Phil Clayton

Formulating Responsible Faith for the 21st Century

Claremont School of Theology in California has made headlines recently in its bid to grow its student population. Embarking on a unique endeavor to become a seminary not only for Methodist scholars, they are welcoming those from the traditions of Islam and Judaism.

Phil Clayton: Formulating responsible faith for the 21st centuryThe training of imams, pastors and rabbis under one roof though is only one of the ambitious endeavors underway at the school. Phil Clayton, Ingraham professor of theology at Claremont, has taken it upon himself to re-imagine the future of faith and has taken into this formulation molecular biology and neuroscience. The stakes are high and the time seems short for Clayton who has been following the New Atheists in their quest to prove that once science is understood it will destroy faith.

“Religion that would block or control the growth of science should be resisted,” wrote Clayton in a recent blog. “But it’s simply not true that science has dissolved any role for mystery.”

Growing up in an atheist household and the son of university professor, Clayton has seen the extremism that ultimately undermines faith firsthand, and it doesn’t come from a laboratory. He had a dramatic conversion to Christianity of a charismatic nature at age 14. It wasn’t until he entered Westmont College and began studying philosophy that his world broadened to include the viewpoint that it was not only okay to question one’s beliefs, but that forming questions were an important way of discovering the world. He later went on to earn a joint PhD in philosophy and religious studies from Yale University after graduating from Fuller Seminary with an emphasis on science and reason.

Now he is holding his own in the flourishing middle ground and encouraging liberal Christians who know that scientism is not the answer to the future of faith any more than fundamentalism is. His project called “Big Tent Christianity” uses the tent revival theme that flourished in the US in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The idea is to bring together Christians (particularly in the South) from differing denominations and break away from the denominational splits of old that in some ways have driven people away from the church.

If teaching, lecturing and blogging on broad issues concerning faith were not enough, Clayton is in the process of finishing chapters on molecular biology and neuroscience for a religion and science textbook geared to university students due for release next year. Much of his work recently has focused on the concept of emergence and applying this scientific theory to the religion and science interface. At a two-day conference last year at Goshen College in Indiana and as part of a series of lectures in Chicago on “What Makes Us Human?” last spring, Clayton discussed the scientific idea of emergence and what it says about humanity, ethical dilemmas and spirituality. Emergence can be defined as the idea that the natural world is more complex than the sum of its parts — meaning the whole is more than just the sum of its parts. It is the creation of complex phenomena out of simple building blocks.

Beyond a scientific theory relating to the biological or physical sciences, emergence can also offer a way to view spirituality in that it shows a fascinating emergent quality of humanity, according to Clayton. Religious traditions can help highlight what is unique about the human species. Religious traditions can also come up with the core capacities of humanity.

“It is part of being human is to ask questions of ultimacy,” he says. “Even if we don’t get answers to these questions, it makes us better humans. So for [Richard] Dawkins to ask questions only science can answer is futile.” In Goshen, he ended his series of talks challenging the audience to think how religion and science can approach ethical dilemmas that our biology never prepared us for — bioengineering and prosthetics, merging of neurons and computers, technology and warfare, and robotics and transhumanism.

At the center of each of these timely ethical issues is the realization that there are some core issues that the religion and science community has yet to tackle fully. Clayton sees insecurity among Christians in addressing issues related to science. Then there are others who have decided not to look too close at science in the fear that their faith will not hold up. The need is for people who are eager to dive in to explore every aspect of their faith and explain it, according to Clayton.

There are a number of challenges that people of faith will need to address besides New Athiesm. One such issue is the growth of neuroscience, which is a branch of biology that studies the nervous system. While some of the discoveries have been amazing, it is also leaving some to claim that there is no soul that can relate to God.

Clayton finds the discussion of evolution and religion has also changed from that of a debate over whether evolution is real to a bigger dialogue of whether the evolution story can explain how religious belief arose and at the same time show why these religious beliefs are false.

Other issues are not so straightforward for the science establishment to discuss, such as the topic of miracles. For Clayton there is a belief that God can guide or can bring a divine lure that represents God’s providence and presence, without setting aside natural law. “I think we actually strengthen the church if we explore these questions,” says Clayton.

