Talking, and not talking, about God in ‘Faith and Wisdom in Science’

The best return on writing the book comes in the regular opportunities to discuss the ideas with all sorts of people – at public lectures, university seminars, church events, schools … I cant say I have a favourite.  And the best of all that is when it is time for questions.  There are always fresh ones (as well as some familiar but ever-interesting themes).

A recent and memorable evening was held at St Mary’s Primrose Hill in North London. A very warm welcome, wise chairing by host Revd Mark Wakefield (who has also blogged the event here), and a very mixed audience launched a long and fascinating discussion.

The Lord Answering job out of the Whirlwind by William Blake

The Lord Answering job out of the Whirlwind by William Blake

One questioner wanted to know why ‘I had not mentioned God’ in my introduction.  Actually that wasn’t quite correct – we had looked at the central “Lord’s Answer” in the Book of Job, where Yahweh finally answers Job’s complaints with a surprising question-tour of the natural world. But the point was that we had talked about the ‘science and religion’ question a lot without much explicit talk of God.

A simple answer is that one can talk (and live) implicitly about God all the time without using ‘God-language’ – it’s also a deep answer.  The Apophatic tradition in Christian theology has a lot to say about not saying too much about God.  Associated at its root with the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (probably 6th century) who was quoted extensively by Thomas Aquinas, it develops the idea that the correct approach to an understanding of God is to affirm what he is not, rather than to attempt to say what he is.  God is beyond all referents that we can comprehend. Since Aquinas, a definition of ‘Theology’ that I have found most helpful is not, ‘the study of God’, but ‘the study of everything in the light of God’.  To suggest, as does St. John (1 Jn 5v1) that ‘God is light’ is to suggest that we should not look at him, but at everything by the light that he provides.

There is Biblical precedent for a ‘looking away from God’ too.  Throughout the Old Testament, as the ‘biblical library’ moves from Pentateuch through Wisdom to Prophecy, explicit references to ‘God’ by any of the Hebrew uses reduces.  Famously, there are no mentions of God at all in Esther or in the Song of Songs.  But these two books are full of the light on life that comes from the context of a covenant faith.

Science, too, is a human endeavour (like the racial politics of Esther or the celebration of erotic love of the Song) that doesn’t need explicit God-talk to progress, but which is enormously helped by recognising the covenant context.  As I argue in Faith and Wisdom in Science, it is just these theological resources that science needs to reconstruct a healthy social narrative for what it does.  To say that science is a deeply religious activity does not mean that we need to talk about God in the lab.

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