A Sermon on “The Search for Wisdom for Today” Job 28 and Colossians 1:15-23

I know that a few readers of the book and this blog put regular effort into both giving, and listening to talks/sermons in churches.  That forum is one of the key places where the strand of a new confidence in science urged on the church in Faith and Wisdom in Science can begin.  I had the good fortune last week to be invited to preach at the annual Commemoration of Benefactors Service at Durham Cathedral.  The occasion brings town, region, cathedral, schools and university together. Durham and its environs is well known both as an ancient seat of medieval scholarship and wisdom.  It is also known for coal-mining (active until a generation ago). So Job 28 seemed a good starting point.  Here it is in full:

The north view of the massive norman nave of Durham Cathedral seen from Palace Green.

The north view of the massive norman nave of Durham Cathedral seen from Palace Green.

It’s a wonderful privilege to be here, literally at the transept of our two intersecting and neighbouring communities of Cathedral and University. How humbling to meet in this shared space of study, contemplation and worship of unutterable beauty that we have jointly inherited from centuries of generous forbears.

I have in the past week taken two visitors from overseas around this place (I never let them leave Durham without a Cathedral tour, naturally), one from Greece, one from Mexico, and again it was they not I who voiced the impression of learning and wisdom seeming to permeate the stones and hang in the air from the centuries of scholarly and holy strata laid down by our predecessors. We have much wisdom to be thankful for.

It’s a good thing, because wisdom, or the urgent need for it, seems to have become a repeated theme in our time.  Oxford theologian Paul Fiddes has called it, ‘the cry for wisdom in late modern culture’. Less academically, I’ll admit to a fondness, before his passing, of Alastair Cook’s weekly radio broadcast ‘Letter from America’. One I recall vividly followed a vigorous debate in Senate and Congress over a possible military intervention in the Middle East. Cook recalled the reflections of an elderly Senator who confessed that it wasn’t so much the dominance of either hawks or doves that troubled him, but the lamentable shortage of owls.

From the perspective of the arts, TS Eliot cries out in the chorus of his play ‘The Rock’

Where is the Life we have lost in living?

Where is the Wisdom we have lost in Knowledge?

Where is the Knowledge we have lost in Information?

Even our friends at University College London have launched a university-wide research theme called ‘From Knowledge to Wisdom’ (I hope that at Durham, this drive lies within all our research themes!).

Well we stand between our two of oldest and wisest benefactors, Cuthbert – of whom a fellow monk records that they ‘drank from heavenly wisdom together’, and Bede – one of whose famous prayers addresses Christ as the ‘Fountain of all Wisdom’.

The tomb of the Venerable Bede in the west end Gallilee Chapel of Durham Cathedral

The tomb of the Venerable Bede in the west end Gallilee Chapel of Durham Cathedral

So let us, in their company, take a look at perhaps the deepest, most foundational, surprising – even humorous – passage on Wisdom in the whole of the Bible.

The 28th chapter of Job sings with a new voice into the spiralling and tense arguments and accusations of this extraordinary book. Job, a rich and righteous man has lost family, wealth, heards, house and even his health. He sits, scraping his sores and tormented by his so-called friends. For their brittle religious world views can only explain his suffering by supposing it to be divine retribution for sins – and they choose to let him know it. He feels the injustice keenly and demands vindication, yet they become increasingly personal in their accusations. A terrible climax is reached in the previous chapter (27) – then comes this unexpected theme …

Surely there is a mine for silver, and a place where gold is refined.

Iron is taken from the soil, rock that will be poured out as copper.

An end is put to darkness, and to the furthest bound they seek the ore in gloom and deep darkness.

A foreign race cuts the shafts; forgotten by travellers, far away from humans they dangle and sway.

That earth from which food comes forth is underneath changed as if by fire.

What on earth is going on? Indeed, what under the earth is going on? The text takes us down a mine shaft! (This has to be a favourite Durham Bible passage). It muses on the special human ability to dig down and so see the Earth from beneath – the precious stones glinting in the miners’ lamplight, the seams of gold and silver. Not even the falcon’s sharp eye can perceive all this – the hidden sources of rivers.

The passage actually condenses a theme that runs right through the book alongside that of unjust suffering – it’s about the way we fashion our relationship with the physical world around us. It concerns where we go – ‘there is a path…’, what we see – ‘unseen be eye of falcon’, what we understand – ‘bringing to light what is hidden’ and what we do – ‘they split open channels in the rocks’.

