Seeing and believing as a scientist

Seeing and believing as a scientist

Seeing and believing as a scientist

The interactive University of Particles exibit at CERN (Credit: United States Mission Geneva, cc via Flickr)

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the Spring 2017 edition of the Lutheran Forum. It is published here with the author’s permission.

I am an experimental particle physicist, working as the Run Coordinator of the Compact Muon Solenoid experiment in the Large Hadron Collider located at the CERN laboratory (an acronym of the original French name, Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire) in the picturesque countryside just outside of Geneva, Switzerland. I am responsible for the operation of one of the largest experiments in the world: a fourteen-ton detector with one hundred million channels of readout to detect proton collisions at a rate of forty million times per second.

We perform precision experiments to test the theoretical predictions of a model that quantitatively describes the interaction of subatomic particles. Precision experiments, particles, quantification, and theoretical models — my workweek sounds rather cold and calculating. And on Sunday mornings, I go to church.

Some number of years ago a cousin asked me, “How can you call yourself a ‘scientist’ and still believe in God?” What follows is how I have come to reconcile the potentially conflicting points of view within myself, a hard-nosed scientist who also believes in an all-powerful creator. What I have to say is not particularly deep. And given that my theological training goes barely beyond Luther’s Small Catechism, there are probably holes in the religious part. Moreover, given that I am an experimental physicist whose specialty is making detectors work, the theoretical physics stuff may also be not quite right. But it’s worth the try. Here we go.

A Method of Disproving

Over the past century, an extensive set of observations has led to a precise, quantitative, and nearly complete model of how the physical world operates. With the wealth of data at hand and the advanced state of the model, the theory is most effectively and economically studied with a deductive approach using the “scientific method.”

The scientific method is a technique whose most effective use is to disprove a theory. The physicist starts by assuming that a particular theory is true and then uses that theory to make a prediction specific enough to be tested by a controlled experiment. The point of the controlled experiment is to avoid nuances in the outcome. If the results of the experiment are not consistent with the prediction of the theory, then we can conclusively state that the theory is incorrect.

If, however, the results are consistent, the experiment is said to “support” the theory. For example, we observe that objects fall down. The theory for this action was developed by Newton: objects fall down because of gravitational attraction to the earth. One prediction of Newton’s theory was that all things would fall at the same rate of speed, regardless of their mass. On this basis, we can perform a controlled experiment by dropping two things of different mass at the same time, like a hammer and a rugby ball. Result: they hit the ground at the same time. The experiment is consistent with the prediction of the theory!

Note well that the experiment does not say that the theory is true, the be-all and end-all of the question at hand. The experiment says that the theory is not incorrect in this aspect. If instead the rugby ball were to hit the ground first, it would mean that Newton’s theory was wrong. A result that is inconsistent with the theory leads to a much, much stronger statement.

The scientific method is an extremely powerful way to make progress in physics. However, the astute reader will quickly realize that nowhere in the previous paragraph is there an attempt to explain why there is gravity. It is not a question to which we can apply the scientific method. Along the same lines, there are lots of questions that cannot be addressed well by the scientific method. Is there a God? How do I love my neighbor? How do we resolve a conflict? The scientific method is very powerful but it is also very limited.

Quarks, Leptons, Gluons, and Photons

Most questions people ask are not actually good questions for scientists to test and try to answer.

Science has come to a precise, quantitative, and nearly complete model of how the physical world operates. This model has had such amazing success that it is now known as the “Standard Model.” The name reflects its success: it is the model that nearly all modern-day experiments strive to test — that is to say, to disprove.

The Standard Model quantitatively describes the interaction of matter like this: a particle interacts with another particle by exchanging yet another particle. These particles are “quanta,” which means they cannot be broken down any further. They are the objects that comprise all of nature, having such exotic names as quarks, leptons, gluons, and photons.

The mathematics and rules of their exchange is thus called “quantum mechanics.” To add yet more mystique to the name, it has been observed that their exchange is governed by Einstein’s theory of relativity — the speed of light is the fastest things can go — so the mathematics is also called “relativistic quantum mechanics.”

Quantum mechanics describes an experiment that takes place in three steps: the initial state, the reaction, and the final state. It starts with a well-defined initial state — a proton beam of a given energy enters the target from a certain direction. The next step is the intermediate state in which the reaction happens. At this stage, the final products haven’t been seen yet, and therefore the “wavefunction” that describes this reaction simultaneously occupies all possible states. At the final state, the reaction products can be detected as the “collapse of the wavefunction” into a well-defined final state.

What wondrous words to describe the working of the microscopic world! And you put billions and billions of these particles together and what do you get? Flowers. A mountain stream. Music in your ears. The spontaneous laughter of a child. As much as I appreciate these things visible and audible to our human senses, over the years I have grown to appreciate them even more in realizing that they are all comprised of quarks and gluons whose exchange is quantitatively governed by relativistic quantum mechanics.

Asymmetry All the Way Down

Asymmetry in experimental physics means that the result of an experiment is the same, regardless of the point of view of the observer. For example, when a ball hits the wall, the result is that it bounces back from the wall toward you. If you were standing on the other side of the wall, that same ball would still bounce back from the wall, but this time it would bounce away from you. However, the result is the same: the ball bounces back from the wall. The fact that the interaction is the same, irrespective of your point of view, is asymmetry.

Although it seems a bit esoteric, the net result of these kind of symmetries is to highly constrain the math used in the Standard Model. As it turns out, one of these symmetries is that all particles are massless — they have zero mass. However, we know particles do actually have mass. This causes a problem for the theory! The way around it is explicitly to include into the theory a mechanism to break the symmetry and give particles mass while preserving all the other symmetries.

This is (a much too simple way to describe what is) known as the Higgs mechanism. To return from subatomic physics to everyday reality, we are all keenly aware of brokenness being an integral part of life. We experience it every time we eat the bread in communion, or describe Jesus on the cross, or think of our situation as sinners. However, as I see it, this brokenness extends further, fractally, to the subatomic realm where the Standard Model rules: a highly symmetric theory with built-in symmetry-breaking.

Those with Eyes to See

One time I gave a seminar at Valparaiso University where we discussed what happens when an experimental physicist looks at a yellow flower. Standing at a distance, it is a beautiful yellow flower in a mountain meadow. Get a lot closer, and now all you see is the yellow. What exactly are you seeing?

Sunlight is a mixture of all the colors in the spectrum: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. The color of the light is indicative of its energy, according to its position in the rainbow: blue light is more energetic than red light. So when the sunlight hits the flower, most colors are

absorbed except for the yellow light, which is re-emitted and detected by our eye. The reason that the flower re-emits the yellow light is because the molecules that make up the flower have an energetic structure that resonates with the energy corresponding to yellow light. You’ve gone from flower to molecules.

If you keep increasing the energy of the light shining on the flower, eventually you reach the point where you begin to resolve the energetic structure of the nuclei of the atoms that make

up the flower. Now when you “look” at the flower, you no longer see even the molecules — you see atomic nuclei.

If you increase the energy further, eventually you start to see the quarks and gluons. At this point your object doesn’t look anything like a flower, at all! In physics, as in life, what you see depends on how you look at it.

How can I be a scientist who believes? In these ways. I acknowledge that most questions can’t be answered by science. I recognize and admire the beauty of the subatomic realm. I realize that meaningful concepts recur at all levels of existence. I see new things when I look at them in new ways. Am I right? I have no idea. It does not matter.

As a scientist, I have the privilege to study God’s world in quantitative detail. As a scientist, I am obligated to do all I can to study the Standard Model, and as a Christian, I do it in praise of the Ultimate. I like to imagine that when scientists manage to discover some new little aspect or tiny feature of the created world, God says, “Good job, little researcher! Keep exploring. Just wait until you see what’s in store around the corner!”

I believe in the creator of heaven and earth, of all that is complex and simple. Bigger than my box. Ready to face the scientific method and any other question we bring to the table.

Sing to the Lord a new song!

Greg Rakness is Run Coordinator of the Compact Muon Solenoid experiment at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland.

God is not a pinhead

God is not a pinhead

Paul Dirac, as rendered through Dr. Günter Bachelier’s Evolutionary Art process. Credit: g.bachelier, cc via Flickr

Scientific American in May 1963 published theoretical physicist Paul Dirac’s article “The Evolution of the Physicist’s Picture of Nature.” It was my last year as a physics undergraduate and the article described important steps in development of relativity and quantum theory and also suggested future developments.

Dirac emphasized the importance of “beautiful mathematics” in describing the world and said, “One could perhaps describe the situation by saying that God is a mathematician of a very high order, and He used very advanced mathematics in constructing the universe.”

“God is a mathematician” wasn’t original with Dirac. Plato is reported to have said, “God is always doing geometry.” Heisenberg, another founder of quantum theory, described in his scientific autobiography Physics and Beyond how as a student he was both puzzled and intrigued by Plato’s description of the creation of the world from geometric elements.

