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Seminarians See Science as Relevant to Future Ministry

DoSER Seminary Site Visit

DoSER Project Director Se Kim (second from right) discussing project plans with colleagues at Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University.   | AAAS/David Buller

What do America’s future religious leaders think about science and its relevance for their studies and future ministries? Campus-wide surveys at the theological schools participating in the AAAS “Science for Seminaries” project indicate that while a clear majority of students recognize the value and relevance of science, a large portion of them have never encountered a discussion of science in a seminary course or campus event.

The surveys, fielded in the 2014-2015 academic year, indicated a receptive and fertile ground for scientific content and discussions. Student respondents showed a high level of interest and overall positive perceptions of the value of science. Across the 10 pilot project seminaries, most students see science as being relevant both to their current seminary studies and to their future ministries, and agreed that greater discussion of science was needed in their seminary.                                   

Several project professors expected a generally positive response from the surveys but were still surprised by the students' high level of science appreciation. In fact, seminary students overall expressed a significantly higher interest in reading about new scientific discoveries than the general U.S. populace has shown in at least one national survey.

Project leaders at the participating Science for Seminaries institutions are eager to leverage that interest, with scientific guest lectures, discussions, and readings in a select number of core courses that all students will be required to take. As a result of this project, seminary faculty are integrating science into courses in systematic theology, biblical studies, church history, pastoral counseling, ethics, and more.

Some of the most common scientific topics presented and discussed include cosmology and astronomy, neuroscience and psychology, biological evolution, and ecology and the environment. These topics are often integrated in novel and perhaps unexpected places; for example, at Catholic University of America, Dr. Stefanos Alexopoulos is bringing neuroscience into his course “Foundations of Liturgy and Sacrament,” to explore the value of science in illuminating the impact of liturgical worship in congregants’ minds. More common points of contact include presenting the science of biological evolution or modern cosmology in a course on the biblical book of Genesis, or discussing psychology in a course on pastoral counseling.

The engagement with science extends beyond the classroom, as the seminaries plan and conduct campus-wide events and activities to explore the relevance of science to theological education and ministry. Columbia Theological Seminary near Atlanta, for example, recently hosted a lecture with Celia Deanne-Drummond, a noted scholar at the University of Notre Dame with earned doctorates in both science and theology. Dr. Deanne-Drummond lectured on “Evolution, Humans, and Other Animals: Engaging Theology and Anthropology.”

In September 2015, Concordia Seminary in St. Louis will host a symposium to explore recent findings in neuroscience and their implications for pastoral ministry. The event is expected to draw not only students and faculty, but also pastors and scholars within the school’s religious denomination (The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod). Complementing this event will be a campus-wide book club discussion of a chosen book on neuroscience for faculty and students to explore together throughout the school year.

In addition to these and many other campus events, project leaders are finding ways for their students to see scientific research being conducted first-hand. For example, Dr. Kevin Jung at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity brought a group of seminary students to the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in the fall of 2014, where they heard an hour-long presentation by a biomedical scientist and had an in-depth tour of the research projects and facilities.

The Science for Seminaries project, which began in 2014, is spearheaded by the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER), and is part of the program's efforts to advance science and serve society by encouraging productive dialogue between scientific and religious communities. The project was launched in partnership with the Association of Theological Schools, the seminaries’ central accrediting body.

As many Americans consider scientific discoveries in the context of a religious worldview, the Science for Seminaries project seeks to help better prepare future religious leaders to address and discuss scientific issues with those they lead. By integrating science into the core of seminary training, AAAS and the seminary project leaders aim to communicate the relevance and importance of science for a wide range of societal and religious issues. In the course of this three-year project, DoSER hopes to help create science resources that will be useful for other seminaries in the years ahead.                                                                                                                                     

To assist the pilot seminaries, AAAS has provided input and guidance for project leaders on finding quality scientific content, and has also helped to assemble small advisory groups for each seminary project. These advisory groups consist of at least two local research scientists and two external seminary faculty (with extensive experience engaging with science in seminary courses) to serve as faculty mentors.

Over the past few months, DoSER staff traveled to all 10 of the pilot seminaries for day-long planning meetings with participating faculty and administrators, as well as their advisory groups of local scientists and faculty mentors. At each meeting, seminary project leaders reviewed their progress and gathered insight and suggestions from mentors and science advisors to plan future curricular revision and campus events.

Several seminaries looking for scientific expertise have had to look no further than their own classrooms; some of the seminary students hold advanced degrees in science and did scientific research before entering seminary. With three of the 10 seminaries on the campuses of major research universities, and with the other seven nearby research institutions, the seminaries are building connections with scientific experts right in their own backyards.

Participation in the Science for Seminaries project has also allowed seminary leaders to spark fresh discussions about science among their constituents, alumni, and denominational bodies. As faculty from Andover Newton Theological School said, “Numerous alumni have been in touch with us to share their excitement and our president is asked about [the Science for Seminaries project] by someone in almost every audience he addresses.” Other seminaries are leveraging their denominations’ websites and print publications to broadly communicate their efforts to engage with science.

This summer, participating faculty at each of the 10 seminaries will gather at AAAS headquarters in Washington, DC, for a two-day meeting to share their projects with each other, hear from scientists, explore ways to integrate various scientific topics, and learn about the science resources AAAS has to offer. With further science engagement to be planned for the 2015-16 academic year, AAAS remains excited to see the continued results of this fruitful collaboration.