School of Divinity

God and the Book of Nature: Building a Science-Engaged Theology of Nature

Applications are invited by 3 June 2019 for 10 potential Research Fellowships, across 20 potential host institutions.

Applications are invited for 10 postdoctoral research fellowships for the project, ‘God and the Book of Nature: Building a Science-Engaged Theology of Nature’. The fellowships will last from 2 September 2019 to 31 May 2022, and each fellow will be based at one of around 20 potential host institutions in the USA, UK, or mainland Europe (listed below). Each fellow will be mentored by a senior scholar at the host institution. A competitive salary and research budget will be provided, in addition to funds for scientific engagement.

*Applications are due by 3 June 2019.*

**Please note that all fellowships are subject to the approval of funding for the overall project from the John Templeton Foundation, pending its decision later in June.**

***Provisional plans must be agreed upon, in principle, with the  candidate’s proposed mentor before an application is made.***

Research sub-themes

Each research fellow will complete a research project of their choosing on one of the project’s subthemes:

1. God and Nature

2. Mind and Nature

3. Naturalism(s) and Nature.

Further information is detailed in the Research Vision below.

Fellowships will be situated within theology, religion, and philosophy departments and faculties, but research is expected to include sustained exposure to and engagement with working scientists, and fellows will play an active role in determining the nature of this scientific engagement. 

Each fellow will also attend annual fully-funded conferences with other project participants, held at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion (at which project participants will also participate), in addition to annual thematic workshops. Fellows will be expected to contribute to a cutting-edge programme of publications in science-engaged theology.

Requisite qualifications

  • PhD in theology, religion, or philosophy. (Cognate disciplines may also be considered if they have clear potential for the further development of science-engaged theology). Early career applicants are strongly preferred. 
  • Demonstrated potential for world-class research in science & theology.
  • Excellent research proposal with clear plan for engagement with working scientists.
  • Willingness and commitment to meet with project participants twice yearly, and to collaborate on shared projects between meeting times.

****Candidates will be preferred who are not applying for a fellowship at the institution where they completed their PhDs****

Scientific engagement

In addition to the more obviously theological or philosophical components of the fellows’ research projects, a significant focus of the research fellowships involves sustained engagement with working scientists in an on-the-ground manner; significant funding will be made available to each fellow for this purpose – up to £10,000 across three years (dependent upon approval from project leaders each year). The precise nature of the scientific engagement will vary across institutions, research interests, and local resources, but each applicant should discuss the proposed nature of such scientific engagement with the potential host mentor, and this should be explained in as much detail as possible within the application. Below are some guidelines and ideas for scientific engagement, though these should be viewed as suggestions and ideas. Applicants may have other ideas, and they are encouraged to propose them after consulting with the potential host mentor:

  1. As a fundamental, each postdoc is expected to develop an intimate working knowledge of the contemporary research literature in the scientific area they have chosen to engage with.
  2. Each postdoc will be expected (possibly through their mentor) to make personal contact with scientists working in their chosen area of interest, and to arrange face-to-face meetings for discussion. If the scientists are open to some kind of further collaboration, then all the better, but the important thing is to attempt to build personal relationships around common interests;
  3. Each postdoc will be expected to scope out the major scientific conferences in their area, and to attend at least one in the duration of their project, preferably more;
  4. Each postdoc will be encouraged to attend some undergraduate classes in the relevant science, perhaps taught postgraduate classes too, and certainly research seminars where these are available;
  5. Each postdoc will be encouraged to arrange a placement with a relevant scientific laboratory/research group for a meaningful period (eg. one day per week for a semester) in order to observe scientific work, and perhaps even to assist with basic experimental tasks.
  6. Importantly, provisional plans for the above activities must be agreed upon, in principle, with the postdoc candidate’s proposed mentor before an application is made, and these plans should be detailed in the submitted proposal. We strongly encourage mentors and/or potential postdocs to make initial contact with the relevant scientific parties before the proposal is submitted.

