May 20 2019

Undercurrents in the Deeper Waters: Reflections on Science, Theology, and Professional Competency

by Frederick L. Ware, Howard University School of Divinity

Prefatory miniature from a moralized Bible of "God as architect of the world", folio I verso, Paris ca. 1220–1230. Ink, tempera, and gold leaf on vellum 1' 1½" × 8¼". Public Domain.

The intersection of science and theology has been an interest of mine for many years. As a young college student majoring in philosophy, on the trek towards theological education for ministry and later doctoral studies in theology, I pondered—and sometimes agonized—over the big questions about the origin and nature of the universe and human life.1 At the time, I intuited and am now solidly convinced that the ministry to which I was called requires nothing less than the kind of cultural fluency that includes the scientific literacy necessary for participation in the ongoing conversation about meaning and purpose in human life, and especially about the pursuit of just societies.2

The Right Project at the Right Time

As I look back on 2013 and how I first became involved in the Science for Seminaries initiative, I immediately recall a palpable sense of “readiness” for involvement, not to mention an enthusiasm for a chance to participate in a project ideally timed for my intellectual journey. It’s clear to me now that my choice of philosophy as my undergraduate major—and, in particular, my interest in courses in the history and philosophy of science—were reinforced by a somewhat accidental, maybe even providential, discovery of pre-seminary studies. One day, while at the student services and career center, I saw a pamphlet on pre-seminary studies alongside pamphlets on pre-med, pre-dentistry, and pre-law trajectories. I discerned a professionalism in ministry comparable to that of other fields such as law, medicine, dentistry, and engineering, which required “pre-studies.” When I moved on to graduate school for doctoral studies in theology, I had the opportunity, albeit limited, to continue my studies in philosophy, mainly in metaphysics and ontology in my philosophy of religion, process theology, and ecological theology courses. From 2006 to 2008, in the early stages of my teaching career and many years after finishing my doctoral studies, I had the good fortune of participating in a professional development initiative that afforded me the opportunity to engage in focused and intentional integration of issues in science and theology3 and that enabled me to offer elective courses in theology and science at Memphis Theological Seminary (summer 2006) and Howard University School of Divinity (fall 2009). At this point, the incipient and implicit convergence of science and theology that had played a key role in my own personal development as an emerging scholar and in my formation for a ministry in theological education had ripened and become explicit to the extent that I knew there would be no turning back. I was certainly ready for more. I was, however, uncertain as to what “more” might actually entail.

Deeper Waters

My journey into the deeper waters of the engagement between science and theological education took the form of playing a leadership role in Howard University School of Divinity’s participation in the Science for Seminaries initiative from 2014 to 2017.4 Among the requirements for receiving a Science for Seminaries grant were: the leadership participation of at least two faculty members; the revision of a least two core/required courses in the school’s curriculum; and the organization and convening of at least one campus-wide event. In the allotted three-year period, Howard went well beyond the minimum requirements of the grant. By the project’s end, there were four participating faculty members, eight revised courses,5 three campus-wide events,6 and numerous resources complied for a bibliography accessible from a new website7 dedicated to the initiative. Each faculty member developed an approach unique to their interests and subject matter. One colleague in biblical studies focused on paleo-climatology and human migration while another in the same field focused on behavioral sciences. The study of ancient climate and the emergence of political systems for control of water provided students with “hard data” on the forces, such as the effects of hydroprojects, influencing the migrations of minority populations such as the Hebrews who preserved memory of their exile in written texts. Psychology proved helpful for exploring the probabilities of how environments affect biblical characters, and how they in turn shaped their environment. Another colleague in ministry studies focused on disability and addiction studies as a way of developing an informed theological anthropology which does not diminish the worth of persons with differently abled bodies nor shame persons whose addiction follows the pattern of disease. My focus was on cosmology, evolution, and genetics. In general, I drew on these scientific disciplines to help students to think critically and creatively about what it means to be human and what represents plausible belief in God and special divine action in light of the scientific studies shaping human understandings of reality. In order to bring coherence to these various approaches, an overarching theme (human identity, community, and purpose) was formulated. This theme was aligned with the mission and social justice advocacy of the Divinity School.

