‘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.

 

 

 

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

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.

 

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.

 

 

 

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.

What is Science For? Answers in the entire Bible (not just in Genesis)

Try Googling ‘Science and Christianity’ – the next word in the auto-suggest list is ‘conflict’. Hit return and the first page of titles includes the questions, ‘Are Science and Christianity at War?’ and ‘Has Science Disproved God?’  When I was asked with others to participate in this year’s Cheltenham Science Festival Debate, we were given the by-now-predictable title of ‘Can Science and Faith Co-exist?’ Do I sound a little tired already of facing the continuous barrage of such questions (or rather of the same question posed in a thousand different ways)?  Yes, I admit that I do, and am somewhat enervated as well, for they are so monotonously posed that I believe that in the church we have now been persuaded that this is the only question that one can ask about science and faith.

SciRelThe ‘can you reconcile…?’ question assumes that Christian (and other religious) belief is prima facie in some sort of boxing match with science, and that our only real task is the apologetic one of fighting back from the ropes, if we are lucky still to be on our feet.  The question takes for granted that science is a threat to Biblical belief, and that Christianity is a threat to science.  None of this is true – neither the assumptions behind the question, nor the primary significance of the question itself.

For a long time I have wanted to think about a much more important question. As both a Christian and a scientist since my early adult life, the ‘can you reconcile …’ question has simply been a non-starter – on the level of ‘have you stopped beating your wife?’ – it simply begins with the wrong assumptions.  Having experienced the human ability to do science, to uncover and understand something of the inner structure of the world, as God’s gift, among the many other gifts that follow from his supreme one, there was always a deeper, and much truer question to ask: ‘What is Science For within the Kingdom of God?’  Or, in other words, within God’s great project of creation, incarnation, redemption and the renewal of creation, what part does the gift of science play, and to what purpose? In other words, ‘What is Science For?’

BibleIf we are continually embroiled in the apologetic defence of the (within the family of faith) non-question of conflict, then we never allow ourselves the space to dig deep into Biblical material, theological reflection, and critical evaluation of our experience that needs to be the mark of people ‘transformed by the renewal of [our] minds’ (Rom 12:1). Perhaps that is also why the ‘science and faith’ debate is so little engaged with a wide resource of scripture. There is a lot said about the first chapter of Genesis, to be sure, but not so much from the many other narratives of creation throughout Torah, Wisdom, Prophets and the New Testament too.  Here seems to be a project: what does the whole testimony of scripture say about the purpose of science, and what would be the consequences of such an exegesis for the practice of Christian and scientific communities today?

Of course, consulting a concordance for the word ‘science’ is not a great idea. That does not, however, mean that our question is anachronistic, just that we need to know what science itself is at a deeper level.  Fortunately we do not need to look historically back very far for clues, for only a century and a half ago I would not have been called a ‘scientist’, but a ‘natural philosopher’ – or, unpacking the Greek etymology, a ‘lover of wisdom to do with nature’.  Before going any further, you could even try this on your science-suspecting friends and colleagues.  Replace the implied knowledge claim of ‘scientist’ (a Latin-derived claimer of knowledge – ‘scio’ – I know) with the softer Greek, and you might find that more people warm to the idea that we might be engaging with nature in a search for wisdom within the context of love.  The historical truth that science emerges from love and wisdom for nature speaks of it as a relational activity.  So, rather than look up ‘science’, let us ask where in the Bible we are asked to think about the human relationship with the created material world.  Immediately the texts pour forth like a river.

The first thing to notice is the frequency with which the creation story is told and retold: take a moment or two to look up a few places where the narrative refers back to God’s act of creating the world: Proverbs 8, Psalm 19, Psalm 33, Psalm 104, Isaiah 40, Isaiah 45, Jeremiah 10, Hosea 2, John 1 are just a few of the places where different language, a rich variety of metaphor, or fresh pictures are used to remind God’s people that it was their Lord who laid the foundations of the Earth, separated the land and the sea, spread out the heavens. The delightful and playful creation account in Proverbs 8 begins the story of wisdom – here she (Sophia) is a little girl at the feet of the Creator, playing with the rivers and mountains. The profound prologue to John’s Gospel contains a deliberate echo of the creation stories that begin with ‘in the beginning’, and in a brilliant stroke of prophetic insight identifies the Hellenistic creative and ordering principle of logos with the incarnate Christ.  More is true: creation stories are used to a purpose.  Creation stories, wherever they occur in scripture, tend to form bridges from a position of hopelessness and lost-ness to a renewed hope.  So the great recapitulation of creation in Isaiah 40 leads directly to the announcement of the One coming to redeem Israel. Psalm 33 takes a (brief) journey through the creation of the cosmos to take the psalmist from despair to hope.  Blink and you miss them- some of these accounts are very short, which in turn tells us just how developed the two Genesis creation stories are (in chapters 1 and 2), but brevity does not imply insignificance.  Human relationship with the physical creation is also a growing theme in these recurrent motifs – the celebration of the wisdom of the farmer who knows which seeds to plant at what season is the focus of Isaiah 28; we don’t just sit back and contemplate physical creation, we engage with it.

