When Scientists Reflect on their Walk with Jesus

Society of Ordained Scientists

When members of the Society of Ordained Scientists gathered at CDSP earlier this month, it was to share how they traverse the worlds of faith and science, how those journeys shape their ministries, and how their ministries can influence their communities.

“Everyone in the Society, in some way, has had two careers, has held authority in science and the church,” said the Rev. Lucas Mix, PhD, who is warden for the Society’s North American Province. Mix, an adjunct faculty member at CDSP, received his MDiv from the seminary in 2007 and his PhD in organismic and evolutionary biology from Harvard in 2004. This year he is a research fellow at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey, where he is investigating astrobiology and society.

“All of us have this language that we have learned from being church geeks and science geeks,” Mix said, “and there is something wonderful about being with people who speak your language. Being able to talk to each other allows us to put things in new ways.”

In addition to Mix, attendees included CDSP President and Dean Mark Richardson and the Rev. Dr. Marilyn M. Cornwell (MDiv ‘06), rector of Church of the Ascension, Seattle. Both were presenters (download Dean Richardson’s presentation), as was the Rev. Dr. Ted Peters, research professor emeritus in systematic theology and ethics at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences at Graduate Theological Union. Both Cornwell and Peters (from whom Mix took a seminary course in religion and science) were accepted as new members during the retreat.

Also attending was the Rev. Deacon Josephine “Phina” Borgeson (MDiv ‘74), the Rev. Robyn Arnold (MDiv ‘08), the Rev. Barbara Smith-Moran (DMin ‘09), and the Rev. Dr. Robert Russell, director of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences and professor of theology and Science at Graduate Theological Union.

Founded in 1987, the Society of Ordained Scientists has more than 100 members and holds a yearly retreat in the United Kingdom, where it was founded. Additionally, it meets every two years in the United States. This year’s meeting was the first to be held at CDSP.

Most Society members serve in parishes, and according to its website, “[i]ntegrating science and theology, reason and faith is not just a work for scholars; it is something all of us have to do every day, as God calls us each in our own time and place.”

Mix understands that call. “My work is largely labeled science and religion,” he says. “There’s also this question of synthesis; how do I bring my faith and my knowledge together? It’s all about faith and understanding. I think it’s a question of speaking about Jesus and speaking about science in the vernacular.”

Presenter Marilyn Cornwell, a lifelong Episcopalian, said “The deep lessons of my scientific training prepared me well for the pilgrimage of faith as an ordained scientist.”

Cornwell was a scientist with a PhD in biochemistry when she joined the faculty of a cancer research center and conducted research on how tumor cells become resistant to chemotherapy. She also had been asked by her church to be a link between spiritual care and health care for cancer patients she met through the church.

“I began to be a resource for Episcopalian and Anglican patients from all over the place coming to Seattle for bone marrow transplants,” Cornwell said. “At the beginning I found it quite odd—I mean, although a person of faith, I was just a simple lab geek, a true science nerd; but I just kept getting these invitations to be a bridge for patients and families as they left their everyday lives and entered the bewildering world of high-tech health care.”

Through those accumulating experiences, she felt her call. Cornwell went to seminary, completed her MDiv at CDSP in 2006 and was ordained in 2007. Now, as rector of Church of the Ascension in Seattle, she witnesses first-hand the value of the Society of Ordained Scientists.

Society of Ordained Scientists

“It provides support for its members who are in the forefront of providing resources and connections, and unfolding the link to science for people in the pews in the church, and people outside the church,” Cornwell said. “At least the people in my parish, who are highly conversant and educated in the sciences, want to know how do we make sense of the stories of our faith, with galaxies being burst out like milkweed seeds (as seen on Hubble Space Telescope images)? How do we make sense of God and the fact that there is other life on other planets? How do we make sense of the Holy Spirit and a techno-cultural milieu dominated by data-driven science?

“People from the outside looking in need to know that the church isn’t stuck in the 1400s in its ideas about the world. And people on the inside need to know how to live in relationship with what we call God in the context of their lives.”

Deacon Phina Borgeson, who holds both an MDiv and a DD from CDSP, has attended all kinds of forums and conferences on science and faith. But the Society of Ordained Scientists offers something she hasn’t found elsewhere.

“I really joined simply because I had been timed out of the (Episcopal) Church’s Committee on Science, Technology and Faith,” she said. “One of the things I really like about it is, it is not task-oriented like the committee was. I like that you see people that you might be going to a conference with, and you pray for one another daily. It’s a different way of dealing with people.”

She appreciates the camaraderie.

“There is a kind of loneliness, when you think about the number of people in science who are people of faith,” she said. “This is a place where you can be out about your faith.”

Borgeson, a Radcliffe graduate with a major in biology, teaches at the School for Deacons on the CDSP campus. She lives in Santa Rosa and recently retired from paid church work redeveloping small congregations.

She has a long history of ministry development and involvement in food system ethics. She was director of the Faith Network Project for the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, founder and lead organizer of the Sonoma Valley Gleaning Project, and for years served as Episcopal News Service’s correspondent for science and the environment. She currently serves on the advisory board of the Interfaith Sustainable Food Collaborative in Sebastopol, California.

Borgeson said she hopes the Society of Ordained Scientists will become more influential in promoting the integration of science and theology.

“I think in seminaries today, there are opportunities,” she said, “but sometimes what happens is the academic work is done by a small cadre of the faculty and it still hasn’t touched the mainstream of the seminary or the church. How does it impact our preaching? How does it impact our hymnology?”

It can be difficult, she said, for scientists who enter seminary to focus on the convergence of science and faith because “if they moved from science to a career in a church, there’s where their energy is going to go, to finding a church, finding a job.”

CDSP makes the convergence much easier.

“With Mark (Richardson) being so squarely in the place of understanding that need and the movement, CDSP is in a better place to give any seminarian, whether they have an interest in science and faith, some exposure in the field.”

During her years as a scientist and as a person of faith, Borgeson has seen a positive shift in the conversation.

“There are some issues today, particularly environmental issues,” she said, “which are a lead-in to look at the dialog of the convergence of science and faith. The early years of church-based environmental activism tended to be romantic and elitist. It was a movement primarily among the privileged with an emphasis on preserving wilderness. Now food security and food sovereignty have made a sound connection between the plight of the world’s poor struggle for survival and the environmental movement.”

Why be concerned by the connection between faith and science? In her recent presentation to the Society, Cornwell summed it up this way.

A recently retired professor of New Testament who is a member of the parish asked me on Sunday, “How much science does the person in the pew need to know to live meaningful life? How much theology?” I don’t have the answer to his questions.

I do believe that the answers to the questions at the intersection of science and faith matter. Why? Because people care.

You and I both know that most of the people in my parish could care less about the fact that the paired spins of electrons in orbit around the nucleus of an atom are energetically entangled, but they do care about how the very energy in and of the space between us connects us to one another and to what we call God.

Some of the people I encounter in parish life do care about the ethics of human cloning and they care more about hope of gene editing to cure diseases like muscular dystrophy and HIV.

Many care deeply about the connection between the science of climate change because they care about deep ecology of humankind and creation with the Divine. The answers to their questions about science and faith do matter to those who seek a deeper relationship with the Holy One.