In addition to these baseline activities, further engagement activity could include the following:

  1. Depending on the interest within the scientific research group, the postdoc might be able to arrange a work exchange with a science postdoc or PhD student for a short period (a few days, or a week).
  2. If there is sufficient interest from the scientists, then it might be possible to collaborate on a co-authored publication (at a popular or academic level) on societal/theological/philosophical/ethical aspects of their science.
  3. Alternative activities could include a panel debate open to the public, or an invitation to one of the scientists to give an accessible presentation of their work in the theology/philosophy department, and vice versa.
  4. A team-taught course could be constructed in the university in order to showcase the science and religion debate, where the theologians/philosophers teach alongside their scientific colleagues (this has been a particularly successful model in Edinburgh for over 10 years, for instance).

However, these ideas are just a starting point: we expect that the institutions in the network will have additional ideas depending on their specific strengths and interests.

Application instructions

The first step of the application process is to identify and secure the support of a host department and designated mentor at one of the participating universities (listed below). The contact information for designated mentors can be found below. Applicants are encouraged to identify a mentor whose research interests align with their own, and to discuss the proposed research project and the nature of envisioned scientific engagement with that potential mentor. Either the potential mentor or the applicant should initiate contact with potential scientific engagement collaborators, where appropriate, or otherwise investigate the plausibility of the proposed scientific engagement (the nature of this engagement, and/or the potential scientific collaborators, should be described in as much detail as possible in the applicant’s proposal). If the potential mentor is interested in supporting your project, he or she must write a letter of support for you, to be sent directly to the project leaders. Once the letter of support has been delivered, participants may then compile and submit the full application, which includes the research proposal and description of the proposed scientific engagement. The proposal *must* address one of the following three themes: 1. God and Nature, 2. Mind and Nature, 3. Naturalism(s) and Nature. More detail is given in the Research Vision below.

Your proposal will be assessed by referees within theology and the sciences, and a panel will then use these assessments to select the 10 successful candidates. Up to two candidates may be placed at any particular university: a potential mentor may wish to put forward either one or two candidates, with the knowledge that both, one, or neither may be finally selected. All application materials should be discussed and approved by the mentor who is supporting your application.

A full application includes:

  1. Cover letter.
  2. CV.
  3. A research proposal (five pages or less) outlining the specific project sub-theme your research will address, and which research question in particular you will focus on. The proposal should include enough technical information to demonstrate awareness of both the scientific and theological landscapes relevant to your research question. You should also list the specific, identifiable research outputs you will produce. The exact nature of such goals is impossible to specify from the outset, but in general will include 1 submitted book proposal by the end of the project’s duration, 2 submitted journal articles, and (within one year of the end of the grant) a submitted chapter for the project’s edited volume on science-engaged theology of nature.
  4. In addition to the research proposal, you must include a description of how you will use the funds designated for scientific engagement. We expect that engagement will be both extensive and intensive, and should include full immersion in the appropriate primary scientific research literature as well as collaborative contact with working scientists. Other activities could include a placement in a scientific lab, attendance at leading scientific conferences, and work exchange with science-based postdocs, but there are many other possibilities. The nature of this scientific engagement should be tailored to the details of your proposed research project, and should be as specific as possible.
  5. Two letters of recommendation (posted or emailed directly from the recommender).
  6. A letter of support from your prospective mentor at the host department (posted or emailed to the project leaders before your full application is submitted). 

Email your application, with these documents attached as PDFs, to: Sarah Lane Ritchie: sarah.laneritchie@ed.ac.uk

Participating host Universities

Potential applicants are encouraged to be in contact with the designated senior scholar at one of the universities listed below. Do remember that these scholars will be engaged in their own selection process from among potential candidates, and that they are not obligated to support your application. This being the case, potential applicants are further encouraged to be specific and clear about their potential fit with the chosen scholar/university, and to develop all application materials in conversation with the potential mentor.

 

United Kingdom

 

 

Cambridge University 

Andrew Davison 

apd31@cam.ac.uk 

Campion Hall, Oxford

Celia Deane-Drummond

Celia.Deane-Drummond.1@nd.edu

Durham University 

Simon Oliver 

simon.oliver@durham.ac.uk 

University of Nottingham 

Michael Burdett

michael.burdett@nottingham.ac.uk

Leeds University 

Robin  Le Poidevin 

r.d.lepoidevin@leeds.ac.uk 

University of Exeter 

Christopher Southgate 

c.c.b.southgate@exeter.ac.uk 

York University

Tom McLeish

Tom.mcleish@york.ac.uk

 University of Edinburgh

Mark Harris

Sarah Lane Ritchie

mark.harris@ed.ac.uk

sarah.laneritchie@ed.ac.uk

 

