Long-time professor at the Graduate Theological Foundation, Dr. Paul Kirbas, founded the Kirbas Institute several years ago to help foster dialogue around science and religion. In 2011, he published a book on the subject, This Sacred Earth (published by Wyndham Hall Press) and was kind enough to discuss his work with us. Dr. Kirbas is Paul Tillich Professor of Theology and Culture at the GTF and offers the E-Tutorials, “A Biblical Theology for Biotechnology” and “God, Nature, and Us: An Interdisciplinary Approach to a new Paradigm for the Human Place in Nature.”
You recently edited a book, This Sacred Earth: Scientific and Religious Perspectives on Nature and Humanity’s Place Within It (Wyndham Hall Press, 2011). What did you want to achieve with this book, and how did you go about putting it together?
This book is a result of a project that I was invited to lead back in 2010. The Fetzer Institute in Kalamazoo, Michigan, asked me to bring together leading scientists, theologians, philosophers, and others for a 3 day conversation on the sanctity of nature. We gathered thinkers from around the world, and from several different faith traditions, for this conversation. Each participant wrote a paper to present at our meeting. The book is the result of that meeting, and contains the writings of our participants. We were also able to film our event, and the teacher’s edition of our book contains a DVD which includes interviews with our participants. What I wanted to achieve with this book is to get people thinking more deeply about nature, especially in terms of our human role within it. I also wanted to create a work that included a great diversity of thought from a variety of respected leaders of interdisciplinary fields.
The topic of the book is something you’ve been focused on for quite a while. Can you talk about how your own perspectives changed during your time editing This Sacred Earth?
First, I have grown significantly in my realization of the fact that many people around the world, and from many different faith traditions, hold a deep connection to nature, and believe in its sanctity. I have found this project to be so uniting for people who may otherwise disagree on many things. If we want to find a bridge to help unite people from many different places and perspectives, nature and its care is a great one to use. Second, I have experienced a bit of a paradigm shift in my own thinking of the human role in nature. I have long known that the notion that humans are called to dominate nature is a terrible misreading of our place, but like many well-intended people, I have replaced that idea with the sense that humans are the stewards of nature. The “stewardship of the earth” sounds like a good and noble concept. My work on this project, however, has helped me see why this too can be a terribly harmful, and misleading, idea of our human role. This project has caused me to stop using the concept of “stewardship” when talking about humanity in nature, and to replace it with an entirely different concept.
Your book brings together scholars from a number of universities and seminaries, including the University of Oxford and Fuller Seminary. As a scholar yourself, what did you find most challenging in your dialogues with these contributors about the relationship between science and religion in an environmental context?
I think one of the biggest challenges was to build a sense of trust and community with a diverse group of participants. I am a strong believer that personal relationships can be the best vehicle for achieving trust, so I decided from the onset that I would actually travel to visit with each person in their environment to discuss our project and to invite them to join us. During the early months of 2010, I was traveling around the country and to international locations to make personal visits to our prospective participants. This was quite tiring, but was very fruitful. The second challenge that I faced was that some people that we wanted in our meeting could have been hesitant to participate with others. We invited, for instance, several evangelical Christians who seemed a bit hesitant to participate in something that could be interpreted as something that evangelicals should not condone. I think that the fact that I serve as both a Professor at the Graduate Theological Foundation and as a Professor at Wheaton College (An Evangelical College), I could relate well with people across the spectrum. This helped to create the trust needed. Some of our participants told us that this was the very first time they had ever attended a meeting with this kind of diversity. Others said that this was the first invitation they had accepted for an event that focused on environmental issues. We felt very pleased with the results.
What role does your organization The Kirbas Institute play within this broader dialogue about “nature and humanity’s place within it”?
The Kirbas Institute was formed out of a desire to do more than the Fetzer Institute was willing to undertake. Fetzer was interested in having the conference, and provided us with a grant to make it happen. But they were not interested in filming the event or creating any educational products out of it. We felt that this was something important to do, so we formed The Kirbas Institute to make it happen. Our new Institute was able to secure additional grants to enable us to create the products from the conference. This Sacred Earth book and DVD is the first. We are currently working on others as well.
The ongoing work of the Kirbas Institute is to hold conferences that address issues related to Science and Religion, and then to create educational products and materials from them that can be used in both educational and religious settings. The Institute is also a platform from which I am available to offer lectures or lead conferences for faith communities and educational institutions. In these ways, we hope to broaden and expand the dialogue on these important issues.
Finally, what kind of future do you envision for a science/religion discourse and what next steps can move us forward?
Unfortunately, the news is dominated by stories and sound bites that seem to accentuate the conflict between science and religion. Whether it is about questions of origin (creationism vs. evolution) or bioethics (such as stem cell research), all we are exposed to are the polarized viewpoints. This can lead people to think that the war between science and religion is all-engulfing. The truth, however, is that there are many shining examples of science and religion working in complete harmony and compatibility. Unfortunately, harmony and compatibility don’t make riveting headlines, so this reality is largely ignored by the media. I think that the discourse is already here, and it is flourishing. What we need to do is to get these stories out to the general public. I think the next step that can move us forward is for these bridging efforts to become more widely known and embraced. That is our goal at The Kirbas Institute. I hope we can play some role in promoting the consilience of religion and science that is already being played out all across our globe.
Links to more information:
The Kirbas Institute (website)
The Kirbas Institute (Facebook)
(book cover image courtesy of P. Kirbas)