Laudato Si – Reflections from Faith and Wisdom in Science

rainbowLast week Pope Francis published his widely anticipated encyclical Laudato Si.   It is a considered yet impassioned plea for new attitude and action towards our planet and environment – ‘Care for our Common Home’.  It is adressed not just to Catholics or the wider Christian communion, but to everyone. Immediate comment was almost universally warmly receptive, though tended to focus on particular statements or to extract highlighted ‘soundbites’ from within the lengthy sweep of its 186 pages. But its great strength is to be found in the very breadth and depth that the Encyclical allows itself. Before suggesting changes of political and personal attitude and behaviour, Laudato Si surveys a Biblically-informed theological discussion of science, technology and our responsibility to nature. Since this is also the essential foundation of Faith and Wisdom in Science, I rather think it the task of this column to look hard at the theology of science that the encyclical builds on, before reacting to its recommendations.

The very title of the document, and of course the author’s assumed pontifical name, are both taken from the founder of the movement to which he belongs – St. Francis of Assisi. The endearing honesty of the message is stamped on the introductory pages, which remind us of Francis’ especial love of nature, of all creatures, and the human care to which God entrusts the world. The very language of ‘Brother Sun’ and ‘Sister Earth’ prepares us for the deeply relational thinking that pervades the document, which later (§65 and §66) identifies the vital ‘relationship of human beings to the world’ as a broken one, as damaged as those with our neighbour and with God. The language used of this relationship with the natural world is

The Lord Answering job out of the Whirlwind by William Blake

The Lord Answering job out of the Whirlwind by William Blake

covenantal and reciprocal throughout. In Faith and Wisdom I found just this astonishingly profound category of relationship to emerge from the Wisdom tradition of the Old Testament – Job, for example, is assured that his anger and suffering, and also his questioning of nature itself, can become a pathway to a time when he is ‘in covenant with the stones’. Biblical affirmation of the goodness of physical reality, and our vital relation to it, really is that strong.

Francis likewise takes a Biblical reading informed by the Wisdom tradition to move away from a naive opposition of science and faith. On the contrary, he draws on science explicitly to inform theology: ‘the best scientific research available today touch[es] us deeply and provide[s] a concrete foundation for the ethical and spiritual itinerary that follows.’ (§15). That itinerary passes, as it did symbolically for Job, and as it does for St. Paul’s reflection on our relation with creation in Romans chapter 8, though a necessary pain: ‘Our goal is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it.’ (§19) If Francis feels pain, and also anger, at the current misshapen framing of that relationship as one of exploitative domination (‘Clearly, the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures §68), he expresses continual hope that a new and very different approach might follow (‘Instead, our “dominion” over the universe should be understood more properly in the sense of responsible stewardship’ – §116). This is authentic Biblical encounter with the natural world – there is only one place in Old or New Testaments where human relationship with nature is not within the context of pain, and that is within the hope of the new creation (Revelation 22).

The Faith and Wisdom story reaches yet more radical conclusions of our responsibility to use scientific knowledge with wisdom, identifying humans ‘in the image of God’ as participative co-creators in a universe which has not finished the work of creation. This is a vital point – we have the care of something growing and developing, not simply of a finished product. We

Self-assembly of molecular structures (Barrett group, McGill University)

Self-assembly of molecular structures (Barrett group, McGill University)

are able to harm a future, not just deform a present. Laudato Si draws on a remarkable passage from the celebrated medieval thinker St. Thomas Aquinas to explore and apply this idea. It might even be called a ‘theology of self-assembly! In his Summa Theologica Thomas illustrates the phenomenon of natural emergence: “Nature is nothing other than a certain kind of art, namely God’s art, impressed upon things, whereby those things are moved to a determinate end. It is as if a shipbuilder were able to give timbers the wherewithal to move themselves to take the form of a ship” (§80). The world is pregnant with possibility. I wonder what Thomas would make of today’s theories of self-assembling cell-membranes, an example I used in Faith and Wisdom to illustrate how the apparent chaos of the molecular world is necessary for order and a structure to emerge.

The science and the theology of Laudato Si work powerfully together. Under the surface of its language lie not only the analytic toolkit of science, which informs us of the dominant human causes of global warming, but also the integrative, holistic methods of complexity and the science of systems. The rain-forests are the ‘lungs of the planet’ (§40); A fully interdisciplinary approach is needed to address the ‘deepest problems of the global system’ (§111). Both science and faith create global communities – and an attentive reader will not miss the explicit acknowledgement of reflective contributions from church leaders in Japan, Brazil, New Zealand, Bolivia, USA, Paraguay, Germany, Canada and more. Sufi and Jewish thought is welcomed as well as Christian. This is connectivity embodied as well as urged.

