Gordon College, a Wenham-based Christian school, recently wrapped up a weeklong conference to promote science literacy among a group of professionals that isn’t typically associated with science — protestant pastors.
Inside a classroom on Gordon College’s campus, leading genomics expert David Ussery tells his students, “DNA is like Coca-Cola.” The group laughs as his Powerpoint slide flashes an image of a Coke bottle next to a double helix.
A sea of white hair and graying heads face Ussery as he uses Coke and chocolate to illustrate how DNA sequencing works.
Ussery is just one of several scientists visiting Gordon College to participate in a conference called Science, Pastors and Faith. It’s a weeklong workshop of discussions, readings and lectures on topics ranging from the cosmos to evolutionary mechanics — all with the express purpose of boosting the scientific IQs of the ordained clergy.
The village nerd
In small towns and rural communities throughout the nation, the clergy may well be the closest thing to a local intellectual authority. That means if a congregant asks about the use of embryonic stems cells in research, that can put a minister in a vexing spot if his degree is in history or theology.
Gordon College biology professor Craig Story is at the helm of the project, which is funded by the Biologos Foundation. Story says pastors often are at a loss at how to respond to certain science issues today.
“They also feel inadequate to deal with a lot of the scientific changes," he said. "And I wanted to see if I could provide an opportunity for them to learn about cutting edge science and feel more comfortable.”
Comfortable because, well, since the time of Charles Darwin, science and Christianity have often been at odds, particularly among fundamentalists — especially when it comes to debates about evolution and when life begins. These issues become politicized, deepening the divide between the religious and scientific communities. Craig Story — a Christian himself, wants to move away from all that and illustrate how science and religion can complement each other.
“Sometimes people mistakenly think that there are different kinds of science. There’s Christian-based science and there’s other kinds of science. There’s science from this view, that view. And I think that’s simply a wrong approach,” Story said. “There is one world, one physical reality out there, and the best science will more and more accurately explain that world.”
DNA sequencing … in church?
In Ussery’s class, “The Genomic Revolution,” science is explaining the world of bacteria.
“DNA is really, really stable," he said. "RNA, on the other hand — in bacteria, the average lifespan of RNA is 2 minutes.”
So how can this lecture have relevance in a Christian social context? Doug Pierce, a pastor from Dassel, Minnesota, says learning the DNA sequencing of bacteria offers a bigger picture as to how humans were created.
“Science is always learning certain things," Pierce said. "I think the thing for Christians, and particularly for evangelical Christians, is how does God fit into this scientific model?”
Pierce says he hopes that what he’ll learn at the conference will equip him with the knowledge and rhetorical tools to promote unity and understanding within his congregation.
“I think the fear is that the scientists are trying to push God out," he said. "There’s no place for him in all of this. But I think that the real thing is to see how God fits into the process.”
And it appears more pastors than you may think are in agreement with this line of reasoning. A study out of Rice University earlier this year that surveyed 10,000 people found that nearly 50 percent of evangelicals believe that science and religion can support one another. Surprisingly, that’s a far cry greater than the 38 percent of the general public. But still, it’s hard to ignore why so many Christians are hesitant to embrace science.
Choose your words wisely
Jennifer Wiseman, director of the Dialog on Science, Ethics and Religion for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, says the terminology scientists use can make some Christians wary.
“One of those terms is 'randomness,'" Wiseman said. “We see random processes in nature all the time. And when it comes to the origin and development of life and of our very beings, when we use the word ‘random,’ it can sound as though we’re saying, that there’s no point, purposeless, and that’s incompatible with the Christian world view, which would say God has a purpose for an entire creation.”
But Wiseman says that’s changing. In Christian communities, she senses what she calls a growing thirst to understand science. More seminaries are incorporating science into their curriculum, and AAAS is getting an increasing number of requests for speakers and support for community-based science programs.
“I do think that I have seen almost a relief in some of these religious congregations when they find out that hey, it’s ok for me to be excited about what we find out in science because it doesn’t conflict with my faith,” Wiseman said.
That's something Pierce agrees with. He’s also quick to note that neither science nor religion have an answer for everything.
“I think one of the biggest mistakes we make in the world today, coming out of the enlightenment, is we have this idea that if we study enough, if we learn enough, we will answer all the questions," Pierce said. "But it’s not the whole story.”
For Doug Pierce, faith in God and trust in the scientific method are inextricably bound together — kind of like a double helix of philosophical DNA.