Some translators have found this language so powerful that they have turned the subject of this deep seeing from humans to God. But as a scientist I see in this a fitting metaphor for what we do – there really is an astonishing human ability to explore nature from beneath its surface and to understand its workings.

It is only at this point that the hymn admits its true subject

But where is wisdom to be found? And where is the place of understanding?

Humans do not know the way to it; it is not found in the land of the living.

In a comical game of hide and seek we look for wisdom in all the land – no, not there – at the bottom of the sea – no, not here either. Perhaps significantly we follow the wisdom trail to the opulent markets of Cush and Ophir. Old Testament scholar Carol Newsome notes the measure of their wealth – five different words are used for gold in as many verses! But wisdom is not to be found in the marketplace.

Finally the writer ‘draws back the curtain’ and reveals why God knows the way to wisdom.

Divine wisdom begins with a new deep way of seeing – ‘He looked to the ends of the earth

Divine wisdom is numerate – ‘to assign a weight to the wind, the waters by measure

Divine wisdom finds ways of channelling nature’s forces, not suppressing them – ‘he made a decree for the rain and a path for the thunderbolt

Divine wisdom participates in what Paul Fiddes has called ‘Seeing the World and knowing God’ – it becomes an invitation to us to follow in Wisdom’s way of living. Wisdom is not an object we could possess, nor an accumulation of precepts and aphorisms. It is a way of seeing into the world, a way of serving creation, a way of partnering with each other and with our Creator.

It is a bright vision, and one that sacred or secular communities badly need. But in the light of the shrill voices of intolerance growing once again, the contradiction between our almost limitless technology yet inability to manage its consequences, our media-fuelled world as empty of wisdom as this vision is full of it – in the light of all that is it not a hopeless one?

Our New Testament reading tells us why this is not so, how, when all around is dark, it is not hopeless – any more than, as it turned out, Job’s state was hopeless even at his own lowest point.

Here St. Paul writes to the early church in Collossae – using the same subject matter as in the Hymn to Wisdom, but transformed. Here are again all created things, here the visible and the hidden things both, here also the aching need to reconcile all that is broken in the world. But now, in the same transept that draws all these together, in the place that the Book of Job assigned to Wisdom, Paul sees Jesus.

And the reason that this gives him hope is not that the darkness and death that threaten never come, not that the task of living as part of a complex and troubled world is not painful, but that because of Christ’s entering all this, going through death but into the new life of the resurrection, hope turns from wistfulness into solid reality.

That is why Bede, who knows his astronomy in the eighth century so much better than most of us do today (he knew all about the wisdom of seeing deeply into creation by measure..), called Christ not only the fountain of wisdom but also the Morning Star. It isn’t because the planet Venus shines with an attractive and pure light, although it does. It is because it orbits the sun at a closer distance than the earth, so is never more than 45 degrees or so from it in the sky. So when Venus rises as a morning star, although at that point the sky is still as dark as at midnight, and there is no other sign in heaven or earth to show that day is coming, yet the one who gazes upon this one light, and through wisdom grasps its significance, knows that, against all other evidence, yet day is nonetheless almost at hand – they can hope for it, and act upon it, as solid reality

We finish with a prayer composed of Bede’s words:

O Christ our Morning Star, Splendour of Light Eternal

Fount of all wisdom and shining with the glory of the rainbow

Come and waken us from the greyness of our apathy

And renew in us your gift of hope. Amen


A Discussion with Pupils at St Peter’s School, York on Open and Closed thinking, and Death

I was reminded last week of the wonderful and challenging experience of discussing with bright, energetic and thoughtful 17 and 18 year olds.  It’s also refreshing: they think of unexpected things, bring the emerging values of their generation into play, and best of all are deliciously unregarding of any ‘authority’ that, say, a public lecturer at their school might have in anyone else’s eyes by being, for example, the lecturer!

It was the first time I have had the pleasure and honour of giving a lecture at the school that has given our own children so much over the last few years (and with which we also share the street we live on). St. Peter’s have built up an enviable series of public lectures on all possible topics – well attended by people from all over the city and further afield.  My invitation came, not from the physics department on this occasion, but from politics (Mr. Ben Fuller). This was very pleasing – yes Faith and Wisdom in Science is of course about science, but it is motivated by the great need for a new way of framing and cherishing science politically and culturally in our society. To politics was right.  Not that we didn’t spend a little time ‘diving down’ the lengthscales of the world into the chaotic, Brownian motion dominated of vibrating molecules and self-ssembled structures of life….