 

 

USA 

 

 

University of Notre Dame 

Matt Ashley 

ashley.2@nd.edu

Duke Divinity School 

Warren Kinghorn

Norman Wirzba 

warren.kinghorn@duke.edu 

nwirzba@div.duke.edu

Baylor University 

Paul Martens 

paul_martens@baylor.edu 

Wesleyan University

Mary-Jane Rubenstein

mrubenstein@wesleyan.edu

Samford University

Josh Reeves

jareeves@samford.edu

Boston University

Wesley Wildman

wwildman@bu.edu

 

 

 

Mainland Europe 

 

 

University of Helsinki 

Aku Visala 

aku.visala@helsinki.fi 

VU University Amsterdam  

Gijsbert van den Brink 

gvdbrink@solcon.nl 

 Comillas University

Sara Lumbreras-Sanchos

 slumbreras@comillas.edu

Catholic University of Lyon

Philippe Gagnon

pgagnon@univ-catholyon.fr

Halle-Wittenberg

Dirk Evers

dirk.evers@theologie.uni-halle.de

 

Research vision

The main aim of this project is to form a multi-disciplinary and multi-institutional research team to investigate theologies of the natural sciences and theologies of nature. In spite of decades of theological research into the doctrine of creation and its scientific ramifications – much of it falling inside the science & religion field – this enterprise has brought us no closer to a meaningful unified view of the natural sciences, nor even of nature as the singular created arena of the sciences. The problem is that the unity of science/nature is assumed in such work but is not addressed directly. There still remains little in the way of theological reflection on science per se, still less the reasons why science (and thereby “nature”) is so varied, diverse and disunited. What is needed, we suggest, is not more theological work on creation so much as theological work which engages the content, objectives and methodologies of the contemporary natural sciences in all their diversity and disunity. Thus, instead of trying to unify the sciences/nature by adopting an external theological perspective (“creation”), we suggest a revival of the early modern (and internal) perspective characterised by the “two books” metaphor. Hence, we are suggesting the need for work which regains the lost metaphor where the natural sciences are God’s Book of Nature, in spite of the philosophical unifying questions which nevertheless remain.

Sub-themes, questions, and methodologies

Within the over-arching theme of the Book of Nature, we have identified three distinct sub-themes. Many alternative sub-themes could have been chosen (eg. the question of teleology in theological treatments of human evolution), but we believe that these offer the most tractable way into the research question for a 33-month research project, since they make use of reasonably well-contained, and already-existing, research emphases in the science-and-religion field (including the themes of creation and divine action). And this is where we believe that the novelty of our approach comes in, since our over-arching theme of the Book of Nature allows us to re-contextualise and combine these research emphases into a larger inter-disciplinary framework for theologies of nature. In operational terms, each sub-theme will be the focus of its own cohort, composed of at least two of the network’s research groups (where a research group is itself composed of a postdoc and mentor at a specific host institution). The three sub-themes are:

  1. God and Nature
  2. Mind and Nature
  3. Naturalism(s) and Nature

In more detail, the sub-themes can be described as follows:

God and Nature

Is Divine action ‘natural’ in a theology of nature? Historically, this area has been dominated by the work of the Divine Action Project (DAP), which is best known for seeking solutions through indeterministic science (especially physics). But we maintain that examining divine action through the lens of a science-engaged theology of nature would not necessarily be an exercise in identifying areas of physical indeterminism in which God could be operative without intervening in law-governed processes. Rather, the project’s examination of divine action could encourage suspicion of the old binary of interventionist/non-interventionist divine action altogether, instead asking questions such as: "If we start from the immanentist assumption that God is always present to nature in the first place (and this could be conceptualised in Thomistic, pneumatological, or panentheistic terms, for example), how might the natural sciences suggest we should envision divine agency acting upon the various levels of the natural world?" This approach would open the door for discipline-specific perspectives on causation across the natural sciences, without assuming that everything boils down to ‘the laws of physics’ at the end of the day (as some prominent approaches in the DAP have done, eg. the focus on divine action through chaos theory or quantum mechanics). While recent theological responses to the DAP have called into question the assumption that nature ever exists apart from the ongoing presence and activity of an immanent God, such responses also do not attempt any sort of rigorous engagement with the landscape of the natural sciences as they exist on the ground, and thus leave much to be desired and developed from the context of a science-engaged theology. We suggest that this project could launch the divine action conversation into a new phase.

