PBS features “Science in Seminaries” | The BioLogos Forum

BioLogos board member Dr. Jennifer Wiseman (whose thoughts we featured earlier in the week) wears many hats—she’s a world-class astronomer, for starters—and is involved in a dizzying number of organizations promoting positive science/faith dialogue. Besides her involvement at BioLogos, she is the leader of DoSER (Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion), a program of the influential American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). In late January, she appeared on the PBS show Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly to talk about “Science in Seminaries”, a AAAS project (directed by her) which funds science education at 10 seminaries around the country. On the show, Wiseman explains why future clergy need to understand science correctly as part of their ministry. The short clip also offers an overview of tensions between science and religion, past and present, and how clergy are often on the front lines of these debates. Here’s the video (full transcript can be found here):

What do you think? Should clergy-in-training have to take science classes as part of their education? Is this the right way to bridge the gap between scientific and religious communities, or will it just harden existing narratives? Also, do you think the show accurately portrayed the diversity of Christian opinions about science, or could it have used more nuance?

Dr. Wiseman is an astronomer, author, and speaker. She holds a B.S. in physics from MIT and a Ph.D. in astronomy from Harvard. Active in science and faith dialogue, she enjoys giving talks to congregations, youth groups, civic groups, and science enthusiasts on the excitement of science

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://biologos.org/blog/jennifer-wiseman-interviewed-on-pbs-about-science-in-seminaries

I, personally, think that it is a good idea as an elective. Someone going to seminary may be doing it for various reasons to which science may not be applicable. Someone who intends to do mission work in closed countries has very little need for the ins and outs of quantum mechanics. But someone who intends to start a church near Berkeley might.

In terms of the type of course, however, I think that what is more necessary than pure science training is separating data from interpretation. Present the data and then present the various views on what that data means. For example, with evolution describe materialistic naturalism, theistic evolution, old earth creationism, etc, etc. Part of the problem, in my mind, isn’t that pastors have placed a stake in the ground but that they are not sufficiently versed in the various propositions and so if someone asks question that goes outside of what they have been exposed to they don’t have enough background to look into the question further. They need a survey of beliefs with their pluses and minuses, not just a “this is what science says”.

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Even missionaries need to know some science. We have Christian missionaries of the fundamentalist stripe by the hundreds here in Ecuador, and they spread their YEC views with great confidence and authority. Worse, they often also spread the idea that the world will end soon. This has serious social consequences if it is taken seriously, as some people do.

Science as an elective is good, but they should have had basic science in highschool. So I agree that if this is not about science, but about controversial perspectives related to science, then they should understand the science behind the various perspectives. They should understand this science from the perspective of the different viewpoints, not all filtered by only one perspective.

This can apply to things like evolution, climate change, genetically modified food, organic production, digital information. This can only be a cursory knowledge course, but can be useful in their daily work. It will probably help them to recognize the limitations of science, and to recognize their own limitations as well.

I see this project as a good trend. We need more factually based discussion of science in seminaries. Kevin, I agree with your focus on separating data from interpretation, and helping pastors to be well versed in various positions. Lack of knowledge of the data combined with unexamined yet dogmatically-held positions create big obstacles for the gospel. All pastors need to be aware of the range of scientific and theological interpretations. It’s in the intersection of those two areas that people struggle with questions about doubt and faith. I think it’s important for all leaders who desire to faithfully engage others with the truth and beauty of the gospel.

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I certainly support efforts to help seminary students learn about science, just as I support efforts to help primary-school pupils learn about science. And I hope that scientists will be always keen to helpfully answer specific questions (about brain modules or genetic modification, and so on) from seminary professors and students.

But I doubt that teaching scientific theories or facts to seminarians will make much of a difference in the level of intellectual competence among clergy. Consider the recent posts on this blog, by Prof Venema, on the comical errors of a seminary professor in the US. This professor, officially a member of the academy and therefore a high-ranking professional scholar, produced writings on a topic he evidently does not understand, reaching conclusions known to contradict consensus views of thousands of experts on that topic, and disseminated the falsehoods to laypeople. By even the crudest standards, this is scholarly malpractice, and if the professor were my colleague, I would initiate a process to instruct and potentially censure him for such malpractice. He was not merely wrong—that’s not malpractice. He was irresponsible and negligent.

My point is not to pillory the poor ignorant professor. Instead, I would suggest that his problem, which we know to be widespread in—and often endemic to—seminaries, is more basic and potentially much more concerning than mere ignorance of science. If this professor serves as an example or as a mentor to clergy-in-training, then he is modelling scholarly malpractice and modes of behaviour that can compromise clerical integrity and competence in every way.

In short, I would be more supportive of efforts to reform the way seminaries think about and talk about logic, evidence, argument, and scholarly diligence. Effective reform in this direction (which I believe to be impossible, admittedly) would eliminate the need for seminarians to take courses in science or indeed in any other ancillary discipline. Well-trained scholars in any discipline, regardless of their understanding of X, know not to write about X without learning about it.

A side benefit of this stance is that it applies to all disciplines and all scholars and does not single out seminaries. If, say, an evolutionary biologist were to write a tract on the history of English Protestantism, making basic errors and reaching astoundingly revolutionary conclusions, that chap would be just as guilty of scholarly malpractice, and I’d be just as keen to see him corrected.

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