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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Let There Be Science! – a guest-blog from its first author

lettherebescienceI have already said something about the new book for school-age and wider readership that takes the simple message of Faith and Wisdom in Science further.  But Let There Be Science! – Why God Loves Science and Why Science Needs God, would never have even got to the ‘twinkle in the eye’ stage, let alone a finished book, without the vision, energy, wonderfully engaging writing style and encyclopaedic knowledge of scientific anecdotes, of the chief author, Dave Hutchings (I am really the co-author).  As committed to teaching physics as he is to his Christian conviction, and as studied in both, Dave was the ideal collaborator on this project.  I have enjoyed working with him immensely, and learned a great deal.  As a result of the project, we are both even more  convinced that the message that you don’t have to choose between Science and Christianity .

Let There Be Science! comes out with Lion Hudson Publishers in January 2017, and we are very excited that the many ‘blurbs’ we have collected are as positive from atheists as they are from Christians (you can read some on the amazon page). Among other things, this is surely a response to the excitement around science that Dave brings to its pages.  Here is his contribution to the blog:

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Firstly, may I say a big ‘thank you’ to Tom – for inviting me to guest on his blog, for asking me to co-write Let There Be Science, and (in both cases) for taking a risk by associating himself with a previously unpublished jobbing science teacher.

And, with those formalities out of the way (!) it would seem that the most sensible place to start is with an excerpt from the book itself. Here are some words from the preface:

The whole thing is almost depressingly predictable. Each school year, the students I teach find out that I believe in God – either because they have asked me outright or because it has turned up in conversation somehow. From then, I can count it down:classroom

3…2…1…

“But you’re a science teacher!”

It isn’t their fault, of course. Somehow, even before their mid-teens, they think that you just have to pick a side – God or science. Who has told them this?  Science-hating God-people?  God-hating scientists?  

Either way, it doesn’t take long to establish that there hasn’t been much real thought involved in their forming of the ‘it’s either God or science’ conclusion – it has just sort of happened.

This section is not part of the main text of the book; so why choose to use it here rather than something else? The answer is that it highlights one of the key aims of Let There Be Science: to make it very clear that the idea of having to ‘pick a side’ is totally unsupported by the evidence.

In reality, Christianity and Science have walked hand in hand for centuries. To demonstrate this, Tom and I tell stories – stories of success and frustration, of joy and despair, of the ancient world and the modern laboratory – all of which highlight the deep interconnectedness of the biblical worldview and scientific progression.

Time and again, Christians appear right at the forefront of scientific revolutions – frequently attributing their insights to their faith. Should we be all that surprised at this, though, when we take into account that any Christian has previously undergone a personal revolution in their decision to follow Jesus?  After all, what better preparation could there be for tearing up the science rulebook and starting all over again than having done that already with your whole life?

spockConnections like this – when the practice and priorities of the Christian life link so clearly to the attitudes and habits which produce good science – can be found all over the place. Let There Be Science recounts these profound bonds in all of their diverse glory: the reader should be prepared for tales of levitating frogs; of toddlers and video-gamers solving problems which stumped the experts; of Star Trek’s Mr. Spock doing some Bible study; and of what flipping 92 heads in a row can tell us about earthquakes.

So, buy yourself a copy whilst they are still available; and relax if you were worrying about which side to pick, because – as all of these stories will go on to show – you don’t have to!

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New Book: ‘Let There Be Science’

LetThereBeScience.jpgYou heard it first here – and I am very excited about this.  There is a new book coming out from Lion Publishing in January called:

Let There Be Science!

Why God loves Science and why Science needs God

Co-authored with York-based physics highschool-teacher and friend Dave Hutchings, it takes the message of Faith and Wisdom in Science to a broader readership.  It’s shorter, more direct, uses simpler language, and works with lots of real stories of scientists struggling to make sense of our world.  It also, like FaWiS, works with the wonderful Book of Job – as well as with Monty Python, Star Trek and other roads into the culture of our times.  But it makes (and also extends) the case of FaWiS, that when you ask, ‘What is Science for within a Christian worldview?’, you get much, much further than when grinding to a halt with the old saw, ‘how can you reconcile science and religion?’. We even explore how, over the centuries, Christian faith has supported and enhanced science, and how it can do that today.

Dave tested out the chapters on the pupils he teaches, atheist friends, and we have a dozen international readers who have read it and written excited blurbs. Here’s Marek Kukula, for example:

“Whatever your personal stance on matters of religion and science it’s surely encouraging to see calm and considered conversation being fostered between them. Let There Be Science makes a compelling case that the ethos of science and the insights that it brings into the workings of the natural world can have much to offer to people of faith. With passion and humility David Hutchings and Tom McLeish seek out common ground and show that, despite our differences, we are all united in our curiosity and capacity for wonder.”

Dr Marek Kukula, Public Astronomer, Royal Observatory Greenwich

There’ll be more on Let There Be Science over the next few weeks, including a guest blog from Dave

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?

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.

