‘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 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.


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


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?

A Christian Voice to the question, ‘What is Science For?’

BBC Radio 4 once nearly caused me a nasty road accident. I had foolishly believed that a drive along the A1M might be safely accompanied by the last of a series of panel discussions on ‘Culture in our Times’ (very ‘radio 4’). All very worthy and improving it was too as I recall – until the last few seconds of the programme when the chair cut in with something like, “Do you think that it’s strange that we’ve been debating ‘culture’ for 6 weeks now and haven’t once talked about science?”. One of the panellists came back immediately with: “Oh no! No – we wouldn’t want to be talking about anything as anoraksic as science in a discussion of culture.” This was of course the point at which I nearly lost control of the car …

It so saddens me – what we have done with science: put it in a little box with ‘geeky’ and ‘weird’, and filtered it for

Why is Science not more like Music?

Why is Science not more like Music?

public consumption in a way that no-one can see the art, the imagination, the love, despair, beauty in it – unless they have gone through years of special training. It stuck me recently that if we had done with music what we have done with science, no-one would ever go to hear a real live jazz quintet, or a symphony orchestra, or an opera. They would happen of course – but only in laboratory conditions away from untrained public ears. We might get the tune hummed to us the next morning on Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme and a slightly condescending interview by John Timpson with a conductor or bass player, but the idea that ordinary people might appreciate the difficulties of live harmony and counterpoint would be ridiculous; except of course, that we can – because music is at the heart of being human, whether we just enjoy listening, or can play the Brahms violin concerto from memory.

The 60’s social critique Jacques Barzun once wrote ‘Science with us is not with us an object of contemplation’, and he was right. But it could be. As a lover of creativity and art as well as a scientist I have long felt, long known that science belongs in that ‘basket’ of activities that make us human, where we also find story-telling, song, painting, sculpture, dance, poetry, philosophy, language, … All of these are ‘with us’ ‘objects of contemplation’. You might say that they all have their own human stories – their own ‘social narratives’.

But right now science doesn’t have a social narrative that ties it to the deeply human and creative – the very idea to some here will sound ridiculous – but this strange divorce has many harmful consequences from which I just want to pick out three – in politics, in education and in religion (so two out of three taboo topics – I’m working on making it three out of three with sex as well but you’ll have to stay tuned for that)

nuclearThis first is in the area of science and technology-based policy and its discussion in the public area. Have you noticed that we don’t seem to be able to carry on an adult conversation about this in public and in the press? I’m talking about fracking, climate change and global warming, genetic modification, nuclear power, nanotechnology – we might call them the ‘troubled technologies’. Rather than a reasoned debate on of whether and how to take these things forward, people tend to retrench to their initial positions and lob opinions over the parapet. The politics of conflict, usually fuelled by an intransigent ignorance on all parts, takes the place of informed engagement and convergence. Some of my Durham University colleagues in the faculty of social science have been interested in this phenomenon for a long time, and I was fascinated by their careful research, teasing out the hidden narrative structure of some of these debates. In a large project analysing the fraught Europe-wide discussion of potential nanotechnologies, for example, they found that behind and underneath a conversation ostensibly about appraising risk and benefit lay five unseen narratives:

  1. Be careful what you wish for
  2. Don’t open Pandora’s Box
  3. Don’t meddle with sacred Nature
  4. They will keep us in the dark
  5. The rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer.

Philosopher Jean-Pierre DuPuy calls these ‘narratives of despair’: desire, evil, the sacred, alienation and exploitation. It’s not that science doesn’t have a social narrative – it has actually accrued many contradictory and dark narratives such as these – and all the more powerful and damaging for being silent ones. Like sharks circling under the surface on which the public discussion swims, they control the debate by their fear-inducing presence, without having to surface themselves. Did you notice one thing about them? The ancient ones are all pagan, the modern all grimly secular.

Education. I love to visit schools, especially sixth forms – I sometimes go to their general studies sessions to talk about art and science, or science and faith or something like that. And as in all teaching it quickly becomes apparent by the looks in their eyes who the very bright ones are who are engaging critically with every idea, and who I’m having to work a bit harder for … At some point I like to ask those who did not choose to follow science subjects why they didn’t. The struggling ones sometimes say that they found it too difficult, or weren’t ‘good at it’. That’s itself a sad thing – rather than allow a young person to find an appropriate way of engaging with one of the most astonishing of human accomplishments, we manage to engender a belief that they aren’t good enough for it. But the bright ones never say Eagle Dark matterthat; they say something like, ‘I didn’t see that science would give me room for my creativity or imagination’. It’s like a knife through my heart – what have we done when we have so mis-told the story of human re-imagination of the entire cosmos, from the life-cycle of galaxies to the intricate chemistry of plant cells, that our children don’t see any room there for creativity? And so very likely they never do. I have come to believe that one of the cruellest things you can ask of a young person is, ‘are they on the science side or the arts side?’ It’s one of those nasty questions that entraps and restricts rather than frees and creates possibilities.

