More on Job – and a breakfast discussion in Ann Arbor

UmichIt will take a few weeks to recount  and pass on some experiences of the Faith and Wisdom summer, but one needs must refer on now.  I spent a fascinating weekend visiting my long time friend and collaborator Ron Larson of the Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor (what a lovely, sylvan, name!) and of Knox Presbyterian Church of the same city.

Saturday morning Ron had gathered an ‘out for breakfast’ (bacon, two eggs over easy, hash browns) informal conversation of UoM faculty about the role of Christian faith in their life and work, and especially in science.  It was a stimulating and fascinating conversation.  One aspect new to me was the very wide range of experiences of being known (or not) as a believer in an academic setting.  Some found no issue, and were quite open about their faith (this tended to be the case in the faculty of medicine). Others felt that their intellectual ability would be called seriously into doubt, and promotion prospects dented, were they to ‘come out’ (some, but by no means all, in the science faculty).

But my task is made all the easier, as one participant (RJS) has blogged about the discussion here.  The writer has also commented previously on how to read Job, so we were especially happy to share a deep interest in that book, and its prescience for Biblical theology of the cosmos and our relation to it. I searched that whole blog for Job and found a collection of interesting articles here.

The main lessons seems to be not to project back New Testament notions into the thought world of Job or the writer of the book, and to realise that, as well as much else, this book is about living with questions, not insisting on easy answers.


The Book of Job and Science come alive on Stage!

Faith-In-The-Questions-poster-423x600Imagine the long river of longing, questioning, pain and triumph, that starts from the pen of the long lost author of the Book of Job, and flows to the present day, when human desire to see deeply into the structure of nature takes the form of ‘science’.  Both of the great wisdom poems in Job, the ‘Hymn to Wisdom’ of chapter 28 and the ‘Lord’s Answer’ of chapters 38-42 describe reaching out into the cosmos, and deep down into the structure of the Earth with the insight and imagination of mind and eye.  They also grasp the nettle of pain, of the frustration of incomprehension, especially in the face of the chaotic, the unpredictable, the seemingly purposeless.  This is also why science is also so very deeply human – all of life, hope and creativity is there.

Job on stage

Justin Butcher plays Job

Now imagine these two visions – the ancient poetic figure of Job, and that of a modern scientist facing the challenges of the unknown – brought into the same focus, the old longing to understand meeting the severe challenges of physics, mathematics and nature.  Job and his friends circle around each other, around the unanswered questions, and on a stage that circles itself amid a cosmic backdrop of the universe he longs to comprehend, including its chaotic and threatening aspects.


Job and friends 2

Job rails against his comforters



It was brilliant.  It worked. Job as scientist, Christian, and sufferer, right but also self-righteous.  Felix’ articulation of view of those for whom science is a threat, an inhuman desiccated exercise of the mind that dries up emotion and aesthetic.  And it sparked off wonderful questions and discussion for the panel of four scientists who are also Christians each evening.

Personally, working with Riding Lights and Nigel Forde has been inspiring.  To see some of the themes (and even some of the lines!) of Faith and Wisdom in Science woven into a vibrant dialogue between a modern day Job and his friends, has been a wondrous experience.

It left us all wanting to do more, to help the church embrace science as a gift of God, to support scientists in their calling, to appreciate the interplay of science and art in being human for everyone, to participate in the great work of healing our relationship with nature.

Look out for it later this year or next on a national tour!

Theatre, Science, the Book of Job – and Faith in the Questions


FaWis_450A play based on connections between the Book of Job and science!

This is going to be an exciting week (quite apart from a general election in the UK).  Financial support from the Durham-based Equipping Christian Leaders in an Age of Science project has allowed the development of a one-act play exploring the idea proposed in Faith and Wisdom in Science that the Old Testament Book of Job serves as a fundamental text from which we can trace the questions which today underpin the wonderful human cultural activity that we call ‘Science’.  In particular it takes the essential, and paradoxical, form of questions that is assumed by the ‘Lord’s Answer’ to Job in the Biblical book.

