A Week of Wisdom: an Epiphany Post

Last Sunday was Epiphany in the western Christian Church Calendar, and this the ‘First Sunday of Epiphany’. It’s the time when congregations are reminded about St. Matthew’s account of the ‘Magi’ from the east (not three, not kings, no camels mentioned …). From the start of chapter 2 of the gospel:

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

Here is the non-christmas-cardy 6th century Ravenna mosaic portrayal of the Magi (alright, there are three) from the church of Apollinare:

ravenna-mosaic-magi

The Ravenna Mosaic of the Magi

‘Magi’ is perhaps, as in the translation above, left untranslated. ‘Wise men’ is in the right direction, but the term is not necessarily gendered, and it comes from another time and place to ours, where astrology was a serious proto-science and Zoroastrianism the cohesive framework of thought. Matthew 2 is therefore one of the places in Christian scripture and tradition where attention is drawn to the high value placed on wisdom from traditions, that ‘God is bigger that Israel’, that Wisdom overspills Judeo-Christian tradition (Another strand came a little later with the recognition that much in Ancient Greek learning was a gift of ‘common grace’).

An Ancient Wisdom Text

The lectionary readings from the week have drawn both from the central place that Wisdom has in the Bible, and hinted at the way that it (or ‘she’ – when Wisdom is personified she is Sophia) can be found in foreign, as well as familiar places, be visiting the apocryphal book of Baruch. Ostensibly the work of the prophet Jeremiah’s servant at the time of the Babylonian exile of Israel, it was most probably written later, toward the end of the 2nd century BC.

But what concerns me is not so much its date, but its context and content. In a time of trouble, worry, fear for the future, concern that irreparable damage has been done though foolish national decisions – “there is open shame on us today, …, because we have sinned against the Lord” (Baruch 1:15 – are you with me so far?), Baruch sings a different song:

9 Hear the commandments of life, O Israel;
give ear, and learn wisdom! 

15 Who has found her place?
And who has entered her storehouses? 
16 Where are the rulers of the nations,
and those who lorded it over the animals on earth; 
17 those who made sport of the birds of the air,
and who hoarded up silver and gold
in which people trust,
and there is no end to their getting; 
18 those who schemed to get silver, and were anxious,
but there is no trace of their works? 
19 They have vanished and gone down to Hades,
and others have arisen in their place.

20 Later generations have seen the light of day,
and have lived upon the earth;
but they have not learned the way to knowledge, nor understood her paths,
nor laid hold of her.   …

29 Who has gone up into heaven, and taken her,
and brought her down from the clouds? 
30 Who has gone over the sea, and found her,
and will buy her for pure gold? 
31 No one knows the way to her,
or is concerned about the path to her. 
32 But the one who knows all things knows her,
he found her by his understanding.
The one who prepared the earth for all time
filled it with four-footed creatures; 
33 the one who sends forth the light, and it goes;
he called it, and it obeyed him, trembling; 
34 the stars shone in their watches, and were glad;
he called them, and they said, ‘Here we are!’
They shone with gladness for him who made them. 
35 This is our God;
no other can be compared to him. 
36 He found the whole way to knowledge,
and gave her to his servant Jacob
and to Israel, whom he loved. 
37 Afterwards she appeared on earth
and lived with humankind. 

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

The Lord Answering job out of the Whirlwind by William Blake

These excerpts from chapter 3 are remarkable, for the echo both in structure and content another song to someone in trouble, from the Book of Job, and one that I comment on at some length in Faith and Wisdom in Science. It’s Job’s ‘Hymn to Wisdom’ of chapter 28. There, too, is a search for wisdom as a lost treasure. there too its absence from the caves of the deep, or from the marketplace of gold and silver. But both Baruch and Job agree that true Wisdom can be found by human beings astonishingly in the same way that the Creator found it –  ‘by understanding’, and in particular understanding the natural world. Here are the closing verses (24-28) of Job 28:

God understands the way to [Wisdom], and he alone knows where it dwells, for he views the ends of the earth, and sees everything under the heavens.
When he established the force of the wind and measured out the waters,
when he made a decree for the rain and a path for the thunderstorm,
then he looked at wisdom and appraised it; he confirmed it and tested it.
And he said to the human race,
“The fear of the Lord—that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding.

Science as Therapy

The contemplation of, and growing understanding into nature was wise and therapeutic of Job, a lesson learned by whoever Baruch was in later years. The thread of the healing power of reconnecting the human with the material world in perceiving its structures and workings is one that drove natural philosophy for centuries if not millennia. It inspired one of the great philosophical texts to appear from anywhere in the first millennium AD, Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy. This wonderful tour of natural wisdom, written when its author was in prison under a death sentence, was one of the primary sources for the scientific imperative of the early universities in the 12th century. It is quoted everywhere.

61yukLw-ljL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_A modern descendent of Boethius in our own times can be found in former science correspondent of the Guardian, Tim Radford. As the preface to his new book tells us, so distressed was this worthy gentleman by the political events of 2016, and their significance, that he decided to illuminate his personal darkness by thinking, and. writing, about physics. What Baruch, Job and Boethius tell us is that this is not ‘escapism’, it’s what you do with science. It’s what it’s there for. Radford’s The Consolations of Physics, is a marvellous testimony to the gift of peace, that the love of wisdom of natural things (that is what ‘natural philosophy’, the old words for ‘science’ mean after all) can give us.

We need to get science out of a box that says ‘shiny hard things for experts only’ and into the open basket of familiar and friendly things that we pick up to comfort, as well as to. challenge and enrich us, all of us.

