Logia for June 2018: Theology, Science, and the Pursuit of Integration by Sarah Lane Ritchie

Stephanie Nicole Nordby
Monday 18 June 2018

Each month Blogos features an article created in partnership with the Logos Institute’s Logia initiative. This month’s Logia post is by Sarah Lane Ritchie. More information about Logia and additional articles are available here.

“Is there a God? Who is God? Why do humans exist? Is there anything more to reality than the earthy stuff of the physical world? How do I know what is true?” I can’t remember a time when these sorts of questions didn’t keep me awake at night. Even as a child, I hungered to explore the limits of human knowledge, and to encounter the God who existed beyond the borders of the physical and the finite. This pursuit of the real, whatever it might be, found a natural expression for me in two parallel pursuits: science and theology. While I quickly learned that much of the world views religious thinking and knowledge to be at war with the sciences, even from a young age I intuitively sensed that both science and theology are reality-seeking enterprises. As I pursued education and training in Christian theology, biology, psychology, physics, philosophy, and Biblical studies, I did so with the assumption that each of these pursuits were legitimate sources of knowledge, which needed to be “read” against and in light of each other. In other words, my theology has always been engaged with the empirical realities of the physical world, and my scientific interests have always existed in theological context and within theologically-informed metaphysical frameworks.

This might sound like a nice, tidy academic biography, but as with most things in life – the reality is far messier and more complicated! Perhaps most significantly, my identity as a woman has been both a source of difficulty and conflict on one hand, and inspiration and opportunity on the other. When I was a young girl lying awake at night and wondering whether those intense spiritual longings had been put there by a loving God, the question of gender never crossed my mind. My philosophical, theological, and scientific questions were (and are!) fundamental to my sense of being human. It came as quite a surprise, then, to learn that my femaleness could be problematic for my pursuit of both theological and scientific knowledge. As a young girl growing up in an extremely conservative evangelical church and community, women were given little freedom to lead or pursue difficult and theologically challenging questions. Similarly, I quickly learned that my scientific questions were unwelcome within my church context, and the pursuit of empirical knowledge of Creation was often seen as detrimental to the spiritual quest. At the very least, I saw no women in positions of leadership (theological or otherwise); and if it is true that “you can be what you can see,” then this alone was certainly troubling. And after my mother tragically died when I was 16, I felt a complete disconnect from women role models more generally. Additionally, though, I also received implicit and explicit messages that not only was it wrong for me to be in positions of theological influence, but it was irrelevant to pursue training in divinity. This, added to my community’s visceral reaction against the sciences, made my academic path in theology & science a lonely one indeed.

But, of course, there is more to this all-too-common story. While I have certainly experienced relational and structural challenges on my academic journey, I have also experienced my femaleness as deeply generative for my theological creativity. In a field where women are so grossly underrepresented, I find that my perspectives and experiences bring something truly different to the theological table, and afford me certain insights or modes of questioning that might have been unavailable to me if I my path had not been so coloured by my gender. While being female did not necessarily affect or lead to my decision to pursue theology & science, it has certainly affected how I operate, exist, and push up against boundaries within that field.

Specifically, my personal and academic journeys have both consisted of a constant and intentional pursuit of integration. The ecclesial and theological settings in which I have participated have often felt unnatural to me, and integrating my mind, personality, and gender into these settings has required conscious engagement. Similarly, my research is inherently interdisciplinary: I seek to integrate work in neurobiology and cognitive science within theological contexts, in an effort to address specific questions about human flourishing and experience of God. For example, I am fascinated by the theological question of belief, and the Christian emphasis on experiencing a relationship with God that is rich, vibrant, and transformative. For me, this is a question that requires to be addressed not only with theological tools, but by interdisciplinary engagement with empirical research on the neurobiology of religious experience, the cognitive science of religious belief, and also with various insights from evolutionary psychology. Through such interdisciplinary engagement, it becomes possible to ask further science-engaged theological questions, such as: “Given what we know about how the brain works, and how the embodied human person experiences God, how might humans become active participants in the development of their own religious beliefs and experiences?” The answer to such a question must necessarily integrate not only scientific research and philosophical frameworks, but also the lived experiences of real people. It is this sort of integrative process that marks not only my work in theology & science, but my identity as a woman in theology as well. And it is this sort of holistic, integrated theological engagement that I see at work in the Logia initiative and the Logos Institute. The women and men involved with these projects are indeed paving the way for a new generation of scholars, creating a theological culture that truly embodies the reality that “You can be what you can see.” For that, I am thankful.

Sarah Lane Ritchie has recently been appointed Lecturer in Theology & Science at New College, University of Edinburgh. She has been a Research Fellow in Theology & Science at St Mary’s, working on the Science-Engaged Theology initiative. Her PhD is in Science & Religion and was completed at the University of Edinburgh, titled With God in Mind: Divine Action and the Naturalisation of Consciousness. Sarah also holds an MSc in Science & Religion from the University of Edinburgh, an MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a BA in Philosophy & Religion from Spring Arbor University. Current research interests centre on the intersection of neuroscience, theology, and philosophy of mind.

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