A Brief History | Why It Must Be Done
Founded as a California non-profit corporation in 1981, the
Center is now a program of the Graduate
Theological Union, an ecumenical and interfaith consortium
of seminaries and centers
based in Berkeley, California. Interested individuals may
fully participate in the dialog by joining the Center and
receiving the Center's Theology and Science journal and other benefits.
The Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences: A Brief History
The Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences began as a personal vision of Robert John Russell. It became a reality and succeeded because there are so many others who care about the contemporary relation between theology and science. Three years after Robert began a teaching career in physics at Carleton College, he called upon some of his most respected mentors to share his idea about starting a center focused on the interaction of science and theology. The center would 1) train future theologians and church leaders in key relations between theology and science; 2) provide resources for meeting present needs in churches and denominations as they awaken to the challenges of ministry in an age of science and technology; and 3) provide a public forum for scientists, technologists, clergy, theologians, ethicists, and the general public to carry on responsible discussion of moral and spiritual issues. The group encouraged Bob's plan and agreed that the ecumenical climate of the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) made it an ideal location for such a center. Thus, in spite of personal sacrifice, Bob moved his family to the Bay Area in 1981, and the Center was born. In 1982 it was legally incorporated as a non-profit organization.
In twenty-six years the Center has graduated from a modest one-person staff with a small membership roster to a position of international leadership and resource among those who are involved in the interaction between theology and the natural sciences. Over the years CTNS has relied on the generous gifts of financial supporters which underwrote numerous projects. In 1989, CTNS began a long-term collaborative research project with the Vatican Observatory which involved an international team of philosophers, theologians, physicists and biologists. From this 10-year collaborative project five research-level volumes on divine action have been written and published. (Chapter summaries are available at: www.ctns.org/publications.html ).
In 1991 the National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded a CTNS-sponsored three-year research project on ethical and theological implications of the Human Genome Initiative. This first NIH-sponsored project awarded to a theological organization, supported cutting-edge research and resulted in the book, Genetics: Issues of Social Justice , edited by the project's principal investigator, Ted Peters, an affiliated faculty of CTNS.
One year later, The John Templeton Foundation supported a modest summer program for clergy, and their support quickly grew into larger multi-year international programs. A new three-year program to bring senior-level scientists into dialogue with religion was designed, Science and the Spiritual Quest . This project continued and expanded for four more years, broadening into the major continents and religions of the world. The CTNS-initiated Book Prize Program to acknowledge the best books published thus far in science and religion was also supported by this foundation. In 1998, CTNS was awarded a four-year grant to run the Science and Religion Course Program which offered dozens of workshops in pedagogy and awarded grant prizes to develop hundreds of new courses in science and religion by professors in universities, colleges and seminaries internationally.
CTNS has faithfully pursued three program areas over its history, and it has steadily grown in each one. Professor Russell, as Professor of Theology and Science, teaches and advises both doctoral and seminary students at the GTU. The Center's teaching program also has extended to local churches and groups through adult education classes and workshops. Dr. Russell has guided numerous GTU students, many of whom are now tenured professors in colleges, universities and seminaries, thereby expanding the dialogue to future clergy, faculty and lay persons. In 2004 the Center was able to establish and award an annual graduate student fellowship to help support GTU doctoral students based on their academic potential. CTNS has awarded six fellowships so far, renamed the Charles H. Townes Graduate Student Fellowship in 2007.
Second, the Center has an extensive programmatic commitment to research. At least once a year the J. K. Russell Fellowship brings a distinguished scholar to the GTU community for a research conference, and to stimulate the existing research activity underway among GTU faculty and students alike. In 2004, the Center established the J. K. Russell Fellowship fund to support this annual research program.
Third, the Center is involved in communications and public service. This comes chiefly through its public forums and workshops; through its online publication, the CTNS News ; the quarterly peer-reviewed journal of scholarly articles and book reviews, Theology and Science ; and the CTNS website with its many articles and academic resources. CTNS members receive these many publications, and numerous other resources are on the CTNS website for the public: www.ctns.org. Dr. Russell has participated in video documentary projects, television broadcasts and radio interviews, and the Center has played a role in public education issues related to science and theology. These three pillars of teaching, research and public service continue today to support the mission of CTNS: to promote the creative mutual interaction between theology and the natural sciences.
Back to top.