I didn’t make mathematics my religion, but took seriously the idea that God had created a world according to mathematical pattern. That fits well with the prologue of John’s gospel which says that “all things came into being” through the divine Logos, the Word or Reason of God. These ideas influenced the direction of my later interests in physics and I gave a faculty lecture titled “God is a Mathematician” at a college where I taught.

Before I encountered Dirac I had read Einstein’s essay “On the Method of Theoretical Physics”. Here he emphasized that science must begin and end with experience of the world but that “the creative principle resides in mathematics. In a certain sense, therefore, I hold it true that pure thought can grasp reality, as the ancients dreamed.”

But what mathematics? When Plato spoke of God doing geometry he meant the system that was eventually canonized as Euclid’s Elements. It was the familiar geometry in which the Pythagorean theorem is true, the angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees, and so on. How else could the world be? If you were smart enough, “pure thought” could figure out how the world is.

But the discovery of consistent non-Euclidean geometries in the early 19th century showed that Euclid’s geometry isn’t the only possible one. There is more than one mathematical pattern God could use in creating a world. That is why observation of the way the world must be is the final test of any theory.

But here’s another bit of my history. In graduate school there was a weekly physics colloquium at which visiting scientists presented recent work which could be from a wide range of topics, theoretical and experimental. If the announced subject didn’t interest those of us who were focused on our own work, we might skip it.  Then our advisor, on his way to the colloquium, might see that my office mate and I weren’t planning to go, and would exhort us not to be “pinheads.”

That was a warning against narrow specialization in physics, but the principle is broader. Interest in all of physics, or even science in general, can be too narrow.  It’s appropriate to speak about “beautiful mathematics”, but not to say that only mathematics can be beautiful! In fact, we would be hard pressed to quantify the beauty of different mathematical theorems.

We know types of beauty and rationality that can be expressed in music, poetry, the visual arts, and other endeavors as well as in mathematics. There is more to a symphony than the arithmetic relations involved in harmony. Poetry is more than mathematically correct scansion and a perfect cube isn’t great art.

Mathematicians can be interested in other things than mathematics. They don’t have to be pinheads.

That’s true of humans, and also of God. Israel’s wisdom tradition, found in some books of the Old Testament with echoes in the New, is an important part of scripture but contains virtually nothing about mathematics. This, together with the variety and complexity of the natural world, suggests that God is not a pinhead.  We can say that God is “a mathematician of a very high order”, but God does other things too.

If that’s the case, perhaps the laws of nature (the real patterns of the world, not just our approximations to them) can’t be expressed entirely in terms of mathematics. To put it more provocatively, perhaps it isn’t really Physik über alles.

That will be called heresy by many physicists, so in support I call to witness another member of that tribe, John Polkinghorne. He suggests “the possibility of downward emergence, in which the laws of physics are but an asymptotic approximation to a more subtle (and more supple) whole.”  1

Polkinghorne points out, as others have done, that the wetness of water is something that only emerges when many H2O molecules are present because “wet” means nothing in terms of the basic laws describing molecules.

More importantly, while biological systems can be analyzed into molecules and atoms which behave in accord with quantum mechanics, the behaviors of living things as living things can’t be completely explained by the laws of physics. (This may remind some of Bohr’s idea that descriptions of a system as alive and as a machine are complementary.)

Such a suggestion will arouse suspicions of “vitalism”, but I think that misses the point. The example of “wetness” shows that we’re not talking only about living things. There is no special material of life, an idea that was disposed of in the 19th century when it was shown that “organic” chemicals could be synthesized from “inorganic” ones. And there are no forces or energies peculiar to biological systems. The basic interactions of physics suffice. Nevertheless,

the behaviors of living things will not be described adequately by solving (if we could) the Schrödinger equation for an immense number of atoms.

If we take these ideas seriously, they have implications for some significant issues in science-theology dialogue. If the laws of nature cannot be expressed exhaustively in terms of mathematics, then it seems likely that they are not completely deterministic. That would mean that God, without violating those laws, would have some flexibility in directing the course of natural processes, over and beyond whatever freedom of action chaos theory or quantum mechanics might confer. And some light might be shed on one of the major unsolved problems of science today, the origin of life (chemical evolution), and God’s involvement with that.

I’ll dive into that problem in my next article.

George Murphy received his Ph.D. in physics from Johns Hopkins for work on general relativity in 1972.  He taught at Westminster College (PA), The University of Western Australia and Luther College and did research for eleven years before entering Wartburg seminary. Ordained in 1983, he has served as a pastor in Lutheran and Episcopal congregations. His first article on theology and science was published in 1977 and he has since published six books and numerous articles and continues to speak and lead workshops in this area. His most recent book, Models of Atonement: Speaking about Salvation in a Scientific World (Lutheran University Press, 2013), discusses ways of understanding the saving work of Christ in an evolving world.

The church’s evolving role to play in the age of biological manipulation

The church’s evolving role to play in the age of biological manipulation

DNA double helix seen through an electron micrsocope. Credit: Karl-Ludwig Poggemann, cc via

When it came to a wooly clone of Dolly the sheep, the Church of England had a list of reservations about the genetic technology at the ready prior to the scientists’ announcement. But today, the CRISPR technology has flown under the church’s radar and is host to a myriad of ethical and moral issues that scientists themselves are grappling with seemingly on their own.

CRISPR, unlike cloning however, could have a widespread impact on the human population depending on how scientists decide today to move forward and what areas of human disease they will decide to focus on. Most recently, scientists have used the technique to slow the growth of kidney and cervical cancer cells, according to recently published research.

Let’s back up though and figure out what CRISPR-Cas9 is exactly and what it is used to accomplish in the laboratory.

According to Gayle Woloschak, a professor at Northwestern University School of Medicine and associate director at the Zygon Center for Religion and Science, CRISPR’s implication is still being assessed. Specifically, it is a nucleic acid complex that can be used to snip DNA at a precisely determined location, she told attendees to a lecture series titled, “Being the Church in an age of Biological Manipulation.”

The church’s evolving role to play in the age of biological manipulation

Gayle Woloschak speaks at ELCA event

CRISPR holds the potential to advance the genome because there are billions of possible ways to impact the genome through DNA cutting. The possible treatments that could be related to CRISPR are growing by the day, according to news reports. Diseases such as sickle cell disease, cystic fibrosis and HIV could very well be cured by CRISPR.

Last year, researchers at Temple University and the University of Pittsburgh unveiled a study using the gene editing tool as a way to eliminate HIV from infected cells. Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley announced recently that they’ve discovered 10 new CRISPR enzymes that could be used to diagnose diseases like Zika or dengue fever quickly and cheaply. The new enzymes that Berkeley researchers discovered are variants of the CRISPR protein Cas13a. The specialty of these new enzymes is detecting specific sequences of RNA, including those from a virus.

Scientists like Woloschak are concerned though as we seem to be inching closer to the first genetically modified human being. Unlike most scientists, Woloschak also has a divinity degree and is active in the religion and science dialogue in addition to her work in the lab.

To be clear, scientists, she says, have imposed some constraints on current research. The concern is that a person’s genetic make-up could be forever changed via CRISPR in a way that can be passed on to the next generation —  thereby impacting future generations. Today, in most of the European Union CRISPR is treated in the same way as genetically modified organisms, which are forbidden. In the US, however, CRISPR is regulated by institutional review boards (IRBs) that are tasked with approving scientific research and looking at the ethical component of the proposed research. IRBs are more concerned about the harmful impact that CRISPR may have on the individual but not the impact on the overall population, according to Woloschak.

The world’s first GM human seems nearly inevitable in the coming years. In fact, a DIY CRISPR kit is being sold online by Josiah Zayner, who created The ODIN using crowdfunding, Woloschak said in her lecture. The ODIN sells a CRISPR kit that contains everything one needs to perform a sample experiment. The kits are assembled in Zayner’s Palo Alto garage and mailed to customers.

Many in the scientific community have called for a world-wide moratorium on CRISPR. While some top scientists call this moratorium essential, according to Woloschak a recent international summit held in Washington, D.C. had some interesting discussions. It was concluded that basic and pre-clinical research into CRISPR was necessary. The clinical use on somatic cells was deemed promising, while the use in the germline holds great potential but is risky because of potential effects and implications for future generations. CRISPR’s use in the germline could lead to permanent genetic enhancements in the human population.

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the National Academy of Medicine recently published, “Human Genome Editing: Science, Ethics and Governance,” in taking a position on how CRISPR technology ought to be researched and applied.

The report reads: “The technology has excited interest across the globe because of the insights it may offer into fundamental biological processes and the advances it may bring to human health. But with these advances come many questions, about the technical aspects of achieving desired results while avoiding unwanted effects, and about a range of uses that may include not only healing the sick, but also preventing disease in ourselves and future generations, or even altering traits unrelated to health needs. Now is the time to consider these questions.”

In the past month, researchers have found that the CRISPR process yielded a significant number of unexpected gene mutations in mice that were treated for blindness using CRISPR.

