Why we have to think differently about science and religion

This is an article commissioned from me from the American Physics Journal Physics Today. With their permission I am republishing it here for readers of this blog,

Maintaining the “alternative fact” that science and religion, and in particular Christianity, are in conflict is hurting science. Over the past year, three occasions have left me with strong visual memories and deep impressions that point towards a better approach.

The first, held at St John’s College of Durham University in the UK, was a debate on the sensitive topic of ‘fracking’—shale-oil recovery by hydraulic fracturing. I have witnessed several such discussions, both live and broadcast, and they rarely succeed in anything except escalating entrenched positions and increasing misinformation and fear; few participants bother to treat the science with respect.

Tom McLeish seminarThis gathering was different. Strongly opposing views were expressed, but their proponents listened to each other. Everyone was keen to grasp both the knowns and the uncertainties of the geological science and technology. Social science and geophysics both drew sustained civil dialog. The notion of different priorities was understood—and some people actually changed their views.

The second occasion was some reading I have been doing for a book on the role of creativity and imagination in science. Research for one chapter had led me to connections between the explosion of new science in the 17th century and ideas from the same period expressed in literature, art, and theology.


Those ideas included a discussion of the nature of God to a depth unseen since the fourth-century ecumenical councils. One treatise impressed me hugely with its author’s detailed knowledge of textual analysis, variants in New Testament manuscripts, and nuances of Greek; it would rival any current scholarship. Furthermore, it evidenced a scientific logic and a perception of the revolutions in natural philosophy that is very rare in theological writing today.

Job on stageA one-act play I attended in my hometown of York in the UK supplied the third occasion. I’d heard that a respected national theater company had long wanted to create a work based on the ancient book of Job. I admit to a personal love for that ancient poem. No one really knows where it came from, but for my money it contains the most sublime articulation of the innate curiosity into nature that still drives science today but that has clearly deep human roots. Its probing questions seek answers to where hail, lightning, and clouds come from, why stars can be clustered together, how birds navigate huge distances, how the laws of the heavens can be applied to Earth, and so on.

Common across the three occasions is the theme of surprisingly deep and constructive mutual engagement of science and religious belief. The conference on shale-gas recovery was between academic Earth scientists and a few dozen senior church leaders, including bishops of the Church of England. The author of the impressive New Testament scholarship was Isaac Newton. And the play that so impressed me, staged by the Riding Lights Theatre Company in the elegant renaissance church of St Michael le Belfrey in York, featured a 20th-century Job as a research physicist. After the performance a panel of scientists discussed how their faith supports their scientific research. Anyone who has not read beyond the superficial yet ubiquitous stories of conflict between science and religion that receive so much airtime today would be surprised to see such deep entanglements of scientific and religious thinking, from the ancient past of the book of Job to current scientifically informed political decision making.

Between the ancient and the contemporary lies the history of early modern science. There, too, the public sphere today seems dominated by a determined program of misinformation. Newton himself is testimony to the deep formative role of Christian theology in the rise of experimental and mathematical sciences. Far from being a sort of secular triumph over centuries of dogmatic obscurantism, the writings of early modern scientists such as Newton and Robert Boyle make it clear that they were motivated by the theological philosophy of Francis Bacon.

For Bacon, science became the gift by which humankind restores an original knowledge of nature, lost as a consequence of rejection of God. The truth that faith conveyed direct motivation and influence for many great scientists can be uncomfortable. Historian of science and biographer Geoffrey Cantor, author of Michael Faraday: Sandemanian and Scientist—A Study of Science and Religion in the Nineteenth Century (1991), still receives ‘hate mail’ from readers incensed at the suggestion that such a scientific mind might also have been a Christian one.

We are even learning to readjust our schoolbook picture of the Middle Ages as a period of intellectual stagnation, generally repressive of science. History is far more interesting. The scientific enlightenment that gave birth to the Copernican Revolution, the Royal Society of London, the universal theory of gravitation, and the telescope and microscope did not, of course, arise from nowhere. The long fuse for that intellectual fireworks display was lit in 12th-century Europe by scholars like Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon through the movement to translate Aristotle’s scientific texts. They were mostly lost to the West since late antiquity but were preserved and developed by brilliant Islamic scholars in Baghdad, the Levant, and Spain. Arab natural philosophers Al-Kindi, Averroës, Alhazen and Avicenna ought to be far better known as beacons in the long history of science; they, too, saw their task of comprehending the cosmos as God-given. The consequent scientific awakening in the West saw the new learning about the cosmos, not as conflictual with the Bible, but as a ‘second book’ to be read alongside it.