Somewhere in mid flow talking about reconstructing a picture of the universe at different lengthscales.

Somewhere in mid flow talking about reconstructing a picture of the universe at different lengthscales.

But as always the best bits are always in discussion afterwards.  Some moving questions from the audience – including one from a physician.  He asked if the ‘Theology of Science’ I had been urging we think about – one that sees science  as our God-given task to heal our relationship with the world – might help loosten our knotty problem with death.  His concern was that death has become a pathology to be postponed or avoided at all costs among his patients (apart from, it seems, the community of nuns he looks after, who get very excited about it and almost envious of those of their sisters who get there first…).  We talked about the way that Wisdom includes a coming to terms with our finiteness and reconciling us to the physicality of the world, together with the hope of a renewed one.  All questions but one were open, explorative, pushing us all further than the material of the talk – just what the Book of Job does!  The only closed-minded and convergent question was: “Did I believe in the virgin birth (of Jesus)?”

The question of closed and open mindedness was to be the topic of half an hour afterwards with a group of senior pupils who had kindly been helping steward the evening.  Surely Science was all about keeping an open mind, changing it in the case of evidence, reaching a belief after all the finding out?

Senior pupils (and others) gather round for a serious debate

Senior pupils (and others) gather round for a serious debate

Surely Religion knows what it wants to believe beforehand, then argues towards it, whatever the evidence? That last description made me think of some very poor science I have come across.  We talked about that experience, and worked our way to seeing that a fear of challenge to our preconceived ideas is a common human attribute, and that in all things we grow when we are open to the new.  We also recognised that all journeys need starting points.  Scientists make hypotheses – sometimes wild ideas that they would like very much to be true, and without which a scientific idea never gets started.  But the vital ability is to know when you were wrong and change your mind.  An openness to the unanswered question becomes a way to travel hopefully.  So it is with Christianity too. The staggering unanswered questions about nature in the Book of Job, as well as the hundreds of others all through the Bible, give to any alert reader the strong impression that openness to questions is at the heart of its worldview and message.  Some of those questions take the whole human story to answer.

A Response to a Thoughtful Skeptic (on Science needing Theology)

I was very interested, as the author of the initial post, to read a heartfelt and thoughtful blog, here, by Sergio Graziosi  in response to the short piece on TheConversationUK about Faith and Wisdom in Science.  Perhaps some responses I posted on his would also be helpful to readers of this blog.

First, I am aware that for many if not most people ‘science’ and ‘theology’ don’t seem to mix – but I have found that this is because of assumptions made through unfamiliarity ‘from the inside’ of both.  This is particulary true of perceived methodologies.  Of course the methodologies of two different aprroaches to the world dont have to be the same, BUT – it just isn’t true to say that religious belief is “ungrounded”- nor is (as Popper showed long ago) that science can be “verified”.  So we need a much more nuanced and informed approach.

That is why I’ve written a whole book about it.  The conversation piece was really just a flag to that and suffers from the universal difficulty of restating a 100000 word message in 800. So anyone who really needs to get a grip on this does (I know this sounds like a commercial – it really isn’t- I’m not going to make a profit on the book!) need to read Faith and Wisdom in Science (I don’t have any copies to give away though any thoughtful reader here certainly deserves one – but I can give them a 30% discount code to use on the OUP website: AAFLY6).

But this might help. “Theology” is not “the study of God” as I use the term. It’s “the study of everything in the light of God”. This is a standard usage actually. But perhaps that helps explain why I think that to ask “are science and theology compatible?” is a category-error before the question is out of your mouth. Theology is the intellectual exploration of an entire world view, so encompasses everything – including science and why we do it. Hence the idea of a “theology of science”.

Minor aside: this will worry you if you think that theology is all about doctrine and authority structures. But it isn’t. That’s religious power-bases and I want nothing to do with that (any more than with scientific power-bases which is are corruptions that also exist). True theology works within our current frame as “authoritative” in the sense of “paradigmatic” but openly and flexibly.

Here’s the rub – science also needs to talk about everything. So there can and should be a ‘science of theology’ or ‘science of religion’. Indeed Daniel Dennett has called for more of this, and rightly so.

I am therefore saying NOT that “science and theology are compatible” NOR that they are in conflict (both are category errors), but that in our narrative world they are “of each other”. Sounds like the logical equivalent of an M C Escher picture? So be it. We need better catogories of the relation between them.  Our language gives us the wrong geometry of discussion – Graziosi talks several times of “bridging the gap” between theology and science (and says that it is not possible to do it), but what if they nested inside each other?  What if theology could help resource for us the culutral reason to do science?  I spend a long time in Faith and Wisdom in Science pointing out the desperate need for a narrative that ties science deeper into our human communities of purpose.  Theology is really good at purpose. Scinece doesnt really “do” it.