This idea of exploration is part of what Clayton sees as forming a “responsible faith for the 21st century.” Diving into a new way of affirming the resurrection of Jesus in light of science or looking more closely at the story of creation through the concept of emergence are just some ways he and other theologians are reimagining the story of faith.

While science is a useful tool to view the world, it does leave room for religious views and the ultimate reality that in God there is a hope beyond this world and within the world for greater understanding and good. It is Clayton’s hope that through the facts science uncovers, the questions philosophers ask and the knowledge of the faithful the future is a more inviting place.

Susan Barreto is a journalist who has been following religion and science since 2003 with articles appearing in various newsletters and The Lutheran magazine. She is also a deputy editor of a monthly hedge fund magazine owned by Euromoney Institutional Investor. Susan is a long-time member of Luther Memorial Church in Chicago, where she lives with her husband and two sons.

Ida Hakkarinen

Vocation and vision: A Q&A with Ida Hakkarinen

Ida HakkarinenMany scientists are present on any given Sunday in the pews. Ida Hakkarinen is one such scientist, who may be found attending Hope Evangelical Lutheran Church and Student Center in College Park, Maryland. She is a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and works on a joint NOAA/NASA project developing the next generation of geostationary weather satellites at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Ida is a member of the Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science, and Technology and an active leader within the ELCA. Here she takes some time to share with us the overlap she finds between her vocation and life of faith.

Tell me about your vocation and how you became interested in your daily work.

IH: Scripture indicates that our calling from God (our vocatio) is to be “salt, light, and leaven” in the world (Matthew 5:13-16; 13:33). There are many “roles” I play in life: I am a daughter; an aunt; a citizen of a nation, a state, and a county; a federal employee; a neighbor; a member of a congregation; a friend. In each of these areas, opportunities to minister and to be ministered to are continually presented. What I bring to my occupation is nothing different from what I bring to any of these other areas, for my core identity does not change. My identity was given to me at Baptism, when I was sealed with the cross of Christ and marked as God’s child forever.

William Hakkarinen (standing) with the NOMAD buoy, Chesapeake Bay, c. 1956

William Hakkarinen (standing) with the
NOMAD buoy, Chesapeake Bay, c. 1956

In terms of my occupation, I’ve been interested in meteorology ever since I did a unit on the weather in the 5th grade. My father was an electronics engineer, and he and his colleagues designed a weather buoy in the late 1940s while working for the U.S. government, first at the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute for Standards and Technology) and then at the U.S. Navy until his retirement in 1972. Between 1951 and 1970, 21 Naval Oceanographic Meteorological Automatic Device (NOMAD) moored buoys were deployed at sea. The hull design is still in use in harsh environments, such as the Gulf of Alaska and the North Atlantic. In junior high school, one of my science projects was about the NOMAD buoy.

Education was emphasized in our family by my parents. My mother was valedictorian of her high school. My father received his degree in engineering and taught high school physics for a year before my parents moved to Washington, D.C., in 1941, when my father started his career in the government. My three older brothers all had careers in science and technology: a physician who headed the family practice department in a hospital, an information technology manager for the federal government, and a Ph.D. environmental scientist working as an air pollution project manager with a utility consortium.

What is one of the most awe-inspiring images in your mind when you think of faith and the modern technological/scientific world we live in?

earthriseIH: This image (NASA image AS8-14-2383) from December 24, 1968 has been referred to as “Earthrise.” The picture was taken by astronaut William Anders on the Apollo 8 mission to orbit the moon. Other members of the mission were Jim Lovell and Frank Borman (Borman first took a black and white image showing the Earth rising over the surface of the moon. Shortly after, Anders took this picture with another camera using color film).

I wrote an Advent homily in which I talked about a moment when I was overcome by the sense of the grandeur of the universe and God as creator while viewing this picture on the wall of my home while listening to folk singer Nanci Griffith singing, “From a Distance.” I wrote “As Christians, we proclaim that God is not ‘watching us from a distance,’ as the song says, but rather that God has entered into our world, has become Emmanuel – ‘God-with-us.’”

What is your main interest or area of study when it comes to religion and science?

IH: As a scientist who is a person of faith, I’m interested in finding ways that our liturgy and hymnody can reflect images that are common to us in the 21st century. Since “liturgy” means “the work of the people,” our worship should reflect a broad spectrum that includes science, technology, engineering, and medicine in addition to the agrarian themes that are present in many of the “old” hymns.

