God, and the Details

November/December 2000

Reading time min

The center's logo looks like a broken Golden Gate Bridge: ragged spans of metal hang precariously over water. In truth, it's a 1936 photo of the bridge being built. But the ambiguity is appropriate, because the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences aims to bridge an intellectual gulf by tearing down the notion that science and religion are incompatible.

Bob Russell is the physicist and theologian who founded the Berkeley-based academic center in 1981. "I've been a scientist since I was a kid with telescopes and chemical sets," Russell says. "I've also been involved in the church since childhood. What drives me is this desire to bring these two essential parts of my life together."

At Stanford, where he majored in physics while taking "every class offered" in religious studies, Russell lamented the lack of a curriculum that would merge his interests: "I just wasn't satisfied with the two-world culture." After graduation, he continued to pursue parallel paths, earning an MS and PhD in physics and master's degrees in theology and divinity. He got his physics doctorate, in fact, on the day he was ordained in the United Church of Christ. Then he taught at Carleton (Minn.) College with Ian Barbour, a pioneer in the academic pairing of science and religion, before heading west three years later to found his own center.

The ecumenical institute, affiliated with UC-Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union,organizes scholarly workshops and holds forums on science and faith. Russell directs the center and teaches at the Theological Union. "He's respected by both scientists and theologians," says Barbour. "Because he has degrees in both fields, he reflects the integrity of each."

The marriage of religion and science, though considered something of a novelty today, is historically nothing new. Before the 16th century, when Copernicus shook things up with his heliocentric model of the cosmos, scientific theory mirrored religious thought. Russell points to Renaissance art and Dante's Divine Comedy as profound reflections of that blend. Today, he believes, the world is beginning to move back toward holism, this time with a more enlightened scientific view.

"Human genetics is expanding our understanding of our embeddedness in nature," he says. "At the same time, it underscores our transcendence, our freedom from and responsibility for that ecological web of life."

Russell is writing a book exploring concepts like resurrection and eternal life from a physics perspective. "How does that [religious] language transform itself into the language of galaxies, stars and planets--and yet keep central the hope of Christian faith?" he asks. "Science raises ethical and philosophical questions that deserve a serious response from living faith communities. Those communities aren't just otherworldly or mystical; they're engaged with life-and-death questions at the everyday level."

--Christina McCarroll, '00

You May Also Like

© Stanford University. Stanford, California 94305.