Bridging Science and Religion: Why it Must
By Robert John Russell
1. Historical roots and the contemporary problem.
Though the problematic relations between science and religion
can be found throughout contemporary Western culture, their
roots lie in the radical changes in the relation between theology
and culture in the West since the Enlightenment and the rise
of modern science. Still the backdrop to these changes lies
more remotely in the ancient Near East and the monotheistic
faith it produced. To understand why there should be a 'CTNS'
we must recall this age which, though ancient historically,
continues to reach out and to shape the present epoch.
Since Biblical days, Jews and Christians have believed in
a God who is the Creator of all that is and the Redeemer of
the oppressed, the sick, the dying and the forgotten. From
the ancient Psalmist who prayed for divine aid to the faithful
who cry out today at synagogue and church for God to hear
their prayers, the people of the Sacred texts believe in a
God who acts in history and in nature with justice, mercy
and love. It is the LORD God who brought the people of Israel
out of the land of Egypt, out of bondage and into the promised
land, and again who brought them out of exile in Babylon to
rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. It is this same God whom
Christians find incarnate in the flesh of the Nazarene and
revealed in his life, death and resurrection, the same God
who established the Church at Pentecost and who will guide
history until the close of the age.
Over the years, faith in God has developed in the context
of, and in critical tension with, the prevailing philosophies
of the West. For theology is the critical reflection on religious
experience, sacred text and tradition, undertaken in the context
of the prevailing culture. Thus we have seen the influence
of Platonism and Gnosticism in such early theologians as Irenaeus,
Athanasius, Augustine and Philo. We have seen Aquinas and
the Scholastics of the High Middle Ages wrestle with the science
and philosophy of Aristotle. Though the great Protestant reformers
--- Luther, Calvin --- were primarily concerned with matters
internal to church theology, the Enlightenment philosophy
of Descartes, Hume and most importantly Kant has had a massive
influence on the thought of both Protestants and Catholics.
One need only think of Schleiermacher, Ritschl, Harnack and
Troeltsch in the nineteenth century, and Barth, the Niebuhrs,
Tillich, or Catholic theologians such as Rahner and Lonergan
in the early to mid twentieth. Now contemporary thinkers in
Black, feminist and other liberation theologies, have continued
the dialogue with ongoing trends in philosophy and the social
and political sciences.
Surely the new philosophies of the Enlightenment, with their
turn to the subject, their dependence on autonomous reason,
and their rejection of authority and text, radically transformed
Christian theology across the board. Yet many now believe
that the greatest factor in shaping contemporary Christian
theology, including even its foundations in Biblical hermeneutics
and theological method, has been the rise of modern science
in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Although we often
think that the Reformation signaled the great divide in Christendom
(second only to the East/West schism in 1054 A.D.), it was
the impact of modern science --- Copernican astronomy, Newtonian
physics and Darwinian biology --- and its interpretation via
Enlightenment philosophy that separates modern Christianity
from the Biblical worldview and the rich heritage of Patristic,
Medieval and Reformation thought.
Faith that God acts in history and in nature, belief that
God is the creator of the world, trust that God's providence
sustains life and guides destiny --- these beliefs had once
been the foundations for our understanding of the world in
which we lived out our lives and of the world beyond in which
we would meet our eternal destiny. A God in whom "we
live and move and have our being," as Saint Paul wrote,
made sense when the heavens wrapped around the world and humans
were a part of a cosmic drama that included all of creation,
when history had a beginning and marched towards a future
of fulfillment, when life was a divine and sacred gift and
when eternity awaited those who worked for justice with compassion.
The rise of modern science and its interpretation by the
Enlightenment philosophies of reductionism, materialism and
naturalism, brought an end to all that. With Copernicus our
universe was inverted, the earth cast adrift from its Ptolemaic
moorings into the unending night of a vast and trackless universe.
With Newton this living universe became an unthinking machine
whose fully predictable, deterministic, clock-work regularity
seemed to leave no room for us to act, let alone for God.
