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.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) supports the role of science in approving ‘Affirmation of Creation’ at its General Assembly

The Presbyterian Church (USA) supports the role of science in approving 'Affirmation of Creation' at its General Assembly

A Chandra X-ray Observatory image of Messier 82, or M82, shows the result of star formation on overdrive. Credit: cc by
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
via Flickr

Editor’s note: What follows is the text from the Affirmation of Creation that was read and approved at the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) earlier this year (June 22) with a vote of 305 to 264. Following the Affirmation is a rationale for its approval as drafted by the Presbyterian Association on Science, Technology and the Christian Faith (PASTCF), which called on the church to approve the overture. A full copy of the document can also be downloaded here.

Affirmation of Creation

From early in its life the Christian church has affirmed metaphorically that God is the author of two books of revelation: the Book of Scripture (the Old and New Testaments) and the Book of Nature. Because God is the author of both and God neither deceives nor is incoherent, these books cannot in principle be in conflict even though they are expressed through fallible creatures.

However, over the centuries some Christians have sought to deny observations of Nature by reference to Scripture. In the 5th century CE, Augustine warned that claims about Nature, contrary to human reason and experience but supposedly derived from Scripture, should be avoided, lest they make Christians seem ignorant and objects of scornful laughter. Yet, we recognize that God has called forth in Homo sapiens an exploratory curiosity and a critical intellect. A fruit of these gifts is our capacity for scientific inquiry.

The results of this inquiry are provisional because they are open to new discoveries and revision. Yet these results are also highly reliable because the Creation itself, through observation and experimentation, attests to them. Scientific inquiry to date has provided descriptions and ever more profound understandings of the scope of God’s creation in space and time of the myriad of creatures which inhabit and have inhabited this Earth and of the means by which the Creation itself has shared in the work of creation.

In light of these discoveries, today with confidence we can affirm:

  • That God has been calling this universe into being for at least 13.8 billion years and continues calling upon the Creation to bring forth new creatures;
  • That God’s creative call has resulted in virtually countless stars and planetary systems, and new stars and planetary systems are continuing to be created;
  • That, in response to God’s creative call, the Earth took form at least 4.6 billion years ago;
  • That, in response to God’s call, living creatures emerged on the Earth at least 3.6 billion years ago;
  • That God has connected all life on Earth in a network of kinship by virtue of biological evolution from common ancestors;
  • That, in response to God’s call, we Homo sapiens (modern humans) emerged, in our wide diversity and different cultures, as a species over more than 6 million years of hominin development;
  • That, since our line of descent split from the line that resulted in our contemporaries, the chimpanzees and bonobos, we Homo sapiens were preceded by at least eighteen already identified hominin species, all of which are now extinct;1
  • That, in the providence of God, we Homo sapiens have come to exercise extraordinary power over other creatures and their habitats, the Earth’s geological structures, and the meteorological systems of the Earth;
  • That, by virtue of the powers of intellect and creativity called forth in us by God, we bear exceptional responsibility for the future of the Earth and all its constitutive creatures.

This affirmation provides a framework in which we are called to worship God, are called to proclaim the Gospel of Grace, and are called to live as faithful expressions of God’s love for the whole Creation.


The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
– Psalm 19:1-4

With these words the Psalmist declares that the Creation gives witness to its Creator. This theological sense of nature spurred Christians to study nature as a way of honoring God.

At the beginning of the western scientific revolution in the 16th century Nicolas Copernicus captured this sense when he wrote,

To know the mighty works of God, comprehend His wisdom and majesty and power, to appreciate in degree the wonderful working of His laws, surely all this must be a pleasing and acceptable mode of worship to the Most High to whom ignorance can not be more grateful than knowledge.2

In the 20th century Albert Einstein expressed the mutuality between inquiries about nature and religious life when he wrote: “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” 3

This is not to say that religion is obligated to tie its theological cart irrevocably to any particular scientific horse. As Presbyterian teaching elder, ethicist, and philosopher Holmes Rolston III notes, “The religion that is married to science today will be a widow tomorrow.” 4 Yet he goes on to add this caution, “But the religion that is divorced from science today will leave no offspring tomorrow.” 5

Evidence for this latter effect can be found in the results of the 2011 Barna Group Study that reported that among the reasons given by teens and young adults for their disassociation from churches were that “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in” (29%) and “Christianity is anti-science” (25%). 6

