Professor Tom McLeish – Towards a theology of science

Here is a reblog from my recent visit to the University of Queensland Emmanuel College Centre for the Study of Science, Religion and Society. There’s also a rather sharp set of questions over 20 minutes at ABC Radio embedded!

Emmanuel Centre for the Study of Science, Religion & Society

On 15 September Tom McLeish, Professor of Physics at Durham University, gave incredible insights into the breadth of his research in two presentations at the CSSRS.

Tom McLeish seminar

McLeish spoke at a lunchtime seminar about his recent OUP publication Faith and Wisdom in Science in which he argues that the problem with the contested “science and religion” relationship lies in the conjunction. Neither science nor religion, he contends, does “and”. Instead, McLeish posits a case for the importance of a “theology of science”. In a fresh reading of the book of Job, McLeish argued that science — as the attempt to understand the natural world — is a deeply human and deeply religious activity. Focusing particularly on the passages that detail God’s response to Job in chapter 38, McLeish argued that questions like “canst thou bind the sweet influence of Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion?” are not only musings…

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A Tour of Creation in the company of Job – towards a Theology of Science

Last Sunday I experienced the great honour of being invited to give the first of a whole term of Sunday Evensong sermons at St. John’s College Cambridge, all on the subject of Science and Religion.  The very interesting remainder of the programme can be found here (where you can also hear audio recordings of the sermons after they are given).  This is what I said, in an attempt to build a Biblical Wisdom foundation for the rest of the series.

Interior of St. John's College Chapel, Cambridge

Interior of St. John’s College Chapel, Cambridge

I am doubly grateful for the invitation here tonight – the first reason is rather personal actually and until now has been a secret: during my own Cambridge days I was a member of a very much lesser College Chapel Choir, and every so often I loved to sneak away and come to this place for Evensong – to hear, as it were, how it’s done properly, as well as to be mesmerised by George Guest’s conducting and wonder what magic made it work. I have been reminded of the reason I did that this evening in the most beautiful possible way: Choir, Director of Music – thank you. The second reason I’m so delighted is your imaginative decision to use this term’s Sunday sermons to explore the relationship of science and faith. You have invited some real experts later in the term, and it’s an immense privilege to introduce the series. Getting thinking on this right, you see, – and believe me most public chatter on the topic is nowhere close to doing that – is not just an academic sideshow, but about understanding how to live as humans in a natural world with which we have an increasingly delicate and threatened relationship.

But where should we start? If this were a lecture room I might be tempted to a survey of the torrid landscape signposted ‘The Science and Religion Conflict’. But this is Evensong – the most Biblically-soaked liturgy of the prayer-book. So why not instead begin with the greatest example of ancient writing about the human intellectual engagement with nature? The Book of Job has puzzled, troubled, exasperated and inspired writers and thinkers of many faiths and none for millennia, from Basil the Great to Emmanuel Levinas. I will never forget my own first reading. I like to shock my scientist colleagues by suggesting that the greatest science poem ever written is buried in the heart of the Old Testament Wisdom literature – the ‘Lord’s Answer’ to Job from which we heard an excerpt earlier. And when they read it they almost always return with surprise and delight. For here in beautiful, searching, poetic language are the core-questions of what have now become the fields of astronomy, meteorology, geography, zoology, to paraphrase…

… do you know what binds the Pleiades star cluster?

Faith and Wisdom in Science (OUP 2014)

Faith and Wisdom in Science (OUP 2014)

can you trace the path of the lightening?

do you know how the eagle navigates her way to the south?

No of course you can’t find the word ‘science’ in a Bible concordance, but if we think for a moment about what science is, what it does for the human condition of initial ignorance and fear in the face of a wild, puzzling and threatening world, and if we think about science as the human activity that meets the need to mend that ragged relationship with nature, we find a key that unlocks creation-writing like this all through the Bible. We also see that, although science in its current form is recent, it is, if you like, the name of the current chapter in a book that humanity has been writing for as long as songs have been sung or prayers prayed, or stories told.

The other reason that scientists respond so radically to the Lord’s Answer to Job, is that we know that the central imaginative move in science is not to find the right answer – but as Werner Heisenberg once put it – to formulate the creative question. I find myself explaining to every new doctoral student who joins my research group in Durham that all the skilful mastery of answering exam questions well, the very skill that brought them to this place, will be of very little help now. Can they, rather, ask the imaginative, the creative question? Do you know the laws of the heavens – and can you apply them to the earth? Such connected cosmic thinking staggers me now as it does when I first read it – and look where that thought led!

