A Conversation with Ted Peters on Theology and Science

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Ted Peters is Emeritus Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, which is a part of the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) and affiliated with the world-renowned Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences. He also serves as a Lutheran pastor. In other words, he brings together both pastoral ministry and academic theology. Ted’s interests range from quantum physics to genetics to the possibility of extraterrestrial life and the implications for Christian theology. (I’ll note some of his books below.)

Since it’s impossible to summarize all he’s done, I’ll simply add this: Ted was my dissertation advisor at the GTU and has been a longtime mentor and friend.

How He Got Interested in the Field

I’d love to know a little bit more about how you got into this world of science, technology, and religion.

I was raised in a family where my father was an automotive engineer, and I would listen to him around the dinner table talking about the new things he anticipated one year, two years, five years into the future. And so, the future of technology was always exciting. I remember one time we got some new furniture, and my mother was sitting on the couch. She padded the cushion and said, “I like new things.”

At any rate, I think I just picked up that notion of the future in relationship to technology.

As a kid, I knew nothing about science, but in graduate school at Chicago, Langdon Gilkey was one of my favorite professors, and he thought that science was taking over culture and becoming religious in itself. My ears perked up. Through a theology of culture, he demonstrated how science was taking on religious meaning and when it was practicing theology without a license.

I carried that into my academic studies, though I didn’t really get interested in Bunsen Burner laboratory scientists until I came to Berkeley and became part of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS). That’s when I began to interact with research science and tried to integrate it into my theological thought.

A Quick History of Theology and Science

The emergence of the current era of science and religion has fascinated me. What are the issues today, and how has the field changed?

Well, you certainly know how to ask the tiny little question!

I had just mentioned Langdon Gilkey, with whom I studied in the 1960s. He was doing science and culture, and he believed in what Ian Barbour called the independence or the “two-language” view. Science is over here, religion’s over there, and the two of them never get together. What Ian Barbour did in 1966 with his book Issues in Science or Religion was to point out that there are many places where theology and science need to hook together.

In 1980s, Bob Russell, mentored by Barbour, gave this vision to CTNS. The first big issue was methodology. How do we know things? Are scientific knowledge and theological knowledge similar or different? In quantum physics, there was so much excitement about the Copenhagen interpretation of the electron and the photon being indeterministic. How will that affect a theological thinking if we no longer live in a strictly mechanistic universe? Those were the biggies along with Big Bang cosmology.

In the 1990s, there was a revival of the evolution controversy. The creationists had lost in the 1980s, but intelligent design returned, and so we had to give our attention to the evolution controversy. The evolutionary biologist Marty Hewlett and I published four books on the topic.

Then finally the new kid on the block in 1997 was neuroscience, which continues to be a big issue, and then more recently, astrotheology and astroethics.

So, we at Berkeley have continued the tradition of Ian Barbour, John Polkinghorne, Bob Russell, and Greg Cootsona. [I had to include that line!]

  • Ted presented his vision for science and theology in pastoral ministry for Day1, a radio ministry of mainline denominations.
  • Here’s my take on the topic, “Why I Bring Science to Church.”


You just mentioned astrotheology—would Christian theology be threatened by finding intelligent life on other planets?

Let’s deal with this question head on.

If we were to make contact with an intelligent civilization, and a planet off Earth that has its own second Genesis, would that cause a crisis or even destroy the Christian religion, let alone other religious traditions? People who like to ridicule religion in general, and Christianity in particular, make this argument, “When ET arrives, your whole religious belief structure will collapse.”

I thought, “Well, let’s put this to an empirical test.” With the help of a graduate student Julie Froehlig, I decided to give this an empirical test, and we conducted the Peters ETI Religious Crisis Survey.

There were 10 questions in this survey, and here’s one that’s particularly interesting. “If we were to make contact with an extraterrestrial intelligent civilization, do you think the religions of the world would suffer a crisis and collapse?”

The answer was, “No,” of course, whether the respondents were evangelical fundamentalists, Roman Catholic, middle-of-the-road Protestant, Unitarian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu. Again and again, they made comments like, “This is a big universe, I think God could have created species just like us elsewhere among the stars.” In other words, they weren’t buffaloed by the “Copernican principle” at all.

The nonreligious—the people who call themselves nonreligious—are the ones who think religion is going to collapse. But those people who self-identified as religious don’t think so.

At any rate, I’ve been laughing for a decade and a half now at the results.

Advice for Pastors

What would you say to a pastor about the relationship between faith and science? (His answer contains a bit of wry humor that carries with a critical insight.)

Dare I report my conversation with Lindon Eaves? Lindon was a population geneticist and an Anglican priest. I asked him your question, “Lindon, imagine now that you’re sitting in the front pew. You’ve got your pastor in the pulpit, and a scientific matter comes up.”

He replied, “I don’t demand that the pastor be an expert on matters of planets, but I certainly don’t want the pastor to be a horse’s ass.”

I’ve remembered that, and I think pastors need to be intelligible. Whenever matters of faith and science cross, nobody expects the pastor to be an expert, but don’t say really stupid things that you just pulled off the internet.

What you should do is go to Greg Cootsona’s Science for the Church website and learn how to speak intelligently and gingerly about scientific issues. One of the beautiful things about science, at its best, is humility before the data. If the data tells me X, Y, and Z, then I had better give attention to X, Y, and Z. That attitude of humility goes a long way. You don’t have to know all the data, but you certainly must respect it in the way that the scientific community does.

So that might be my short piece of advice.

Ted, I appreciate your ministry, both as a theologian and as a pastor and for the relational mentoring you’ve had with so many people—including me. Thank you so much.

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