This is an article written by Rev. Hugh Burroughs which was in the recent "CTNS
News". Uploaded here by permission by Burgy.
Science and Religion:
One Day in the Summer of 1995, I Watched Something Promising Occur
by Hugh Burroughs
Few people teach in the area known as Science and Religion. Precious is
the shared methodology and knowledge base among those who do. What if five
courses in science and religion,two for universities, two for colleges and one
for seminaries,were modeled? What if persons were encouraged to submit papers
for such courses and from those papers awards were given? What if those
science-and-religion authors were brought together for a conference? Such a
program was conceived of and underwritten by The John Templeton Foundation and
organized by The Center for Theology and The Natural Sciences in Berkeley.
Late in June 1995, the conferees were seated in the Graduate Theological
Union's spacious board room,twenty-nine men and four women, people of differing
backgrounds and levels of expertise in the relationship of science and religion,
contrasting perspectives on faith and a spectrum of ages. Yet each was an
accomplished thinker. They were gathered at this, one of five such conferences
being offered this year and next in the United States, Canada and the United
Kingdom, designed to begin a new association among persons who teach and do
research in this field.
Sir John's concept was clear, the hopes of the planners high, the
potential benefit immense. Yet the question remained: Could these
plaidly-patterned, short-sleeved scientists; suited administrators; red striped,
long -sleeved philosophers; blue buttoned-down educators and more individually
attired women conferees, converse across boundaries of geography, culture and
field specialization? Would the conference work?
At the beginning of the day, a most encouraging sign of potential unity
was observable as people gathered around a coffee-tea-pastry table,a shared
affinity for scuffed rubber-soled walking shoes. The morning session began with
a lecture on the state of correlative research in theoretical physics and
systematic theology. Dr. Robert Russell, founding Director of the Center for
Theology and Natural Science, was the speaker. He kept an overhead projector
close at hand as plastic transparencies of diagrams, charts and four-color
squiggles illustrative of scientific theories and theological systems, appeared
on the screen. Russell took conference participants through a theoretical
"state-of-the-art science-and-religion in a post-modern world" overview,
sometimes racing through concepts he deemed as pedestrian, yet whose very
existence left dropped jaws among participants.
In tracing the rarely parallel worlds of scientific theory and theology,
Russell wrestled with his own thinking (referring to the presentation as a
"work in progress"), encompassing questions of an open or closed universe with
delineations of metaphysics and Thomistic and Process theologies. He seemed
always in pursuit of the question, "How and where does God act in a universe
scientists now describe?"
Then, time for questions. Could the assembled people respond to
Russell's points from their separate fields and be understood by each other?
Slowly at first, with technical questions, discussion ensued.
"Is religion really based upon a pre-scientific understanding of our
world?" "Does the more we find out scientifically leave less room for religion?"
"Isn't theology always in retreat to the areas into which scientific inquiry has
not yet advanced?" "What's the point of pursuing discussions we know are
incomplete and may prove to be false or even meaningless as our knowledge
grows?" asked one inquisitive participant. "No, it is not retreat but new
descriptions. All theories eventually die, all are eventually found false,"
responded Russell, "but what we will contribute, what we will learn in their
pursuit, that is important."
Positive response to Russell's presentation was reflected in
participants' willingness to share in the discussion. A college biology
professor, acknowledging that she was going out of her area and into theology
(teleology and hermeneutics, to be precise), opened wide the door for close
sharing. The differing levels of understanding of the topic, vocation and
experience became not barriers but allies in a common search. Each person
brought a tool to the project and a gift to the party and each was valued. The
questions and comments began to come not so much from one's speciality as from
the questioner's personal journey.
"It seems to me," said one member, "that we must bring the Bible into
this discussion. While we must pursue matters scientifically to establish
physical laws of the universe and to understand them, it seems to me that we
must begin with the resurrection. We must begin at the empty tomb."
"Hard philosophy, not science, is the difficulty with theism in
post-modern schemes," said another conferee. "I believe," said another, "that
new values must be found to address the technology which threatens to overwhelm
us." One person gently chided the group about parochial reference points:
"Remember that what we are talking about is worldwide, not just something that
affects an American society."