The scholars’ work allowed 13th-century English thinkers Grosseteste, Bacon, and others to develop theories of light, color, and motion. Their work led, for example, to the first complete theory of the rainbow at the level of geometric optics, from the laboratory of Theodoric of Freiberg in the 1320s and to the first mathematical articulation of accelerated motion by Jean Buridan of Paris a decade later. Small wonder that Nicolaus Copernicus saw his astronomical work as a form of worship and that Galileo Galilei viewed it as reading God’s second book.

Maintaining the alternative fact that science and religion are in conflict does no one any favors and is hurting science. The damage comes not only through a warped transmission of history but also because it suggests to religious communities that science is a threat to them rather than an enterprise they can celebrate and support. The bishops’ fracking conference is just one example of how the quality of social support of and discussion around science can be raised once churches get involved. After all, a community with a commitment to core values of truth and a banishment of fear might well offer the clarity and calm needed in a public debate currently marked by far too much falsity and fear.

Equally tragic is that in families with a faith tradition, even very young children may receive the idea that science is not for them or that it somehow threatens their community. The truth is that throughout most of history, scientific investigation has gone hand in hand with a commitment to theism, at least in the three Abrahamic faiths. It is, sadly, possible to invent conflict where none needs to be.

The “literal” reading of texts such as Genesis–as if they were scientific documents rather than part of a story in which we inquire about the universe–is a 20th-century aberration away from orthodox Christianity. Conversely, misrepresenting faith as mindless adherence to beliefs in the face of evidence to the contrary needs to give way to a more thoughtful understanding. The term can describe painstaking engagement with the world through the true stories we are part of. Reflecting the vital presence of what we might call “reasoned hope,” faith is not so very far from descriptions of the experience of doing science.

Driving an unhistorical and unrealistic wedge between science and religion has got to stop. It leads, in part, to the optionalism that we see in some public and political attitudes toward science, from climate change to vaccination. It damages the educational experience of our children, and it impoverishes our understanding of our own science’s historical context. Human beings live not only in a physical world but within historical narratives that give us values, purpose, and identity. Science sits on the branches and draws from the sap of many of those stories whose roots are anchored in the great themes of creation, redemption, and renewal that course through our religious traditions and endow us with humanity. We are still looking for answers to some of the questions God asks of the luckless Job:


The Lord Answering job out of the Whirlwind by William Blake

Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the Earth? …

What is the way to the place where lightning is dispersed …?

Can you bind the beautiful Pleiades?


Living with the Gods: a British Museum Conversation with Prof. Colin Blakemore

Sun Beams Entering Cave

The British Museum is currently running a exhibition Living with the Gods that features a rich material heritage of humankind’s historic engagement with the numinous, religious and theistic. There are a series of events planned over its course, including an evening conversation called The Science of Belief on January 26th 2018 between me, Samira Ahmed of the BBC and Prof. Colin Blakemore of University College London.  It is advertised thus:

Humans, through time and across the world, have consistently expressed patterns of believing and belonging through shared narrative and practice.

In this discussion, chaired by award-winning journalist, writer and BBC broadcaster Samira Ahmed, scientists Colin Blakemore and Tom McLeish examine how the cognitive impetus that drove the emergence of science might be considered to be the same impetus that fostered religion and other metaphysical beliefs.

They will discuss how science is itself at the heart of being human, and can be traced back through art, philosophy and ancient stories, including those in religious traditions.

Presented in collaboration with the Royal Society.

Leading up to that event, Colin and I were invited to post a conversation on the British Museum blog. With the Museum’s permission, I thought that readers of this blog might be interested in reading how the conversation went. Colin starts off …


Dear Tom,

As scientists, we surely both subscribe to a view of the universe that is compatible with the scientific method. Without the belief that the world is orderly, causally complete, and (in principle) explicable in terms of the properties of physical matter and lawful forces, the methods of science would be unreliable. But they are not. One after another, phenomena that previously seemed utterly mysterious – from the motion of stars to the nature of life – have succumbed to the explanatory power of science.

Curiosity and exploration are essential for the survival of mobile organisms. Exploring the environment in order to understand it and to use that knowledge to predict events is clearly important for any animal looking for food or a mate, and trying to avoid being someone else’s dinner. Presumably it is the enormous brain of human beings that propelled us into the state of exaggerated curiosity that distinguishes our species. Perhaps we should have been called Homo curiosus, rather than Homo sapiens: without curiosity, there could be no wisdom.

I suspect we’ll agree that a lust for understanding underpins both religion and science. But, to my mind, they are epistemologically incompatible. In our quest to comprehend nature (including our own nature), there is no place for ideology, dogma and unjustifiable faith. Nor for appeals to the ‘super’-natural.




EnLion Man from three angles. Stadel Cave, Baden-Württemberg, Germany, 40,000 years old. © Ulmer Museum.

