It will take a few weeks to recount and pass on some experiences of the Faith and Wisdom summer, but one needs must refer on now. I spent a fascinating weekend visiting my long time friend and collaborator Ron Larson of the Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor (what a lovely, sylvan, name!) and of Knox Presbyterian Church of the same city.
Saturday morning Ron had gathered an ‘out for breakfast’ (bacon, two eggs over easy, hash browns) informal conversation of UoM faculty about the role of Christian faith in their life and work, and especially in science. It was a stimulating and fascinating conversation. One aspect new to me was the very wide range of experiences of being known (or not) as a believer in an academic setting. Some found no issue, and were quite open about their faith (this tended to be the case in the faculty of medicine). Others felt that their intellectual ability would be called seriously into doubt, and promotion prospects dented, were they to ‘come out’ (some, but by no means all, in the science faculty).
But my task is made all the easier, as one participant (RJS) has blogged about the discussion here. The writer has also commented previously on how to read Job, so we were especially happy to share a deep interest in that book, and its prescience for Biblical theology of the cosmos and our relation to it. I searched that whole blog for Job and found a collection of interesting articles here.
The main lessons seems to be not to project back New Testament notions into the thought world of Job or the writer of the book, and to realise that, as well as much else, this book is about living with questions, not insisting on easy answers.
Faith and Wisdom in Science – the blog did take a summer break. But other things happened. In particular I had the opportunity to write (at 24 hours notice) an opinion piece for The Guardian newspaper in the UK (published August 14th) on the importance of children experiencing open-ended experimental science while at school. There is growing evidence that this is enormously beneficial to core science learning, but, as readers of Faith and Wisdom in Science will know, it also touches on a deeply theological nerve. Becoming reconciled with nature means working with it and observing. This is something that everyone can experience and enjoy.
The Guardian article as printed is here (it also made the weekly printed Guardian International, to which we have subscribed for years – I was delighted!). But I thought that the full original drafted version, before editor’s cuts, might be interesting to post. So that follows. The most important thing is that Job made the final cut!
Science is not just the preserve of stereotypical brainy boffins you see on TV. Speaking to the Times yesterday, head of the British Science Association Katherine Mathieson, said this public image was not helpful and that she’d prefer to “see a few years of genuine open-ended research by pupils, rather than fiddling around with beakers”. She also worries that science is not a topic of common conversation. Rightly so – if we can get our minds around Premier League strategy then complexity is not the issue.’
Mathieson is right to raise concerns. The ability of people to understand the world they live in increasingly depends on their understanding of scientific ideas. Science allows us to learn reliably about nature – if an experimental result does not support a specific idea, then the idea has to be rejected or modified and then tested again. For most people such understanding by imagination and experimentation comes through education. Great teachers are the driving force behind the UK’s position as a global scientific powerhouse.
However, overly-tight accountability measures, rapidly changing curricula and burdensome pupil progress monitoring are just some of the enormous pressures on schools that impede creating an environment in which tomorrow’s scientists can learn and grow. Teachers often have to carry out experiments in their own time and beyond the curriculum by joining schemes like our Partnership Grants.
In 2013, a report published by SCORE found that a worrying number of primary students were not experiencing a complete science education due to a lack of resources for practical work, with the average school having only 46% of the equipment needed. The UK is failing to create a scientifically informed society that can confidently hold science properly to account by engaging, enjoying and, yes, criticising it.
Children learn about music by trying their hand at composing a song or joining a jazz trio or string quartet. Others take GCSE Art, where we expect them to try out sketching and use watercolours, mixed-media or creative photography to learn about the subject. Even the most doting relative does not expect these creations to end up in a museum or concert hall, but what they teach our children about the artistic process is essential.
Science should be treated the same way. Humans have always been curious about the natural world and the stuff that makes it up. In the Book of Job, an ancient poem asks why the stars of the Pleiades are bound together, while those of Orion are scattered. Centuries before we formalised the scientific method, we had thoughtful and playful experiments with light, glass and water as well as astonishingly careful observations of the stars. People dreamed up imaginative theories of what might be going on up in rainbows and down inside liquids and solids. It wasn’t always right, but even now science can be a messy business on the path to truth. Why should things be different in 2017?
