Center Of Theological Inquiry – Where Scholars Take On Life’s Big Questions

By Linda Arntzenius

Photography by Nicholas Babladelis, NJB Photography

There was a time when the words science and religion rarely appeared in a sentence without the word versus holding them apart. This adversarial attitude can still be found in high-profile sword fencing between media personalities. But at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton you are more likely to find scientists sitting down with theologians, among other scholars in the sciences and humanities. Part of this change in the intellectual landscape is due to the inescapable importance of religion across the globe. Center Director William Storrar (“Will” to friends and colleagues) is fond of quoting the scientist who, when asked if he believed in God, responded: “I believe in humanity and humanity believes in God.” As Storrar puts it: “if you are going to deal with the problems of humanity, you need to deal with the question of God.”

The Center of Theological Inquiry (CTI) has done much to bring about such changes in thinking. A sort of mini-Institute for Advanced Study bringing together scholars in religion and other disciplines for substantial dialogue on issues of real world import, it works like this: about a dozen scholars come to live in Princeton each year, a mix of eminent and up-and-coming. In addition to their own research, they collectively tackle a topic of the year. This year it’s international law and religious freedom. Before that, it was evolution and human nature. Next year and the year after, it will be astrobiology and the implications of actually finding some sort of life somewhere out there in the vastness of space.

SMALL OPERATION, BIG IMPACT

If one were to draw a lines-of-influence map between CTI and the expertise of all of the research scholars and visitors who have crossed its threshold, the result would be a web of surprising connections and juxtapositions. Surprising to the man in the street that is, but not to Storrar, who is well aware of the Center’s reach. “CTI is a catalyst for change starting with the residential scholars who visit each year and then go back to their own institutions where they teach differently, conduct their research differently, after being in a place that actively promotes thinking aloud together in a non-judgmental environment,” he says.

Indian theologian Jayakiran Sebastian calls it “a place where currents from all over the world, across the spectrum of theological, sociological, cultural inquiry flow together, ferment and flow out into areas which may not have been anticipated by its founders.”

“We do one thing and one thing only at CTI,” says Storrar. “We gather the best scholars from any discipline and any part of the world to think together on a common big question of our time. And we do that not through big conferences and large research projects, but by small-scale conversations around our table; salon-style rather than lecture-hall style.”

“Punching above our weight” is a phrase Storrar has been known to use and when you consider the sheer size of the place—a full time staff of just four—you realize he has a point. The four include Storrar, the Center’s Director of Research Robin Lovin, a center administrator and a receptionist. The phrase could equally be applied to Storrar himself, a man of quiet determination and seemingly endless stamina.

NOT A THINK TANK

One of the first things Storrar tells me about the Center is what it is not. “We are not an issues-based think tank.” In other words don’t look to CTI for sound bites following the latest atrocity carried out in the name of religion. Instead it’s a place for scholars to take a step back from headline-grabbing topics and to engage with the profound issues that underlie them.

Founded in 1978 by theological educator James McCord, CTI was inspired by the Institute for Advanced Study. The late Bill Scheide and Time magazine’s Henry Luce III (whose father founded the magazine) shared and supported McCord’s vision of placing theology at the cutting edge of intellectual debate. “No easy matter at that time,” says Storrar, with obvious admiration for his predecessor. “The mid-to-late 20th century was the time of faith versus reason, science versus religion; that was the battlefield McCord was trying to address.”

The landscape is different now, as a quick look at the intellectuals drawn to CTI attests. They run the gamut of the academic disciplines. In recent years, for example, they have included a psychotherapist turned theologian, an evolutionary anthropologist, a scientist who was also a novelist, theological ethicists and philosophers, neuroscientists and psychologists. They come not just from the United States but from Canada, England, Germany, New Zealand, Sweden, South Africa, India, China, Brazil, you name it.

“CTI is bringing together people in what would have seemed unlikely combinations but which are the shape of our future,” says Krista Tippett, the widely-respected and engaging broadcast journalist whose award-winning program On Being brings a discussion of religious and philosophical questions to public radio. She’s a long-standing friend of the Center and is an honorary trustee. This fall, CTI will embark on a two-year inquiry into the societal implications of astrobiology—the study of the origins, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe. It has received over $1 million from the NASA Astrobiology Program in support of the effort.