So why has ‘The Lord’s Answer’ received such bad theological and biblical-studies press? The critics are, in the main, unimpressed. ‘What sort of an answer is a hundred questions?’ they complain. And in any case – the monologue doesn’t even address Job’s complaint. For his accusation is that YHWH is treating him unjustly – Job’s is a moral issue. He, the epitome of righteousness, after losing family, wealth and health, is suffering inconsolably (and he is not helped by the moralising efforts of his inept friends and their brittle theologies that only the sinful person gets to suffer, while only the good prosper). All God seems to do, when eventually he arrives on the scene, is to ask a bunch of unanswerable questions about nature: to paraphrase the critique – ‘Hey Job! You don’t know where the snow comes from? You any idea what light is? Well, you don’t know nothin’ then do ya? So shut up’. ‘Not the YHWH of the Pentateuch, but a petulant put-down deity’, wrote one critic.

But I wonder – for if you pick up a Bible later this evening and read through those first 37 chapters of Job’s three cycles of speeches with his friends, you will find that nature-talk is threaded throughout that long and increasingly tense dialogue too. In fact there isn’t a natural object, not a tree, not a rock, not a cloud nor a lightning strike, appearing in the Lord’s Answer that has not already appeared somewhere in those early dialogues. And the reason for that is that Job’s accusation, you see, is a double one. He accuses God of being as out of control of the moral world as he is of the physical universe. Both worlds seem to Job to be in chaotic disarray. From chapter 12 he rails against YHWH for the chaos of flooding

He holds back the waters, there is drought; he lets them loose, they overwhelm the earth.

Or from the discourse in chapter 14 plucks from land-erosion a metaphor for despair:

Yet as a mountain slips away and erodes, and a cliff is dislodged from its place, as water wears away stone and torrents scour the soil from the land – so you destroy man’s hope.

So I wonder again – if Job’s trouble is that the universe is out of control, chaotic, unpredictable, destructive, if he is at the sharp end of the realisation of what George Steiner called ‘the inhuman otherness of matter’ – then is it so very inappropriate that when God meets him, that he should invite Job to stand up alongside his Creator and to contemplate how one makes a world? Not an ordered, crystalline, dead world – but a world full of dynamism, of branching life, energy, and intelligence:

When all the angels sang for joy ... Job Ch. 38

When all the angels sang for joy … Job Ch. 38

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? … Who laid its cornerstone while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?

Job’s questioning ‘tour of creation’ is a way of helping him understand that neat and ordered worlds are all very well, all very well that is if you have a taste for dead worlds. The messiness of a living physical world is not so very far removed from the messiness of a real moral world – but Job, and those who read faithfully the book that bears his name, are invited to engage with the process of understanding, of healing, of making peace with, both of those worlds.

Once you are attuned to the way creation-stories are used in the Bible, and to the short and compressed form in which they usually appear (Genesis is an exception you see), then you will find accounts of the creation of the natural world throughout Old and New Testaments alike. Paul’s epistles are no exception – and in our second passage this evening we heard one, from the letter to the Romans, that surely has its roots in Joban thinking. Here Paul is reaching the climax of his great systematic exposition of the gospel. Like Job he wants to go to the place of reconciliation – the point at the end of chapter 8, often read at funerals, where nothing, not height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God. But first he has to pass through the messy birth-pangs of a new creation – and here is the vital point for us – it is the relationship of redeemed human beings to the physical creation that conveys hope – listen –

the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

If the consequence of our own reconciliation with God through the cross and resurrection of Christ is that now we, too, can minister reconciliation to others; or to paraphrase Paul, if Christians are now in the business of healing broken relationships, then one of them must be the humble, but troubled relationship between human beings and the natural created world around us. Like all broken relationships, we mend it by working to replace ignorance with knowledge, fear with wisdom, and mutual harm with mutual flourishing. Set in those terms, that begins to sounds like the basis for theological thinking about what science might be for.

It’s so important to ask the right questions. The wrong questions in science just send us round and round in circles; the right ones on a real journey of discovery. ‘Can you reconcile science and religion?’ is an example of the wrong sort of question, respecting neither science nor religion nor history. ‘What does the gift of science do, and what service might it achieve within the Kingdom of God?’ is surely a much better question. It is certainly one that our nature-soaked scriptures being to ask. And I wish you every delight as you work to answer it over the term ahead, and if you are a scientists, within your own calling.