This is why seminaries need science
“Test everything; hold fast to what is good.” (I Thessalonians 5:21)
What place does science have in seminary? A few weeks ago, I met with seminary teachers to discuss this question. ECLAS, with the support of the Templeton Religion Trust, is delighted to be providing awards of up to £60,000 to nine theological colleges to update at least one core module and host a campus-wide event as part of our Science for Seminaries programme. But what exactly does it mean to “incorporate science”? We gathered to talk that through.
Theological schools cannot teach science in the way a university science department would. They barely have time enough to cover basic subjects such as scripture, history, theology, pastoral care, and preaching. But they can engage with science in each of those areas in a way that prepares ministers for work in a world shaped by science and technology. They can give students tools to understand scientific ideas and language that have become commonplace for Christians and for society at large.
The challenge looms large this year. How do we speak about virus and vaccine? What is the relationship between epidemiology, ethics, and public policy? We often hear about “following the science,” but there is more to that than deferring to a particular scientist. At its best, following the science means attending to the details of discovery. It involves curiosity and learning to ask questions carefully. It means designing experiments that allow nature to answer questions clearly and building a community of shared understanding to discuss the results. It requires thinking and acting together to investigate the world. Much like the church, scientific communities require trust, tradition, and continuous reformation.
Ministers have experience at the intersection of knowledge, identity, and relationship. They can help Christians (and non-Christians) do the hard work of putting the pieces together. They can help by talking through the questions, even when they don’t have the answers.
At the meeting, we talked about the history of Christian interactions with science and the pressing questions of the day. We discussed past efforts – from an ongoing science for seminaries programme in North America – and the unique context here in Britain. We shared stories of success and failure at connecting with students across theological differences.
Thinking through questions in the classroom helps prepare ministers for action in congregations: how to care for people in the parish, how to talk about the virus, when to defer to experts (and when to challenge them), and how to think about the pandemic in the light of Christ. Social activities that introduce students to scientists help them appreciate the personal and communal aspects of exploring the natural world.
Theological schools cannot teach science, but they can introduce science concepts in a way that makes them more approachable. They can connect students with resources for learning about recent discoveries and, more importantly, for understanding them in Christian context. They can empower students to reach out and talk to scientists, theologians, and politicians about scientific issues and tough decisions.
Science and theology can both seem distant to the average Christian. Our culture tells us that we must be experts to tackle such difficult topics. But all of us work with scientific and theological insights on a daily basis. All of us use scientific knowledge of virus and vaccines. All of us use theological narratives of sin and redemption, grace and truth. By introducing theology students to these ideas in combination, we give them tools to make difficult decisions in a complex world.
One seventeenth century commentator referred to the English clergy as stupor mundi, a wonder of the world. In a time of religious dispute, even religious war, they were able to speak across the theological spectrum of Protestant and Catholic identities with a deep knowledge of scripture, tradition, and reason. We live in a different time, but we still need ministers who can speak to a diverse society about the troubles of the day, bringing to bear the best of modern scholarship. Science for Seminaries attempts to prepare Christian leaders for that work.
It will be a difficult task, but I was inspired by the wisdom and devotion of the group, which included prominent scientists and theologians as well as teachers from the nine seminaries. Each one will engage with science and faith in their own way. Each one will help bring the gifts of science to the church and bring Christ to the broader world.
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