The year that was 2022 was filled with technological and scientific discovery, but more importantly wonder. Whether it was pondering our place in the widening lens we have of our universe and beyond or how faith communities can embrace science by ‘doing’ science, it was an exciting year for many active in the ongoing dialogue between faith and science.

Covalence would like to take the opportunity to point to some of the most intriguing themes we have seen emerge in recent months.

1. A new ‘universal’ view

The Pillars of Creation were first captured with the Hubble telescope in 1995, but our new and improved view thanks to the James Webb Space Telescope offers an opportunity to ponder our understanding of the universe even more. The tallest ‘Pillar’ is thought to be four light-years long (24 trillion miles!) The stars are part of the Eagle Nebula, which is a ‘nearby’ star forming region roughly 6,500 light-years away from the constellation Serpens, according to NASA. 

As our view of the universe is sharpened, we are afforded a window to our universe’s beginnings and the potential for future exploration of the stars. The greater understanding of the expanse of the universe we can see and that we cannot (such as dark matter) offers a greater appreciation of the creation.

As Vatican Astronomer Brother Guy Consolmagno writes: “The science behind this telescope is our attempt to use our God-given intelligence to understand the logic of the universe. But as these images show, the universe is not only logical, it is also beautiful. This is God’s creation revealed to us, an in it we can see both his astonishing power and his love of beauty.” 

2. Shared urgency over climate change

As world religious leaders once again gathered on the sidelines of COP27 in Egypt this year, a collective interfaith effort seems to be emerging when it comes to combating climate change. We also saw other denominations discuss efforts to invest foundation and pension capital in a more sustainable way as well as broader discussions of how congregations can lead discussions related to faith and the environment.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has drafted a new social message on climate care in response to the ELCA Church Council’s authorization in 2021 to develop the teaching document. The ELCA Social Message on Earth’s Climate Crisis builds on previous social statements, particularly from Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope and Justice, drafted in the 1990s. The ELCA asked for public input through a survey that was completed in December 2022. 

3. AI and its implications for the church

Artificial intelligence is rapidly making inroads to our daily lives whether it is via social media or simply refilling our prescriptions. While it has the promise to make our lives easier, some worry about possible peril AI holds for humanity’s future and what controls we have over the technology as its potential use cases grow.

Lutheran theologian Dr. Philip Hefner has long sought to update his original work on the created co-creator concept and has done just that with a new book released by Fortress Academic this past autumn. “Human Becoming in an Age of Science, Technology, and Faith,” seeks to answer what it means to be human and what our responsibility for our own becoming means. Hefner shared a chapter exclusively with Covalence in May of this year where he explores some of the implications of AI.

Interestingly, The Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences at The Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif. kicked off this past year a $445,000 grant from the John Templeton Foundation to study Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its ethical implications. “Virtuous AI? Artificial Intelligence, Cultural Evolution, and Virtue” will seek to answer various questions such as: How and to what extent AI will influence the evolution of human culture and virtue? Can AI assist humans in the acquisition of virtue? Is AI itself capable of virtue? An interdisciplinary, global network of scholars from AI scientists to humanities researchers will collaborate to carry out the project, officials said. Dr. Braden Molhoek, director of CTNS and Ian G. Barbour Assistant Professor of Theology, Science, Ethics, and Technology, is coordinating the effort.

4. Citizen scientists in the pews

Over the summer, Grace Wolf Chase provided some insights from her work as a scientist and promoter of citizen science in the pews. Her account of her recent Zooniverse project provided a wonderful commentary on work being done in faith communities to promote science appreciation to a larger audience. The idea that citizen science can be a source of awe, wonder and action is just being embraced more widely even as Chase has been promoting this work for years.

She writes: “As an astronomer who studies the origins of stars and as a person of faith, I’ve participated in the science and religion dialogue for decades, because I believe that building bridges and creating venues for two-way communication are essential to counteracting ‘culture wars’ that present science and religion as enemies, to the detriment of both.”

5. What does my brain have to do with it?

The topic of neuroscience is re-emerging as an area of interest. We first explored this area in 2021 with a fascinating discussion with Michael Spezio, who is an associate professor of psychology, neuroscience and data science at Scripps College in Claremont, CA. He is also ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). At Scripps, Spezio directs the Laboratory for Inquiry into Valuation and Emotion (LIVE Lab) and his research focuses on emotion as the cognition and consciousness of valuational representations of self and others in decision making. Much of his work more recently has centered interestingly on self-determination and neuroscience.

Also worth noting is that well-known researcher on the intersection of the brain and religious and spiritual experiences Andrew Newberg will be the speaker for next year’s Goshen Conference on Religion and Science to be held at Goshen College in Goshen, IN.

Dates are tentatively set for the weekend of March 10-12, but the agenda is still being finalized. The theme, “The Varieties of Spiritual Experience,” has been approved and participants will explore the concept of neurotheology and will look at the work being done in neurophysiology.

Most recently, Newberg has updated his public findings in a newly released book. The Varieties of Spiritual Experience: 21st Century and Perspectives, published by Oxford University Press, advances Newberg’s neuroscience and cognitive psychology research in a nod to William James’ famous book of a similar name, Varieties of Religious Experience

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