New Directions for Science and Religion

There is no such thing as a conflict between science and religion, and this is an essay about it [1]. It is not, however, another rebuttal of the ‘conflict narrative’ – there is already an abundance of good recent writing in that vein from historians, sociologists and philosophers as well as scientists themselves. Readers still under the misapprehension that the history of science can be accurately characterised by a continuous struggle to escape from the shackles of religious oppression into a sunny secular upland of free thought (loudly expressed by a few scientists but no historians) can consult Peter Harrison’s masterly The Territories of Science and Religion (OUP 2015), 51OrZCbtwzL._SX333_BO1,204,203,200_or dip into Ron Numbers’ delightful edited volume Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Harvard UP 2009).  Likewise, assumptions that theological and scientific methodologies and truth-claims are necessarily in philosophical or rational conflict might be challenged by Alister McGrath’s The Territories of Human Reason (McGrath 2019) or Andrew Torrance’s and Thomas McCall’s edited Knowing Creation (Torrence 2018). The late-Victorian origin of the ‘alternative history’ of unavoidable conflict is fascinating in its own right, but also damaging in that it has multiplied through so much public and educational discourse in the 20thcentury in both secular and religious communities. 51HdMVcRGgL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_That is the topic of a new and fascinating study by historian James Ungureanu Science, Religion, and the Protestant Tradition: Retracing the Origins of Conflict (2019). Finally, the concomitant assumption that scientists must, by logical force, adopt non-theistic worldviews is roundly rebutted by recent and global social science, such as Elaine Eklund’s major survey, also published in a new book Secularity and Science (OUP 2019).

All well and good – so the history, philosophy and sociology of science and religion are richer and more interesting than the media-tales and high-school stories of opposition we were all brought up on. It seems a good time to ask the ‘so what?’ questions, however, especially since there has been less work in that direction. If Islamic, Jewish and Christian theologies were demonstrably central in the construction of our current scientific methodologies, for example, then what might such a reassessment imply for fruitful development of the role science plays in our modern world? In what ways might religious communities support science especially under the shadow of a ‘post-truth’ political order? What implications and resources might a rethink of science and religion offer for the anguished science-educational discussion on both sides of the Atlantic, and for the emerging international discussions on ‘science-literacy’?

I want to explore here directions in which we could take those consequential questions. Three perspectives will suggest lines of new resources for thinking: the critical tools offered by the discipline of theology itself (even in an entirely secular context), a reappraisal of ancient and pre-modern texts, and a new way of looking at the unanswered questions and predicament of some post-modern philosophy and sociology. I’ll finish by suggesting how these in turn suggest new configurations of religious communities in regard to science and technology.

 

Applied theologies – a critical teleology

The humble conjunction ‘and’ does much more work in framing discussions of ‘theology and science’ than at first apparent. It tacitly assumes that its referents belong to the same category (‘red’ and ‘blue’), implying a limited overlap between them (‘north’ and ‘south’), and it may already bias the discussion into oppositional mode (‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’). Yet both science and theology resist boundaries – each has something to say about everything. Other conjunctions are possible that do much greater justice to the history and philosophy of science, and also to the cultural narratives of theology. A strong candidate is, ‘of’, when the appropriate question now becomes, ‘What is a Theology of Science?’ and its complement, ‘What is a Science of Theology?’[2]

A ‘theology of …’ delivers a narrative of teleology, a story of purpose. A ‘theology of science’ will describe, within the religious narrative of one or more traditions, what the work of science is for. There have been examples of the ‘theology of…’ genre addressing, for example, music (Begbie 2000) and art (Wolterstorff 1997). Note that working through a teleology of a cultural art by calling on theological resources does not imply a personal commitment to that theology – it might simply respond to a need for academic thinking about purpose. Begbie explores the role music plays in accommodating human experience to time, for example, while Wolterstorff discovers a responsibility toward the visual aesthetics of public spaces.  In both cases we find that theology has retained a set of critical tools that address the essential human experience of purpose, value and ethics in regard to a capacity or endeavour. Intriguingly, it appears that some of the social frustrations that science now experiences result from missing, inadequate or even damaging cultural narratives ofscience. Absence of a narrative that delineates what science is for leave it open to hijacking by personal or corporate sectarian interests alone, such as the purely economic framings of much government policy. It also muddies educational waters, resulting in an over-instrumental approach to science formation.  I have elsewhere attempted to tease out a longer version how a long argument for what a ‘theology of science’ might look like (McLeish 2014), but even a summary must begin with examples of the fresh (though ancient) sources a late modern theological project of this kind requires.

 

New thinking from old – ancient, medieval and early modern sources

The cue for a first wellspring of raw material comes from neo-Kantian Berlin philosopher Susan Neiman. In a remarkable essay (Neimann 2016) she urges that Western philosophy acknowledge, for a number of reasons, a second foundational source alongside Plato – that of the Biblical Book of Job. The ancient Semitic text offers a matchless starting point for a narratology of the human relationship of the mind, and the experience of human suffering, with the material world. Long recognised as a masterpiece of ancient literature, Job has attracted and perplexed scholars in equal measures for centuries, and is still a vibrant field of study. David Clines, a leading and lifelong scholar of the text, calls Job‘the most intense book theologically and intellectually of the Old Testament’ (Clines 2014). Inspiring commentators across vistas of centuries and philosophies, from Basil the Great to Emmanuel Levinas, its relevance to a theology of science is immediately apparent from poetic ‘Lord’s Answer’ to Job’s complains late in the book (ch38v4[3]):

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

The Lord Answering job out of the Whirlwind by William Blake

Where were you when I founded the earth?

