and discussions on the material in Faith and Wisdom in Science over three consecutive sessions, rather than squeezing it all into one evening. The first, in June, was from the West Yorkshire School of Christian Studies (WYSOCS) to deliver the input for their annual study weekend. The second is from York Minster, to give their annual series of three summer lectures. The first happened last month, the York Minster series has one more to go (so you can still come!).
I’ve found the opportunity to let the story of the thinking behind the book ‘breathe’ rather more spaciously very stimulating, and satisfying. The narrative is less rushed, preparatory material can be enriched, and – best of all – we can devote almost the entire second lecture to a good wallow in the Book of Job and its wonderful nature poems, painful questions and search for Wisdom.
The WYSOCS audio files can be found here, for those with the patience to hear them, and I will be posting the slides on the Minster web site in due course. The three-section structure for FaWiS goes something like this:
- A historical summary of relation between science and religion
- The search for Wisdom: Creation stories in Psalms and Proverbs, and the Book of Job
- Through the New Testament and towards a Theology of Science
The first hour and discussion can set the scene – how did we get into this mess? We look at Tertullian’s infamous ‘What has Athens got to do with Jerusalem?’ outburst in Against Heretics but in the context of a thinking perfectly able and willing to recruit Stoic logic to his Christian purposes. Another contrast is the wonderful Gregory of Nyssa whose On the Soul and the Resurrection contains a beautiful forth century therapeutic application of scientific thinking at his sister Macrina’s deathbed. A little more ‘myth-busting” taking in the scientific advances of the medieval Islamic and Christian worlds, for example, take us to the early modern acceleration of science – and its explicit (Baconian) Christian teleology. So we find the ‘conflict’ narrative to be a social construction of the 19th and 20th centuries that creates havoc with the social context of science, and in the church.
What we need, then, is a dose of Wisdom – and we turn to the strand of creation stories in the Bible for a taste of writing about human relationship with the nature in the ancient world. The 20 creation stories in the Bible get a brief overview, as well as their purpose. They are used ubiquitously as bridge texts between present trouble and future hope. Psalm 33 is a prime example. We also review them from a structural perspective – their common features of ordering, of setting boundaries between land and sea, heavens and the earth, laying foundations, and finally the role of Word in the creative act. The short creation story from Ps33 runs:
6 By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth. 7 He gathers the waters of the sea into jars; he puts the deep into storehouses. 8 Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the people of the world revere him. 9 For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm.
This takes us into Job, with the structure of circling dialogues, each invoking nature imagery to illustrate Job’s great double accusation – that God is as out of control of the moral law as he is of the natural law. Injustice flows like the wadis – dry one day and in uncontrolled and destructive spate the next. The Hymn to Wisdom of Job 28 points us towards the wisdom of perceptive searching and seeing into the natural world by weight and measure (this is the Wisdom of God) and towards YHWH’s answer in chapters 38-40. This is not the ‘petulant put-down’ of some critical readings, but a teacher’s questions of a pupil or debating adversary – and they lead Job into the position of how one creates a world of fruitfulness, life, and humanity, “Were you there when I laid the foundations of the Earth …”.
So by the start of the third session we are building up a picture of a theology of science that is old, deeply embedded into the human, takes a responsible stance as God’s co-workers, is reconciliatory of our relationship with nature. We are called to replace a relationship characterised by ignorance, fear and harm with one filled out with knowledge, wisdom and mutual flourishing. That is what God’s gift of science is all about – not a threat to faith, but a gift of talents to exercise it in obedience and humility. We can spend some time on consequences for public shared science, education, the media, the political debate of science based issues such as climate change, fracking, genetic medicine, that as things are get stuck in immobile oppositional negative narratives of despair.
The longer breath of presentation seems to elicit a deeper vein of question as well. At WYSOCS I was pressed, for example, on the ‘no prior boundaries’ conclusion – that the Biblical material asks us to take responsibility for what we do and do not do with our knowledge of the world. So it is not a priori evident that we should not, for example, deliberately manipulate the human genome. But nor is it obvious that we should just because we can. In every case we need to take wise, theologically informed, participative, reconciliatory discussion into the public square. Was there an occasion when there was an experimental piece of research I wanted to do, but which I felt was a theological no-go area? As a theoretician myself, I am blessed with not finding myself in this position! However, I am aware of, and was involved in, a discussion with an academic ethical advisor to the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) in the UK about a project aimed at scoping a geo-engineering technology. It was stopped, and I agreed, because there had been very inadequate public consultation and involvement of the ethical issues, unintended consequences and plan for further public debate, as well as a possible conflict of interest. It had been framed in an ‘engineers and scientists know best’ narrative. This is a good example of the application of theological thinking, but in a secular context, to the benefit of our relationship with nature.
More questions and initial directions of answers from WYSOCS and the Minster lectures over the summer!