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 www.scienceforseminaries.org. 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.

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