June 13 2024

Science, Theology, and Epistemology: Lessons from a Liberal Protestant Seminary

by M. T. Davila, Merrimack College

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.

Andover Newton Theological School (ANTS) is a seminary in the liberal Protestant tradition, whose students come mainly from the United Church of Christ, American Baptist, and Unitarian Universalist traditions. For nearly two decades of its history as an independent seminary, our classrooms included rabbinical students from Hebrew College, our neighbors “on the Hill” and interreligious covenant partners. This means that the ANTS classroom has typically been incredibly diverse with regard to the life experience, affiliation with the Christian tradition, age, ethnic background, and educational credentials of our students, varying significantly from class to class.

Over the past two centuries or so of its existence, ANTS has undergone many significant moments of growth in the process of adapting to shifting cultural and economic contexts. One of these more recent moments centered on the school’s commitment to integrate science more explicitly and vigorously into its curriculum by participating in the Science for Seminaries initiative. ANTS recognized the importance of helping ministers-in-training consider the sciences as integral to their theological education, accessible for their future ministerial lives, and necessary for responsible ministry, especially at a time when many public sectors were debating the validity of climate change science. Many of the faculty had already included science in some way in their coursework, which made attracting them to the goals and tasks of the grant more amenable and exciting. I can say with confidence that there was little to no resistance to this challenge.

Making the Initiative Our Own

One of the strengths and defining characteristics of the Science for Seminaries initiative is a certain built-in flexibility designed to accommodate the specific curricular interests and needs of particular schools of theology and their faculties. For example, the grant required that we develop working relationships with scientists who would make themselves available for consultation and would participate as guest speakers in the classroom as well as in special public events. Pursuant to ANTS’s own curricular goals and faculty interests (some of which I will discuss below), the group of scientists with whom we were blessed included an astrophysicist, a molecular biologist working in research and development of pharmaceutical technologies, and a medical doctor who specializes in pain management and the neuropsychology of pain.

There were at least a couple of other ways in which ANTS was able to adapt the initiative to serve its specific needs as well as to draw on the special strengths of existing institutional relationships. One was to ensure that initiative resources could be adapted for use in fully online as well as face-to-face (F2F) teaching formats. My own experiments with the “Introduction to Christian Ethics” course included both online and in-person pedagogies and experiences. Another was to take full advantage of our connections with some of the world-class colleges and universities of the greater Boston area in order to benefit from the gifts of a significant number of potential partners from the scientific communities of these institutions. Not only were these partners willing to participate, but they openly, genuinely, and generously shared their skills and presence in our classrooms—often free of charge or for minimal honoraria.

Science in the Ethics Curriculum

One of the major goals of the initiative is to integrate science into at least two courses required in the master of divinity curriculum. The ANTS faculty was able to do this: across the Systematics I and II sequence; in select Hebrew Bible and New Testament courses; and in “Introduction to Christian Ethics.” Other courses in which science was added included: a Muslim-Jewish-Christian dialogue course, at least one course in spirituality and one in pastoral care, and in “When Home is a Warzone” (a course focusing on pastoral responses to intimate partner violence).

I myself am an ethicist. Almost all of my ethics courses have two principal components. One is a more conventional assignment centered on student interaction with classical readings in the canon of Christian ethics. The other is what I call a “media component” which is designed to expand the unit’s topic to include student engagement with popular media, art, music, poetry, a personal witness story, or even fiction (usually in the form of literature or film). Prior to my work in the Science for Seminaries initiative, I had regularly included some scientific resources in this media component. For example, during a statewide voter effort in Massachusetts to pass a death with dignity measure, I included materials on the medical aspects of physician-assisted suicide in addition to resources on various legislative, pastoral, ethical, and biblical perspectives.

What the initiative enabled me to do was to revise both the online and F2F versions of my “Introduction to Christian Ethics” course with the goal of incorporating science as a conversation partner in most of the course units. I used the grant as an opportunity to explore science as a companion field for the course, assigning as part of the weekly media component a relatively brief and accessible science reading written for a popular audience. I then selected three specific topics in which the science component would be much more developed, and in which students would have to engage scholarly research articles on the subject. These were discussions on human behavior and how environmental and health factors impact a person’s ability to have full mental capacity to exercise what moral theologians refer to as “free will.” Some of the articles I used in this unit included literature on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in athletes and how these brain injuries shed new light on the exercise of “free will” as historically construed in the Christian tradition. These scientific resources allowed students to take a fresh critical look at things such as their own understandings of: evil and questions of theodicy and human responsibility; the Adam and Eve story and the doctrine of Original Sin; the exercise of will by Jesus in “embracing” the cross as a salvific act. Other articles and resources provided students with a scientific basis for opening up new avenues of theological reflection and inquiry on a wide range of ethical issues including: the status of “consciousness” in patients in persistent vegetative states and how this relates to end-of-life challenges such as the pastoral dimensions of families making the tough choices of removing ventilators and other life-sustaining technologies from their loved ones; questions surrounding the morality of assisted suicide; and a whole host of theological and ethical concerns generated by climate change science, with particular attention to ocean acidification and its implications for sea life, food supplies, and an increase in cataclysmic weather events.