Dear Colin,

I was rather hoping for something that I might be able to disagree with!  Love the Homo curiosus idea, and the ‘lust for understanding’. Well perhaps I can disagree with your assumption at the end that ‘religion’ is some sort of alternative epistemology for finding out knowledge about the world.  You sketch the convenient (Auguste) Comptean picture of science slowly replacing ‘religion’ as explanation, as it paints the priest and prophet into an ever-vanishing corner of the epistemological room. It’s such a common misunderstanding, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is just that.  So, I’m not surprised at the hurling around of words like ‘ideology’, ‘dogma’ and ‘unjustified faith’ – perhaps there is rather a lot to unpick here after all.

Let’s start with your (and our shared) ‘belief that the world is orderly …’.  It’s true – continually, miraculously (in the bare sense of the word) it’s faith that turns out to be justified.  We don’t know if that will continue of course, but both suspect that it will.  Kepler, Faraday, Maxwell, Einstein, Hoyle and many other scientists have not unreasonably raised the theological significance of the discovery that mental structure is there in the universe.

My tradition of Judeo-Christianity is not a set of rival explanatory ‘super-natural’ causes for the world, but (among many other things) a story of how humans have come to terms with their relationship to that world (and yes with its Creator).  The great medieval scientific enlightenment lit the fuse that led to the events we call the ‘scientific revolution’ with methods of observation and cognition, and with a driving narrative of purpose and hope, that was explicitly generated by a theological narrative.  The early moderns, Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle, Newton himself – drove experimental science from the same source.

Science can give helpful evolutionary and anthropological explanations of where curiosity came from, but it cannot give us the story we need to live in now, on why we do science itself, for what end and for whom, why human persons find, as Kant put it, a disjuncture between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’.  I am trying to get at what Einstein meant when he said, ‘Religion without science is blind; science without religion is lame’.



The Lord Answering job out of the Whirlwind, by William Blake

Dear Tom,

Yes, we have plenty to agree on – especially the explanatory power of science, and its dependence on the regularity and lawfulness of the universe. And I agree that mystical notions might have provided human beings, in the past, with a normative mythology, partly reassuring, partly intimidating, about the role of people on this earth. But the existence of an idea, even if widespread among humans, even if powerful in its influence, doesn’t make it correct.

There are two themes in your reply that I’m eager to discuss when we meet on 27 January. The first is your suggestion that the Judeo-Christian narrative is not an explanation myth but “a story of how humans have come to terms with their relationship to that world”. Apart from the fact that Genesis 1:1 seems to have been forgotten, I wonder how you can accept fables and legends, bereft of evidence, as anything more than fiction. And if you mean that religious codes have provided people with essential guidance on how to relate to each other and to the natural world, I must remind you that religio-politics (from far-right Christian fundamentalism to Jihadist terrorism to Buddhist ethnic cleansing to Zionist Islamophobia) isn’t doing a very good job. Our only chance of coming to terms with each other and the world lies in the genuine understanding of that world and of the nature of human beings that comes from evidence-based scholarship (in the humanities as well as science).

The second is your notion that the inspiration for scientists (and even for science itself) was “a driving narrative of purpose and hope” provided by religion.  Human beings certainly have a tendency to see purpose and meaning in the world, as well as an inclination to perceive agency and intention. These cognitive dispositions are efficient ways of identifying the presence and actions of other people, but they can lead to a false model of causation based on intention, and the curious view that life is valuable only if it has some undefined ‘meaning’. I think that this is the more correct interpretation of your statement that “mental structure is there in the universe.” As for religion inspiring science, you proffer Bacon, Boyle and Newton. But I raise you Bohr, Medawar, Tinbergen, Higgs, Crick, Monod, Kroto, Chadwick, Brenner, Bondi, Pauling, etc. As for Einstein and the enigmatic words that you cite, I submit his own explanation: “I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.” (Einstein, 1954). Hear, hear.


Dear Colin

We have established that very clever and wise scientists can be atheists, and equally can be theists. Very detailed sociological work along these lines has been carried out more recently by sociologists such as Elaine Ecklund at Rice University. But all that does is to give us pause before we take the line that either world-view is obviously right, or obviously wrong. I think that an equally sterile course would be to pivot an argument on the worst excesses of those who distort tradition to violent and poisonous ends (including those of the officially atheist regimes we have seen only since the 20th century).

We ought to discuss what ‘accepting fables and legends’ (I have always preferred ‘myths’) might mean. Since you mention Genesis 1 (forgotten by whom, by the way, and accepted as meaning what?) it might be helpful in the context of the British Museum to recall the many historical modes of reading such texts that are far more sophisticated than our repertoire today: analogical, anagogical, metaphorical, apocalyptical, normative, and so on. I am always saddened by the cultural failure to read the Bible in our age (irrespective of belief), simply because we miss the wealth of ancient evidence for the way humankind has looked for meaning, in just the way you point out.  Berlin philosopher Susan Neiman has claimed, for example, that the Book of Job should be considered alongside Plato as a foundation text for Western philosophy. In any case it contains some of the most sublime ancient nature poetry I know, and convinces me that the seeds of what we now call ‘science’ were sown many generations ago.

