21 December 2010

Mary E. Hunt reflects on "Renaissance man" Rustum Roy (1924-2010)

Rustum Roy: Science, Society, and Healing
Mary E. Hunt
October 18, 2010

Religion and science lost a phenomenal man this season when Rustum Roy (1924-2010), an Indian born materials scientist, 33rd generation Brahmin and progressive Christian, passed away in State College, PA, where he worked for more than fifty years. He was phenomenal because he combined a world-class scientific mind with a deep commitment to liberal unto liberationist religion, and topped it off with an ever-deepening conviction about body, mind, and spirit connections. What he brought to the science-religion conversation, unlike so many scientists who are religiously conservative, was a mind as open, critical, and learned about religion as he was skeptical, rigorous, and data driven in science.

The easiest way to describe Rustum is to call him the Renaissance man that he was in every sense of the term. He was classically educated in India where he met Gandhi who came to his house for tea with Rustum’s father who was a high government official. He earned a U.S. PhD and returned briefly to India to work. But given that the pace of research was slow in his native land, Rustum returned to his alma mater, Penn State, to engage in basic scientific research.

He was trained as an earth scientist. He was among the first to see the need for interdisciplinary work among geologists, applied chemists, physicists, even engineers, to name just a few of the intersecting disciplines that make up Materials Science. What is now a well-established field was an idea that Rustum Roy pioneered. He invented and patented with the best of scientists, wrote more that 800 scientific papers, consulted for Bell Labs. In essence, he was a scientist’s scientist. But he also knew and loved the arts, adding a gallery to the Materials Research Lab at Penn State. Science policy became his forte as he helped to shape the way government and industry allocate resources for research and development, always weaving social values into the equation.

At the same time, Rustum helped create a small Christian base community, the Sycamore Community, in State College, PA. He preached regularly at the innovative Church of the Savior in Washington, DC, chaired the board of Kirkridge, a progressive conference center in Bangor, PA, and served on the board of the National Council of Churches. Somehow he found time for voluminous correspondence, dozens of phone calls a day, and a vital family life with his wife, children, and the extended Roy clan. Rustum worked tirelessly, often returning to the office after a family dinner to burn the midnight oil on one of several journals he helped to found, or simply to support a graduate student whose thesis needed some tending.

The man was amazing in his production and in his enthusiasm for new ideas. Of course, like many gentleman of a certain age, he could not have done it all without the many (mostly women) support staffers who made his plane arrangements for the hundreds of national and international meetings he attended, kept his appointments straight, and polished up his countless articles, books, chapters, and scientific papers. It was not unusual to get a late night phone call; Rustum had a new idea he just needed to share and assess with his fifteen closest colleagues who knew about the topic.

Believe it or not, the man was much more than all of this though I find the thought of it dizzying. He made the garden-variety workaholic look slothful. He never missed a chance to combine work and pleasure, often finding time during his Washington, DC visits to gather friends for a simple meal and stimulating conversation. He replicated that dynamic around the world.

More than a Renaissance man, Rustum Roy was a phenom. As Wikipedia would have it, a Phenom is at once a kind of electron microscope, a progressive rock group from Bangalore, India, a computer processor, and a television show. Yes, this is getting closer to the man I knew who left the Renaissance in his dust.

I met Rustum in 1984 when a mutual friend, Anne Stewart, a United Methodist minister, invited both of us to lecture at a conference she was coordinating on friendship, sexuality and the church. Rustum and his wife, Della, also a materials scientist, had published a book called Honest Sex in 1968, in which they had opened up the possibility of married people having additional intimate friends. Needless to say, they knew a lot more about the topic than I did and we became friends and colleagues instantly.

Rustum pioneered Science, Technology and Society as a field, starting an organization and a journal, as was his wont in new endeavors. He realized that by networking the right people and publishing the key articles (before and in the early days of the Internet!) the multiplier effect would take over. Religion, of course, was an integral part of society.

His interest in religion went back to his family of origin, Protestant Christians in India. When he arrived in the U.S. he had early connections to progressive Protestants. He eventually fell in with Jon Oliver Nelson and the merry band at Kirkridge who practiced the “Picket and Pray” spirituality with roots both in the Social Gospel and the rigorous spirituality of the Iona Community in Scotland. His religious professional friends included Bishop John A. T. Robinson of Honest to God fame, Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, and Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister, all innovators in their respective circles.

Rustum gave the prestigious Hibbert Lectures, nonsectarian treatments of theological issues, in 1979, later published in a book entitled Experimenting with Truth. He joined the Hibbert company of luminaries that now includes William James, Josiah Royce, Albert Schweitzer, James Luther Adams, and Karen Armstrong among others. He argued that the basic scientific work of our time was finished. There would be more applications, but the nuts and bolts were all there by the 1970’s. It was time, he urged, to see how the “end of science” could mean the beginning of something new.

Rustum was a scientific and religious contrarian. Just as he rejected the sacred cows of science, so too did he reject the popular neo-orthodoxy and liberalism in religion in favor of liberation theology, feminist theology, and other less well-accepted theological approaches. He worked hard to defeat the Superconducting Supercollider, a move the U.S. House made in 1992, effectively ending the gravy train for scientific research that Roy was honest enough to say was not necessary. In religion, he was an early supporter of rights for same-sex lovers.

What was ahead? The science-religion conversation that the John Templeton Foundation began funding in the late 1980’s out of what is now a $1.8 billion endowment was of little interest to Rustum. He preferred to emphasize science and religion in more organic ways. For example, he saw to it that science was part of the conversation in the revival of Parliament of the World’s Religions. He insisted that progressive religious voices be part of the dialogue with scientists. He was skeptical of the conservative framing of so much of the science-religion discussion that left engineering out of science and ethics out of religion. Rustum realized that such framing was the death knell of any useful collaboration.

Eventually he went in a different direction—even more applied—into the area of “whole person medicine.” This was somewhat surprising to me in light of his socially responsible faith—did I mention that he was on the board of the Calvert Group, the socially responsible investment firm well into his 80’s—which seemed a far cry from the seemingly fuzzy healing crowd. But I was wrong.

Rustum met and worked with Andrew Weil and Deepak Chopra on the intersection of the physical, mental, and spiritual components of healing. In his retirement years he taught in Arizona where a lot of this work goes on. He was a big supporter of the Qigong movement, a Chinese approach to healing and exercise. I should have known that he would bring his usual rigor and style to the work of healing.

True to form, he set up a non-profit, “Friends of Health” to bring the right people together The group’s first accomplishment, rather on the order of basic science, was to establish “whole person healing” as the preferred term, replacing “alternative medicine” and other lesser explanations for what is increasingly popular approach. Another move by the group was to explore the nature of liquid water to show, with the help of insights from materials science, that homeopathic medicine can’t be written off as scientifically untenable. This was the among last of his scientific forays but I predict it will have future ripples.

Just as he was decades ahead of the curve in science, I suspect that he was decades ahead of the curve in the whole person healing work. It does not matter. The world eventually catches up with Rustum Roy. But his life demonstrates that science and religion, far from being odd bedfellows, are really interesting conversation partners, especially among people who bring the same critical apparatus to both.

After Rustum Roy, whom I loved as a friend and respected as a colleague, I expect such rigor on both sides of the fence of the science-religion nexus. The fact that he could play both sides so well only ups the ante for a conversation that is as impoverished by his passing as it was enriched by his participation.