Where Religion and the Natural World Meet

Dr. Ann Milliken Pederson listens to students at Augustana University.

Dr. Ann Milliken Pederson talks religion and science.

Since 1990, Dr. Ann Milliken Pederson has been changing the way Augustana students view religion and science.

Courses like “Theology, Medicine and Ethics” have been challenging students of all majors to integrate their faith with science through an interdepartmental learning experience. These courses have proved to be of particular interest to those in biology, nursing and pre-medicine programs, some of whom will even add a religion major or minor after taking a course from Pederson.

“Having a philosophy or religion second major helps biology and pre-med students with critical thinking and asking tough questions about their faith and how that fits with their scientific methodology,” Pederson, a professor of religion, said.

“What they sometimes discover is that theological method is not so different from scientific method. I think sometimes [students] come in and they think what we do in the religion department and what they’re going to do in biology is methodologically opposite. Well, it’s not that different. Back in the Middle Ages, theology was queen of the sciences.”

— Dr. Ann Milliken Pederson
Professor of Religion

Pederson herself became interested in theology and science as a piano major in college when she took an acoustics physics course. She says that first piqued her interest in music, theology and science and she decided to go to seminary.

“I also grew up in western Montana appreciating the natural world and I got interested in the doctrine of creation in seminary — or what it means to talk about creation,” Pederson said.

This became a prominent theme in her work at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, which has a partnership with the Zygon Center for Religion and Science — one of only two programs in the country with a science aspect when Pederson was at seminary.

Coming to Augustana

After she received her doctorate in theology from LSTC, she joined the faculty at Augustana in 1990. One of the first faculty members she met here was Dr. Arlen Viste, chemistry professor.

“He sat in on a philosophy course of mine on Alfred North Whitehead [notable mathematician, logician and philosopher] and we just clicked. We started talking about how Augie had had a religion and science course in the past but hadn’t offered it for a long time,” Pederson said. “He talked me into teaching a religion and science capstone.”

A few years later, Pederson and biology professor Dr. Craig Spencer applied for and received a course grant from the Templeton Foundation to set up a more permanent course in religion and science. “And I’ve just been teaching some sort of an interdepartmental version of religion and science ever since,” Pederson said.

Most recently, she often team-teaches on religion and bioethics or medicine with a professor from the natural science division or with multiple guest lecturers. The coursework ranges from discussions on reproductive medicine, artificial reproductive technology, cancer and more.

"I’ve done most of my work on beginnings and endings of life,” Pederson said. “So anything from in vitro fertilization to CRISPR genetic stuff to end of life issues with palliative care and hospice. And the ethics is interesting, but my real interest in it is the theological work. What does it mean to be a human person? What does it mean to be created in the image of God? What does it even mean to talk about health and wholeness?”

Student Research

Pederson discusses these questions with her students and it often inspires students to do unique research of their own.

Ben Trenne is a rising senior biology and religion major at Augustana. His first class with Pederson, a Civitas honors religion course, led him to add a religion major.

“I had no interest in being a religion major and thought I would just take the class and be done with it,” Trenne said. “However, that is not what happened. Dr. Pederson led that class to creative and fascinating places I did not expect our class to go. Even more, she helped lead me to creative ideas and beautiful theology.

“... in that class she planted the seed of where religion meets the world and the theology that comes out of it,” he said.

In a later course Trenne took with Pederson, she helped him hone in on a research project involving his two academic interests: ecology and religion. Trenne is currently looking at the intersection between ecology, water and baptism.

“Dr. Pederson helped to find resources to build off my research, took time to read and edit my writing, and helped find others to assist with the project. She has helped me to become a better writer, researcher and overall student,” Trenne said.

Pederson says this type of interdepartmental research has become more commonplace at Augustana over the years.

“Students are really demanding and wanting interdisciplinary research,” she said. “They expect the faculty to also be doing that kind of interdisciplinary research, and that isn’t always easy. I do more work with narrative research. So in the course ‘Bioethics, Religion and Science,’ narrative has become a hot word. When we teach about cancer I always want to make sure that I use a memoir of somebody so that you’re not only hearing about the biology of the cancer but how that affects the cancer patient.”

Course Evolution

The field is constantly changing, which means the content of Pederson’s classes changes almost every semester. She has Google Alerts set up for different areas in the sciences in order to keep up with the latest research.

“My goal is that when you come out of a religion and science class that you can go to an article that pops up on the New York Times website and be able to talk about it beyond the slogans you hear like the war between religion and science or religion and evolution,” Pederson said.

Another change Pederson sees in her coursework is how students view both religion and science.

“I’m finding maybe now more than ever that students are becoming more suspicious of institutional religion and much less so science. There just seems to be a restlessness about institutional religion.”

Pederson says she’s changed the way she teaches her courses now to reflect her audience and to “be sensitive to finding ways to talk across different religions.”

Her coursework also reflects on how these issues affect those locally and globally.

“One way I’ve changed my teaching is to become much more knowledgeable about issues of religion, science and medicine here in the Dakotas,” Pederson said.

Some of her classes will look into Native American origin stories and discuss interactions with Native Americans who live near the Sanford Underground Research Facility in Lead, South Dakota.

She sees Augustana as the perfect place for integration of faith and science, where these types of conversations should be happening.

“Because for Lutherans, faith has never just been blind acceptance of doctrine. Lutheranism was born in the academy,” Pederson said.

And for those who doubt the necessity of teaching a course in religion and science, Pederson has this response:

“Christians from a faith perspective claim that God created the world and in order to understand the world in which we live there are multiple ways to know the world. One, obviously, is from scripture and the Christian tradition and the other is through the natural sciences and social sciences. There’s an old tradition that goes back to the first 200-300 years of Christianity called the two books tradition:the book of nature and book of scripture.

“And I think to be informed about the world we live in, we have to take science seriously. Now that doesn’t mean you stop believing God created it, but you understand and interpret those beliefs and values and the relationship between those and what the sciences are saying. We live in the natural world, we’re not apart from that and sciences help us understand that.”

What’s Next?

In June, Pederson and Augustana associate biology professor Dr. Jennifer Gubbels taught on reproductive medicine at the Academy for Faith, Science and Ethics at Gustavus Adolphus College.

During the 2017-18 academic year, Pederson has plans to continue her own research in religion and science while on sabbatical. Her projects include research on faith statements people make when they’re in the midst of a medical crisis and working with local artist Sheila Agee on an art installation titled “Seeing Dakota: Confluences and Collisions.” The installation will focus on the nature, culture and spirituality of the Dakotas with Agee’s landscape artwork and Pederson’s writing.