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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
Photos by Thomas Jay Oord.
More photos from Conference
A different version of this story will appear in Research
News and Opportunities in
Science and Theology.
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