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Bob Russell

Robert Russell is the founder and director of the Berkeley-based Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences - a leading center in the science/religion dialog. He is a physicist, a theologian, and also an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ.

Are Scientists and Theologians Covering Similar Ground?
Can Theology Inform Science?
On Creation and Evolution
On the Need for Dialogue
On the Complexity of the Dialogue
On the Need for Dialogue Between Scientists, Ethicists and Theologians

QUESTION: As a physicist who is also a theologian and a minister in the United Church of Christ, has it ever been a conflict for you to resolve the scientific and religious sides of your life?

DR. RUSSELL: Well, it has personally and professionally. I think the life of faith is always a voyage of discovery and despair. And you go through doubt and hope. That's the life given to anyone of a journey of faith. But in science there's always the criticism of others: Can you be a scientist and a Christian? At one point my professor said to me, you could make a good scientist some day, if you give up the Christianity nonsense. And I guess I held onto the nonsense, and I've become a scientist. Whether I'm a good one or not is a good question.

I was ordained the same day I got my Ph.D. in physics, ordained to the UCC and began this joint venture, professionally. And it's been quite an interesting journey since then.

QUESTION: Why do you see that it is important for our society to have scientists and theologians in dialogue with one another?

DR. RUSSELL: I think the dialogue between theology and science is very important for our society in a number of ways. Theologians have address themselves to questions of social justice, environmental need, human need, and to do that adequately, in our technological age, we need to know science and technology. You can't talk about human genetics, and human counseling on genetics, if you don't know evolutionary theory. And you can't really talk about the environment and the way it's interlaced with poverty if you don't understand both economic theory, and simple environmental issues. So those are laced for theologians and ethicists.

For scientists, science raises questions that are broader than science can answer. Some are philosophical, like why is there the Universe? Or why does science make sense? Or why should I do science, why is it a value? And some of them are moral, can I do science if it has certain moral circumstances? So science raises questions which it needs the moral and ethical and theological spheres to -- and philosophical spheres to give a context to. And theologians and ethicists need scientists for the grist of the mill for their discussions of questions that face society. We need each other.

QUESTION: How do you see a model for getting scientists and theologians together more?

DR. RUSSELL: I think part of the problem of getting scientists and theologians together is the need for the mediation of philosophy. That is, science really raises philosophical questions of a fundamental nature, why is the Universe contingent, and understandable by mathematics, and discoverable through external methods. And theology depends upon the notion of experience, and text, and tradition, and why those count as data for a theory, or why they're epistemic.

Well, these are philosophical questions on both sides. And so we need the three groups, the philosophers, the theologians and the scientists to get together, but also to get together realizing that it's not a turf war, we're not trying to replace one with the other one, or put solutions from one to the other one. We're trying to learn from each other. My motto is, if a theologian engages with a scientist and then decides that her own theological research is more fruitful from the interaction, we've succeeded. And if a scientist engages with a theologian and finds that interesting philosophical questions raised by her science are given a deeper perspective, or perhaps moral issues are given a deeper understanding, and she feels more confident about her science, and more interested in it personally, then we've succeeded.

QUESTION: One of the things that we have going on very strongly in the world at the moment is that many physicists are actually trying to talk about God. In some sense, physicists are being theologians, or quasi-theologians. How do you think people should take such statements by physicists - for example, when someone like Stephen Hawking makes a claim about God and his role in the Universe? How should we, the general public, interpret physicists statements about God?

DR. RUSSELL: I think it's an exciting time we're in, because scientists themselves often through no personal interest in faith, or commitment, are asking questions which are philosophical or theological in their origin. And that's fascinating, because the very fact that it's happening means the science, the two world's view of science and religion is breaking down, because scientists are asking questions. Now, the answers they give may be quite deep, or they may be uninformed, philosophically, they may not have thought about it a lot. I mean, scientists are busy doing science, often times they don't have time to really think through the philosophical and theological roots.

So I think the general public should recognize that a theological suggestion by a scientist doesn't carry a kind of warrantee - because a scientist is an expert at science. Once she or he is thinking theologically, it's an open question whether or not that's going to be an insightful solution. So my advice is, evaluate it, theologically, if it's a theological solution, whether the scientist says it or not. And if a theologian pronounces on science, be quite careful because she may not be skilled in science, may have no right saying it. So the way to do it is look at the credibility of the responses given, not the credentials of the person giving them.

QUESTION: Yet, we live in a world where theology has much less status in most people's minds than science. And so many people are prepared to listen to a scientist on a much wider range of things than they would listen to a theologian. Given that, how do you see people being enabled to really judge the theological claims that scientists make?

DR. RUSSELL: It's a tough challenge to see how people can be informed enough to decide for themselves to whether a distinguished scientist is offering a really interesting theological suggestion, or whether it's more or less generalized expertise without any warrant. I think the solution lies in the theological community itself becoming more articulate about its own views, theologically.

QUESTION: The message of your center is that science and religion are very compatible. But, there are definitely areas where they come up with conflicting answers. How do you think we should deal with issues when science and religion appear to be saying fundamentally different things?

