When I was a youth minister outside of St. Paul, Minnesota, some years ago, the local lore included a story of how Post-it® Notes were conceived during church one Sunday. A 3M engineer named Arthur Fry was singing in his church choir when the slips of paper he had used to mark the day’s hymns fell out, causing him to fumble to find the right pages. During the ho-hum sermon that followed the choir’s performance the idea dawned on him. He could take an elastic copolymer adhesive, developed by another scientist, and turn it into a tacky bulletin board note that could easily be removed and even transferred to another surface. This new idea of how to move from a polymer to a life-changing product is, I believe, a helpful tale for religious communities today. If the church, synagogue, temple, and mosque do not talk about and utilize modern science in their religious life, it will seep into our communities of faith anyway. People will bring the science they know, work with, or learn about from popular media into the life of congregations one way or another.
We are fortunate to live in a time when the bridges between science and religion are more numerous and robust than at any time in the last century. Major contributors to this dialogue, like John Polkinghorne of the U.K. and Ian Barbour of the U.S., have opened new paths of dialogue and collaboration between these once antagonistic fields. The witness of leading scientists, like Francis Collins, former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, to the compatibility of orthodox faith with modern science was thought impossible by fundamentalists and modernists alike in the last century. The openness of the scientific community to new areas of research—as with the Dalai Lama around neuroscience and meditation—is a testimony to new possibilities of mutual enrichment. And despite the media coverage given to extreme positions on either side—be it science-against-religion polarities like those of Richard Dawkins or creationist attacks on evolution like the new Creation Museum in Kentucky—there are more constructive areas of dialogue between science and religion today than anyone thought possible a generation ago. The range and depth of the areas of dialogue are daunting: evolution, emergence theory, and theism; neuroscience, the mind, and the soul; quantum theory, chance, and divine action; sociobiology, morality, and religious sentiment; genetics, human nature, and free will—to name but a few. Even many secular scientists, like the famed biologist E. O. Wilson of Harvard, realize the time has come for a new moral and intellectual collaboration between science and religion to preserve and honor the “depth and complexity of living nature.”1
What amazes me is the lack of connection to date between this productive religion and science dialogue and everyday religious practice and ministry in local congregations. Occasionally, congregations in Silicon Valley or in a research triangle will hear a sermon affirming the growing links between science and faith. Clergy who have scientific backgrounds may offer an adult education course, and laity who practice in scientific fields may start study groups. Yet how often do the discoveries and practices of modern science intersect with everyday issues of religious practice and ministry? How often do clergy consult with medical practitioners in the community around end-of-life care for families facing chronic, degenerative illness? How prepared are most religious educators or clergy to answer questions brought by young people in a confirmation or bar mitzvah class about the compatibility of evolution and belief in a transcendent God? And how often do clergy invite lay members with scientific expertise to bring their knowledge to bear on how Creation is depicted in hymns and liturgy, how their health care ministry is going, or how a local environmental ministry is being carried out? Do congregational Bible studies encourage conversations about what Creation narratives tell us that evolution may not, or how visions of the future and end times might be informed by quantum theory or relativity?
At Alban, we are interested in exploring the potential of building greater scientific literacy among congregational leaders, especially in ways that equip clergy and laity in the sciences to collaborate around issues of faith and ministry practice. We believe a profound shift in congregational life and ministry can be created if clergy and lay leaders are better equipped to integrate scientific knowledge into their religious practice and ministry. For one thing, churches, synagogues, and other faith communities would become less reactive to the religion-science conflicts that are endemic to the culture wars of American society. But more importantly, clergy and laity will begin to see the value that scientific knowledge brings to faith and ministry. They can work together to build their own bridges of dialogue and collaboration that explore more deeply the nature of the cosmos, human beings, and the God who sustains and guides all that is.
If you were to bring greater scientific knowledge to bear on a specific area of ministry in your congregation or faith community, how might you go about it? What area of ministry or faith might you choose, and what kind of scientific expertise or knowledge would you want to tap? We at Alban want to know, so we ask you to respond to a brief poll (see link below) to help us understand areas of religious and scientific collaboration or dialogue that would make a difference in your congregation’s faith and ministry. By answering these questions you can help us discern the areas of greatest potential for bringing science to ministry in ways that can help deepen and transform the life of faith communities.
1. The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth (W. W. Norton, 2007)
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If This Is the Way the World Works: Science, Congregations, and Leadership by William O. Avery and Beth Ann Gaede
Bill Avery and Beth Gaede explore five principles from the philosophy of science that suggest an alternative way to view congregational mission and leadership: openness to new information, complexity, diversity, interrelatedness, and process. When faith communities align themselves with the way the world—God’s world—works, they can more faithfully carry out their vocations as witnesses to God’s reconciling work and as servants to one another.
Emerging discoveries in brain science are sparking new areas of research as cutting-edge educators and psychologists are asking, “What can we learn from brain science about how we function in the world?” Bob Sitze joins the conversation with a new question: What does the human brain have to do with the beliefs, practices, and structures of congregations? Weaving together clear, accessible explanations about the workings of the human brain, Sitze shows how a congregation’s identity and behaviors are shaped by the work of individual members’ brains as well as by the “collected brain” of the congregation.