What’s the Story? And why all the Theological Baggage? – Grilling the book at TORCH from all sides

TORCHThe Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities (TORCH) is currently running a series of events on Humanities and Science. At the intersection of this programme with their regular ‘Book at Lunchtime’ seminars, on February 11th an Oxford based panel of three disciplinary experts shone their critical torchlights on  Faith and Wisdom in Science.

Perspectives from English Literature (Prof. Sally Shuttleworth), History (Prof. John Christie) and Physics (Prof Ard Louis) proved a sharp and effective way to touch on critical aspects of the book. For all of them both positive responses and critical questions turned on the central theme of narrative. Should we, and how can we understand science itself and narrative? And as the book itself asks, where can we find and deploy a constructive cultural narrative for science that might unlock some of the current misrepresentations and political tangles around science and technology in the public forum? Louis referred to the ‘lament’ that science is not a cultural possession in the same way that art or music is, and urged the advantage of telling the messy story of real science practice. Christie sketched the obscured historical details within the stories of Galileo and Newton,

Galileo  Galilei

Galileo Galilei

and of the Biblical basis for Frances’ Bacon’s vision for modern science, which serve deconstruct the worn old myths about confrontation of science and religion. Shuttleworth welcomed the telling of the stories of science as questioning and creative, yet suffering the fate of almost always being wrong.

Faith and Wisdom in Science sets out to explore what resources Judeo-Christian theology can supply in constructing a social narrative for science – one that might describe both what science is for, and how it might be more widely enjoyed. It draws on history to claim that the project we now call ‘science’ is in continuity with older human activities by other names; ‘natural philosophy’ in the early modern period and in ancient times just ‘Wisdom’. The theology of science that emerges is ‘participatory reconciliation’, a hopeful engagement with the world that both lights it up and heals our relationship with it.

But is theology the only way to get there? Are we required to carry the heavy cultural baggage of Christian history of thought and structures? Shuttleworth recalled George Eliot’s misery at the dissection of the miraculous as she translated Strauss’ ‘Life of Jesus’ at the dawn of critical Biblical studies. Yet Eliot is able to conceive of a rich and luminous narrative for science in MiddleMarchMiddlemarch:

“…the imagination that reveals subtle actions inaccessible by any sort of lens, but tracked in that outer darkness through long pathways of necessary sequence by the inward light which is the last refinement of energy, capable of bathing even the ethereal atoms in its ideally illuminated space.”

Eliot’s sources are T.H. Huxley, J.S. Mill and Auguste Comte, and of course her partner G.H Lewes,  They are by no means theological (Comte had even constructed a secular religion). Perhaps this is an example of an entirely secular route to science’s story? Yet her insight into science as a special sort of deep ‘seeing’ also emerges from the ancient wisdom of, for example, the Book of Job. In a parallel and contemporary book Seeing the World and Knowing God, Oxford theologian Paul Fiddes also calls on the material of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes to challenge the post-modern dissolution of subject and object. Participatory reconciliation emerges for both theologian and scientist motivated to draw on ancient wisdom for modern need. Was Eliot, and will all secular thinkers in the Western tradition be, in some way irrevocably connected to these ancient wellsprings of our thinking?

An aspect of the ‘baggage’ most desirable to drop, according to Shuttleworth, is the notion that scientists are a sort of priesthood. Surely this speaks to the worst suspicions of a mangled modern discourse of authority and power. Louis even suggested that the science/religion debate is really only a proxy for this larger and deeper one. Perhaps the first-temple notion of ‘servant priesthood’ is now too overlain with the strata of power-play to serve as a helpful metaphor for how we go about enacting the story of science.

But science needs to rediscover its story, and it is only by acknowledge that its narrative underpinnings must come from the humanities, that it is going to find it.


Newcastle Phil and Lit: Technology and Heidegger

This week the redoubtable Newcastle Philosophical and Literary society, in partnership with Newcastle College, extended a very warm and hospitable welcome to a Faith and a Wisdom discussion in their current series entitled ‘On the Edge’ (we were ‘On the Edge of Faith’).  It’s so heartening to see these highly civilised organisations dedicated to thinking, learning and discussion still flourishing in the heart of our great cities, selling out on a wet and cold February Thursday.

the question time was very impressive and also challenging.  We had managed to cover

Newcastle Phil and Lit library

Newcastle Phil and Lit library

a little science (Brownian motion of signalling proteins – an example of order out of chaos and a reflection on our human ability to see below the surface of nature), some science history (Grosseteste’s extraordinary cosmogony in his 1225 De Luce) and a decent look at the hymn to wisdom in Job 28 in the search for material in support of a deep narrative for science.

‘Might the apprentice conflict between science and religion stem from technology rather than science itself?’ Wondered one questioner. I think that the thrust here is that science itself is not inherently threatening, as it ‘lights up the world’ rather than ‘changes the world’.  Indeed, as John Hedley-Brooke and Geoffrey Cantor point out in theirs Gifford lectures ‘Reconstructing the Universe’, 18th and 19th century chemistry was especially challenging theologically as it was (at that time) far more than physics or biology, the science that changed the world.  And doing this touches the raw nerve of that deeply reactionary ‘playing at God and trespassing on sacred nature’ narrative that plays out even today as an underlying driver of debate around technology.  However, I don’t think that historically the role of technology over against science holds up as a catalyst of confrontation.  It was not developing technology that Draper and White invoked in their 19th century polemics that painted for the first time the backdrop of conflict on the stage of science and religion.

A second questioner challenged my reference to Heidegger as a philosopher incompatible with the Bible.  In fact I was also accused of mentioning only this one philosopher – grave omission indeed at a ‘lit and PHIL’.  But I checked that we had in fact also discussed Arendt and Aristotle during the evening, so I hope we made our quota.  Actually I had referred to him as another thinker who echoes the theme of ‘hiddenness’ of the world (in his Being and Time).  This is not of course to endorse all his thought, much of which has been accused as obscurantist. His membership of the Nazi party during the 1930s and the war years will also always be a stain on his reputation. However, there is no reason to ignore everything that such a serious thinker has said, in spite of his faults. Arendt herself drew heavily on his ideas in describing the alienation from nature in her ‘The Human Condition’.

Now I am of course realising that there is a connection between the two questions. Heidegger was a philosopher deeply concerned with how we live in a technological society.  But perhaps he lacked the roots of ancient wisdom that the book of Job mysteriously urges us towards in its reach towards today’s world from such very different times.