The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


The scientist and the theologian

Together, two ELCA teachers study God, evolution, faith and cancer

We navigate in a world where science and faith seldom mingle, offering two kinds of knowledge and two widely different sets of questions. Some pit one against the other, as in school board debates across the country, revealing deepening conflict about the theory of evolution and belief in God. Such faith and science clashes suggest the two can't be made to align, and that neither has anything to contribute to the other.

Yet it was a school board battle 30 miles east of Gettysburg, Pa., that brought theologian Leonard Hummel and scientist Steve James together.

Hummel, a professor at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, maintains that pastoral leaders need to know more about science and the scientific world to help people make sense of the world as it is and God's role in it. James, a scientist at Gettysburg College, believes that understanding cancer isn't complete without asking such human questions as "What does it mean?"; "Who is God?"; and "What is love?"

Steve James (left), a professor at
Steve James (left), a professor at Gettysburg [Pa.] College, and Leonard Hummel (right), a professor at the Lutheran Seminary at Gettysburg, work with students in a laboratory, studying DNA damage responses and other cancer-related processes. The two professors are working together on a book about cancer, science and faith.

In 2005, the Dover, Pa., school board went to federal court over a conflict about their order to teach "intelligent design" in biology classrooms. Members of the seminary faculty were engaged in the controversy, opposing the curriculum. In early 2006, the seminary asked Hummel, who teaches pastoral care, to address the issue in a forum with the federal judge in the case, John E. Jones III. Hummel invited James to join him at the lectern to help explain the science of evolution to an audience of non-scientist church leaders.

Since then, Hummel and James have guest-lectured in each other's courses, intermingled seminarians and college science students, and team-taught other courses at their schools. They're even co-authoring a book.

When the two have worked together, James said, "my students have been intrigued by Leonard's example, and some were surprised to find a seminary professor who embraces science, and especially evolution, as valid ways of understanding the world. Leonard's example has put to rest stereotypes that some of my students carry with them."

James, a true scientist who shares the empirical assumptions of his discipline, said he doesn't see a "conflict between trying to understand the world as it is from a scientific viewpoint, and the world envisioned as it could be or ought to be from a faith perspective."

Earlier this year, James and Hummel co-taught a January term course at the seminary focused on the Dover case and intelligent design, evolution and the scientific method of inquiry. Students explored the way the Bible speaks of creation of the world. They unpacked the way science answers such questions empirically: What happened? When did it happen and how did it come about?

Faith, they heard, drives a different set of questions: What is the meaning of the world? Who is the creator? Why are we here? For what do we hope? What does it mean to call upon a loving God in a fallen world?

The course was no small help for those who teach the faith to young adults who are discovering the empirical methods of science and may elsewhere receive mixed signals about the compatibility of the science they learn in school and the faith nurtured in church and home.

Senior seminarian Rebecca Horn appreciated hearing Hummel say "that Darwinian evolution is compatible with a faith perspective, in that evolution is the most productive form of explanation for all of science and it is theologically consistent."

"While I have always felt that evolution is compatible with the creation stories of the Bible, it was refreshing to have a professor of theology and a professor of science agree and provide a reason," she added.

Steve James (left), a professor at
Leonard Hummel (right), a professor at the Lutheran Seminary at Gettysburg, works with students to study DNA damage responses and other cancer-related processes.

Cancer: A shared struggle

Cancer is near the top of the list of things that strike terror in the lives of human beings. We know the disease travels the human genome and seems to appear in our lives and our loved ones lives by chance.

James, a molecular biologist, leads a journey at Gettysburg College into the mysterious "black box" of cancer, seemingly based on random occurrences initiated in the human genome. Much of his research focuses on the way cells reproduce — an important subject for the pursuit of cancer treatment and developing ways to interrupt the wrong molecular reproduction.

As a professor of pastoral theology, Hummel has published and lectured on cancer and religion, and serves as consultant to the ELCA Genetics Task Force. His interest in pastoral theology and suffering extends to the way in which Lutheran theology uses scientific knowledge to broaden understanding of religious impulses. He believes his focus can help scientific communities appreciate faith perspectives on cancer and religious communities to gain a better understanding of cancer and the role evolutionary theory plays in human disease and suffering.

