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Celebrating Barbour's Legacy

--By Thomas Jay Oord

Berkeley, CA - Ian Barbour celebrated his 80th birthday in grand style. A group of friends and world-renown scholars gathered on his birthday in October to honor his legacy, a legacy of greatly shaping and contributing to the field of science and religion. Conference participants offered interpretations and appreciative comments pertaining to Barbour's contributions to the field.

The Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS) hosted this weekend celebration of Barbour's birthday and his work. Robert John Russell, founder and director of CTNS, organized the celebratory conference. "It is a pleasure for all of us to honor both the life and scholarship of Ian Barbour," said Russell, "and to thank him for his vision for and support of religion and science in general and CTNS in particular."

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, who is 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 his studies at Yale, he moved to Carleton College (Minnesota) where he taught in both the religion and physics departments. He has remained a professor at Carleton since.

Many participants at the conference noted that one of Barbour's earliest books, Issues in Science and Religion (1966) strongly influenced their thinking and decision to pursue scholarship in science and religion. Russell said that the book was for him "like a light in the darkness" when it appeared in print.
Russell spoke of Barbour as "the pioneer in the field." "In Ian's work," he said, "there is a basis for asymmetric relationship and influence between science and theology. Science can interpret theology and theology interprets science." In addition, Barbour has worked tirelessly over the years to include everyone at the science-and-religion table.

When reflecting on the beliefs he has come to affirm over the years, Barbour told participants that he affirms a theistic view of the world, while yet 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."

Participants mentioned Barbour's relation and indebtedness to process thought often during the celebratory conference. Barbour acknowledged this influence: "I find in Whitehead's scheme a multi-layered causality which includes divine action, and God's action is the same in kind as the action of other causes."

Participant Arthur Peacocke remarked, "when I read Barbour's thought, I find that I've been thinking in a way similar to process thought without even knowing it." However, Peacocke continued, "I don't affirm the 'orthodox' process metaphysics."

In the 1990s, Barbour was invited to give the prestigious Gifford Lectures in Scotland. He offered two books as the product of those lectures, including perhaps the most influential contemporary science-and-religion text in the world, Religion in an Age of Science. At last count, Barbour's books have been used in 7,500 science-and-religion courses around the world.

One of Barbour's most recognized contributions is his four-fold typology for how science and religion might be said to relate. During discussions at the celebration, Barbour remarked, "Although my four-fold typology is a bit simplistic and 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."

Barbour has also become known for advocating a theology of nature rather than a natural theology. By theology of nature, Barbour means that "theological beliefs are a part of the life of a practicing community, and a theology of nature refers to the community's theological beliefs about nature."

In 1999, the John Templeton Foundation awarded Barbour with the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. Festschrift contributor and theologian, John B. Cobb, Jr., nominated Barbour for the award. Barbour generously donated a large amount of this prize to CTNS so that the center's work would continue to influence the science-and-religion field for years to come.

Barbour reflected upon his own life at the conference birthday party honoring him. "I feel as though my life has been blessed by so many," he said. "My journey in science-and-religion has been an odyssey, by which I mean it has been an extended adventurous wandering." The entire field of science and religion has benefited from the Barbour odyssey.

Russell solicited essays from scholars for a festschrift book honoring Barbour. Ashgate Press will publish the festschrift in the spring of 2004 under the title, Fifty Years in Science and Religion: Ian G. Barbour and His Legacy. This will be the first ever science-and-religion festschrift volume.

Photos by Thomas Jay Oord.

More photos from Conference an events.


A different version of this story will appear in Research News and Opportunities in
Science and Theology.

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