A research scientist from John Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory and a Lutheran pastor sit together in a church pew and start up a work-related conversation. This may or may not seem like an everyday event in some ELCA congregations, but in this case it’s the beginning of a movement to bring the religion and science dialogue out of academia and into the church community through the Scientists in Congregations project.
The John Templeton Foundation this year awarded 37 grants of up to $30,000, totaling $1 million overall, in support of this project. Originally 90 grant applications were received over the summer and at least four grants have been awarded to ELCA Congregations: Hope Evangelical Lutheran Church and Student Center in College Park, Maryland; Trinity Lutheran in Moorhead, Minnesota; The Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Brevard, North Carolina; and First Lutheran Church in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Founded by a Presbyterian pastor, the Scientists in Congregations initiative began as Rev. Greg Cootsona was surprised to notice his own reticence about bringing the insights and challenges of science into his pastoral ministry, even after almost twenty years of participating in the dialogue of theology and science. Last year, he ran a weekend conference on science and theology at Bidwell Presbyterian Church in California and is now helping other congregations host similar public events.
The initiative calls for a sustained, creative collaboration between practitioners in the fields of science (scientists or science educators) and theology (pastors) who are already engaged with one another through shared participation in the life of a congregation. The Templeton Foundation agreed to provide funding in support of the initiative.
For Templeton and the Scientists in Congregations grant program, the aims of the linking scientists and pastor are widely varied. They include activities to:
- Identify existing resources of congregations and to catalyze conditions for a sustained, rich, generative engagement between science and faith;
- Provide pastors with the means to call scientists into a sustained collaboration that would enrich both a scientist’s engagement with theology and a church leader’s engagement with science as they share participation in congregational life and leadership;
- Develop a range of locally grown models of how congregations can draw deeply from their current congregational life to become communities where the life of science and the life of faith are experienced as spiritually enriching and intellectually stimulating–this goal includes finding ways of encouraging and multiplying the number of congregations also involved to implement and improve on these models;
- Mediate existing resources, as well as those now under development, to cultivate a generative encounter between science and faith in the life of congregations;
- Help address the wider social issues rooted in the troubling ways in which religious communities relate to science.
Historically speaking, little work has been done to either popularize scholarly ideas and findings about religion and science, or to explore their relevance for personal spiritual development or congregational life. The ultimate goal is to create a grass roots effort to bring science to congregations of all denominations and types across the US and Canada.
Hope Lutheran Church
Pastor Jim Vigen and research scientist Steven Babin are co-directors of the Scientists in Congregations project at Hope Lutheran. At Hope there is a focus on identifying themes running through the upcoming lectionary readings in which the text could be challenging to a scientist sitting the pew.
The congregation is unique in that it is near the campus of the University of Maryland and has a close relationship with the Lutheran Campus Ministry’s Lutheran Student Association. The proximity to the university means there are a number of scientists in the congregation. The congregation is also fortunate to have Ida Hakkarinen as a member. Hakkarinen is a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and a steering committee member for the ELCA Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology.
Hope Lutheran’s project will provide seminars/workshops, surveys, and adult education courses that help to develop useful educational materials. These materials will include those based on the web and social media as well as more traditional written text and visualizations that can provide insights complementary to Biblical texts.
An adult study group meets on Sunday mornings and will also meet on Sunday evenings to discuss their views of upcoming lectionary text beginning with the first week of Advent. The group will post online its views in light of science so pastors and other congregations can benefit from the group’s findings and dialogue. The grant runs through February 2013, so the opportunity to give insight on a full-year’s worth of lectionary will be possible.
Co-director with Vigen, BabIn has experience in a wide variety of areas of research such as weather, climate, and human-induced environmental effects on public health, disease and ecosystems, uses of early disease detection in disaster preparedness and response. The pair will also lead a symposium later this year or in early 2012 with a focus on faith and science.
Trinity has a number of Concordia College (ELCA related college) science faculties at the church in addition to doctors, engineers and public school teachers, according to Trinity Pastor Colin Grangaard.
“We are richly blessed with many congregants who live out their faith through vocations in the sciences and this seems like an opportunity to both recognize them and help articulate for our wider community that faith and science can be complementary instead of contradictory,” says Grangaard.
Last March, Senior Pastor Steve Wold drew the pastoral staff’s attention to information on the grant published in The Christian Century. Trinity has traditionally broached religion and science issues and intentionally has invited input from members with scientific expertise during discussions on ELCA social statements.
This past Easter, and into early Spring, Trinity convened meetings with several science professors and public educators who are members of the congregation in order to brainstorm about applying for the grant. Dr. Heidi Manning, associate professor of physics at Concordia agreed to co-direct the grant along with Pastor Grangaard, while Dr. Ernie Simmons, professor of religion at Concordia, agreed to assist with the process.
The $30,000 grant will be spent in three main pieces — God’s Evolving Work in Creation for adults; in the Children’s Ministry; and for fall retreats for Junior High and Senior High youth. The Children’s Ministry at Trinity will be developing a new unit on “New Life and Creation”, one of six units during the year. Several retreats (fall retreat for high schoolers, 6th grade Masterpiece Retreat and 9th Grade Sexuality Retreat) will be enriched with input of science educators and resources. Trinity also will be working on a 7th grade Evolution and Faith Retreat to help middle school children see that faith can be complementary instead of contradictory to a mature way of engaging science, according to Grangaard.
In addition, Trinity will invite prominent speakers and convene public forums on science and faith five times. These will involve educators from Concordia and other local universities and be advertised throughout the Fargo, North Dakota, and Moorhead, Minnesota communities.
The first public event took place on October 9 at the church. The event featured the music of Nate Hogue and Dr. Ted Peters of Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary for a public discussion of “The Evolution Controversy: Who’s fighting with whom about what?”
At First Lutheran Church in Lincoln, Nebraska, an enthusiastic adult forum has already been held with about 40 participants who learned about the grant activities to come. The official kick-off event will be a science fair for all ages in February.
First Lutheran’s Pastor Brian Maas and Dr. Dean Sieglaff, Nebraska Wesleyan University Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy, will lead the First Lutheran project called “Growing in Faith Through the Lens of Science.” Pastor Maas and Sieglaff plan to travel to Scientists in Congregations offices in California in February to collaborate with team leaders from other congregations who will also be implementing grant-related projects.
The science fair at the church will seek participation from church members of all ages. Themes for other activities include: brain science, origins/Big Bang Theory and Archaeology and the Bible. The church is proposing to bring leading scholars to Lincoln for a quarter of study and to provide public events. Currently, brown bag discussions are scheduled for the Wesleyan and University of Nebraska-Lincoln campuses. Other follow-up activities include an adult forum and curriculum development for faith formation of the children and youth. Science nights and a retreat are among other activities and events proposed. The grant project will conclude January 2013.
Church of the Good Shepherd
In North Carolina, The Church of the Good Shepherd in Brevard plans to have presentations on science and theology in the sanctuary. Called “Heart & Mind: A Faith — Science Dialog, the lecture series spans numerous topics from an intro to science and theology, genetics, to an in-depth discussion on artificial intelligence. Invited speakers range from professors of religion and philosophy to those in the areas of physics and geology and a psychiatrist from the United Kingdom.
The aim of Good Shepherd’s program, which runs through February 2013, is to “dismantle the false dichotomy between ‘godless’ science and ‘irrational’ religiosity.” The hope is that members of the faith community will explore the findings and hypotheses of modern science without feeling their beliefs are being threatened while encouraging members of the scientific community to participate in worship experiences without feeling they must abandon their intellects at the door.