The church has not escaped from its own versions of ‘narratives of despair’ when it comes to science – or even of ‘narratives of conflict’. Although historians now recognise that 19th century polemics with titles like Andrew White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom are just that – un-evidenced polemics without a shred of history behind them, yet the myth of those conflicts lingers on at the same time as the real conflict of ‘young earth creationism’ infiltrates a biblically and scientifically illiterate church. On the surface, above the circling of these two very dangerous submerged sharks, is a Christian church in most places keeping its distance from science.

What we desperately need is a true story to tell about science, one that enables us to understand it within the long cultural history of humanity. It will tell us what science is for – a narrative of purpose – the philosophers would say, a teleology. And that is why, even if we are secular, we look to theology for resources here. Of all the humanities, theology is alone in still comfortably talking about purpose when in all others it has evaporated from modern discourse. Now when I say ‘purpose’, I’m not looking for an answer at the level of ‘it helps us make better aeroplanes’. Of course it does that, but I’m interested in where science belongs in the story of being human, and for an answer that might sit alongside an answer to the question, ‘what is the purpose of music?’ What does science do within the project of being human?

For scientists who are also Christians, this is by far the most important and fruitful question to ask at the nexus of science and religion. As a professor of physics and Anglican lay reader I am always being asked, ‘how do you reconcile science and religion?’ – a question that begs so many false assumptions that I never know where to start. It belongs in the class of ‘have you stopped beating your wife yet?’ questions. I’m not even going to recognise the framing. The real question is the one we can allow ourselves to explore if for once we can get off the back foot of apologetics and on to the front foot of thinking theologically about the world. It is the question, ‘What God’s gift of science do, as a means of work within God’s Kingdom?’

REal PresencesI’ll never forget the unexpected source of my first clue towards an answer to this question of purpose. A post-holocaust atheist Jewish thinker of the stature of Prof. George Steiner might be the last person you would think might reach for Christian theological narrative in a critique of the post-modern humanities! But in his deep and moving short book, Real Presences, he does just that – drawing on the three-day Easter shape of lost-ness and despair, waiting in the ‘not-yet’, and future hope, to articulate the human experience. And within this he talks about the purpose of art, in a simple statement that left me breathless:

Only art can go some way towards making accessible, towards waking into some measure of communicability, the sheer inhuman otherness of matter.

This is a wonderful idea – that the human is special among the animals because in some strange way we don’t feel at home in the physical space and time within which we live. The world frightens us with its ‘sheer inhuman otherness’. But – ‘Only ART?’ Surely this is exactly what science does – bridging this gulf of inaccessibility, and by observation, contemplation, mathematical reasoning and careful experiment, ‘waking into some measure of communicability’ this strange spiritless stuff around us, and of which we ourselves are made?

Steiner points us to a task of reconciliation with the physical world that needs to be done, and to a long extended story that describes its history, its present and its future. For just this idea of learning to see the world in a new and powerful way –of learning to see it in all its solid fabric of rock and water and ice and space – in the same way as its Creator sees it – lies at the heart of what the Old Testament calls ‘Wisdom’.   Here’s an example – the ‘Hymn to Wisdom’ in the Book of Job tells us why it is that God knows the way to 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,

A special kind of looking, a special kind of seeing, and measuring – this is the ancient ‘way to wisdom’. This deeply physical book, seeped in Nature imagery from beginning to end, has always fascinated me. At its climax we find what surely must be the most striking of all nature poems from the ancient world – in the form of God’s long-awaited answer to Job’s demands for an explanation of his unjust suffering. It is not the answer we expect, because it takes for form of questions – 163 of them – and all about the natural world:

Were you there when I laid the foundations of the Earth?

Do you know the way to the storehouses of the hail?

Where is the way to the abode of light?

Can you bind the stars of the Pleiades or loose the cords of Orion?

Questions about the areas of science we now call astronomy, meteorology, geology, zoology and more pile up in stunning sequence as Yahweh asks Job to think about how to constitute a creation rich enough and delicate enough to support the complexity of the inhabited skies, oceans and land of the Earth. It’s as if he is saying to the angry Job – yes I can make you the comforting, ordered, world you wish for, the world without storms and floods and earthquakes – but it will be as ordered as a stone, as a crystal – it will be a dead world.