I would love it if we could get beyond and behind arguments ‘for’ and ‘against’ theistic belief at the public debate – and unpack the stated purpose on the blurb: ‘how science is itself at the heart of being human, and can be traced back through art, philosophy and ancient stories, including those in religious traditions’. I think that one can make a case that one reason for the damaging cultural divide between what we term ‘arts’ and ‘sciences’ is the loss of the religious and theological glue that once held them together.



Does the Size of the Universe Prove God Doesn’t Exist?

FaWis_450A good colleague of mine at my University of Durham’s philosophy department, Dr. Emily Thomas, recently posted a short essay with this title on the (wonderful) academic multi-disciplinary blogsite TheConversation. It’s had a great number of readers, one of whom was me. I like most of what Emily writes, but this time, as she knows, I had a rather strong negative reaction! So I thought I would write a little about this question on the Faith and Wisdom in Science blog, as it is clearly important for a good number of people.

Eagle Dark matter

A massive computer simulation of the cosmic web of Dark Matter, Gas and Galaxies from the Eagle Project 300 million light years across- itself only a 30th of the diameter of the observable universe

Here is the short version:

  • Yes the Universe is ‘mind-bogglingly big’ (thanks Douglas Adams) on the scale of the human being (see image and caption above)


  • No, that does NOT imply in any way that the ‘Christian God’ is less likely to exist


  • The argument confuses the two distinct categories of scale and significance (the old ‘size matters’ problem)


  • Is, as typical of arguments from philosophers and scientists today that they believe impact on Christian theology, based on a level of triviality of theological learning and sophistication that makes me blush to read it.

So, just a little more on that.  The confusion of scale and significance is an easy one to make – we are overawed by size, vastness, immensity. Of course we are. But that is a visceral reaction not a cognitive one.  I hesitate to illustrate the point, but we do not ascribe a greater significance to a mountain than to a human baby simply because the first is 7 orders of magnitude larger than the second.  One of the special abilities that humans have is to identify meaning and significance, and to associate that with narrative place and relationship.

To take a more cosmological example, we do not know how common life is in the universe (yes Drake equation, Fermi and all that – another time perhaps – but we really have no idea because we don’t yet have a process for the origin of life).  We might be alone or the galaxy might be teeming with life.  But whichever of those turns out to be the case, the microscopic and special event or events that start a tree of life on its way are extraordinarily significant, yet vanishingly tiny in time and space, compared with the 13 billion years, and light years of the cosmic T and R. Another vital point rides on this – namely that in order to have had enough time to manufacture heavy elements in the first generation of stars since the Big Bang, and to evolve a second generation of stars, planets and life since then actually requires a universe the size of ours.  So the length scale of the cosmos and the human scale are physically and causally related, it turns out.

Thirdly, those who take the line that the largeness of the universe rules out a theology of specificity have forgotten that even our notion of scale ordering is conventional.  Physicists, mathematicians, chemists and molecular biologists are used to thinking in ‘reciprocal space’.  Its the space in which the diffraction patterns of molecular structure dwell, the realm of the Fourier transforms, of the photon fields in theoretical physics.


X-ray diffraction pattern of Beryl in reciprocal space (Bruno Juricic)

The figure shows an example.  The point is that descriptions of reality can be made either in ‘real space’ or reciprocal space, in which the information on large objects is held in small places, and vice versa.  In many ways, physics looks more natural in this space.  If we were to apply the ‘large matters’ mantra in a view of the world through reciprocal space, then we would be led to favour the small, the detailed, over the large.  Of course I am not advocating that automatically any more than its opposite, merely pointing out that the ascription of large or small numbers to objects in the world is conventional, so cannot carry any philosophical weight at all.

Finally we need to do out theology just a little better.  Yes of course there is a strong strand of the particular and special in Judeo-Christianity.  Israel, Moses, election, … and supremely the incarnation.  But that is not the only strand.  From the oldest texts there is alongside this an decentralising narrative as well.  Readers of this blog will at this point not be surprised that we are going to go to the Book of Job for a reminder of the warning not to be exclusively anthropocentric about the world.  For the pinnacle of Yahweh’s creation as displayed to Job in the ‘Lord’s Answer’ is not the human, but the sublime and ‘other’ creatures of Leviathan and Behemoth (from Job chapter 40):

15“Look at Behemoth, which I made along with you  and which feeds on grass like an ox.16 What strength it has in its loins,  what power in the muscles of its belly!17 Its tail sways like a cedar;  the sinews of its thighs are close-knit.18 Its bones are tubes of bronze,    its limbs like rods of iron.19 It ranks first among the works of God, yet its Maker can approach it with his sword.

