19 Nov

Seminaries and Science: From Principles to Practice

After considering the successes and struggles of science in core seminary classes on Friday, participants met on Saturday morning to look at the science portion of the Seminaries and Science project. Most attendees agreed it is a noble cause to teach theological education while heeding the excitement and ambiguities of the modern age, particularly the far-reaching implications of advancing science and technology. The goal of Saturday’s session was to consider the best methods for integration.

What is actually going on in labs across the world and how might this work relate to people’s understanding of themselves and their faith? The first presentation was given by Dr. Jennifer Wiseman, speaking about her research as Senior Project Scientist of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. She showed brilliant images of distant stars and galaxies in their infancy, some so distant that their light began its journey merely a few hundred million years after the Big Bang, very early in the history of a universe over 13 billion years old. The study of astronomy has often been lauded by ancient and modern theologians because it instills in almost every person a sense of wonder about an extravagant universe that seems indiscernible, yet dutifully ordered. Questions about how massive stars function, the possibility of life on other planets, human significance, and human resourcefulness are inevitably broached, and people must consider what these topics might say about the purpose of billions of stars, the relationship between humans and non-human species, and limits of science. As future pastors prepare for ministry, they must anticipate such questions arising within their congregations and be prepared to discuss them.

After Dr. Wiseman’s presentation, Dr. James Doty, professor of Neurosurgery from Stanford University, pointed the scope in the other direction and asked the question – what guides human morality? He explained that his research regarding human altruism ultimately challenges a model of evolution that requires merciless victors. Perhaps there are genes that direct mothers to nurture their young, or the brooding, silent ape to father more babies than the alpha male, promoting group bonding over rogue individualists. As this research develops, theologians must respond to the theological implications of these observations. If it is embedded in humankind to nurture and bond, what does this say about pervasive evil throughout the world? What does this say about in-groups and out-groups throughout society? If we are genetically bound to act in certain ways, does this alter our understanding of free will?

Breakout groups following the science presentations considered best practices for actually incorporating science into core curricula. One consensus was that maintaining helpful online resources while fostering personal relationships was key to moving this project forward. Practically speaking, while some professors have good relationships with local scientists who they can bring into a classroom setting, this is not true for everyone – especially those in stand-alone or rural seminaries. Bringing in a science lecturer is too expensive and uncertain a task to rely on across the board. A speaker’s bureau of scientists available by region might help, though this would not address the needs of lone seminaries far from teaching hospitals, universities or laboratories.

Another recommendation was to create online resources to enhance a given lecture with manageable video clips, articles and discussion questions to use in a classroom. These would not advocate a “correct” way of parsing certain issues, but rather would provide thoughtful glimpses into complicated issues pertaining to science and theology. One issue seminary professors are facing is being overwhelmed by the actual science without considering the entire discipline first. A unit on the Philosophy of Science and the History of Science (taught by the professor or a visiting colleague) could benefit all inferences made of scientific studies as well as expose students to alternative ways of assessing particular problems. This pedagogical approach would make the professors and seminarians feel more comfortable addressing scientific topics and would lead to more enriching discussions about how their discipline speaks to and is illuminated by science and our growing understanding of the natural world.

Return to Seminaries and Science event page.

Return to DoSER Events page.