There are of course places where I hesitate to affirm everything Francis says. I rather wish he had said explicitly that science is a gift of God, rather than the one-stage removed ’emerged from the gift of creativity’. But disagreement in some p art will be true of most readers. But living with those differences is also part of living and serving together in a connected and responsible way.

Laudato Si is not only a thoughtful document, it is a beautiful one. It is stern – it needs to be. It is painful. But it is not depressing or despairing. The prayers with which if finishes are full of praise and resurrection hope. It is surely right to suggest a song as we take on the urgent task of mending our ways, rediscovering simplicity, caring for the poor, receiving and using science as God’s gift, and stewarding our world for those who come after us.


Our Latest Scientific Collaborator was a Medieval Bishop

Tom McLeish, Durham University; Giles Gasper, Durham University, and Hannah Smithson, University of Oxford

There was something unusual about our recent research collaboration on the science of light, colours and the perception of rainbows: one member of the team wrote his best science in the 1220s.

The Ordered Universe Project sees humanities scholars and scientists come together to carefully read the 13th century scientific treatises of the English polymath Robert Grosseteste. It was set up in the hope that the work’s technical content might receive a deeper analysis than previous scholarship.

What no one expected was that the scientists in our team would be inspired to do new work as a result. They have ended up becoming co-authors of new scholarly editions of medieval texts. And the humanities scholars among us now also co-author papers in the Proceedings of the Royal Society and other scientific journals.

Grosseteste – “The Greatest Mind You’ve Never Heard of” according to the title of the festival event sponsored by the Arts and Humanities Research Council – lived at an explosive period in the history of thought. He was born in East Anglia of humble origins in the late 12th century. But his studies in Hereford, Oxford and probably Paris enabled him to crest the new intellectual tidal wave surging through the schools and early universities of Europe, triggered by the rediscovery of most of Aristotle’s writings, transmitted by Jewish and Muslim translators and commentators of the previous centuries.

The bright, eager and incisive mind that Grosseteste clearly possessed fed hungrily on this wealth of new material. He was also clearly inspired by the realisation that the human mind can through observation and thought discover structures within the material world that were previously hidden and understand them for the first time.

For example, in his treatise on the rainbow, De iride, he is the first to identify refraction as the phenomenon that produces the rainbow (rather than reflection, as Aristotle thought). Any scientist today would also recognise his articulation of the “aha!” moments we all live for, a phenomenon he calls “sollertia”.

A truly integrated mind

His thinking is, of course, of its own time not of ours. So when he tackles the problem of cosmic origins, the physical problem he sets himself is the creation of a universe with the Earth at its centre, a model we know today to be wrong.

His Christian worldview does inform his thinking, motivating him to argue that the physical origin of the cosmos is a real issue, contradicting Aristotle who proposed a world without any beginning. But for this 13th century bishop (Creationists please note) it is the questions, not the answers, that lie in the book of Genesis.

The result is a highly mathematical and physical “Big Bang” theory of an early expanding universe driven by the force of light, that for the first time unites the Earth, the Moon and the cosmos beyond them under a single physical theory of matter. His formulation gave the team some computational headaches to work through even 800 years later.

A colour projection inspired by Grosseteste’s De iride
Author provided

His was a truly integrated mind that expected to see the laws of light and matter at work in the cosmos also visible in common objects on Earth. So for Grosseteste, colour is a manifestation of just this. The Ordered Universe team were able to tease out from the 400-word jewel of a treatise De colore (On colour) that he thinks of colours within a three-dimensional abstract space. For Grosseteste, the differences between all possible colours can be captured using variation of just three qualities.

This is remarkable. As there are the three different types of wavelength-selective cone cells in the human retina, colour really does possess a three-dimensional structure (that’s why screens display colours as a mix of red, blue and green).

The appropriate abstract geometry to represent differences between colours is still a question of active research today. The problem was that Grosseteste’s qualities of greatness, clarity and purity had no obvious mapping onto red, green and blue. If only we could have given him a standard colour chart to comment on.

Delightfully, there is such an eternal colour chart: rainbows are the same yesterday as today in all their variations of angle, raindrop sizes and solar illumination. And these three natural “rainbow co-ordinates” are just the ones Grosseteste uses to describe their colour.

After considerable calculation of the spectral features of all possible rainbows, we projected them into a standard 3D perceptual colour space developed by vision scientists in the 20th century. We found that our vision scientist of the 13th century had indeed recognised that rainbows create a way of mapping this space, with the beautiful twist that they generate a new “double-spiral” co-ordinate system for colour-space (see image above).

It feels like a collaboration across the centuries, but the project also affirms the sense that deeply interdisciplinary research takes us into our academic core.

The authors presented their work on Grosseteste at the Cheltenham Science Festival on 7 June 2015.

The Conversation

Tom McLeish is Professor of Physics and former Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research at Durham University.
Giles Gasper is Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at Durham University.
Hannah Smithson is Associate Professor in Experimental Psychology (Perception) at University of Oxford.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.