Even the later and highly-developed Genesis 1 creation narrative does not stop with humankind, but reaches its climax with the Sabbath, God’s rest, where He is central.  Jesus takes up the non-anthropocentric theme at several points in the Gospel narrative.  It’s not ‘all about us’.  A number of theologians have explored this theme – Christopher Southgate’s book The Groaning of Creation is a good starting point for a discussion that goes back to Aquinas and further.

So in conclusion, the findings of modern cosmology turn out to balance the place and significance of humans in much the same way that the Judeo-Christian narrative does.

It’s not the size, it’s what you do that matters, and who you are.


The Lord Answering job out of the Whirlwind by William Blake

Is the Lord’s Answer to Job a Slap-Down or an Invitation?

screen-shot-2016-01-22-at-8-22-45-amIn public and private presentations of Faith and Wisdom in Science, discussions of the central Book of Job often arise.  In particular, in regard to the interpretation of the ‘Lord’s Answer’ in chapters 38-42, I have been encouraged to give a little more.  To recall, I find this extraordinary ancient nature-poem of questions (Were you there when I laid the foundations of the Earth? … Do you know the way to the abode of light … Can you count the clouds …) by no means a divine ‘put-down’, as it is sometimes interpreted, but rather an invitation to take the Creator’s perspective, and to engage with the natural world.

There are a couple  preliminary ‘ground-clearing’ operations to do. It would be wrong to suggest that YHWH is inviting Job to ‘do science’ in the modern sense. My thesis is that ‘science is the name of the current chapter in a book that humankind has been writing since its origin’. So the earlier ‘chapters’ are not ‘science’ in the modern sense but are in continuity with it. The point is that the passage is inviting a cognitive questioning of the natural world, a perspective of responsibility and care rather than abdication and complaint – it is about relationship above all. Our relationship with the natural world underlies what ‘science’, which is more a set of tools to achieve it, lies deeper and is foundational to science, not science itself. Job is at the headwaters of that narrative – that is the claim.

Job Blake

From William Blake’s series of paintings depicting scenes from the Book of Job. Behemoth and Leviathan Wikimedia commons

The other essential preliminary is the implied claim about what YHWH is notdoing.  What you term the ‘standard’ interpretation of Job 38-42 (though when you actually work through the commentaries it doesn’t look that way, especially among the more scholarly of them) is that the string of questions is meant as what we would term a ‘put-down’.  This is YHWH speaking from an elevated position of authority down to the presumptuous Job, unleashing a volley of rapid-fire tests of his knowledge and understanding to the end that it is clear to Job that he has neither [1].  So part of the support for an invitational interpretation needs to be a critique of this one.

(1) The introductory trope (v3) ‘Gird up your loins like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me’. This is of course as close an answer to your original question as you could want – it is of course, and quite explicitly, an ‘invitation’.  Specifically it is an invitation to (metaphorical) combat between two male (the verse is gendered) contenders. Quite the opposite of denigration, the invocation of this standard invitation to combat [2] is a mark of respect as an opponent, so Hartley, ‘Neither [Job’s] affliction nor his inflamed rhetoric has diminished his intrinsic worth as a human being’ [3].  Job scholar David Clines imputes a desire to win to YHWH, rather than to browbeat at this point [4].  This may ‘locally’ be the point, but as Stump points out in her magisterial study of Biblical wilderness experience and theodicies, the overarching aim of YHWH is to love – understanding that love must at times be severe, permissive of a free response, and teleologically restorative [5].

(2) The form of the Answer as questions. The pejorative use of questions, common (perhaps sadly) in our own society, is by no means universal.  In particular the question-form is not used this way in ancient Hebrew, but predominantly as a stimulus to reflection, thought and learning.  It is the central educational instrument.  The preponderance of questions throughout Biblical literature is itself significant.  The Jewish love affair with the questioning mind persists to this day.  It is enshrined in the Seder liturgy of course, in the role of the children present whose task it is to ask the important questions. The cultural love of the question carries down to to our own day; it is reflected in the story told by Jewish physicist Isidore Rabi, whose mother would ask him every day on coming home from school, ‘Did you ask any good questions today?’.  So the questions in The Lord’s Answer ought first to be interpreted through this, thought-provoking lens, not that of point- scoring (or several other possible interpretations such as a request for information, a rhetorical pathway to a trap and so on). A closely lasted set of divine questions, also referring to natural creation, as noted by Habel [6] is found in Second Isaiah (e.g. 40:12-15, 45:18-22) where their point is to generate reflection in the recipient to the end that they conceive of God’s power to act.  Westermann also refers to these ‘trial speeches of Second Isaiah where YHWH and the gods of the surrounding nations confront each other in a legal process, the purpose of which is to decide who is truly God.’ [7]  Essential to this background is that when YHWH defends himself that is not an end in itself, but rather a preliminary that then allows humans to follow the true God into their true task (in the case of Second Isaiah to take up the role of ‘The Servant’ in renewing the relationship with God’s People (Ch 49). A New Testament echo is Jesus invitation to John’s disciples to interpret what they see – he too answers a question with a question (Matt 11:2-10).  So the questions in Job, which fall into this pattern of ‘education’ (literally ‘leading out’ of course) to a purpose is the appropriate expectation – the readers task is to identify what it being learned and to what purpose.