Faith-In-The-Questions-poster-423x600A group of us in York have been working with the well-known theatre company Riding Lights and their writer Nigel Forde on the play Counting the Clouds.  To find out more you will really have to get along to St. Michael-le-Belfrey church (hard by York Minster) at 7.30 pm on the evenings of Thursday, Friday or Saturday June 8th, 9th and 10th.  Suffice it to say that the afflicted yet faithful Job is, in the play, a contemporary scientists, and that one of his ‘comforters’ includes a hard-line humanities-trained clergyman for whom science is a spoiler, a destroyer of wonder, and a threat to his faith.  Both have things to learn.

On each evening, the play will be followed by a second hour of panel discussion between the audience and a group of scientists who are also Christians.  It’s not impossible that I will be among them, but so will Steve Smye OBE of Leeds University and the National Institute of Health Research, and others of wide and deep experience.

foi-logoThe event, Faith in the Questions, forms part of York’s current Festival of Ideas, in which there is lots more on art, literature, politics, science, theology and more to entertain, educate and inspire – so get up to York this week, join in the discussion, and experience Counting the Clouds!.

You can find more information on the event and booking here.



‘Faith & Wisdom in’, and ‘Let There Be’ Science – go West: Lent Sermons, Pentecostal Theology, a Fallen world and Sacred Nature

lettherebescienceIt sounded like a good idea at the time … invitations to talk about the ideas in Faith and Wisdom in Science and the new, broader readership, Let There Be Science in Oxford, Malvern, Exeter and Bristol.  Joining them all up would be efficient, wouldn’t it? A good use of time?  Well it was marvellous, but it WAS exhausting!  What made it so encouraging was the deep, broad and insightful questions at each place.  There is a huge thirst in the church, across denominations and styles of theology and worship, to grasp a positive understanding of science as God’s gift, to use for a purpose, and to discard once and for all the pernicious ‘alternative fact’ that science and Christian belief are in conflict!

The long week opened with the start of a Lenten Evensong series on ‘New Reformations’ at St. Mary’s Church , Warwick.  Vicar Vaughan Roberts had spotted me on the web (!) and thought that the ideas looked interesting.  The link to the sermon is here, but the open Q&A afterwards was especially precious. One I recall especially asked why there was not more of an intelligent, Christian voice in the media, refuting the standard and supercilious conflict thesis.  The questioner had a point – and half of the answer is that Christians in scientific positions are just not speaking loudly enough.  Corporately, the Church needs to acquire a voice on science as gift too.  But then that is what the talks, books, and projects like Equipping Christian Leaders in an Age of Science are all about.

Next stop Elim Pentecostal Theological College – Regents College in Malvern. To my eternal shame I had not credited the Pentecostal movement with perhaps the deepest of theological traditions.  This visit proved me wrong.  A nuanced and thoughtful reception of a Faith and Wisdom talk – with a LOT on Job was very thought-provoking (and they bought all the books, necessitating a rush-delivery for Bristol – no chance for Exeter the next day!). Every theological audience I engage with reminds me that we need to think afresh about the Fall in a way consistent with the Genesis, and NT narratives, as well as what we learn from science about the history of the universe.

ExeterCathedralExeter Cathedral is launching a series of talks on Science and Faith funded through the Durham Scientists in Congregations initiative. I opened the series with The Continuing Dance of Science and Religion (now on YouTube) (not really my title – as some readers know I’m more for moving in for the embrace). Again a moving series of questions.  One mentioned the problem of young earth creationism.  Although normally reticent about this, and keen not to offend, I am increasingly persuaded that this is part of the church’s problem – we have failed to call out this lie.  It does untold damage within the church (young people forced into unbearable cognitive dissonance between their doctrinaire churches and the science that they love), and outside (anyone who is made to think that they have to swallow a literal 6-day creation in order to be a Christian is not going to think twice if they have any notion of evidence-based thinking).  Enough is enough.  I called on the Bishops to make a public and clear stand.  Heresies are wrong teachings that prevent people entering the Kingdom, and this is clearly a teaching that does just that.  Not in accord with an authoritative and respectful view of scripture, nor of Christian teaching, nor with the whole of God’s gift of science.  That got a round of applause!

