UCC scientists, theologians pen groundbreaking pastoral letter

UCC scientists, theologians pen groundbreaking pastoral letter

January 31, 2008
Written by Daniel Hazard

Urging Christians to 'open our theology'

Accompanying ad campaign to welcome, reach out to scientists

With hopes of mending a millenniums-old feud between religion and science, UCC theologians and scientists unveiled a meaty pastoral letter on Jan. 29 that calls the church to "open ourselves and our theology to the momentous conceptual changes of our times."

Authored by the Rev. John H. Thomas, the UCC's general minister and president, in conjunction with a nine-member working group, "A New Voice Arising: A Pastoral Letter on Faith Engaging Science and Technology" argues that "our universe has expanded and so has our understanding of God."

"Many today are hungering for an authentic spirituality that is intellectually honest and at home in a scientific era," the pastoral letter states. "They are searching for a new kind of wisdom to live by, one that is scientifically sophisticated, technologically advanced, morally just, ecologically sustainable, and spiritually alive." Thomas says he hopes the 2,400-word pastoral letter will "begin to move the church to the place where its public image, public witness and public identity is one of a community of faith that is eager to engage science and to welcome and honor scientists."

"A New Voice Arising" is being distributed in February to each of the UCC's 5,700 local churches. Accompanying materials will suggest how churches can host opportunities for further study and group sharing.

The Rev. Ron Cole-Turner, professor of theology and ethics at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and a member of the UCC's science and technology network, says, "It is really extraordinary that we have this church that has gone on record as positioning itself to engage science. We believe we can, indeed, be contemporary Christians — listening to science and learning theological visions, discovering new theological truths."

Olivia Masih White, a geneticist, biologist and UCC lay leader, says she hopes the pastoral letter will help bridge the chasm that too often characterizes two oft-competing realms. "I am a better Christian because I am a scientist," insists White, who says science enables Christians to be better followers of Jesus because it advances the cure of diseases and the alleviation of suffering.

The UCC's pastoral letter has received endorsements from prominent leaders in the scientific community.

Alan I. Leshner, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, calls the UCC's effort a "clear support for science."

"In the same way that the UCC states that it cannot ignore the context in which it functions, neither can the scientific community ignore its societal context," Leshner says. "For this reason, we see a dialogue between science and religion as vital."

Charles Townes, a member of First Congregational UCC in Berkeley, Calif., who has received both the Nobel Prize in Physics and the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, says the pastoral letter is "a thoughtful, knowledgeable and perceptive discussion of science and religion and growth of their helpful interaction."

Ian G. Barbour, a physicist and theologian who also has won the Templeton Prize, says, "This is a wonderfully clear summary of the serious challenges and exciting opportunities when traditional religious beliefs encounter recent discoveries in a range of sciences — from cosmology to evolution, brain research and genetics. It is truly a 'pastoral' letter in addressing personal questions in the lives of laypersons, today rather than the more abstract debates common among theologians or philosophers."

Ad outreach to scientists

The release of the pastoral letter is being accompanied by an advertising blitz on major science-related blogs, with the hope of introducing the church's pro-science message to a wider audience.

The UCC's web ads will be seen during the month of February on as many as 30 prominent science-related sites, including <scienceblog.com>, <aboutmyplanet.com>, <ilovephysics.com> and <blog.bioethics.net>.

The ad campaign, according to Thomas, is a significant next step for the UCC's Stillspeaking Ministry. The web-based science ads will link to an expanded "faith and science" section on the UCC's website <ucc.org/not-mutually-exclusive>. A 12-minute video featuring Thomas, Cole-Turner and White introduces viewers to the themes and purpose of the UCC's pastoral letter.

"Through our Stillspeaking Initiative, the United Church of Christ has been intentional about seeking out groups of people that have been marginalized by the church, either intentionally or unintentionally," Thomas says. "And, frankly, when it comes to persons engaged in scientific inquiry — geneticists, mathematicians, chemists, engineers, science teachers and students — the church has a history of communicating disinterest, distrust and even hostility."

The UCC's own blog <unitedchurchofchrist.blogspot.com> will devote the first week of February to posts and discussions about religion, science and technology.

The UCC also is hosting a sermon-writing contest on science and technology for pastors and seminarians, with two $500 top prizes, and the denomination is asking local churches to honor persons working in science-related professions during worship services on Sunday, May 18. 

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