Another way of saying what we have in mind here is to point out that much past work on divine action in the world distinguishes ‘natural’ causation from ‘supernatural’, as though causation was a straightforward issue in the natural sciences. But how is causation actually understood in different scientific disciplines like fundamental physics and systems biology, and how might a realistically-empirical understanding improve our understanding of God’s action in the world? The honest challenge with this sub-theme will to be confront head-on the question of whether or not the natural sciences themselves can tell us anything about divine agency, and if so, how? An important conversation partner in this sub-theme will be work in philosophy of science on causal explanation (such as James Woodward’s outstanding book of 2005, Making Things Happen, for example, which will prove a useful focus for theological engagement). Examples of specific research questions within this sub-theme might include:

    1. How do conceptions of causation and ‘laws’ of nature vary between scientific subdisciplines (say, from quantum mechanics to systems biology)? There has been a great deal of progress in philosophy of science in discussions of causation across the sciences, including in the status of ‘laws of nature’ (e.g. with the interest in Neo-Aristotelian forms of thought, including the trends characterised by Nancy Cartwright’s thinking). How might this material be assimilated theologically, in reflecting upon God’s action in the world at differing levels of nature?
    2. Much of the divine action debate has taken place within an implicit prioritising of the methodologies of the ‘hard’ physical sciences (especially physics). How might the debate change if the methodologies of other sciences such as biology and geology were prioritised, where the particular (and perhaps even unique) has a place over the search for exceptionless regularities (laws)?
    3. Might theological worries about deterministic physical and biological processes be lessened or even eradicated by Thomistic double agency, and the distinction between primary and secondary causation? Of course, there has been great interest here in recent years, but recent work on Austin Farrer, e.g. by Rowan Williams in his recent Christology, might suggest new ways of taking Thomas further.
    4. How might systems biology and theories of emergence alter the way pneumatologists think about creaturely participation in the divine?

Mind and Nature

Is mind ‘natural’ in a theology of nature? A major component of this sub-theme grapples with the relationship between mind and physicality, and articulates ways in which mind is or is not properly ‘natural.’ The various brain-related sciences are increasingly highlighting specific ways in which mentality is explicable in physicalist terms. Rather than viewing this as a theological threat, might there be theological ways of welcoming such advances? For example, cognitive science of religion (CSR) suggests that religious belief and experience are natural, evolved features of the human organism. Are there models of the God-nature relationship that would encourage theological acceptance of and engagement with the physical, biological, and psychological mechanisms involved in the development of religious belief? Or, might it be possible to identify teleology in the biological processes that resulted in the human capacity for religious belief and experience?

On the other hand, there has recently been a revival of interest within philosophy and theology in substance dualism, to the extent that many theologians reiterate the fundamental ‘nonnaturalness’ of the mind/soul against physicalist views coming from the natural sciences. Of course, such a sub-theme also invites perspectives on non-physicalist conceptions of mind. For example, might there be versions of substance dualism that engage productively with the natural sciences? And what about other solutions (eg. panpsychism)? What might this contemporary standoff tell us about the role of mind in Nature? Does the logic and structure of evolutionary biology suggest that mind should be considered fundamental to nature, rather than a product of natural selection? And if there is any sense in which mind is fundamental to nature, how should a theology of nature incorporate this potentiality? Is Thomas Nagel right to insist that science must be a supplemented with a new teleology that incorporates mind? And if he is, what would this mean for a theology of nature? Examples of specific research questions in this sub-theme include:

    1. If Galen Strawson is correct that physicalism entails panpsychism, how might this alter the way theologians think about divine-creaturely interaction, communication, and participation?
    2. Does theologically-motivated substance dualism require that the mind be seen as non-natural (or supernatural, or more than natural), or might there be ways to develop a naturalist substance dualism such that it does the requisite theological ‘work,’ but does not entail a natural/non-natural binary? Might there be versions of substance dualism that are compatible with the natural sciences?
    3. To what extent should cognitive scientific research on embodied cognition affect or constrain core theological doctrines such as the resurrection of the dead? Similarly, how might a science-engaged theology of nature approach research on the highly-controversial topic of near-death experiences, a topic which has been used to support substance dualism?
    4. Do neuroscientific accounts of human mentality, and their attendant effects on the imago dei, suggest alterations in traditional conceptions of God? (If mind is naturally-explicable in physicalist terms, might physicality itself impact theological thinking about God?)
    5. What are the appropriate theological responses to recent activity in the free will debate, in both philosophy and the sciences (e.g. in epigenetics, behavioral genetics, and neuroscience)? (If, for instance, free will is to be seen, not in a rigidly-defined counterfactual fashion, but rather as a holistic, multi-level process involving complex interactions between one’s body and the environment, how might this alter theological reflection on free will, agency, and moral responsibility?) 