Laudato Si – Reflections from Faith and Wisdom in Science

rainbowLast week Pope Francis published his widely anticipated encyclical Laudato Si.   It is a considered yet impassioned plea for new attitude and action towards our planet and environment – ‘Care for our Common Home’.  It is adressed not just to Catholics or the wider Christian communion, but to everyone. Immediate comment was almost universally warmly receptive, though tended to focus on particular statements or to extract highlighted ‘soundbites’ from within the lengthy sweep of its 186 pages. But its great strength is to be found in the very breadth and depth that the Encyclical allows itself. Before suggesting changes of political and personal attitude and behaviour, Laudato Si surveys a Biblically-informed theological discussion of science, technology and our responsibility to nature. Since this is also the essential foundation of Faith and Wisdom in Science, I rather think it the task of this column to look hard at the theology of science that the encyclical builds on, before reacting to its recommendations.

The very title of the document, and of course the author’s assumed pontifical name, are both taken from the founder of the movement to which he belongs – St. Francis of Assisi. The endearing honesty of the message is stamped on the introductory pages, which remind us of Francis’ especial love of nature, of all creatures, and the human care to which God entrusts the world. The very language of ‘Brother Sun’ and ‘Sister Earth’ prepares us for the deeply relational thinking that pervades the document, which later (§65 and §66) identifies the vital ‘relationship of human beings to the world’ as a broken one, as damaged as those with our neighbour and with God. The language used of this relationship with the natural world is

The Lord Answering job out of the Whirlwind by William Blake

The Lord Answering job out of the Whirlwind by William Blake

covenantal and reciprocal throughout. In Faith and Wisdom I found just this astonishingly profound category of relationship to emerge from the Wisdom tradition of the Old Testament – Job, for example, is assured that his anger and suffering, and also his questioning of nature itself, can become a pathway to a time when he is ‘in covenant with the stones’. Biblical affirmation of the goodness of physical reality, and our vital relation to it, really is that strong.

Francis likewise takes a Biblical reading informed by the Wisdom tradition to move away from a naive opposition of science and faith. On the contrary, he draws on science explicitly to inform theology: ‘the best scientific research available today touch[es] us deeply and provide[s] a concrete foundation for the ethical and spiritual itinerary that follows.’ (§15). That itinerary passes, as it did symbolically for Job, and as it does for St. Paul’s reflection on our relation with creation in Romans chapter 8, though a necessary pain: ‘Our goal is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it.’ (§19) If Francis feels pain, and also anger, at the current misshapen framing of that relationship as one of exploitative domination (‘Clearly, the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures §68), he expresses continual hope that a new and very different approach might follow (‘Instead, our “dominion” over the universe should be understood more properly in the sense of responsible stewardship’ – §116). This is authentic Biblical encounter with the natural world – there is only one place in Old or New Testaments where human relationship with nature is not within the context of pain, and that is within the hope of the new creation (Revelation 22).

The Faith and Wisdom story reaches yet more radical conclusions of our responsibility to use scientific knowledge with wisdom, identifying humans ‘in the image of God’ as participative co-creators in a universe which has not finished the work of creation. This is a vital point – we have the care of something growing and developing, not simply of a finished product. We

Self-assembly of molecular structures (Barrett group, McGill University)

Self-assembly of molecular structures (Barrett group, McGill University)

are able to harm a future, not just deform a present. Laudato Si draws on a remarkable passage from the celebrated medieval thinker St. Thomas Aquinas to explore and apply this idea. It might even be called a ‘theology of self-assembly! In his Summa Theologica Thomas illustrates the phenomenon of natural emergence: “Nature is nothing other than a certain kind of art, namely God’s art, impressed upon things, whereby those things are moved to a determinate end. It is as if a shipbuilder were able to give timbers the wherewithal to move themselves to take the form of a ship” (§80). The world is pregnant with possibility. I wonder what Thomas would make of today’s theories of self-assembling cell-membranes, an example I used in Faith and Wisdom to illustrate how the apparent chaos of the molecular world is necessary for order and a structure to emerge.

The science and the theology of Laudato Si work powerfully together. Under the surface of its language lie not only the analytic toolkit of science, which informs us of the dominant human causes of global warming, but also the integrative, holistic methods of complexity and the science of systems. The rain-forests are the ‘lungs of the planet’ (§40); A fully interdisciplinary approach is needed to address the ‘deepest problems of the global system’ (§111). Both science and faith create global communities – and an attentive reader will not miss the explicit acknowledgement of reflective contributions from church leaders in Japan, Brazil, New Zealand, Bolivia, USA, Paraguay, Germany, Canada and more. Sufi and Jewish thought is welcomed as well as Christian. This is connectivity embodied as well as urged.

There are of course places where I hesitate to affirm everything Francis says. I rather wish he had said explicitly that science is a gift of God, rather than the one-stage removed ’emerged from the gift of creativity’. But disagreement in some p art will be true of most readers. But living with those differences is also part of living and serving together in a connected and responsible way.

Laudato Si is not only a thoughtful document, it is a beautiful one. It is stern – it needs to be. It is painful. But it is not depressing or despairing. The prayers with which if finishes are full of praise and resurrection hope. It is surely right to suggest a song as we take on the urgent task of mending our ways, rediscovering simplicity, caring for the poor, receiving and using science as God’s gift, and stewarding our world for those who come after us.