Why we have to think differently about science and religion

This is an article commissioned from me from the American Physics Journal Physics Today. With their permission I am republishing it here for readers of this blog,

Maintaining the “alternative fact” that science and religion, and in particular Christianity, are in conflict is hurting science. Over the past year, three occasions have left me with strong visual memories and deep impressions that point towards a better approach.

The first, held at St John’s College of Durham University in the UK, was a debate on the sensitive topic of ‘fracking’—shale-oil recovery by hydraulic fracturing. I have witnessed several such discussions, both live and broadcast, and they rarely succeed in anything except escalating entrenched positions and increasing misinformation and fear; few participants bother to treat the science with respect.

Tom McLeish seminarThis gathering was different. Strongly opposing views were expressed, but their proponents listened to each other. Everyone was keen to grasp both the knowns and the uncertainties of the geological science and technology. Social science and geophysics both drew sustained civil dialog. The notion of different priorities was understood—and some people actually changed their views.

The second occasion was some reading I have been doing for a book on the role of creativity and imagination in science. Research for one chapter had led me to connections between the explosion of new science in the 17th century and ideas from the same period expressed in literature, art, and theology.

image

Those ideas included a discussion of the nature of God to a depth unseen since the fourth-century ecumenical councils. One treatise impressed me hugely with its author’s detailed knowledge of textual analysis, variants in New Testament manuscripts, and nuances of Greek; it would rival any current scholarship. Furthermore, it evidenced a scientific logic and a perception of the revolutions in natural philosophy that is very rare in theological writing today.

Job on stageA one-act play I attended in my hometown of York in the UK supplied the third occasion. I’d heard that a respected national theater company had long wanted to create a work based on the ancient book of Job. I admit to a personal love for that ancient poem. No one really knows where it came from, but for my money it contains the most sublime articulation of the innate curiosity into nature that still drives science today but that has clearly deep human roots. Its probing questions seek answers to where hail, lightning, and clouds come from, why stars can be clustered together, how birds navigate huge distances, how the laws of the heavens can be applied to Earth, and so on.

Common across the three occasions is the theme of surprisingly deep and constructive mutual engagement of science and religious belief. The conference on shale-gas recovery was between academic Earth scientists and a few dozen senior church leaders, including bishops of the Church of England. The author of the impressive New Testament scholarship was Isaac Newton. And the play that so impressed me, staged by the Riding Lights Theatre Company in the elegant renaissance church of St Michael le Belfrey in York, featured a 20th-century Job as a research physicist. After the performance a panel of scientists discussed how their faith supports their scientific research. Anyone who has not read beyond the superficial yet ubiquitous stories of conflict between science and religion that receive so much airtime today would be surprised to see such deep entanglements of scientific and religious thinking, from the ancient past of the book of Job to current scientifically informed political decision making.

Between the ancient and the contemporary lies the history of early modern science. There, too, the public sphere today seems dominated by a determined program of misinformation. Newton himself is testimony to the deep formative role of Christian theology in the rise of experimental and mathematical sciences. Far from being a sort of secular triumph over centuries of dogmatic obscurantism, the writings of early modern scientists such as Newton and Robert Boyle make it clear that they were motivated by the theological philosophy of Francis Bacon.

For Bacon, science became the gift by which humankind restores an original knowledge of nature, lost as a consequence of rejection of God. The truth that faith conveyed direct motivation and influence for many great scientists can be uncomfortable. Historian of science and biographer Geoffrey Cantor, author of Michael Faraday: Sandemanian and Scientist—A Study of Science and Religion in the Nineteenth Century (1991), still receives ‘hate mail’ from readers incensed at the suggestion that such a scientific mind might also have been a Christian one.

