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The Shepherd’s Lab Coat

For seminary students, hard studies lead to soft hearts.

The Shepherd’s Lab Coat

For seminary students, hard studies lead to soft hearts.

During his time as a Ph.D. student at Duke University, Ryan Juskus studied ethnography with the Restoring Eden Project, a Christian organization that designs and conducts citizen science projects in places near coal mines, coal plants, and refining facilities. In his pursuit of a degree in theological ethics, Juskus traveled to Birmingham, Alabama, where he connected with churches that were advocating for a clean environment. Led by a pastor who taught science on weekdays and preached on weekends, a Baptist church in North Birmingham was nestled across the street from a coal plant.

Juskus spoke with a congregant from the neighborhood, and what he learned was disturbing. “She loves gardening, but the city came by and told her she shouldn’t garden anymore because it’s toxic. In fact, she shouldn’t even go outside.”

For Juskus, this work brings together his scientific interests and his Christian call to care for others. “It’s a way to bear witness to God as Creator, and to God’s love for all creation,” says Juskus. “Science can be a tool of witness and love.”

What does it feel like to worship God and read Scripture when you’re being poisoned to death by the coal plant next door? What does it look like to read the psalms of lament or the Genesis accounts of the goodness of creation, while situated in a place where citizens are battling respiratory diseases and feeling forgotten by the rest of the world?

Many seminaries are embracing frameworks that enhance their future pastors’ capacity to shepherd, comfort, and embrace tensions that arise between faith and science.

Now a postdoctoral fellow in the environmental program at Wake Forest University, Juskus isn’t alone in asking these questions. In fact, many seminaries are beginning to recognize that the lives of congregants will be full of circumstances grounded squarely in the scientific, shaping how they interact with the spiritual.

When couples are unable to conceive children, their heartbreak will arrive hand-in-hand with questions about fertility treatments. When illness wracks a parishioner’s body and they are thrust into specialist meetings and experimental treatments as a means of survival, their spiritual lives and medical questions become intertwined. Think, too, about issues of disability, neurodiversity, and genetic testing. What about—as we’ve seen so clearly in the past couple of years—questions about vaccines and pandemics?

While pastors cannot be expected to have answers for all the questions that may arise, many seminaries are embracing frameworks that enhance their future pastors’ capacity to shepherd, comfort, and embrace tensions that arise between faith and science.

Historic and Holistic

As seminaries cultivate an approach to science and faith that is more compatible than adversarial, they draw from a historical precedent.

John Bloom is director of the Science and Religion program at Biola University’s Talbot School of Theology. He cites historical scientists like Kepler and Galileo as having recognized God’s presence in the natural sciences. While the public face of science doesn’t tend to accept that presupposition, Bloom argues, “When you do surveys and so on, most scientists are theists, but they don’t have the microphone.”

He says that some Christian students are initially wary of the sciences because of the seeming cultural divide, not because of the true relationship between science and faith. A Christian’s perspective and even profession can be radically altered when they reclaim the vision of Christians past, like leading scientist of the 17th century Robert Boyle, who argued that scientific work was a form of study that would compel Christians to better glorify God and understand the Bible.

Rather than ignoring these philosophical and practical tensions that arise, leading seminaries believe that pastors who are trained to consider and engage with questions about our bodies and the physical world will have more effective, impactful ministries.

John Dyer, vice president for enrollment services and educational technologies and assistant professor of theological studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, has a similar vision. Rather than teaching his students to analyze technology based only on how it is used, he emphasizes that technology “always has a shaping and formative power” on the user.

“It’s especially true of today’s technology, which is not as much dealing with our physical bodies but the rest of our whole selves—our minds and souls,” Dyer says. “People sort of assume that what really matters for us is the morality of our usage. That short-circuits the whole discussion, [assuming that] as long as we’re using it for good and not for evil, we don’t need to think about it any more deeply. But the last decade or so has taught us that’s not true.”