Tell me, if you have insight.

Who fixed its dimensions? Surely you know!

Have you entered the storehouses of the snow?

Or have you seen the arsenals of the hail?

 

The writer develops material from the core creation narrative in Hebrew wisdom poetry – as found in Psalms, Proverbs and Prophets – that speaks of creation through ‘ordering’, ‘bounding’ and ‘setting foundations’ (Brown 2010). The questing survey next sweeps over the animal kingdom, then finishes with a celebrated ‘de-centralising’ text that places humans at the periphery of the world, looking on in wonder and terror at the ‘other’ – the great beasts Behemoth and Leviathan. The text is an ancient recognition of the unpredictable aspects of the world: the whirlwind, the earthquake, the flood, unknown great beasts. In today’s terms, we have in the Lord’s Answer to Job a foundational framing for the primary questions of the fields we now call cosmology, geology, meteorology, astronomy, zoology, … We recognise an ancient and questioning view into nature unsurpassed in its astute attention to detail and sensibility towards the tensions of humanity in confrontation with materiality. The call to a questioning relationship of the mind from this ancient and enigmatic source feeds questions of purpose in the human engagement with nature from a cultural depth that a restriction to contemporary discourse does not touch.

Drawing on historical sources is helpful in another way. The philosophy of every age contains its tacit assumptions, taken as evident so not critically examined. A project on the human purpose for science that draws on theological thinking might, in this light, draw on writing from periods when this was an academically-developed topic, such as the scientific renaissances of the 13thand 17thcenturies. Both saw considerable scientific progress (such as the development of geometric optics to the level of the final solution to the problem of the rainbow in the first, and the establishment of heliocentricity in the second). Furthermore, both periods, while perfectly distinguishing ‘natural philosophy’ from theology, worked in an intellectual atmosphere that encouraged a fluidity of thought between them.

An instructive and insightful thinker from the first is polymath Robert Grosseteste. Master to the Oxford Franciscans in the 1220s, and Bishop of Lincoln from 1235 to his death in 1253, Grosseteste wrote in highly mathematical ways about light, colour, sound and the heavens. He drew on the earlier Arab transmission of and commentaries on Aristotle, yet developed many topics well beyond the legacy of the ancient philosopher (he was the first, for example, to identify the phenomenon of refraction to be responsible for rainbows). He also brought a developed Christian philosophy to bear upon the reawakening of natural philosophy in Europe, whose programmes of astronomy, mechanics and above all optics would lead to early modern science (Cunningham and Hocknull 2016).

image

Manuscript illustration of Robert Grosseteste

In his Commentary on the Posterior Analytics (Aristotle’s most detailed exposition of his scientific method) Grosseteste places a sophisticated theological philosophy of science within an overarching Christian narrative of Creation, Fall and Redemption. Employing an ancient metaphor for the effect of the Fall on the higher intellectual powers as a ‘lulling to sleep’, he maintains that the lower faculties, including critically the senses, are less affected by fallen human nature than the higher. So, re-illumination must start there:

Since sense perception, the weakest of all human powers, apprehending only corruptible individual things, survives, imagination stands, memory stands, and finally understanding, which is the noblest of human powers capable of apprehending the incorruptible, universal, first essences, stands![4]

Human re-engagement with the external world through the senses, recovering a potential knowledge of it, becomes a participation in the theological project of healing. Furthermore, the reason that this is possible is because this relationship with the created world is also the nexus at which human seeking is met by divine illumination.

 

Theological Imagination at Work: the Experimental Method

 The old idea that there is something incomplete, damaged or ‘out of joint’ in the human relationship with materiality (itself drawing on traditions such as Job), and that the human ability to engage a question-based and rational investigation of the physical world constitutes a step towards a reversal of it, represents a strand of continuity between medieval and early modern thinking. Francis Bacon’s theologically-motivated framing of the new ‘experimental philosophy’ in the 17thcentury takes (though not explicitly) Grosseteste’s framing as its starting point. As framed in his Novum Organum (Bacon 1887 edn.), the Biblical and medieval tradition that sense data are more reliable than those from reason or imagination) constitutes his foundation for ‘experimental method’. The rise of experimentation in science as we now know it, is itself a counter-intuitive turn, in spite the hindsight-fuelled criticism of ancient, renaissance and medieval natural philosophers for their failure to adopt it. Yet the notion that one could learn anything general about the workings of nature by acts as specific and as artificial as those constituting an experiment was not at all evident, even after the foundation of the Royal Society. The 17thcentury philosopher Margaret Cavendish was among the clearest of critics (Cavendish 1668):

For as much as a natural man differs from an artificial statue or picture of a man, so much differs a natural effect from an artificial, …

Paradoxically perhaps, it was the theologically-informed imagination of the medieval and early modern teleology of science that motivated the counter-intuitive step that won against Cavendish’s critique.

 

Philosophy and Sociology of Post-modern Difference – the need for reconciliation

Much of ‘post-modern’ philosophical thinking and its antecedents through the 20thcentury appear at best to have no contact with science at all, and at worst to strike at the very root-assumptions on which natural science is built, such as the existence of a real world, and the human ability to speak representationally of it. The occasional explicit skirmishes in the 1990s’ ‘Science Wars’ between philosophers and scientists (such as the ‘Sokal-affair’ and the subsequent public acrimony between physicist Alan Sokal and philosopher Jacques Derrida) have suggested an irreconcilable conflict (Parsons 2003). A superficial evaluation might conclude that the charges of ‘intellectual imposture’ and ‘uncritical naivety’ levied from either side are simply the millennial manifestation of the earlier ‘Two Cultures’ conflict of F.R. Leavis and C. P. Snow (Snow 1959), between the late-modern divided intellectual world of the sciences and the humanities.  Yet in the light of the long and theologically-informed perspective on the story of we have sketched, the relationship of science to the major post-modern philosophical themes looks rather different.

