Archived Sections, Lutherans in the Twin Cities

Religious wisdom and scientific knowledge can co-exist

Lutherans are at the cutting edge when it comes to studying issues in the
relationship between science and faith. That’s the opinion of Alan Padgett, a
Luther Seminary professor who was recruited for the faculty seven years ago
in large part because of his expertise in that area.
“Lutherans have shown a strong interest in the relationship between science
and faith,” Padgett declared. He cited two major factors leading to this
interest — Lutherans’ continued interest in “creation” and in the concept of
vocation.
“Where every vocation is as spiritual as the next, we can value scientific work
specifically as Christian work,” Padgett said. “It overcomes this false division
between religion and science which is so pervasive in our culture and is so
unhealthful. The Lutheran tradition has a lot of strong resources for bringing
together theology and science.”
The professor acknowledged that the relation between science and religion
can trouble some lay persons. But for those who have had some theological
training and done some theological reflection, he said, “The only thing that
bothers them is that this is such an issue in our culture. They are willing to
bring together faith and science.”
In part, Padgett bases his assessment of where Lutherans stand on faith-
science issues on the invitations he has received to speak on this topic at
church forums since coming to the Twin Cities. “Pastors want teaching that
brings together faith and science from the Lutheran point of view,” he said.
An ordained United Methodist pastor and theologian, Padgett has followed an
academic path in his work. Midway through an eight-year stint teaching
philosophy at Bethel College in St. Paul, he received his Ph.D. from the
University of Oxford in England. From 1992 until joining the Luther Seminary
faculty in 2001 he was professor of theology and the philosophy of science at
Azusa Pacific University in California.
Padgett said there are “major figures” in the area of theology and science
teaching at Lutheran seminaries across the United States. Luther Seminary
was simply continuing that tradition in hiring him as a professor.
Shortly after joining the Luther faculty, Padgett teamed up with the Dennis
Ormseth, then pastor of Lutheran Church of the Reformation (ELCA) in St.
Louis Park, and others to launch the North Central Program for Science and
Theology (NCPST) under the auspices of the Minnesota Consortium of
Theological Schools. Consortium members are the seminaries at Luther,
Bethel, United, St. John’s, and St. Thomas. Professors in the natural sciences
at the University of Minnesota who are Christians were also involved, Padgett
said.
NCPST built on the foundation established in previous years by a variety of
conferences, lectures, and discussion groups in the area that were open to
the public. These included the Science and Theology Roundtable started by
Ormseth and others.
The mission of NCPST was to promote teaching and learning “that bring
together religious wisdom and scientific knowledge for the challenges of our
culture today, with a special focus on the communities of the Upper
Midwest.”
Padgett and Ormseth succeeded in obtaining grant money totaling $15,000
from the Metanexus Institute on Religion and Science, a Philadelphia think
tank, to sponsor lectures for the public on major topics in science and
theology.
For five years NCPST brought in experts from across the nation and world for
lectures in churches, colleges and universities, and seminaries in the Upper
Midwest, Padgett said. For three consecutive years NCPST won $10,000
prizes from the Metanexus Institute for the excellence of its programs.
The three prizes from Metanexus were the maximum NCPST could receive,
and for the past couple of years the group has had to rely to a greater degree
on local experts as speakers and on local sources of funding, according to
Padgett. The University of St. Thomas has been generous in providing funds,
staff, and free space for lectures, he said.
During its first five years, NCPST sponsored four to six guest lectures a year.
Now, with more limited resources, it offers one or two.
For a big conference on design, purpose, and complexity in nature in
September 2006, Padgett served as a panelist along with professors Peter
Harrison of Oxford University, Michael Spezio of California Institute of
Technology, John Haught of Georgetown University, and William Stoeger of
the University of Arizona.
Last month, when the topic was global warming, the panelists were
professors Philip Rolnick and Thomas Hickson of St. Thomas, Erik Nelson of
Humphrey Institute, University of Minnesota, and Joe Bush of United
Seminary. Rolnick also chairs the NCPST steering committee, of which Padgett
and Ormseth are members.
The North Central Program has continued the monthly Science and Faith
Roundtable, one of its forerunners, which meets at Hennepin Avenue United
Methodist Church in Minneapolis for book discussions. The topic last month
was “Evolution and Christian Faith: Reflections of an Evolutionary Biologist” by
Stanford University professor Joan Roughgarden.
About 10 persons attend the book discussions, Padgett said. The lectures
draw up to 120, with an all-time peak of 250. NCPST has an e-mail list of
some 400 pastors and lay persons who have asked to be informed about
upcoming lectures.