Peter Hess's picture

An Astronomer for God: William R. Stoeger (1943-2014)

Biblical fundamentalists and their opponents on the extreme opposite end of the spectrum of belief often share one significant assumption: in order to contribute to modern science you have to be an atheist. That is, you cannot at the same time believe in a personal God and accept the scientific explanations of Big Bang cosmology, of the age of our solar system, and of the evolution of biodiversity on Earth.  (So-called “intelligent design” creationism sidesteps the last question by waffling both on what counts as science and on whether the presumed "intelligent designer" is in fact God.)

The late Jesuit astronomer and cosmologist William R. Stoeger, S.J., vigorously rejected the false conclusion that to accept modern science you must be an atheist. Ordained a Jesuit priest in 1972, Stoeger earned his Ph.D. in astrophysics at Cambridge University in 1976, where he was a student of the Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees, and a classmate of Stephen Hawking. From 1979 to the end of his life he was a staff scientist for the Vatican Observatory Research Group, in Tucson, Arizona, specializing in theoretical cosmology, high-energy astrophysics, and interdisciplinary studies relating to science, philosophy and theology.

Fr. Stoeger's work fell into two general areas: physics and theology. His scientific research dealt with problems connected with the physics of accretion onto black holes, theories of gravity, and general relativity. Later in life he concentrated on building stronger bridges between cosmological theory and astronomical observations, and he also pursued research on the physics of quasars and of the central engine in galactic nuclei. His paper "Proving almost-homogeneity of the universe" (co-written with George Ellis and R. Maartens) was referred to by at least 85 other papers in the field of cosmology, according to his friend and colleague, Brother Guy Consolmagno.

Stoeger’s theological work focused mainly on interpreting the significance of contemporary cosmology for theology. One of his most seminal essays was “The immanent directionality of the evolutionary process, and its relationship to teleology,” in Evolutionary and Molecular Biology: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, ed. Russell, Stoeger, and Ayala (Vatican Observatory, 1998)

In this essay Stoeger carefully examined the question of whether or not there is an immanent directionality in nature. He argued that there is a directionality that can be discovered through the natural sciences when we study "the emergence of physical and biological structures, complexity, life, and mind.”  However—in sharp contrast to the theory of so-called “intelligent design”—Stoeger believed that the discoveries of science speak for themselves—they do not require us to postulate teleological mechanisms (such as “irreducible complexity”) that are unobservable to science. He argued that the scientific method rules out the necessity and even the possibility of divine intervention to complement the principles and processes accessible to science. For Stoeger, the laws of nature—as they function in the universe—are one of the key ways in which God might act in the universe, but not in such a way that we could discover it through scientific research.

Although I did not know Bill Stoeger very well on a personal level I did enjoy numerous cordial encounters with him at conferences and workshops. I was impressed with his willingness to engage students in discussion and how he graciously served on the dissertation committee of a doctoral student I referred to him late in his career. Stoeger's fellow Jesuit and Vatican Observatory colleague Brother Guy Consolmagno aptly characterizes his versatility:

He's the only person I know who could both understand and work with the mathematics of the Big Bang, and also direct retreats for religious women.

One of the people who knew Stoeger best is Robert Russell, founder and director of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS) in Berkeley, an organization Stoeger served in varying capacities as board member, advisor, and distinguished lecturer. Russell says that as both a Roman Catholic priest and a distinguished scientist specializing in theoretical cosmology, Bill Stoeger was committed to the view that God is the source of the existence of the universe and its rationality as reflected in the laws of nature which science explores:

In this sense [for Bill] God is the "primary cause" of the universe and the creator of the "secondary causes" of nature, such as the fundamental forces and particles which science discovers. Taken into the area of evolutionary biology, God is the cause of the existence of the entire natural history of life on earth (and perhaps elsewhere in the universe) and the one who gives to nature the causal capacity for the biological evolution of life through such processes as variation and natural selection.

Roman Catholic molecular biologist Martinez Hewlett worked with Bill Stoeger for many years as co-founder of the St. Albert the Great Forum on Science and Religion at the University of Arizona.  Hewlett comments,

Father Bill was both a spiritual and professional mentor to me. He was instrumental in my move from science to the field of philosophy of science and science and religion. I will miss him as a friend and advisor.

Bill Stoeger was both a brilliant and careful astronomer and an astute partner in dialogue about issues at the interface between religion and science. It was his lifelong conviction that

God is speaking to us not only through Scripture, but also through the beauties, the wonder, the intricacies, and the harmonies of creation, and so what we discover, either about the way our brain works, and how it coordinates our behavior, or what we discover about the biology of the cell, or the chemistry of DNA, or the working of cosmology or physics, all those things are going to tell us, at least a little bit, about how God acts in the world.

Father Bill, we bid you fond farewell and Godspeed, in remembrance of and thanksgiving for your contributions to our understanding of so many facets of life in the universe.