The "age of reason" replaced the authority of revelation
and church as a surer guide to knowledge and behavior. The
world became ordinary and the miraculous was relegated to
folklore, best forgotten. By the nineteenth century the age
of the earth had been multiplied from mere thousands to now
countless millions of years. The intricacies of organic life,
which had once seemed the product of a loving God, were being
explained by the operations of Darwinian natural selection
and `blind chance.' Even the inner realm of the mind, where
moral and spiritual questions are engaged by conscience and
piety, was re-understood in mundane terms as the workings
of repressed sexuality or the arrogant projections of our
By the end of the nineteenth century, some theologians had
found ways to accommodate their ideas to biology, physics
and cosmology, while for others, outright conflict was declared,
as scientific methods of studying history, text and nature
were seen as invading the sacred domains of God's action in
Scripture and the world. Still for the majority of people
in the pulpit or in the pew, science and religion seemed to
be irrelevant. We might experience life as wondrous, passionate,
full of colors and hopes, but this subjectivity had no counterpart
in the realm of objective, scientific knowledge and sterile,
inanimate matter. Instead nature became a barren landscape
lacking any ultimate part in the eternal destiny awaiting
the faithful. As for this world, we humans were left as "strangers
in a strange land," concerned with social, political,
economic and spiritual transformation, but with our religion
--- the passion of our total being for our ground and goal
--- cut off from our ancient evolutionary roots in earth and
cosmos. In the process the environment --- that transitory
stage for the only real drama, human history --- was left
to our use. Combined with the burgeoning power brought by
scientific knowledge, the Biblical role of dominion fell quickly
into domination. Since ethics was a matter reserved for one's
human neighbor, the environment was a ready target for exploitation.
The future might point to heaven, but it was a heaven into
which people would be taken, not a heaven which would descend
to envelope the cosmos and redeem all that exists. It is thus
not hard to see in the combination of Western materialism
and technological power one of the principal roots of the
ecological crisis which now threatens to engulf the world.
Religion today, especially in secular American culture, is
even further marginalized. Nearing the close of the twentieth
century, with the shock of two world wars, the Holocaust,
and countless other atrocities, in a climate of religious
pluralism which seems to relativize any claims to truth, with
a population explosion driving human and environmental misery,
with even "Earth in the Balance" as our Vice-President
has written, can we turn once again to those once mighty streams
of wisdom and learning flowing out of the Biblical and historical
religious communities for credible inspiration and valid convictions?
To so many today, these traditions of Biblical faith, so essential
to worship and prayer, seem practically meaningless in the
everyday affairs of a `world come of age.'
For ours is an age of the Apollo and the micro-computer,
Einstein and Crick, the Space Shuttle and the artificial heart,
DNA and relativity. Can the religions of the West still make
sense in such an age? When we look to the heavens we picture
the universe of Star Trek, a space filled with billions of
galaxies, each with billions of stars and life forms in countless
numbers. What `cosmic' significance can there be, then, to
homo sapiens and the religions we have spawned? If most scientists
see life as a complex but inevitable biological product of
a fertile planet like ours, a product without a goal foreseen
by a Creator, how can theologians claim that life is a divine
gift of the Spirit? If scientists seem to discover a natural
cause for every effect in the world, if everything from a
thunderstorm to cancer, from a supernova to childbirth happens
because of a natural cause, how can we ever again imagine
God as a free agent influencing the course of human and natural
history? At worship we might speak about God acting in the
world as Creator and Redeemer, but is it more than mere equivocation?
2. Ground-breaking changes in science.
Yet in the midst of what could be the sunset of Western religion
after three thousand years of light, astonishing discoveries
in the natural sciences and equally impressive changes in
Western philosophy are re-opening the grounds for dialogue
with theology. Relativity theory, quantum mechanics, Big Bang
cosmology, chaos and complexity, human genetic engineering,
transfinite mathematics and artificial intelligence are challenging,
even tearing down, the rigid and simplistic Enlightenment
assumption that the world is a closed network of cause and
effect, an autonomous machine made entirely of tiny bits of
matter in motion. In its place, the visions of nature suggested
by the discoveries of Einstein, Heisenberg, Hubble, Hawking,
Godel, Watson and Crick, though widely differing among each
other, point in concert to a nature more open, subtle, numinous,
inter-connected than we have known for centuries. In the emerging
worldviews of the "new science" our existence as
evolutionary creatures gifted with life, self-consciousness
and moral agency no longer separates us from the universe
From Big Bang cosmology we are discovering that the universe
is ripe for life, mind and spirit, and that, like all things,
it too may have had a beginning and may someday end. From
quantum physics we are learning that nature is open, inter-connected
and flexible, and that the future is something we can affect
by our choices and actions. Studies of chaos and complexity
in chemical and biological systems demonstrate the astonishing
ability of nature for self-organization and the temporal and
historical character of all natural processes. With the discovery
of the genetic code, molecular biology has uncovered the link
sought by Darwin between all life on earth, the key to biological
evolution. This key now bears the potential for profoundly
altering our ability to cure human disease, but it brings
the ominous specter of "playing God" by affecting
the secrets of human nature. And our growing understanding
of the fragile nature of global ecology, while underscoring
our unity with nature, challenges us to accept our responsibility
towards the future of all life on earth.