We are even learning to readjust our schoolbook picture of the Middle Ages as a period of intellectual stagnation, generally repressive of science. History is far more interesting. The scientific enlightenment that gave birth to the Copernican Revolution, the Royal Society of London, the universal theory of gravitation, and the telescope and microscope did not, of course, arise from nowhere. The long fuse for that intellectual fireworks display was lit in 12th-century Europe by scholars like Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon through the movement to translate Aristotle’s scientific texts. They were mostly lost to the West since late antiquity but were preserved and developed by brilliant Islamic scholars in Baghdad, the Levant, and Spain. Arab natural philosophers Al-Kindi, Averroës, Alhazen and Avicenna ought to be far better known as beacons in the long history of science; they, too, saw their task of comprehending the cosmos as God-given. The consequent scientific awakening in the West saw the new learning about the cosmos, not as conflictual with the Bible, but as a ‘second book’ to be read alongside it.

The scholars’ work allowed 13th-century English thinkers Grosseteste, Bacon, and others to develop theories of light, color, and motion. Their work led, for example, to the first complete theory of the rainbow at the level of geometric optics, from the laboratory of Theodoric of Freiberg in the 1320s and to the first mathematical articulation of accelerated motion by Jean Buridan of Paris a decade later. Small wonder that Nicolaus Copernicus saw his astronomical work as a form of worship and that Galileo Galilei viewed it as reading God’s second book.

Maintaining the alternative fact that science and religion are in conflict does no one any favors and is hurting science. The damage comes not only through a warped transmission of history but also because it suggests to religious communities that science is a threat to them rather than an enterprise they can celebrate and support. The bishops’ fracking conference is just one example of how the quality of social support of and discussion around science can be raised once churches get involved. After all, a community with a commitment to core values of truth and a banishment of fear might well offer the clarity and calm needed in a public debate currently marked by far too much falsity and fear.

Equally tragic is that in families with a faith tradition, even very young children may receive the idea that science is not for them or that it somehow threatens their community. The truth is that throughout most of history, scientific investigation has gone hand in hand with a commitment to theism, at least in the three Abrahamic faiths. It is, sadly, possible to invent conflict where none needs to be.

The “literal” reading of texts such as Genesis–as if they were scientific documents rather than part of a story in which we inquire about the universe–is a 20th-century aberration away from orthodox Christianity. Conversely, misrepresenting faith as mindless adherence to beliefs in the face of evidence to the contrary needs to give way to a more thoughtful understanding. The term can describe painstaking engagement with the world through the true stories we are part of. Reflecting the vital presence of what we might call “reasoned hope,” faith is not so very far from descriptions of the experience of doing science.

Driving an unhistorical and unrealistic wedge between science and religion has got to stop. It leads, in part, to the optionalism that we see in some public and political attitudes toward science, from climate change to vaccination. It damages the educational experience of our children, and it impoverishes our understanding of our own science’s historical context. Human beings live not only in a physical world but within historical narratives that give us values, purpose, and identity. Science sits on the branches and draws from the sap of many of those stories whose roots are anchored in the great themes of creation, redemption, and renewal that course through our religious traditions and endow us with humanity. We are still looking for answers to some of the questions God asks of the luckless Job:

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

The Lord Answering job out of the Whirlwind by William Blake

Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the Earth? …

What is the way to the place where lightning is dispersed …?

Can you bind the beautiful Pleiades?

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Religion isn’t the enemy of science: it’s been inspiring scientists for centuries

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God’s scientific lesson for Job.
William Blake

Tom McLeish, Durham University

Take notice of any debate in the media and you’ll see that science and religion are, and always were, at loggerheads. Science is about evidence-based fact, religion is about faith-based belief.

But repeating statements endlessly in the media doesn’t make them true. The actual entanglements of religious tradition and the development of science are far more interesting than the superficial conflict common today – and far more important. And rethinking how we view the relationship between science and religion could help give scientific thinking the wider public support it needs.

Ibn Sina (Avicenna).
Wikimedia Commons

The history of scientific thought is closely linked to that of religious thought, and with much more continuity than discontinuity. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle effectively set the Western template for studying the natural world in the 4th century BC. Most of his hugely influential scientific works were lost to Europe after the Roman Empire collapsed, but were developed by Muslim Arab thinkers like Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes) from around 900AD to 1300AD. Early Islamic figures were responsible for very rapid progress in a number of scientific fields, notably maths, medicine and the study of light (optics).

