More Questions from Sheffield: Science of Theology, Fall and Cure for the Earth

A second set of questions from the discussion of Faith and Wisdom in Science at All Saints Ecclesall

All Saints parish church, Ecclesall, Sheffield

All Saints parish church, Ecclesall, Sheffield

resonated with each other somehow:

  • If you are advocating a Theology of Science, what about a Science of Theology – what does that look like?
  • In a Christian theology, might the tension between Order and Chaos arise from the Fall?
  • If a pastor’s lot is the ‘cure of souls’ might not the scientist’s be ‘cure of the Earth’?

As I say in the book, I thnk that the right (if rather radical) way to express the relationship between science and theology is that they are ‘of each other’.  This is an uttlery different way of framing the relationship from the classical alternatives of Conflict, Independence, Dialogue, Integration due orignally to Ian Barbour (who is, of course, largely responsible for getting the whole field of ‘science and religion’ going, so is to be hugely thanked and admired).  It comes closest to ‘integration’ but is not really that – there really are large potential tensions – but the point is that this is not beause they claim competitively common ground.  This is a mistake that the young earth creationists make when they claim that the Bible works as a scientific document.  It is much more powerful than that – it is a mandate for doing science in the first place. No, the tensions come because each of science and theology wants to hold a meta-discourse over the other one.  So Theology wants to say something (a lot) about why we do science.

FMRI scans of the brains of people at prayer.  The same areas are used as those when talking to a loved one.  No surprises of threats there for a Christian! See neubaur_2013_prayer_neuroimaging.png

FMRI scans of the brains of people at prayer. The same areas are used as those when talking to a loved one. No surprises of threats there for a Christian!
See neubaur_2013_prayer_neuroimaging.png

In the same way, science wants to investigate theology and religion in all sorts of ways.  Neurologically – what happens in religious activity and experience? Anthropologically – what social consequences are there for early religious structures and are they advantageous? Archaeologically – what is the historical status of the Old Testament texts? Psychologically – and so on. Daniel Dennett has written at most depth about a call for a scientific investigation of the benefits (or otherwise) of religion in his book Breaking the Spell, so I didnt think I needed to write so much about ‘that way around’ in Faith and Wisdom.  But I think that believers have nothing to fear and everything to gain from such an illumination of science (see the neurological functional magnitic resonance images to the left, where the brains of patients at prayer evince heightened blood flow in the same areas as when talking with a loved one, reported here).

The Fall has traditionally thrown a long philosophical shadow on Christian philosophy of the mind.  I have elsewhere talked about the medieval motivation for progressing science beyond Aristotle,  The idea that before the Fall of Genesis chapter 3, humans had perfect knowledge of nature is not strictly biblical, but a later Patristic interpretation or perhaps embelishment of the consequences of ‘eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil’.  It appears in Grosseteste in the early 13th century, and in the early modern period in the Organum of Francis Bacon.  If both our minds are darkened, and the world rendered more chaotic, as a result of human sin and a failure to look after it, then there are indeed deep consequences for what science must do.  In particulat for Bacon, early modern science was experimental because our senses were all that remains of a hierarchy of faculties, of which they are the lowest, which enable us to perceive nature’s inner workings.  Out task, part of the great commission, is to rebuild the lost knowledge we once had.

But to what purpose? That is where I like the idea of the ‘Cure of the Earth’. In a few words it points to the theological foundation of science, and of the technology with which science partners.  Later this week I will be examining a PhD thesis on a theology of technology.  I am looking forward very much to this.


Christian Voices in the Contempory World: at All Saints Ecclesall in Sheffield – Humble Science?


Gary Wilson, vicar of All Saints in celebratory mood.

If Lent is a traditionally a time for deprivation of comfort, hard discipline and resisting temptation then it must be a wise church, if a particularly determined one, that invites a ‘Faith and Wisdom in Science’ evening of talk and discussion as part of their Lent course. So it was that the vicar of All Saints, Ecclesall, Gary Wilton invited me to lead an evening for a lively, attentive and challenging group of about 170 as part of their Lent course ‘Christian Voices in the Contempory World’.  Perhaps approproately also, we spent a fair bit of time in the Book of Job, a story of anger, pain and penitance as well as the most profound ancient text I know that treats the relation between humankind and the material world around us.

Actually I had first met Gary in 2012 at a conference on dialogue between Science and Religion that he was arranging as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s representative in Brussells for CERN.  The Director of the great European particle physics facility, Rolf Heuer, had requested the three-day meeting, since repeated, as part of CERN’s responsible engagement with the global public.  That meeting, bringing scientists and theologicans, some believing some not (in both camps) and representing Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism, was extremely interesting.  A fair bit of the material on different religions’ approach to science derives from pointers given to me at that meeting (in chapter 8 by the way).

The Sheffield evening was no less stimulating. After the talk, we covered two sets of three questions from the audience.  They both fitted together in interesting ways.  The first (summarised) set was:

  1. How can lay people really engage with science in a meaningful way?
  2. Can Narrative act as a way into science?
  3. Do we not need scintists to show more humility?

I think that these belong together because one of the offputting things about science is the way that scientists tend to assume the role of unassailable expert when we communicate science.  It needs to be said much more often that scientists make mistakes over and over again – it is hard to re-imagine the world and find ways  of seeing into its deep working structure.  We get closer all the time, but the difficulties and the slip-ups ought both to keep us humble, and to remind us that we need all the help we can get.  I still believe that the musical analogy I use in Faith and Wisdom in Science has some value here.  Just as musicians need the many ways in which audiences give them feedback in performances, so scientists need to listen to the reception of their work.  We should not underestimate the intellectual ability of non-experts to think about and question science (this is continually done in the mind-numbingly slow and superficial presentation of science on television).

One way of doing this is indeed to work through the narrative of a science story.  I think that no-one has done this better than Bill Bryson in his A Short History of Nearly Everything.  The twists and turns, the disappointments and delights, the characters and the catastrophes of science are all there.  Underlying the book is also the desire, born in a lay person with no science background, to grasp at some idea of the deep human need to understand why the sky is blue.  But crucially it also drives at a knowledge of how we now understand such things.  I think  that more along the lines  of Bryson’s approach, together with an expectation that lay audiences can and will help scientists to think more imaginatively, and an emphasis and development of the poetry and play of science, may recover lost ground.  Humility is indeed a good place to start.

More from Ecclesall in the next post!