Roughly every month, an association of academic professionals drawn from the fields of philosophy and the physical sciences gathers at a local church with area clergy and interested church members to discuss significant texts and readings in modern science, philosophy, and Christian faith. Remote from the great urban centers of the nation, the Chico Triad on Philosophy, Theology, and Science meets at the Bidwell Presbyterian Church in Chico, California, a city of just less than one hundred thousand at the north end of the Sacramento Valley. An unlikely place for such a conversation? Not for the triad’s organizer and moderator, the Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Cootsona (M.Div., 1991).
The goal of the Chico Triad, Cootsona explains, is to present responsible academic scholarship on the theory and practice of science to the critical and appreciative scrutiny of America’s churches—conversation might occur anyplace where an academic and a religious community coincide. Cootsona found such a place in Chico. He persuaded the Metanexus Institute on Religion and Science, an international interdisciplinary think tank in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to provide seed money for an experimental project. The Chico Triad is now one of several hundred local societies, associations, and colloquies sponsored by Metanexus through its Local Societies Initiative.
Chico, once a regional market town, is now the educational center of the northern Sacramento Valley, thanks to the 14,500-student California State University, Chico, and the equally large Butte Community College in nearby Oroville. Having so many academics in such a small community offered Cootsona a unique opportunity to bring academicians and theologians face to face for sustained dialogue. Under Cootsona’s leadership, the Chico Triad sponsors regular dialogues among scientists, philosophers, and theologians; colloquia, in which outside experts are invited to speak; and annual lectures in both church and academic settings. While academic theologians are few, there are several theologically minded triad participants in the Religious Studies Department at Chico State, in the Philosophy Department at Butte College, and among local ministers.
The college and university are two elements of the Chico Triad. Bidwell Presbyterian Church, a large downtown congregation, is the third. The church, which has a strong commitment to mission and adult education, called Cootsona in 2002 as associate minister for adult discipleship to oversee its community life, pastoral care, and fellowship activities. His work with the Chico Triad—about ten percent of his total workload—qualifies as discipleship at Bidwell, and the church has sustained his work with its money, its attention, and its prayers. Church members are welcome at the monthly programs if they have an interest and some background in at least one of the three academic disciplines.
What has the Chico Triad found? Not surprisingly, that the usual stereotypes of the dispassionate scientist and the irrational religionist are not true, and that scientific, philosophical, and theological professionals have a great deal in common. Once some initial prejudices have been addressed and some key common themes identified, they have a great deal to say to one another.
For the triad, one such common theme has been “Beauty.” Cootsona, in a paper recently presented at Metanexus’s 2007 conference, explains that the concept of beauty, shorn of its shallow cosmetic associations, proves useful in describing the sensation— common to scientists, philosophers, and theologians—of both the appeal and the satisfaction that come from a sustained concentration upon a subject of inquiry, be it nature, truth, or the divine. Cootsona cites C.S. Lewis’s description of this appeal: “We do not want merely to see beauty…. We want something else that can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.”
Cootsona found the concept of beauty significant for at least two major Reformed theologians, Jonathan Edwards and Karl Barth, but also found the concept being debated among major scientists and philosophers of the twentieth century. Our concept of beauty, he notes, has at its heart an objective conception of how nature rightly fits together, a concept familiar to philosophers and theologians. We also use beauty as a term to describe an observer’s subjective perception of that rightness, a use familiar enough to scientists who can (and do) speak of the beauty of a perfect theoretical explanation.
Speaking about beauty in this way, Cootsona finds, is fruitful when talking to scientists. “I remember asking a friend of mine who is a professor of evolutionary cell biology (not a member of the Chico Triad) about the importance of beauty in his work. Initially, he looked at me quizzically and did not see any connection between his work and beauty. When I described that beauty is tied up with understanding nature properly, it made more sense.” Ultimately, he claims, the objective and the subjective character of beauty cannot be radically divorced, and this inseparability, he believes, provides science and the humanities with common ground for dialogue.
Cootsona’s interest in the interrelations of science and religion began fifteen years ago at the University of Tübingen, during a postgraduate year made possible by a scholarship offered by Princeton Theological Seminary.
Tübingen in 1991 was home to such theological luminaries as Hans Küng and Jürgen Moltmann. At Tübingen, Cootsona was able to build upon the theological foundations laid during his PTS years, most notably with Christian Beker (his thesis advisor), Daniel Migliore (for the theology of Karl Barth), and visiting professor Michael Welker. Cootsona went from Tübingen to the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, where he completed a dissertation published by Peter Lang in September 2001 as God and the World: A Study in the Thought of Alfred North Whitehead and Karl Barth. Cootsona is also author of Creation and Last Things: At the Intersection of Theology and Science, published for the PCUSA Geneva Press series, Foundations of Christian Faith, in 2002. z
You can contact Greg Cootsona by email at [email protected] For information on the Metanexus Institute, contact the institute at: 28 Garrett Avenue, Bryn Mawr, PA 19010; 484.592.0304, www.metanexus.net.
Kenneth Ross is a member-at-large of Philadelphia Presbytery and a parish associate at the First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. He is a 1985 Th.M. graduate of Princeton Seminary.