“Negative” and “Positive” Outcomes

Like any seafaring journey, Howard’s collective foray into the deeper waters of the science-theology engagement involved our fair share of smooth sailing and turbulence leading to a complex set of both “positive” and “negative” outcomes. Let’s start with the negative.

The initiative brought into bolder relief those aspects of the culture of the academy which reward individual accomplishment over collaboration and specialization over interdisciplinarity. Institutions of higher learning divide into academic units staffed by professors who are subject specialists. After division into units aligned with subject areas, work across disciplinary boundaries is difficult and rare. The academic unit has systems of promotion and compensation which guide the professor to the pinnacle of their academic discipline. Also related to the culture of the academy was the frequently discomfiting realization that the training of theological educators had become so siloed that it precluded interdisciplinarity among the various theological fields, and it had ill-equipped many faculty to give serious consideration to how their own particular disciplines might engage with issues raised by science and technology. And there was the subdued critique on both sides of the relationship between religion and science. There was a strong sense that one of the guiding assumptions of the initiative was the degree to which science ought to play the role of arbiter between “justifiable” and “unjustifiable” religious beliefs and practices. Science was privileged in raising questions for religion. Theologians tended to refrain from asking hard questions about the philosophical presuppositions, the underlying political and economic interests, and social implications of science.

One of my strongest takeaways from the “deeper waters” phase of my own journey into the science-theology engagement is that Science for Seminaries and similar projects will give rise to a genuine sense of “search” and a subsequent apprehension of truth that challenges the convictions in each meta-discourse, with neither attempting to discredit or sanction the other but rather with each pressing us to expand our knowledge of the world.

There were many “positive” outcomes that emerged from Howard’s adoption of the initiative. Expectedly, there were some of the measurable and immeasurable ways that the integration of science into the curriculum encouraged both faculty and students to grow as theologians and ministers. Rather unexpectedly, however, were the remarkably fruitful ways in which the initiative provided Howard Divinity faculty with the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues from other academic units within the university and vice versa. Equally surprising and refreshing was the high level of interest among the sciences faculty in establishing various formal and informal partnerships with the Divinity faculty. For example, at our initiative-sponsored “interdisciplinary mixer,” the science faculty outnumbered the divinity faculty by three to one. Another lasting and very positive outcome of the initiative has been the ongoing cooperative ventures between scientists and Howard Divinity faculty through initiatives such as the Center of Theological Inquiry’s symposia on human migrations and astrobiology and the AAAS DoSER’s Engaging Scientists Event Series.

Conclusion: Enthusiasm Tempered by Significant Concerns

Though I am confident that the impact of the Science for Seminaries initiative will be evident for years to come, I have several sets of concerns. I will discuss two.

One set of concerns has to do with reciprocity and balance. The Science for Seminaries initiative is unidirectional. It is clearly dedicated to the work of educating clergy about science. It has no agenda to educate scientists in the fields of either religious studies or theology, and this includes the scientists intimately involved in the design and execution of the initiative. The initiative enlists scientists to provide knowledge and insight from their scientific disciplines and to opine on the implications of this data for theology and ministry. The problem is, however, that although the vast majority of these scientists are equipped with the expected degree of sophistication in their various fields, they have astonishingly low levels of competency in philosophy and theology. To be sure, the same is true of the vast majority of theologians and ministers participating in Science for Seminaries initiatives: they exhibit high levels of sophistication in their own disciplines, but a contrastingly low level of scientific and even philosophical literacy. The difference is that, although the project is designed to address this imbalance on the side of the participating theologians and ministers, it does nothing to address the analogous imbalance among participating scientists.

A presupposition of the project is that no theologian and/or minister can claim the cultural fluency necessary for true professional competence without a basic knowledge of science and its implications for the practice of faith. I strongly agree and, as I mention above, I have agreed with this presupposition from my youth. The question is: can we also say that no scientist can claim the cultural fluency necessary for true professional competence without a basic knowledge of religion/theology and its implications for the practice of a scientific vocation? If this is a thoroughly legitimate question—and I am convinced that it is—then it raises immediate concerns regarding what, if anything, is being done or proposed to revise curricula in the sciences. The Science for Seminaries initiative addresses a very real deficiency in theological curricula, but to the exclusion of what I would argue is an ontologically related deficiency in science curricula.

My second set of concerns has to do with the extent to which the Science for Seminaries initiative raises larger issues regarding the opening and closure of the assessment loop in graduate theological education.