In their research and teaching, Hummel and James don't shy away from addressing the mysterious questions of chance, cell behavior, evolution and meaning. Cancer is a product of biological evolution, constituted by chance (random occurrences) and sometimes more predictable mutations, both say. While religious perspectives abound regarding evolution, remarkably few of these address the evolutionary underpinnings of cancer. Hummel focuses on how religious perspectives on evolution inform — and transform — our comprehension of cancer.

Why pursue these questions? Hummel believes "this evolutionary theology of cancer will reveal the element of love-divine and human" amid the evolutionary chance and inevitability of cancer.

Their work shows how theologians and scientists may together address cancer and other mysteries of human existence.

"Lutheran tradition has a long history of preparing leaders who are learned in the general education of sciences and the humanities," Hummel said. "Leadership in a time when genetic developments promise immense changes and challenges makes this education ever more crucial."

Helping meet that need, Hummel sent seminarians across town to Gettysburg College to work with its students in a lab for "Biological Basics of Disease." It's a course James teaches to help non-science majors explore cancer, aging, infectious diseases, hereditary diseases, immune system breakdowns including HIV and AIDS, and diseases of civilization and lifestyle (heart disease, obesity and some cancers).

The experience offered "aha" moments, along with some discomfort. Seminarians learned both science and theology. College students saw that good theology is not anti-science. It made Elizabeth Arter, a senior seminarian, ask, "Where is God in the midst of the great suffering that accompanies cancer?" She said it helps to know something of how cancer works when meeting people who have the disease.

Hummel speaks of Michael Bishop, son of a Lutheran pastor at St. James Lutheran Church, where James is a member. Bishop, a former Gettysburg College student, went on to receive a Nobel Prize for cancer research. "Steve and I have been inspired by [his] work and by the Nobel Prize medallion that he donated to the college, [which] is on display at the Science Center," Hummel said.

Faith is often a struggle for anyone, no less for James, who lives and teaches scientific research.

So he takes a wide perspective. "At the moment," he said, "I am a scientist who practiced faith actively in the recent past and has shifted from active practice to a more distanced view. ... I am mulling it over. I am intrigued by faith-science questions, and this is part of my own journey: to find a path by engaging with Leonard over the book and the issues that we are working on together."


Jack Labusch

Jack Labusch

Posted at 11:09 am (U.S. Eastern) 6/26/2011

Count me as one who believes the faith vs. science dust-up has become awfully hackneyed, much like those dorm room bull sessions that often lead nowhere.  I can probably cite at least one example of a failure to understand science leading people to jettisoning Christian principle.

Robert Buntrock

Robert Buntrock

Posted at 9:39 pm (U.S. Eastern) 7/7/2011

Faith vs. science is indeed an unnecessary conflict, at least for many.  In their innate requirement for certainty, many people of faith, especially fundamentalists and Biblical literalists, blindly condemn scientific findings and scientists themselves.  Jack, if you mean that some who misunderstand science (and scientists) become condemning, judgmental, insulting, and even profane, yes it happens all too often and is definitely non-Christian.

Ronald Jensen

Ronald Jensen

Posted at 10:14 am (U.S. Eastern) 7/15/2011

A relationship with Jesus invites us to be honest and whole.  We acknowledge who we are - not only confessing sins but also joys and gratitude.  We relate to Jesus honestly from our own worldviews.  Faith does not proscribe a scientific perspective; science also acknowledges the reality of faith.  As John Polkinghorne has so aptly shown time and time again, science and faith can readily join hands and enable and bless each other!

Jack Labusch

Jack Labusch

Posted at 6:07 pm (U.S. Eastern) 7/19/2011

Thanks, Robert and Ronald for the comments. I recall one Amazon book reviewer writing something like, "I have a Ph. D. in statistics (i. e., mathematics), and I'm a believer." I have some technical background, and know something about science's stutter-stepping through history.

Long story short: I'm a little embarrassed when a preacher is fire-and-brimstoning over something when it's clear to me he hasn't a clue what he's condemning. Likewise, I feel pretty lousy when a popinjay scientist stridently reduces human existence to a chemical stew or psychological stuffing. Author Chris Hedges has pointed out the aggressive secularism of some folks seems to have the character of religious fervor.

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