I advocate for ways to bring clergy and laity together in a collaborative manner to learn together and discuss ways to live out the Gospel in the scientific/technological world in which we find ourselves today. While others may focus their efforts upon academic efforts in the religion and science discussion, I’m more inclined to look at practical ways for people to bring their knowledge to bear in the church. A good example of where this happened well was during the discussion of the Social Statement on Genetics, Faith, and Responsibility at the 2011 ELCA Churchwide Assembly in Orlando.

Is there a project you are working on currently related to religion and science?

IH: I’m a member of the Steering Committee of the Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science, and Technology. In that capacity, we’ve talked about several projects we’d like to undertake in the near future: 1) a video contest for youth about how they see connections between their faith and science and 2) a contest for seminary students to collect sermons in which scientific and technological themes are part of the Gospel preaching.

How would you like to see the faith and science dialogue evolve in the years to come?

IH: I’d like to see the dialogue broadened from “experts in the field” meeting at conferences to being a regular part of the conversation in a Christian community. If every confirmation class, youth group, and Sunday School curriculum incorporated a discussion of faith and science, and if every seminary incorporated the topic as part of its curriculum, it could lead to a greater understanding of the relationship of one’s faith to one’s life in the world of today. As a scientist, I’m heartened by efforts by scientific societies such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to include religious and ethical perspectives as part and parcel of the discussion of science and technological developments.

What would you say to young people in the church about the role of science in our faith?

IH: As people grow in their faith life, they often experience moments of learning when they realize that some of the “simple truths” from their Sunday School classes often have more nuanced meanings. Sometimes, this becomes a point of crisis for people, but it need not be so. As Martin Luther said, “The Bible is the cradle wherein Christ is laid.” Scripture points to Christ, and we worship Jesus the Christ, not the Bible.

The Bible is the story of our faith. The Bible was not written to be a scientific treatise on how the world began, how diseases are cured, or how people interact in a social group. Novelist Flannery O’Conner wrote: “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.” Similarly, a scientific theory is not designed to elucidate the meaning of life or to serve as a creedal statement of faith. Albert Einstein wrote, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”

As young people in the church grow in the living out of their Baptismal calling as they move into adulthood, these words from Martin Luther are applicable to all our faith journeys in this scientific and technological age: “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for He is victorious over sin, death, and the world.”

Do you have any favorite books you would recommend to lay people interested in science? In theology?

IH: Some science books I recommend are:

Foden, Giles, 2010. Turbulence. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
This is a novel in which the protagonist is a retired meteorologist; he reflects upon the weather forecasting for D-day.

Gray, Theodore W., and Nick Mann, 2009. The elements: a visual exploration of every known atom in the universe. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers.
What a terrific “coffee table” book with rich imagery that describes the elements of the period table – would make a good purchase for your pastor!

Groopman, Jerome E, 2007. How doctors think. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
This book helps non-specialists understand the thinking processes that physicians use – patients will benefit from reading this, and then discussing parts of it with their health-care providers.

IH: Some theology/faith books I recommend are:

Borgmann, Albert, 2003. Power failure: Christianity in the culture of technology. Grand Rapids, Mich: Brazos Press.
A professor of the philosophy of technology and a devout Roman Catholic, Borgmann writes about the limits of technology in the modern life.

Childs, James M., and Richard Lischer, 2012. The eloquence of grace: Joseph Sittler and the preaching life. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books.
Sittler, a Lutheran theologian who taught at the University of Chicago, was one of the first to focus upon environmental stewardship.

Countryman, Louis William, 1999. Living on the border of the holy: renewing the priesthood of all. Harrisburg, Pa: Morehouse Publishing.
Countryman, an Episcopal priest, writes about how each of us participates in Christ’s priesthood.

IH: Poetry books I also recommend are:

Collins, Billy. 2003, Poetry 180: a turning back to poetry. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks.
Collins selected this series of poems to be read each day in American high schools during his time as Poet Laureate of the U.S.

Jackson, Fleda Brown, 2007. Reunion. Madison, Wis: University of Wisconsin Press.
This collection, which was awarded the Winner of the 2007 Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry, includes a poem about quantum mechanics.