When all the angels sang for joy … Job Ch. 38

(3) The structure and quantity of questions, and the context of Job’s earlier questions. There are approaching 170 of them.  It would take 2 or 3 only to establish that YHWH possessed knowledge and Job ignorance. The extensive litany tells us from a structural point of view that more is going on here. I have detailed the categories, realms of nature, and detailed referential links to the nature metaphors invoked in the earlier cycles of speeches of the book before [8] so won’t go into unnecessary detail here. However, we must recall that these are productive, leading questions –  sort that suggest investigations in such of answers. They also cover the catalogue of nature’s wild side, from the depths of the oceans to the clustering of the stars. They touch on Job’s partial, but incomplete knowledge.  Within the framework established in (2) above of education to a purpose, it is more than suggestive that that purpose has to do with nature itself. The vital point here is that YHWH’s questions do tackle head-on the actual substance of Job’s complaint.  It bears repeating – Job’s accusation is not primarily that he is suffering unjustly but that this is just part of a much wider problem of a cosmos out of control.  It is the aleatory strike of the lightning bolt (36:32), the earthquake (9:5), disease (10:9) and the flood (6:15) that constitutes the foundation of his case against YHWH.  This is why it is appropriate for the Answer to address the free reign of natural processes that give rise to the rich complexity that the magnificent survey of Job 38-42 encompasses.

(4) The manner of YHWH’s appearing – of the whirlwind, is paradoxically what Job simultaneously most desires and most fears. He has already anticipated that an epiphany would crush him (9:34), yet repeatedly requested it (13:15). When it happens, it is far from crushing- Job is invited to stand up and ‘gird his loins’ (see 1 above). Furthermore the epiphany is more than suggestive of the canonical appearance to Moses on Sinai. The cover of cloud is replaced by the cover of a whirlwind, the spoken commandments by a speech of a different kind, but the context of covenant is very suggestive.

(5) The context of the Hymn to Wisdom in Job 28. The connection between YHWH’s answer and the Hymn to Wisdom is vital, for the ‘Answer’ is as much an answer to the great question there – Where can Wisdom be found? – as it is to Job’s demands for vindication and explanation. Again I have written about Job 28 in detail elsewhere [8] but the salient point is that the metaphor of the miner in Job 28 points out the special nature of humans that set us apart from other animals is that we are able to see into the structure of nature deeper than they, and by our own art. The shocking final passage of the Hymn to Wisdom parallels this as the characteristic function of God’s own wisdom. It is a call to follow the Creator into a deeper knowledge of creation. Job 38 takes the same journey to and through the depths as Job 28 – it is a personal enactment of the invitation there.  This is an invitation to take God’s perspective on nature.  That is explicit in Job 28 and a natural interpretation of Job 38, not only because of the context of the search for Wisdom of the whole book, but because that is precisely what Job needs to do.  For another stark example of being asked to take God’s perspective, see the close parallel of Jonah, where God’s lessons to Jonah are also worked through a phenomenon of nature (a sun-wilted bush) and where the key question is left hanging.  Alternatively and movingly see the entire book of Hosea, where the prophet is invited into YHWH’s emotional perspective of rejected love.

(6) The effect upon Job. Were the speeches meant as a crushing put-down (note I do not say that they are not corrective) then Job himself would have been crushed by them. Instead, his experience turns out to be palliative, and restorative – he does quieten down in terms of his complains, but he rises with a new confidence. Here the reading of 42: 6 is important and there has been considerable philological change of direction recently on the ambiguous Hebrew here (see both Habel and Clines on this verse in [4] and [6]).  The problem with translating nhm as ‘repent’ is that with the preposition used in this verse it is better rendered with the sense of changing one’s mind about something – so ‘repent of my dust and ashes’ is better than ‘repent in dust and ashes’.  Similarly the verb m’s which has been translated ‘despise’ is now thought much more likely to adopt here its legal connotations and mean ‘retract’ (‘my case’).  So Job is not crushed – he simply retracts his case and moves on: I withdraw my case and leave my dust and ashes behind me. There is an interesting aspect to the question-form of the Answer and Job’s restoration as well.  As Goldingay puts it’ ‘Much of the time what we need (not what we think we need) is the capacity to live with the questions. At one level this is what God wants for Job.’[8]