When Aristotle was reintroduced to Europe in the 12th century, his scientific work had a great influence on medieval scholars, who were invariably thinkers within a church, synagogue or mosque. A key example is the 13th-century Oxford theologian and later Bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grosseteste, who was also a pioneering early scientist. He presented a vision for how we might obtain new knowledge of the universe, the dawning of the first notions of experiment, and even a “big bang” theory of the cosmos and a concept of multiple universes.




Read more:
Our latest scientific research partner was a medieval bishop


Yet underneath Grosseteste’s work lies a much deeper and developing philosophy of nature. In a commentary on Aristotle’s Posteria Analytics, he describes a uniquely human propensity he calls (in Latin) “sollertia”. By this he means a sort of intense and perceptive ability to look beyond the surface of the material world into its inner structure.

This is remarkably similar to our approach to science today. Isaac Newton described his science as “seeing further than others”. For Grosseteste, our sollertia comes in turn from being created in the image of God. It is a theologically motivated task that contributes to the fulfilment of being human.

Francis Bacon.
Wikimedia Commons

When 16th-century philosopher Francis Bacon argued for a new experimental approach to science, he drew explicitly on such theological motivations. As the historian of science Peter Harrison argues, the scientific pioneers who followed Bacon, such as Newton and chemist Robert Boyle, saw their task as working with God’s gifts of senses and minds to recover a lost knowledge of nature.

Taking this history lesson seriously helps us see just how ancient the root system of science is. Insisting that science is a purely modern advance does not help the important process of embedding scientific thinking into our wider culture. Forcing people to separate science from religion at one extreme leads to damaging denials of science if faith communities can’t integrate the two.

Biblical science

In fact, science also has roots in ancient Jewish history that are as influential as the ancient Greek precedents. Philosopher Susan Neiman recently argued that the Biblical Book of Job should be understood as a foundation pillar of modern philosophy alongside Plato. This is because Job deals head-on with the problem of an apparently chaotic and fitful world, alien to the human predicament and unmoved in the face of suffering. And this, Neiman claims, is the starting point for philosophy.

It might also be the starting point for science, for Job also contains at its pivotal point the most profound nature poem of all ancient writings. Its verse form of questions is also striking to scientists from all ages, who know that asking the right creative questions – rather than always having the correct answer – is what unlocks progress.

So God asks Job:

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?

In all, the book contains as many as 160 questions from the fields we now know as meteorology, astronomy, geology and zoology. The content of this timeless text has clearly steered the story of science for centuries.

Faith communities urgently need to stop seeing science as alien, or a threat, but rather recognise their own part in its story. The influence people of faith have on society through their relationships can then be hugely supportive of science.

To give one current example, the Church of England has recently cosponsored a major national project, Scientists in Congregations. This encourages local churches to stimulate communities’ awareness of current scientific issues that affect society, such as the growth of artificial intelligence.

By embracing and supporting science, in turn, religious communities can contribute important perspectives on how we use it in our global future.

The ConversationTom McLeish is speaking at an event entitled The Science of Belief, organised with the Royal Society at the British Museum on January 26, 2018.

Tom McLeish, Professor of Physics and former Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research, Durham University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 

Does the Size of the Universe Prove God Doesn’t Exist?

FaWis_450A good colleague of mine at my University of Durham’s philosophy department, Dr. Emily Thomas, recently posted a short essay with this title on the (wonderful) academic multi-disciplinary blogsite TheConversation. It’s had a great number of readers, one of whom was me. I like most of what Emily writes, but this time, as she knows, I had a rather strong negative reaction! So I thought I would write a little about this question on the Faith and Wisdom in Science blog, as it is clearly important for a good number of people.

Eagle Dark matter

A massive computer simulation of the cosmic web of Dark Matter, Gas and Galaxies from the Eagle Project 300 million light years across- itself only a 30th of the diameter of the observable universe

Here is the short version:

  • Yes the Universe is ‘mind-bogglingly big’ (thanks Douglas Adams) on the scale of the human being (see image and caption above)

but

  • No, that does NOT imply in any way that the ‘Christian God’ is less likely to exist

because

  • The argument confuses the two distinct categories of scale and significance (the old ‘size matters’ problem)

and

  • Is, as typical of arguments from philosophers and scientists today that they believe impact on Christian theology, based on a level of triviality of theological learning and sophistication that makes me blush to read it.

