Barbour -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

Ian Barbour, one of the most thoughtful interpreters of the relationship of religion and science died recently at age 90. Martin Marty briefly explores his witness and vision -- one that sought to bring religion and science into constructive dialogue. Unfortunately it has been the extremists -- fundamentalists and new atheists who get the headlines, but it is a person like Ian Barbour who shows us a better way. I invite you to remember him and to consider the direction he shows us.


Monday | Jan 20 2014
Ian Barbour (June 2006)                                                                        Photo Credit: Metanexus Institute
Ian Barbour, Who Found a Balance between Faith and Science, Dies at 90. So read hisNew York Times obituary, January 12, 2014. Today's Sightings, however, is not itself an obituary of Barbour; it only draws on one. The Times headline suggests a reason to notice him in Sightings, because here we pay attention to faith and science, whether in balance or out of balance. This is part of our vocation or business, in this case, to ponder how religion, here coded as “faith,” and the public world, also in this case, focused in the word “science,” get treated together. In the present instance, it appears to be an exemplary treatment.

The author of the Times piece, William Yardley, recognizes some of the achievements of Barbour, an alumnus of the University of Chicago, whose Divinity School proudly numbers him in its front ranks.

Decades ago I had two conversations with Ian’s parents, missionaries in China in the 1920s. His mother regaled us with stories of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whom she knew when he was working with the diggers-up of “Peking Man.”

Personal ties: I would see Ian on occasion when he was teaching, as he did so loyally and imaginatively at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, across the river from St. Olaf College, where and when I was a Regent. We also connected at gatherings sponsored by the Templeton Foundation, which honored him for his work at the juncture of science and religion, fields in which he held advanced degrees. He also edited a book on science and religion in a Harper Forum series, which I published so long ago. I remain in contact with his son John, also an alumnus of Chicago, who teaches at St. Olaf and has recently published a novel in which the world I’ve just described is fictionalized.

Now, to the point: Yardley recalls Barbour’s description of four prevailing views of the relationship between science and religion: 1) they conflict; 2) they are separate domains; 3) the complexity of science affirms divine guidance; 4) (Barbour’s choice) they can meet in constructive dialog. “This requires humility on both sides. Scientists have to acknowledge that science does not have all the answers, and theologians have to recognize the changing historical contexts of theological reflection.” Yardley: “Dr. Barbour seemed at ease in tension.” Which brings us to the second point:

“Dr. Barbour often said the news media’s interest in conflict tended to emphasize extreme positions, whether those of fundamentalists or atheists.” In his several books, many essays, and conference appearances, Barbour probably did more than any other American to transcend the “extreme position” people and those in programming and media who were engrossed with them.

If you are planning a TV panel or a university celebrity show, you reach for extremes. “The world” knows of Richard Dawkins and the older “New Atheists” on the one hand, and the heirs of Jerry Falwell and the fundamentalists on the other, while thoughtful people in a world beyond that of the polarizers and popularizers have to go looking for the Barbours, notable though they are.

A nice touch in the obituary: Yardley concludes by mentioning that Barbour did not let world recognition distract him from teaching at Carleton. “He retired from Carleton in 1986, but not from attending First United [Church of Christ in Northfield]." In an essay of 2004 Barbour described his church as “a community of acceptance, commitment and concern for social justice and the work of the [S]pirit but remaining open to theological interpretation.” Such may not make headlines very often, but it describes a creative context for the Barbours and those who share his vision. 


Yardley, William. “Ian Barbour, Who Found a Balance Between Faith and Science, Dies at 90.” International New York Times, January 12, 2014.

Barbour, Ian. “Myths, Models and Paradigms: A Comparative Study in Science and Religion.” Religion-Online. Accessed January 19, 2014.

Barbour, Ian, ed. Science and Religion: New Perspectives on the Dialogue. New York: Harper & Row, 1968.

Barbour, John D. Renunciation: A Novel. Eugene, OR: Resource Publications, 2013.

Photo Credit: Metanexus Institute
Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at

Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is co-organizing a conference, April 9-11, 2014: "God: Theological Accounts and Ethical Possibilities," at the University of Chicago Divinity School (mostly funded by the Marty Center and free to the public). For more information, visit:
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