Final stop Bristol Christians in Science – talk with slides available here, along with others in the series.  A powerful question on how to make this message with theological roots in Wisdom, Book of Job, Reconciliation and Healing accessible to a secular world.  That is of course the entire task of getting the ‘mising’ narrative of science as the search for wisdom and healing of our relationship with the world, heard broadly.  But starting with the Church is no bad place.  On the other hand, Dave and I were clear in the writing of Let There Be Science that we wanted this to be what moderate secular scientists needed and wanted to hear to explain to others how deeply and naturally human science is.  Several of the positive blurbs are from just those people.  Like all the truest Christian messages, they are welcomed by the world when they are recognised as the water in the desert that is so needed.




‘Let There Be Science’- Publication Day!

lettherebescienceHere it is – the short, broad-readership, story-filled book about why God loves science and why science has always been stimulated, supported and has flourished within a worldview in which people seek to serve God.

Let There Be Science!

Like its background text, Faith and Wisdom in Science (good for further reading by the way), it’s main task is to blow away the myth that science and orthodox Christian faith are in any necessary conflict now, or at any time in history.

On the contrary, we find that throughout the ages, the faith required to do science, that our minds might just be up to the job of perceiving the inner structures of the universe, as well as its cosmic glories, is motivated by the same ‘Faith’ that dares to suppose that those very minds reflect in some way that of their Creator.

Furthermore, we find that the reason to do science is also theologically grounded.  Historically, the great scientists at the start of the early modern period when experimental science got off the ground, had a worked out theological reason for acquiring knowledge of the natural world.  To take just one example, Johannes Kepler, whose calculations following Tycho Brahe’s new observations of the planets identified for the first time the true structure and dynamics of the solar system, said:kepler

Those laws are within the grasp of the human mind. God wanted us to recognize them by creating us after his own image so that we could share in his own thoughts… and if piety allow us to say so, our understanding is in this respect of the same kind as the divine, at least as far as we are able to grasp something of it in our mortal life

Science is hard, sometimes painful – new ideas get stifled if they go against the grain, our confused minds find many false avenues to waste time down, experiments and calculations go wrong.  Yet this very painful ‘harvesting’ of knowledge about nature is strongly resonant with the mandate we understand humankind has from the Bible in Genesis chapter 3:

“Cursed is the ground because of you;
    through painful toil you will eat food from it
    all the days of your life.
18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
    and you will eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your brow
    you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
    since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
    and to dust you will return.”

though the command to name the animals and birds – where names stand in for a knowledge of their natures – was not rescinded. We find, as in Faith and Wisdom in Science, God in conversation with humankind about nature once more in the wonderful Book of Job.  Here, the essential ingredient of science – the creative question – is celebrated and explored in the great ‘Lord’s Answer’ to Job in chapters 38-42.  Just read a taste of this agenda-setting text from chapter 38:


The Lord Answering job out of the Whirlwind by William Blake

Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades?
    Can you loosen Orion’s belt?
32 Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons
    or lead out the Bear with its cubs?
33 Do you know the laws of the heavens?
    Can you set up God’s  dominion over the earth?

34 “Can you raise your voice to the clouds
    and cover yourself with a flood of water?
35 Do you send the lightning bolts on their way?
    Do they report to you, ‘Here we are’?
36 Who gives the ibis wisdom
    or gives the rooster understanding?
37 Who has the wisdom to count the clouds?

And now here what a great scientist such as Werner Heisenberg says about questions:


In the course of coming into contact with the empirical method, physicists have gradually learned how to pose a question properly. Now, proper questioning often means that one is more than half way towards solving the problem

So why do so many people, and especially sadly, so many young people, think that they have to choose between science and Christian (or any) faith?  Sadly the answer is because of misrepresentation and a covering over of truth by all sides:

  • The ‘conflict myth’ was really set off by two books in the late 19th century by Draper and White.  Little read today and historically discredited, their polemic nonetheless lies underneath many peoples’ thinking.
  • Bad history, such as representing the Galileo affair as the clash of science with religion (when it can’t have been – all those involved on both sides were Christians and the arguments were almost entirely scientific ones) serve to bolster the impression of conflict.
  • A recent (20th century), theologically bad, way of interpreting the Bible that assumes that it gives us shortcuts to scientific answers, rather than setting out our task, has had terrible effects.  For example, the pitting of ‘The Bible’ against ‘evolution’ is quire wrong.

