Theology and Science in the Thought of Ian Barbour

A Thomistic Evaluation for the Catholic Doctrine of Creation

by Joseph Laracy (Author)
©2021 Monographs XX, 328 Pages


This book is an important new study on the thought of the late Professor Ian Graeme Barbour (1923–2013). Barbour was a prominent American theologian and physicist who served for many years on the faculty of Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota, USA. His highly significant research on the relationship between theology and science led to an invitation to deliver the esteemed Gifford Lectures in Scotland (1989–1991) and won him the prestigious Templeton Prize in 1999. In this monograph, Joseph R. Laracy analyzes Ian Barbour’s distinctive approach to the relationship between theology and science, largely unexplored in the Catholic tradition, according to fundamental theological criteria. He investigates the possibility for Barbour’s epistemic, metaphysical, and theological principles to enrich the dialogue and integration (to use Barbour’s terms) of the Catholic doctrine of creation with the natural sciences. Throughout the monograph, substantial reference is made to Saint Thomas Aquinas, as a Catholic "monument" to the doctrine of creation in particular, and more generally, the beneficial interaction of natural philosophy, metaphysics, and revealed theology.
This book will likely be of interest to graduate students and scholars in the fields of fundamental and systematic theology, religion and science, the philosophy of science, and the history of science.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Advance Praise
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Foreword
  • Acknowledgments
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Chapter One Ian Barbour: Life and Works
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Fundamentals of the Catholic Doctrine of Creation
  • 3. Status Quæstionis
  • 4. Novitas
  • 5. Structure
  • 6. Biography
  • 7. Barbour’s Scientific Achievements
  • 8. Typologies of Interaction for Theology and Science
  • 9. Influence on other Theology-Science Scholars
  • 9.1 Arthur Peacocke
  • 9.2 John Polkinghorne
  • 9.3 Robert John Russell
  • Chapter Two Barbour’s Fundamental Principles: Theological Presuppositions, Epistemology, and Metaphysics
  • 1. Sources of Barbour’s Theological Presuppositions
  • 1.1 George Brown Barbour
  • 1.2 Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ
  • 1.3 Alfred North Whitehead
  • 1.4 Charles Hartshorne
  • 1.5 Yale Divinity School
  • 2. Critical Realism
  • 2.1 Origins of the Critique of Knowledge
  • 2.2 Some Significant Equivocal Uses of the Term “Critical Realism”
  • 2.3 Origins in the Natural Sciences
  • 2.4 Applications: Quantum Indeterminacy and Human Freedom
  • 3. Process Philosophy
  • 3.1 Origins in Ancient Greece and the Thought of A.N. Whitehead
  • 3.2 Barbour’s Implementation of Whiteheadian Philosophical Principles
  • 3.3 Barbour’s Appropriation of Process Theology
  • 3.4 Barbour’s Christian Evaluation of Process Thought
  • Chapter Three Theology and Science: Similarities and Differences According to Barbour
  • 1. Relating Theology and Science
  • 2. Identifying Contrasting Perspectives
  • 2.1 Scientific Materialism
  • 2.2 Fundamentalism
  • 2.3 Neo-Orthodoxy
  • 2.4 Existentialism
  • 2.5 Linguistic Analysis
  • 3. Identifying Parallel Perspectives
  • 3.1 Neo-Thomism
  • 3.2 Liberalism
  • 3.3 Process Theology
  • 4. Theological and Scientific Methodology
  • 4.1 Theological and Scientific Experience and Interpretation
  • 4.2 The Roles of Religious and Scientific Communities and their Paradigms
  • 4.3 Use of Analogies and Models in Theological and Scientific Language
  • 4.4 Criteria for Evaluating Religious Beliefs and Scientific Theories
  • 4.5 Conclusions on Methodology
  • Chapter Four A Catholic Critique for the Doctrine of Creation
  • 1. Critical Realism
  • 1.1 Importance of Realism
  • 1.2 Perception and Actuality
  • 1.3 Certainty, Faith, and Truth
  • 2. Process Metaphysics
  • 2.1 Fundamental Issues
  • 2.2 Addressing Dynamicity
  • 2.3 God the Creator
  • 2.4 Creation of Man
  • 2.5 Panentheism
  • 2.6 Substances and Essences
  • 2.7 Perfection of God
  • 3. Issues in Theological Method
  • 3.1 Experience and Interpretation
  • 3.2 Religious Communities and Paradigms
  • 3.3 Analogy and Models
  • 3.4 Evaluating Beliefs
  • Chapter Five Toward Dialogue and Integration
  • 1. Dialogue
  • 1.1 Presuppositions and Limit Questions
  • 1.1.1 Intelligibility
  • 1.1.2 Contingent Existence
  • 1.1.3 Contingent Boundary Conditions
  • 1.1.4 Contingent Laws
  • 1.1.5 Contingent Events
  • 1.2 Methodological and Conceptual Parallels
  • 2. Integration
  • 2.1 Natural Theology
  • 2.2 Theology of Nature
  • 2.3 Systematic Synthesis
  • 3. Conclusion
  • 4. Future Work
  • Major Scholarly Works of Ian G. Barbour
  • Bibliography
  • Index

