How science and faith meet, by the astrophysicist theologian

Luke Jerram’s Gaia installation in Southwark Cathedral, photograph courtesy of ECLAS

By Angela Youngman

A project based at Durham University that bridges science and faith and organises conferences for church leaders on such topics as artificial intelligence, cosmology and climate change is expanding worldwide.

Eclas — Equipping Christian Leadership in an Age of Science — has set up an initiative across Europe, Asia and Africa to draw in different theological insights and scientific innovations to broaden understanding.

The £6.2 million project is funded by the John Templeton Foundation, set up by the billionaire American philanthropist Sir John Templeton, a Presbyterian, with the broad aim of using scientific methods to explore questions of the universe and stimulate progress in religion.

The Eclas project was born from the conviction that Christian leaders often lack the confidence and tools to engage with scientific questions. So it offers training programmes and opportunities for clergy to meet top scientists, developing a theological understanding of the world and science.

It works in partnership with York University and the Church of England, undertaking original research and providing funds for education programmes in churches and theological colleges.  

Its director, Rev Professor David Wilkinson, who is an astrophysicist and theologian, says: “Most of the research on science and faith has been done in an Anglo/American/Australian and South African context.

“We wanted to explore more non-western, religious pluralism, cultural contexts by partnering with higher education institutions that could bring something different to our experience.”

It marks the first time that exploration of science and theology has broken out of western confines to explore the different national and cultural contexts in which church leaders work.

Eclas has set up partnerships with St Paul’s University in Limuru, Kenya; Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, Poland; Singapore Bible College; and the United Theological College in Bangalore, India.

“We chose to go to universities or multidenominational seminaries because we didn’t want to be owned by any particular theological stance,” Professor Wilkinson said. “Our vision is not to export a UK model but to form a global community of inquiry and practice so that we can understand both the opportunities and challenges equipping Christian leadership in an age of science.”

The new partnerships, designed as a five-year pilot scheme, are expected to act as hubs to generate new research, reaching out to communities within their region and elsewhere.

“We wanted the number of institutions involved in the pilot scheme to be a manageable number,” Professor Wilkinson said. “We considered South America, but decided that it would have been a step too far, and offered less context.”

The new partners were carefully chosen, as he explained: “We chose Poland because it is a Roman Catholic institution and has a different history and context. Working with Poland offers an interesting perspective. When I went there, we were having a seminar on the dating of the Turin Shroud. English is not a dominant language and we had to speak through translators.

“Singapore offers experience on how Christian leaders speak and relate to other faiths, pandemic healthcare and commonality between religions because it is a small area.

“Climate change is central to our partners in Bangalore and Kenya. It is not just the science of climate but its practical effects on crops and the economies of villages and communities and how churches are responding to this. Kenya also brings different questions and experience especially in healthcare.

“When talking to staff and students at St Paul’s University I was talking to a cohort of nurses who had questions about Genesis, about Creation and also about how scientists and clinicians could operate with questions about demonic possession.”

The initiative has been welcomed by academics. Rev Professor Chilkuri Vasantha Rao, principal and chief executive of United Theological College in Bangalore, said: “We feel that here comes a greater input to extend our theoretical learning into a more practical engagement.”

Rev Professor Diphus Chemorion, associate professor of theology at St Paul’s University, Limuru, added: “We look forward to having a platform where scientists and theologians are brought into conversation to hear the various perspectives, what is common among them, what are the misunderstandings and how they can move forward together.”

The partner hubs will be looking at big global questions such as climate change, dealing with artificial intelligence and why people distrust science.

All the research over the next five years will be shared on the Eclas website and via virtual discussions. A conference, probably in Durham, will conclude the project, enabling all viewpoints and knowledge to be discussed.

“The funding will cover research projects using in house research associates, awards for local churches, some overheads and some new projects,” Professor Wilkinson said.

Each Eclas partner hub will form an independent centre for theological and sociological research into church leaders’ perspectives on science, together with cultural, historical, theological, denominational, and national contexts concerning science and faith. Funds have also been allocated for separate programmes encouraging a culture change at every church level, as well as addressing local issues.

“We will also be open to insights from other faith communities, and it may be that in piloting this project it will encourage other groups. There is much we can learn,” Professor Wilkinson said.

“Our hope is that the institutions we are working with will become centres of projects and funding. We have been doing this at Eclas for 10 years, and want to seed our partners in diversity for the next phase.”

There is also an ambition that church leaders will filter down their new understanding and knowledge to “ordinary Christians”.

In a recent conference organised by Eclas, church leaders from around the world reiterated their need for resources that would help them and those in their care to integrate scientific knowledge with Christian thinking. As an example, it recently launched an online resource based around Luke Jerram’s monumental sculpture of Gaia, the Earth, when it was on display in Southwark Cathedral, London.

Professor the Rev Charlotte Sleigh, who curated the Gaia exhibition, said: “We wanted to create something that would support church leaders and — by filtering down — ordinary Christians in thinking about the topic.

“Seeing Gaia in a Christian space, we realised that it was a brilliant opportunity to take that experience and make it available worldwide as it makes our spiritual teaching relevant, allowing people to explore our place within the universe. Visitors can discover how much the Bible can tell us about nature and our relationship with the earth.”

Using 360-degree interactive technology, the resource enables visitors to discover science, theology and the problems and potential solutions to climate change, by reviewing various countries including new Eclas partners at St Paul’s, Kenya, where Bishop Emily Onyango explored the impact that climate change has had on women and equality.


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