Obituary: Ian Barbour, pioneer in integrating faith and science

  • Article by: PAMELA MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 4, 2014 - 4:47 PM

Ian Barbour, a theologian and physicist who was an internationally revered pioneer in inspiring dialogue between scientists and people of faith, died Dec. 24 at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis. The Carleton College professor emeritus, who was 90, had suffered a stroke a few days before at his home in Northfield.

Personally, professionally and philosophically, Barbour “was always interested in weaving together elements that were juxtaposed but rarely talked to each other,” said his friend and colleague Bardwell Smith, a Carleton professor emeritus of religion and Asian studies. “He was a catalyst at getting people to see that if they approach their discipline in isolation and without conversation, that’s not good. And people really responded, because they had a hunger to connect.”

In 1999, Barbour was awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, placing him in the company of such luminaries as the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa.

He was born in Beijing to missionary parents, said his son John, of Dundas, Minn., a professor of religion at St. Olaf College in Northfield. After Barbour’s family left China in 1931, he attended schools in England and the United States, earning a physics degree from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania in 1943.

During World War II, he spent three years as a conscientious objector, fighting forest fires in Oregon and working in a psychiatric hospital in North Carolina.

He earned a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago, then taught physics at Kalamazoo College in Michigan. But theology soon came his abiding interest, so he headed for Yale Divinity School.

In 1955, Barbour came to Carleton, where he taught physics and religion before moving to religion full time. He retired in 1986, but continued to add to his body of work, which included 16 books and countless articles and lectures.

His expertise also included ethics in science, but it was his work in bridging science and religion that brought him the most acclaim. His nominator for the Templeton Prize wrote: “No contemporary has made a more original, deep and lasting contribution toward the needed integration of scientific and religious knowledge and values.” Barbour donated most of the $1.24 million prize to the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley, Calif.

His work was not without controversy — many intellectuals argue against giving religion any credence, while others say it should remain wholly apart from science. But Barbour won their respect with his gentle, persistent argument that scientists and believers should at least talk.

In 2005, he wrote a letter to the Star Tribune that summarized his view. “Media coverage has focused on the debate between two extremes — those who believe in God but not evolution, and those who believe in evolution but not God,” he wrote. “It has virtually ignored the people who affirm both God and evolution. Some people defend both science and religion by keeping them in watertight compartments. … Alternatively, we could say that evolution is God’s way of creating. We know that the universe is more immense, more varied and more amazing than our ancient ancestors could have imagined. Let us be open to what we can learn from both science and religion without assuming that we have to choose between them.”

Despite his achievements and global influence, Barbour remained “a humble and kind man, a gifted listener and learner who never inserted his own ego into a conversation,” Smith said. “Along with the extraordinary quality of his mind, he had a great generosity of spirit.”

Said his son: “I see a connection between his intellectual approach to science and religion and his gentle temperament. Many people see the life of the mind as opposed to faith, but he thought the religious search takes place through questioning and intellectual striving, and that it’s not anti-faith to raise critical questions.”

Barbour’s wife of 64 years, Deane, died in 2011. In addition to his son John, he is survived by another son, David, of Richfield; daughters Blair of Oak Park, Ill., and Heather of Arlington, Va.; a brother, Hugh, of Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., three grandchildren and a great-grandson. A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Jan. 18 at the Carleton College Chapel.

Pamela Miller • 612-673-4290

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