I came to realize that I was witnessing something remarkable.
Theologians and scientists have talked for years at high-level gatherings.
Groups of church people have gathered on Sunday evenings in social halls to
listen to and explore thoughts on science and religion. What was important in
this conference was that people who teach in widely different disciplines were
engaging each other in collegial conversation. Something new was beginning
here. A new community was being formed; a particular community of people of
social, scientific and religious disciplines was being significantly widened.
The hospitality which marked the entire conference continued with a
festive Mexican luncheon delivered by CTNS staff members. Nourished by black
beans, chicken enchiladas and cornhusked tamales, this international collection
of teachers rapidly broke into small groups and talked, often gesturing across
the panorama of the San Francisco Bay revealed through the board room's windows.
I was reminded of the abundance and privilege of the setting.
The afternoon was devoted to presentations by David Cole and Ted Peters
on the Human Genome Project. Dr. Cole began with a full introduction to the
project which brought all attendees along,human genome: the idea of trying to
chart the entire chemical structure that is passed from one generation to the
next, how that information might be useful to us, the progress we have made and
the problems encountered. The initial project started in 1991 as a 15-year
project to map the entire genome and to locate markers in that structure. The
retired professor of molecular biology, at the University of California,
Berkeley, walked through the technical aspects and human challenges involved in
this extraordinary project.
Dr. Ted Peters, Director of the Theological and Ethical Implications of
the Human Genome Project and Lutheran systematic theologian, led the group
through six emotional CTNS-NIH Research Project questions and eight emerging
conceptual and ethical issues resulting from the on-going colloquy of the
project. Questions bubbled from around the table: "Whose genome are you
mapping?" "What is a gene anyway?" "I'd like to add a ninth issue to your list,
Ted" "The mother has the disease in her gene, the father in his. Nine embryos
are fertilized with the disease gene removed. The baby is born without the risk
of inheriting or passing along this dreaded disease. Wouldn't we all agree that
this is wonderful ... yet, where are the limits? Have we affected other parts of
the whole human? What about the other eight embryos not used?" "How can we
approach meaningful discussions on this,especially given the pace of modern
technology?" "How can churches respond and why? I don't believe, for instance,
that there is a solely Presbyterian answer..."
Then came dinner, the room now transformed with white tablecloths
and flowers, backlit by the summer reds of sunset on the Pacific Coast of North
America. The setting,the sight and sounds of the conversations around the
tables, encouraged optimism. Perhaps it is just possible for us to share in a
new world-wide discussion on how religious questions interact with scientific
ones. Such dialogues, introduced to us by scholars who take teaching seriously,
may be a real pathway to lead us from the morass into which the human condition
is plunging in these very last years of the Christian second millennium.
Where will this emerging scientific method take us? What it all means
to us has been whispered in conversations carried on in churches and cloisters
over the centuries. How may we think about God with this new information, and
about relationships with each other? Dr. Cole had remarked in the afternoon,
"Stopping technology is not an option for us, you see. What we will do with it
Is there considerable work to do, even at the most basic level of
understanding the language used by science and the language used by religion?
Certainly. Yet, CTNS and other centers have been at this task long enough now
to offer solid conceptual beginnings for cross-discipline conversations. Such
conversations may now turn to inform a larger audience of the academy, ecclesia,
public policy and business.
The vision of the conference was to convey the state of research
thinking to faculty at varying levels of educational institutions, thus widening
the discussion with varying disciplines. Practically, may we accrue a body of
accurate information and then encourage its dissemination over a globe in the
area of science and religion? How might this be done with the accelerating pace
of knowledge compiled by academic research, competitive realities of business
and religious communities? The 1995 CTNS Templeton Science-Religion Course
Program made a solid contribution in furthering understanding and conversation
in this still new field.
The Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences
(An Affiliate of the Graduate Theological Union)
2400 Ridge Road
Berkeley, CA 94709 USA