The Royal Society emphasises ‘experimental’ over ‘practical’ science, where curiosity should go beyond following a simple recipe and people should simply try something – a thoughtful way of looking for answers. We need to reverse recent trends and increase the amount of time and money invested in experimental and problem-solving work in science and mathematics education through access to adequately resourced laboratories and well-trained teachers. To support this activity in primary schools, Brian Cox, the Royal Society’s Professor for Public Engagement in Science, presents a series of video resources to increase teachers’ confidence with experimental science and relate the experiments to the real world. https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLg7f-TkW11iU11yatk_TcbA2tGH_WLe8d
Before you reach out for your Rousseaus to bash me over the head with, I want to reassure you that experimental science in education complements rather than replaces the learning of core scientific understanding. Sir John Holman found that investigative science improved attainment in core science exams, with greater effect for pupils in less privileged areas. There are other signs of new growth – the new Institute for Research in Schools is right now realising Mathieson’s vision of ‘genuine open-ended research by pupils’.
We currently have many examples of good practice at primary and secondary schools and colleges across the UK. Investing in experimental science in all our schools to help future generations make better sense of the world around them means that one day we will have confident opinions on scientific issues like we do on technical matters like Premier League team strategies.
Imagine the long river of longing, questioning, pain and triumph, that starts from the pen of the long lost author of the Book of Job, and flows to the present day, when human desire to see deeply into the structure of nature takes the form of ‘science’. Both of the great wisdom poems in Job, the ‘Hymn to Wisdom’ of chapter 28 and the ‘Lord’s Answer’ of chapters 38-42 describe reaching out into the cosmos, and deep down into the structure of the Earth with the insight and imagination of mind and eye. They also grasp the nettle of pain, of the frustration of incomprehension, especially in the face of the chaotic, the unpredictable, the seemingly purposeless. This is also why science is also so very deeply human – all of life, hope and creativity is there.
Justin Butcher plays Job
Now imagine these two visions – the ancient poetic figure of Job, and that of a modern scientist facing the challenges of the unknown – brought into the same focus, the old longing to understand meeting the severe challenges of physics, mathematics and nature. Job and his friends circle around each other, around the unanswered questions, and on a stage that circles itself amid a cosmic backdrop of the universe he longs to comprehend, including its chaotic and threatening aspects.
Job rails against his comforters
It was brilliant. It worked. Job as scientist, Christian, and sufferer, right but also self-righteous. Felix’ articulation of view of those for whom science is a threat, an inhuman desiccated exercise of the mind that dries up emotion and aesthetic. And it sparked off wonderful questions and discussion for the panel of four scientists who are also Christians each evening.
Personally, working with Riding Lights and Nigel Forde has been inspiring. To see some of the themes (and even some of the lines!) of Faith and Wisdom in Science woven into a vibrant dialogue between a modern day Job and his friends, has been a wondrous experience.
It left us all wanting to do more, to help the church embrace science as a gift of God, to support scientists in their calling, to appreciate the interplay of science and art in being human for everyone, to participate in the great work of healing our relationship with nature.
Look out for it later this year or next on a national tour!
This is going to be an exciting week (quite apart from a general election in the UK). Financial support from the Durham-based Equipping Christian Leaders in an Age of Science project has allowed the development of a one-act play exploring the idea proposed in Faith and Wisdom in Science that the Old Testament Book of Job serves as a fundamental text from which we can trace the questions which today underpin the wonderful human cultural activity that we call ‘Science’. In particular it takes the essential, and paradoxical, form of questions that is assumed by the ‘Lord’s Answer’ to Job in the Biblical book.
A group of us in York have been working with the well-known theatre company Riding Lights and their writer Nigel Forde on the play Counting the Clouds. To find out more you will really have to get along to St. Michael-le-Belfrey church (hard by York Minster) at 7.30 pm on the evenings of Thursday, Friday or Saturday June 8th, 9th and 10th. Suffice it to say that the afflicted yet faithful Job is, in the play, a contemporary scientists, and that one of his ‘comforters’ includes a hard-line humanities-trained clergyman for whom science is a spoiler, a destroyer of wonder, and a threat to his faith. Both have things to learn.
On each evening, the play will be followed by a second hour of panel discussion between the audience and a group of scientists who are also Christians. It’s not impossible that I will be among them, but so will Steve Smye OBE of Leeds University and the National Institute of Health Research, and others of wide and deep experience.