Here we have just a taste of the work we need to do, and when we’ve done it, what then?  Perhaps Heisenberg has more advice for us:

The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you!


By all means raise a glass with Dave and me to the wide and healthy readership of Let There Be Science (already in the Amazon top-5000 and top 3 for science and religion after just a day!).

Better still – do come along to Waterstones York (tell them you are coming) at 7pm on Tues February 21st to here Richard Staples of BBC Radio York talk with me and Dave about the book – and have a glass or what have you as well!

How Christian Faith Supports Science

‘Can you give us a few words on how a Christian worldview assists science?’, was the question put to me a few weeks ago by the organisers of an event in Leeds run by Faith in Scholarship under a new resource called The Church Scientific.  I wasn’t able to attend in person at the launch, sadly, but was able to put a few thoughts together for a video message they showed.


Galileo Galilei


‘Wait!’ I hear you say.  What a ridiculous question – for centuries Christianity has exerted a drag force, surely, on the forward momentum of science? Think about Galileo, evolution … how can a worldview that elevates dogma in spite of evidence possibly assist a scientific outlook of evidence-based fact?

So runs the tired, and (paradoxically) ill-informed, dogmatic and not-at-all evidence-based view sadly trotted out in public and the media today.  And more than sadly, taught to children in a way that plants an ignorance of history, of philosophy, of a true notion of science and indeed of a true idea of Christianity that can last a lifetime.

That there is a very different story to be told, much more in line with how science really works and how Christian faith operates, and has operated in the development of mind, worldview ethics and imagination, is the reason I wrote Faith and Wisdom in Science and the reason that Dave Hutchings and I just finished Let There Be Science (out with LionHudson in January), which takes the idea of Science as God’s Gift to a wider readership, and develops exactly this idea.  Through the ages, the balance of evidence indicates that a Christian worldview has propelled science forward both on the individual and communal level.

For the full version – see the books!  But for a few brief pointers for thought …

  1. To do science needs huge courage, against the expectation that we might be able to comprehend the nature of the universe with our minds. The hope that we might be able to do this comes from Biblical Wisdom such as encapsulated in The Book of Job (chapter 28 in particular) and in the idea of being created in the image of God.
  2. pleiadesThe core creative activity in science is to pose the imaginative question – and imaginative questions about nature, the nature of God and the human, are the intellectual Biblical backbone.  Can you bind the stars of the Pleiades? is just one of the 165 searching questions put to Job by God (chapter 38).  The Bible’s Jewish milieu is deeply educational in the tradition of the pedagogy of questions.
  3. Science is hard!  It’s full of disappointment and struggle as well as joy (on occasion).  The painful story of any engagement with nature is the Biblical account through and through, from the ‘great commission’ in Genesis to the metaphor of creation groaning of Paul’s Letter to the Romans.
  4. Science requires us time and again to change what we believe in the light of evidence.  Sometimes this is a total about-face.  It’s a hard thing to do, to change a deeply-held view. Yet the experience of turning a worldview upside down is exactly what is required to become a Christian.  It’s good training to drop cherished ideas n the light of new observations when the idea that following oneself has already been laid aside in favour of the new direction of following Jesus.
  5. Science is done in community. It is in the end a work of love, of the world, and of the others with whom we share the work.  We can only do that in an atmosphere of respect and trust, of mutual encouragement.  It isn’t always like this in reality, but science works best when these resolutely Christian values are deployed.
  6. Science keeps you humble.  The more we learn, the bigger the ‘coastline of science’ – the boundary perceived between the known and the unknown, also grows, as Marcelo Gleiser has pointed out in his recent book The Island of Knowledge.

More is true – we have not touched here on the historical conception of the experimental science we know today through the theological motivation of the early Christina thinkers, through philosophers such as Bede, Adelard, Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, and through the Renaissance to Francis Bacon and the scientists of the 17th century.

This is not the replacement of theological thinking by a new secular tradition, but the outworking of a theologically motivated understanding that a work of healing is given to us by our Creator, alongside the tools to do it. If medicine is God’s gift to us for the work of healing broken people, the science is God’s gift to us for the work of healing a broken relationship with nature.


