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:
- How can lay people really engage with science in a meaningful way?
- Can Narrative act as a way into science?
- 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!