(7) The eschatological context. Comparisons with Isaiah have already been noted, but are not essential to situate the prophetic, wisdom-poem of Job within the arc of theological history of Judaism (and its inheritor).  Stories around individual characters (Moses, Samson, David, Elijah, Jonah, Job, Hosea, …) take place within a much larger and longer arc of creation, rebellion, election, redemption, restoration, new-creation.  They are themes, within movements within a symphony, and as such give to and receive from their narrative context extra meaning and depth.  In particular they give and receive along the communication channels of purpose.  The purpose of humans, called and in-breathed with the ruach and pneuma of YHWH’s own spirit, and created in his image, is to participate in the continuity of creation’s story. Job is future-directed, not only for its protagonist, but for its readers as well.

[1] D. Robertson, The book of Job: a literary study. Soundings 1973, 56, 446–68.

[2] See D.J.A Clines, ‘Loin-girding and other male activities in the Book of Job’ www.shef.ac.uk/bibs/DJACcurres/Loingirding.html

[3] J.E. Hartley in The Book of Job, Ed. W.A.M. Beuken BETL 114

[4] D.J.A. Clines (2011) World Biblical Commentary on Job, Nashville: Thos. Nelson, p.1097

[5] E. Stump (2012), Wandering in Darkness, Oxford: OUP

[6] N.C. Habel (1985) The Book of Job, London: SCM Press

[7] C. Westermann Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library, London: SCM Press 1969

[7] T.C.B. McLeish (2014) Faith and Wisdom in Science Oxford: OUP, Ch. 5

[8] J. Goldingay (2013) Job for Everyone, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press p.196

More on Job – and a breakfast discussion in Ann Arbor

UmichIt will take a few weeks to recount  and pass on some experiences of the Faith and Wisdom summer, but one needs must refer on now.  I spent a fascinating weekend visiting my long time friend and collaborator Ron Larson of the Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor (what a lovely, sylvan, name!) and of Knox Presbyterian Church of the same city.

Saturday morning Ron had gathered an ‘out for breakfast’ (bacon, two eggs over easy, hash browns) informal conversation of UoM faculty about the role of Christian faith in their life and work, and especially in science.  It was a stimulating and fascinating conversation.  One aspect new to me was the very wide range of experiences of being known (or not) as a believer in an academic setting.  Some found no issue, and were quite open about their faith (this tended to be the case in the faculty of medicine). Others felt that their intellectual ability would be called seriously into doubt, and promotion prospects dented, were they to ‘come out’ (some, but by no means all, in the science faculty).

But my task is made all the easier, as one participant (RJS) has blogged about the discussion here.  The writer has also commented previously on how to read Job, so we were especially happy to share a deep interest in that book, and its prescience for Biblical theology of the cosmos and our relation to it. I searched that whole blog for Job and found a collection of interesting articles here.

The main lessons seems to be not to project back New Testament notions into the thought world of Job or the writer of the book, and to realise that, as well as much else, this book is about living with questions, not insisting on easy answers.

Faith in Science Education – Wisdom in how we do it

Faith and Wisdom in Science – the blog did take a summer break.  But other things happened.  In particular I had the opportunity to write (at 24 hours notice) an opinion piece for The Guardian newspaper in the UK (published August 14th) on the importance of children experiencing open-ended experimental science while at school.  There is growing evidence that this is enormously beneficial to core science learning, but, as readers of Faith and Wisdom in Science will know, it also touches on a deeply theological nerve.  Becoming reconciled with nature means working with it and observing.  This is something that everyone can experience and enjoy.

The Guardian article as printed is here (it also made the weekly printed Guardian International, to which we have subscribed for years – I was delighted!). But I thought that the full original drafted version, before editor’s cuts, might be interesting to post.  So that follows.  The most important thing is that Job made the final cut!


Science is not just the preserve of stereotypical brainy boffins you see on TV. Speaking to the Times yesterday, head of the British Science Association Katherine Mathieson, said this public image was not helpful and that she’d prefer to “see a few years of genuine open-ended research by pupils, rather than fiddling around with beakers”. She also worries that science is not a topic of common conversation. Rightly so – if we can get our minds around Premier League strategy then complexity is not the issue.’

Mathieson is right to raise concerns. The ability of people to understand the world they live in increasingly depends on their understanding of scientific ideas. Science allows us to learn reliably about nature – if an experimental result does not support a specific idea, then the idea has to be rejected or modified and then tested again. For most people such understanding by imagination and experimentation comes through education. ​Great teachers are the driving force behind the UK’s position as a global scientific powerhouse.