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WORKING WITH NASA ASTROBIOLOGISTS

“This is a very exciting time for CTI,” Storrar says, eager to share the Center’s plans. “This isn’t about a search for little green men but about the origins of life within the context of new discoveries and the search for the conditions for life elsewhere,” he says. “This will be a pioneering conversation, a deeply philosophical, ethical and legal debate in which assumptions are bound to be challenged.” It is clear that Storrar relishes the sort of sober, thoughtful, and non-sensational dialogue he’s been fostering for over three decades. Before his 2005 appointment as CTI Director, he held the Chair of Christian Ethics and Practical Theology at the University of Edinburgh, where he directed the Centre for Theology and Public Issues. He is also an Extraordinary Professor of the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa and a Magnusson Fellow and Visiting Professor at the Glasgow Caledonian University in his native Scotland. The conversation is timely, given recent discoveries of thousands of extra-solar planets and the ongoing search for potentially habitable environments in our solar system and beyond. Experts in theology, the humanities, and the social sciences will focus on the implications of astrobiology’s current research goals and findings with symposia and video-linked conversations with leading scientists in the field. The focus on astrobiology came about when Storrar and NASA’s senior scientist for astrobiology Mary A. Voytek served together on an advisory committee at the Library of Congress. “The second time we met, we turned to each other with the same thought in mind: that CTI would be a great place for a discussion that brought the multiple perspectives of the humanities to bear on the questions asked by astrobiologists,” recalls Voytek. As one of three distinguished scientists who spoke on “The Search for Biosignatures in our Solar System and Beyond” at a special hearing of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology in December, 2013, Voytek has been responsible for bringing members of the United States House of Representatives up to date on the latest findings in her science.

From Voytek’s perspective, CTI is the perfect place for “questions that have the potential to push up against belief systems. Questions that all of us ask, beginning in childhood with ‘where do I come from.’ Even the ancients looked up into the sky and wondered whether there was life out there,” she says, quoting Daedelus on the myriad of stars. The great inventor is said to have thought that the idea of life being nowhere other than on Earth was as ridiculous as scattering a field with millet seed and finding only one plant comes up. “Astrobiology is attempting to understand the origins of life; we use the word ‘genesis’ quite a lot, and some people might see this as challenging the Bible,” says Voytek. “The collaboration with CTI just fell into place and I am thrilled,” she enthuses. “This will be a genuine interdisciplinary inquiry, allowing the topic to be informed from multiple points of view. We aren’t looking for any particular outcome; we’ll see where it goes.” “This is a remarkable undertaking for CTI,” agrees Storrar. During the program’s second year, he expects to include philosophers and scholars in literature and the arts, bringing, in effect, interpreters of life into dialogue with scientists of life.

LAW AND RELIGIOUS FREEDOM

“Somewhat paradoxically,” says Storrar, “CTI is both a place apart and one that reaches out to the wider world.” Take the current inquiry, conducted in cooperation with Princeton University’s Program in Law and Public Affairs, in which twelve scholars, seven in legal studies and five in theology, address the timely topic of “Law and Religious Freedom.”
Against the contemporary backdrop of attacks by radicalized Islamic terrorists in Europe and the Middle East and legal and political struggles at home and abroad to negotiate individual and group relations across lines of religious difference, law scholars were lining up to participate with experts in post-Soviet Russia, China, Western Europe, southern Africa, and the Middle East on such diverse subjects as the legal, political and theological foundations of the right to religious liberty of individuals and of religious communities, ways of understanding and re-envisioning Christian and Islamic theology, and contemporary insights into the interpretation of constitutional and religious texts. “Exposure to different points of view is the real opportunity here,” says Sylvio Ferrari, professor of Canon Law at the University of Milan, who spent his visit examining cases brought before the European Court of Human Rights and the U.S. Supreme Court. In the former, he finds contradictory decisions regarding religious symbolism in public places, parallels of which he observes in the latter’s handling of public displays of the Ten Commandments. As Ferrari points out, and news headlines indicate, there’s a pressing need for understanding law in the context of religion and religion in the context of law. Hot button topics provide for dramatic media coverage but getting to the roots of conflict requires critical thinking about the nature and purpose of law and religious commitment. Interdisciplinary research and constructive effort by international scholars in both law and religion is needed for laws that preserve religious freedom in a world of multiple religions.