In 1966, the American Association of Theological Schools issued a “Statement on Pre-Seminary Studies.”8 According to the statement, a person entering theological education should undertake a course of study which will enable them to understand the physical world and to think clearly and critically, with both of these outcomes achieved through the sciences. In the decades following 1966, several theological schools have strayed considerably from the practice of requiring pre-seminary studies for admission. Increasing numbers of students are being admitted to theological schools without bachelor-level majors in the humanities. Those students with undergraduate majors in the humanities may not be better off. In large part because of wide variation, as well as an increasing lack of breadth and depth across undergraduate curricula in the United States, today’s bachelor degrees—even those in the liberal arts—do not necessarily prepare admitted students for master’s level theological study.

In the summer of 2018, AAAS DoSER held a workshop for seminary faculty participating in Phase II of the Science for Seminaries initiative. According to a survey of faculty participating in Phase I of the initiative, only one-in-five seminary faculty felt they were equipping their graduates for the task. Even the students surveyed thought that they were not being prepared for engagement with the sciences. The workshop revealed that one of the stated goals of Phase II was sustainability, that is, how, in the long term, to equip future ministerial leaders to engage science as they minister in a world saturated with science and technology.

I would propose that, before attempting to answer the important question of sustainability, theological educators should avoid falling immediately into a crisis of confidence by assuming that faculty participating in Phase I are failing to equip their students to engage science. Instead, we should be asking ourselves: What does it mean to be “equipped to engage science”? This is a learning outcome that begs to be defined and measured. Decisions have to be made about how to assess the courses and curriculum revisions emerging from Phase I in a way that will show what success (or lack thereof) is actually being made in student learning outcomes. With regard to the Science for Seminaries initiative, sooner rather than later we may have to discuss and develop SMART Learning Objectives,9 not only for the initiative itself, but also in concert with the larger question of what students upon completion of their seminary studies should know and be able to do.


1 For a formulation of these types of questions, see Keith Ward, The Big Questions in Science and Religion (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Foundation Press, 2008); Robert C. Solomon and Kathleen M. Higgins, The Big Questions: A Short Introduction to Philosophy, 9th Edition (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2013); and Stephen Hawking, Brief Answers to the Big Questions (New York: Bantam Books, 2018).

2 By “cultural fluency,” I mean the knowledge and ability to not only participate within one’s culture but also to assess and modify that culture for improved adaptation to the physical and social environment that one shares with other persons.

3 “Science and the Spirit: Pentecostalism and the Sciences,” a research initiative funded by the Templeton Foundation. For the essays published through this project, see James A. K. Smith and Amos Yong, eds., Science and the Spirit: A Pentecostal Engagement with the Sciences (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2010).

4 The project is described in my “Oh So Human, Yet So Divinely Complex: Science and Theology in the Exploration of Human Identity, Community, and Purpose,” Seminary Ridge Review 19, no. 1 (Autumn 2016): 44–55.

5 John Ahn (Old Testament I, Old Testament II), Michael Willett Newheart (New Testament Critical Introduction), Harold Dean Trulear (Prophetic Ministry, Intro to Church Music & Worship), Frederick L. Ware (Philosophy of Religion, Systematic Theology I, Systematic Theology II).

6 Interdisciplinary Mixer (February 2015), Two-Day Conference (April 2016), University Sesquicentennial Event (February 2017).

7www.hureligionandscience.org

8 “Statement on Pre-Seminary Studies, The American Association of Theological Schools,” Journal of Bible and Religion 34, no. 2 (April 1966): 171–173.

9 The acronym SMART stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-oriented.


Frederick WareFrederick L. Ware, PhD is professor of theology at the Howard University School of Divinity where he teaches courses on systematic theology, philosophy of religion, and Black theology. Author of Methodologies of Black Theology (Pilgrim Press, 2002; Wipf and Stock, 2008) and African American Theology: An Introduction (Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), his research interests include: African American Theology; the intersections of Pentecostalism with race, culture, and healthcare; and the religion-science dialogue. Ware is an ordained minister in the Church of God in Christ and has served congregations in Memphis and Lebanon, Tennessee, as well as participated in ecumenical dialogues of the international consultation of the World Council of Churches and Pentecostals.