The event, Faith in the Questions, forms part of York’s current Festival of Ideas, in which there is lots more on art, literature, politics, science, theology and more to entertain, educate and inspire – so get up to York this week, join in the discussion, and experience Counting the Clouds!.
You can find more information on the event and booking here.
Faith and Wisdom in Science refers, within its chapter on the long history of science, to the remarkable 13th century scientific treatises of Robert Grosseteste. This article, republished from TheConversationUK, says more about what we have learned from him over the last few years.
The idea that science isn’t a process of constant progress might make some modern scientists feel a bit twitchy. Surely we know more now than we did 100 years ago? We’ve sequenced the genome, explored space and considerably lengthened the average human lifespan. We’ve invented aircraft, computers and nuclear energy. We’ve developed theories of relativity and quantum mechanics to explain how the universe works.
However, treating the history of science as a linear story of progression doesn’t reflect wholly how ideas emerge and are adapted, forgotten, rediscovered or ignored. While we are happy with the notion that the arts can return to old ideas, for example in neoclassicism, this idea is not commonly recognised in science. Is this constraint really present in principle? Or is it more a comment on received practice or, worse, on the general ignorance of the scientific community of its own intellectual history?
For one thing, not all lines of scientific enquiry are pursued to conclusion. For example, a few years ago, historian of science Hasok Chang undertook a careful examination of notebooks from scientists working in the 19th century. He unearthed notes from experiments in electrochemistry whose results received no explanation at the time. After repeating the experiments himself, Chang showed the results still don’t have a full explanation today. These research programmes had not been completed, simply put to one side and forgotten.
New perspectives on old investigations might turn out to be promising routes to radical research. Most current research programmes represent attempts to make incremental advances, nurtured and supported by a conservative system of peer review. But the generation of really fresh ideas requires methods that don’t just rely on linear progression.
Sometimes this non-linearity comes from new experiments or theories. For example, Albert Einstein developed his theory of special relativity in 1905 from studying a series of thought experiments he had devised. The Nobel Prize-winning Dutch physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes’s experimental prowess while studying how metals behaved at very low temperatures led to his discovery of superconductivity. But looping back into forgotten scientific history might also provide an alternative, regenerative way of thinking that doesn’t rely on what has come immediately before it.
Collaborating with an international team of colleagues, we have taken this hypothesis further by bringing scientists into close contact with scientific treatises from the early 13th century. The treatises were composed by the English polymath Robert Grosseteste – who later became Bishop of Lincoln – between 1195 and 1230. They cover a wide range of topics we would recognise as key to modern physics, including sound, light, colour, comets, the planets, the origin of the cosmos and more.
We have worked with paleographers (handwriting experts) and Latinists to decipher Grosseteste’s manuscripts, and with philosophers, theologians, historians and scientists to provide intellectual interpretation and context to his work. As a result, we’ve discovered that scientific and mathematical minds today still resonate with Grosseteste’s deeply physical and structured thinking.
Our first intuition and hope was that the scientists might bring a new analytic perspective to these very technical texts. And so it proved: the deep mathematical structure of a small treatise on colour, the De colore, was shown to describe what we would now call a three-dimensional abstract co-ordinate space for colour.
But more was true. During the examination of each treatise, at some point one of the group would say: “Did anyone ever try doing …?” or “What would happen if we followed through with this calculation, supposing he meant …”. Responding to this thinker from eight centuries ago has, to our delight and surprise, inspired new scientific work of a rather fresh cut. It isn’t connected in a linear way to current research programmes, but sheds light on them from new directions.
Take, for example, Grosseteste’s application of his colour theory to the rainbow, carried out in his final treatise. In explaining the differences of colours between and within rainbows on three axes related to his colour theory, Grosseteste put forward the basis of a coordinate system for colour embedded in nature.
It was only by looking at his discussion of rainbows recreated by modern physics that we could interpret his colour qualities in terms we use today. It’s the medieval equivalent of the way televisions combine coloured light, but written in the clouds with sunlight rather than on flat screens with liquid crystal displays. The finding also resonates with open research questions on why some colours seem closer to others in our perception.