Kierkegaard and Camus wrote of the ‘absurd’ – a gulf between human quest for meaning and its absence in the world, Levinas and Sartre of the ‘nausea’ that arises from a human confrontation with sheer, basic existence. Derrida and Saussure framed the human predicament of desire to represent the unrepresentable as différance. Arendt introduces The Human Condition with a meditation on the iconic value of human spaceflight, and concludes that the history of modernism has been a turning away from the world that has increased its inhospitality, so that we are suffering from ‘world alienation’ (Arendt 1998). The first modern articulation of what these thinkers have in common, an irreconcilable aspect of the human condition in respect of the world, comes from Kant’s third critique (Kant 1952):

Between the realm of the natural concept, as the sensible, and the realm of the concept of freedom, as the supersensible, there is a great gulf fixed, so that it is not possible to pass from the former to the latter by means of the theoretical employment of reason.

Kant’s recognition that more than reason alone is required for human re-engagement with the world is echoed by George Steiner. In his short but plangent lament over late-modern literary disengagement with reference and meaning Real Presences (Steiner 1989) looks from predicament to possible solution:

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

Steiner’s relational language is full of religious resonance –  for re-ligio is simply at source the re-connection of the broken. Yet, once we are prepared to situate science within the same relationship to the humanities as enjoyed by the arts, then it also fits rather snugly into a framing of ‘making accessible the sheer inhuman otherness of matter’. What else, on reflection, does science do?

Although both theology and philosophy suffer frequent accusations of irrelevance, on this point of brokenness and confusion in the relationship of humans to the world, current public debate on crucial science and technology indicate that both strands of thought are on the mark. Climate change, vaccination, artificial intelligence – these and other topics are marked in the quality of public and political discourse by anything but enlightenment values. Philsopher Jean-Pierre Depuy (2010), commenting on a Europe-wide project using narrative analysis of public debates around nanotechnology (Davies 2009), shows that they rather draw on both ancient and modern ‘narratives of despair’, creating an undertow to discussion of ‘troubled technologies’ that, if unrecognised, renders effective public consultation impossible. The research team labelled the narratives:

(1) Be careful what you wish for – the narrative of Desire,

(2) Pandora’s Box – the narrative of Evil and Hope,

(3) Messing with Nature – the narrative of the Sacred,

(4) Kept in the Dark – the narrative of Alienation,

(5) The rich get richer and the poor get poorer – the narrative of Exploitation.

These dark and alienated stories turn up again and again below the surface of public framings of science, yet driving opinion and policy. The continuously complex case of genetically modified organisms is another example (McLeish 2015). None of these underlying and framing stories draws on the theological resources within the history of science itself, but all do illustrate the absurd, the alienation and the irreconcilable of post-modern thinking.

Small wonder, perhaps, that Bruno Latour (Latour 2008) writing on environmentalism, revisits the narrative of Pandora’s Box, showing that the modernist hope of controlling nature through technology is dashed on the rocks of the same increasingly deep and problematic entangling with the world that prevents our withdrawal from it. But Latour then makes a surprising move: he calls for a re-examination of the connection between mastery, technology and theologyas a route out of the environmental impasse.

 

Practicalities and Practice

What forms would an answer to Latour’s call take? One is simply the strong yet gentle repeating of truth to power that a confessional voice for science, and evidence-based thinking, can have when it is resting on deep foundations of a theology that understands science as gift rather than threat. One reason that Katherine Hayhoe, the Texan climate scientist, deploys such a powerful advocacy in the United States for taking climate change seriously, is that she is able to work explicitly through a theological argument for environment care with those who resonate with that, but whose ideological commitments are impervious to secular voices.

There are more grassroots-level examples that demonstrate how religious communities can support a healthy lay engagement with science. Local movements can dissolve some of the alienation and fear that characterises science for many people. A group of local churches in Leeds, UK, recently decided to hold a community science festival that encouraged people to share their own, and their families’ stories, together with the objects that went with them (from an ancient telescope to a circuit board from an early colour TV set constructed by a resident’s grandfather). A diverse movement under the general title of ‘scientists in congregations’ in both the US and the UK has discovered a natural empathy for science as a creative gift, rather than a threat to belief, within local churches (see examples). At national level the last five years has seen a remarkable project engaging senior church leaders in the UK with current scientific issues and their research leaders. In a country with an established church it is essential that its voices in the national political process are scientifically informed and connected. Workshop participants, including scientists with no religious background or practice, have found the combination of science, theology and community leadership represented in their mix to be uniquely powerful in resourcing discussions of ethical ways forward, in issues from fracking to artificial intelligence.

A relational narrative for science that speaks to the need to reconcile the human with the material, and that draws on ancient Wisdom, contributes to the construction of new pathways to a healthier public discourse, and an educational interdisciplinary project that is faithful to the story of human engagement with the apparently chaotic, inhuman materiality of nature, yet one whose future must be negotiated alongside our own. Without new thinking on ‘science and religion’ we risk forfeiting an essential source for wisdom today.