Yet the idea is not new that a Christian faith, uninformed by a credible understanding of nature, is compromised in its ability to faithfully proclaim the Gospel. Augustine of Hippo perhaps most eloquently expressed this concern in the 5th century when he wrote,

Often a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other parts of the world, about the motions and orbits of the stars and even their sizes and distances, … and this knowledge he holds with certainty from reason and experience. It is thus offensive and disgraceful for an unbeliever to hear a Christian talk nonsense about such things, claiming that what he is saying is based in Scripture. We should do all that we can to avoid such an embarrassing situation, which people see as ignorance in the Christian and laugh to scorn.… 7

All Christians affirm that God is Creator. Many, perhaps most Presbyterians value science as a means to gain appreciation of God’s creation. Scientific inquiry also makes possible insights into nature that enable more effective service to God through service to neighbor. Yet these same scientific discoveries also challenge traditional ways of thinking about God, God’s creation, and God’s creative ctivity. In 1947 the Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin described this challenge.

When we speak of a ‘theology of modern science,’ it obviously does not mean that by itself science can determine an image of God and a religion. But what it does mean, if I am not mistaken, is that, given a certain development of science, certain representations of God and certain forms of worship are ruled out, as not being homogeneous with the dimensions of the universe known to our experience. (Emphasis in the original.)

He went on to expand on the importance of homogeneity for the relationship of science and the Christian faith.

This notion of homogeneity is without doubt of central importance in intellectual, moral and mystical life. Even though the various stages of our interior life cannot be expressed strictly in terms of one another, on the other hand they must agree in scale, in nature and tonality. Otherwise it would be impossible to develop a true spiritual unity in ourselves — and that is perhaps the most legitimate, the most imperative and most definitive of the demands made by man of today and man of tomorrow. 8

Yet the Christian churches, and specifically Presbyterians, virtually never publicly acknowledge the significance of even the most basic discoveries that humanity has made through science about the history, structure and processes of creation for Christian faith and life, and often speak theologically as though they lived in a pre-Copernican cosmos.

Over the past 500 years humankind has gained more depth and breadth of understanding of creation than in all the preceding millennia of human history. Even within those five centuries there have been several revolutions in our understanding of creation. Though the findings of the sciences do not determine the Gospel message, as Augustine noted they do influence how that message can be credibly declared and persuasively received. The first task of an effective contemporary evangelism must begin with an assent to the Creation that God has indeed been calling and is calling into existence. It is for this purpose that the affirmation above has been developed.

The age of the world

The age of the world

Some of the most iconic views of our planet returned by both living astronauts and robotic spacecraft in orbit throughout the space age. Credit: cc by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center via Flickr

Editor’s note: This essay was originally published in “Lutheran Partners” as a Handiwork column in 2006. The article is still timely though as many seek to downplay the attempts to publicly reaffirm the tenets of young earth creationism.

Before the rise of modern science there was no reason not to use Old Testament genealogies and other texts as straightforward historical data to get a date around 4000 B.C. for the world’s creation. Biblical criticism has since shown that we needn’t read the texts that way and science has found several methods for estimating ages. The earth is now thought to be about 4.6 billion years old.

How do we know this? One way of getting at the question not only involves fascinating science but gives insights into how scientists and science itself — including its mathematical dimension — work.

The phenomenon of radioactive decay was discovered at the end of the nineteenth century.  Some types of atomic nuclei are unstable and disintegrate into other types.  Half of any sample, large or small, of a given type of atom will decay in a time characteristic of that atom, called its half-life. The longer that half-life, the more slowly any given sample will decay. This is the basis for a number of techniques of radioactive dating, and I’ll sketch just one here.

The element uranium has several isotopes, atoms which have the same chemical properties but different nuclear masses. The most important are U238 and U235.  U238 is by far the most common form on earth today, with 138 atoms of it to 1 atom of U235.  This is of considerable political and economic importance because naturally occurring uranium must be enriched in the rarer form for nuclear weapons and many reactors.

Why is one form of uranium much rarer than the other? Both are radioactive (decaying through series of intermediates to stable isotopes of lead), and U235 disintegrates more rapidly than U238. The possibility suggests itself that there’s less U235 today because most of what was present initially has decayed while more of the U238 is still around.

