50 Years Ago Apollo 8 Fulfilled a 2000 Year-Old Dream

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NASA

This blog was originally written for and published by TheConversationUK

Half a century of Christmases ago, the NASA space mission Apollo 8 became the first manned craft to leave low Earth orbit, atop the unprecedentedly powerful Saturn V rocket, and head out to circumnavigate another celestial body, making 11 orbits of the moon before its return. The mission is often cast in a supporting role – a sort of warm up for the first moon landing. Yet for me, the voyage of Borman, Lovell and Anders six months before Neil Armstrong’s “small step for a man” will always be the great leap for humankind.

Apollo 8 is the space mission for the humanities, if ever there was one: this was the moment that humanity realised a dream conceived in our cultural imagination over two millennia ago. And like that first imagined journey into space, Apollo 8 also changed our moral perspective on the world forever.

In the first century BC, Roman statesman and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero penned a fictional dream attributed to the Roman general Scipio Aemilianus. The soldier is taken up into the sphere of distant stars to gaze back towards the Earth from the furthest reaches of the cosmos:

And as I surveyed them from this point, all the other heavenly bodies appeared to be glorious and wonderful — now the stars were such as we have never seen from this earth; and such was the magnitude of them all as we have never dreamed; and the least of them all was that planet, which farthest from the heavenly sphere and nearest to our earth, was shining with borrowed light, but the spheres of the stars easily surpassed the earth in magnitude — already the earth itself appeared to me so small, that it grieved me to think of our empire, with which we cover but a point, as it were, of its surface.

Earth-centric

Even for those of us who are familiar with the ancient and medieval Earth-centred cosmology, with its concentric celestial spheres of sun, moon, planets and finally the stars wheeling around us in splendid eternal rotation, this comes as a shock. For the diagrams that illustrate pre-modern accounts of cosmology invariably show the Earth occupying a fair fraction of the entire universe.

The geocentric model. Bartolomeu Velho, 1568 (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris). Wikimedia Commons

Cicero’s text informs us right away that these illustrations are merely schematic, bearing as much relation to the actual imagined scale of the universe as today’s London Tube map does to the real geography of its tunnels. And his Dream of Scipio was by no means an arcane musing lost to history – becoming a major part of the canon for succeeding centuries. The fourth century Roman provincial scholar Macrobius built one of the great and compendious “commentaries” of late antiquity around it, ensuring its place in learning throughout the first millennium AD.

Cicero, and Macrobius after him, make two intrinsically-linked deductions. Today we would say that the first belongs to science, the second to the humanities, but, for ancient writers, knowledge was not so artificially fragmented. In Cicero’s text, Scipio first observes that the Earth recedes from this distance to a small sphere hardly distinguishable from a point. Second, he reflects that what we please to call great power is, on the scale of the cosmos, insignificant. Scipio’s companion remarks:

I see, that you are even now regarding the abode and habitation of mankind. And if this appears to you as insignificant as it really is, you will always look up to these celestial things and you won’t worry about those of men. For what renown among men, or what glory worth the seeking, can you acquire?

The vision of the Earth, hanging small and lowly in the vastness of space, generated an inversion of values for Cicero; a human humility. This also occurred in the case of the three astronauts of Apollo 8.

A change in perspective

There is a vast difference between lunar and Earth orbit – the destination of all earlier space missions. “Space” is not far away. The international space station orbits, as most manned missions, a mere 250 miles above our heads. We could drive that distance in half a day. The Earth fills half the sky from there, as it does for us on the ground.

Apollo 8 crew-members: James Lovell Jr., William Anders, Frank Borman (L-R). NASA

But the moon is 250,000 miles distant. And so Apollo 8, in one firing of the S4B third stage engine to leave Earth orbit, increased the distance from Earth attained by a human being by not one order of magnitude, but three. From the moon, the Earth is a small glistening coin of blue, white and brown in the distant black sky.