In Woloschak’s opinion, scientists have traditionally ‘policed’ themselves via IRBs and ethics panels, but going forward, the immensity of CRISPR’s impact suggests the need for a response from the church.

Previously, in 2011, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America adopted a social statement on genetics. The social statement, “Genetics, Faith and Responsibility,” was one of the first social policy statements adopted by a North American church that developed a comprehensive ethical framework for addressing advancements in medical and agricultural research. While it addresses the increasing reliance on genetic modifications, the statement was released well before the proliferation of CRISPR-Cas9’s potential for medical purposes.

Rev. Dr. Barbara Rossing, professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, gave a companion lecture to Woloschak’s presentation that focused on the concept of healing in a Christian context. In her lecture, she also relied heavily on the NAS report, which concluded that germline genome editing “should be permitted only within a robust and effective regulatory framework.” This framework includes the availability of pre-clinical and/or clinical data on the risks and potential health benefits of the procedure. The NAS report also stressed continued monitoring of “both health and societal benefits and risks, with broad on-going participation and input by the public.”

Bringing the theological perspective into view, Rossing stressed that in the case of CRISPR that it is not “actually God coming in and miraculously healing creation, but the created co-creator healing the creation.”

“Obviously, we all want people living an abundant life,” she said, adding that one can look at CRISPR as a slippery slope or as a matter of humans providing healing as humans have been doing or 300,000 years. “Healing is part of who we are as God’s people,” she added.

Rossing also alluded to the social justice element of the potential use of CRISPR, where not all patients may have access to the new healing and potentially life-saving technology due to its cost.

A 2016 Pew research study found that while many Americans say they would want to use a technology like CRISPR for their own children, there is also considerable wariness when it comes to gene editing, especially among parents of minor children. Highly religious Americans, Pew found, are much more likely than those who are less religious to say they would not want to use gene-editing technology in their families.

And, when asked about the possibility of using human embryos in the development of gene-editing techniques, the majority of adults — including two-thirds of those with a high religious commitment—say that this would make gene editing less acceptable to them.

There is also the story of a young geneticist calling up churches in the Boston area looking to make contact with faith communities to engage them in a dialogue about her work in the lab as a geneticist. A number of years ago, Ting Wu asked pastors from Baltimore area black churches to consider helping her in educating the community on the latest genetic advancements, including CRISPR, according to a National Public Radio story from last year. Her aim was to empower communities that are skeptical of science because they have been underserved or even mistreated in the past.

Wu reportedly met with religious leaders and even arranged for some clergy to speak with executives at genomics companies.

Wu’s story shows how much of a grass roots education it has been in the area of CRISPR and its implications. Still, the weighty questions remain. If some disabilities can be ‘cured’, should they be? What if tinkering with the genome creates enhancements for some and not for others? Could the risks to the human population outweigh the benefits for individuals or vice versa?

While researchers continue their work in the lab, the church has the weighty task of considering whether this research is leading to ethical behavior in the healthcare community and whether the future of humanity should be determined by genetic modification.

Science and theological education: Learning theology at the aquarium

Science and theological education: Learning theology at the aquarium

Georgia Aquarium. Credit: Girish…, cc via Flickr

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in November 2015 in the SciTech newsletter, which is published by the Presbyterian Association on Science, Technology and the Christian Faith (  

To conclude the required introductory course in Old Testament, I took my class to the Georgia Aquarium. No, this was not an end-of-class celebration, although some considered it so. My students were actually on assignment as they gazed in awe at the graceful belugas and the bizarre sea nettles. The event was part of a number of teaching events that took place on campus throughout the year, both in and outside the classroom, made possible through a generous grant from the AAAS1.

The program is designed to integrate forefront science into a seminary’s core theological curriculum, thereby increasing scientific literacy among students of ministry (especially those who had forgotten their high school biology) and developing an informed appreciation of science as part of theological inquiry. Columbia Theological Seminary, I must add, was the only Presbyterian institution selected to participate in the pilot program, which included ten seminaries.

For our first year, we focused on three courses: Old Testament Interpretation, Introduction to Christian Theology, and Introduction to Pastoral Care. Since I was one of the teachers in the Old Testament course, here are my reflections.

Dr. William P. Brown

The Old Testament course began, as most introductory courses do, with a discussion of the first several chapters of Genesis, wherein it was discovered for the first time by many students that the Bible begins not with one but two very different creation accounts. Moreover, we later discovered other creation accounts dispersed throughout the Old Testament such as Psalm 104, Job 38-41, and Proverbs 8:22-31, to name but a few. Together they acknowledge the natural world’s glorious complexity2.

In our study of the Old Testament creation traditions, we also added, science to the mix. For example, while studying Genesis 1 in its theological and historical context, we also heard from scientists sharing their rich discoveries of the universe, from the cosmological to the biological.

Why do so? Not to pick a fight or to argue over differences between the so-called biblical perspective and the scientific — far from it. We did so in order to fulfill the biblical mandate to seek wisdom (Proverbs 2:1-5), including the wisdom of God evidenced in creation (Proverbs 3:19-20). Throughout our course we brought into constructive dialogue the unfolding drama of the Bible and the epic story of Creation as told by science, sometimes described as God’s “two books,” a conceptual framework that has deep roots in Christian tradition, beginning at least with John Chrysostom (ca 347-407) and Augustine (354-430), and extending to Galileo (1564-1642).3

Augustine, for example, refers to creation as God’s “great big book, the book of created nature.”4 He goes on to say, “Look carefully at it from top to bottom, observe it, read it…. Observe heaven and earth in a religious spirit.”

That “religious spirit,” however, does not mean rejecting the findings of science in favor of the three-tiered model of the universe presupposed in Genesis. To the contrary, Augustine finds it utterly shameful for Christians to make empirical claims about the nature of creation by spouting Scripture.5

So it is a matter of duty that God’s “two books” be read together, for God is the author of both. It is no coincidence that a certain psalm begins with “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” and concludes with reflections of the efficacy of God’s Torah: “The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes” (Psalm 19:1, 7-8). This single psalm binds together God’s creation and God’s Torah, God’s world and Word, into an inseparable whole.

Science and Searching

To disregard what science reveals about the intricate order and unfathomable age of the natural world as we know it is tantamount to tearing out the first pages of the Bible. The unfolding drama of God’s redemptive work in the world need not have begun with creation; it could have begun just as easily with the exodus account or with the family history of Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 12 and following). But it didn’t.

It is canonical fact that the Bible begins with the cosmos. Moreover, it ends with the cosmos. It is merely a coincidence that creation serves as the Bible’s bookends? Is it accidental that in between these bookends psalmists, sages, and prophets often inquire of the natural world in their testimonies to God’s providence? “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers … “ (Psalm 8:3; cf. 19:1). “I turned my mind to know and to search out and to seek wisdom and the sum of things … “ (Ecclesiastes 7:25). “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out.” (Proverbs 25:2; cf. Jeremiah 31:37). The first sentence of the first chapter of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species begins with the words, “When we look to … “6

Looking and searching, observing and studying – psalmists, sages, and scientists are the cohorts of wonder and the practitioners of “inquisitive awe.”7 Together they validate the human desire to explore the world, “to search things out,” to observe and study the world that God in wisdom has create (Proverbs 3:19-20). “the self-revelation of creation,” as the great biblical scholar Gerhard von Rad once described biblical wisdom,8) 144-76.] is an integral part of divine revelation. To construe biblical faith as anti-scientific is truly anti-biblical. If theology is “faith seeking understanding” (a la Anselm), and science is a form of understanding seeking further understanding, then theology has nothing to fear and everything to gain by engaging science.

Faith “vs.” Science?

Culturally, however, we confront a very different situation. In their fight against “soulless science,” creationists champion a view of creation so narrow that it is decidedly unbiblical. At the other extreme, certain scientists construe faith in God as the enemy of scientific progress and human well-being.9

As one might expect, misunderstandings and distortions abound as each side reduces the other to laughable caricatures. Illiteracy, both scientific and biblical, reigns. The problem lies in the vain attempt to treat the biblical accounts of creation as scientific. This is like forcing a round peg into a square hole. The scientific method and its resulting discoveries are products of the Enlightenment, thousands of years after the Bible was written. Moreover, it was never the intent of the biblical authors to provide a scientific report on the nature of the world and how it developed, but instead to claim the world as God’s world. Nevertheless, there is plenty of room for constructive dialogue between science and theology, even biblical theology, but first some deep misconceptions and prejudices have to be vanquished.