As I say in the book and hint at in the TC piece, the other way to approach this is historically, where the (often explicitly) theological discourse of the purpose of science becomes very clear (Francis Bacon is a prime example). So Graziosi is also historically wrong in claiming that the “New atheism” has delivered our modern, permissive, society.  Actually this has its roots in the enlightenment, and that (contrary to much popular belief) is rooted not in a rise of secularism that somehow occluded religious obfuscation, but in the clearest of Christian theological motivations for understanding nature.  Not only Bacon, but Newton, Kepler, Galileo, Boyle, Wren, the list goes on… all had explicit theologies for the science they were doing.  Peter Harrison has shown this in staggering scholarly detail over many years, in The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science, for example.

A few final points on the Templeton funding.  FIrst, as an academic and additioanlly as Pro-Vice-Chancellor of a research intensive university, I would never approve or accept funding from any organisation that inflected, filtered, biassed or controlled in any way the findings of a research project they funded.  All funders have a declared sphere of interest – resaerch questions they will fund and things that they wont – and Templeton is no exception.  But they do not determine the answers.  People might also want to check winners of the Templeton prize – several are self-declared atheists or agnostics.  Many colleagues also funded by them (including some in the same funded teams as me, are atheist).

We have lost a social grasp of what science is FOR. That’s what I want to recapture. And as far as I read either history or current cultural discourse on a global canvas, any hope of a purely secular answer to this urgent question is a no-hoper!

The 20 (+) Creation Stories in the Bible

A few people emailed me after they caught a comment I made during a brief BBC4 “Songs of Praise” programme last month.  Asked by the presenter what I thought about those who wanted to take a literal ‘scientific’ interpretation of Genesis chapter 1, part of my answer was to point out that there were at least 20 creation stories in the Bible, all using different metaphors, pictures, langauge, and that we ought to read them all together, interpreting each in the light of the others, before deciding which, if any, deserves ‘literal’ reading.

So where are these 20 creation stories?  Well, for a fuller account of the main structural ones, I do try to cover this in chapters 3, 5 and 6 of Faith and Wisdom in Science.  Alternatively, an excellent account of seven very central stories can be found in William P. Brown’s The Seven Pillars of Creation. It is important to understand that priority should not be assigned necessarily to those creation accounts that come early in the canonical Biblical ordering (like Gensis).  Remember that the Bible is really like a library, with a history/law section, poetry, wisdom, prophets, gospels, letters – all on different ‘shelves’.  Nor should priority follow length – some creation stories are condensed right down to the essential nuggets of heavens and earth, foundations and boundaries (the most condensed on my list is Psalm 102v.25).  But these may well represent the earliest and most basic.  Genesis 1 and 2 are certainly highly evolved and later than some on the list.  So here, in very condensed form, and in no highly-worked out order, are 20 starters:

(1) Proverbs 8 The birth of Wisdom and her co-creative role

(2) Psalm 33 The Creative Word

(3) Psalm 104 Dynamic Creation – fruitfulness at the boundaries

(4) Jeremiah 10 True (the world) and false (idols) creation

(5) Jeremiah 4 An ‘anti-creation’ story: rolling it all back when humans disobey

(6) Isaiah 28  Creation and the husbandry of agriculture

(7) Isaiah 40 Numbering the structures of the cosmos

(8) Isaiah 45 Creation is the backdrop to history

(9) Isaiah 11 The hope of a New Creation

(10) Hosea 2 A New Covenant with Creation

(11) Genesis 1 The Cosmos is God’s real Temple

(12) Genesis 2 Creation as ordering and forming

(13) Psalm 89 Creation is God’s dominion

(14) Psalm 8 Humankind’s glory in creation

(15) Psalm 19 Creation re-echoes God’s creative Word

(16) Psalm 102v25 Foundations of the earth and heavens

(17) Job 26 Spreading out the skies and suspending the earth

(18) Job 28 Wisdom is the perception and measure of creation with God

(19) Job 38 Measuring out the foundations of the earth and heavens

(20) John 1 Logos as the creative form

(21) Revelation 21 The New Creation

OK there was an extra one, but I also left out several others.  You need to find the relevant verses in most cases!