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AAAS Retreats Help Seminarians Leverage Science

Conservative Protestant retreat participants explore the flora and fauna of Mt. Hood, Oregon.

AAAS recently hosted three summer enrichment retreats for Christian seminary educators that introduced leading-edge scientific developments, and methods for incorporating science into classrooms, to better equip seminary students to enhance the role of science in their future congregations.

The trio of retreats in Maine and Oregon built on the success of AAAS’ Science for Seminaries project and were hosted by AAAS’ Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER) program.

Over four-days, participants heard from a mix of scientist advisors, faculty from seminaries considering ways to incorporate science in their institutions, faculty mentors experienced in science integration, and project leaders from the 10 pilot seminaries AAAS is helping in their efforts to reflect science in their core curricula. 

Project partners provided “effective strategies for navigating the challenge of addressing issues related to science by non-specialist seminary professors,” said Steven M. Studebaker, associate professor of systematic and historical theology and the Howard & Shirley Bentall Chair in evangelical thought at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario.

“We were impressed by the broad range of scientific topics these new partner seminarians were seeking to incorporate in their courses,” said Jennifer Wiseman, AAAS DoSER director.  “Genetics, neuroscience, cosmology, ecology, and evolutionary biology were just a few of the areas these leading faculty have identified as having important connections to their core educational goals.”

The retreats generated strong interest. New relationships and resources for supporting science integration efforts were viewed as a highlight of the opportunity, which was offered through a rigorous application process. Like the 10 pilot seminaries in the Science for Seminaries project, participants were chosen by an independent advisory board seeking geographic, denominational, and demographic diversity. Thirty-seven faculty members out of 135 applicants were chosen to attend.

Maine and Oregon site locations provided a natural setting for discussion, course preparation, and science field trips. The gatherings were grouped by “ecclesial family” – Catholic/Orthodox, Mainline Protestant, and Conservative/Evangelical Protestant – to help better focus on the interests and concerns around science unique to each community.

Catholic retreat participants build relationships with peers and advisors.

The Catholic/Orthodox retreat discussions were varied, though Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical Laudato si provided a backdrop for conversation, particularly as it relates to ethical concerns. Sessions on neuroscience and cosmology, and their relevance to understanding human individual and corporate life experience, were also of particular interest to participants. 

“I have renewed confidence in my ability to integrate science into my philosophy courses,” said attendee Beth A. Rath, assistant professor of philosophy at Borromeo Seminary in Wickliffe, Ohio.

Many of the faculty at the Mainline Protestant retreat, who said they already integrate science into their courses, expressed interest in deepening those connections.  The intersection of science and social justice issues was front and center.

“Science raises so many important questions for all types of theology and the religious communities that profess them. It is clear that for theology or the church to be relevant, the cosmological issues and debates about the nature of humanity and life that the natural sciences engender must be considered more thoroughly,” said Mainline attendee Jim Higginbotham,  associate professor of pastoral care and counseling at Earlham School of Religion in Richmond, Indiana. “The journey ahead for incorporating more natural science in my classes will be stimulating.”

Mainline retreat participants discuss curricular revisions with current Science for Seminaries project partners.

The Evangelical/Conservative presentations covered a variety of subjects that informally centered on engagement with questions that evolution raises in these communities, particularly within institutional and denominational structures, said DoSER Senior Program Associate Walter Rogero. The discussion was organically generated by participants’ questions and conversations, he said.

“I came to have a better sense that science and religion are not at war with each other. The disciplines, though different in many important ways, are simply studying different realities and phenomena,” said attendee Derek Cooper, associate professor of world Christian history and director of the LEAD Master of Divinity Program at Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatfield, Pennsylvania.

Throughout the retreat, the enthusiasm and excitement of participating faculty was palpable. This was evident in participants’ thoughtful and engaging questions during various sessions and during curriculum development conversations, recalls DoSER Program Associate Curtis Baxter.

Observations and insights from current project partners on individual curriculum development ranked as a highlight for participants at all three retreats. The consultations came after current partners presented diverse approaches to science integration, and before the final sessions at which participating faculty drew on the information they gained from the retreats to pitch their course revision ideas to a supportive group of peers.

“It was fantastic to watch this time unfold as participants deeply engaged the individual courses they were crafting for the project through one-to-one mentoring moments,” said Rogero.

J. Sergius Halvorsen, director of the doctor of ministry program and assistant professor of homiletics and rhetoric at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary in Yonkers, New York, said, “One of the most valuable facets of the experience was having time to speak with scientists about their work, and discuss with them how my theological discipline intersects with scientific theories and hypotheses.”

Each retreat included a mix of structured and unstructured discussions between current and new project faculty. Field trips provided tangible opportunities to explore connections between science and theological scholarship. In Maine, these included guided tours of the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens and the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences. In Oregon, guided star-gazing and nature walks rounded out the experience. 

The Science for Seminaries pilot project officially concludes in November 2016. Yet, AAAS and its project partner, the Association of Theological Schools, will continue to provide resources to interested seminaries, including a series of short science-education videos previewed by retreat attendees.

The videos and other curricular resources will be available online at The project has also sparked a new effort for enhancing science in rabbinic education. DoSER is partnering with Sinai and Synapses to foster enriched science engagement in several rabbinic training institutions.

Perhaps the most valuable resource AAAS provides seminaries is a connection to a vast network of AAAS scientists and potential mentors in science-related specialties. As retreat participant Beth Rath noted, “AAAS has provided me with a network of project partners and scientists with whom I can consult.”

[Associated image: AAAS/David Buller]