This essay was first published on the Aeon public philosophy website

References

Arendt, Hannah (1958) The Human Condition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 314

Bacon, Francis (1887) Works, edited by J. Spedding, R. L. Ellis, and D. D. Heath. Volume III

Brown, W. H, (2010) The Seven Pillars of Creation, Oxford: OUP

Begbie, Jeremy (2000) Theology, Music and Time, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Cavendish, Margaret (1668) Observations upon Experimental Philosophy(Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy) (E. O’Neill, Ed.) (2001). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Clines, David (2014) World Bible Commentaries: Job Thomas Nelson pubs., Nelson, Vol. 3.

Cunningham, Jack & Mark Hocknull Eds. (2016), ‘Grosseteste and the pursuit of Religious and Scientific Learning in the Middle Ages’, New York: Springer

Davies, Sarah, Phil Macnaghten and Matthew Kearnes (eds.) (2009), Reconfiguring Responsibility: Deepening Debate on Nanotechnology, Durham University, chapter 12

Dupuy, Jean-Pierre, (2010) The Narratology of Lay Ethics, Nanoethics 4153-170

Harrison, Peter (2015) The Territories of Science and Religion, University of Chicago Press

Kant, Immanuel (1952) [1790], Critique of Judgement, trans. J. C. Meredith. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 11

Latour, Bruno (2008)“It’s development, stupid !” or: How to Modernize Modernization, in Postenvironmentalism. Jim Procter ed.,MIT Press

McGrath, Alister (2019) The Territories of Human Reason.Oxford: OUP

McLeish, Tom (2014) Faith and Wisdom in Science.Oxford: OUP

McLeish, T.C.B. (2015). ‘The search for affirming narratives for the future governance of technology: reflections from a science-theology perspective on GMFuturos’, in Governing Agricultural Sustainability, Eds. P. Macnaghten and S. Carro-Ripalda Routledge, Oxon

Neimann, Susan (2016),The Rationality of the World: A Philosophical Reading of the Book of Job, ABC net, https://www.abc.net.au/religion/philosophical-reading-of-the-book-of-job/11054038

Numbers, R. L. (Ed.) (2009) Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and ReligionCambridge: Harvard University Press

Parsons, Keith (ed.) (2003). The Science Wars: Debating Scientific Knowledge and Technology, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY USA

Southern, R.W.  (1992) Robert Grosseteste; the growth of an English mind in medieval Europe, Oxford: Clarendon Press

Torrance, A. B. and McCall, T.H., Knowing Creation, Grand Rapids: Zondervan (2018)

Snow, C. P. (1959 [1998]) The Two Cultures, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Steiner, George (1989) Real Presences, London: Faber and Faber

Ungureanu, James (2019), Science, Religion, and the Protestant Tradition: Retracing the Origins of Conflict (Pittsburg UP, 2019)

Wolterstorff, Nicholas (1997) Art in Action; Toward a Christian Aesthetic, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm, B. Eerdmans

 

Notes

[1]With gratitude to Stephen Shapin for inventing this important genre of opening lines.

[2]We will not be considering the second of these in the current chapter, but it encompasses the anthropology and neuroscience of religion, for two examples

[3]We take quotations of the text from the new translation and commentary by Clines (2014)

[4]Robert Grosseteste Commentary on the Posterior Analytics, quoted in R.W. Southern (1992) Robert Grosseteste; the growth of an English mind in medieval Europe, Oxford: Clarendon Press p167

In Praise of Natural Philosophy

FaWis_450

The title of chapter 2 of Faith and Wisdom in Science‘What’s in a Name? Stories of Natural Philosophy, Modern and Ancient’, introduces a discussion of the name-change that the study of nature underwent in the early 19th century.  Here’s a short extract:

‘Scientists’ were not always so called; we know, unusually, that the word was coined around 1830 and probably by William Whewell of Cambridge, England. Before then if any collective expression were used for those who made it their business to examine the heavens, explore the chemical properties of gases or the distribution of different rocks and the varieties of flora and fauna on the Earth, that expression would be “Natural Philosopher”.  The etymology could not be more different: the phrase replaces the Latin scio with the two Greek  words, Philio and Sophia, for “love” and “wisdom”. What happens, we ask ourselves, to our image of science if we replace in our minds its word-label, “I know” with “I love wisdom to do with natural things”?  Instead of a triumphal knowledge-claim we have a rather humbler search, together with more than a hint of delight.  We also have as a goal something deeper than pure knowledge, in the wisdomthat surrounds and supports it.  The idea of wisdom draws on a long history of Greek and Hebrew ideas in which Sophia has been personified to an extent that Scienta never could be – ancient writers could imagine talking to someone called “Wisdom”, but not someone called “Knowledge”! Finally, at the heart of “Natural Philosophy” there is the word for love.  Not nowadays an idea that readily claims association with science, it belonged there once.  I have often seen a smile and an “I wonder …” expression appear on the faces of people who a moment before have claimed to find no interest in the cold, logical inhuman process they imagine science to be, when they begin to think of the new directions in which “love of wisdom of natural things” might take them. 

Little did I suspect when I wrote those words that just a few years later the University of York would appoint me to the first new chair of Natural Philosophy in the UK since Whewell invented the new name ‘scientist’ to cover the increasingly fragmented academic world of the disciplines of physics, chemistry, geology, biology, astronomy, …. It’s an exciting challenge to explore what a natural philosophy for today might look like.

