Using a Scientist’s Training to Understand Theology

By Sam Humphrey

These days, when scientists and people of faith can seem more like adversaries than allies, it is easy to lose sight of the historic connections between the scientific disciplines and the study and practice of theology and ministry.

It was, of course, not always so. The Franciscan friar Roger Bacon invented the scientific method; the Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel founded modern day genetics; and the Episcopal Church can boast scores of scientists in its lay and ordained ministries, including Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, an oceanographer, and Bishop of Rhode Island W. Nicholas Knisley, a physicist and astronomer.

While the disciplines may seem at odds, at Episcopal Divinity School, an emerging corps of current students and recent graduates who come from the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and medicine) fields belie that notion. Like scientists, theology students require an almost insatiable curiosity, a discerning eye for patterns, and must use evidence to draw conclusions about the world around them. Both require a tolerance for uncertainty, a drive for knowledge, and the ability, which as F. Scott Fitzgerald once remarked was the sign of a truly first-rate intelligence, to hold opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.

Three students who came to Episcopal Divinity School from careers in science and engineering say the same skills used in scientific fields are vital to understanding theology. And the same curiosity that inspired their first career also guided them to embark on their second one.

Dr. Laurie TriplettDr. Laurie Triplett ’16 is a master of divinity degree candidate and a postulant in the Diocese of New Mexico. She enrolled in EDS’s limited residency Distributive Learning program so she could pursue a bi-vocational ministry that would include ordination and her work as a mechanical engineer at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where she uses computer modeling to monitor electromagnetic pulses from satellites orbiting the Earth.

“All along, my calling was to be a scientist and a priest,” Triplett said. “I felt called to volunteer my time [as an Episcopal priest] and keep my day job even after I’m ordained.”

When she decided to answer her calling to become ordained, the Rev. Dr. Rachel Wildman ’15 put on hold her career as an epidemiologist, where she studied such subjects as heart disease and diabetes.

“I felt a persistent call from God, from being in church and wanting to stay there, and from loving Eucharist and being involved. It slowly built over time until it consumed all my thoughts,” said Wildman, who graduated from EDS in 2015 with a master of divinity degree, and was recently ordained to the priesthood in the Diocese of New York.

Dr. Pamela “Pan” Conrad ’17, like Triplett, is a master of divinity candidate in the limited residency distributive learning program at EDS, and has kept her day job as a planetary scientist and astrobiologist at NASA, where she is part of the team using the Curiosity Rover to explore Mars.

“Everything happens providentially if you’re listening to your instincts and you think about what gifts you have,” said Conrad.
       
Pattern Recognition

In their scientific careers, Conrad, Triplett, and Wildman posed questions and hypotheses, studying sets of data to find evidence and identify patterns to help them draw conclusions. In their EDS classes, those same methods helped them tackle complex theological queries.

Pan Conrad, who earned degrees in both music and science before studying theology at EDS, was intrigued by the patterns she discovered across all three disciplines.

“Since I also studied music before I studied science, I’ve been in a lot of fields, and I’ve been fortunate because they all seem to relate,” Conrad said. “Both music and science are about looking at and recognizing patterns. As we study God and our relationships with Him and with one another, we look for patterns, good ones and ones to let go of… and as you look for them, you can see the larger patterns in the church and society in general.”

Dr. Pamela ConradThe more she studied, Conrad became focused on those patterns and relationships, examining their meanings and drawing conclusions of her own.

“The thing about relationships is they always offer someone a new opportunity, and as relationships grow, new patterns emerge, and opportunities for passion start to emerge,” she said.

For engineer Laurie Triplett, it was also about uncovering hidden evidence and revealing patterns under the surface of everyday life. “Certainly, I would bring all my logical-ness that I have to my theological studies—I can’t help it. But I don’t see the work I do at EDS as any different [than working as an engineer]. It’s seeking evidence and weighing evidence,” Triplett said of her seminary classes.

“More of my classes have been experiential [and] intellectual. They pushed me on issues like racism,” Triplett said. “But I started coming to terms with the implicit advantages of being white. I saw that a lot of minorities don’t have the same experiences I have.”

As an epidemiologist, Wildman “fell in love” with the process of thinking that an epidemiologist goes through. “I liked thinking about all the different things that could come in and change the interpretation of our data,” she said. “A whole bunch of stuff comes together in one discipline, and you get to collaborate with people all over the country and the world.”

At seminary, Wildman adjusted that way of thinking to explore ideas that could not be solved through scientific reasoning alone. But her training as a scientist helped her adapt and learn about theology with the help of her fellow theologians.