Student Response

In general, students were very open to the experience of incorporating science into our discussion of ethical topics. In my classrooms specifically, students felt that the added science component was not superfluous, but an integral part of how to do ethical reflection. For the most part they quickly developed an appreciation for the role of reason/science as one beam in the quadrilateral of scripture, tradition, reason/science, and human experience that is the foundation of all authentic ethical and theological reflection.

It was not uncommon for students to express feeling significantly challenged by what the science was telling them about the particular topic we were discussing. This was especially the case in their ethical evaluation of physician-assisted suicide and other end-of-life questions in light of the science of consciousness. It was also true in the area of climate change and their various churches’ approaches to environmental ethics. On both these fronts, my students—most of whom affiliate with fairly liberal expressions of Christianity—reported that before their exposure to the scientific resources, they felt that their respective traditions had some of the most informed conclusions and ethical guidelines on the subjects. But when confronted with the science, they determined that their traditions had not thought complexly enough on these issues. They also felt that the scientific literature they were engaging would be of critical importance in raising awareness among the leadership of their faith communities of the need for more urgent conversations.

In some instances, students were more than just surprised by what the science was teaching them; they were disturbed. This was often the case when ANTS students—who generally consider themselves quite progressive, informed, scientifically literate, and open to new forms of knowledge—were confronted with scientific data that did not support the positions their traditions had adopted on certain issues. In certain contexts, their own assumptions about their traditions clashed with the science to which they were being newly exposed. Luckily, in most cases, they embraced these challenges in the classroom in a way they considered safe and encouraging, where ultimately landing on questions was commonly considered a far better option than prematurely concluding they had reached definitive answers on complicated and crucial ethical concerns.

“Stay in Your Lanes, Please!”

By way of exception to some of the aggregate data discussed by my colleague Deborah Gin in her essay, many ANTS students have solid science backgrounds related to their educational and career experiences in a variety of different fields such as engineering, nursing, environmental policymaking and advocacy, or elder care. So, as one might expect, there was little to no objection to the idea that science was an important resource for any theologian and/or minister. Where resistance, if one can call it that, did arise was when students perceived either that science was being presented as dictating religious belief and truth, or vice versa. This felt more like an entrenched conversation about the separation between church and state, where some students insisted on drawing rather stark boundaries between the appropriate “lanes” of science and religion, boundaries which they tended to rigorously apply both to ANTS faculty as well as our guest experts from the scientific community.

I want to be clear. This was not a case of students’ attempting to water down the sciences, or not being amenable to the sciences as tools for theological reflection. This was more a case of students’ taking issue with the two fields talking to each other in ways that evidenced an intermingling of established expertise with personal belief. In other words, if, for example, scientific experts came to class to talk about the Big Bang Theory, they had better stay in their lanes of expertise and not inject into their presentation any of their own personal convictions regarding the theological concepts of “creation” or “God.” For many of the students, this kind of opining seemed to violate some unspoken rule that the scientists were supposed to present completely impartial and unbiased science, not tainted, flavored, or colored with their own personal beliefs.

On one particularly memorable occasion a concern arose when one of the seminary faculty members had a concern that a guest scientific expert was being overly clinical—perhaps staying too much in his lane? This faculty colleague had a visceral reaction to the way in which, during a presentation on evolution that entailed a focus on everything from the astronomical all the way to the molecular level, this particular science consultant presented certain elements from his field. The faculty member felt that the scientist failed to exhibit any reverence toward the animal world or even respect toward people whose life experiences included illnesses such as cancer. Some of the important, if somewhat neuralgic, questions raised by this particular faculty member at that particular moment were: to what extent can science be pastoral, in the classroom and elsewhere? Should scientists be responsible for incorporating the value of creation, the inherent worth of a living being, or the experience of suffering into their own explanation of natural phenomena such as cancer cells, climate change, animal research, or mental illness?

The Epistemological Questions

Even as I write this, many of the lessons of this experience are still being distilled for me. Here I will mention two that are very closely related.

First and foremost, never assume anything about your students. In engaging the Science for Seminaries initiative, I had assumed that, teaching at a liberal Protestant seminary with many second- and third-career students representing some of the most progressive Christian traditions in the United States, incorporating more science into my Christian ethics curriculum would be a proverbial “walk in the park.” I had assumed that students would welcome the experience, easily assimilate the literature, and smoothly incorporate this new knowledge into their reflections. My mistake was not taking into consideration the ways in which people compartmentalize knowledge and make assumptions about how different fields ought to relate to each other. Yes, my students represented mainly progressive traditions, but they also had very diverse perspectives on how science and religion relate, and most importantly, how these two realms of inquiry and discourse ought to engage in dialogue with each other.