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The historic Grossmünster church next to the Theology Faculty in Zürich

The challenge to say something about that also came sooner than expected. This week I was invited to give one of the plenary talks at a conference held in the Theology Faculty at the University of Zürich Science and Theology – Friend or Foe? Organiser Andreas Losch asked me to speak on the title Our Common Cosmos: A Natural Philosophical Approach across Disciplines. The great advantage and delight was to speak directly after University of Queensland history of science scholar Peter Harrison, who has pointed out from a historian’s point of view just how more connected, contemplative, theologically-founded and holistic was Natural Philosophy rather than the Science we know today. It was a natural segue to ask ‘What would a Natural Philosophy look like today had it evolved continuously without the fragmentation and separation that becoming ‘science’ signified, and how might we return there now?’.

History

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The charming quad of the Zurich Theology Faculty

We need to look at a little history. Although the ingredients for ‘natural philosophy’ were known and used in the ancient world, and the genre of natural philosophical works in the Latin west under the title of De Rerum Natura enjoyed a regular stream of re-edition from Lucretius and Pliny to Isidore and Bead into the early medieval period, its medieval flourishing was found within the quadriviumof the high medieval schools. For a high medieval account of the purpose of these mathematical disciplines of astronomy, geometry, arithmetic and music we might turn to a classic introduction to the seven liberal arts by English polymath Robert Grosseteste in the early 13thcentury:

 

Now, there are seven arts that purge human works of error and lead them to perfection. These are the only parts of philosophy that are given the name ‘art’, because it is their effect alone to lead human operations towards perfection through correction.

Two things to note here: firstly that it is the unity of the disciplines that work together, including both the ‘humanities’ disciplines of the trivium as well as the more ‘scientific’ quadrivium; secondly that the practice of the disciplines is to a purpose, embedded within human teleological history – namely the purging of error and leading to perfection of human works. That these works include understanding itself emerges in contemporary passages that describe the ‘scala’ – the ladder of restitution from a dimmed and confused knowledge of the universe. Here is Grosseteste again in his commentary on Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics:

“Since sense perception, the weakest of all human powers, apprehending only corruptible individual things, survives, imagination stands, memory stands, and finally understanding, which is the noblest of human powers capable of apprehending the incorruptible, universal, first essences, stands!”

The explicit use of the term ‘natural philosophy’, far from fading with early modern science, actually reached its zenith then. The first chair accorded that name was established at Padua for Jacopo Zabarella in 1577, and we should not forget that the full title of Newton’s most celebrated and transformational work (in 1687) was Philosophia Naturalis Principia Mathematica.

The resonances of the name acquire slightly different referents in the 18thand 19thcenturies: within the German speaking world the Naturphilosophieof Goethe, Hegel and Schelling point to a more immersive, embedded and organic grasp of nature than the empirical and analytic tradition of Newton, so that by the time that William Whewell coined the term ‘scientist’ in 1834 it was in the face not only of a fragmentation of disciplines we have already noted, but also with a loss of congruity of the older term itself. Notwithstanding, it is striking that neither Maxwell nor Faraday would agree to be classed as ‘scientists’, insisting on ‘natural philosopher’ and as late as 1876, Kelvin and Tait published their Treatise on Natural Philosophy.

 

The Divorce of Poetry and Science

But at the great turning point and departure in the early 19th century there seem to have been other possible futures presented, and other visionaries than Whewell who saw a road into the future in which the resonances of ‘natural philosophy’ would prevail over those of ‘science’. One such was English poet William Wordsworth, who wrote an important and extended piece on the future possible relationship of science and poetry in the third edition of his Lyrical Ballads. Excerpting here:

Poetry is the first and last of all knowledge—it is as immortal as the heart of man. If the labours of Men of science should ever create any material revolution, direct or indirect, in our condition, and in the impressions which we habitually receive, the Poet will sleep then no more than at present; he will be ready to follow the steps of the Man of science, not only in those general indirect effects, but he will be at his side, carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of the science itself. The remotest discoveries of the Chemist, the Botanist, or Mineralogist, will be as proper objects of the Poet’s art as any upon which it can be employed, if the time should ever come when these things shall be familiar to us, and the relations under which they are contemplated by the followers of these respective sciences shall be manifestly and palpably material to us as enjoying and suffering beings.

We may well believe that the mind the wrote the contemplative lines on nature from the bank above Tintern Abbey could also see a future in which poetry would respond to and re-echo the new impressions and glories of science. Yet he knows that this is conditional – there is a tendency of the poetic response of science to remain a private one, while all true poetry must communicate, must travel. For Wordsworth the choice between ‘science’ and ‘natural philosophy’, in so far as the first assumes a form that is private and knowledge-based and the second shared, contemplative and poetic, turns on communication. It depends on the way science and writing work together. I don’t know if the British Nobel laureate and consummate science writer Sir Peter Medawar knew this passage from Wordsworth (though I strongly suspect that he did) but he makes the same point in his Pluto’s Republic:

No one questions the inspirational character of musical or poetic invention because the delight and exaltation that go with it somehow communicate themselves to others. Something travels – we’re carried away. But science is not an art form in this sense – scientific discovery is a private event, and the delight that accompanies it, or the despair of finding it illusory, does not travel.

There is a second critique of science at work in the Romantic poets, one that has its origin in the horrified reaction, a century before, of William Blake to what he perceived as the desiccated reason of the enlightenment, but which finds most familiar voice in John Keats. Keats writes of science (ironically ‘philosophy’ here) in his long poem Lamia:

Do not all charms fly

At the mere touch of cold philosophy?

There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:

We know her woof, her texture; she is given

In the dull catalogue of common things.

