Scholar Fridays is a weekly series on Bearings Online where we feature 2017-18 Resident Scholars. Susan Sink recently interviewed Rev. Ernest (Ernie) L. Simmons, Ph.D., who spent the spring semester at the Collegeville Institute as a Resident Scholar. Simmons is Professor of Religion at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. During his residency, he worked on a project titled “The Entangled Creation: Quantum Biology and Theology.” To view previous Scholar Friday interviews, click here.
Tell us about your project.
My work attempts to relate theology and science in a mutually beneficial way. Theological reflection must take the results of contemporary science seriously because it provides the clearest, current understanding of the world to which God is to be related. Because of the discoveries of quantum and relativity theories in physics in the last century, understanding of the world has shifted dramatically. Change rather than permanence has become foundational.
In my earlier work, I attempted to address this change by employing several quantum physics concepts such as entanglement (non-local, relational holism) and superposition (quantum coherence) as metaphors to talk about the understanding of God as Trinity in relation to the subatomic world. That work resulted in the book The Entangled Trinity: Quantum Physics and Theology.
Since that work, there is increasing evidence that these same quantum phenomena can possibly be “scaled up” to the biological level, creating the emerging field of quantum biology. Quantum phenomena may be essential for such diverse processes as photosynthesis and bird migration.
My work at the Collegeville Institute, tentatively entitled The Entangled Creation: Quantum Biology and Theology, takes up this new application of quantum theory, addressing the divine relationship at the biological level of creation. Through metaphorical appropriation of these concepts, Christian theology may be able to express the faith commitment that God is at work “in, with, and under” the biological processes of life in a way coherent with contemporary understanding. Such an “entangled” divine presence would help articulate not only the understanding of the humanity of Christ, but also God’s response to the world of suffering and death.
Who do you think are the best writers and titles on faith and science?
I definitely recommend Sir John Polkinghorne. He was a theoretical physicist until, at the age of fifty, he entered an Anglican seminary and became a priest. He writes short, very intelligible books on the relationship between religion and science. His most inclusive book is The Faith of a Physicist, where he follows the Nicene Creed and responds to the scientific questions within each article of the creed. Regarding biology, I think John Haught is excellent, especially God After Darwin and Deeper than Darwin. Here he demonstrates that far from being the enemy of theology, evolutionary theory can assist theology in connecting to the wider, rapidly changing, world.
Have you had any surprising conversations while at the Collegeville Institute? Or any ecumenical moments you’d like to share?
It has been a delight to be at the Collegeville Institute and to be a part of campus life for this past semester. In addition to the diversity of the scholars and students and faculty at the School of Theology, I also participated in the Triduum during Easter and found the Good Friday service with the Adoration of the Cross particularly moving. I appreciated the openness of my conversations with monks such as Father Anthony Ruff about the church and the challenges we all face in a time of rapid change.
You recently ended your service as director of the Dovre Center for Faith and Learning at Concordia College in Moorhead, where you served for almost 25 years. This looks to be an effort to maintain and strengthen Christian identity on campus, perhaps particularly Lutheran identity. How is the Dovre Center facing this mission?
Given the intrinsic, regular turnover in the student body and also, less regularly, faculty, the goal was to be intentional about programming to encourage the interaction of faith and learning on campus. Primarily focused on faculty development, our programming consisted of year-long mentoring workshops; support for faculty lectures and research on the interaction of faith and learning within their particular academic field; book and seminar discussions on relevant topics, especially by invited speakers; and conducting international travel seminars to Germany and Scandinavia so the faculty could better understand the history of the origins and traditions that formed the college.
The goal was to encourage faculty to reflect on their faith tradition, whatever that tradition might be, in relation to their academic work at the college, not to force them into one specific theological mold. As a college of the church, Concordia has the opportunity to raise questions of faith and values in a very public and intentional way, which is not always allowed at public research universities.
You are an ordained Lutheran pastor, a professor, and have administered a program on faith identity. How has your faith life changed over the years? How do you see it changing still?
I am an ordained Lutheran Pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, previously in the American Lutheran Church. I served parishes in Minnesota, Southern California (where I earned my Ph.D. in theology), and western North Dakota before coming to Concordia College. I have understood myself as a pastor called to the specialized ministry of education on behalf of the church.
My faith has, like many, always been a pilgrimage through life and the diverse issues that it raises. Over my time as both a professor and pastor I have felt my faith deepen as I came to wrestle with difficult intellectual issues and assisted students in their own struggles with faith and life. The presence of God’s grace has become more manifest to me. Having had two heart surgeries, I feel enormously blessed to still be alive and able to appreciate the beauty and natural grace within God’s creation. I think I have become increasingly thankful and hopefully more patient with others and especially with myself.
As I move toward retirement, I am intentionally trying to focus more on being and not simply doing. Most of my life has been focused on the latter from being a faithful husband (my wife and I have been married for 48 years) and father as well as professor. I have always been very task- and goal-oriented, which has kept me busier than perhaps I needed to be. For both pastors and professors, there is always the feeling that there is more one could do. This can become quite overwhelming unless one develops a healthy sense of one’s limits. Now I try to be gentle with myself and others and affirm the daily grace of life.