For Dyer, it’s critical that seminarians studying to be pastors understand that the question of whether or not innovation and technology are good isn’t merely a question of how they are used. One must also consider how they form the user.

Similarly, Vern Poythress, a professor of New Testament, biblical interpretation, and systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary and author of Redeeming Science: A God-Centered Approach, wants to see pastors who can engage scientific issues holistically. He advises students not to aim for a moment in time when they have all the answers. Rather, he encourages them to cultivate humility, a cadre of resources, and a keen awareness of their congregants’ lives so that they can connect fellow believers working in science with one another for mutual encouragement.

“Is God not big enough to answer questions, maybe even in a variety of ways?” – Mary Vanden Berg

“When the body of Christ functions rightly, that can really help people,” Poythress says. “Sometimes they need reading material. But sometimes they need someone alongside them—a living, breathing body.”

W. David O. Taylor, associate professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, notes that those living, breathing bodies are continually participating in God’s formative and transformative work in the world as they engage in corporate worship.

“Kneeling is contracting,” says Taylor. “Dancing is expanding. Sometimes our bodies need to go down or up [in worship],” just like in physical therapy or a doctor’s office.

In moments that seem to transcend words—like those when our vocal cords rumble to groan out to God, or we burst into tears at the first chord of a hymn—he says our bodies are testifying to the ways they were woven together by God. One of the most sacred elements of worship is communion, the remembrance of Christ’s body. The communion table is a physical space where Christians engage both physically and spiritually in acknowledging Jesus’ humanity and divinity.

Taylor observes that the Greek word frequently translated healing in the New Testament is therapeuo—the word from which we draw our English therapy or therapeutic. From Jesus’ work healing bodies to God’s gifts of tears and laughter that provide our bodies with chemical and physiological capacities to process our emotions, God’s design for humanity testifies to God’s holistic vision for humanity.

Scientists Are People Too

Mary Vanden Berg, a systematic theology professor at Calvin Theological Seminary, emphasizes the need to understand science—and scientists as people.

She says she sometimes has students who are fearful of science.

“For those students, I usually want to ask, ‘why?’” Vanden Berg says. “Is God not big enough to answer questions, maybe even in a variety of ways? I want them to recognize scientists as honest people who are doing honest work that benefits all of us. I want to get away from the war metaphor and help them see that we’re friends.”

One of the ways Vanden Berg ventures to achieve this is by inviting scientists to speak to her theology students and by taking her students to visit labs. In doing so, she finds that previously skeptical students are, at a minimum, then able to see the scientists they meet as humans setting out to do a good job for the benefit of others.

There are times when the scientific community has not served the world well, and the same can be said for theology, which has been weaponized at great harm to others. And we see a pattern where the two are married for evil purposes, where Christians used the Bible to justify slavery and eugenics based on faulty pseudoscience. While fighting against stigmas promoted through an artificial war between science and religion, the church must come to terms with its history of using science to justify harmful theology.

Just as seminaries cannot afford to forget the study of Scripture and theology, many realize they must not neglect engagement with the natural and embodied world, as that is where their graduates will pastor people every single day.

As a program established by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER), Science for Seminaries has worked with 54 seminaries to integrate science into their core curricula—including Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Concordia Seminary, and George W. Truett Seminary at Baylor University.

“The long and short of it is that people have been, for a little while now, really hesitant to go into this religion and science conversation because it’s been very focused on physics and evolution,” says John Slattery, a senior program associate who co-manages the Science for Seminaries project. “But that’s really sort of like a war of ideas.”

Observing the volatility, Slattery says, people often feel as though they must be experts on creationism and evolution in order to participate in scientific theological conversations. But the especially turbulent topics are only some of the places where science and theology intersect, and, Slattery adds, pastors can meet people in their experiences without preparing to debate Richard Dawkins. This antagonistic focus on evolution distracts from the rich and vast areas of scientific study that have real world significance.

That’s why Science for Seminaries was launched in consultation with the Asso-ciation of Theological Schools (ATS). As ATS puts it, they have set out to “support a growing number of pastors who are equipped to help their congregants find answers to science-related questions.”