In order to address some of the tensions that arose around the meta-issue of the science-religion dialogue, I designed two capstone events as part of the initiative.

The first was an informal conversation that would bring together our science consultants, the faculty who had participated in the program, students, and ice cream to discuss how our different fields of expertise claim to know what we know. In hindsight, I’m fairly convinced that this key epistemological conversation ideally should have taken place at the front end of the project. What such an explicitly epistemological approach to our respective fields of work and discourse allowed us to do was to engage the concept of “knowledge” from various angles, and discuss how it is that we all approach different genres of knowledge. Thus, we were able to identify and come to terms with the various unspoken ways of compartmentalizing knowledge that gave rise to confusion and conflict during the implementation of the initiative.

The second capstone event was a conference on pain. Drawing from the deep well of Christian claims about and reflections on human suffering and God’s attention to it, we marshalled various scientific and pastoral resources to discuss the science of pain and how this can inform different kinds of pastoral responses to this elemental aspect of the human experience. Among other things, conference participants explored the complicated relationship between pain management and spiritual practices such as prayer and meditation. Not only did this well-attended event public provide area ministers with continued education units, but it served as a model for how the science-religion dialogue could maximize its impact on a teaching and learning community.

The second lesson relates to the concern with mutuality raised by both my colleagues Fred Ware and Paul Metzger in their essays. I have come to the conclusion that one of the biggest challenges and blessings of the initiative was the way in which it raised concerns—however unnamed at first—over the relationship between knowledge and power. Students, faculty, and science consultants alike eventually had to come to terms with the relational implications of posing questions about the nature of knowledge, truth, and dialogue among different ways of accessing truth. What I learned from this is that how one engages different forms of truth and brings them into dialogue with each other ought to be as important a question in the Science for Seminaries initiative as questions about what kind of scientific literature to incorporate into the curriculum, or which units best engage with scientific material.

Both the problem of compartmentalization and the issues of power connected with the social currency of different sets of expertise and knowledge confront faculty and students with at least two major tasks. The first is identifying hard set boundaries we didn’t even know we had, describing them, and dismantling them when and where necessary. The second is addressing specific questions about the pros and cons of these boundaries, as well as to what degree these boundaries themselves represent theological assumptions that we simply haven’t identified for ourselves or our traditions. These meta-level questions are important to engage prior, during, and at the end of the grant cycle, and represent a distinct task that ought to be just as central to the project as incorporating specific scientific expertise and literature into required courses in seminary curricula. Ideally, it is a task that ought to be conducted at a school-wide level, but also personally for every faculty member and for students in individual classrooms. The seminary classroom strikes me as just the kind of a safe and productive place where these challenging questions can and should be encouraged.

On a more personal note, my experience in the Science for Seminaries initiative has provided a new and rich dimension for engagement and collaboration with colleagues from other seminaries that extends well beyond my field of Christian ethics. Through the initiative I have been blessed with an entirely new set of conversation partners from very different religious traditions. In addition, the support of the AAAS, the wealth of resources through their websites and available experts, has made the initiative a joyful experience. Through the grant and engagement with the AAAS I have found a tribe that allows me to breathe holy scripture written in the stars and black holes, as well as the microbe, algae, and neuron.

Concluding Reflection

In September 2017, Puerto Rico went through the near misses of hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Many religious leaders on the island described a sense of being blessed, even immune to the devastating effect of the onslaught of category 4 or 5 hurricanes crossing the Atlantic, but mainly missing my beloved island. Then, as the massive hurricane Maria approached, these same religious leaders called on God to once again deliver them. They were sure that, just like in the case of Harvey and Irma, Puerto Rico would be spared in a way that showed God’s blessing. The confrontations that ensued between meteorologist Ada Monzón and these faith leaders were painful to watch. Ada respectfully honored their religious assumptions about salvation while, in no uncertain terms, describing that there was no mathematical possibility for Puerto Rico to be spared the brunt force of category 5 hurricane Maria. She tried using pro-life language, insisting that folk needed to prioritize saving lives above property, evacuating and taking shelter where necessary. These faith leaders attacked her as unfaithful, unbelieving, and blind to God’s overwhelming love for the island. Well, we know how this story turned out. A year and a half later, blue tarps continue to litter the bird’s eye view of many regions on the island. Water service continues to be both spotty and dangerous. And the very fragile power grid cringes at the thought of being battered by storm winds once again. This experience has conclusively confirmed my sense that the work of the Science for Seminaries project is of utmost importance. It is indeed holy work. And we do well to continue to learn from it as well as support it in strategic and sustainable ways. 

M. T. DavilaM. T. Davila, formerly associate professor of Christian ethics at Andover Newton Theological School, is lecturer in religious and theological studies at Merrimack College, Massachusetts. Her scholarly focus explores Christian discipleship and US civil society through key questions such as the ethics of the use of force, the option for the poor, racial and migrant justice, Latinx ethics, feminist and mujerista theology, and public theology. Her current projects involve examining the culture wars as obstacles to Christian discipleship in the United States.