Perhaps the most profound of all the wisdom scriptures, in its description of our relation with the natural world, is the enigmatic Book of Job.  I have never tired of losing myself in this wonderful book since first I fell captive to what must surely be the greatest poem of natural wisdom in all ancient literature – the so-called ‘Lord’s Answer’ of chapters 38-42.  Here, for the first time since the prologue, the Lord finally appears to Job in answer to his repeated demands for vindication and admission that his suffering is unjust.  But rather than tackling Job’s complaints head-on, Yahweh takes the man on a journey through all of creation, and at every waypoint asks him a question:

The-Lord-Answering-Job-out-of-the-Whirlwind-Blake

The Lord Answering job out of the Whirlwind, by William Blake

Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea?…..

Where is the way to the abode of light?….

..From whose womb comes the ice?…

..   Do you know the laws of the heavens?

And can you apply them to the earth?

Scientists to whom I have recommended the reading of these chapters have always come back astonished – for here are the foundation questions of the sciences we now call ‘meteorology’, ‘oceanography’, ‘cosmology’, ‘astronomy’, zoology’. More than that, as all working scientists know, the vital step in all successful science is not the finding of the correct answer (in spite of the years of schooling that would have us believe so) but the formulation of the creative question.  Einstein, Heisenberg and many others have noted this.

Strangely, ‘The Lord’s Answer’ has received some tough criticism in the scholarly literature. On the one hand it is charged with irrelevance – Job is concerned with the moral issue of the suffering of the righteous, not the provenance of the snow or the lightning. On the other, God is accused of the petulant put-down – of suggesting by his list of unanswerable questions that Job is ignorant and should cease his complaining.  Neither objection holds on close reading, however.  For one thing, the entire Book of Job is replete with nature imagery.  All the animals, plants and phenomena referred to in the Lord’s Answer have already been invoked in the three cycles of discourses between Job and his friends over the first 37 chapters.  Job’s complaint is in fact a double one: he accuses God of allowing chaos to reign in the natural world just as much as he does in the moral world:

What he destroys will not be built, whom he imprisons will not be freed.

He holds back the waters, there is drought; he lets them loose, they overwhelm the earth. (Ch12)

As for the reason for God’s appearance, far from diminishing Job, he is invited to ‘stand up’ and debate on Yahweh’s level, as in a courtroom. The vital context for the long questioning poem is the earlier ‘intermission’ to the cycle of discourses in chapter 28 often called the ‘Hymn to Wisdom’.  Mysteriously beginning down a mine, following the miners as they ‘dangle and sway’ on their ropes, looking up at the earth from beneath, the author wonders that of all the creatures, only human eyes are able to see the inner structures of the earth in this way.  Then the depths of earth and sea are questioned on where wisdom can be found – without avail.  The Hymn ends with identifying wisdom as a divine way of seeing:

wisdom

But God understands the way to it; it is he who knows its place.

For he looked to the ends of the earth, and beheld everything under the heavens,

So as to assign a weight to the wind, and determine the waters by measure,

 

I find the picture of the miner’s eyes peering into the deep structure of the world from the glimmer of a lamp to be a faithful metaphor for science itself – that part of culture that develops our gift of seeing beneath the surface of phenomena in the light of observation, imagination and reason. Coming from Durham, where I work, it is also particularly significant – the former mining communities around the city still know Job 28 as ‘the miners’ prayer’ – and it appears in stained glass in Easington Colliery parish church.  But there is more, for the close of the chapter indicates that it is in just this ability that we are made in the image of God as regards Wisdom, for this ‘deep seeing’ into the world is what Wisdom is, and what the Creator does.

Seen through a New Testament lens, a calling to heal a broken relationship with the world, by replacing ignorance with understanding, fear with wisdom and mutual harm with fruitfulness, looks like the fruits of the gospel of truth. St Paul wrote to the Corinthians (2 Cor5:7):

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ – new creation;

The old has gone, the new has come!

