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AAAS Program to Expand Science Engagement in Diverse Group of Seminaries

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Science for Seminaries faculty took a field trip to the George Washington University Center for the Advanced Study of Human Paleobiology during their April curriculum meeting. | Lilah Sloane/AAAS

This fall, a collection of nine geographically and theologically diverse seminaries will begin to integrate science into their core curricula as new participants in Science for Seminaries, an ongoing project of the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER) program.

The group is the second of four that will participate in Science for Seminaries. Organized by DoSER in partnership with the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), the five-year initiative aims to prepare future faith leaders to engage their congregants in dialogues on science and technology issues. In all, AAAS will select 32 seminaries to carry out 18-month projects, building on a successful three-year pilot project that included 10 schools and ended in 2017.

The nine newly added schools include Science for Seminaries’ first United Methodist Church institution, Iliff School of Theology; first Canadian campus, Ambrose Seminary; and first school sponsored by the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, Hood Theological Seminary. Likewise, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary represents the initiative’s first connection with the Southern Baptist Convention. With more than 15 million members, the Southern Baptist Convention is the United States’ second-largest Christian denomination, after the Catholic Church.

The group’s additional participating schools are Catholic Theological Union, George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University, Knox Theological Seminary, St. John's Seminary, and Wartburg Seminary.

“Science and technology impact every aspect of modern life,” said DoSER Program Director Jennifer Wiseman during introductory remarks to the faculty at the new group’s curriculum meeting last week. Given that most Americans identify with a religious tradition and often consider the value and impacts of science and technology through that lens, AAAS and ATS determined that equipping clergy with better science connections has broad societal benefits.

Relevant science exposure is “something that a wide range of seminaries are now recognizing as an important part of the education of future clergy,” Wiseman added. “In turn, these leaders can set an environment in their future congregations that will welcome healthy discussions of the impact of science and technology on everything from philosophical and theological issues on what it means to be human to practical issues of public service around the world.”

Only one in ten students pursuing Master of Divinity degrees has an undergraduate degree in the natural sciences, according to a 2018 survey by ATS . This lack of scientific instruction often leaves clergy unequipped to address church members’ needs, says Curtis Baxter, a DoSER senior program associate who oversees Science for Seminaries.

“Many congregants go to their pastors when they have questions about science and technology,” Baxter said at the recent curriculum meeting. “And yet pastors often don’t have the resources or, sometimes, the confidence to answer those questions, to point the congregants to where they can find answers, or to incorporate helpful science into their ministries and societal service.”

Science for Seminaries addresses this issue by providing schools with a number of resources, from subscriptions to Science magazine to short films designed to spark classroom discussion on science topics. DoSER also recruits local scientists and science-experienced faith leaders as science advisers for each seminary and supports faculty members’ travel and registration to the AAAS Annual Meeting.

For their part, participating seminaries pledge to incorporate science into at least two core courses and to hold at least one science-themed, campus-wide event during the 18-month grant period. The 10 schools that participated in the pilot project, however, far exceeded expectations. The group reworked a total of 110 courses, rather than the required 20, and held 76 campus events, rather than the required 10.

Through the schools in the new cohort, Science for Seminaries will reach many different religious communities and touch on a broad range of advances in science and technology. Denver’s Iliff School of Theology, for example, is the only Mainline Protestant seminary in the Rocky Mountain region, says Ted Vial, a professor of theology and modern western religious thought at the school. Founded in 1892, Iliff serves more than 30 denominations and faith traditions.

Iliff faculty will use the grant to widen the scope of the school’s recently founded Artificial Intelligence Institute, which will hold its first event in May. Vial plans to revamp his Introduction to Theology course to include questions raised by AI about theological anthropology, what it means to be human, and more.

“Until now, the AI Institute has been data scientists and faculty working independently,” he says. “This grant is the opportunity to get it into the DNA of the curriculum.”

Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary will use the Science for Seminaries grant to host a faith and science symposium on campus in February 2020. In the meantime, Roger Olson, a professor of Christian theology and ethics at Truett, plans to expand the ways in which he discusses science in his courses. Olson’s book, The Journey of Modern Theology: From Reconstruction to Deconstruction, focuses on how, over time, various schools of theology have reacted to scientific disruptions brought about by thinkers like Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin.

“It’s been an intense interest of mine, and I incorporate it into most of my classes already,” he says. “Overall, my purpose is to try to get the students interested in the relationship between science and Christian theology and to see science not as the enemy, but as a partner in the search for truth.”