The distinguished international law scholar Mary Ellen O’Connell is working on research that might ultimately cause a gestalt shift in thinking about law and order, which she is re-envisioning in terms of beauty, symmetry, harmony and peace. Until recently, O’Connell’s work has focused on the use of armed force, so this is something of a departure. At CTI, she’s writing a book tentatively titled The Beauty of Peace. “The challenge for international law is to create laws that are not associated with any particular culture… Common access to a concept like beauty could be used to present the case for international law.”

SINGULAR ENVIRONMENT

Ask the Center’s visitors to describe the place and certain words frequently crop up: respect, cutting-edge, international, welcoming, synergy, open, supportive, safe. “Law scholars are often adversarial so it’s a breath of fresh air to be at CTI, which fosters a uniquely supportive and safe environment for open dialogue on subjects that can be deeply politically sensitive,” says international law scholar Peter Danchin, professor of law and director of the international comparative law program at the University of Maryland. “Such questions require a lot of labor as well as openness to the world, so it is important to have someone as wise and as calm as Robin Lovin to ensure open dialogue. The weekly colloquium, where there are no outsiders and the papers are not public, is a place to ask questions without fear of judgment.” Theologian John Burgess enlarges Danchin’s observation: “Much like contemporary society, the academic world today can very quickly become polarized, even oppositional, with people defending their points of view; at CTI there is a strong sense of collaboration; it’s a real treat to hear from legal scholars I don’t usually come into contact with.”

Because most of its participating scholars are in residence at the Center for the better part of a year, there is time for collegial connections to be made, which in turn fosters the sort of fresh thinking about the “big questions” of human purpose that CTI is known for. “Will’s personal generosity of spirit and lack of pretension embodies what is so distinctive about CTI as an open intellectual space, and that is uncommon. It is not pretentious and yet has a degree of formality that I enjoy,” says Danchin. As many scholars have observed, hyper-specialization has become a feature of academia over the last 50 years. While such specialization results in advances, it comes at the cost of isolation in the disciplines and a narrowing of perspectives. “You need places in the world where people’s beliefs and values and how they affect their attitudes to things like the climate or poverty or suffering are dealt with. CTI is one such place,” says Storrar.

GOOD COMPANY

If a man is known by the company he keeps, then a measure of CTI’s worth might well be drawn from the list of its visitors – eminent public figures such as the legal and political philosopher Jeremy Waldron and leading literary light Marilynne Robinson, whose writings brings theology into the public discourse through essays and novels that include Gilead, Housekeeping and most recently Lila. Robinson felt at home at the Center as a Distinguished Visiting Scholar. “Open” is the word she used. Storrar invited her after reading her book of essays, Death of Adam. “She is a remarkable conversation partner,” he says. Like Robinson, CTI scholars are all accomplished listeners. And that is no accident. “We look for scholars who demonstrate intellectual flexibility and empathy, scholars who are willing to live with uncertainty and ambiguity and to be able to tolerate, and even be stimulated by, questions that are not well-formed at the outset,” explains Lovin. By all accounts, CTI offers a unique environment for academic inquiry. But neither Storrar nor Lovin want it to stay that way. Rather their hope is that the Center will inspire similar places where advanced thinking in theology can become a part of the intellectual landscape across the globe, especially in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

“If you want to affect what happens in the world, you have to change ideas, the way that people think; at their best that is what scholars do,” says Lovin, adding “CTI tries to be a place where scholars can be at their best.”

The Center of Theological Inquiry at 50 Stockton Street is an independent educational institution for all backgrounds and communities wishing to engage with theology. It has close ties with research programs at Princeton University and historic links with the Princeton Theological Seminary which provides CTI scholars with access to its library. It has an annual endowed lecture that is open to the public, the William Witherspoon Lecture, hosts regular meetings of a community reading group and invites the public to tea and conversation with one of its resident scholars from time to time. For more information, visit: www.ctinquiry.org.