Kenyon, Jane, 2005. Collected poems. Saint Paul, Minn: Graywolf Press.
The collected works of Jane Kenyon provide rich food for the soul – savor your time with these poems!

Carol Rausch Albright

Confessions of a Secret Scholar: a laywomen’s life of learning

Carol Rausch AlbrightCarol Rausch Albright may have been born at the wrong time and over the years may have felt she was living in the wrong place, but as it turned out she has usually been at the right place at the right time. This has been the theme of her life as a religion and science scholar and a lifelong Lutheran.

Many of Albright’s ideas seem to be ahead of their time, and even in her 70s she is still working on developing more theories of how the world works and why.

“A large share of neuroscientific research is very materialistic and reductionistic, and these theorists are usually atheists,” Albright says. “I wanted to explore neuroscience in such a way as to show that what we have learned from this research in no way rules out the possibility of God’s action and genuine religious experience, and to suggest ways in which these can be understood without violating either science or religion.”

All told, Albright, who is not a scientist or a theologian, has enthusiastically witnessed the growing acceptance of religion and science as an area of study. She has worked mentoring students in the arena and plans to continue to support scholarly research and writing as well as continuing her own journey of learning. Her lively Hyde Park neighborhood that is home to both the Lutheran School of Theology and four other seminaries located around the University of Chicago campus.

Early on, she learned the power of science and medicine for good or ill. As a child she saw her best friend and her grandfather die as a result of misdiagnoses. In her own case, however, her mother suspected that a “sore throat” was something worse, ignored initial medical advice, and consulted doctors at the University of Chicago Hospitals, who diagnosed dangerous rheumatic fever. Months of strict bed rest led to a complete cure. In recovery, she passed the time by reading and ended up jumping ahead at school. But inactivity should have been followed by physical therapy; since it was not, she permanently lost some coordination.

Albright believes that her early grasp of reading and lack of coordination was due to the fact that one’s brain will make use of unused parts. She coped with this as she tended to do the rest of her life — by learning and trying to understand from the experience.

Meanwhile a key part of her education involved religion. Her paternal grandfather, who died tragically from appendicitis, was the president of Wartburg seminary. Her mother’s father was also a pastor. Albright’s parents met at the Lutheran Student Association at the University of Chicago and were married on campus.

Albright’s father worked as a Chicago park director, then director of Lutheran homes for children in rural Andover, Illinois, and Joliet, Illinois. At Augustana College, Albright would find many new interests including neuroscience, which was not part of a career path practical for women in the 1950s. A passionate interest in theology and philosophy also met closed doors. A teenaged member of Phi Beta Kappa, she pursued work acceptable then for women and moved to St. Louis to study social work.

It was there she would have her first real thoughts about what it was she was called to do. She happened upon a Lutheran church in the area that was being run by two seminarians — Phil Hefner and William Lesher. Lesher would become president of the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, while Hefner would become a leading religion and science theologian.

She made a religious commitment and decided upon campus ministry, taking charge of the program at Oregon State University, and attending seminary during the summer she met her first husband. He became an engineer at the Livermore Lab that was set up at the height of the Cold War to meet the urgent national security needs by advancing nuclear weapons, science and technology. Despite her husband’s work being top secret, her life of faith was forever intertwined with a natural inclination to embrace the wonder of science.

As the family grew to include two sons, there was a move back to the Chicago area, where as the boys became older she began to take on more work as an editor at World Book encyclopedia. Albright wrote encyclopedia articles on science for five years and a newsletter for physicians for ten years, building on her science and medicine knowledge along the way. She also edited college textbooks, especially in psychology and business. Savvy in publishing led to work advising theological faculties on how to get their work finished and into print.

“Every job I’ve gotten, I’ve gotten through a Lutheran network,” says Albright. Besides being fortunate to stay in touch with many people she has met via campus ministry and in her work, she has had a sense of calling, which is seemingly the backdrop of what some would see as random coincidences in her work that would come to have a significant impact on the religion and science dialogue.

Much of her early editing and writing work took place during her husband’s extended illness and later on as a single parent. Albright’s interests in both religion and science came together in work beginning in 1988 as executive editor of Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science, where she eventually became reacquainted with Hefner, who looked to her to assist in organizing the monthly issues of the journal as it was gaining prestige.