So it was that, as their spacecraft emerged from the far side of its satellite, and they saw the Earth slowly rise over the bleak and barren horizon, the crew grabbed all cameras to hand and shot the now iconic “Earthrise” pictures that are arguably the great cultural legacy of the Apollo program. Intoning the first verses from the Book of Genesis as their Christmas message to Earth – “… and the Earth was without form, and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep…” – was their way of sharing the new questions that this perspective urges. As Lovell put it in an interview this year:

But suddenly, when you get out there and see the Earth as it really is, and when you realise that the Earth is only one of nine planets and it’s a mere speck in the Milky Way galaxy, and it’s lost to oblivion in the universe — I mean, we’re a nothing as far as the universe goes, or even our galaxy. So, you have to say, ‘Gee, how did I get here? Why am I here?’

The 20th century realisation of Scipio’s first century BC vision also energised the early stirrings of the environmental movement. When we have seen the fragility and unique compactness of our home in the universe, we know that we have one duty of care, and just one chance.

Space is the destiny of our imagination, and always has been, but Earth is our precious dwelling place. Cicero’s Dream, as well as its realisation in 1968, remind the world, fresh from the Poland climate talks, that what we do with our dreams today will affect generations to come.

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Stephen Hawking and the Mind of God

IMG_0006It was one of those mind-blowing moments gifted to students when we have direct access to the great thinkers of our times.  The speaker at the Cambridge mathematical physics seminar sat hunched in his wheelchair, a PhD student of his assisting with the acetate slides on the overhead projector (this was 1987 after all). The robotic voice that even then Stephen Hawking had to use accompanied the appearance of a slide of mathematics that was clearly a version of quantum mechanics’ fundamental ‘Schrödinger Equation’ – but with an enormous ‘Psi’ character for the wave function.

‘…. Consider Psi …. The… wavefunction….of….the….Universe…’

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I reeled mentally, my mind unable to catch up with the cosmic change of perspective that it was being asked to follow. This was the equation used, in my experience, for systems like single electrons; now we were being asked, even casually, to apply it in one go to the entire universe!

But this was typical of Steven Hawking’s capacity to think on a vast canvas and in ways that others had not even imagined, making connections that others had never seen. Most of his physics orbited around the extraordinary objects we call ‘black holes’ – the collapsed remains of dead heavy stars whose gravity is so strong that even light is unable to escape from them. His imagination reached though the ‘event horizons’ of the black holes to the weird points inside them where space-time breaks down, he wrestled with the problem of the apparent disappearance of information from the universe (that was the big Psi thing it turned out), and predicted the holes’ strange ‘Hawking radiation’ by connecting two of Einstein’s great loves – the gravitational curvature of space and the thermodynamics of heat – with one of his great loathings: the weird unpredictability of quantum mechanics.

No wonder that he used, in his best seller A Brief History of Time, the metaphor of the ‘mind of God’ when trying to describe the ultimate goal of understanding reality:

“If we discover a complete theory, it would be the ultimate triumph of reason – for then we should know the mind of God.”

But it was always a metaphor for him.  Hawking was clear time and again that he found the ‘case for a Creator’ unconvincing, but the reason for that seems to have never moved from a failure of that otherwise all-seeing mind to see beyond physics itself. His conclusion that we do not ‘need God to light the blue touch paper of the Big Bang’ is not contested in terms of physics. But ‘why there is something rather than nothing’ is not a physics question – it lies in the theological realm to which, in spite of many thoughtful Christian correspondents over the years, including former archbishop Rowan Williams and Oxford mathematician John Lennox, Hawking seemed to remain impervious.

While we may sorrow over Hawking’s rejection of God, the Creator who is and loves and gives – rather than just ‘explains’, we may nevertheless be thankful to that God for the gift of one who articulated, even in unbelief, that our Biblical calling is indeed to know His Mind, to look into nature with the same love and insight as its creator, and to live with courage using the gifts we have rather than surrendering to our incapacities.

(first written for Premier Christian Radio Blog)

 

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.

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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-Blake

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.

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Lion-man-angles-Vergleich-drei-Ganzkörper-Ansichten

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’.

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The-Lord-Answering-Job-out-of-the-Whirlwind-Blake

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.

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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)

but

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

because

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

and

  • 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.

BGc483iCMAAZq21

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-Blake

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.

BlakeonJob

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.