The Sinai and Synapses Fellowship
Rev. Dr. Ruth E. Shaver, Lancaster Seminary
I graduated from Lancaster Theological Seminary with my Doctor of Ministry degree in May 2016 with a project titled, “I Wonder: Scientific Exploration and Experimentation as a Practice of Christian Faith.” My work with my advisor, Dr. Anabel Proffitt; my consultation partner, Dr. Lee Barrett; and my philosophy instructor, Dr. David Mellott,* shaped the work into something that, if the excitement of colleagues when I describe the project is any indication, will be of importance to the wider church in the years to come. I am currently in the process of editing a book manuscript and making layout and editorial changes to the curriculum that serves as the basis for my work in hopes of publishing both soon. Because of research for my D.Min. and my interest in furthering my work, I was accepted as a Sinai and Synapses Fellow for 2017-2019.
Sinai and Synapses is an organization founded by Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman for many of the same reasons I ended up doing my Doctor of Ministry degree in faith and science. As the “Why It’s Needed” page of the Sinai and Synapses website says, current dialogue about science and religion is unproductive because there is no middle ground. Religious literalists and vehement atheists screech at us, “creating a lot of heat, but they are producing very little light.” In my dissertation, I positioned literalism (Creationism and Intelligent Design) as the thesis and scientific materialism (anti-religious scientific fundamentalism, in a sense) as the antithesis. Like Sinai and Synapses, I feel as though there’s a synthesis available that provides gentle heat and bright light to the conversation by raising up what faith systems best offer and what science best offers as ways to build God’s realm on Earth. Jewish theology calls this Tikkun Olam; it is the fulfillment of all that is best for humanity, particularly true justice, equality, and peace built on good stewardship of Earth’s resources for the current generations and generations to come. I also think God’s realm/Tikkun Olam encompasses opportunities for those most basic of ways in which we bear God’s image to thrive: curiosity and creativity, two essential elements of scientific exploration and discovery.
I first heard about Sinai and Synapses and the Fellowship in 2015 thanks to a newsletter feature from the Clergy Letter Project, itself an organization started to change the conversation between faith—at first specifically the Christian faith, now expanded to include Judaism, Unitarian-Universalism, and Buddhism—and scientists from confrontational to collaborative. I applied for the Sinai and Synapses Fellowship that same year, which was the first competitive year of the program, but was not selected. Even so, I was thrilled with the group that was assembled and further astonished at the quality of their work, which continues to be released even after the end of their biennium. What’s even more amazing is that I will get to work with them in 2019 when all three classes of fellows assemble, and then in 2021, I’ll be part of the alumni group that meets with the next class! But I get ahead of myself.
The 2017-2019 Class of Fellows is an assembly of faith leaders, educators, doctoral students, writers, and scientists of a variety of beliefs who are curious about the big questions of life. According to our biographies, two of us represent the United Church of Christ and three of us have connections to Boston University, where I received both my Bachelor of Arts and Master of Divinity degrees. As far as I know now, I’m the only LTS representative, but I may be surprised when we start introducing ourselves online. We have engineers, physicists, chaplains, church pastors, synagogue rabbis, Ph.D. candidates, professors, foundation leaders, and cognitive scientists. I’m excited to be a part of a class of fellows who will work with each other. We'll meet in person in New York City six times from November 2017 to May 2019. I suspect we will meet in many configurations in between via video services like Zoom, Skype, and FaceTime. We will learn and grow both in our understanding of what science offers and what faith offers and in our ability to communicate what we know with the wider world. We will be producing videos, blogs, podcasts, seminars, and possibly even curricula (be still my heart!) for use by communities of faith around the country and the world.
I have no idea what the content of our media will be. We will determine that when we meet and discover where our interests coalesce in small and large groups. I’m personally interested in science communication and education, both by curious lay people for lay people (in this instance, non-scientists being “lay” people) and by professionals for lay people. But among my cohort, there are specialists in several fields of curiosity including genetics and physics as well as broader fields such as climate change and sociological measures of human flourishing. I’m excited by the possibilities for what I might learn and, more important, excited by what we might bring as a group to broaden and deepen the understanding of God’s world through faith and science, two of the best gifts God has given to us to use for good.
I also want to say a tremendous THANK YOU to Dr. Marty Kuchma, my first year seminar leader; Dr. Greg Carey, who opened my eyes to new ways of understanding Luke-Acts; Dr. Valerie Bridgeman, who made me a better preacher; and Dr. Anne Thayer, who prodded me when necessary to get the work done. I still hear the late Dr. Frank Stalfa’s voice questioning every detail of my project proposal. Lancaster Seminary President Dr. Carol Lytch started at LTS the same time I did and champions far and wide the tremendous work of the faculty as well as the talents and possibilities of the student body and alumni/ae, including mine, for which I am grateful beyond words.