January 2018 Newsletter

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

  1. Last Call for Evolution Weekend 2018;
  2. Astrobiology News for January 2018:  Astrobiology, the Anthropocene, and the “Sapiozoic”;
  3. A Reflection on Religion and Science from a Clergy Letter Project Member;
  4. Evolution Weekend and the Opioid Crisis;
  5. An Episcopal Deacon Explains Why The Clergy Letter Is Necessary;
  6. Scientists in Synagogues; and
  7. Creationism in Alabama.

1.   Last Call for Evolution Weekend 2018

If you and your congregation (or academic institution) are not yet on our list of participants for Evolution Weekend 2018, now is your last chance to sign on.  Please check the list to see if you’re listed if you plan to participate.  Every year I learn of many congregations that participated but weren’t on our list of participants because they simply forgot to sign up.  Please don’t let this happen to you.  Our strength is in our numbers so let’s be certain that every voice is counted.

Please remember that participation can occur any time in the vicinity of Evolution Weekend , 9-11 February 2018, and it can take any form you deem most appropriate for your local situation. 

With so much attention currently focused on the closely aligned issues of racism and immigration, this year’s theme of “Our Shared Humanity” provides a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate how religion and science together can help us foster more welcoming and just communities. 

_______ Yes, by all means, please add me and my congregation (university) to the list of participants in Evolution Weekend 2018:

Name of Congregation:
Your Name:


Return to Top

2.  Astrobiology News for January 2018:  Astrobiology, the Anthropocene, and the “Sapiozoic”

In this month’s Astrobiology News, Clergy Letter Project consultant and Adler Planetarium astronomer Grace Wolf-Chase discusses what might come after the Anthropocene.

My apologies that this month’s news will be brief, as I’m preparing to attend the Luther Seminary Convocation on Faith and Science in St. Paul this week, where I’ll be presenting, leading workshops, and helping to promote the book Michael announced last month – Interactive World, Interactive God: The Basic Reality of Creative Interaction.

You may have heard the term “Anthropocene” coined as a suggestion that human influence on the biosphere has placed us in a new geologic epoch.  In a 2017 SET I talk(2), astrobiologist David Grinspoon discusses whether we may in fact be on the cusp of a new eon, the “Sapiozoic”, and how what is happening on Earth might be applicable elsewhere in the cosmos.  Does life become integral to the way a planet functions?  After all, we are not the first species to dramatically alter the Earth – oxygen-producing cyanobacteria did that at the beginning of the Proterozoic eon!

David identifies four kinds of planetary “catastrophes” (where catastrophe may mean a transformational change, not necessarily a disaster).  The first two of these are unintentional:  (1) random events (for example, asteroid impacts); and (2) biological (as when photosynthesis became dominant).  The last two are driven by cognitive changes:  (3) inadvertent catastrophes (such as the use of technology with unintended consequences, which might solve local survival problems, but cause major global changes); and (4) intentional planetary changes (such as fixing the ozone problem, or transforming global energy systems).

Will Earth be fundamentally changed by the Anthropocene, and can we pass to the “Eon of Wisdom” (Sapiozoic)?  This question is closely related to questions with which SETI struggles, namely, how long do civilizations last?  What would be the qualities of a techno-civilization protecting its biosphere?  The effects of human civilization on Earth’s climate, both today and projections into the future, can inform the search for plausible “technosignatures” that might be observed on exoplanets with the next generation of space telescopes.

A recent white paper to the National Academy of Sciences suggests one such technosignature could be evidence of terraforming via spectral features of greenhouse gases on planets outside their stars’ habitable zones, and proposes that the NASA Astrobiology Institute should establish a focus group comprised of multidisciplinary scholars interested in studying Earth’s future, which would include astrobiologists as well as experts from various other communities such as climate change and geoengineering.(2)

David ends his SETI talk with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.:  “If we are to have peace on Earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional, our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.”  What might the “Eon of Wisdom” look like?  I encourage CLP signatories to reflect on this question!  I think it’s a natural fit to the 2018 Evolution Weekend theme:  Our Shared Humanity.

Until next month,

Grace Wolf-Chase, Ph.D. (gwolfchase@adlerplanetarium.org)

1.  The Anthropocene: What Now? – David Grinspoon (SETI Talks 2017) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DV3ZDcYYPZw
2.  https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1801/1801.00052.pdf


Return to Top


3.  A Reflection on Religion and Science from a Clergy Letter Project Member

In addition to being the Priest in Charge at Saint Alban’s Episcopal Church, Glen Burnie, MD, The Rev. Pamela Conrad, a member of The Clergy Letter Project, holds a masters degree in geology and a Ph.D. in mineral science.  She has worked on numerous NASA projects and, even as she serves her congregation, she remains a research associate at The Geophysical Laboratory of The Carnegie Institution of Science.  What follows is a short piece entitled “Evolution is Bigger than You Know” that she wrote for this month’s Newsletter.

In a dynamic universe, everything is in motion. This assertion isn’t merely theory; it’s verifiable by empirical observation. As a person of both science and faith, I recognize this dynamic state as evidence that the medium in which everything resides is God, and I attribute this energetic movement as not only a consequence of the mechanics of the stuff in the universe, but also a function of the medium in which it all resides. It is comforting to speculate that the invisible and rarified environment that I’ve always thought of as “space” isn’t vacuous nothing, but rather something tangibly enervating and life-giving enough so that every constituent of the universe is dancing—vibrating with possibility. The spectroscopic evidence of this motion is awe-inspiring, and prompts one to recognize that when it comes to the physics of “stuff,” relationship is everything. In a crystal, the proximity of one atom to another and the intrinsic properties of each element determine the geometry of relationship, and in turn, the geometry of relationship determines the way the atoms vibrate!