However, overly-tight accountability measures, rapidly changing curricula and burdensome pupil progress monitoring are just some of the enormous pressures on schools that impede creating an environment in which tomorrow’s scientists can learn and grow. Teachers often have to carry out experiments in their own time and beyond the curriculum by joining schemes like our Partnership Grants.

In 2013, a report published by SCORE found that a worrying number of primary students were not experiencing a complete science education due to a lack of resources for practical work, with the average school having only 46% of the equipment needed. The UK is failing to create a scientifically informed society that can confidently hold science properly to account by engaging, enjoying and, yes, criticising it.

Children learn about music by trying their hand at composing a song or joining a jazz trio or string quartet. Others take GCSE Art, where we expect them to try out sketching and use watercolours, mixed-media or creative photography to learn about the subject. Even the most doting relative does not expect these creations to end up in a museum or concert hall, but what they teach our children about the artistic process is essential.

Science should be treated the same way. Humans have always been curious about the natural world and the stuff that makes it up. In the Book of Job, an ancient poem asks why the stars of the Pleiades are bound together, while those of Orion are scattered. Centuries before we formalised the scientific method, we had thoughtful and playful experiments with light, glass and water as well as astonishingly careful observations of the stars. People dreamed up imaginative theories of what might be going on up in rainbows and down inside liquids and solids. It wasn’t always right, but even now science can be a messy business on the path to truth. Why should things be different in 2017?

The Royal Society emphasises ‘experimental’ over ‘practical’ science, where curiosity should go beyond following a simple recipe and people should simply try something – a thoughtful way of looking for answers. We need to reverse recent trends and increase the amount of time and money invested in experimental and problem-solving work in science and mathematics education through access to adequately resourced laboratories and well-trained teachers. To support this activity in primary schools, Brian Cox, the Royal Society’s Professor for Public Engagement in Science, presents a series of video resources to increase teachers’ confidence with experimental science and relate the experiments to the real world. https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLg7f-TkW11iU11yatk_TcbA2tGH_WLe8d

Before you reach out for your Rousseaus to bash me over the head with, I want to reassure you that experimental science in education complements rather than replaces the learning of core scientific understanding. Sir John Holman found that investigative science improved attainment in core science exams, with greater effect for pupils in less privileged areas. There are other signs of new growth – the new Institute for Research in Schools is right now realising Mathieson’s vision of ‘genuine open-ended research by pupils’.

We currently have many examples of good practice at primary and secondary schools and colleges across the UK. Investing in experimental science in all our schools to help future generations make better sense of the world around them means that one day we will have confident opinions on scientific issues like we do on technical matters like Premier League team strategies.


The Book of Job and Science come alive on Stage!

Faith-In-The-Questions-poster-423x600Imagine the long river of longing, questioning, pain and triumph, that starts from the pen of the long lost author of the Book of Job, and flows to the present day, when human desire to see deeply into the structure of nature takes the form of ‘science’.  Both of the great wisdom poems in Job, the ‘Hymn to Wisdom’ of chapter 28 and the ‘Lord’s Answer’ of chapters 38-42 describe reaching out into the cosmos, and deep down into the structure of the Earth with the insight and imagination of mind and eye.  They also grasp the nettle of pain, of the frustration of incomprehension, especially in the face of the chaotic, the unpredictable, the seemingly purposeless.  This is also why science is also so very deeply human – all of life, hope and creativity is there.

Job on stage

Justin Butcher plays Job

Now imagine these two visions – the ancient poetic figure of Job, and that of a modern scientist facing the challenges of the unknown – brought into the same focus, the old longing to understand meeting the severe challenges of physics, mathematics and nature.  Job and his friends circle around each other, around the unanswered questions, and on a stage that circles itself amid a cosmic backdrop of the universe he longs to comprehend, including its chaotic and threatening aspects.


Job and friends 2

Job rails against his comforters



It was brilliant.  It worked. Job as scientist, Christian, and sufferer, right but also self-righteous.  Felix’ articulation of view of those for whom science is a threat, an inhuman desiccated exercise of the mind that dries up emotion and aesthetic.  And it sparked off wonderful questions and discussion for the panel of four scientists who are also Christians each evening.

Personally, working with Riding Lights and Nigel Forde has been inspiring.  To see some of the themes (and even some of the lines!) of Faith and Wisdom in Science woven into a vibrant dialogue between a modern day Job and his friends, has been a wondrous experience.

It left us all wanting to do more, to help the church embrace science as a gift of God, to support scientists in their calling, to appreciate the interplay of science and art in being human for everyone, to participate in the great work of healing our relationship with nature.

Look out for it later this year or next on a national tour!