Philosophy will clip an angel’s wings,

Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,

Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine

Unweave a rainbow.

Keats does not inveigh against science because of its lack of communication or shared engagement, but for what he perceives it does to our idea of the world. It cuts into pieces, excises wonder, banishes agency, chills perception, outlaws all that charms and mystifies. The Romantic polarisation that unleased the centrifugal flight of the sciences and the humanities from each other also divorced science from poetry. We even find it difficult to imagine why someone like Wordsworth could have perceived science and poetry as natural creative partners.

Yet the entanglement of imaginative writing and science had already enjoyed a long and intense relationship by the time they reached the fork in the road that I have been suggested presented itself to Wordsworth. Among the founding members of the Royal Society, for example, the first of the national academies for the sciences, Robert Boyle was responsible for the new styles and forms of writing that would propel the early modern scientific enterprise. And as Notre Dame scholar Stephen Fallon has recently pointed out, the poetic, theological and philosophical resonances between contemporaries Isaac Newton and poet John Milton, run too deep and complex to be coincidental. Into the later 19th century the ‘Transcendentalists’, Americans Emerson and Thoreau and German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, perhaps capture the poetic spirit of a natural philosophy that used a different form of language, more accessible, more open to linguistic forms of creativity and answered to Wordsworth desire that science be an open book to all. Here is Ralph Waldo Emerson on the imagination:

Science does not know its debt to imagination. Goethe did not believe that a great naturalist could exist without this faculty. He was himself conscious of its help, which made him a prophet among the doctors. From this vision he gave brave hints to the zoologist, the botanist, and the optician. When the soul of the poet has come to the ripeness of thought, it detaches from itself and sends away from it its poems or songs, a fearless, sleepless, deathless progeny which is not exposed to the accidents of the wary kingdom of time.

In the end, cultural evolution took the path, or rather set of paths, that I think we can signpost under ‘science’ rather than ‘natural philosophy’. The poetic connection is lost, the task becomes functionally narrowed into epistemology, the community of scientists becomes a sort of modern priesthood, what they do becomes lost to ‘common contemplation’, and perhaps above all, the ancient tributary of wisdom, of Sophia  or the Hebrew hochma, is forgotten.

The Lost Science-Theology of Wisdom

If a reframed natural philosophy for our times is to be reconstituted, not only must we return to the poetic alternative of the early Romantic period, but to the theological foundation beneath it, which is the wisdom nature poetry of Hebrew tradition (there are so many dualities at play here I am tempted to suggest that the choice of science over natural philosophy was set, not so much by the Romantic followers of Keats and the scientific disciples of Whewell, but by the medieval scholars who identified their scientific sources in the ancient Hellenistic world of Aristotle to the exclusion of the Biblical nature tradition – but that is for another time).

Berlin neo-Kantian Philosopher Susan Neiman has claimed that western philosophy ought to acknowledge that it draws from two ancient sources. One is Plato, but for Neiman (and for me!) the other is simply the Book of Job.

The Book of Job, of all ancient literature, succeeds in articulating in timeless and plangent depth the difference between what human beings consider the world ought to be, and how they find it. Its response, in poetic dialogue of beautifully structured form, but of brutally honest content, has also shocked and offended many of its readers. One of its enduring puzzles is that, when God finally answers long-suffering yet righteous Job’s complaints ‘from the whirlwind’, his Answer seems to by-pass the moral dimensions of Job’s predicament, directing him instead with over 160 questions about the natural world:

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

The Lord Answering job out of the Whirlwind by William Blake

Have you entered the storehouses of the snow?

Or have you seen the arsenals of the hail,

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

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

Now is not the place to repeat the wisdom-theology within Job that urges a questioning search for understanding, and a healed relationship between humans and the natural world. A blogpost that expands on it (but not to the extent of chapter 6 of Faith and Wisdom in Science) is here.  But a ‘Theology of Science’ that responds to this perspective through a New Testament lens can be summarised:

Science is the

  • participative,
  • relational,
  • co-creative

work within the Kingdom of God of healing the fallen relationship of humans with nature.

Strangely, the answers to Wordsworth’s, Humboldt’s and Emerson’s and  perhaps Maxwell’s and Faraday’s requirements for an evolution of natural philosophy, rather than a turning away into ‘science’, were offered many centuries before in a theological context. The invitation to Job and his descendants is contemplative, universal, shared, deeply creative itself.

Towards a New Natural Philosophy

To finish with, let us look forward rather than backward, using these theological, poetic and historical resources  to delineate an alternative history in which natural philosophy assumes a 21stcentury form. This is not, however, a necessary fiction – the object is also to find a pathway back from knowledge alone to the engagement with nature that is also driven by love and wisdom.

The two leading critiques of science mounted by the Romantic poets, and echoed by late modern commentators as well, are linked. A science that appears to fragment and tear apart or compartmentalise the object has the same effect on its subjects. A holistic science, or natural philosophy, is also a communal one. Wisdom seeks to unite not divide and to build communicative bridges not pull them up.  Natural philosophy therefore needs to develop a polyvalency and inclusivity that even the best current science communication fails to do.

To give an example of what I mean I’d like to quote from a profound remark from the author Andrea Wulf, who won a science literature prize from the Royal Society for her biography of Alexander von Humboldt, subtitled The Invention of Nature. I had the opportunity to speak with her at the award ceremony at the Royal Society in London, where she spoke of the discouragement she had experienced at school in regard to science. Then she said something that made a great impression on me:

Science is a palace with many doors, but at school we only show children one of them. Not all of us can enter through that door – I was one that could not. But I found another door into the palace through researching and writing about the life of Alexander von Humboldt. We need to find paths to other doors for other people.