Hefner came to Carol when he felt the need to write a book. He handed Albright a huge file folder of papers — the work that would become Hefner’s best-known book, The Human Factor, which details his concept of human beings as “created co-creators.” It took some time and much reading, but eventually Albright saw how it fit together and three days later, Hefner had an outline.

In the middle of all of this, she found another kindred spirit in religion and science and married physicist John R. Albright, a physicist active in the science-and-religion dialogue. Together, the Albrights coordinated programs for the John Templeton Foundation and the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences. They have attended dozens of conferences, heard a great many lectures and delivered a few, and became well acquainted within the community of scholars. In fact, Carol organized a good many of these conferences herself.

By this time her son’s were educated, permitting her time to write some books of her own and stake her claim to a section of the religion and science dialogue. The book, Beginning with the End: God, Science and Wolfhart Pannenberg, was edited with Joel Haugen, and was the first of Albright’s successful books. Perhaps her most well known and referenced is The Humanizing Brain, which was written in conjunction with James Ashbrook in 1997. It has become required reading in courses at a variety of colleges and universities, including Columbia University, The University of Vermont, St. Louis University, and Ouchita Baptist University. The University of Santa Clara offers a course “Religion and Modernity,” covering Descartes, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, and Ashbrook & Albright. A similar course has been taught at Georgetown University.

Her most recent book came out in 2002. Growing in the Image of God analyzes spiritual growth in light of neuroscience and complexity studies. Several book chapters have also pursued this theme. Her focus on neuroscience has led many to relegate Albright to the neurotheology camp, but her views are much more complex than what that term describes.

“I think that increased understanding of the brain’s functions supports better understanding of what is going on during the highly varied religious experiences of human beings,” Albright says. Religious experience alone draws on many different brain functions. Those who meditate, for example, access brain functions that go beyond ordinary human consciousness. Rituals activate still other parts of the brain, which are evolutionarily quite old and take place below the level of language, according to Albright. She objects to the “God spot” idea that is said to be in the left temporal lobe that is often activated during epileptic seizures. This is because only a small percentage of epileptics report something resembling religious experiences. Equating such experience with all aspects of religion demonstrates scientists’ naiveté about religious practice, she says.

She believes that the word ‘neuro’ does not provide a theology. “What we basically think about the nature of reality has an important influence on our interpretations both of neurological findings and of their significance for the understanding of the person,” Albright finds. “This includes interpretations of religious experience.”

John and Carol Albright continue to attend conferences and hold monthly gatherings at their home in Chicago, where scholars from around the world meet to discuss their findings in the area of religion and science. She has also served on several boards dealing with religion and science and is a past president of the Midwest Chapter of the American Theological Society. In addition to articles for the Zygon Journal, Carol’s most recent writing was this past January, where she authored a review of Don Browning’s book, Reviving Christian Humanism: The New Conversation on Spirituality, Theology, and Psychology, in an issue of the American Journal of Theology & Philosophy. Browning, who died last year, was a member of the University of Chicago Divinity School faculty and active in supporting the Zygon Center for Religion and Science housed at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

Currently, Albright is working on a topic that could easily lend itself to a conference. She is looking at ontology, or the philosophical study of the nature of being, existence or reality. She says that the twentieth century, in particular, has developed an ontology of “stuff”, a materialistic ontology, in which people just assume that only things that can be weighted or measured are real. But as society has surpassed the industrial revolution it now has to deal with data that cannot be easily quantified in the current information revolution.

Albright suspects that there is a big historical change going on with this idea of what is real. Quantum physics demonstrates that the basis of reality is interaction, not stuff, and leads to an ontology of interaction and emergence. Some of this debate is going on in neuroscience and specifically in what is called theory of mind, which describes the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from one’s own. People view the neuron as what makes the person, but really it is the interaction, between, people and information that makes up reality, according to Albright.

Perhaps the same could be said for the interactions those aspiring to become scholars in religion and science have with Albright and her husband.

Susan Barreto is a journalist who has been following religion and science since 2003 with articles appearing in various newsletters and The Lutheran magazine. She is also a deputy editor of a monthly hedge fund magazine owned by Euromoney Institutional Investor. Susan is a long-time member of Luther Memorial Church in Chicago, where she lives with her husband and two sons.

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