Time and Eternity: In Appreciation of Robert John Russell, Bridge Builder

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“My dad died when I was 12. And so, I asked the family’s priest from our local Episcopalian parish, ‘Will I see my father in heaven?’”

The priest’s answer shocked and dismayed this thoughtful, sensitive young man. “Bob, because of science, we don’t believe in heaven anymore.”

Robert John (“Bob”) Russell recounted this poignant story at his recent retirement celebration at Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union (GTU) as Ian G. Barbour Professor of Science and Theology, as well as founder and director of the Center for Theology and Natural Sciences (CTNS).

“To the minister who told me ‘We don’t believe in heaven anymore,’ that sent me on a quest, trying to find a way to bring these two communities together. And so, I began my work with Creative Mutual Interaction or CMI.” This method sees a true give-and-take between theology and science. CMI proposes that, in light of scientific discovery and method, theology needs reformulation, but also that this reformulated theology can outline topics for scientific inquiry. Hear this, pastors: when you bring science to church, you have to listen, but you also have something to add to the dialogue with scientists.

My First Encounter

That same passion to integrate science and faith was kindled in me during a course I took with Bob over twenty-five years ago during the first semester of my Ph.D. program. I was at the edge of my seat in a classroom at Pacific School of Religion’s Mudd building, perched high atop “Holy Hill” in Berkeley with a glorious view of the San Francisco Bay area and the Golden Gate Bridge out its western windows. The setting matched the experience. Bob captured my attention and provided me new intellectual panoramas with his description of relativity’s time dilation and what it meant for Christian faith. I’d never heard anything like that before.

I recall grasping that God’s created world is four-dimensional—three dimensions of space are inextricably linked with time. Time, for example, expands when an object travels at the velocity of light. Thus light, not time, is the great constant. As a result, Christ took on new significance as the Light of the World.

This brilliant Ph.D.-trained physicist, equally adept at theology, challenged my thinking then and has held a unique place in my ministry and scholarship ever since.

  • Bob says he’s about to write a congregationally friendly version of Time in Eternity. Until that happens, an excellent church ministry resource is the set of interviews with Closer to Truth.

Time in Eternity

As far as I can tell, eternity and earthly time form a connection between the two experiences I described above.

In fact, out of all of Bob’s contributions to my life, I particularly treasure Time in Eternity. Have you ever wondered, as I have, how a timeless “heaven” could be fun? Everything I enjoy requires time—music, conversation, growth and discovery. What I learned from Bob is that in the new heavens and the new earth, we experience time’s movement without the poverty of loss as time passes. That’s truly the “hope of heaven,” fully informed by special relativity. (You’ll have to read the book to get the full picture.)

Relationships Count

Bob has been a mentor and model for how to bring the best of science and theology together. And I am not alone in praising him. The assembled crowd that evening in the Dinner Board Room at GTU spoke about Bob’s contributions and his character. I learned from each of these and took away lessons for our work in Science for the Church.

Ted Peters, my dissertation advisor, is also a long-time colleague of Bob’s. Their collaboration is a sight to behold and a model of interaction. I used to love participating in their weekly “Bob and Ted’s Excellent Theological Adventures” at a local beer-and-pizza spot, La Val’s.

Ted’s words of thanks for this “collegial partnership and friendship” touched me as did his recounting “Bobisms,” such as CMI and NIODA (the latter describing how to bring together God’s real activity in the quantum world). Perhaps best was Ted’s reminding us of Bob’s quip about the importance of quantum physics: “Atoms may be small, but they’re everywhere.” In other words, we can and need to learn from fundamental physics about the reality we inhabit.

Heather Templeton Dill, president of the John Templeton Foundation—and granddaughter of the founder, Sir John Templeton—commented that her grandfather shared ideas similar to Bob’s CMI. She added that Sir John “saw a concrete example and a kindred spirit for his vision.” This was truly accomplished at the highest level. And yet Bob was not satisfied just to have a top-down impact; he also worked interpersonally. She said, “Real change happens at the level of individuals and relationships.” (Heather, you must have read SftC‘s vision and particularly The Standard Model.)

Among many toasts and tributes, the words of Mollie Baskette, lead pastor of First Congregational Church in Berkeley—where Bob and his wife, Charlotte, worship—resonated with Science for the Church’s mission. She said to Bob (since he’s ordained), “You’re not just a scholar, a mentor, and a teacher, but a minister.” And thus “you have given us a way to talk about faith and science to people of all faiths and to people of no faith.”

In fact, she once asked Bob, “Why did you get into this?” To which he replied, “I was trying to solve a problem.” “Oh yes,” Mollie reflected, “And you did this for all of us.”

As congregational leaders, we all need to find mentors like Bob who can help us explore problems, by bridging the worlds of science and theology, and guiding others to cross into new landscapes of thought and faith.

Time That Night Came to an End

I have learned enough physics from Bob to affirm that most physicists see time as ultimately illusory and not fundamental. But I have to admit, this is where science, strictly speaking, loses me because time has always seemed very real to me. Retirements at least are all about time and its passing—and, in this case, what a great scholar and mentor like Bob has contributed to so many and thus what future time might bring.

In that light, Bob closed with a quote from Dag Hammarskjöld, the Swedish economist and diplomat: “For all that has been, Thank you. For all that is to come, Yes!”

To which his guests immediately offered a standing ovation.

Bob, for all you’ve done and will do in the creative mutual interaction of science and theology, we thank you!


A black and white headshot of Greg's face with the words Greg Cootsona, Contributing Editor

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