“In science, everything is critiqued and given feedback, so I learned to get fulfillment out of proposing an idea and having a discussion based on that idea,” Wildman said. “It was helpful in seminary too as I got to watch that process take place.”

Each of the women noted that their curiosity and drive to learn helped them explore Christianity more deeply.

“Theology brings in a lot of the curiosity that was inherent in science,” Wildman said. “Through all the collaborations I had done, I found research to be a humbling discipline. Scientists I met were gracious with their time, and shared their data and their resources, so being trained in that spirit worked well for me. EDS is a very collaborative place and I used that training all the time.”

Balancing Beliefs

For years, some members of the scientific and religious communities have argued over the validity of the others’ beliefs. At the extreme, scientific thinkers like Richard Dawkins and religious leaders like Ken Ham have insisted the two cannot coexist, that only their own respective worldviews are correct. In their professional lives, Conrad, Triplett, and Wildman have fielded questions and have had long discussions with their colleagues about their faith and call to ministry, and how they balance their spiritual life with their scientific research.

“I once had someone from work come up to me when they found out I was a Christian, and said ‘But I really respected you as a scientist, how could you believe in that?’” Triplett recalled. “I think one important point is that there’s no dichotomy between faith and science. I think it’s perfectly rational to believe in them both at the same time.”

Though her colleagues may not share her faith as a Christian, or understand her calling to ministry, Triplett seizes these opportunities by inviting them into a conversation about it.

“I work with a lot of non-believers, and I feel called not to convert them, but to show God to them,” Triplett said. “For a while, I didn’t tell people at work I was in the ordination process, but when they found out, they were all extremely supportive of me going forward with it. I have lots of non-believing friends on this journey with me, and they are excited that I will be ordained.”

The Rev. Dr. Rachel WildmanWildman also found a receptive group of colleagues who were interested in learning about her faith life and call to ministry.

“At the time I decided to pursue seminary, I was working at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. There was already a culture of Jewish faculty honoring their faith tradition at work … I think that allowed people to ask me more questions about [my faith],” Wildman said.

“People encouraged me to think about how to keep my scientific background active as a priest,” she said. “Science itself is a lot to keep up with, but it should be a question posed to clergy who come from STEM backgrounds: How do you bring science into your day-to-day life?”

Choosing EDS

Three eminent scientists—each different in their fields of study, in their experience and their temperament, but each called to ministry and drawn to EDS for some of the same reasons that so many have been drawn to EDS over the years, from the first women ordained to the Episcopal priesthood, to LGBT people, to women and men from across the global south.

“EDS—from the moment I visited—felt like a place where I could be myself, and be even more of myself than when I arrived. More so than I would probably be at any other seminary,” Rachel Wildman said. For her and others, EDS was the perfect seminary to help her bridge her life as a scientist to her calling to become an Episcopal priest.

For Conrad and Triplett, the flexibility of the limited residency Distributive Learning option gave them rich educational and formational opportunities while they continued their careers as astrobiologist and mechanical engineer, respectively. Both in the two-week residential intensives twice each year and in blended synchronous online classes, the community that Triplett and Conrad found at EDS was crucial.

“EDS has something really special going on, in the traditional, on-campus program and the hybrid program and how much community is built into it,” Triplett said. “I have loved going to EDS, and my experiences there have shaped me in a way I will never forget.”

The concept of transformation is one that finds a home near the center of both science and theology—birth and growth, love and sacrifice, death and resurrection: what are these except forms of the only constant, change?

The kinds of changes we face right now both as individuals and as a global community can seem stunningly complex, from inequality, disease, and violence to climate change and stewardship of the Earth’s natural resources. For Conrad, Wildman, and Triplett, theological education and answering a call to ministry represented an opportunity to continue their work as scientists trying to understand the changes and challenges of the world around us, a new way of satisfying curiosity, martialing evidence, and recognizing patterns. It became, in fact, an extension of their very selves.

“The most important thing is that it’s a fabulous opportunity to take everything in your mind and heart and mix it all together to be the most authentic version of yourself you can be,” Conrad said. “EDS has such a core-value commitment to social justice that you can feel transformation in your own heart as a student there. You feel yourself turning from a caterpillar into a butterfly.”


Pictured top to bottom: Dr. Laurie Triplett, Dr. Pamela “Pan” Conrad, and the Rev. Dr. Rachel Wildman

This article will appear in the upcoming Fall/Winter issue of EDS Now.