November 2015 Newsletter

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

  1. Evolution Weekend 2016: A Free Book Offer;
  2. Astrobiology News for November 2015:  NASA’s Strategic Plan for Astrobiology in the Next Decade;
  3. Can You Help the PCUSA Endorse The Clergy Letter Project? ;
  4. Jurassic Pork;
  5. An Exciting Opportunity for Members of the Jewish Community; and
  6. Westar Institute Award for Public Religious Literacy.

1.  Evolution Weekend 2016: A Free Book Offer

I hope and trust that many of you are preparing to participate in Evolution Weekend 2016 (12-14 February 2016). To help you prepare for Evolution Weekend, and with very generous help from Jewish Lights, I’m offering free copies of Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson’s new book, Renewing the Process of Creation: A Jewish Integration of Science and Spirit. In addition to being a member of The Clergy Letter Project, Brad holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and is vice president of American Jewish University in Los Angeles.

Here’s some information about this exciting new book from the publisher:

We humans like to think of ourselves as the capstone of creation, above nature—we yearn to be special, distinct and superior. The result of this delusion is that we feel fractured, incomplete and perpetually missing an explanation for who we are, what we are doing, where we come from and where we are headed. But what if we realized that humanity and all that it does is an integral part of all creation, and that creation is best understood not as a singular event but as a continuous process in which we participate? How does this impact our pursuit of meaningful lives and inclusive communities of justice, compassion and love? How does it help us extend our capacity to love other people, the earth itself and the cosmos as a whole?

In this daring blend of Jewish theology, science and Process Thought, theologian Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson fleshes out an appreciation of creation in the light of science that allows readers to articulate a deeper sense of space and time and the wonders of being alive. He explores the ethical and moral implications of humanity’s role as steward and partner in creation, as well as how the recognition of land as holy—the Earth in general and Israel in particular—enables a religious discipline of blessing and gratitude that makes it possible for life to blossom. Exciting and accessible for Jews and non-Jews seeking to reconcile their spirituality and modern science, as well as anyone seeking a deeper understanding of the meaning of creation made possible by Judaism and Process Thought.

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 Jewish Lights webpage and, using the code CLERGYPROJECT, order a copy with a 20 percent discount.

_____ Yes, I would like to receive a free copy of Brad Artson’s book Renewing the Process of Creation 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 November 2015: NASA’s Strategic Plan for Astrobiology in the Next           Decade

In this month’s Astrobiology News, Clergy Letter Project consultant and Adler Planetarium astronomer Grace Wolf-Chase discusses NASA’s plan for the future of astrobiology. As you’ll see, that plan calls for some of the same things that are central to the efforts of The Clergy Letter Project: an interdisciplinary approach; and a blending of science, humanities and social sciences.

NASA recently released a 2015 Strategic Plan for Astrobiology, which can be accessed and downloaded from their web page.(1) From its inception, NASA’s Astrobiology program has focused on three basic questions: How does life begin and evolve? Does life exist elsewhere in the Universe? What is the future of life on Earth and beyond? If the current goals and objectives can be summed up in one word, that word would be “habitability”. The six thematic areas that have been identified run the gamut from establishing an inventory of ingredients from which life originated on Earth to exploring the question of whether our limited experience of habitability on Earth has distorted our understanding of the basic set of requirements for a habitable world.

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.

Lucas Mix and Connie Bertka, who is a former director of the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion, note that the results of astrobiology research will have broad societal impact, affecting the way we think about life in the context of ethics, law, philosophy, theology, and many other human endeavors. A few examples of the profound and provocative questions they raise include: What are the hallmarks of a successful definition of life? What role do definitions of life play in cultural and religious cosmologies? What resources are available within various cultural and religious traditions for the incorporation of non-Terran life into worldviews? To what extent is human exceptionalism and/or Terran exceptionalism necessary or desirable? Do humans have non-Terran ethical obligations and can they be agreed upon in a socially plural fashion? Does astrobiology have implications for Terran environmental ethics? Who has speculated on non-Terran life historically? What methods have they used and what theories have they proposed? How do discoveries in astrobiology impact the formation and implementation of laws?

