God and Big Bang nets a prize for GTU professor

If you subscribe to the Big Bang theory of the universe's beginning, how can you also hold on to the idea that God created the heaven and earth in six days?

Merging the two widely divergent views is possible, says Jewish studies professor Daniel Matt. But it requires a willingness to challenge some of our most firmly held beliefs.

"We have to surrender some of our traditional notions of God as father in heaven and really redefine God as the energy that animates all of existence," says the professor of Jewish spirituality at the Richard S. Dinner Center for Jewish Studies at Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union.

For his exploration of the link between science and spirituality, Matt was recently awarded the international Templeton Science and Religion Course Award by the John M. Templeton Foundation in Radnor, Pa. The $10,000 prize — half of which goes to the recipient and half to his or her institution — is granted annually to foster the development of courses that bridge the disciplines of science and religion.

This year, 100 prizes were awarded to academicians from Europe to New Zealand. Winners will meet this summer to share insights and research on the intersection of science and theology.

For his part, Matt received the prize for a course titled "God and the Big Bang," which he has taught for the past year and a half. He introduced the course as a visiting professor at Stanford University in early 1995, taught it at the Graduate Theological Union last fall and then brought it to the University of San Francisco this spring.

The course, which Matt will teach at GTU again this summer, begins with an investigation of current scientific theories of the universe. Matt then asks students to envision the type of Supreme Being that might make sense given such a world.

To help answer this question, he explores the Hebrew scriptures, Midrash, and mystical writings, as well as writings about God and creation found in Christian, Islamic, Buddhist and Hindu traditions.

Matt drew much of the course's material from his research for his upcoming third book, "God and the Big Bang: Discovering Harmony Between Science and Spirituality." Due out this month, the book draws parallels between modern cosmology and Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, and shows how science and religion, taken together, can enrich our spiritual understanding.

Both realms, Matt points out, arise from the same quest to understand human origins. Thus, while they are distinct, they are also complementary.

"What science can learn from religion is an appreciation of wonder," Matt says. "What religion can learn from science is a willingness to question one's current formulations."

Though interest in the link between science and religion is nothing new — 12th-century rabbi and doctor Moses Maimonides taught the disciplines hand in hand — the topic has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years.

In Matt's eyes, this has to do with a growing sense that some dimensions of reality simply cannot be understood solely in rational terms.

Citing Albert Einstein, who said that by studying science he was discovering how God thinks, Matt says, "The greatest scientists seem to be open to the spiritual dimension."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.