Ours, then, is a universe in which we once again have a place,
an origin, and for which we can speak to and for a cosmic
destiny. Once again, perhaps for the first time in three centuries,
we humans are finding ourselves at home in the universe. We
are able once again to speak of the numinous quality of the
universe, to understand the joy and sorrow of all mortal life
as a part of an overarching cosmic story, and therein to detect
the connection between all of nature and its divine source
known to us through the self-revelation of God. Such an occasion
demands a new rapprochement between the discoveries of the
natural sciences and the spiritual journeys narrated by religion
and reflected upon critically by theology and ethics.
3. Vast new insights in philosophy and theology.
We are also living through an astonishing continental shift
in philosophy and theology. We are witnessing the end of the
modern period which began in the Enlightenment writings of
Descartes, Hume and Kant, and which heard its death bell in
the writings of Whitehead, Wittgenstein, Quine, and Heidegger.
In particular, within recent philosophy of science, we have
seen the end of a naive empiricism brought about through the
writings of Popper, Hanson, Hempel, Kuhn, Polanyi, Toulmin,
Holton, Feyerabend, Lakatos, and others. Whereas we once thought
that we could appeal unambiguously to sense-data, we now know
that all data is theory-laden. We once thought that science
constructed its theories inductively out of such data and
that it made progress by a simple extension of its basic theories.
We now know that the route between theory and evidence is
much more complex and circular, and that progress sometimes
comes in massive and discontinuous shifts in our entire worldview.
We once thought that the choice between competing theories
was entirely rational, that consensus could be achieved quickly
among all objective inquirers. We now know that the choice
between theories is influenced by metaphysical, aesthetic,
and even religious presuppositions held by scientists, and
that consensus is seldom achieved without remainder.
Within the past three decades, philosophers of religion have
noticed the similarities now showing up between their field
and science. Particularly because of the pioneering work of
such scholars as Ian Barbour and Arthur Peacocke, and more
recently by philosophers, scientists and theologians such
as Nancey Murphy, Holmes Rolston, Tom Torrance, John Polkinghorne,
Nicholas Wolterstorff, and many more, we now realize that
science and religion are not at opposite poles of objectivity
and subjectivity. Instead they form a continuum in which the
insights, methods and discoveries of each can be shared fruitfully
with the other, without threatening their separate foundations
and central beliefs about the world. Similarly the theological
community per se is moving out of the shadow of a "two
worlds" approach to religion and science. The ecumenical
movement between Protestants and Catholics and the inter-religious
context in which Christian theology now encounters other world
religions are stimulating new openness to the hypothetical
character of religious doctrines and the need for self-critical
reflection in light of the prevailing culture---including
4. An era of new possibilities for interaction.
Because of this, we are moving into an era of radically new
possibilities. Religion once again needs the rigors of science
to rid it of superstition, for religion inevitably makes truth
claims about this world that "God so loves," claims
which must be weighed against the grueling tribunal of evidence.
More surprisingly, science needs religion to expose its pretensions
to absolute authority and unique and unequivocal truth. The
universe is more mysterious and more infinite that either
science or religion can ever fully disclose, and the urgencies
of humankind and the natural environment demand an honest
interaction between the discoveries of nature, the empowerment
afforded us by appropriate technology, the inherent value
of the environment, and the demand that we commit ourselves
to a future in which all species can flourish. We can no longer
afford the stalemate of past centuries between theology and
science, for this leaves nature Godless and religion worldless.
When this happens, our culture, hungering after science for
something to fill the void of its lost spiritual resources,
is easy prey to New Age illusions wrapped in science-sounding
language---the cosmic self-realization movement' and
the wow of physics---while our de-natured
religion, attempting to correct social wrong and to provide
meaning and support for life's journey, is incapable of making
its moral claims persuasive or its spiritual comfort effective
because its cognitive claims are not credible. Nor can we
allow science and religion to be seen as adversaries, for
they will either be locked in a conflict of mutual conquest,
such as "creation science" which costs religion
its credibility or "scientific materialism" which
costs science its innocence.
Instead it is time to begin a new and creative interaction
between theology and science---an interaction which honors
and respects the integrity of each partner, an interaction
in which convictions are held self-critically and honest engagement
is prized, an interaction which focuses specifically on the
most rigorous theories of mainstream natural science and the
most central positions of mainline theology, an interaction
which aims at serving the broader concerns of the global human
and ecological communities. This, then, is the setting for
the birth of CTNS.
Robert John Russell
Founder and Director, CTNS
Ian G. Barbour Professor of Theology and Science, Graduate Theological Union
© Copyright, The Center for Theology and the Natural