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Equipping tomorrow’s clergy to discuss scientific findings and technological advances — and the big questions they raise

Today the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the John Templeton Foundation announce a $6.1 million grant to expand their work with the Association of Theological Schools to make more scientific material available to Christian seminary students in their core courses. The major dollar investment is matched by a five-year time commitment — both on the high end of the Foundation’s usual grantmaking practices — because of the strategic success of the project’s first phase, as well as the exciting prospects for its second phase.

When American Christians have questions about the implications of a new widely reported scientific discovery or technological advance, the person they reach out to for advice is often a pastor or religious leader. But seminary curricula have not traditionally offered much training for such a scenario — for many seminary graduates, the most recent science course they completed may well have been in high school.

Starting in the spring of 2018, 32 North American Catholic, Orthodox, mainline Protestant, and evangelical seminaries will be selected for funding and other assistance as they integrate scientific topics into the core curricula. This phase of “Science for Seminaries” builds on the successes and lessons learned from the first project, which paired members of 10 seminaries with local scientists and project leaders at AAAS.

You might not expect to find cosmology and evolutionary science in a church history course — but institutions added them to enrich students’ understanding of how Christian communities have interpreted key biblical texts on creation. Neuroscience and psychology made their way into ethics and theology courses, while courses focusing on worship traditions incorporated new findings on the role of memory and perception in ritual.

At nearly every step of the first phase of the program, Wiseman’s team at AAAS found that interested institutions outnumbered available slots in the program. Among the institutions that did participate, the project’s targets for levels of integration were far exceeded. More than 116 courses were revised to include scientific material, far more than the initial target of two courses per institution. Similarly, the first cohort of seminaries were challenged to produce 10 campus events to increase scientific interest and awareness; in the end they wound up holding more than 77 events.

The next phase of Science for Seminaries aims to capitalize on that interest, with funding and resources to involve more than three times the number of institutions. After an application process that is now beginning, representatives from the 32 seminaries selected for the program will be grouped into four cohorts of eight that will convene regularly to brainstorm and share their progress. They will also attend the AAAS annual meeting to give them greater exposure with the scientific community as a whole.

Each seminary will also be paired with a local scientist to help ensure that scientific topics discussed in the courses are presented accurately. And other seminary representatives, even if they are not among the 32 finalists, will be able to attend several key parts of programs over the next five years.

Changing the Atmosphere

The many threads of Science for Seminaries come together in Wiseman’s broader mission of scientific and religious dialogue. Years from now, she says, “our big-picture hope is that a large swath of the public will be better acquainted with advances in science and technology, and with scientists, in such a way that more meaningful and constructive dialogue on the ethical and philosophical implications of these advances for society can take place. Society as a whole benefits if religious leaders are equipped to establish good atmospheres in their congregations for incorporating solid science into their discussions and ministries.”

To see some of the fruits of the first phase of the project, visit the Science for Seminaries website — and make it a bookmark. The next five years will bring more and more material to the site to help Christian leaders offer well-informed responses to the questions their communities ask as science, and religion, progress.