One way of looking at the creative processes at work in this scientific dialogue with the 13th century is that it is just the kind of neoclassical (or neomedieval) science that some have assumed is impossible. We’ve found scientific ideas addressing current thinking in fresh ways in every treatise by Grosseteste we’ve examined so far, proving it’s not exceptional.
History is important. And through our collaboration through time with Grosseteste, we’ve shown it can undermine some of the brittle narratives told about modern science. We may be alone in space with our thoughts of communicating with the intelligence of other civilisations, but we need not be alone in time.
It 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.
Exeter 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.
Here it is – the short, broad-readership, story-filled book about why God loves science and why science has always been stimulated, supported and has flourished within a worldview in which people seek to serve God.
Let There Be Science!
Like its background text, Faith and Wisdom in Science(good for further reading by the way), it’s main task is to blow away the myth that science and orthodox Christian faith are in any necessary conflict now, or at any time in history.
On the contrary, we find that throughout the ages, the faith required to do science, that our minds might just be up to the job of perceiving the inner structures of the universe, as well as its cosmic glories, is motivated by the same ‘Faith’ that dares to suppose that those very minds reflect in some way that of their Creator.
Furthermore, we find that the reason to do science is also theologically grounded. Historically, the great scientists at the start of the early modern period when experimental science got off the ground, had a worked out theological reason for acquiring knowledge of the natural world. To take just one example, Johannes Kepler, whose calculations following Tycho Brahe’s new observations of the planets identified for the first time the true structure and dynamics of the solar system, said:
Those laws are within the grasp of the human mind. God wanted us to recognize them by creating us after his own image so that we could share in his own thoughts… and if piety allow us to say so, our understanding is in this respect of the same kind as the divine, at least as far as we are able to grasp something of it in our mortal life
Science is hard, sometimes painful – new ideas get stifled if they go against the grain, our confused minds find many false avenues to waste time down, experiments and calculations go wrong. Yet this very painful ‘harvesting’ of knowledge about nature is strongly resonant with the mandate we understand humankind has from the Bible in Genesis chapter 3:
“Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. 18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. 19 By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
though the command to name the animals and birds – where names stand in for a knowledge of their natures – was not rescinded. We find, as in Faith and Wisdom in Science, God in conversation with humankind about nature once more in the wonderful Book of Job. Here, the essential ingredient of science – the creative question – is celebrated and explored in the great ‘Lord’s Answer’ to Job in chapters 38-42. Just read a taste of this agenda-setting text from chapter 38:
The Lord Answering job out of the Whirlwind by William Blake
Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades? Can you loosen Orion’s belt? 32 Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons or lead out the Bear with its cubs? 33 Do you know the laws of the heavens? Can you set up God’s dominion over the earth?
34 “Can you raise your voice to the clouds and cover yourself with a flood of water? 35 Do you send the lightning bolts on their way? Do they report to you, ‘Here we are’? 36 Who gives the ibis wisdom or gives the rooster understanding? 37 Who has the wisdom to count the clouds?
And now here what a great scientist such as Werner Heisenberg says about questions:
In the course of coming into contact with the empirical method, physicists have gradually learned how to pose a question properly. Now, proper questioning often means that one is more than half way towards solving the problem
So why do so many people, and especially sadly, so many young people, think that they have to choose between science and Christian (or any) faith? Sadly the answer is because of misrepresentation and a covering over of truth by all sides:
The ‘conflict myth’ was really set off by two books in the late 19th century by Draper and White. Little read today and historically discredited, their polemic nonetheless lies underneath many peoples’ thinking.
Bad history, such as representing the Galileo affair as the clash of science with religion (when it can’t have been – all those involved on both sides were Christians and the arguments were almost entirely scientific ones) serve to bolster the impression of conflict.
A recent (20th century), theologically bad, way of interpreting the Bible that assumes that it gives us shortcuts to scientific answers, rather than setting out our task, has had terrible effects. For example, the pitting of ‘The Bible’ against ‘evolution’ is quire wrong.
Here we have just a taste of the work we need to do, and when we’ve done it, what then? Perhaps Heisenberg has more advice for us:
The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you!
By all means raise a glass with Dave and me to the wide and healthy readership of Let There Be Science (already in the Amazon top-5000 and top 3 for science and religion after just a day!).