Can a Freethinker Believe in God?

Following an online interview with an interesting organisation called TheFreeThinkTank, they asked me to write an opinion piece for them on the title above.  They had read Faith and Wisdom in Science, and thought that it approached science from a point of view that atheist readers might find more able to engage with than other Christian ‘science and religion’ material. In case readers wonder why this is an issue at all, the ‘Freethinking’ movement has its history in secular and non-theistic thinking, so the expectation within that movement (and of several people I know) is most certainly a NO!  But dig a little deeper and it’s not at all clear that it’s quite that simple….

Here I reblog the essay:

This article originally appeared on The Freethink Tank, on December 1, 2016.

moscow-1_tcm233-2369440The post-doctoral researcher, who first worked with me as a new-minted junior lecturer, came from Moscow. A theoretical physicist trained in the excellent school of polymer physics at MGU, Tanya was a fearsomely good mathematician and wielded theoretical statistical mechanics with a distinctly Russian flavour. That was scientifically useful – two complementary approaches to a problem are always more powerful than one. We compared other notes too – about our education and our very different experiences growing up in 60s/70s London or Moscow. I was interested and somewhat amused when the topic of teenage rebellion came up. Schooled with a stream of materialist atheism and Soviet cultural history by day – Tanya and her breakaway 16-year-old friends would head off to underground churches by night. Context makes a big difference.

I’m not offering teenage contrariness as an example of ‘freethinking’, but the roots of the freethinking movement also constitute a deliberate departure from a received norm, albeit a more grown-up one. The example of those wicked teen rebels chanting psalms by candle-light might serve to remind us that the expression of freedom is defined by its context, and by its act, not by a foreordained place of arrival.

Degrees of freedom

For any act, including acts of thinking, to be free requires a lack of constraint. The more constraints imposed on a world of thought, the less free will that mind has to explore, create, to think radically. The analogy here is with the sciences of mechanics, or of thermodynamics. For each constraint imposed on a system, there is one fewer ‘degree of freedom’. So my first approach to the question in this article’s title is to explore this physical metaphor of freedom and constraint. According to the Freedom from Religion Foundation (quoted to me by an atheist friend who had been confused that The Freethink Tank had interviewed me and invited this contribution):

No one can be a freethinker who demands conformity to a bible, creed, or messiah. To the freethinker, revelation and faith are invalid, and orthodoxy is no guarantee of truth.’

Constraints on conclusions

True enough – a freethinker cherishes freedom in others as much as in herself, and will not make ‘demands’ of conformity on the thought of others. But when the mandatory tone is removed, the Foundation’s statement begins to look like a constraint. The a priori demand that thinking through a world-view should rule out belief in God, constitutes a constraint, a mental removal of a cogitative degree of freedom. More constraints imply fewer degrees of freedom, so imposing a non-theist constraint to thinking achieves the same as any constraint – it makes it less free, not more. The philosopher Bertrand Russell knew that freethinkers do not impose the constraints of conclusions at the outset of their thinking; he insists that freedom of thought is a process, not an end:

bertrandrussellWhat makes a freethinker is not his beliefs but the way in which he holds them. If he holds them because his elders told him they were true when he was young, or if he holds them because if he did not he would be unhappy, his thought is not free; but if he holds them because, after careful thought he finds a balance of evidence in their favour, then his thought is free, however odd his conclusions may seem.’

I could finish here in a flourish of unanswerable logic, but suspect that would be less than satisfactory. Much of the remainder of his 1944 essay The Value of Free Thought is spent pointing out examples of cruelties and enormities of religious power structures, in which he is largely correct, and rehearsing the supposed age-old conflicts between religion and science, in which he is largely mistaken. Russell insists that a theistic stance must be shackling to thought, preserving of harmful prejudice and inimical to the creation of the new. For him, all religion is backward-looking in a world that needs to reach out with hope to the future. He implies that although theism is possible for a freethinker in principle, it ought to be ruled out in practice. I suspect he speaks for most readers at this point, so we need to go a little deeper than the mathematics of constraint to decide whether in practice a freethinker might ever arrive at a belief in God.

