Science and Spirit: An Interview with Fred Ware

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Relationships are central to our work at Science for the Church. We include interviews in this newsletter to introduce you to scientists, theologians, and Christian leaders who have taught us much. Fred Ware, professor of theology and associate dean for academic affairs at Howard University School of Divinity (HUSD), is one such individual. Ordained in the Church of God in Christ, his teaching and research focus on the connection between Pentecostalism and race, culture, healthcare, and religion-and-science.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I grew up in a very religious home; my parents, grandparents, and great grandparents were members of the Church of God in Christ. Church was the center of our family and community life.

I always loved school and I liked to read and study. I had as much enthusiasm about Sunday school as I did about regular school. In college, I gravitated towards science, engineering, and fine arts. The turning point came when I took a philosophy course. After that, I was certain I should pursue a career that involved philosophy.

Philosophy then led you to theology and you eventually completed a Ph.D. at Vanderbilt University.  You taught at Stillman College, among others, but eventually landed at HUSD where we met nearly 10 years ago through the AAAS Science for Seminaries program. Tell us about it.

HUSD has a long history of advocacy for social justice, so that was incorporated into our Science for Seminaries project, which focused on human identity, community, and purpose. We not only wanted to expose students to cutting-edge science, but we wanted to integrate it with what we already do around valuing the human person.

I was fortunate to collaborate on that project with two great science colleagues who are also persons of faith: Georgia Dunston, professor of microbiology with a concentration on genetics, and Daryl Domning, professor of anatomy with a concentration on paleontology.

How did students react to having science integrated into their theology training?

A few students had actually been science majors before divinity school and intended to leave science behind because they were thinking compartmentally, that faith and science are separate.

Others had no background in science. I didn’t get either pushback or overwhelming enthusiasm from these students, but they were willing to listen. Bringing scientists into the classroom who were also people of faith alleviated the students’ reluctance and fears. They were intrigued, I think, hearing how these scientists actually do their work.



Tell us about your own research.

I did extensive and collaborative work in theology and science through a project called Science and the Spirit, led by Amos Yong (Fuller Seminary) and James K.A. Smith (Calvin University). They brought together a team to research Pentecostal perspectives on science. I engaged consciousness: What is it? How did it come into being? What is the relationship between consciousness and mind? That is what intrigued me, especially in the ways scientists correlate both consciousness and religious experiences to brain activity.

I imagine you thought a bit about the interface of the natural and supernatural in the human mind.

Yes, and it led me to work on methodological naturalism. Some of my colleagues put all naturalism in the same pejorative category. They don’t think it can be reconciled with theology. They lump all naturalism under the category of philosophical naturalism; that is, everything is explainable by natural processes. There is no reality beyond what we empirically see. But I think methodological naturalism can be helpful.

Naturalism, as it is informed by science, helps us to know what our physical world is. In Pentecostal circles, we talk about God, spirit, angels, and demons. There’s discussion about healing and other types of miracles. Naturalism helps us to clarify our focus about how to interpret our religious beliefs. If I’m talking about angels or demons, am I thinking that they exist in the world in the same way that a tree exists in the world? Or am I speaking metaphorically or symbolically?

Naturalism, as I use it methodologically, helps me to draw a line of demarcation and to discern how to interpret beliefs and texts. That’s how science studies have influenced my theological work.

Was science ever a part of your work as a pastor?

When I first came into the ministry, it was as a youth minister in inner city Memphis. Through that and many years of teaching, I’ve learned that when you put young people in a different environment, it can have profound consequences. So, the children in the inner city youth ministry knew asphalt and concrete as their landscape. If we took them to a place where they could experience nature, where there’s no light pollution and they could actually see the night sky—the glow of the Milky Way and stars—it would be radically transforming. It makes me think about the work of my colleague, Barbara Holmes, who makes the case in her book, Race and the Cosmos: An Invitation to View the World Differently, that we should look at ourselves in a larger context.

What’s your advice for your students or for churches within you denomination on how to think about science in their ministry?

I always tell students that theology is about life. In order for us to do good theological work, we must be informed by the studies of other scholars to help us understand what life is. The natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities help theologians to understand the context for living our lives. So it’s unavoidable.

Even if people are not well versed in science, they’re having encounters with science. People are making end of life decisions or choices about medical treatment. Because of the pandemic, we’ve gained a heightened awareness about health disparities and we’re learning how vaccines are made. We live in a time when the theologian and the minister need to engage science. We don’t have to become scientists, but rather know how to draw upon the work of scientists, which helps us do our job better.

Fred, thank you. You have become a great friend and teacher. I look forward to working together more in the future.

 

 

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