William P. Brown, a Presbyterian minister, scholar, teacher, author and AAAS member, works diligently to bridge the perceived gap between science and religion.
Brown is the William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary (CTS) in Decatur, Georgia, one of ten theological seminaries of the Presbyterian Church (USA). From 2015 to 2017, he oversaw CTS’s participation in the three-year pilot program that launched Science for Seminaries, a project of the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER), which promotes an ongoing conversation between scientists and religious communities. The project’s goal is to support future members of the clergy in their efforts to comfortably talk with their congregations about issues that fall at the nexus of science, ethics and religion.
“I’ve always thought there’s no conflict whatsoever” between theology and religion, said Brown. “Theology has nothing to fear and everything to gain from science.”
Brown’s father was a “farm boy” from Washington who taught dairy science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Brown himself was “fortunate to have been raised in a strong Christian home” outside Tucson, and to have belonged to a Presbyterian congregation that was “next door” to the university. “I grew up on the desert, surrounded by stars, away from the city lights,” Brown said. It was there, in high school, with the aid of a six-inch telescope he’d built himself, that theology began to prevail in his life. “Just trying to comprehend the vastness of the universe, for me, was a spiritual exploration of God’s creation.”
Originally an engineering major at the University of Arizona, Brown switched to philosophy in his junior year and transferred to Whitman College in Washington, “much to the dismay of my parents.” He holds a master’s degree from Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, and a Ph.D. in Old Testament studies from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. After graduation, he taught Old Testament and Biblical Theology, first at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Virginia and then at CTS in Georgia. Brown’s courses connect “the use of scripture in the life of the church and the world, particularly in the context of ecology and justice.”
The majority of CTS students come into the seminary with liberal arts degrees like English, philosophy or religion. Those who do have solid science training seem somewhat “sheepish” about it, Brown said, but he encourages them to keep that flame burning. He quotes British astrophysicist Martin Rees to the effect that science is our “one truly global culture.” Members of the clergy can’t afford to ignore the bond of “inquisitive awe” shared by both scientists and theologians.
In 2012, CTS was one of 10 seminaries that participated in the pilot program for Science for Seminaries. As part of the project, Brown brought a number of top scientists to CTS to talk about their work, including Yale astrophysicist Priyamvada Natarajan, who spoke about how cosmology has changed over the centuries; Emory University primatologist Frans de Waal, who considered in his talk whether humans are smart enough to appreciate animals’ intelligence; microbiologist and geneticist Claire M. Fraser, who discussed human identity as individuals and as microcosmic worlds; and NASA engineer Christine Darden, one of the African-American mathematicians featured in “Hidden Figures” (the book, that is; Darden’s character is not in the movie).
At the end of its participation in Science for Seminaries, CTS followed up with students to assess the program’s effectiveness. “We measured statistically and saw a dramatic rise in their familiarity with science. Now when there is a scientific discovery in the news, they are more interested than they were before, and attend to that with greater appreciation. For us, this was a very successful grant-funded program from the AAAS,” said Brown.
Brown believes that in recent years, “mutual distrust, fear and the demonization of dissent have fueled a social and political divisiveness” that has alienated some communities of faith from science. “Climate change is classic case in point,” with our current administration supporting depictions of legitimate science as a hoax. “[The ‘hoax’] is hogwash, but that’s where we are.”
Brown was one of 100 scholars from different religious traditions tapped to send letters to President Donald Trump as part of an independent national campaign “to articulate core American values.” These letters, titled “American Values Religious Voices: 100 Days. 100 Letters,” will be published this December. In his letter to President Trump, Brown focused on humans’ obligation to be good stewards of God’s creation. He wrote, in part:
Today I worry about our world as ecological crises continue to mount. Make no mistake: these are not hoaxes. As we enter into what some are calling ‘the long emergency,’ we are at a crossroads that requires wise and courageous leadership, the kind of leadership that has the long term in view and strives to preserve the health of the planet and ‘all that is in it.’ The only way forward begins with trusting science and acting accordingly.
Brown has also written several books of his own, including The Seven Pillars of Creation, which uses a deep understanding of the Old Testament to investigate, and seek to heal, the supposed dichotomy between theology and science.
Despite the current negative discourse, Brown believes conversations can – and are – changing. “Wonderful, mutually respectful conversations are happening between scientists and theologians under the radar.”