Posted by: dacalu | 23 August 2022

Brief Advice for Science-Engaged Theology in Seminaries

A few thoughts on incorporating science into the core curriculum in seminaries based on my experience teaching and working with teachers from Science for Seminaries programs in the UK (with ECLAS) and US (with DoSER). This is an edited version of a talk I gave to seminary instructors.

Science and theology are not abstract endeavors, pursued only by experts. They are ways we reason carefully about our surroundings, both physical and personal. Everyone reasons about nature. Everyone reasons about what is important, how we fit, and what we should do. And yet, somehow, we have become scared to think critically and communally about these things.

People expect priests and pastors to help them in this. And we, in turn are responsible for training the priests and pastors. It is an honor and a responsibility. Information is part of the process, but the real work is empowering students for ministry. How does science inform perspectives, ethics, and actions? How can we become comfortable – as Christians – talking about discoveries and inventions that shape and re-shape the world around us?

Science-engaged theology is not different from day-to-day theology; it’s just a narrower set of topics and approaches. How do we use science to better understand creation, serve our neighbors, and love God?

The bigger task of formation makes it all a bit daunting. It also frees us. We can, and should, have patience with ourselves when we do not know or do not understand all the details. It gives us permission – indeed, requires us – to model humility, compassion, and curiosity as we approach any subject. God always has more to say. And so, we balance the things we know with the things we want to know, while we wait for the glory that has yet to be revealed. My goal for Science for Seminaries is to create spaces where students can learn to live in that difficult space joyfully.

Not everyone is asking the same questions.

Randall Munroe, famous for his engineering related comic, XKCD, put it this way. “But I’ve never seen the Icarus story as a lesson about the limitations of humans. I see it as a lesson about the limitations of wax as an adhesive.”[1] That’s a bit of a joke about solutionism and the single-minded focus of many engineers, but it highlights a real issue. And theologians can be single-minded as well.

What tools do you have for listening to students about what’s alive for them in the topics, personally? What emotions arise? What choices in their past or future do they think about when considering the science? How does it affect their view of themselves and of God?

One successful approach has been journalling. One instructor asked students to do the weekly reading and write down key questions and issues before discussing in class. Another instructor left the first ten minutes of each class open for students to raise the issues on their hearts. Both are gentle ways of attending to the particular circumstances of students. Remember, both negative and positive emotions signal important linkages between thinking, feeling, and action.

Science-engaged theology involves two topics that can cause anxiety. Science and theology both require people to think in unfamiliar ways. They suggest difficult questions which require expertise to answer, and we are almost always insecure because we suspect that the right answer is out there, we simply don’t know it. I have found this to be true for scientists talking about theology and theologians talking about science, but also for scientists talking about unfamiliar science and theologians talking about unfamiliar theology.

It is no surprise, then, that pastors and theology students would have trepidation – that they, and the general public, would escape discomfort by leaping to easy answers or simply ignoring the issues.

The good news of Christianity is that those who seek find. Similarly, the good news of science is that careful observation and reasoning are rewarded with genuine knowledge. Those are both profound and profoundly simple messages, but we often fail to share them in a simple way. And they both require some unpacking. Importantly, they are both experiential claims, they promise that a particular activity will produce a particular outcome.

The primary challenge for SET is formation, not information.

I first encountered this talking about evolution in graduate school about 20 years ago. No amount of new information about Darwin or evolutionary theory could change the mind of a confirmed creationist because their concern was not about the data or the theory. Most often I found that their concern was ethical and anthropological: what are humans that God is mindful of them? Or, it had to do with the problem of evil: why is there so much suffering in the natural world?

And so, I switched to theological arguments but ran into a similar problem. Quotes from the Bible and Augustine had little effect, much less a bevy of modern theologians. Nor could I solve the issue with a rundown of scripture, tradition, and reason on the topic. Information, even theological information, failed to change minds because the primary issue had to do with beliefs around science as a legitimate way of knowing.

Can I trust my senses? Can I trust scientific communities and authorities? How can science produce reliable, useful knowledge? Until that bridge is crossed, no amount of information will make a difference. Science must be a legitimate starting point. To make that leap requires demonstration. To experience science working is to understand that science works.

We have had the most success when students get a chance to do the work themselves. Students can begin with experiments and literally “see for themselves.” You may not have the opportunity to do this, but it is, and I think must be, the gold standard.

If you cannot do, then watch. Take students on a tour of a lab or show them a video that goes beyond “this is what we think” to “this is what we did that makes us think that way.” That’s where the magic happens. I continue to be surprised by the looks of genuine wonder when students discover that science is an activity and not a possession. It is a thing that people do.

In that context, the humanity of scientists – their biases, flaws, and foibles – become a matter for sympathy rather than criticism. Human limitations become an opportunity for fellowship as well as deeper questions about our place in the cosmos.