So, just a little more on that.  The confusion of scale and significance is an easy one to make – we are overawed by size, vastness, immensity. Of course we are. But that is a visceral reaction not a cognitive one.  I hesitate to illustrate the point, but we do not ascribe a greater significance to a mountain than to a human baby simply because the first is 7 orders of magnitude larger than the second.  One of the special abilities that humans have is to identify meaning and significance, and to associate that with narrative place and relationship.

To take a more cosmological example, we do not know how common life is in the universe (yes Drake equation, Fermi and all that – another time perhaps – but we really have no idea because we don’t yet have a process for the origin of life).  We might be alone or the galaxy might be teeming with life.  But whichever of those turns out to be the case, the microscopic and special event or events that start a tree of life on its way are extraordinarily significant, yet vanishingly tiny in time and space, compared with the 13 billion years, and light years of the cosmic T and R. Another vital point rides on this – namely that in order to have had enough time to manufacture heavy elements in the first generation of stars since the Big Bang, and to evolve a second generation of stars, planets and life since then actually requires a universe the size of ours.  So the length scale of the cosmos and the human scale are physically and causally related, it turns out.

Thirdly, those who take the line that the largeness of the universe rules out a theology of specificity have forgotten that even our notion of scale ordering is conventional.  Physicists, mathematicians, chemists and molecular biologists are used to thinking in ‘reciprocal space’.  Its the space in which the diffraction patterns of molecular structure dwell, the realm of the Fourier transforms, of the photon fields in theoretical physics.

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X-ray diffraction pattern of Beryl in reciprocal space (Bruno Juricic)

The figure shows an example.  The point is that descriptions of reality can be made either in ‘real space’ or reciprocal space, in which the information on large objects is held in small places, and vice versa.  In many ways, physics looks more natural in this space.  If we were to apply the ‘large matters’ mantra in a view of the world through reciprocal space, then we would be led to favour the small, the detailed, over the large.  Of course I am not advocating that automatically any more than its opposite, merely pointing out that the ascription of large or small numbers to objects in the world is conventional, so cannot carry any philosophical weight at all.

Finally we need to do out theology just a little better.  Yes of course there is a strong strand of the particular and special in Judeo-Christianity.  Israel, Moses, election, … and supremely the incarnation.  But that is not the only strand.  From the oldest texts there is alongside this an decentralising narrative as well.  Readers of this blog will at this point not be surprised that we are going to go to the Book of Job for a reminder of the warning not to be exclusively anthropocentric about the world.  For the pinnacle of Yahweh’s creation as displayed to Job in the ‘Lord’s Answer’ is not the human, but the sublime and ‘other’ creatures of Leviathan and Behemoth (from Job chapter 40):

15“Look at Behemoth, which I made along with you  and which feeds on grass like an ox.16 What strength it has in its loins,  what power in the muscles of its belly!17 Its tail sways like a cedar;  the sinews of its thighs are close-knit.18 Its bones are tubes of bronze,    its limbs like rods of iron.19 It ranks first among the works of God, yet its Maker can approach it with his sword.

Even the later and highly-developed Genesis 1 creation narrative does not stop with humankind, but reaches its climax with the Sabbath, God’s rest, where He is central.  Jesus takes up the non-anthropocentric theme at several points in the Gospel narrative.  It’s not ‘all about us’.  A number of theologians have explored this theme – Christopher Southgate’s book The Groaning of Creation is a good starting point for a discussion that goes back to Aquinas and further.

So in conclusion, the findings of modern cosmology turn out to balance the place and significance of humans in much the same way that the Judeo-Christian narrative does.

It’s not the size, it’s what you do that matters, and who you are.

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

The Lord Answering job out of the Whirlwind by William Blake

‘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.

 

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.