I think the concluding remarks of Mix and Bertka are particularly important. Rather than calling for a particular “voice” to dominate the conversation, they emphasize the importance of dialog between disciplines and the independence of each discipline to pursue its own work: “ astrobiology continues to play an ever-larger role in the broader scientific, academic, and public discussion, it will be important to regularly assess the impact of that discussion on the science and the import of the science for the discussion. Encouragement of independent work in the humanities and social sciences on these topics will aid astrobiology immensely. Opportunities for junior and senior scientists to engage with that work will also be important.”

Now all we need to do is find funding for these worthy efforts!

Until next month,


Grace Wolf-Chase, Ph.D. (



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3.  Can You Help the PCUSA Endorse The Clergy Letter Project?

I’m delighted to report that earlier this month the Presbytery of the Cascades passed an overture for the PCUSA to endorse The Clergy Letter Project and the Christian Clergy Letter. This success was due to the great work of The Reverend John Shuck from Southminster Presbyterian Church in Portland, Oregon. John has been a long-time supporter of The Clergy Letter Project and a regular participant in Evolution Weekend events.

As John explains the process, “We need another presbytery to concur for it to go to General Assembly in Portland next summer.” You can read the resolution that was adopted here and you can reach out to John at

Can you help move this worthwhile effort forward?


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4.  Jurassic Pork

Roy Plotnick, a member of The Clergy Letter Project’s list of scientific consultants, recently published a paper in Evolution: Education and Outreach that I thought many of you might find both interesting and enjoyable. The paper is entitled “Jurassic Pork: What Could a Jewish Time Traveler Eat?” The paper presents a serious approach to “introducing concepts from paleontology and evolutionary biology.”


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5.  An Exciting Opportunity for Members of the Jewish Community

Are you interested in exploring the interaction of Judaism and science more deeply? Might your community like to earn up to $3,600 for programming? Then apply to be a part of the Scientists in Synagogues program. The deadline for applications is 31 March 2016.

Scientists in Synagogues is a grass-roots program that will showcase how some of the most thoughtful Jewish scientists integrate their Judaism and their scientific work so that they can be role models and ambassadors for productive conversations surrounding Judaism and science.

This project is organized by Sinai and Synapses (incubated at Clal - The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership), an organization for which I am on the Advisory Board. Synagogues selected to participate in the program will be expected to send one rabbi and one scientist to a one-day workshop in New York City on 23 June 2016. I will be a presenter at that workshop, and thus I hope we will be able to learn together!

The program is also in collaboration with The American Association for the Advancement of Science Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion and funded by the John Templeton Foundation, Emanuel J. Friedman Philanthropies, and other individual donors.


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6.  Westar Institute Award for Public Religious Literacy

In a move that embodies our conviction that knowledge about religion is essential to healthy public discourse, Westar is inaugurating a new award to honor members of the public who demonstrate an outstanding commitment to fostering religious literacy.

In a move that embodies our conviction that knowledge about religion is essential to healthy public discourse, Westar is inaugurating a new award to honor members of the public who demonstrate an outstanding commitment to fostering religious literacy.

The new Advocate for Public Religious Literacy (APRL) award seeks to recognize the courage, commitment, and contributions of people who cultivate thoughtful discussion and disseminate learning about religion in their communities. Westar invites nominations at this time.

                        More Information | Westar Awards | Submit a Nomination

Nominations close December 1, 2015. The winner will be announced at the March 2016 Westar national meeting.


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Well beyond the boundaries of supposed conflict between religion and science, these have been very troubling times for so many in the world. There are many who are looking to divide us, stigmatizing those who are different from us, regardless of who the “us” is. I want desperately to believe that we are better than that, that we can respect and celebrate difference rather than be repelled by it. In its own small way, perhaps Evolution Weekend 2016, via its theme of “Exploring Ways to Engage in Complex Discussions in a Civil Manner,” can demonstrate that it is possible to engage in meaningful and productive dialogue rather than shouting and violence. That, at least, is my wish. I hope you share it with me.

For those of you in the United States, please accept my best wishes for a happy Thanksgiving. Thank you all for your continued support for The Clergy Letter Project. Together we are making a difference.


Michael Zimmerman
Founder and Executive Director
The Clergy Letter Project