Conversations between theology, science help believers make sense of life
The Rev. Dennis Ormseth champions the process.
In several small but very dedicated groups, Christian theologians and scientists in the Twin Cities are meeting in an effort to bridge the gap between science and religion as they confront the host of complex issues in contemporary society.
The focal point for much of this work is a small ELCA congregation in St. Louis Park — Lutheran Church of the Reformation, located on Highway 100, south of I-394.
The science-faith dialogues at Reformation, now 10 years old, are not a formal program of the church. But its pastor, the Rev. Dennis Ormseth, has had a long-time interest in the subject, and the congregation has thrown open its doors to the discussions and permitted Ormseth to spend some of his time playing a leading role in the effort.
Why does Ormseth attach such importance to the relationship between science and faith? “Our culture is so deeply imbedded in the world of science that we can’t help but acknowledge that our lives are affected by it,” the pastor said.
“But also spiritually our orientation to what we know of the universe is heavily determined these days by what we read of scientists’ work — from the history of the universe to the destruction of dinosaurs to questions of biological ethics.”
Ormseth, who taught courses in the history of Christian thought at Luther Seminary from 1980 to 1986, says that the response of the church’s theologians to the growth of science has been “one of the most important dynamics” in the history of Christian thought in the modern period.
For himself, Ormseth is convinced that the reponse of Christianity to scientific thought does not inevitably produce conflict. “I’m very much of a mind to say that truth is one and there must finally be a consonance between the truths of science and religion,” he said.
“Sure, there are many points of tension — our world view, ethical considerations, the theory of knowing. But in the history of the relationship of science and religion, they have impacted each other in a much richer way than the old story of war between the two. The idea of inevitable conflict is simply not true.”
The pastor continued: “I think it’s really important for some, not all, in the church to be thinking about this relationship of science and religion and help the wider church sort it out. “Taking some issues, I’m firmly convinced that a person can be a Darwinian thinker in biology and a person of faith. Or one can accept the view that the universe is incredibly ancient and vast without compromising one’s fidelity to Scripture.”
On several very contemporary matters — homosexuality and issues in ecology — Ormseth believes the voice of the scientific community is important.
The form which the dialogues have taken at Reformation Church is a monthly Science and Faith Roundtable. It’s primarily a reading group in which participants come prepared to discuss a current book in the area of religion and science.
The current topic is a book with that exact title, “Religion and Science,” by Catholic theologian John Haught. The group has studied several books by Ian Barber, a retired teacher in both physics and theology at Carleton College whom Ormseth describes as “probably the best known person in the field of religion and science.”
Over the years Roundtable participants have plowed through a “steady diet” of books on the impact of evolutionary theory on Christian teaching, according to Ormseth. Other areas have included physics, consciousness studies, the human genome and questions of method — how do scientists think, how do theologians think and what do they have in common.
The Science and Faith Roundtable actually is a follow-up to a one-year project titled Science, Religion and Public Policy which Ormseth directed at the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota. That came after Ormseth completed his stint at the seminary and before he embarked on a five-year period as an interim pastor.
Persons who had participated in the project at the university wanted to resume their discussions, and shortly after Ormseth took charge at Reformation Lutheran, the Roundtable was organized with the church as host.
Participants, who come from all over the Twin Cities, include seminary professors, parish pastors (Lutheran and other denominations), university science professors, active and retired persons in the business world, and church lay people who have long been fascinated by the world of science.
Between five and twelve persons attend the Roundtable discussions regularly, Ormseth said. Attendance varies with the season and the book under discussion. The group has a list of 300 persons who could be interested in a particular subject, and participants rotate in and out of the program.
Some of the core people involved in the Science and Faith Roundtable have also been instrumental in launching a second forum in the Twin Cities for discussion of religion-science issues.
Known as the North Central Program in Science and Theology, it began a year and a half ago and focuses on bringing in experts in a number of areas for lectures and dialogues. The forums are held at three sites — the chapel in the Olson Campus Center at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, the Cargill Building for Microbial & Plant Genomics on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus and the John Roach Center at the University of St.Thomas in St. Paul.
The key factor that made the North Central Program possible, Ormseth said, was the availability of funding from an organization called Local Societies Initiatives. LSI’s goal is to promote discussion of issues between science and religion in as many different aspects as possible.
Managed by the Metanexus Institute, a think tank funded by the Templeton Foundation that has 100 affiliates around the world, LSI provides basic three-year matching grants with the aim of developing local programs in the science-religion area.
In its first year, the North Central Program concentrated on bringing in three internationally known speakers, Ormseth said. This year, with a supplemental grant of $10,000, the program has added weekly lectures featuring local experts in the areas of science and theology in a February-April series under the theme “Biology, Ethics and Belief.”
Speakers have included V. Elving Anderson, professor emeritus in the Institute of Human Genetics at the University of Minnesota, and Greg Peterson, associate professor of religion and philosophy at South Dakota State University. Both have been active in science-faith discussions in the Twin Cities area over the past decade.
Catholic theologian John Haught from Georgetown University will wind up the series April 21 with a lecture on “God After Darwin: Evolution and Divine Providence” at Luther Seminary.
Attendance at the lectures has ranged fro 30 to 90, Ormseth said, with students at the institutions where they have been held accounting for a substantial proportion of the audience.
All the lectures have been videotaped with the hope that churches will use them in their education programs, the pastor said, adding that he’d like to see a small number of groups like the Science and Faith Roundtable at his church sprout as a result. The tapes will be available later this year from Seraphim Communications.
Planning for the North Central Program lectures has been done by a seven-member committee of representatives from Luther and Bethel Seminaries and the University of St. Thomas Theology Department. Alan Padgett, professor of systematic theology at Luther Seminary, has served as chairman and Ormseth as director. Sponsorship of the project is now in the hands of the Minnesota Consortium of Theological Schools, which includes Luther, Bethel, St. Paul, St. John’s and United Seminaries.
It’s been difficult to build a regularly attending “community of discourse” for the lecture series this year, Ormseth acknowledged, and the group may try for a more tightly focused theme next year and go to a monthly rather than weekly schedule.
The impact of the two forums for dealing with issues in science and religion differs with individual participants, the pastor said. But he’s convinced that the impact has been “very rich,” for those attending, whatever their background.