Theologically-informed philosophy

Staying with Russell’s great bête noire of Christianity, we might explore the degree to which its worldview shackles or serves freedom of thought. And since the ‘medieval’ church has received more censure in this regard than most ages, let us read from Adelard of Bath – a remarkable 12th-century thinker. After an intellectual pilgrimage to the great adelard-of-bath-04Arab schools in Sicily and Asia Minor, he returns to southern England full of passion for a theologically-informed natural philosophy and writes his Questiones Naturales (or Questions on Natural Science) in about 1110. He makes an amusing and fascinating complaint in its preface: ‘… for the present generation suffers from an ingrained fault, that it thinks that nothing should be accepted which is discovered by the “moderns”. Hence it happens that, whenever I wish to publish my own discovery, I attribute it to another person saying: “Someone else said it, not I!”‘. There then follows a book of fascinatingly novel thinking about the natural world of animals, humans, the earth and sky, much of it wildly out of tune with the science of today of course (yet it includes a wonderful account of centripetal gravity on a spherical earth), but very firmly on the questing path that brought us there. Here is a very freethinker, who urges a higher value accorded to the novel ideas that freethinking produces, than he sees in the intellectual world around him. He is one of the generators of the ‘12th-century renaissance’ that galvanised new thinking across Europe and prepared the way for the rise of the experimental method up to the 16th century.

Silent partner of thought

It takes energetic thinkers such as Adelard to motivate the silent partner of thought, namely the will. The great freethinkers have noticed that freedom by itself is not enough – to think into new spaces, to dare explore novel ideas and relations requires an effort, an energy, a release of the will, beyond the ordinary. The great 20th-century thinker Hannah arendtArendt writes extensively on Will in her magisterial The Life of The Mind. For her, to release the possibility of freedom in thinking requires first the comprehension and direction of freedom in the will. She wrestles with both secular and religious sources of constraint on the will: ‘… the trouble has always been that free will, whether understood as freedom of choice or as the freedom to start something unpredictably new – seems utterly incompatible, not just with divine Providence, but with the law of causality‘. Yet free acts of thought are possible, though much harder and rarer than we might flatter ourselves is the case. Arendt scales the philosophy of thought through Hebrew, Hellenistic and Christian frameworks in the search of a ground for freedom. In the company of Epictetus and St. Paul, of Virgil and the ancient author of the Book of Job, it is with Augustine that she finally draws to a close in the ambivalence of the birth of freedom.

I’ve briefly visited these two thinkers of such different ages, a Christian and secular Jew, not purely to include reminders of the subtle and rich history of thinking informed by theism, nor purely to rebut the accusation that theism cannot look forward to the new, in the way that both Abelard and Arendt clearly do. For they also illustrate another prior need if one is to be free-thinking – a mental scaffolding with which to explore new spaces. Freedom of movement requires footholds – freedom to explore a domain of thought is as important as freedom from impediments.

Mental construction kit

It is this sense of ‘freedom to’, rather than ‘freedom from’, in my own freethinking that led me toward Christianity rather than away from it. It was the rich legacy of ideas, its mental construction kit, that constitute a freedom to think in the categories I needed. There is, for example, more than one perspective on a core idea like divine creation – is this an ancient doctrine that we need freedom from or an energising idea that gives us freedom to think in categories of purpose, or of our own creativity? Is a belief in the resurrection a nonsense of myth and delusion that still shackles too many modern minds or the fundamental source of freedom to hope?

FaWis_450I am a working scientist, but I have also long wanted to conceive and communicate a human narrative for science within culture. I constantly detect that the human core of science has been at best hollowed out and at worst lost in our superficial and materialistic times. Our culture has ‘optionalised’ science in a dangerous and impoverishing way. Working through the history and pre-history of science for this project, I found the need to draw on the theological story of ends, relationships, healing, even to articulate an account of the problem. Belief and a life of thought in God ‘felt like’ it was giving me the framework to make the first foray into the cavernous space of those ideas (that ended up in my book Faith and Wisdom in Science).

Why artificially constrain our freedom to think by padlocking all that possibility away, especially as theism begins to look increasingly subversive of today’s received dogma?