Noted physicist, UCC member Ian Barbour linked science and religion

Noted physicist, UCC member Ian Barbour linked science and religion

A notable physics scholar and member of the United Church of Christ is being remembered for his tremendous impact in bringing together science and religion. Ian Barbour built a bridge between two schools of thought which were previously considered incompatible. He died Dec. 24 in Minneapolis at the age of 90.

Barbour was a member of First United Church of Christ in Northfield, Minn.

"It cannot be overestimated how deep a person of faith Ian was. He took his Christian faith seriously, and was generous with participation and giving," said the Rev. Todd Smith Lippert, senior pastor of First United Church of Christ.

As Lippert got to know Barbour, he discovered that "he was shaped by his Christian faith. He was committed to justice and peace, he was humble and believed in moderation. To tell the story of Ian’s life, you have to tell the story of his Christian faith."

Barbour believed that science and religion should be in a constant, constructive dialogue with each other – rather than act as opposing or unrelated forces. His contribution to the discussion was so significant that his death was reported by national and international publications including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Huffington Post and the Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald.

His educational path, first studying science as a physics student, then studying theology as a seminary student helped shape his school of thought. Born in Beijing in 1923, Barbour earned his Bachelor of Science in physics from Swarthmore College, a master’s degree in physics from Duke University in 1946, and his doctorate in physics from the University of Chicago in 1950.

Barbour continued his education at Yale Divinity School, and from there he sought out ways in which science and faith meshed, rather than the ways in which they were exclusive. He taught science and religion courses at Carleton College, in Northfield, Minn., from 1955 through his retirement in 1986. For his work, Barbour was awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 1999. The award is given to "a living person who has made exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension."

"Scientists have to acknowledge that science does not have all the answers, and theologians have to recognize the changing historical contexts of theological reflection," Barbour said in his acceptance speech.

Embracing Barbour’s concept, the UCC is preparing for a second Science, Faith and Technology Sunday in February. The celebration is inspired by the work of Charles Townes, another UCC physicist, Barbour and his students, and the chemists, tech-junkies and engineers in the pews of UCC congregations.

"It is significant, as well as exciting, that we are preparing to celebrate our second UCC Science, Faith, and Technology Sunday on Feb. 16," said Kimberly Whitney, executive associate to the collegium. "We are delighted many churches have celebrated Evolution Weekend events and science forums for years and that more are beginning to add events like having study groups or adult study forum."

Barbour is survived by two sons, two daughters, three grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

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