NATURE features Christian Leaders and Scientists Project

Nature, the international general science journal, published an article this week about the Christian Leaders in an Age of Science project that I co-lead with Revd. Prof. David Wilkinson, Principal of St. John’s College Durham University. Written by our Project Manager, Revd. Dr. Kathryn Prichard, it’s pithy and personal approach has attracted a long and varied comment stream!

Kathryn tells it how it is from the title on:

kathrynReligion and science can have a true dialogue

She begins with a personal account of the sort of activity that senior church leaders (bishops and equivalent) get up to with the scientists at Durham University when we get them all together for a day:

Eagle Dark matterI work for the Archbishops’ Council in the Church of England, and this summer I did something that many people would think is impossible. I sat in a dark lecture theatre engrossed in a computationally generated 3D journey through the Universe. Virtual stars whizzed past and seemed narrowly to miss colliding with my head as we accelerated through galaxies and past exploding stars. I listened to cosmologists speak on research into dark matter, particle physics, the rate at which the growth of the Universe is accelerating and the possibi­lity of multi­verses. I asked questions and they responded.

Read the open-access article itself to find out more!

The comments have been very varied – from the predictable (the article itself anticipates them) vilifying Nature for dropping its standards, to nuanced and personal comments from scientists who are Christians, and have thought deeply about the relation between their faith and their science.  Those that see only negative tensions between religion and science might bear in mind a few sets of ‘data’:

(1) It is historically uncontroversial that religion, and Christianity in particular, served as a stimulus and support for science. Francis Bacon articulates the theological reasons for the rise of experimental science in the early modern era, to take just one key example.  A great collection of reading here is Galileo Goes to Jail – and other myths about science and religion (edited by Ron Numbers)
(2) The ‘conflict’ notion is, for the most part, a historically invented polemic myth from the late 19th century (see the ‘Draper-White’ thesis), constructed for other reasons (the new book Territories of Science and Religion by Peter Harrison is well worth a read for both these points)
(3) The extraordinary scientists throughout history who have found deep motivation from and connections with, their faith to do science, are testimony to the positive support for science at the personal level (Copernicus, Newton, Boyle, Maxwell, Faraday, Born, … to name a very few)
(4) Our project aims at catalysing the potential support for a healthy understanding of science and scientific thinking that the church can give at personal, local and national level, and which is natural for it to do. We’ve seen great examples of churches supporting science festivals, for example. We are working with senior leaders because they tend to come from humanities backgrounds and lack confidence (but not intelligence, learning or enthusiasm) in science. Their meetings with the scientists we arrange under science themes have been transformation for both, time after time.

Perhaps the most important clue to the ways in which a healthy religious life can support science at its core was given by the Nobel Laureate Isidor I. Rabi when once asked why he became a scientist:

”My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: ‘So? Did you learn anything today?’ But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. ‘Izzy,’ she would say, ‘did you ask a good question today?’ That difference – asking good questions -made me become a scientist!”

As it turns out, ‘Izzy”s mother was displaying the most faithful awareness of her Jewish tradition – for any close reader of the Bible (this ought to include Christians as well of course) is immediately struck by the importance all the writings urge of questions.  One of the tired  and uninformed canards in the science and religion conversation is that the latter cuts off questions in place of acceptance of dogma.  Nothing could be less accurate.  One of the oldest nature-wisdom poems we possess is to be found as ‘The Lord’s Answer’ in the Book of Job. It consists entirely of questions about the workings of the natural world, from the stars to the lightning and snow, to the wild animals and the trees.

The very greatest question, ‘What is Truth?’ appears at one of the most climactic moments of the whole Biblical narrative, in the tense and probing discourse between Jesus and Pilate before the crucifixion. There is no greater gift to those who would seek to know and to understand than a great question.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Take your Vicar to the Lab – and she can bring her Bishop too

The ‘Theology of Science’ developed in Faith and Wisdom in Science leads to a set of consequences for how science might find new resonances and recreation in the media, arts, education and the church (these are discussed in chapter 8 of the book – Mending our Ways, Sharing our Science and Figuring the Future). In particular, once the false mythology of a necessary conflict between science and the church is discarded in the face of actual history, practice and philosophy, and when it is replaced by an understanding of science as God’s gift, then all sorts of possibilities for a positive role for the church in science opens up once more.

labAn opportunity to experiment with ways that churches can support science and scientists is currently being provided by a large project based at St. John’s College, Durham University, UK.  Funded by the Templeton World Charity Foundation, Equipping Christian Leaders in an Age of Science has five strands, one of which invites churches of all denominations to submit proposals for projects, costing up to £10 000, under the umbrella title Scientists in Congregations.

The first eight projects have just been announced, as varied in geographical placement around the UK as they are in approach.  From a large cathedral-based project to mount spectacular science exhibits ‘from Dinosaurs to DNA’ in Ely, to café-style debates with scientists on the implications of their work around north Leeds, applicants have used their imagination.  A title that has caught the attention of the media such as Christian Today (and by no means just the Christian media) was Take your Vicar to the Lab.  ‘Why on earth would either you or they want to?’ was the question in the minds of many who heard about it.  It was thrown at me in a live interview on BBC Radio York this morning, and the subject of a rather perplexed article in Computer Weekly.

So why would a vicar (pastor, priest, etc. …) want to ‘visit a lab’? The great Christian thinkers of former ages would have no problem understanding (once they had had explained the concept of a ‘lab’).  Gregory of Nyssa, one of the formulators of the Christian creeds we know today, and the doctrine of the Trinity, writes of the way that our God-given minds evidence themselves by the way they think into to workings of nature.  The deduction of the existence of invisible air, and the cause of the phases of the moon, are just two examples given in his remarkable 4th century treatise On the Soul and the Resurrection.  The extraordinary English 13th century polymath, Robert Grosseteste, later Bishop of Lincoln, saw our re-thinking nature as part of a work of healing a relationship with the world dimmed by disobedience and Fall.  And this very thought can be found at the birth of early modern science in the writings of Frances Bacon.

Talking of Bishops, another strand of the Durham-based project held a conference of senior Christian

IHRR.png

Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience, Durham University

leaders this week (some of them did indeed sport the purple shirt) considering the science of earthquakes and floods, including the social science of managing their aftermaths.  Together with thinking together about evolution and the human experience of pain, this was theological thinking ‘on the wild side’. A visit to Durham University’s Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience created a productive forum for the church leaders and scientists to talk about the global and cultural pattern of risk, and how local faith communities might work better with international aid organisations.  Practical action, amid the answerless and shared experience of loss – that sounded like a faithful continuation of some of the Biblical wisdom we read and studied together from the Book of Job.

 

So Vicars, Bishops in the lab, yes, and in the earthquake zone, the epidemic and the flood plain, and working along scientists, doctors, engineers and aid workers in mutual service of both God and fellow human being.