←x | xi→


We live in a scientific age. The discoveries made by science in the fields of physics (the structure of reality in the Standard Model), astrophysics (a vast expanding universe), computer science (the possibility of AI), and in the biological sciences (genetics) have opened up a universe and a micro- universe vast and infinitesimal in scale, respectively. They have also challenged human beings to think about their place in the cosmos as well as to reflect on their own self- understanding and identity, given their cultures, philosophies, and religious faiths. At the nexus of where these currents meet stands the relationship between religion and science. The interaction between these two spheres of human activity can be characterized as one of either conflict, compartmentalization (mutually exclusive domains), or some form of engagement and dialogue and integration emphasizing a common sphere of influence. The last few decades have been rich in exploring the interaction between faith and science in different ways, for example, as seen in the work of figures such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Arthur Peacock, John Polkinghorne, Stanley Jaki, George Coyne, William Stoeger, Peter Hodgson, John Haught, Ian Barbour, not to mention the perennial, centuries- old influence of St. Thomas Aquinas, just to name a few. Here in this book, Fr. Joseph Laracy explores the immense contribution made to the interaction between faith and science by Ian Barbour, a prodigious, prolific, and gifted scholar (a physicist and a theologian). He examines what Catholic theology and philosophy (especially when seen from a Thomistic point←xi | xii→ of view) can learn from Barbour’s Protestant Christian approach, which has also appropriated certain aspects of process philosophy, especially from Whitehead, and process theology. In particular, this is done by examining the faith/ science dialectic when applied to the Catholic doctrine of Creation.

A point of common ground between science and faith is to be found in an acceptance of the natural world as a primary object of study— the reality of the cosmos and of the truths that emerge from what is observed and what is experienced by human beings. They are both truth- seeking endeavors. This is certainly a quintessential starting point for Catholic theology (such as that of St. Thomas Aquinas), which is why there is great potential always to be seen in its dialogue with science and the physical reality that it seeks to describe. Both domains assume the intelligibility of such a reality and of the capacity of human reason to know it. It is on this point that Fr. Laracy, along with many other scholars, indicates the important contribution that Barbour’s “critical realism” provides to the commonality (e.g., same structures) between faith and science— a bridge between the two domains. Observing the dynamism of the world of science (such as in evolution) and in human life (including faith), Barbour attempts to employ process philosophy in establishing a common metaphysical framework for both domains, thus accounting for the subjective and objective. In so doing, Barbour wishes to highlight the aspect of “becoming” rather than ontological “being” as the underlying principle that drives our reality and from which truths emerge. Important to this venture is how both science and faith must account for the “data” of reality, coherence, and comprehensiveness in which they describe. Articulating a four- fold typology for the interaction of science and faith (conflict, or independence, or dialogue, and/ or integration), Barbour favors dialogue and integration as the best way to facilitate a “culture of encounter” between both domains.

In many ways, there is much that Barbour’s work can contribute to Catholic methodology of the interaction of faith and science, which is also one of engagement and integration, though proceeding along different fundamental criteria than those that he uses. As he studies this point in systematic detail, Fr. Laracy uses three basic criteria to evaluate Barbour’s contribution to the Catholic understanding of integration of faith and science: (1) fidelity to divine revelation and interpretation in the Church, (2) a suitable epistemology and metaphysics for both science and Catholic theology that respects both domains, and, (3) consistency with, respect for, and concordance with solid science. In particular, the Catholic doctrine of Creation is the lens through which Fr. Laracy investigates how Barbour’s integration of faith and natural sciences may be attempted, given the understandings of God, of the natural world, and of human beings that are implicit in such a doctrine.

←xii | xiii→

Not surprisingly, Barbour’s methodology, especially with his use of process philosophy/ theology, does not entirely harmonize with the Catholic understanding of God, of creation ex nihilo, of how God relates to creation, of truth as a way of knowing, and of actuality in God. These incompatibilities notwithstanding, Fr. Laracy’s investigation is a valuable and necessary exercise in how other currents of thought can contribute to and enrich the Catholic understanding of the interaction between faith and science. Crucial to deepening the ability of faith and science to interact with and to enrich one another is the ability to engage and to dialogue with rigor and honesty and openness, even if differences in philosophies and theologies are evident. This will always be a constructive exercise. We will have deepened our understanding of the truth.