One of the great challenges for ECLAS, overall, has been this delicate balance of promoting scientific engagement and discovery, without promoting scientism – dogmatic belief that science answers all questions – and while recognizing the systemic biases built into the system. Science done well includes an aspiration to be unbiased, recognizing how pervasive biases are. It fosters constant awareness of our limitations so that we may work to overcome them. Semper reformanda. It is always reforming with the hope of perfecting the finite.

Finally, if students cannot do for themselves and cannot watch, introduce them to someone who does science regularly, someone who can share their passion and their perspective, but above all, someone who genuinely believes that science itself, the messy process of discovery, is good news worth sharing.

None of this takes away from the importance of Christian faith. I take for granted that ministry students already have experience in Christ and that they have some understanding about why and how Christians believe what they do. That will, however, likely be a point of discussion. Once you have established science as a way of knowing, then you can begin critically asking how scientific knowledge interacts with theological knowledge.

Conflicts do arise. I personally think it will be rare, but different theological perspectives will come at this differently. ECLAS and Science for Seminaries remain open on this front. We think that science is good news, that it is a gift from God, but it is not the only good news. Unpacking that, asking how science fits in with your theology, will be the concrete work of the classroom.

Follow the emotion.

My own research relates to the meanings of life. And, just as in the case of evolution, I find that people have a strong emotional response. Vegetarianism is an area where people’s personal habits and personal feelings shape their ethics.

Candorville by Darrin Bell 6/3/21

We all filter our beliefs through a personal lens. And I don’t think that move is entirely illegitimate. We have unique access to our own experience of life. We speak of true love as loving our neighbor as yourself. It is part of the human condition, even while we work to transcend it.

Theology instructors know this well. Both positive and negative emotions reveal something important going on for students. Find out what that is – delicately, sensitively, pastorally but with real curiosity. It is easy to get caught up in what triggers your own emotions, or what seems most important for the curriculum. Resist that for as long as you can. Students will tell you exactly what issues matter to them and provide the clues you need to make the subject matter meaningful.

All theology is pastoral theology. Science engaged theology can seem remote. Extra-galactic astrophysics is quite literally worlds away from daily life, and yet it inspires visceral emotions. The public cares about telescopes and cosmology. Astrophysicists devote their lives these topics. Respect that. Think about how your topic might impact students.

Some areas that I have run into:

  1. Fundamental value orientation:
    1. Is the universe fundamentally good with bad bits in or bad with good bits in?
    1. Is the universe fundamentally understandable and, if so, how?
  2. Community belonging:
    1. How do I relate to the people who produced these ideas?
    1. Were they made by and for people like me?
  3. Autonomy:
    1. What do I have control over?
    1. How does this affect my own value and my relationships?
  4. Embodiment:
    1. Does this change the way I relate to my body?
    1. Does it change the way I relate to my physical environment?

Ask students why they believe what they do. Remember that they are always applying their beliefs to concrete questions in their own lives.Every time I teach, I find something new.

Which brings me to my final suggestion.

Experiment.

I was trained first as a scientist, so I mean this in a particular way. Figure out what you want to accomplish and what you expect. Try it out. Take notes. Match your expectations to your observations and come up with a new theory.

Theologians call this the action reflection model, but I think there is something a bit more careful about the “experiment” metaphor. It involves a bit of research before-hand. Who has done this before? What did they discover? What other factors might be at play? How can I minimize the variables and know that my intervention made the difference?

Science engaged theology is not something new. The founders of modern natural science, from Roger Bacon to Francis Bacon, Newton, Boyle, and Darwin all saw their work as applied theology. While many touchstones of modern theology (including Aquinas, Malebranche, and Kant) saw themselves as doing natural science.

In another way, science engaged theology is always new because science keeps changing, socially as well as informationally. God is constantly doing a new thing. If you are interested in the theological tension of known and unknown which underpins modern science, I highly recommend the work of historian Margaret Osler [2].

Science and technology are now part of the vernacular. A theology that does not engage with them cannot succeed, because it will not connect with the lived experience of believers. Have fun with the process. And remember that you are not alone. Your project is part of something larger as the broader Christian community tries to make sense of a changing society.

Science is a social aspiration, much like the church. It is ideal, but also institutional and embodied. Our task is to share with students the fullness of science: the challenge of reasoning well, the joy of seeing and thinking clearly, and the truth that can be found. We will have succeeded if they begin to have ownership of the ideas and familiarity with the techniques, if they can build for themselves a community that includes scientists, if they can create their own science engaged faith.


[1] Randall Munroe (2014) What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. Houghton Mifflin.

[2] Margaret Osler (1994) Divine Will and the Mechanical Philosophy. Cambridge University Press.


Responses

  1. […] is a human endeavour, grounded in human minds and cultures. I say a bit more about this in my blog post on science-engaged […]


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