Is science really hell-bent on eroding humanity’s nobility and eliminating all sense of mystery? Not the science I know. Is faith a lazy excuse to wallow in human pretension? Not the faith I know. What if faith in God entailed, among other things, acknowledging the remarkable intelligibility of creation as well as its mystery? What if science informed and enabled persons of faith to become more trustworthy “stewards of God’s mysteries” (1 Corinthians 4:12)? What if faith fostered a “radical openness to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be?”10

The faith I know does not keep believers on a leash, preventing them from extending their knowledge of the world. The science I know is not about eliminating mystery but about enhancing it. The experience of mystery “stands at the cradle of true art and true science,” as Albert Einstein intoned. “Whoever does not know it can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead.”11

Faith with Science

Christian faith demands familiarity with and appreciation of science. The evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobhzansky, a devout Russian Orthodox Christian, famously observed, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”12 Christians can say something parallel about faith: “Nothing in the Christian faith makes sense except in the light of the Incarnation.” Here, in fact, is common ground: Faith in God incarnate “will not allow us to ignore the physical world, whose “nuances” are its delicate balances and indomitable dynamics, its life-sustaining regularities and surprising anomalies, its remarkable intelligibility and bewildering complexity, its order and its chaos. Such is the World made flesh, and faith in the Word made flesh acknowledges that the very forces that produced me produced microbes, bees, and manatees.

As much as we cannot ignore the incarnate God, we cannot dismiss the discoveries of science. Theologically, there is no other option. Faith in such a God calls people of faith to understand and honor creation, the world that God has not only deemed “very good” (Genesis 1:31) but saw fit to inhabit (John 1:14). In Christ, the God in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28) has all to do with the world in which we live and move and have our being.

Through the lens of science, we find ourselves more connected to creation than we could ever imagine, countering once and for all the sinful tendency to see ourselves utterly apart from, rather than as a part of, creation. We are connected to a creation that is incomprehensively large and marvelously complex, strangely diverse, and constantly in flux. We are part of a creation that at its most fundamental (i.e., quantum) level is fuzzy and indeterminate, assuming different states at the same time. At creation’s macro-cosmic level, things we once thought were stable and steady turn out to be dramatically dynamic, both catastrophically (e.g., supernovas and black holes) and generatively (the birth of new stars and planets), with every bit of it interconnected, including time and space itself. As the universe is fearfully and wonderfully made, so also the human self (Psalm 139:14). The saga of science can only enhance the greatest story ever told. All truth is God’s truth.

Dr. William P. Brown is William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. He earned his Ph.D. at Emory University, his M.Div. at Princeton Theological Seminary, and his BA from Whitman College. He is an ordained teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Some specific interests include creation theology, faith and science dialogue, the psalter, and wisdom literature.

The History and Future of the American Scientific Affiliation in the Science-Faith Dialogue

The History and Future of the American Scientific Affiliation in the Science-Faith DialogueThe story of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) begins in Los Angeles in the early 1930’s. The cultural setting in the United States when the ASA was founded was a time when many conservative Christians felt they were being targeted in a culture war between science and the Bible. The Scopes “Monkey Trial” had just happened in 1925, and there were many cartoons illustrating attacks on Christian faith, the church, and the Bible coming from both science and culture.

Pastor Irwin Moon of Montecito Park Union Church developed a series of dramatic scientific demonstrations to illustrate theological principles in an effort to engage the youth of his community. These “Sermons from Science” as they were called (or SFS) attracted substantial attention, and before long, Pastor Moon began taking his show on the road.

In 1937, Moody Bible Institute President Will Houghton happened to be in the audience at one of Moon’s presentations. Houghton was so impressed that he invited Moon to join Moody Bible Institute that same night. Both of these influential individuals shared a strong desire to reach high school and college age youth with their message that science and faith are compatible.

Shortly after this providential meeting, another important connection, F. Alton Everest, saw Moon’s SFS show in Oregon while Everest was an electrical engineering faculty member at Oregon State University. The meeting between these two men also resonated with a sense of shared passion and purpose for spreading the message of science and faith as allies.

All three of these leaders were concerned about the challenges that young Christians encountered in going off to college, and the incapacity of most churches to provide resources or advice of any substance. They decided that a Christian organization of practicing scientists could help establish a strategy to deal with these challenges, and prevent them from shattering the faith of Christian college students.

With the support of long time Moody patron and Board of Trustees President, Henry Parsons Crowell, the founding meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation was held in early September of 1941 at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Moody President Houghton’s invitational letter outlined their vision for the new organization. Houghton indicated that the group would not be associated with Moody Bible Institute, nor would Moon be a part of the founding group. Moon never became a member of ASA, but generously gave both advice and financial support.

The ASA founders soon recognized and nurtured an essential difference from other faith-based scientific organizations. Whereas other groups coupled Christian faith with a specific perspective on both science and scripture, the ASA was then and continues to be a “big tent” for discussing various interpretations of science and scripture, in an atmosphere of intentional humility and respect.

In 1948, the ASA published five thousand copies of its first major publication, Modern Science and Christian Faith: Eleven Essays on the Relationship of the Bible to Modern Science 1, with chapters written by ASA members in different disciplines. Ultimately, 350,000 copies were sold, and with its wide distribution, it accomplished a great deal in furthering the message of compatibility between science and scripture.

The ASA began to publish its own journal in 1949, initially called Journal of the ASA (JASA), which continues through today as Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (PSCF). The name of the Journal itself indicates the “big tent” idea of the ASA, with its members holding and deliberating various perspectives on relevant topics.

Another major development from the early days of the ASA is the beginning of what appeared to be an easing of the tendency toward strict biblical literalism. A big factor in this development was Baptist theologian Bernard Ramm’s presumptuously named 1954 book, The Christian View of Science and Scripture 2, which strongly suggested that the language of Scripture is neither technical nor scientific, but rather the common language of the contextual culture. The Reverend Billy Graham heartily endorsed Ramm’s book, which played a significant role in popularizing it among evangelical Christians. As Graham famously stated:

“The Bible is not a book of science. The Bible is a book of Redemption… God did create the universe… God created humanity. Whether it came by an evolutionary process and at a certain point He took this person or being and made him a living soul or not, does not change the fact that God did create humanity. Whichever way God did it makes no difference as to what men and women are and their relationship to God.”3

During the first three decades of the ASA, many — perhaps even most — U.S. scientists (whether Christian or secular) believed that a person could accept either evolution or creation, but not both. In 1971, Stanford materials scientist and physicist Richard Bube, then editor of the ASA Journal, published two articles foreshadowing a shift in this perspective. The articles, entitled “We Believe in Creation”4 and “Biblical Evolutionism?”5, outlined Bube’s (as well as a ground-swell of other members’) belief that creation is first and foremost a theological concept, while evolution is a scientific one. Although some members had previously suggested that evolution was a tool used by God to direct biological creation, most earlier articles had proposed an either-or choice between the two.

Leslie Wickman

Leslie Wickman

Even so, the ASA Journal continues to publish articles making a case for other perspectives on origins. In 1978, not long after Dr. Bube’s articles were published, a special issue of the ASA Journal devoted to origins issues was published. Entitled “Origins and Change: Selected Readings from the JASA,”6 it contained articles that represented the full spectrum of ASA members’ views. The issue included voices apathetic to evolutionary biology, but the overall message was that old-earth geology, biological evolution, and Christianity can peacefully coexist. Perhaps as significantly, several ASA presidents over the last century have held viewpoints other than Evolutionary Creation or Theistic Evolution, including Intelligent Design and Old Earth Creation.

Turning our attention to the present, the ASA continues to be a place of discussion and grappling with controversial issues, rather than an advocacy organization. The common thread binding ASA members together is an adherence to orthodox Christian faith (in accord with both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds) coupled with a respect for rigorous science, while considering various interpretations of science and scripture in an environment of humility and respect.

Furthermore, the ASA is a network of men and women in science and related disciplines, who share a common faithfulness to the Scripture, as well as a commitment to integrity in the practice of science. The members are also committed to engaging the Christian and science communities in dialog around important issues of faith and science.

The ASA’s mission is to “integrate, communicate, and facilitate properly researched science and theology in service to the Church and the scientific community. ASA members are confident that such a goal is not only possible but necessary for an adequate understanding of God and Nature. We believe that honest and open studies of both Scripture and Nature are mutually beneficial in developing a full understanding of human identity, relationships, and our environment. Additionally, the ASA is committed to advising churches and our society in how best to employ science and technology while preserving the integrity of God’s creation.”7

The mission of the ASA is accomplished through various publications (including the peer-reviewed journal Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, and online magazine God & Nature); the ASA web-based resources; personal interactions, networking, learning opportunities, and sharing of research at the ASA Annual Meeting each summer (to be held July 28-31 this year at School of Mines in Golden, CO), as well as at local events throughout the year, and community support of churches and other organizations.

Looking forward to the future of the ASA, our vision is focused on expansion in the following areas: audience/membership, spheres of influence, and discussion topics.

With respect to expanding our audience, we have quite a lot of room to grow. A recent study by sociologist Elaine Ecklund at Rice University found that 61% of American scientists self-identify as Christian8. With some six million-plus practicing scientists and engineers employed in the United States, that means there are more than 3.6 million self-identifying Christians working as scientists or engineers in this country, while the ASA membership is only about three thousand! Many newcomers to the ASA annual conference express a profound sense of homecoming at finally finding the organization, citing uneasiness about discussing faith in the workplace, or anxiety about discussing science at church. Sometimes it seems that the ASA is a very well-kept secret, and that needs to change.