The half-life of U235 is .7 billion years while that of U238 is over six times longer, 4.5 billion years. For a first estimate let’s assume that when uranium was first formed there were equal amounts of the two isotopes. Since U238 decays more slowly, let’s first ignore its decomposition. Then we note that after seven half-lives of U235 its abundance will have been diminished by a factor of ½ to the seventh power, or 1/128. This is close to the current U235/U238 ratio, 1/138. Thus if our hypotheses are correct, the earth’s uranium was made something more than 7 x .7 billion years ago. This gives an estimate of 4.9 billion years for the age of the earth’s uranium.

Careful readers will be critical of several things I’ve done here. U238 does decay and 128 isn’t equal to 138! But scientists often begin to attack a problem with a crude “back of the envelope” calculation. It can give an idea of the size of the effect that we’re looking for and tell us if it’s worth pursuing an idea further. Those who remember logarithms from algebra class can remedy the two deficiencies in my estimate and show that the correct result is close to 5.9, rather than 4.9, billion years.

But there’s a more fundamental concern. How do we know that there were equal amounts of the two isotopes to begin with? The answer is that we don’t. In fact there probably was more U235. We now think that the heavy elements like uranium are formed in stars which explode as supernovas, distributing the elements that have been built up by fusion reactions into the interstellar medium to become part of the next generation of stars and planetary systems. Nuclear theory indicates that about 65% more U235 than U238 would be formed in this way. Our estimate of age then works out to around 6.5 billion years if only one supernova event contributed. This is the age of the interstellar material from which the solar system eventually formed. The solar system itself, including the earth, is somewhat younger.

That result can still be challenged however. Maybe our theories of formation of the elements are wrong. Perhaps uranium was created at some point in the past with a quite different isotopic ratio.

Ah, but there’s another intriguing piece of information to consider. I said that the current U235/U238 ratio is 1/138, a value fairly uniform over the earth. But at Oklo, in the West African nation of Gabon, the proportion of U235 to U238 is lower by a small but significant amount. Investigations of conditions at Oklo and the discovery there of types of atoms that would result from nuclear fission have led to the conclusion that at some time in the past there were naturally occurring nuclear reactors! They would have functioned in a start and stop fashion: Groundwater served as a moderator for neutrons, allowing chain reactions to build up, and operation would have ceased when heat that was generated boiled the water off. Cooling and accumulation of more water would allow the cycle to start again. The fission of some U235 explains why the abundance of that isotope is lower today.

I said that this happened “at some time in the past” but we can be more precise. A reactor of this type would require uranium to contain something like 3% U235, and we can calculate how long ago the earth’s uranium would have had this composition. The result is that the Oklo reactors were in operation something more than 1.7 billion years in the past.

It’s remarkable that such natural reactors existed, as is the fact that at this remove we can understand their workings. I wish I could simply present this as an example of neat science but not everyone sees it that way. Some conservative Christians, “young earth creationists,” are deeply committed to the belief that the earth is only a few thousand years old and reject the billions of years that radioactive dating gives. They may claim that decay rates were much higher in the past, but there is no evidence for this.

Or they may fall back on the “apparent age” argument that God created the world only a few thousand years ago with isotopic abundances adjusted to make it look billions of years old. However, the Oklo data shows that God would also have had to tweak the isotopic abundances a bit at one site in Africa to make it look as if that place had some intermediate, though long, age. There is no strictly scientific or philosophical way of refuting that argument.  (Bertrand Russell pointed out that the world could have come into existence five minutes ago with all our memories and other records intact.)  But this makes God a deceiver, the fabricator of a world full of illusions. Belief in the goodness of creation, on the other hand, holds that God is the maker of a world that tells the truth about itself to honest investigators.

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.

Further Reading

Cherry Lewis, The Dating Game (Cambridge, 2000), uses a biography of Arthur Holmes, a pioneer in the field, to tell the story of radioactive dating of the earth.
Alex P. Meshik, “The Workings of an Ancient Nuclear Reactor,” Scientific American, November 2005, deals with Oklo.

Vacation Bible School fun with a faith and science focus

Vacation Bible School fun with a faith and science focus

Credit: cc by U.S. Army Garrison Japan via Flickr

This year we hosted a Faith & Science Vacation Bible School. The interest and energy around the topic far exceeded anything I had anticipated. This article serves as an open-source curriculum for anyone who wants to host their own Faith & Science VBS.

First, notice the calendar for the week (see below). This was a week-long half-day VBS. It can certainly be adapted to alternate times and lengths. We considered a full day event, and some churches host evening VBS events. Time and length are optional.