If material and motion affect relationship, and relationship between bits of matter feeds back to affect subsequent motion, changing the behavior of the material, evolution is a necessary consequence!

Motion and relationship change through time. Each relationship leads to the formation of new materials, and as the materials become more complex, new behaviors and properties emerge. This IS evolution, broadly stated. Evolution is so much more than the story of the biosphere, or in particular, humans. It is the story of minerals and planets, of all creation, and when we fail to grasp the broader understanding of evolution as an emergent property of a dynamic universe, we miss a valuable opportunity to speak to people of faith about the consistency of scientific (empirical) observation with a doctrine of creation that celebrates the Divine Gift of motion and relationship.

It’s time to think much more broadly about evolution as a universal process and a consequence of residence within the medium of the divine.

If you found this piece to be as interesting as I did, you might want to read an interview published by NASA in 2015 with Rev. Conrad discussing her work attempting to determine what makes a planet habitable.


Return to Top


4.  Evolution Weekend and the Opioid Crisis

As they have for the past four years, WesleyNexus is hosting an Evolution Weekend event open to all members of The Clergy Letter Project via live stream.  Read their description of the event below:

Once again, for the fifth year, WesleyNexus will sponsor and host the principal Evolution Weekend program for Maryland on February 11, in a live-streamed event from the Baltimore-Washington Conference Mission Center in Fulton, Maryland.  The program for 2018 is “Faith and Science Confront Pain:  The Churches address the Opioid Crisis.”  Initiating the discussion will be Michael Oshinsky, PhD, Program Director Pain and Migraine at the NIH National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, in Bethesda, Maryland.  Joining him on the panel will be Dr. Gerard Ahem, professor of phramacology at Georgetown University, Washington DC.  Next we will hear from Dr. Onaje Salim, program officer with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (Center for Substance Abuse Treatment) in Rockville, Maryland.  One additional panelist will be Rev. Ron Hopson, associate professor of Psychology and Divinity at Howard University and Senior Minister of the People’s Congregational United Church of Christ in Washington, DC.  Moderator for the program will be Dr. M. Catherine Bennett, Scientific Review Officer at NIH Somatosensory and Chemosensory Systems.  All persons, lay and clergy, in the national capital area are encouraged to attend the event in person, where door prizes including books, videos and other resources appropriate to the topic will be offered. Others around the country are encouraged to organize discussion groups in their own congregations, or just participate from their office or home via the link to the event.  Updated information will be appearing on the WesleyNexus website as we get closer to the event.  We are greatly appreciative to our principal sponsors, including the Clergy Letter Project, the Institute for Religion in an Age of Science, the Institute for Science and Judaism, and the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church.  And, of course, our friends and donors who continue to sustain this and all of our outreach programs.  Connect with us at http://www.wesnex.org.

_____ Wow, that sounds like a great program.  I plan to participate with my congregation.  Please add me to the list of Evolution Weekend participants.

Name of Congregation:
Your Name:


Return to Top


5.  An Episcopal Deacon Explains Why The Clergy Letter Is Necessary

The Rev. Jim Lieb, an Episcopal Deacon and a recent signer of The Christian Clergy Letter, explained in a Daily Kos essay why The Letter is necessary.  He makes many important points in his essay but none more powerful than when he says, “Our American culture is richer and blessed by the diversity of the all world’s cultures that have migrated here, bringing their unique religious and spiritual traditions with them.”  That’s a perfect sentiment for the Evolution Weekend 2018 theme of “Our Shared Humanity.”


Return to Top


6.  Scientists in Synagogues

Sinai and Synapses, directed by Clergy Letter Project member Rabbi Geoff Mitelman, has received funding to run a second round of its very successful “Scientists in Synagogues” program.  The program is designed to provide participants opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science.  The program provides funding to implement a local project and covers all expenses associated with an opening workshop scheduled for 27 June 2018 in New York (a workshop, I hasten to add, at which I will be participating!).  You can read more about the program and learn how to apply by visiting the Scientists in Synagogues web site.  The deadline for applications is 15 March 2018 so hurry!


Return to Top

7.  Creationism in Alabama

A particularly extreme creationism bill has been introduced into the Alabama House.  Here’s how the bill, House Bill 258, is described by our good friends at the National Center for Science Education: The bill would “allow teachers to present ‘the theory of creation as presented in the Bible’ in any class discussing evolution, ‘thereby affording students a choice as to which theory to accept.’  The bill would also ensure that creationist students would not be penalized for answering examination questions in a way reflecting their adherence to creationism.”

While the bill, if adopted, would almost certainly be ruled unconstitutional, its introduction is a troubling event. 

Return to Top


I’m pleased to note that our numbers have been growing regularly.  In fact, we’ve been adding between 100 and 150 signatures to one of our Clergy Letters each month for some time now.  Finally, as always, I want to thank you for your continued support and as I do every month, I urge you to take one simple action.  Please share this month’s Newsletter with a colleague or two and ask them to add their voices to those promoting a deep and meaningful understanding between religion and science.  They can add their signatures to a Clergy Letter simply by dropping me a note at mz@theclergyletterproject.org.  Together we are making a difference.



Michael Zimmerman
Founder and Executive Director
The Clergy Letter Project