Godfather of Science and Religion Dies

January 1st, 2014 / 3 Comments

My friend, Ian Barbour, died recently. He was 90 years old. Widely considered a groundbreaking giant in the science-and-religion dialogue, Ian was especially kind to me. I consider him the godfather of contemporary science and religion scholarship.

Barbour’s contributions to science and religion began in the 1950s. He earned a Ph.D. in physics at the University of Chicago early in that decade. While a Ph.D. student, he studied under Enrico Fermi, perhaps best known for designing the world’s first nuclear reactor.

After teaching physics at the undergraduate level, Barbour enrolled at Yale Divinity School to study theology and ethics. Upon completing studies at Yale, he moved to Carleton College (Minnesota) where he taught in both the religion and physics departments. He remained a professor at Carleton throughout his career, writing or editing sixteen books during his tenure.

I was first exposed to Barbour’s work as a graduate student, both at Nazarene Theological Seminary and Claremont Graduate University. His books took science and theology seriously. I read his classic, Issues in Science and Religion (1966), which offered categories of thought still employed by many working in science-and-theology research today.

After completing my Ph.D., I began teaching at Eastern Nazarene College and was invited by Karl Giberson to write for the newspaper he edited and was eventually called “Science and Theology News.” My first major story for the newspaper was an interview of Ian Barbour, whom I called the “Godfather of the Science and Religion Dialogue.”

More recent students of science and religion cut their teeth in Barbour’s 1989 Gifford Lectures presented in his book, Religion in an Age of Science. At last count, this book and others Barbour wrote have been used in 7,500 science-and-religion courses around the world. I have recommended it to many of my own students.

Among influential ideas he proposed in Religion and the Age of Science were four ways science and religion relate: 1) they conflict, 2) they are independent of one another, 3) they are in dialogue, or 4) they can be integrated. Ian was particularly interested in the possibility of the integration relationship. Later in his career, Barbour remarked, “Although my four-fold typology cannot account for all ways to talk about the relation between science and religion, I believe it remains very valuable as a first-cut. It is a pedagogical tool to begin to look at the science-and-religion landscape.”

In his book, When Science Meets Religion, Barbour contrasts natural theology with his preferred view, what he calls a “theology of nature.” Natural theology attempts to prove or establish the existence of God using empirical science. By contrast, says Barbour, “proponents of a theology of nature draw extensively from a historic tradition and a worshipping community. But they are willing to modify some traditional assertions in response to the findings of science.”

In 1999, the John Templeton Foundation awarded Barbour with the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. Barbour gave a sizable portion of the award money to the Center for Theology and Natural Sciences in Berkeley, California. I attended a birthday party for Ian at the center soon after. Barbour told participants that he affirms a theistic view of the world, while affirming evolution, Big Bang cosmology, and most other major scientific hypotheses. “The theistic framework I endorse includes order, novelty, and chance,” he said. “It includes purpose, but in an open-ended design for life.”

Barbour was one of the clearest representatives of process theology’s contributions to the science and theology integration. Although not as well known, his book, Nature, Human Nature, and God, was one of his best and offered a strong integration of theology and science from a process perspective.

I am particularly fond of his essay in a book edited by John Polkinghorne, The Work of Love: Creation as Kenosis. Barbour offers five reasons Christians should reject a deterministic God and accept instead that God’s power has limits. “To say that the limitation of God’s power is a metaphysical necessity rather than a voluntary self-limitation,” he argues, “is not to say that it is imposed by something outside God.  This is not a Gnostic or Manichean dualism in which recalcitrant matter restricts God’s effort.” 

A festschrift in Barbour’s honor, Fifty Years in Science and Religion, offers a taste of Barbour’s influence upon scholars of science and religion. Edited by Robert Russell, the book’s contributors are among the leading voices at work in the field today. Barbour offers an autobiographical “Personal Odyssey” in the festschrift, and I recommend it as guide to how Ian saw his work contributing to the science-and-theology interface.

There is much more that I could say about Ian. He was especially kind to me, in private correspondence and personal meetings as well as in public endeavors. He was especially encouraging earlier in my career, and his encouragement bolstered my confidence as a scholar.

For that and for his life in general, I am so very grateful. I will miss him.

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Alan Tjeltveit

He was also profoundly influential in my thinking, although I didn’t start reading him until after I graduated from the other Northfield, Minnesota, college. His articulation of critical realism is another important contribution that I hope will become more prominent as we enter the post-postmodern age.

Greg Cootsona

Nicely done, Tom. A great tribute to a seminal figure.

Paul ALlen

Great summary Tom. I benefited from Barbour immensely as a go-to text for natural theology, since his Religion in an Age of Science was the publication of one series of Giffords. It was a nice way to contrast other approaches that came from Polkinghorne and McMullin. It amazed me then (and still does) that he was able to remain on good terms with so many people of vastly different persuasions. For myself, it is riskier to proclaim limits on God’s power than to suggest a recalcitrance on the part of nature. So, on that question, I will side with Paul and Augustine (even the latter’s Manichaean tinges, which aren’t really Manichaeism but more an outgrowth of his christology)than with process thought. But Barbour’s irenicism will always stay with me as a style to be imitated.

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