Vacation Bible School fun with a faith and science focus

Rotation Model

We followed a rotation model for our VBS. The opening and closing were the same each day, beginning in the church sanctuary with opening music, bible story, announcements, and a theme talk. We hosted four rotation stations: an outside play station, a snack station, an experiment/science station, and a Bible station. At the end of the day we hosted a brief review of the day, closing music, and prayer.

The key to making this VBS a success is networking and leadership. Our congregation has found that partnering with one other mid-sized congregation makes planning and implementation much easier. Two staff people, the Lutheran pastor and the Episcopalian program director, began meeting in the early spring together with volunteers from their faith communities to plan the VBS.

Invite STEM Leaders

Early in this process, we began inviting experts in various STEM-related fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) if they might be available to either speak about their profession or area of expertise, or teach a 45-minute session for 3-10 year olds. The curriculum was then developed based on the availability of these STEM experts.

This is a crucial part of this curriculum: don’t just copy the contents of the schedule provided below. Instead, network with experts in your community and build the curriculum based on their availability.

After interviewing faculty at the local university and many area professionals, we landed on hosting one day on evolutionary biology, a second day on technology (sailing and book-binding) a third day on engineering and construction, a fourth day on math, and final hybrid day with a focus on the weather and the brain.

Now Match the Bible

The pastor then began to research Biblical passages that matched the science themes for the day. This is an open and creative opportunity. Since the Bible is absolutely full of description and historical moments that are science related, it is possible to find great Bible stories connected to almost any STEM-related activity.

In the case of this curriculum, we chose the Genesis 1 account as the companion text for evolutionary biology, Paul’s shipwreck in Acts 27 for sailing, Paul’s interest in books and parchment 2 Timothy 4:13, Moses assembling the tabernacle in Exodus 40:16-33, census-taking in 1 Chronicles 12, and James story of Elijah praying for the weather and Jesus’ teaching to love the Lord with your mind in Mark 12. For this curriculum, it is highly recommended that the planners take time to seek their own Scripture passages that match the science themes taught during the week.

The Stations

Two of the stations for the week were loosely keyed to the daily themes. For the snack station, we simply focused on providing healthy snacks. Because increasing numbers of children have various kinds of food allergies, we spent a lot of time in this station ensuring the snacks were healthy and safe.

For the outdoor play station, some days the play was keyed to the theme, but we are also believers in the idea that you should emphasize the “vacation” in VBS, so some of the play was just play.

Morning Message and Worship

Each morning, we began with music. You can find a sample list of the popular camp songs we sang each day, most of which are from the public domain. The Hippo song, a children’s tune about creation, was by far the most popular. Our worship leaders also prepared and sang one hymn from our hymn book that was science related. These included God of the Sparrow (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #740), God the Sculptor (#736), Earth and All Stars (#731), Mother God (#735), and God Created Heaven and Earth (#738).

Each morning the pastor led the Bible-story through an active engagement model. For example, when you read Genesis 1, tell the group as a whole that half the room is supposed to snore whenever the word “evening” is read, and half the room is supposed to stretch when the word “morning” is read. That they’re supposed to shout “woohoo!” whenever the word “good” is read, and stand up and put the numbers up on their hand whenever an ordinal is read (first, second, third day). And so on. Take time to highlight which words the group is to be listening for, and what they are supposed to do. Use props. The second-day text was read while sitting in a kayak at the front of the sanctuary, for example.

After this opening song and story time, the group prays. Then one of the theme-presenters comes forward for the day. Each theme presenter did one of two things during the week. Either they talked about their vocation and why they do what they do from a Christian perspective, OR they talked about their field of study and what interests them about it. Our biologist showed slides of evolution in action. The sailor told about her naval academy studies. Our construction foreman brought his tool belt and showed what tools did. Our math teacher did a math demonstration. The weather guy talked about dangerous weather and brought a tornado-machine.

More Station Notes

After the opening theme presentation, the groups (divided into pre-K, K, 1-2, and 3-4 age groups) began rotating to their stations. Outdoor play and snack have already been described. The Bible and science stations are the most learning intensive. In the science stations, the groups learn very specifically about the theme from the day from a STEM perspective.

Day one included reading children’s books on evolution (for a blog post on why as a pastor I teach evolution, Day two our leader had gone to a training in our city on book-binding, and brought supplies to lead the groups in binding their own books. On the third day, the engineer brought straws and tape and had the groups compete to see how tall they could build a structure in the allotted time. On the fourth day, the math teacher taught statistics based on the theme of the world as a village of 100 people. On the fifth day, the pastor led a lesson on the brain (see the attached document), and then took the groups into the sanctuary to practice meditation and prayer.