DR. RUSSELL: Science and religion are not always compatible. In fact, they may be in conflict. And I think that's healthy. What we're looking for is not compatibility. We're looking for a mutually responsive partnership. In many partnerships there are disagreements. And you need to resolve the dispute somehow, and retain the partnership. That's the key. And one way to do it is to know what's worth arguing over, and what's a squabble because you're upset. So what's a valid conflict and what isn't?

You know, valid conflicts might be if a scientist really believes, for philosophical or scientific reasons, that a person is just a robot, or just matter in motion. There is nothing at all aesthetic or mental or affective about a person. Whereas, a religious person is committed to the notion that we're a total person - that our thoughts and hopes count, as well as our somatic disposition, that we're a psychosomatic entity. There's a real conflict. But in a positive way, those are like two research programs that are competing. I think we should let the conflict continue, and see which one is more fruitful.

Useless conflicts are the ones, I would say, which are generated when scientists argue that science proves atheism, you must be an atheist to be a scientist. Obviously it's a conflict, but it's senseless because it's not warranted. Science doesn't force you into atheism, although atheism is an interpretation of science. Well, so is Christianity. Another conflict is when Christians think that you must be a fundamentalist about scripture, and make a science out of it, and that science must compete with or displace genuine science, evolutionary science and cosmology. Again, it's a useless battle, because for 200 years we've known through Biblical criticism that the Bible can't be read that way - yet it's still relevant in our live.

So there are hopeless conflicts we should avoid, and there are genuine disagreements, which we have to have.

QUESTION: Do you think that we are heading into a new age, where people will once again see that science and religion are not in conflict?

DR. RUSSELL: I think we're entering into a very interesting period, where the relations between science and religion will be more multiform. We’re in a pluralistic culture, where the sciences themselves are changing by cultures, and we're in a pluralistic culture where religions are in dialogue. And so the actual relations between religion and science have become much more complex.

The role of women, for example, in science is a critical factor, that is altering its concepts and the way it's practiced. And the role of women in religion is also changing radically. Both of these will affect the nature of the relations between science and religion. So I actually see it as a much more plural form relationship in the future - including what I hope is mutual responsible interaction.

QUESTION: What do you see personally as the role of God in an evolutionary universe?

DR. RUSSELL: As a Christian I believe in God as creator, ongoing creator. How do I understand that in light of evolution? Of course the basic answer is that evolution is the way God does it. Evolution is God's instrument. All of nature articulates God's grace as creator and redeemer. So, evolution, which we discovered through science, is, in fact, the way God goes about being creator ongoing in nature.

Now, that, of course, leads to a variety of questions. Why is there so much death and suffering in nature? How does God redeem nature? How are we part of nature and yet transcend nature? Those are interesting questions, and they're theological questions, but they're also informed by science, by genetics, by anthropology. So the broad answer is, evolution is God's handiwork. We're knit together in our mother's womb, also in the womb of the earth, in the womb of the universe in a sense.

QUESTION: How has theology informed science from your point of view - and vice versa, how has science informed theology?

DR. RUSSELL: Well, its a very interesting question how theology might inform science. It's really done on a case-by-case basis. Take the great debates over quantum mechanics with Bohr, Einstein, and Schroedinger, and so on. Each of those folks took a particular point of view about what quantum mechanics should be, and formulated various theories. But if you look at the history of the debate, you can characterize their positions scientifically by their philosophical backgrounds, and by their religious roots in many cases. So, in fact, in a certain sense, the theological and philosophical precepts held by these individual scientists informed the way they looked at the world and the way they articulated it through their competing theories. So, in that sense, science and religion come together.

And you could also, of course, say that science has to inform theology. As a Christian or a Jew, if I'm going to talk about how as a human being I’m made in the image of God then I have to say well what is a human being? How do I understand it in any evolutionary context, through human genetics, through anthropology, through the whole sphere of evolution. So, I can't just talk about the Imago Dei, the image of God, without being informed by the questions of how that humanity in myself is understood by science. Likewise if I talk about God as the creator of the universe, then I mean the universe that I understand through Big Bang cosmology.

So, you really can't talk theologically in the vacuum, otherwise you ghettoize yourself. And you really can't talk scientifically in a vacuum, otherwise you rob yourself of the great inheritance of philosophical and theological wisdom out of which science arose and continues to flourish.

QUESTION: You might also say that we live in a culture which has been informed by religious traditions, and that science is embedded in those traditions, too.

DR. RUSSELL: Exactly.

QUESTION: One good example, it strikes me, is the tremendous belief that there is one ultimate, unifying set of equations - one theory - responsible for the whole universe. It seems to me that might not have happened in a polytheistic culture. Do you think our belief in one unifying theory is somehow a reflection of the fact that modern science evolved within monotheistic culture - the culture of the Jews, Muslims, and Christians?

DR. RUSSELL: The quest or the thirst for a unifying theory (which goes back to the Greeks and infuses science today), that really was a philosophical quest. And in some ways it's also a religious quest. In a sense, it's the move from polytheism to monotheism. And you might ask if you had a culture that was polytheistic would you have the same quest for a unifying theory? You might. But it's an interesting question to tie in the scientific thirst for unity and simplicity and a single explanation with the sort of spiritual quest for a causal explanation of the mystery of existence.

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Robert Russell on Creation and Evolution

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