Another important element of expansion is that of reaching the next generation. The ASA has a very important message for our culture, and — as articulated by our founders — in particular, for our young people who are still thinking about what to do with their lives. We need to make a greater effort to reach students and others at an earlier age, so they understand that science and faith can co-exist. Young people need to know that science is a viable career choice for Christians, and that it is possible to be both a faithful Christian as well as a top-notch scientist. That being said, the ASA must extend its reach to churches, families, and youth, as well as to those who teach and influence them. Without this important outreach, both sides lose: the science community loses Christians from the discipline, and the Church loses scientists from its fellowship.

One of the key strategies the ASA is developing to help engage young people is an internship program for students and others who would like to immerse themselves for a period of time in a science-faith project within our network. We are also in the planning process for creating a database of faculty members, science practitioners, and others with STEM-oriented mission opportunities to enable Christians in the sciences to use their disciplines to be difference makers for Christ, as well as to attract new members who have a passion for social justice.

Our outreach effort includes expanding our sphere of influence through engaging with seminaries, churches, home-school organizations and schools of education, as well as encouraging and supporting members and chapters in local communities to lead the science-faith dialog within their own networks. We also plan to further develop a library of presentations and other resources that will help empower and mobilize existing members to reach out to churches, schools, and civic organizations in their local areas.

One of the most significant initiatives we are using to accomplish this part of the ASA’s expansion effort is our Local Chapters Campaign, funded in large part by the Templeton Foundation through Fuller Seminary’s “Science and Theology for Emerging Adult Ministries” program. This Campaign involves reaching out to individual ASA members as well as colleges, seminaries, schools of education, churches and para-church organizations in areas without thriving local ASA chapters to encourage the development of new local chapters to support members in engaging within their own communities. We’ve recently collaborated with individual members in the southwestern U.S. in starting several new chapters over the last few months.

The final area of expansion involves multiplying the conversation topics to include more issues involving ethics, engineering, appropriate/sustainable technologies, health/medicine, and environmental stewardship, in addition to our ongoing interest in discussion of origins. This will help to further distinguish the ASA from the other science-faith organizations that deal primarily with conversations about origins from a specific perspective. Speaking of other science-faith organizations, we are working to encourage new networking opportunities with them in order to extend the reach of our mutually shared resources and events.

In summary, the ASA has played an historic role in stimulating the open dialog between science and faith, without advocating for a particular position. As a preeminent national science-faith fellowship organization, we will strive to set the tone for civil dialog among those with diverse opinions on all issues relating to science and Christian faith. In the process, we will work to further spread the message that science and faith are allies, not enemies, and expand the reach of the ASA to broader topics and a larger audience. Those of us who are already members know the rewards, and countless others could not only benefit from, but also contribute to our community.

Leslie Wickman acknowledges the historical contributions to this article of ASA Fellows Ted Davis 9, Terry Gray 10, and Jack Haas 11. Wickman is executive director of the ASA. For more than a decade she was an engineer for Lockheed Martin Missiles & Space, where she worked on NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and International Space Station Programs.

Christians embracing Evolution

Christians embracing Evolution

A realistic reconstruction or what Lucy looked like. From the Houston Museum of Natural Science exhibit The Hidden Treasures of Ethiopa at the new Discovery Times Square Exposition center in Times Square, 2009. By Jason Kuffer, cc via Flickr

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the February 2015 SciTech newsletter, which is published by the Presbyterian Association on Science, Technology and the Christian Faith (PASTCF). R. Wesley McCoy wrote the article upon learning that the PASTCF Executive Board had granted him the Daniel W. Martin “Science as Christian Vocation” Award, which honors persons whose professional scientific, technical, or educational work is clearly part of their calling to serve God and the world.

I have been a public high school science teacher for 36 years, and I have been a Christian for longer than that. I have found that a great many people think that their faith must be somehow shielded from the effects of science, as if science had the power to spoil or destroy faith. Unlike most Christians, I am required by my career choice to navigate quite a few science and faith issues all day, every day. My faith has been of great benefit to my understanding of science, and my scientific curiosity has been an exciting way to embrace my faith.

Let me explain how this could be true. My journey in science began, as I recall, with my grandfather. He worked as an advertising salesman for a local radio station in Augusta, Georgia. When I was four years old, he ran into our house and brought us all outdoors. His excitement was directed upward, and as he pointed, we all watched Sputnik travel overhead. I was captivated, not only by his enthusiasm, but for the power and possibility of science. If we could do this, what else was now possible? The methods of science made so many things explainable.

My faith journey was beginning around the same time. We went to church in Augusta and I remember of few of my Sunday lessons there, even as a five-year-old. When my father was selected as the new manager of a B.F. Goodrich store near Atlanta, we moved and began to attend a Baptist church during the summer leading up to the 1960 presidential election.

My clearest memory is of my mother suddenly standing and taking us out of the church one day. She told me later that it was because the minister was explaining to the congregation why a Roman Catholic should never be allowed in public office. We were suddenly churchless!

It happened, though, that we had moved in right next door to a Lutheran parsonage, so, when the pastor came over soliciting ten dollars to help pay the light bill at church, my parents decided to shift over to the Lutherans. As a new six-year-old Lutheran, I had nothing but questions for all the people I met in the church. Possibly, this is how I nurtured my faith all these years.

A person with a Scotch-Irish surname is a rarity in a Lutheran church, but I did not figure that out for many years. Maybe a fish out of water can be excused for asking so many questions. I determined that questions are the best way to nourish faith, just as questions are the best way to nourish science.

When Deborah and I married at age 29, we agreed to find a church with both an exceptional educational program and a strong community outreach. We were drawn to the teaching and ministry of a Presbyterian (USA) church in our area.

Among the excellent ministers and staff, we found the Rev. Mary Beth Lawrence, now of Fredericksburg, MD, who has a gift of matching congregants with service opportunities. Mary Beth urged me to reply to the invitation from PASTCF to identify Presbyterians interested in science-faith issues to help form a substantial presence in the church community.

My career as a science teacher had led me to a critical point in my faith journey. Faced early on with students, parents, and school administrators who believed that they had a Christian duty to reject scientific explanations of the world, I had to work out an explanation for what I believed myself. Fortunately, my family held very straightforward, open attitudes toward science.

Though no one in my family had ever graduated from college, all valued education very much. My mother responded to my seventh-grade fascination with the Periodic Table with the exclamation, “I’ll bet God was just tickled that people finally figured that out!”

Though I had no particular background in theology, that idea resonated so strongly within me, it became fundamental to my Christian understanding today. Yes, I believe God really is pleased when human beings figure out how the Universe works.

We are called upon to find and confirm natural rules and processes. The questions we ask about the natural world then strengthen our understanding of and commitment to God.

I then had to construct teaching methods for helping students understand evolution and cosmology without inculcating them in my own faith. Early on my school did not nurture diversity, but fortunately diversity was thrust upon us as Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist students all began to study and work with us. I used religious diversity as a theme in my classroom. I explained to all my classes that certainly there are people who have religious views that do not fit with the current scientific explanations of speciation.

I explained that sometimes we find people who dismiss the ideas of evolution and cosmology on religious grounds. I explained that my job was not to cause anyone to change their religious ideas. My job as a science teacher was to present the most comprehensive current explanations for the natural world that I could find. We must also remember that science is constantly being improved as more data are discovered. As a self-correcting process, science has been shown to be a reliable method for understanding the natural world for many centuries. I promised my students that I would explain what is known about the natural world and how we know this to be true.

Sometimes students, parents, or other teachers suggest that a creation-evolution debate is the best way to allow “all sides” to present their ideas. I think that this is a spectacularly bad idea. First of all, such a debate assumes that there are only two possible views that may be held—either God exists or science is real. This either/or format completely negates any possible benefit from such a discussion, and it prevents us from investigating some really interesting questions.

For example, is evolutionary change one of the remarkable forms of creation, wherein God has formed a world that can create more species? How exactly does God work in the world? Do we restrict the word “miracle” to refer only to those events we cannot explain? If so, what happens to the miracle when we learn how to explain it?

The other main reason for rejecting such a debate as a teaching tool is that there really are people who believe that they have the only true understanding of God, and that all others are not simply misguided but doomed. I recall a middle school teacher telling her class, “Well, I am going to have to teach evolution to you, but I am a Christian, so you all know how I feel about that.”

Christians embracing Evolution

Charles Darwin Statue at the UK’s Natural History Musem. By PhOtOnQuAnTiQuE, cc via Flickr

Actually, no, I don’t. Do all Christians believe exactly the same things? Do Christian views result in wholesale rejection of all of science? A classroom full of teenagers is fragmented enough—racially, socially, economically, and by sexual orientation.

I do not need to further alienate them all from each other and from me.