With Science for Seminaries grants, Hood Theological Seminary, for example, established the International Center of Faith, Science, and History. Denver Seminary integrated science into its core curriculum through the lens of the question, “What does it mean to be human?”

In this way, the grants commissioned by Science for Seminaries make a foundational change in the culture and experience of seminary programs. A key component of that shift is a brief but profound message Slattery has gleaned from his years at AAAS: “Science is people. Science, in terms of developing ideas, is made up of ideas built on one another, but science as it’s lived out is simply made up of people.”

Pastors have people who care about science in their pews. Whether they live next to a thriving university and have a large population of professors in the congregation, or they minister in a small community filled with healthcare workers and technicians, Slattery says these people are “doing science on a day-to-day basis, even if they don’t see it that way themselves.”

Equipped to Engage

Whatever a congregant’s connection to science, people in the pews need pastors who are equipped to lead, comfort, and disciple them through the scientific questions their theological frameworks may not have a way of approaching.

One of the theologians at the forefront of bringing their scientific and theological fields into conversation with each other is Aminah Al-Attas Bradford. Bradford works as a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Applied Ecology at North Carolina State University, where she does microbial theology at the intersection of theology, ecology, and race. Bradford describes the tensions that arise between faith and science not as unsolvable problems or threats from which to run, but as opportunities to be formed in humility, delight, and curiosity—all that we might better worship God and love others well.

During her doctoral program at Duke Divinity School, Bradford probed the history of Christian thought on what it means for humans to be part of a material creation that is good and finite—and suffers in the wake of humanity’s broken ways of being.

“Over and over again,” Bradford says, “I found that modern Christian theology presumed a human that was radically individual, completely floating out in space, as if the human’s relationship to the rest of creation had no bearing on their life before God.”

Meanwhile, millions of Americans who gather in churches every Sunday have personal, complex, embodied connections with creation and with science. Like the people Juskus knows, some of them live in toxic environments. Some are sick or disabled. Some are researchers who spend their professional lives in labs. Some are delighted by scientific discovery in acts as simple as foraging.

As reflected in her dissertation, Symbiotic Grace: Holobiont Theology in the Age of the Microbe, Bradford is drawn to the “interstitial spaces”—whether those between the microbiome and human bodies, or those between science and Christian theology. As she engages those spaces by bringing together cutting-edge science and theology, she hopes pastors can enter those spaces too.

“Part of a pastor’s role in being present to people who are suffering is to hold with them the vulnerability of what it means to be creatures in bodies and not the Creator,” says Bradford. “And what that means is that life is pretty painful at times. Without an understanding of how God’s creation can be good and also painful at the same time, we’ll end up blaming or getting blamed, we’ll end up demonizing creation, or the church will fail to offer any response that [adequately addresses] the weight of suffering that hurting people are experiencing.”

So what does it look like for pastors to minister to people who are asking questions about the gift of neurodiversity, the process of aging, the morality of embryo adoption, or the staggering weight of terminal diagnoses? Can scientific answers, in fact, be spiritual?

For the churches in North Birmingham, worship in the face of environmental injustice looked like prayer for those suffering from debilitating respiratory conditions. It looked like hosting town halls where residents, scientists, and activists could gather to share experiences, disperse information, and build connections and strategies. It looked like the simplest, most practical acts, like allowing door-to-door health surveyors to use their church restrooms during survey days. And it looked like standing up to testify at city hall hearings and speaking with journalists—bearing witness to the image of God in every person and the comfort of a God who sees suffering creatures the world ignores.

Juskus and his contemporaries believe that practicing ethical science is a tangible way to love our neighbors, something all Christians are called to do. The inevitable twining together of the physical and spiritual can no longer be denied, and through helping their students better understand this world, seminaries prepare pastors to usher people into the world to come.

Abby Perry is a freelance writer who lives with her husband and two sons in Texas. You can find her work at Sojourners, Texas Monthly, and Nations Media.

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