neuroscience, earth and space, and evolution. For example, bioengineer Nathalia Peixoto of the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Studies and George Mason University reported on emerging brain-computer technologies to help those with neurodegenerative conditions or injuries resulting in paralysis. “We’d like people who cannot walk to be able to drive a car with their brains,” she said.

After listening to her presentation, a workshop participant noted that Peixoto’s work raises philosophical questions such as, “What is a person?” and “What is a mind?” She said her team, like most researchers in cutting-edge fields, collaborates on a regular basis with ethicists.

National Institutes of Health neuroscientist Esther Sternberg, author of the book Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being, explained how chronic stress can contribute to illness, while “believing”—in particular, in the effectiveness of a placebo medication—can trigger protective immunological responses. Daryl Domning, a Howard University paleontologist, anatomist and evolutionary biologist, reviewed the large body of evidence that supports the scientific theory of evolution.

Wiseman, a NASA astrophysicist, described recent space-science discoveries. “We are now seeing light emitted over 13 billion years ago from extremely distant galaxies,” she explained. “This is helping us to unravel the mysteries of how galaxies and stars began to form shortly after the Big Bang, evolving over cosmic time to eventually support the incredible presence of habitability and life we enjoy on our planet today.”

Religious leaders shared their struggles in dealing with scientific issues credibly. Pastor Walter Rogero of the Calvary Gospel Church in Arlington, Virginia, a denomination that is conservative, and in part fundamentalist, said that most of his congregants want him to “affirm their spiritual beliefs.” Rogero sees no conflict between believing in God and accepting evolution. “A challenge for me,” he explained, “was learning to speak coherently about how the natural world works.”

The 7 October event followed a 2010 gathering where theologians advised AAAS staff on practical options they are considering for bringing science into the mix of curricula offered by seminaries, and how scientists could help. One idea to emerge from that event, Wiseman said, was to hold continuing regional dialogues on “Seminaries and Science,” building relationships between research scientists and nearby theological schools. AAAS will host another such pilot workshop 18-19 November at the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion annual conference in San Francisco.

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