All this is from God, who reconciled himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation:

That God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ

The ‘ministry of reconciliation’ or, more simply, ‘healing broken relationships’ is what the gospel announces. It’s a great soundbite for what Christianity means, because everyone knows about broken relationships.  We are able to participate in God’s ministry of healing because the relationship upon which all others depend has been healed by Jesus’ incarnation, death and resurrection.  In this he is ‘reconciling the world (kosmos) to himself’ – that is the physical and natural world as well as the people in it.  One of the most surprising and glorious aspects of the gospel is that God calls us to participate in this work.  Perhaps the most humble of all broken relationships is that between human beings and the natural world.  Like other cases, it shows its flaws by beginning in ignorance and fear, and in the propensity for mutual harm (we have long known that nature can harm us, but it is only in the last century that we have discovered just how much we can harm nature too).

Take the ancient invitation to Job, and thereby to all who follow him, to engage in a deep and questioning way with the natural world, together with the Pauline ministry of reconciliation, and perhaps we have the beginnings of a Biblical answer to the question, ‘What is Science for within the Kingdom of God?’ In a small way, mending our relationship with the creation is just what a redeemed and loved creature made in God’s image might be expected to do.  Seen in that light, far from being a threat to faith, science becomes one of the most holy tasks one could imagine.

 For further development of these ideas, see Faith and Wisdom in Science (OUP 2014, paperback 2016).

Shakespeare and the Scientific Imagination

What fun it is to roll up the sleeves, make for the Forest of Arden, and join the dance this weekend in celebration of the life of England’s greatest writer, and the greatest writer of English.  All are welcome, and the marvellous universality and plasticity of Shakespeare’s thought and language mean that story, politics, dance, war, love, music – all life, all perspectives play out and discover themselves in the living plays and poems of the Bard.

So what about science? The Guardian’s weekly podcast has invited scholars to unpack the psychology of hallucinations in Macbeth, the meteorology of tempests in – well – of course, The Tempest and the rhetoric of crowd control in Julius Caesar.  But what of science itself?  Does the deepest drawer from the well of English language pour out for us any metaphor, any narrative that might help us grasp what this extraordinary empowering is – that we are able, with our eyes and minds, to comprehend nature inwardly as well as outwardly?

 

Sir_Joseph_Noel_Paton_-_The_Quarrel_of_Oberon_and_Titania_-_Google_Art_Project_2

Sir Joseph Noel Paton’s The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania; Scottish National Gallery

 

Of course he does; but we need to read carefully – not all writing about ‘science’, perhaps even the majority of it, owns the name.  For ‘science’ is a new term for a long human story that is far better referred to by its older name ‘natural philosophy’ – ‘the love of wisdom to do with nature’.  The long case for this long story is what Faith and Wisdom in Science is all about.  It tells a tale of purpose too, of a broken relationship with nature, characterised by ignorance and harm gradually, by a labour of love, receiving healing through knowledge and wisdom.  A ‘sheer inhuman otherness’ of nature, identified in the 20th century by thinkers like Steiner and Arendt is gently rendered ‘commensurable’, one might say ‘imaginable’.  Steiner writes that this is the role of art, but it answers perfectly the question of what science is for.

So let us hear Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream expand on the poet’s work, in his ostensible brush-off of lunatic, lover and poet in one apparently dismissive wave of the hand (Act V Scene I):

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

Shakespeare’s ‘poet’ gazes over the entire universe, and in the pattern of the natural science texts from antiquity and the early medieval centuries from the genre De Rerum Natura (Lucretius, Pliny, Isidore of Seville, Bede) starts with the heavens and encompasses all as it falls earthward.  The universe is full of ‘the forms of things unknown’, but the poet give them form – a form that allows their image to dwell with humans.  It is a sort of incarnation – the heavenly and unknown ‘dwells among us’ in its local habitation.  Above all, the nameless is given a name, so that we can know it, refer to it, describe its relations, powers and inner nature.  For Shakespeare, the poet’s task is identical to that of science.

Perhaps that is why Wordsworth (in his preface to Lyrical Ballards) juxtaposed the poet and the scientist, declaring both to be seekers of truth, and predicting that the poet would inspire and light up the new findings of the scientist in ways that would stir the human soul.  Here he is in transcendent mood on the statue of Newton:

… with his prism and silent face

The marble index of a mind for ever

Voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone.

‘Giving to airy nothing a local habitation and a name’ is a wonderfully rich description of what science does, why it is so deeply human, and why it can stir in us an aesthetic as rich as poetry or music.  Vitally, it also draws on the same aesthetic to power its difficult search for words, names, forms that represent, that re-create, the universe around us.  The Dirac field of electrons is a local (mathematical) habitation in our minds in which electrons can receive a name.  The LIGO experiment and its interpretation in terms of the gravitational waves emitted from merging black holes is our imagination bodying forth, and returning with a form of the wildest ‘thing unknown’ we have yet imagined.

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.

Job Blake

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.