December 2015 Newsletter

In this Clergy Letter Project update, you’ll find the following five items:

  1. Evolution Weekend 2016: A Free Book Offer;
  2. Astrobiology News for December 2015:  The Human Search for the Origins of Life;
  3. The Clergy Letter Project, Evolution Weekend and Islamophobia;
  4. The Evolution of Creationism; and
  5. Additional Resources for Evolution Weekend.

1.  Evolution Weekend 2016: A Free Book Offer

Both the new year and Evolution Weekend are quickly approaching. I’m hoping that many of you who have not yet signed up to participate will join the hundreds of congregations that have already done so. If you’re not certain if you’ve signed up yet, please go to our webpage and check to see if you’re listed. As I’ve explained in the past, the only way for our list to be accurate is to require each congregation to sign up each year. So, please take a look to see if you’re listed. If you’re not yet there, just drop me a note and I’ll get you added immediately.

To help you prepare for Evolution Weekend, InterVarsity Press has generously offered to provide 20 free copies of Thomas Jay Oord’s latest book, The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence. Tom is a long-term member of The Clergy Letter Project and many of you will recall that I’ve written about his recent difficulties with Northwest Nazarene University, in large part because of his position on evolution

In discussing the book, the publisher notes, “"Rarely does a new theological position emerge to account well for life in the world, including not only goodness and beauty but also tragedy and randomness. Drawing from Scripture, science, philosophy and various theological traditions, Thomas Jay Oord offers a novel theology of providence—essential kenosis—that emphasizes God's inherently noncoercive love in relation to creation. The Uncontrolling Love of God provides a clear and powerful response to one of the perennial challenges to Christian faith."

If you believe that this book might help you prepare for Evolution Weekend 2016, please let me know. I’ll award a free copy to every fourth person who requests one, until all copies are claimed. If you’re not one of the lucky ones to be awarded a free copy, you can go to the book's webpage and order a copy with a 30 percent discount. This discount is good through 30 January 2016.

_____ Yes, I would like to receive a free copy of Thomas Jay Oord’s book The Uncontrolling Love of God to help me prepare for Evolution Weekend 2016. If I’m selected to receive a free copy, I agree to pay $5 to cover postage and handling.

     _____ Please sign my congregation up to participate in Evolution Weekend 2016 (12-14 February 2016).

     Name of Congregation:
     City, State:
     My Name:

     _____ My congregation is already listed as participating in Evolution Weekend 2016.

Whether you want a copy of this book or not, I hope you take this opportunity to sign up for Evolution Weekend 2016, if you haven’t yet done so. Remember, you can participate any way you deem appropriate. Big events and small events are all welcome. Our goal is simply to promote the position that religion and science can comfortably coexist; indeed that in many ways they can enhance one another.


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2.  Astrobiology News for December 2015:  The Human Search for the Origins of Life

In this month’s Astrobiology News, Clergy Letter Project consultant and Adler Planetarium astronomer Grace Wolf-Chase discusses the complexities associated with investigating the origins of life. She also does a superb job of tying her discussion to this year’s theme for Evolution Weekend.

The latest issue of the journal Astrobiology outlines outcomes of a workshop organized by the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) Origins Network (EON). Funded by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, EON was created to form a global interdisciplinary network for research into the origins of life (OoL). The workshop, which was held in August 2015 at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, brought together a diverse group of scholars researching OoL questions from various perspectives. The group produced a white paper identifying common ground among different approaches, key questions, and suggesting a roadmap of activities to advance this fascinating field of study.(1)

Since I can’t possibly summarize the 256-page document in a few paragraphs, I will focus on some of the challenges and opportunities that are outlined in the last section. More specifically, there is growing interest in developing interdisciplinary studies within the “astrobiological humanities” and in how to face challenges that arise in interactions across different disciplines – challenges such as different technical standards, terminology, sets of expectations for behavior, and conflicting stakeholder interests. The Strategic Plan recognizes that developing successful strategies for communicating across disciplinary boundaries can position astrobiologists at the forefront of a growing, and crucial, trend in the sciences.

The white paper discusses approaches in three broad, overlapping classes: historical, characterized by research to determine the path of events that led to biology on Earth; synthetic, characterized by research into how to create the process of life either in simulation or in the laboratory; and universal, concerned with questions about necessary and sufficient conditions for life in different environments. Since current trends in all three approaches suggest the possibility of life based on a different set of molecular compounds from modern biology, the paper proposes that OoL studies be additionally characterized in terms of seven “types of life,” which include life as we know it as well as possibilities for life based on different composition or structure.

One point that is made several times throughout the paper is the necessity for better cross-disciplinary collaboration and discussion, a demand that is becoming increasingly necessary in all fields given our contemporary specialized society. Language and jargon employed in one field have different connotations in other fields, and communities differ “not only in the types of questions they ask but also in what is taken to constitute an answer.”(1) What I find particularly fascinating about this is that in essence we are being called to reinvent the “Renaissance Scholar,” but in terms of community rather than individual. Such collaborative approaches are absolutely essential when one asks questions such as, is life inevitable? Which properties of life are universal? What is the role of death and extinction in the emergence of life? Were cognition and consciousness inevitable?