I’ve often suggested to scientist colleagues that they read these chapters from Job – and invariably they come back astonished at the probing imagination behind the text. Now one of the reasons that scientists find the Lord’s Answer to Job so impressive is to do with its very form. For we know that, at the heart of science, is not the so-called ‘scientific method’ with its experiments, tests, refutations and all that. For the ‘method’ would have nothing to work with if new ideas, bold hypotheses, possible worlds, were not first imagined. And the central imaginative, creating act in science is the formulation of the creative question. To those school sixth formers who could not see the creative content of science, we need to ask not ‘can you find the right answer?’ but ‘can you imagine the creative question?’

And to the church we need to say, ‘recognise science not as the secular world’s threat to your belief, but as God’s gift in your service of community, nation and world’. And more than that – recognise that the activity we now call ‘science’ is really only the name of the current chapter in a book that humankind has been writing for centuries, whose earlier chapters were called by other names. Only a century or two ago I would not have been called a scientist, but a ‘natural philosopher’ or – if you like – a lover of wisdom to do with natural things. Perhaps it would be better if we still were to call science by that humbler and older name that contains both love and wisdom within itself, to recognise that science has the ancient story of wisdom as its own story.

Then perhaps we could start to go about our work of healing, of mending, of gently and firmly replacing falsehood with truth – and start to work with science rather than in fear of it, and loving away those fearful narratives of desire, evil and the sacred in nature, with the narratives of reconciliation, of knowledge, of wisdom and of hope.

Is Science Fatally Flawed?

This week’s Faith and Wisdom in Science event took the discussion to the Parish of St. Luke’s Grayshott, where vicar Moray stlukes_home_8Thomas had managed to fill the village social club (excellent beer) with more than a hundred young, old and in-between.  As usual, a very stimulating question-time, including a well-posed challenge to the question of other faith-traditions in the ‘participative-healing’ theology of science.  As that issue has been partially addressed by an ealier post on Islam and Science here, I thought I ought to comment on another challenge, which was put rather differently to others over the past year.

rainbowThe accusation was that the positive view of science as a good gift to be used wisely, but one that really does give us growing insight into the natural world, is fundamentally flawed, that science is permanently doomed to be on the wrong track because of its blinkered purview.  By implication, in this gloomy assessment of science, it can have nothing to do with the Kingdom of God.  It might have someting to do with the deployment of earthly power structures, of the domination of an intelligensia, of a sort of mind-control.  It is most certainly not the the joyous, unexpected wonder that we can, for example, understand the delicate weave of colours in a rainbow, or conjour up on our minds the molecular bonding structure of water in its various forms of ice-crystal.

A New Force

Now it is important not to confuse a view that science is fatally wrong with the simple, everyday, observation that science is wrong about some things most of the time.  The discovery that we can begin to grasp something of, for example, the structure of atoms, is wonderful because it is so difficult.  We can do it, but it takes centuries, many different minds with their own

π+ decay through the weak interaction

π+ decay through the weak interaction

perspectives, many false starts and wrong-headed ideas, flashes of hopes dashed by decisive experiments, before light dawns.  My questioner conjecured. that science is ignorant of an entire force field that it has ignored, yet which affects, among other things, the structure and properties of water.  This is actually a very instructive example, since there are force fields that untial very recent history were unknown to science. The ‘Weak Nuclear Force’ was first proposed to exist by Enrico Fermi in 1933, and was understood properly as a symmetry-broken aspect of the electro-weak force by Glashow, Salam and Weinberg in 1968.  For many years its existence as a fundamental force field was contested – and its carrying particles, the W and Z bosons were not directly detected until 1983.  Should there be a new force field yet to be discovered, there simply needs to be significant weight of experimental evidence and some form of theoretical concept that allows a predictive approach to further experiments, and what was once outside science will become part of its accepted wisdom.

All you need is love…

So before 1933, and arguably before 1983, science was ignorant of an entire force field.  Did that make it fatally flawed? Was skepticism such as it was within the science community unwarrented suppression of challenging ideas? I argue in Faith and Wisdom in Science that, on the contrary, the weakness and implausibility of young ideas in science needs the exercise of love towards them on the part of their proponents.  The theological insight that our relationship with the natural world is one that starts with ignorance and fear and makes a long and arduous journey towards knowledge and wisdom is well-illustrated by the metaphors of thorns and briars of Genesis chapter 3 and even of the pains of childbirth in Romans chapter 8.  Being wrong does not make science flawed, it is part of the painful journey to understanding that underscores science as the deeply human activity it has always been, and the highest of our imaginative projects.