Fr. David A. Brown, SJ, DPhil (Oxon)

Vatican Observatory

Solemnity of St. Joseph

March 19, 2021

←xiv | xv→


I would like to express my great gratitude to Father Paul M. Haffner, STD, my doctoral dissertation director, for his valuable and constructive suggestions during the planning and development of this research. His willingness to give his time so generously is very much appreciated. I would like to offer my special thanks as well to Father Matthew Baldwin, STD, Father Thomas K. Macdonald, STD, John T. Laracy, PhD, Father Matthew Rolling, PhD, Thomas Marlowe, PhD, Father Douglas Milewski, STD, and Monsignor Thomas G. Guarino, STD for their insightful feedback on my research as it developed.

I also must acknowledge my late Archbishop Emeritus, His Grace, John J. Myers, JCD, DD, (1941– 2020) for appointing me to seminary studies, ordaining me a deacon and a priest, and first assigning me to ministry in higher education. I am also very grateful to His Eminence, Joseph W. Cardinal Tobin, CSsR, DD, Archbishop of Newark, for appointing me to doctoral studies in theology and continuing to support my priestly ministry at Seton Hall University.

The spiritual accompaniment of Monsignor Gerard H. McCarren, STD and Father Brendan Hurley, SJ, MDiv has been a tremendous blessing. I also thank my family, friends, and brother priests, for their support.

Most of all, Deo gratias!

←xvi | xvii→

List of Abbreviations


alii (that is, “others”)




confer (that is, “compare with”)






exempli gratia (that is, “for example”)


et cetera (that is, “and so forth”)


Ibidem (that is, “at the same place”)


id est (“that is”)


nota bene (that is, “note well”)









←0 | 1→


Ian Barbour: Life and Works

1. Introduction

In his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis, offers a timely reminder to the universal Church on the importance of relating the Christian faith and the natural sciences. He writes,

Dialogue between science and faith also belongs to the work of evangelization at the service of peace. Whereas positivism and scientism “refuse to admit the validity of forms of knowledge1 other than those of the positive sciences,”2 the Church proposes another path, which calls for a synthesis between the responsible use of methods proper to the empirical sciences and other areas of knowledge such as philosophy, theology, as well as faith itself, which elevates us to the mystery transcending nature and human intelligence.3

←1 | 2→

Two paragraphs later, the Holy Father echoes the Catholic commitment to ecumenical dialogue that received great emphasis at the Second Vatican Council.4 A stance of humility and openness is important for Catholics when relating to other Christians because, as Francis writes, “We must never forget that we are pilgrims journeying alongside one another.”5

Similarly, Pope Saint Paul VI declared that “dialogue … is a recognized method of the apostolate. It is a way of making spiritual contact.”6 In this monograph, we strive to adhere to his four principles for dialogue: perspicuitas, lenitas, fiducia, et prudentia. Paul VI encourages clarity in expression, Christ-like meekness and the avoidance of all arrogance, trust in God and confidence in the good will of the other, and prudence in how one engages the partner in dialogue. The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, teaches that there exists a “lawful variety” of “differences in theological expression of doctrine.”7 In addition, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, exhorts theologians to “seek continually for more suitable ways of communicating doctrine to the men of their times; for the deposit of Faith or the truths are one thing and the manner in which they are enunciated, in the same meaning and understanding, is another.”8 This important relationship of unity and plurality in faith was also a topic of a 1972 document of the International Theological Commission.9

The highly influential German philosopher and theologian, Karl Rahner, SJ, in his 1981 essay, “Naturwissenschaft und vernünftiger Glaube,” later published in English as, “Natural Science and Reasonable Faith: Theological Perspectives for Dialogue with the Natural Sciences,”10 expresses regret that “in recent decades, theology has not occupied itself very intensively with borderline questions between the natural sciences and itself.”11 As a first step toward facilitating a dialogue, Rahner suggests that fundamental theology must engage in a serious conversation with the natural sciences on essential epistemological issues. (In addition, we ←2 | 3→would add inquiry into metaphysical questions.) Rahner’s perspective is hopeful for a harmonious relationship. In his view, science and theology cannot, in principle, contradict each other as their areas of investigation and methodologies are distinct.12

In light of the recent Papal and Conciliar Magisterium, and given the scope of fundamental theology to cast its gaze not merely within the confines of the Catholic Church, but also to engage truth wherever it may be found, we strive to carry out a substantial study in the thought of the late Professor Ian Graeme Barbour. In this book, we analyze Ian Barbour’s distinctive approach to the relationship of theology and science, largely unexplored in the Catholic tradition, according to fundamental theological criteria. Our goal is to investigate the possibility for Barbour’s epistemic, metaphysical, and theological principles to enrich the dialogue and integration (to use Barbour’s terms) of the Catholic doctrine of creation with the natural sciences. Barbour’s corpus and contributions are vast, so we use the theology of creation as a lens, or “limit,” to focus this research.13