Carrie, a ninth-grader in my Biology class, was the granddaughter of a minister at a church adjoining our school campus.

It was advertised as “Bible-believing” and “Footwashing.” Carrie was very quiet when I introduced the idea of evolution on the first day of Biology class. After teaching her about research methods, data analysis, cell biology, biochemistry, genetics, mutation, ecology, and classification, I told the class that we had been studying evolution all semester. Understanding evolution, I said, puts all the concepts of biology together in one explanation. I encouraged Carrie to go home and explain what we were learning in class with her family. When she returned to class on Monday morning, I asked her how things had gone with her family. She said, “I told them that God had to get all these things here somehow, and maybe He used evolution to do it.” I only hope that Carrie’s learning represents the cognitive shift made by hundreds of other children.

Teaching students in a classroom can be a very isolating experience. When the door closes, I am the only adult, and I am responsible for the science education of 35 students at a time. Most science teachers take this responsibility very seriously and try their best to implement the policies chosen by state and local school boards.

Sometimes, however, the school board can make a decision that flies in the face of excellence in education. The Cobb County Public Schools have a history of evolution rejection. For example, in 1983 the school board passed an equal-time regulation which required Biology teachers to teach creationism for 30 minutes if they chose to teach evolution for 30 minutes. The regulation also forbade the teaching of human evolution. The equal-time policy was abandoned as unconstitutional after two years, but the prohibition on teaching human evolution continued in force until 2002. Some teachers ignored these rules, while in other schools PTSA parents volunteered to time teachers with stopwatches when teachers decided to teach evolution.

I was working for NASA during the two years the policy was in force, so I did not have to face the implications of this rule in my classroom. However, I did find that I could teach all the human evolution I wanted to if students asked me questions about it, which students invariably did.

My school board responded to an anti-evolution petition signed by more than a thousand members of a church in our community by deciding to insert a “warning sticker” into Biology textbooks. I served on the textbook committee which had just selected Miller and Levine’s Biology as the best choice for our students.

I took action, complaining to our superintendent, our science supervisor, and our school board members. I contacted the National Center for Science Education and Eugenie Scott suggested an “alternate sticker” which I presented to the school board.

As I found out more than a year later, the alternate sticker was rejected as “too weak,” meaning it did not warn students about evolution strongly enough. It was obvious that the people who wrote this sticker had limited knowledge of science.

For example, the sticker was mandated to be placed into Biology and Earth Science books, but nobody required it to be placed into Environmental Science or Genetics textbooks, even though my Genetics text contained four chapters specifically about human evolution.

Fortunately, a local parent sued the school board to have the stickers removed, and I was allowed to testify against my school district in Federal Court in Atlanta. I was able to testify that even though the sticker was a very small piece of paper, it was disproportionately damaging to our efforts at science education, devaluing the scientific process. After all, bullets and viruses are very small things, but they can have devastating effects.

I do not know all the legal machinations that took place. For example, the church petition mysteriously went missing. However, Judge Clarence Cooper ordered the stickers to be removed immediately, and they were removed. The school board signed an agreement to not place stickers in textbooks in the future. The local newspaper estimated the cost to our county taxpayers as more than $300,000, including the $70 they had to pay my substitute teacher so that I could travel to Atlanta and testify.

The real message of that story for me is that the people best situated to make a difference in clarifying science education to the public are the people who attend our churches. What we need are people in our churches who understand the value of real science and real science education.

Church members can then be the ones who call on local and national leaders to press forward with plans to improve the science education being delivered to our students. Those very church members are they who can stand as witness to the fact that we Christians are compelled by our search for the truth to support strong science education standards.

The voices missing from most public discourse about the value of science education are the people who are dedicated Christians who reject the misinformation coming from creationists and supporters of intelligent design posturing. The general public seems to assume that all religious people agree with Ken Ham and his ilk. I am a Christian. I reject the pretend science espoused by the Creation Museum. We Christians not only accept evolution, we literally embrace evolution as an explanation of the natural world as created by God.

As we continue to discover new aspects of evolutionary processes, we acknowledge that our discovery allows us to glorify God more thoroughly and completely.

Wesley McCoy is an award-winning science teacher and, before retirement, was chair of the science department at North Cobb High School, Kennesaw, GA. He opposed actions of the Cobb County School Board to insert intelligent design theory into public school curriculums. Testifying at public hearings and in federal court, he urged strong science education standards in Georgia. He helped raise understanding in the religious community about the controversy and the importance of maintaining integrity in science education. Dr. McCoy was awarded Outstanding Biology Teacher for Georgia, the National Evolution Education Award, and the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science Teaching. His Ph.D. is from Georgia State University.

Science for the Seminaries: A two-year effort to re-imagine clergy education

Science for the Seminaries: A two-year effort to re-imagine clergy education

Classroom 6 in Stuart Hall on the Princeton Theological Seminary campus. Credit: cc by Luke Jones via Flickr

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is assessing the effect of a pilot project it undertook two years ago.  In a partnership with the Templeton Foundation, grants were awarded to 10 seminaries to integrate science into their core theological curricula as part of the Science for Seminaries program.

How did it fare? A new report put out at the end of 2016 by the AAAS says not only were new curricula introduced at seminaries, but several of the schools built strong relationships with their scientific advisors and continued partnerships with scientist colleagues within their own or nearby institutions, often inviting scientists as guest lecturers in the classroom.

“Through strategic engagement with leaders in theological education and future religious leaders-in-training, Science for Seminaries anticipates a positive impact not only on seminary education, but on the broader American public,” wrote Jennifer Wiseman, director of AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion (DoSER), in a 16-page report on the project. “It is our hope and vision that the enthusiasm expressed by participants in the program will be carried into the future congregations of seminary students, establishing a vibrant atmosphere conducive to informed discussions and contemplation of scientific advancement and its impact on life, knowledge, and service in today’s world.”

In 2014, each participant school was charged with the development and implementation of curricula with a science component in at least two core theological courses (such as those in systematic theology, biblical studies, church history and pastoral theology) within two years. The scientists in the program assisted the project faculty in curriculum planning and course implementation, bringing a breadth of knowledge in astrophysics, cosmology, genomics, genetics, paleontology, chemistry, neuroscience, biology, and other scientific disciplines, according to those in charge of the AAAS effort.

The AAAS officials also determined that science-focused, campus-wide activities would complement the coursework and resources from the project would be made available to interested seminaries as the project unfolded.

Winners (in alphabetical order) were:

  • Andover Newton Theological School – Newton Centre, Massachusetts
  • Catholic University of America – Washington, D.C.
  • Columbia Theological Seminary – Decatur, Georgia
  • Concordia Seminary – St. Louis, Missouri
  • Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg – Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
  • Howard University School of Divinity – Washington, D.C.
  • Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University – Berkeley, California
  • Multnomah Biblical Seminary – Portland, Oregon
  • Regent University School of Divinity – Virginia Beach, Virginia
  • Wake Forest University School of Divinity – Winston-Salem, N.C.

These seminaries began planning and implementing the new curricula for the 2014-2015 school and new courses and revisions were made and have stretched into the spring semester of 2017.

Organizers point to successful partnerships between theologians and scientists and the greater ability to ask the right questions when diving into the religion and science dialogue. One example of partnership was at Concordia Seminary of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, which partnered with science advisor S. Joshua Swamidass, assistant professor of laboratory and genomic medicine at Washington University in St. Louis, who said that in his work with religious leaders there was “substantial common ground, and real opportunities to work together for the common good.”

In the summer of 2015, AAAS brought together the seminary faculty and dean representatives with the DoSER project advisory committee and several scientific advisors to discuss the integration of science at their schools. The group advised AAAS on what topics should be approached by a series of short films produced for use in seminary classrooms. In turn, AAAS recommended science resources and connected the project faculty with scientists to engage their seminary communities.

Here’s the introductory video:

The complete video series can be found at online at The video topics include:

  • Awe & Wonder: Scientists Reflect on Their Vocations
  • Have Science and Religion Always Been at War? The Draper-White Thesis
  • Space and Exploration: Humans in a Vast Universe
  • Biological Evolution and the Kinship of All Life
  • To Be Human
  • Is the Human Mind Predisposed to Religious Thought?
  • Frontiers of Neuroscience: Charting the Complexity of Our Brains
  • How Science Works
  • The Limits of Science

The video series features leading scientists and historians of science presenting science topics. Each film introduces the science and leaves room for the faculty to guide classroom discussion of societal implications and theological themes. The AAAS also produced study guides with additional resources that can also be found online.

How did coursework change at the seminaries? Throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, AAAS representatives visited the faculty, mentors, and science advisors at each seminary campus for the purposes of planning curricula. Ideas were shared and resources were gathered for implementation of the project. The seminaries were also encouraged to continue to sharpen their modified courses through ongoing meetings with their advisory teams.