An Easter-Week Expression of Hope for Faith and Wisdom in Science

Easter-time seems a good moment to draw back the curtain a little bit on some big words with theological resonance that bridge between the practice of science (or of life in general for that matter) and the foundation of faith.  It also recthe-stone-is-rolled-awayords an interesting question put to me in the discussion-time following a recent James Gregory Lecture at the University of St. Andrews (which you can see, including the discussion, here).   I was asked, ‘Why haven’t you talked at all about God? I was expecting you to do that in a lecture on Science and Religion!’.  The odd thing was that I had the impression that I had been talking about God all the time – after all, a Theology of Science based on the deep Old Testament Wisdom books, intrepreted through a New Testament lens (that’s the academic soundbite folks) could, I thought, hardly be interpreted as godless.  But perhaps the questioner had a point.  After all, much of the OT wisdom sayings also take an implied or implicit presence of God rather than an explicit one.  Some analyses of the Book of Proverbs, for example, even divide the sayings into ‘secular’ and ‘sacred’.  The Book of Job, my textual centrepiece in Faith and Wisdom in Science, depends for its narrative thrust on the absence of God for most of its course.  Without the silence of the voice of Jahweh for the first 37 chapters, the ‘Voice from the Whirlwind’ in chapter 38 would lose some of the ‘frisson’ that Job scholar David Clines describes accompanying his every reading.  It is, perhaps, too easy to assume the same silent voice when talking about the theology of science – in which God is always implied but mostly in the background.  There is one very good reason for this.  Silence from and about God allows human activities to proceed within a secular setting.  Science may have had Christian roots in the past, and as I claim theological underpinnings in the present, but these must not appear to make it exclusive as a human enterprise.  But for a Christian (or Jew or Muslim – see chapter 8) we need God to step out from the shadows of the cave. Time to roll back the stone!

‘Faith’ itself, is of course one of the big words we need to talk about.  As I explain in Faith and Wisdom in Science, ‘faith’ (with a small ‘f’) is a commonplace requirement in the methodology of science.  Early in the life of a scientific idea it will be too underdeveloped and too weakly-supported by data to stand up against the established theories, however cracked they might be.  The proponents of a new idea, usually still in ostensible contradiction with observation in some cases at least, must exercise ‘faith’ that it will come good, that the inconsistencies will be ironed out one day, that further insights into the structure of the new idea will render it more plausible and stronger rather than weaker.  I went through this experience myself in the early years of a new theory of how polymer (plastic) liquids behaved.  It challenged existing orthodoxy and received considerable oppostion.  It’s detracators were able to point to experiments that our new idea totally failed to account for.  Under a strictly Popperian methodology of science it ought, refuted, to have died at birth. Yet the way that it made sense of so much of the rest of the phenomena of ‘elastic liquids’ from their molecular structure persuaded some of us that it was on the right track.  In the early days this wasnt really rational thinking.  We had just developed a ‘love’ for our beautiful baby theory and we had ‘faith’ that one day it would grow into a more powerful scheme that accounted for the present gaps as well.  And so it proved, after 20 years or so.

This linked activity of such faith in and love of new ideas within the progress of science is a central source of energy for its growth.  I discuss this at a little more length in chapter 7 of Faith and Wisdom, thinking about the much more significant story of the Copernican Revolution.  Of course at first sight this ‘faith with a small f’ looks rather different to the religious form of ‘Faith with a large F’ that characterises, for example, orthodox Christian belief.  But I am not convinced that they are so very far apart. Mark Twain’s (allegedly) classic definition of ‘believing things  you know aint so’ is amusing but doesnt work as a faithful account of Faith.  Belief in the Easter affirmation ‘Christ is risen!’ is more than an assent to historical events in 1st century Palestine (on the basis of arguably fair evidence for history in the ancient world, but flimsy if they were recent).  It is a recognition that the other big Easter word – Hope – has its source in a living Person who can be encountered, and who can transform with love and healing in communities today as vibrantly as he did then.  Hope is also, and always unreasonably, at the heart of science.  We carry on doing science because we hope that by it we will come to understand how the universe works.  We hope to see below the surface of phenomena into the logic, the symmetry, the layers of emergent structures of complexity, that this breathtakingly beautiful world supports. Nothing in the philosophy of science gives any a priori reason that we might expect to be able to do this.

In short we hope to heal our current ignorance and flawed relationship with nature, replacing it by one characterised instead by knowledge and wisdom. The resurrection is ultimately the source of all hope, including the hope that drives the humblest aspect of our calling to be menders of broken relationships – the task we call ‘science’.