FaWis_450

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

Einstein and the Biblical Wisdom of Questions

EinsteinQuestionsLonger2Einstein has had a good month, all things considered. His century-old prediction, that the very fabric of space and time can support waves travelling at light-speed, was confirmed by the LIGO collaboration.  More, the bizarre and horrifying consequences of his theory of gravity, the singularly-collapsed stars that came to be called ‘black holes’ have been directly detected for the first time.  As is now widely known (but how could anyone actually conceptualise the monstrous event?), it was the mutual circling and merger of two black holes that set the gravitational ripples on their billion light-year journey across the ocean of space towards the shores of our solar system.

The events have reminded us of the powerful sense of inspiration that comes from contemplating any of Einstein’s scientific achievements. He showed how to interpret the ‘Brownian motion’ of particulate matter as a conceptual window into the molecular world, once it is understood as the random buffeting of tiny but visible particles from invisible molecules. He re-imagined light as a gas of massless particles, and in doing so opened up

EinsteinGravity

Einstein thought of gravity as a curvature of space (and time) generated by mass

a path to the quantum world of the atom.  He day-dreamed as a teenager about trying to catch a light-beam, a journey of the mind that led him to the universal constant of the speed of light, and to the mutual, relativistic, inter-conversion of space and time.  And of course, he wondered if gravity might better be thought of, not as a force, but as a sort of curvature in the warp and weft of space and time.

What glories indeed! But surprisingly, he never thought of himself as particularly gifted.  Rather he would attribute his success to the prioritisation of the question rather than the answer. ‘The important thing is not to stop questioning.’ was a frequent admonition in one form or another.  A long form of this urging of careful question-crafting attributed to him goes something like this:

‘If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask… for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.’

‘What would I see if I caught up with light?’

‘Why cant I tell the difference between being accelerated and being pulled on by gravity?’

‘What is the source of the jiggling motion of tiny dust motes suspended in water?’

‘How can I think of light in the same way I think of matter?’

These are the questions that lead to the greatest scientific discoveries of the last century. The centrality of the creative question is true at any level of scientific endeavour.  I find myself explaining to new PhD students that, although they have got to this point by proving themselves uncommonly adept and finding the right answers, this will be of little use to them now.  They need to learn instead to craft the fruitful question.  That is the central imaginative, creative act of science.

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

 

Perhaps that is why I have always been entranced by the ancient long-poem of Natural Wisdom found in the Biblical ‘Book of Job’. It is usually called ‘The Lord’s Answer’, for it is the long-awaited response of Yahweh to the angry Job’s railings that he is suffering unjustly, and that the world is consequently out of joint. But ‘answer’ is in every other way an inappropriate description of the speech.  For it takes the form of a list of questions, posed to the hapless Job, but directed outwards into the manifold mysteries of the natural world.  Here are just a few of the 160 or so:

Who cuts a channel for the torrent of rain, a path for the thunderbolt,

Where is the realm where heat is created, which the sirocco spreads across the earth?

Can you bind the cluster of the Pleiades, or loose Orion’s belt?

Can you send lightning bolts on their way, and have them report to you, ‘Ready!’?

Is it by your understanding that the hawk takes flight, and spreads its wings toward the south?

A poem, with each verse a question, each trope probing its own domain of creation: the winds and weather, the sky and stars, the animal world. They are highly potent questions – the containment of flood and lightening is asking about the balance of chaos and order.  The binding of the Pleiades (a tight star-cluster of associated young stars much closer than those of Orion) is motivated by curiosity aroused by observation.  There is indeed a reason that they are closely-grouped.  The pattern of avian navigation holds puzzles for us still, although we know that birds also can register patterns in the stars.  I have often suggested to scientist colleagues that they read through the Lords’ Answer to Job.  Uniformly they respond with recognition that here lies a fundamental human motivation to look deeply into nature that we also share.

In some ways, Faith and Wisdom in Science is an extended scientist’s commentary on the Book of Job. That we would have been called ‘natural philosophers’ two centuries ago, rather than ‘scientists’, is a clue that the story of science begins in the ancient thought-world of ‘wisdom’.  Certainly one of its most luminous themes – the celebration of the creative question – has not dimmed.  Einstein would have approved, but can we, in turn, succeed in passing on the love of the question, including the unanswered question, to our children?