Naturalism(s) and Nature

Should theology be natural? Should Nature be theological? Philosophy (especially philosophy of science) has a significant contribution to make to this project. Addressing our over-arching theme of God’s Book of Nature clearly requires us to grapple with the long-standing debates about naturalism and its relationship to religious belief. There is a great deal of diversity in the solutions proposed. Some authors (eg. Willem B. Drees, Wesley Wildman) have constructed cases for a ‘religious naturalism’, while others propose more self-consciously theistic naturalisms such as the pneumatological versions developed by Amos Yong and James K. A. Smith. These must certainly be addressed, but we also wish to include philosophical concerns about the metaphysical underpinnings of science. The long-standing debate on the laws of nature in philosophy of science – along with the different ways that lawfulness and regularity are construed in different empirical sciences (eg. fundamental physics vs. evolutionary biology) – will clearly be significant here, and we hope to encourage postdocs to engage with philosophical views of different empirical sciences, and especially the limit questions that they introduce (eg. the special status of particle physics and cosmology as defining the limits of nature). Likewise, the different sciences construe fundamental issues like the uniformity of nature differently (physics vs. earth science being the obvious example), but also the contributions of aesthetics and beauty to scientific method, which, again, are seen differently in physics compared to other sciences. This last issue suggests that a study of glory, wonder and awe should also be included in any theological appraisal of nature, not necessarily from the traditional perspective of natural theology (eg. the argument from beauty), so much as an argument from scientific method. Therefore, this theme will certainly include engagement with specific empirical sciences, but using philosophy of science as the mediator towards a theology of nature.

Included in this sub-theme are concerns about scientism. In their concern to defend theological inquiry from the imperialistic onslaught of scientistic forms of naturalism (ie. those reductionist forms of metaphysical naturalism acknowledging only knowledge acquired through the purportedly objective methods of empirical science),   some theologians have responded by rejecting naturalism altogether (even in its methodological form), others by constructing theistic naturalisms. How robust are these responses, and how do they relate to the cognitive science of religion, which understands religious belief as ‘natural’? And what are the implications for any theologies of nature?

Specific examples of research questions in this sub-theme include

  1. Are there different theological implications suggested by the spandrel and adaptive models within evolutionary psychology of religion? How might the relationship between God and the evolutionary process be seen differently if religion is a by-product of natural selection instead of an adaptive feature, or vice versa?
  2. Is there ever a time when theologians should resist scientific explanations, and if so, when? For example, should theologians resist neurobiological explanations for speaking in tongues, the sensed presence of God in intercessory prayer, or visions of Jesus in contemplative meditation? Or, can a full description of physical mechanisms be compatible with theological affirmations of such phenomena’s religious significance?
  3. Is it possible for cognitive science of religion to identify exactly how to ‘make’ an individual believe in God, and if so, is it theologically appropriate to use such knowledge toward the ends of intentional spiritual formation? (Does cognitive science blur the line between ‘nature’ and ‘grace’ in the process of belief formation, and does this matter?).
  4. A great deal of work has been carried out on the above questions in religious epistemology, especially in engaging cognitive science with psychology of religion (eg. by Adam Green, Matthew Benton, Charity Anderson, Kelly Clark, Michael Murray, Dean Zimmerman, Robert Adams, Ryan Nichols, Ian Church, Helen de Cruz, and more), but theological reflection on this material has lagged behind. How can theology appropriately assimilate such philosophical and scientific movements on fundamental questions of human belief formation and faith?

Any questions?

If you have any queries, please email Mark Harris (mark.harris@ed.ac.uk) or Sarah Lane Ritchie (sarah.laneritchie@ed.ac.uk).