AAAS reported that instead of the expected 20 course revisions, to date more than 116 courses have been impacted by the grants in the program through the 10 pilot seminaries. The core course areas included the topics of neuroscience, cosmology/astronomy and evolution. Several courses dealt with key intersection points such as church history courses about understanding biblical texts on creation in light of the key findings in evolution and cosmology, and systematic theology courses on considering ethics and morality in the context of neuroscience and psychology.

For example, Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical, Laudato Si, was published in May 2015 during the project’s first year, inspiring many seminaries to address ecology and environmental sciences in unique ways.

The ELCA seminary participating in this project the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg allowed seminary students to reflect on economics, the environment and faith in a unique seminar called “The Environment and Religion in Appalachia: Immersion Seminar.” The seminar (Covalence, June 2014) was designed to give students an opportunity to consider strategies for dealing with conflict in the context of ministry. Seminarians from a variety of ministries were welcomed. “The journey is a search for wisdom between scars and healing in a land of great beauty and dramatic social change,” according to organizers. Houses of worship were described as ‘neighbors with responsibilities.’

The seminary in Gettysburg also expanded its Pastoral Theology of Cancer course, adding reflections on pastoral and theological considerations in light of the evolutionary principles guiding cancer formation and progression.

The project was officially launched in 2013, which was the same year the Zygon Center for Religion and Science at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) received a $200,000 grant from the John Templeton Foundation to develop new curricula across its seminary programs as part of a 30-month, “Teaching, Religion and Science across the Seminary Curriculum” project. The aim was to teach religious leaders to relate religious wisdom and scientific knowledge. Five modules were created within existing required seminary classes at LSTC. They included “Neuroscience, Dementia, and Pastoral Care: An Interdisciplinary Conversation” in the course on Fostering Narratives of Hope; “Evolution and the Doctrine of Creation” in Systematic Theology I; “The Neuroscience of Reading” in Introduction to Christian Education; “Science, Healing and Miracles in the Gospel of Mark” in Jesus and the Gospels; and “Cognitive Science and our Understanding of Reflection and Judgment” in Ministry in Context.

Lea Schweitz, associate professor of systematic theology/religion and science at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, member of the steering committee of the Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology, and director of the Zygon Center for Religion and Science, served on the advisory committee at AAAS. While the Zygon Center has had a longtime role in injecting scientific topics in the discussion of theology and faith at the seminary, Schweitz was impressed by the relationships forged through the Science for Seminaries project.

“One of the great successes of the project has been the development of life-giving relationships between the people who do the work of teaching in the Science for Seminaries project,” Schweitz wrote in the AAAS report. “Nurturing faculty-to-faculty connections has proven to be an effective approach for building sustainable groups committed to exploring the intersections of religion and science for the future.”

Faculty in the program took part in retreat sessions that covered pedagogical approaches to integrating key science topics, such as astronomy, evolution and neuroscience. The retreats included field trips to Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences and the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, and a stargazing tour and nature walk guided by a park ranger on the facade of Mt. Hood in Oregon.

Besides making some of the course syllabi available online, AAAS says it is working on a complementary approach to providing science enrichment to religious leaders who are already serving in faith communities. Many pastors and clergy seek continuing education opportunities provided by seminaries after completing traditional degree programs.

Could the church play an active role in promoting mental health?

Could the church play an active role in promoting mental health?

Credit: cc by Gianfranco Blanco via Flickr

It is supposed to be the most joyful time of the year, preparing the home and hearth for the arrival of the Messiah. The gifts, the music and the parties promise to make the Christmas season bright. Still, for many in our congregations, this time of year can be one of the most difficult, whether it is due to the loss of a loved one, loneliness or general hardship. It can be a season of darkness rather than light for many.

The idea that depression is prevalent in the pews just as it is in society is only just beginning to be discussed widely. Emerging also is the research into how religion can play a powerful role in eliminating the societal stigma of mental illness in addition to becoming a source of solace for those suffering in silence.

For Marti Priest it was the realization that her genetic make-up included the likelihood of depression that was part of her personal breakthrough. And as she began to speak more freely in her Minneapolis ELCA congregation, it was evident that she had supporters surrounding her on any given Sunday.

“The world itself stigmatizes mental illness,” she says. “The church is vastly different than that and loves me no matter what.”

She was volunteering in her church, but the high degree to which she was giving of her time was a sign of the mania common in bipolar disorder, she says in hindsight. It still took some time to “come out” to those with whom she served with on church committees and she adds that she was immediately met with a response of surprise – “Oh you?” The support, however, was there even as she told her pastor of her diagnosis and how she needed to back away from some of her commitments in order to gain more “balance” in her life. “My pastor was really cool about it,” she recalls. “When I stepped down I had a health reason and that made it easier.”

This is not new. Martin Luther is thought to have suffered from depression or at the very least severe anxiety and melancholy, quite clearly in older age if not before. A Patheos blog post earlier this year by Catholic author and apologist David Armstrong points to some historians’ findings on Luther’s spiritual anxiety. In his article, Armstrong questions whether these periodic troubles may have had some physical basis. Armstrong quotes findings of scholars Heiko Oberman, David Steinmetz and Roland Bainton in describing Luther’s suffering and struggle against bouts of “persistent maladies.”

Luther is quoted as saying, “I more fear what is within me than what comes from without.” But in true fashion to what many of us may experience in the ups and downs of life, he cited hope about God’s future with such strengthen that he legendarily said “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree today.”

We will likely never know whether Luther suffered from clinical depression, but what we do know is a rising number of the US population does today.

Mental Health America (MHA), a long-time, community-based nonprofit dedicated to helping Americans to live mentally healthier lives, has completed one of the most ambitious mental health screening programs ever launched. Nearing almost 1 million depression screens being completed, the group reported almost 1,400 people screen for depression daily of which 66% are under 25 and in total 59% are found to have serious depression.

Approximately 32% of all screeners report that they have significant thoughts of suicide or self-harm. And at risk are those who self-identify as youth and LGBT, 41% of which score for severe depression. Experts say the numbers of individuals seeking help is rising.

“The sheer volume of individuals seeking mental health screening and supports is astonishing,” said Paul Gionfriddo, President and CEO of MHA in a press release. “But when you couple this volume with these facts – that the depression screening tool is the most common screening tool they use; that most depression screeners are young; that two in every five depression screeners have severe depression; and that the majority of people coming to our screening program have never been diagnosed with a mental health condition—this is a national wake-up call.”

He says that there needs to be better mental health services. Practitioners, employers and educators need to offer mental health screening to all children and adults, and policy makers must pass meaningful mental health reform legislation that emphasizes earlier detection and integrated services for recovery, experts say.

So the key question remains about what roles faith communities can play in supporting those with mental illness and in encouraging mental health generally.  Many of these roles are highlighted in the ELCA social message “The Body of Christ and Mental Illness, which has been cited as one of the clearest and fullest statements by a Christian denomination.”  (Visit to see this message.)

From a social science point of view, a recent article published in JAMA Psychiatry, found that women who attended religious services had a lower risk of suicide compared with women who never attended services. The study was done using data from the Nurses’ Health Study and included nearly 90,000 women and self-reported attendance at religious services.

Tyler VanderWeele, Ph.D. of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, and co-authors looked at the association between religious service attendance and suicide from 1996 through June 2010. Among the women, most were Catholic or Protestant. There were 36 suicides during the period. Compared with women who never attended services, women who attended once per week or more had a five times lower risk of subsequent suicide, according to the study.

The authors note their study used observational data so, despite adjustment for possible confounding factors, it still could be subject to confounding by personality, impulsivity, feeling of hopelessness or other cognitive factors. The authors also note women in the study sample were mainly white Christians and female nurses, which can limit the study’s generalizability.

“Our results do not imply that health care providers should prescribe attendance at religious services. However, for patients who are already religious, service attendance might be encouraged as a form of meaningful social participation. Religion and spirituality may be an underappreciated resource that psychiatrists and clinicians could explore with their patients, as appropriate,” the study concludes.

While it may not be enough data to support any concrete conclusions, it is not the only study to ask whether faith can be of some aid to mental health.

A group founded several years ago at the University of Chicago – The Chicago Social Brain Network – has closely studied how belief in God impacts an individual’s mental state. The network is a group of more than a dozen scholars from the neurosciences, behavioral sciences, social sciences and humanities who share an interest in who we are as a species and the role of biological and social factors in shaping of individuals, institutions and societies across human history.

“Theology and religion have always relied on unseen forces as the basis for explanations of human behavior and experience,” write researchers in the preface to the book Invisible Forces and Powerful Beliefs, published in 2011. They add, “Science has been able to explicate those forces even if along different lines than originally conceived. As we start to consider some of the more complex aspects of human nature, science and theology may be able to work together to shed light on some of these complexities.”

The team of researchers outline a number of interesting findings in the book and say that because Christians view themselves as creatures of God, they feel related to God whatever happens. They remain in relationship with God, no matter how abandoned they may feel by others. Kathryn Tanner of the University of Chicago Divinity School was the lead researcher on this portion of the project and found that Christians can “always avail themselves of a completely counterfactual sense of social connection with the best connected ‘superfriend’ of all: the God who remains, they believe, in a relationship of ultimately beneficial causal efficacy with not just themselves, but everyone and everything.”

