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Interview | New CTNS Director: Braden Molhoek, PhD
Dr. Braden Molhoek (PhD, GTU 2016) is a lecturer in Science, Technology, and Ethics at the GTU and incoming Director of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS). In this interview, Braden shares what initially drew him to the GTU, his involvement at CTNS, and his hopes for the future of CTNS, in partnership with the GTU.
GTU: Congratulations on being named incoming Director of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS)! What is your background with the GTU and CTNS? How has your work prepared you for this role?
Braden Molhoek: Thank you. I am honored to be given the opportunity and responsibility to be the next director of CTNS. I first learned of CTNS and the GTU while I was working on an MTS at Boston University School of Theology. My advisor, Wesley Wildman, was a graduate of the GTU and worked at CTNS. His advice was that if I was interested in doing work in science and religion, there were four places in the world to consider: staying at BU, Oxford, Cambridge, and CTNS at the GTU. During my time at BU, the school hired a number of faculty, including another GTU/CTNS graduate, Kirk Wegter-McNelly. Ultimately, I decided to pursue my PhD at the GTU because of CTNS, but also because of the strong ethics faculty at the GTU.
I started working for CTNS in November of my first year in the PhD program . CTNS had been awarded a grant that year from the John Templeton Foundation (JTF), called Science and Transcendence Advanced Research Series, or STARS. The goal of the grant was to hold a series of conferences on cutting-edge topics in science and religion, with time for participants to meet with each other and with the grant leadership to discuss the formation of research groups and grant proposals. There was a three-tier grant competition then, where interdisciplinary teams of scientists and humanities scholars would work on questions of ultimate reality. I interviewed immediately and started working for the STARS grant the week of my birthday.
Within my first year of working for the Center, I was placed in charge of the financials for the STARS grant. After two years, we moved to the office space above CTNS, and I began working closely with the main CTNS staff as I continued to communicate with grant teams, receiving progress reports, assisting in writing progress reports to the foundation, and doing general office work as needed for the Center.
In 2009, I was promoted to bookkeeper, where I took care of all financials for the Center, accounts payable and receivable, assisting specialists with payroll and annual taxes, budgeting, preparing financial reports for the board, and doing whatever else needed to be done. I grew closer with the staff and learned a great deal about the operations of CTNS.
At the end of 2015 we were given an amazing gift by Jack Templeton: a $1.3 million donation to help the Center move from an independent non-profit to becoming an internal program of the GTU. My role was to build a budget projection as a part of the transition plans.
While all this was going on, I was still a Ph.D. student, working through the requirements of the program. Working at CTNS allowed me to network and provided opportunities to attend conferences, present papers, and publish. The transition to becoming a program of the GTU occurred as I was finishing my dissertation and defending it, so it was quite the busy time.
With my upcoming graduation, we added teaching to my responsibilities. In the spring of 2017, Bob and I co-taught a course, and I have continued to teach as a Lecturer in Science, Technology, and Ethics at the GTU ever since. I also joined the Rostered and in-Residence Faculty at the GTU, and I learned more about the academic side of things at the GTU, on top of the administrative side, as we continued to navigate becoming an internal program of the GTU.
I have been at the GTU and at CTNS since the fall of 2005. Over that time, I learned more about how both the GTU and CTNS operate. Working at CTNS has allowed me to grow as a scholar as well as to hone administrative skills that will be invaluable in my new role. While there will be new challenges, this time has prepared me to continue the legacy of CTNS.
GTU: Recognizing the immense impact Dr. Robert Russell (“Bob”) has had on so many, through his work at CTNS and beyond, what does Bob’s leadership at the CTNS mean to you? How has Bob’s life and work impacted you and your work?
BM: I first want to say that there is no way this answer could encapsulate Bob’s leadership and impact on me, on others, and the academy. An element of Bob’s approach that I find helpful, but I also believe reveals an aspect of his character, is a narrative element. When Bob speaks of his work and the work of CTNS, it is not simply grants, publications, and events; it is a collection of stories, the people involved, and their shared experiences. Bob often used the concept of the Golden Gate Bridge as a symbol of the work that the center does, to build a bridge between science and religion. He takes this approach to the personal level as well: in the way that he cares for his students and staff, and how he emphasizes the importance of getting your conversation partners right, in terms of their positions and approaches. It is not just the ideas that matter to him, but people as well.
Another example of the depth of Bob’s work is that he believes the bridge between science and religion should have two-way traffic; in other words, not only can science inform religion, but religion should be able to inform science as well. Bob’s method, Creative Mutual Interaction, highlights eight paths between the two fields. Five paths move from science to religion, and these kinds of interactions are what many people in the field tend to emphasize. Three of the paths, however, move from religion to science. While these paths can be more difficult to articulate, Bob has always maintained that there is meaningful work to be done here. His book Time in Eternity is an example of such work.
CTNS would not exist without the passion Bob has for the work and the sacrifices he and his family have made. He has inspired generations of scholars and religious leaders through his teaching of seminary and doctoral students at the GTU.
He likes to affectionately say that he has academic “grandchildren,” in that he has taught doctoral students who have gone on to have their own doctoral students. The work Bob has done over the years provided opportunities to many, even as the time and effort he puts into it has also affected his own scholarly work. I look forward to seeing Bob’s scholarship continue as he goes through this next transition.
On a personal level, Bob has put a great deal of faith in me over the years. I am thankful that he believed I was capable to taking on the additional responsibilities he assigned over the years, and he has always been supportive of my scholarship and career. I have quite enjoyed the evolution of our relationship from a student worker with little direct contact, to a caring mentor who welcomes challenges, new ideas, and collaboration. I know I’m not alone in saying that Bob has had a profound influence on my life. It is my hope that people will share their memories and experiences of Bob this year as a celebration of both his scholarship and humanity.
GTU: As you take up the Director role at CTNS, what are you most excited about? What challenges do you foresee and how are you planning to address those?
BM: Inevitably there are challenges when a leader like this moves on, but I think the best way to address this is acknowledge that I am not Bob, that I never will be, and to do what I see as best to carry on the legacy of CTNS. A challenge I am looking forward to engaging with is to continue the mission of CTNS in new directions.
As the name says, the focus of CTNS has been on the natural sciences, but over time what that includes has expanded. Our understanding of science continues to deepen and shift focus, as does the work which with CTNS engages. Issues including gene editing, transhumanism, and AI are increasingly important and these topics are a natural expansion of the Center’s core mission and values. Bob is a physicist, but my undergraduate scientific training was in genetics, so I am naturally more drawn to the biological sciences. CTNS has been exploring frontiers for a long time, most recently issues of astrobiology and astrotheology.
I also believe that technology is going to be increasingly important with how we engage with our constituents. With GTU’s growing online presence through GTUx, I believe there will be ways in which we can grow our online presence to better serve those already interested in the Center’s work and hopefully engage new people as well.
GTU: Thinking about the most pressing issues of our time, why does CTNS’s work matter now?
BM: The past several years have shown that the world is very connected, and that technology affects that connection in a multitude of ways. On the other hand, there is great conflict and division as well. CTNS’s work remains as important as ever to show that conflict is not the only way in which science and religion can relate, that experts in a variety of fields can have meaningful conversations about both personal experience as well as the implications of their scholarship, and that building bridges is an ongoing task.