Ian Graeme Barbour (1923–2013) was a prominent American theologian and physicist who served for many years on the faculty of Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota, USA. As a scholar, Ian Barbour has a certain je ne sais quoi. His highly significant research on the relationship of theology and science led to an invitation to deliver the esteemed Gifford Lectures in Scotland (1989–1991) and won him the prestigious Templeton Prize in 1999. Born in Beijing, the son of an American Episcopalian mother and a Scottish Presbyterian father, Barbour eventually found his ecclesial home in the United Church of Christ.14

Barbour’s quest begins in an Anglophonic, Protestant world still deeply influenced by the “conflict” hypothesis between Christianity and science instigated in the nineteenth century by John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White. Draper, a distinguished chemist and physician who was also virulently anti-Catholic, published History of the Conflict between Religion and Science in 1874.15 In ←3 | 4→this work, Draper posits that his perceived conflict between religion and science in the United States was a direct result of the Catholic Church’s perpetual battle against reason and science. Not surprisingly, this anti-historical work was placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum in 1876.16

White was a historian, politician, and co-founder of Cornell University. In 1896, he published A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom.17 Although baptized an Episcopalian, he became extremely hostile to any form of “revealed religion.” Regrettably, White’s book became enormously popular in the United States and was eventually translated into German, French, Italian, Swedish, and Japanese. A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom greatly popularized the conflict hypothesis.

Emerging as an enthusiastic, young scholar in the mid-twentieth century, one of Barbour’s goals was to revive and reposition the reputation of the natural sciences among American and British Protestant Christians. He approached this task with great élan. A fundamental principle for Barbour is that theology and science are separate truth-producing activities that can be considered in varying forms of relationship to one another. Barbour’s work in theology and science has had a profound impact on the field and stimulated scholarly work throughout the United States, the United Kingdom, and beyond.

Barbour’s four-fold typologies of interaction between theology and science, his development of a common epistemological approach of “critical realism,” and his metaphysical commitment to Whiteheadian process thought indubitably merit an evaluation according to the methods and principles of Catholic theology. Given his epistemic, metaphysical, and ultimately theological foundations, what are the implications for a Catholic reception of his thought? The fundamental research question is: Can Ian Barbour’s approach for the interaction of theology and science promote a more fruitful dialogue and integration between the natural sciences and the Catholic doctrine of creation?

The metaphysical concept of creation has been a subject of reflection by the most inquisitive minds since the great, ancient pre-Christian civilizations to the present.18 It is also very germane to the contemporary theological engagement with the natural sciences. For example, two distinguished physicists, James ←4 | 5→Hartle and Stephen Hawking, developed a well-known cosmic origin hypothesis that describes a “spontaneous quantum creation of the universe.”19 In a Gedankenexperiment, Hartle and Hawking consider the Big Bang cosmic expansion in reverse. As one goes back in time, the cosmos contracts. Eventually one reaches the Planck epoch20 (approximately 10−43 seconds after the Big Bang) where it is not clear in what sense, if any, the concept of time retains meaning.21

At this point, Hartle and Hawking theorize that particles spontaneously appear and disappear as space becomes separated from time. Hawking offers an image from everyday life as an analogy, stating that it “would be a bit like the formation of bubbles of steam in boiling water.”22 Prior to the Planck epoch, the theorized “Hartle–Hawking state” has no “beginning” because it has no initial boundaries in time and space. In The Grand Design, Hawking writes that “the universe can and will create itself from nothing … Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”23 (emphasis added) A Catholic may ask, What is the relationship between the “creation” described by Hawking (whether or not the physical theory has merit), and the teaching of the Fourth Lateran Council which solemnly declared that God created the material and spiritual order de nihil condidit et ab initio temporis?24 In order to ←5 | 6→answer that question, and the more general question of relating Catholic belief in creation with the natural sciences, we present the fundamentals of the doctrine in the next section.


XX, 328
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (September)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. XX, 328 pp.

Biographical notes

Joseph Laracy (Author)

Joseph R. Laracy, a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Newark, serves as assistant professor of systematic theology at Immaculate Conception Seminary School of Theology, Seton Hall University. He is also an affiliated faculty member with the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, the Program of Catholic Studies, Department of the Core Curriculum, and the University Honors Program. Father Laracy earned his doctorate from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome as well as a master’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is a fellow of the International Institute of Informatics and Systemics.


Title: Theology and Science in the Thought of Ian Barbour
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348 pages