Science and the Church: Gift, Celebration and Re-Creation

NorwichCathedral I spent Friday afternoon sitting next to Bishop Graham of Norwich in his Cathedral’s spacious conference room, fielding questions about science and faith from a determined field of 6th formers.  Dean Jane Hedges chaired a mixed panel of lay ordained, religious believers (of different kinds) and not, and including two working scientists (I was the physicist – at the other end of the row an Oxford biologist).  What are the top questions young people in Norwich want to explore, when given that opportunity?  Before reading on you might want to see how many you can guess.  Here are five of them…

  • Did the laws of physics spring from nothing? How does this relate to the idea of God?
  • Many churches still preach creationism as a literal interpretation of Genesis. This message is in direct contradiction to evolution and the evidence provided by physics. Is there too great a gulf between faith and reason to reconcile the two?
  • If God is the God of ‘gaps’, what gaps are left for God to fill?
  • How would science explain apparent metaphysical features of the world such as free will?
  • Science is based on empirical evidence and religion is based on ideas. Should religion have to prove itself in order to be valid in today’s society?

This isn’t the place to record our answers – but to reflect on the diverse concerns and assumptions behind these probing questions. Take the last – there is essentially no public grasp of the history of thought informed by anything deeper that the historically-false ‘conflict’ paradigm of Christianity and Science.  The information that not only were all the early modern pioneers of science Christians (Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Bacon, Boyle, and Newton a Unitarian), but that they worked under an explicit theology for why they were doing science [1], comes as rather a surprise.

From that starting point it is not a surprise that faith and science have become tangled in pupils’ minds as competing explanatory frameworks – so God rescues and inhabits the ‘gaps’ in our explanations (until there are no gaps left…). Science itself becomes misunderstood – the notion of ‘scientific proof’ is appealed to (it doesn’t exist) – and a grasp of ‘religion’ also – we found ourselves asserting that Christianity is not just ‘about ideas’ but about practical living that works.  The most troubling questions – troubling because they arose, not because they are hard to answer – were about the conflict of science with young earth creationism (and it came up more than once).  This is a terrible 20th century heresy that is taught in more churches than most people think, poisons young minds and reduces Bible-reading to thin, selective and disrespectful proof-texting.  The Church needs to speak out on this much more strongly, for here is a real conflict – one has to throw out essentially all that we have learned through science to countenance it.

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Faith and Wisdom in Science (OUP 2014)

So it is a wonderful thing that Churches and Cathedrals are increasingly recognising that they are natural places to host science festivals, such as the Norwich science week in which the debate took place.  Lectures, hands on experiments – even a simulated volcano spewing fire – all graced the festival week.  To move from seeing science as a vague secular threat, towards celebrating it as God’s Gift, is an essential journey for the Church today.  This is not only so that the apologetic questions can be re-framed in proper historical and philosophical light, but because science needs the church to support its mission even more now than it always did.  This is the central point of the book Faith and Wisdom in Science, in which I argue that a ‘Theology of Science’ needs urgently to replace the opposition of theology and science.

To take just one strand of evidence for this claim: examine the fractious and conflictual

Durham Cathedral

The north view of the massive norman nave of Durham Cathedral seen from Palace Green.

public and political debates about science-based issues like climate change and genetic medicine. These discussions need the patient, reconciliatory service of our community of faith if they are to progress.  St. John’s College, Durham University is currently running a project Equipping Christian Leadership in an Age of Science (funded by the Templeton World Charity Foundation) to bring senior Christian leaders and scientists together.  Earlier this year it hosted a remarkable workshop on earth sciences, theology and the church in which I experienced for the first time a thoughtful (and prayerful) engagement of opposite views on fracking. Another strand of the project, recently launched, is the offer of competitive funding to churches with imaginative ideas on engaging with science.  The Scientists in Congregations initiative awaits your ideas.

 

[1] As historian Peter Harrison has written about in The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science

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Two Years of ‘Faith and Wisdom in Science’? And a question – ‘How did you come to write it?’

I have just returned from a remarkable evening at a small town in the Scottish Boarders called Biggar.  The church there had arranged for an evening community talk and Q&A on science and faith, following the book Faith and Wisdom in Science.  I have given about 40 such talks in the last 2 years, but this was by any measure a rather special one.  the questions went on and on, as did the discussions over the book signing at the end.

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Somewhere in mid flow talking about reconstructing a picture of the universe at different lengthscales at a talk on Faith and Wisdom in Science.

 

It makes a fitting staging-post for reflection after 2 years since the book first came out in hardback, and at the point at which the paperback edition is published.

So I have updated the blogsite somewhat.  There is now a special page for media resources (videos and podcasts).  Another one gives links to the reviews of the book that are still emerging in popular, scientific and theological outlets.

Perhaps more usefully there is now a complete online list of the errata that crept into the first imprint and which I am swatting away as readers kindly point them out.

One question from Biggar got me reflecting deeply – a lady wanted to know the process, or processes by which I had come to write the book.  What were my motivations, sources, hopes?  It’s a while since I had tried to draw all those threads together, and I found it a very helpful exercise.

I think that the first reason was nothing to do with the ‘Faith and Science’ question at all. In fact, perhaps the happiest comment about the book was made to me last year by a colleague – ‘Tom, your book – is isn’t really a science and religion book at all, is it?’ Indeed it isn’t!  It’s a science book – or especially an articulation of how science is at the heart of human culture, and has been there in its earlier forms for many hundreds of years.  I realised that I also wanted to know what science was for.  After all – I was going to spend a long time doing it throughout my life, and some idea of the purpose to aim at would be imp0rtant.  But purpose is not a category that sits easily with the way science is talked about.  That is where theology comes in – it is the one discipline still comfortable with the idea of purpose.  I have said before that were one a believer or not, for that reason alone, theology becomes a resource for social teleology!

Then, of course, there was the public discourse of the ‘religion and science’ debate.  Worthy in its own way, I found it increasingly boxed in, and consistently over-apologetic.  The question, explicit or implicit, always seemed to be, ‘can you reconcile science with religion?’  This for me was never the best question, and assumed too much wrong ‘geometry’ of the relationship between the two.  Very few people seemed to be asking the more fruitful question that leads from the issue of purpose – what does science do within the Kingdom of God, once conceived of as God’s gift?  That became the central quest of Faith and Wisdom in Science.

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From William Blake’s series of paintings depicting scenes from the Book of Job. Behemoth and Leviathan Wikimedia commons

Then, finally, there was the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament in general, and the Book of Job in particular.  The notion that the tradition of Wisdom constitutes the tributary stream that became science is suggested strongly by the old name for my disciplines, Natural Philosophy – love of wisdom to do with natural things.  But a close reading of Job convinced me.  The wonderful ‘Lord’s Answer’ has to be the most profound nature poem of ancient literature.  It had long fascinated me, and the idea of making an extensive study of Job as a whole as the centrepiece of a book became impossible to ignore. The ‘Nature Trail through Job’ became the central pillar of the book, it’s highest vantage point.  Climbing up to it through an analysis of science as human story, and through creation stories in the Old Testament, it then provided the vision and the material to develop a ‘Theology of Science’ in consequence.

Purpose, science as a humanity, the theology of (not ‘and’) science, and the tradition of Wisdom.  These became the motivations, sources and energies that turned into the book, and which I hope will become much beside as in the church we embrace science as God’s gift, and in society we learn to contemplate it as part of what it means for all of us to be human.