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Science for Seminaries in the Spotlight at the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting

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2015 DoSER AAR panel

Science for Seminaries panel discussion, Atlanta | AAAS/Christine A. Scheller

For Agnes Scott College astronomer Chris De Pree, there’s one outcome of the AAAS Science for Seminaries project that might take some by surprise. At public talks and events at the school's observatory, an increasing number of attendees have been students from the nearby Columbia Theological Seminary: future religious leaders with a newly-stoked curiosity about science. De Pree serves as a science advisor to several faculty members at Columbia who are working to integrate science into their theology courses. His lectures on cosmology in the seminary’s classes have been enthusiastically received, and the students have in turn started to seek out further engagement with science. For De Pree—and the students’ theology professors—that’s a mission accomplished.

De Pree joined a number of seminary faculty from institutions participating in the Science for Seminaries project in sharing outcomes like this at a November 20 event on the eve of the American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in Atlanta. The preconference event, entitled “Science and the Next Generation of Religious Leaders: The Science for Seminaries Project,” was hosted in collaboration with the International Society for Science and Religion (ISSR) and the Association of Theological Schools (ATS). With a broad range of seminary and divinity school faculty in attendance from across the U.S. and U.K., seminary professors from pilot institutions in the project discussed outcomes, successes, and lessons learned regarding effective integration of science into their core courses for future religious leaders.

The Science for Seminaries project is led by the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion (DoSER) program, and has provided grants, networking, guidance, and science resources to ten leading seminaries across the U.S., including Catholic, Mainline Protestant, and Evangelical schools.

The preconference program opened with a dialogue between astronomer and DoSER Program Director Jennifer Wiseman and theologian Philip Clayton, a well-known scholar of the science and religion interface at the Claremont School of Theology in Claremont, California. The two traded questions and shared their perspectives on the relevance of science for seminary education and explored why, from their different perspectives, this endeavor to integrate science into the training of future religious leaders is important.

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Jennifer Wiseman and Philip Clayton | AAAS/Christine A. Scheller

Jennifer Wiseman situated the Science for Seminaries project within the AAAS mission to “advance science and serve society,” and spoke of the potential for religious leaders to “be a prominent voice for science.” Many Americans consider topics related to science in the context of a religious worldview, and previous DoSER work has shown that many people of faith will turn to a pastor or other religious leader for questions about science. Wiseman stressed that “This has an impact on the health of science; if the public does not see the relevance of science in every aspect of their life, if they do not hear about it accurately from the voices that they trust, then it’s going to impact not only the public support of science but also the public’s ability to receive the benefits of science.” By working with seminaries to integrate science into the training of future religious leaders, this project has the potential to increase positive understanding and appreciation of science within religious communities and American society at large.

Philip Clayton echoed Wiseman in highlighting the influence that religious leaders have in shaping public attitudes and understandings regarding science. Speaking more broadly, he also argued that “science needs to be a part of the theological endeavor,” and that the work of church leaders is broadened and enhanced by engagement with science. “What you scientists call us to do is to share in the human quest for knowledge…to speak of a world which is filled with facts and givens, but also with values as well.” For seminarians and religious leaders, “The dialogue with science helps us to recognize and speak to social issues from the perspective of justice, of a loving God, and the dignity of all human beings.”

Faculty panelists on the first of two afternoon panels shared what they have learned and accomplished through in-classroom curricular revision to include sciences, such as genetics, evolution, neuroscience, and astronomy. Through additional readings, lectures, and discussions, the professors have found ways to integrate these scientific topics naturally into the preexisting course content on biblical studies, systematic theology, pastoral theology, church history, and more. Panelists offered practical tips on how to draw upon students with degrees and experience in science, and how to effectively prepare for scientist guest lectures and provide time student discussion and interaction with scientists.

By fielding brief surveys about science to students before and after these courses, faculty have been able to track how integration of scientific content reshapes students’ perceptions of science. “We did see a dramatic rise in appreciation of science,” said Columbia Theological Seminary professor Bill Brown, calling that “a sign of success.” Students have become more likely to seek out scientific research on ministry-related questions in other courses as well, said Catholic University of America’s David Bosworth.

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M.T. Davila | AAAS/Christine A. Scheller

On the second panel of the afternoon, several additional seminary professors discussed how they have engaged with science outside the classroom, such as by hosting public lectures by noted scientists or taking students on field trips to research laboratories.

Students at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity were able to see scientific research up-close with a scientist-led tour of laboratories at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Not content to stop there, the divinity school even went so far as to take 23 students on a trip to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The trip was powerful in “helping us to appreciate the power and the importance of science, but also rekindling [students’] religious sensibility and humility,” said project leader Kevin Jung – so much so that a divinity school dean suggested that the school’s theological travel courses might be expanded to include not just Israel or early Christian church sites, but also scientific sites that provoke a sense of wonder and awe at the universe.

For Andover Newton Theological School outside Boston, the seminary’s annual Woodbury Leadership Workshop is a yearly opportunity to engage with alumni and local faith leaders on different ministry topics each year. M.T. Davila, a project faculty participant in the school’s integration of science, shared the seminary’s plans for the 2016 Workshop to focus on exploring science and its importance for communities of faith, particularly regarding cognitive science and its relevance for understanding and planning church worship and liturgical experiences.

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Stephen Graham

Stephen Graham | AAAS/Christine A. Scheller

For all of the seminary leaders who presented their work at the conference, robust engagement with science is clearly important for their own work and that of their institutions. “If you think ahead to where the church is going to be, it’s going to be increasingly a church that has to be relevant to a culture profoundly shaped by science and technology, said Ron Cole-Turner, a theologian and ethicist at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. “As theological educators, we have no right to educate for irrelevance,” he said.

Stephen Graham, Senior Director of programs and services at the Association of Theological Schools, described the project as a way to “improve and enhance the work of the schools, and strengthen their preparation of leaders for the benefit of communities of faith and the broader public.”

As DoSER continues to plan a series of faculty enrichment retreats for the summer of 2016 to introduce the Science for Seminary efforts to a broader group of seminary leaders, we continue to look for ways to connect religious leaders and educators with quality forefront science. Speaking from his perspective as an astronomer, De Pree encouraged last month’s conference attendees by saying that “many scientists are interested in the same kinds of questions” as are religious people, with both groups sharing a “sense of wonder at the universe.” For institutions that seek to bring science to the training of future religious leaders, “I think that you’ll be surprised when you approach your colleagues in science about this sort of dialogue and collaboration that you’ll find a lot of willing participants…I think that many, many scientists are interested in this conversation.”