The Bible lessons were straight-forward explorations of the primary Bible text for the day, led by a lay instructor. Instead of providing a curriculum here, we highly recommend that the lay person leading this station study the selected Biblical texts for themselves and design their own lessons, because the lessons themselves will be very idiosyncratic based on the availability of scientists and the themes for the day. In fact, one thing our Bible teacher reported was that although it was difficult and challenging to prepare the lessons for the week, she learned more about the Bible through her planning than she had in years.

In fact, this distributed form of preparation is recommended for this curriculum as a whole. Rather than hand out portions of a “canned” curriculum to all leaders, instead invite a wide and distributed set of adults to share their time and expertise. This makes leadership of the week easier and more streamlined. As a leader, we did distribute a backup list of “downtime” items in the off-chance that what had been planned by the station-leaders didn’t fill the allotted time for the groups.

Here are some additional bonus items that really made this week unique

1) Enlist a great graphic designer to design your banner and t-shirts. It’s worth it. It raises the sense of it being a professional and well-organized week. Our banner and shirts were designed in-house by an artist in our faith-community, and the t-shirts were printed by a local company with a connection to the Episcopal parish.

2) Use the videos by They Might Be Giants of Here Comes Science. They’re really fun, and they have a great VBS camp song feel, teaching science in the process.

3) Adults are going to be really into this topic, especially the conversation around evolution. This is a hot topic among Christians, and progressive Christians are particularly inspired to find a faith community that will teach evolution in a faithful way to their kids, rather than offering ideological resistance to the scientific worldview. As one biologist wrote, “And then I was asked to teach Vacation Bible School. ME?!?!?! What would I teach? Our pastor goes: “evolution”, and I did a mental triple-take. But it was true, and today it happened: together with an evolutionary biologist also from the University of Arkansas, we took 80ish kids (Pre-K through 4th grade) through the basic steps of evolution IN A VACATION BIBLE SCHOOL.  We talked about the Big Bang, we held fossils and we talked about science and faith. Of course the children also had a lesson on Genesis by another expert.

To me, in life, there is nothing more dangerous than fanaticism. Doesn’t matter if you’re a fanatic creationist or a fanatic evolutionary scientist, or fanatic anything. We are not doing anyone any favors by thinking black-or-white. Questions are healthy and welcome, in science and in faith. Open your mind. The Bible was not written to be a scientific text – and yet the mythical creation story has many parallels (albeit poetic ones) to how the science community views the origins of our universe today. I cannot express how happy I was that I was given the opportunity to communicate this to the children today.

4) A LOT of adults asked if we were going to offer an adult version of the VBS. We did not, but there was widespread interest in this possibility. We anticipate doing the topic again next year, and will likely design some adult version of this curriculum to do evenings.

5) People even asked to buy the shirts even if they weren’t coming to the VBS for the week. The faith & science topic is of widespread interest to many people. It’s worth exploring in your community.

6) VBS is about organization and improv. It’s important to remember that it requires considerable organization and planning with a wide network of volunteers helping, but since it is camp and vacation, it’s also worth simply improvising as you go along. Play duck duck goose. Change the songs and be silly. Hang out during snack time and just chat. Give hugs.

7) Children and adults are desperate for an opportunity to connect science and the study of the world they know from school and regular life to their Christian faith. We had so many parents tell us that when the kids came home, this VBS had opened up all kinds of opportunity for faith exploration at home. So do a daily e-newsletter of some sort to keep the communication channel open with families during the week.

8) Make sure you think about the diversity of presenters. We made sure to have biologists, mathematicians, construction workers/engineers of equal genders and of diverse backgrounds. Kids have their imaginations opened by what they see others doing in their professions, so diversity matters as a role model.

Most of all. Have fun!

Rev. Dr. Clint Schnekloth is pastor at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas. Previously, Clint has served as pastor of East Koshkonong Lutheran Church, Cambridge, WI; as a global missionary with the ELCA in Kosice, Slovakia; Camp Director of Camp Shalom, Maquoketa, Iowa, and various gigs as youth minister and camp counselor. He lives in East Fayetteville with his wife and three children, ages ten, eight, and five. Clint is the author of Mediating Faith: Faith Formation in a Trans-media Era, published by Fortress Press. Clint earned is Doctor of Ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary, and his Master’s of Divinity at Luther Seminary. He now serves as adjunct faculty at Fuller.

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