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Science and Religion Club Asks Big Questions

Bethel’s new Science and Religion Club offers students a chance to discuss science issues from a Christian perspective.

By Jason Schoonover ’09, content specialist

December 03, 2018 | 4:30 p.m.

Science and Religion Club Asks Big Questions

Students participate in an early meeting of the Science and Religion Club, a new Bethel club that offers students a venue for in-depth discussions based on the topics.

“Let’s just talk,” says Elle Nelson ’20, a biology and reconciliation studies double major.

The words summarize the inspiration behind Bethel’s new Science and Religion Club. For students like Nelson and Elise Ogden ’21, the club creates a forum to discuss complex issues facing Christians in today’s world. “Any time you can deepen your worldview and understanding of different perspectives, you become a better person, you become a better Christian,” says Ogden, a biochemistry/molecular biology and chemistry double major.

Joyce Doan, professor of biological sciences, and Claudia May, associate professor and program director of reconciliation studies, formed the club in order to foster discussion around two disciplines that have historically brewed tension. The club’s launch is part of their work with grants from the Bridging of Two Cultures of Science and the Humanities II through Scholarship and Christianity in Oxford, England.

For Doan, a scientist, the club is about asking how she can use science to love God and her neighbors. “If you work with the assumption that the two big rules of Christianity are to love God and love people, how do you do that with science?” she asks. That question leads to countless philosophical discussions, she says. How do our beliefs and actions on issues like vaccine science, infectious diseases, or climate change show love for God—and how has that played out in history?

“It says a lot about Bethel and how much they truly care about you becoming a whole and holy person to allow for the interdisciplinary connections like that, especially one so relevant to modern life and thought.”

— Elise Ogden ’21, a biochemistry/molecular biology and chemistry double major, says about Bethel’s new Science and Religion Club

The club centered its first semester’s discussions around HIV/AIDS, partially inspired by Doan’s popular course “HIV/AIDS: Anatomy of a Pandemic.” An early meeting focused on the language and metaphor of health and diseases, exploring how the language used around diseases can welcome or marginalize people—and how that can affect people already in a marginalized community.

HIV/AIDS poses a fascinating public health case study. The virus predominantly arose in marginalized groups—the gay community, injection drug users, and immigrants—because of the natural history of the virus.

May says this raises questions from a reconciliation studies perspective as students ponder how to engage with people occupying the societal margins and how to address systematic inequities. “What are the walls of division that separate us when it comes to certain kinds of disease and ailments? How do we use theology to justify the mistreatment of those who many would say are undeserving of God’s love? Why do we blame or vilify others for their condition?” May says. “As we ponder and observe the teachings and ministry of Jesus, how can we relate to and love those who are hurting, and what can we learn from those who endure, struggle, and even triumph over this disease?”

Doan compares the issue of HIV/AIDS to gospel stories like the Samaritan woman at the well, the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the parables of Lost Things. These stories show Jesus’ “radical welcome” that we are called to offer to people, regardless of their position, and Doan asks how those ideas apply to infectious disease, vaccination, and public health discussions.

Ogden and Nelson also say the club serves as a reminder that Jesus lived an example of acceptance and welcome. They see the club as a chance to become stronger Christians and better people by being more accepting and empathetic to other worldviews. Nelson and Ogden describe the club as a safe place to discuss complex topics in community.  “There’s something about the topic. There’s something about the way we approach it that’s really fulfilling,” Ogden says. “It’s also just really fun,” adds Nelson, noting many participants have gone to dinner after the meetings. 

May says she’s struck by students’ depth and curiosity, and she is pleased they’ve shown a desire to ask challenging questions, to live in the tension of learning, and to avoid rushing to an answer. They instead give space to deeply ponder philosophical questions. “I value the depth of student reflections, their willingness to grapple with hard questions, and their enthusiasm for the subjects we are exploring is inspiring,” she says. May is particularly excited about introducing students to scientists and theologians of color who are innovators in the guilds of science and religion.

As Bethel’s students graduate and make real-world decisions, Doan says it’s important to approach issues with an understanding of science while pondering how faith may influence their decisions and opinions. And it’s important to face such issues in a world poised for rapid growth in public health, reproductive technology, and science as a whole.

Ogden says open discussions are vital for students as they wrestle with the world and their faith, and the Science and Religion Club shows how Bethel is supporting students as they consider complex faith questions. “It says a lot about Bethel and how much they truly care about you becoming a whole and holy person to allow for the interdisciplinary connections like that, especially one so relevant to modern life and thought,” she says.

May and Doan plan for students to take charge and choose subjects in the future. The aim is to tackle one subject each semester. Ogden and Nelson say future topics could include: creation care, climate change, health disparities, women’s health, mental health, gender studies and differences, and public health.

Nelson and Ogden hope the club will attract more students of varying disciplines, noting that students and faculty don’t need to bring a robust science knowledge to participate in discussions and events. “Come and experience the process of digging through things with your peers and respected professors,” Nelson says. “Learn alongside people and just also have fun doing it.”

The club is looking to reach the wider student body through an event called “A Science and Religion Christmas.” On December 4from 7 to 9 p.m. in CC331, the group will explore various takes on the nativity and the Christmas story, including a physics take with University Professor of Physics Emeritus Richard Peterson, a biologist’s take with Doan, a poet’s take with Professor of English Angela Shannon, and the perspective of a new mother with Ann Vu Ngo, a career specialist at Bethel. “It’s a great way to look at how the nativity story is actually relevant to the sciences. It can also invite discussions on how we can foster collaboration between peoples of different cultures, confront systematic disparities, and apply the lessons of the Christmas story to every day life experiences,” May says. “The Science and Religion Club offers a wonderful opportunity for us to grow as a community and enrich our faith perspectives and practices.”

A larger panel discussion and forum on HIV and AIDs is planned for February, and Doan will teach HIV/AIDS: Anatomy of a Pandemic over January term. May will deliver a talk on the relationship between racial trauma, the practice of gynecology, and the healing power of story in a Prime Time library gathering in spring 2019.

Bethel’s Science and Religion Club, along with May and Doan’s research, is sponsored by a grant given by Bridging the Two Cultures of Science and the Humanities II, a project run by Scholarship and Christianity in Oxford, the UK subsidiary of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, with funding by Templeton Religion Trust and The Blankemeyer Foundation.

Christmas 2018

"A Science and Religion Christmas" 

Find out more about the new Science and Religion Club at Bethel by attending “A Science and Religion Christmas” on December 4from 7 to 9 p.m. in CC331.

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