These are indeed powerful beliefs, researchers say. On a more practical level, it is an idea that keeps Christians like Priest motivated on a journey of faith. For her, the church has become her family. “In church there is a level of intimacy and a level of trust that you may not have even with your friends,” she says. “There is a vulnerability there.”

At St. Paul Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in the Quad Cities, there is a specific mental health ministry that operates with the understanding that among people worshiping in any American church up to 25% are likely touched by mental illness. It may be a person in the pew, a family member or a friend.

Pastor Sara Olson-Smith says the Mental Health Awareness team meets regularly and partners with the local National Awareness of Mental Illness (NAMI) chapter and other professionals in providing learning opportunities.

St. Paul’s has been involved for nearly two decades with a local mental health care organization (Vera French) to use a home on the church’s property as a home for people living with chronic mental health issues.

The Mental Health Awareness Team effort was led by Anna Goodwin, who worked doing faith formation on the church’s staff and had done her master’s work in the area of mental health, Pastor Olson-Smith recalls.

“She has done a lot of work over a decade to help create caring congregations for people living with mental illness, teaching congregational leaders/clergy about mental illness and to foster awareness, learning and circles of care,” she says.

The church congregation, in partnership with the local NAMI chapter holds Family-to-Family sessions, or Peer-to-Peer sessions at the church that are open to those in the congregation and the community. Members also participate in the NAMI fundraising/awareness raising walk and have hosted a Mental Health First Aid Course.

The greatest thing the team has done, according to Olson-Smith has been to organize monthly learning events. It may be a panel discussion on a weeknight, which draws a wide variety of people around topics like depression, anxiety, PTSD, suicide etc. They also have speakers from the community come to teach on Sunday mornings, about a whole variety of topics. Every July, St. Paul’s hosts a movie series featuring films that deal with mental illness and that is followed by a discussion.

“I do believe we’ve made an impact on people’s lives,” Pastor Olson-Smith says. “I pray that we are breaking down stigma, and also giving people some tools as they live with mental illness, or care for the people they love with mental illness.”

Lutheran roots intersect with the dawn of the scientific revolution

Lutheran roots intersect with the dawn of the scientific revolution

The Badab-e Surt formations that has been created over thousands of years as flowing water from two mineral hot springs cooled and deposited carbonate minerals. Credit: cc by Phil Camill via Flickr

The Lutheran church is celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and while modern science arose just after the Reformation there seems to have been little attention paid to what the reformers thought about science.

The leader of the Protestant Reformation Martin Luther is often quoted as saying, “God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars.” But what knowledge, if any, did Luther have of the emergence of science?

The publication in 1543 of Nicolaus Copernicus‘s De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) is often cited as the starting point for the scientific revolution. And historically, Luther is often said to have been a critic of Copernicus. According to Roger Timm, who published an essay available in Covalence earlier this year on the topic of Luther and Copernicus, people often quote a portion of Luther’s Table Talk as recorded by Anthony Lauterbach in 1539 that may itself be misleading.

In Lauterbach’s account Luther supposedly said: “Whoever wants to be clever must agree with nothing that others esteem. He must do something of his own. This is what that fellow does who wishes to turn the whole of astronomy upside down. Even in these things that are thrown into disorder I believe the Holy Scriptures, for Joshua commanded the sun to stand still and not the earth.” According to Timm, Luther’s Table Talk is not considered to be a reliable source for Luther’s opinions. Secondly the quote, if correct, would have preceded Copernicus’ book by a number of years.

Again Timm writes that Luther’s supposed criticism of Copernicus has been used to support a claim that the Luther was anti-science, but that is a simplistic reading.  Yes, Luther seems critical of the heliocentric system (the idea that the sun was at the center of the universe) proposed by Copernicus but we must remember that so were many scientists of the day who were supporters of the Ptolemaic system.  The Ptolemaic system was the “science” of the day and assumed that the earth was stationary and at the center of the universe. Proof of Copernicus’ theory had to wait until a century later and for Johannes Kepler and Galileo.

At the same time, Timm points out that two professors associated with Luther in Wittenberg are believed to have been instrumental in encouraging Copernicus to publish and even arranged for the printing of his now famous book.

But besides this snapshot of the early days of the Reformation, what can we say of Lutheran theology and its interaction with science? Did the Reformation and the rise of science go hand-in-hand?

There are a number of connections between faith and science and Lutheran theology, according to a discussion piece (also available on the  Alliance website) drafted a few years ago by George Murphy, physicist and retired pastor in collaboration with Lea Schweitz, theologian and professor at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and Director of the Zygon Center for Religion and Science and Roger Willer, Director for Theological Ethics who serves as liaison between the Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology and the ELCA Churchwide Office.

One is evident in that earlier quote of Luther’s about God writing the gospel in nature. According to Murphy, Schweitz and Willer, Lutheran tradition is “a positive evaluation of, and rejoicing in, the natural world recognized as God’s creation.” In Luther’s Small Catechism, God is continually at work in the world and the phrase “the finite is capable of the infinite,” sums up the belief that God is present “in, with and under” the sacramental elements. This same idea can also help promote scientific study of the material world as a vocational calling.

The trio also looked at the Lutheran concept of justification. Justification is the idea that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, and for Christ’s sake alone or in other words there is no way one can “earn” salvation based on merit or works. In scientific terms, this principle is important in that we are not justified by simply making the right decisions about applying science correctly. This, they say, means that we are able to make ethical decisions about the use of new technologies without being “100% certain” that they will indeed work out “flawlessly.”

Lastly here, but just as important, is Luther’s theology of the cross. The theology of the cross presses the point, among other things, that we are brought to know the true God only from God’s historical self-revelation centered on Christ crucified. Here Murphy, Schweitz and Willer say that we cannot truly know who God is, how God acts, and we cannot discover “the mind of God” by a study of natural phenomena or the laws of physics.  We cannot be certain of the deep nature of God independent of the historical revelation of the Christ crucified. This is an important distinction since some in the disciplines dedicated to evolution or neurobiology, for example, believe with those theories and data they completely can explain religion or can answer the question about whether God exists and what God is.  They have faith that science alone has or will have knowledge to explain everything.

In contrast to the supposed anti-science bias among Lutheran reformers, there are theologians and philosophers eager to maintain an active dialogue with biologists and neuroscientists. Looking at a wider scope of this dialogue, a number of prominent Protestant and Lutheran theologians have also made distinctive contributions over the years. Theologians Joseph Sittler, Ted Peters and Philip Hefner are just a few who have become prominent in the twentieth century alone and each of them draw significantly from the Lutheran theological heritage.

It is also worth noting that there are a fair number of Lutheran scientists today, who feel an obligation to discuss why their faith is not separate from their daily work. Then there are also a number of groups, such as the Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology, devoted to the further study of religion-and-science and its role in the modern world.

Lutheran institutions and colleges have historically been supportive as well. Headquartered within one ELCA seminary, the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, there is the Zygon Center for Religion and Science. This group grew out of early efforts by theologians and other scholars to engage directly with the sciences on a myriad of new levels and was historically located conveniently near the University of Chicago. Numerous pastors in training, theologians and members of the public have engaged in public dialogue on religion and science for decades at the center.

This past month a former director of the Zygon Center and now the Archbishop of the Church of Sweden Antje Jackelén participated in the commemoration of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation in Sweden.  The event brought Pope Francis to Sweden on October 31 in a historic visit that brought Catholics and Lutherans together. It was the first papal visit to Sweden since John Paul II was there in 1989.

Prior to her move to Sweden, Jackelén served as professor of Systematic Theology at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and prior to that served as the President of European Society for the Study of Science and Theology (ESSSAT). Key theological contributions of Jackelén range from published works on physics to human uniqueness and hermeneutics related to religion and science.

In Archbishop Jackelén’s installation homily a few years ago, she identified the strength of the Church as a “global network of prayer threads.” Of the meeting in Lund with Pope Francis, she said, “It is a step forward in the churches’ work. In a time of major global challenges we have a joint mandate to proclaim the Gospels in words and actions.”

The meeting in Lund stems from a process of dialogue spanning five decades. A milestone in this process consists of the document called “From Conflict to Communion.” In this document Lutherans and Catholics express sorrow and regret at the pain that they have caused each other, but also gratitude for the theological insights that both parties have contributed. At the same time, there is an emphasis on the joint responsibility to talk about Christian faith.

In reflecting on the rift caused by the Reformation, it is evident that a Lutheran approach in engaging with science has emerged over the years as has a unique Catholic approach—recently encompassed in the Laudato si encyclical of Pope Francis on the topic of climate change.

When it comes to change it seems it is in their air. It is also undeniable that the idea that the church is always to be reformed or Ecclesia semper reformanda est in Latin can be applied in many ways with respect to the way Christians embrace their faith within a modern scientific and technology-driven world.

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