Given that the 2016 theme for Evolution Weekend is “Exploring Ways to Engage in Complex Discussions in a Civil Manner,” might I humbly suggest that a good starting place would be finding ways to bridge language divides that cause misunderstandings? Before any complex discussions can take place, individuals need to make sure they properly understand their conversation partners! This can be particularly challenging for those of us raised as academics, because, let’s face it, no one wants to be seen as ignorant; however, the alternative is even less savory. We are faced with tremendous challenges today and the only way to face these challenges is together – the stakes are very high, the highest in fact, since the survival of humanity may hang in the balance!

Not to end on too somber a note, I wish you all happy and safe holidays (and for you Star Wars fans, may the force be with you)!

Until next month,


Grace Wolf-Chase, Ph.D. (

1.  Scharf, C., Virgo, N., Cleaves, J. II, et al. 2015, A Strategy for Origins of Life Research, Astrobiology, Vol. 15, No. 12, 1031 (DOI: 10.1089/ast.2015.1113)



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3.  The Clergy Letter Project, Evolution Weekend and Islamophobia

There can be little doubt that instances of Islamophobia are dramatically on the rise in the United States. To any of us who care about the principles embodied in the United States Constitution, or to any of us who care about respect for religious diversity or human dignity, this trend is very troubling.

While it is true that there are those who are committing violence in the name of Islam, just as there are those who have committed violence in the name of virtually every religion, such atrocious acts should not be seen as being representative of Islam in general. Similarly, those who are promoting violence should not be seen to be speaking for the vast majority of Muslims who find such acts abhorrent.

Understanding these two points gets to the heart of what The Clergy Letter Project is all about. The Clergy Letter Project was created to demonstrate that those rare but loud fundamentalist voices asserting that evolution had to be dismissed on religious grounds were both presenting a false dichotomy and were not speaking for the vast majority of religious leaders. And one of the major goals of The Clergy Letter Project is to improve dialogue about complex issues of this sort. Indeed, the theme chosen for this year’s Evolution Weekend, Exploring Ways to Engage in Complex Discussions in a Civil Manner, provides a perfect forum for discussing respect for religious differences. Additionally, back in 2012, the theme selected for Evolution Weekend was an Interfaith Discussion of Religion and Science.

Earlier this month, I published an essay in The Huffington Post discussing The Clergy Letter Project’s stance on Islamophobia. The response I’ve received has been overwhelmingly positive.

So, please think about using Evolution Weekend to discuss how we can confront difficult conversations in a civil and productive manner.

_____ Yes, I’ll do just that! Please sign my congregation up to participate in Evolution Weekend 2016 (12-14 February 2016).

     Name of Congregation:
     City, State:
     My Name:


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4.  The Evolution of Creationism

Paul Braterman, a member of The Clergy Letter Project’s list of scientific consultants, recently posted a piece entitled “The evolution of creationism; Kitzmiller 10 years on” on his blog. The piece is particularly timely since 20 December was the 10th anniversary of the decision in the Kitmiller case – the case in Dover, PA in which federal district judge John E. Jones III ruled that mandating the teaching of intelligent design was unconstitutional. Paul’s essay draws on the work of Nick Matzke, another member of The Clergy Letter Project’s list of scientific consultants. Nick’s work was published in Science and is available here to those with a subscription.


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5.  Additional Resources for Evolution Weekend

I want to take this opportunity to remind you of two resources that I recently made available to Clergy Letter Project members. The first is a new video by David Wollert, a member of The Clergy Letter Project’s list of scientific advisors. The film is entitled FAITH & DOUBT: Science and Religion in the Search for Truth and it explores the relationship between religion and science, focusing on the meaning of truth. You can rent or purchase a copy by going to the film’s VIMEO site.

The second is Rabbi Brad Artson’s new book, Renewing the Process of Creation: A Jewish Integration of Science and Spirit. If you want to purchase this book, you can receive a 20 percent discount offered to Clergy Letter Project members by going to the publisher's webpage and using the code CLERGYPROJECT when you check out.

If you haven’t yet signed up to participate in Evolution Weekend 2016, this would be the perfect time to do so. Please provide the information below and I’ll get you listed on our web page.

     Name of Congregation:
     City, State:
     My Name:


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As 2015 draws to a close, I want to wish each and every one of you a healthy, happy and productive new year. Frankly, it makes no sense to me that we are still arguing over the relationship between religion and science and we are still attacking some religious traditions because of the actions of a few violent individuals. But since these events are occurring, our efforts are increasingly important. Please do what you can to spread words of tolerance and understanding. Please do this by enrolling to participate in Evolution Weekend, by sharing this newsletter with friends and colleagues, and by encouraging others to join our efforts. Together we are making a difference.


Michael Zimmerman
Founder and Executive Director
The Clergy Letter Project