There are movements of inclusivity – citizen science, the movement to connect schools with research programmes, the new wave of science writing such as Wulf herself, and a personal approach to scientific biography in broadcasting such as Jim Al-Khalili’s Life Scientificon the BBC. But these still do not touch those for whom the mention of science is still a painful one that speaks unnecessarily of personal inability and failure.

Developing a natural philosophy that shares with art and music the notion of a contemplative good for the non-expert, a concept of critical participation of active audience, is a second aspect of a reformed natural philosophy that needs to find new life. Robert Boyle was probably the best known exponent of this ‘Occasional Meditation’ in Britain. It did not outlast the 17thcentury (unless you count the vestiges in amateur astronomy and ornithology – as well you might), but there are aspects of this permissive lay science at work at present as well.

Third is the essential role of creativity – hidden by the label ‘science’.  One of the saddest personal and repeated experiences I have when visiting schools is to hear from young people that the reason that they have given up on any science is because they saw no room for their own imagination of creativity were they to continue it. An education that purports to include science yet restricts itself to the imparting of a body of fact is no better than an art course that looks at biographies of artists but never allows brush to contact paper. I have spent the last three years researching a new book The Poetry and Music of Science, that takes as its raw material conversations with scientists, mathematicians, artists, composers, poets and novelists, and asks them to talk through the narratives of their most innovative and pleasing projects.  The process of creation is more common to discuss in the artistic than in the scientific world, but when the scientists lower their voices and tell the stories of vision, desire, repeated failure, then the apparent gift of an idea, a new imagined conception of what nature must be like – then the narrative structures of science and art map onto each other with uncanny faithfulness. Much much more needs to be said here, and nuanced into visual, textual and abstract forms of imagination, the role of non-conscious thought, and in particular the entanglement of affective, emotional and cognitive thought in all creative process. Those avenues also belong to a natural philosophical approach to the material world.

Forth, is the poetic structure of science itself, and the comprehension that functional and methodological as well as objective and linguistic ties exist between science and poetry. To take first the structural aspect, if poetry is the creative constraint of imagination by form, then one might ask what could call on a greater force of imagination than the re-imagination of nature itself, and what might constitute a greater constraint than nature as it is observed?

Finally, if it is perhaps hard for the church to recover from a two centuries of being indoctrinated with the narrative that science is a threat to faith and to the community of believers, then perhaps a reformed natural philosophy might more easily be accepted under the correctly perceived heading of gift. For the truth is that science needs the church far more than the other way around. One consequence of the divorce of science from the humanities, its cult of expertise and its hegemony of epistemology is, paradoxically, its newly-suffered optionality. Take the temperature of public and political debates on tense scientific topics, be the subject genetic medicine or global climate change, and you will measure high readings in both the dissemination of untruth, and the propagation of fear. If there are two core values of at least the Christian tradition that are needed now as much as at any other time, they are those of truth and the removal of fear. Yet there is still very little informed public service of debate by the church (a glowing exception is the papal encyclical Laudato Si, but even this has limited reach at local level). A church does not have to come down on one side or other of a scientific or technological debate in order to make a transformational illumination of its process. Let us make sure that we are not the servant in Matthew 25 who buried the talent of science in the ground because he was afraid, when it was meant to be put to use in building the master’s kingdom.

The love of wisdom to do with nature will surely be more powerful to do this than a mere system of knowledge.

Why we have to think differently about science and religion

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

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

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

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

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

image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lord Answering job out of the Whirlwind by William Blake

Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the Earth? …

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

Can you bind the beautiful Pleiades?

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

File 20180124 107971 10vxagu.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
God’s scientific lesson for Job.
William Blake

Tom McLeish, Durham University

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

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

Ibn Sina (Avicenna).
Wikimedia Commons

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

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




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


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

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

Francis Bacon.
Wikimedia Commons

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

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

Biblical science

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

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

So God asks Job:

Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea?…
Where is the way to the abode of light?…
From whose womb comes the ice?…
Do you know the laws of the heavens?
And can you apply them to the earth?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Eagle Dark matter

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

Here is the short version:

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

but

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

because

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

and

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

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

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

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

BGc483iCMAAZq21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Lord Answering job out of the Whirlwind by William Blake

Is the Lord’s Answer to Job a Slap-Down or an Invitation?

screen-shot-2016-01-22-at-8-22-45-amIn public and private presentations of Faith and Wisdom in Science, discussions of the central Book of Job often arise.  In particular, in regard to the interpretation of the ‘Lord’s Answer’ in chapters 38-42, I have been encouraged to give a little more.  To recall, I find this extraordinary ancient nature-poem of questions (Were you there when I laid the foundations of the Earth? … Do you know the way to the abode of light … Can you count the clouds …) by no means a divine ‘put-down’, as it is sometimes interpreted, but rather an invitation to take the Creator’s perspective, and to engage with the natural world.

There are a couple  preliminary ‘ground-clearing’ operations to do. It would be wrong to suggest that YHWH is inviting Job to ‘do science’ in the modern sense. My thesis is that ‘science is the name of the current chapter in a book that humankind has been writing since its origin’. So the earlier ‘chapters’ are not ‘science’ in the modern sense but are in continuity with it. The point is that the passage is inviting a cognitive questioning of the natural world, a perspective of responsibility and care rather than abdication and complaint – it is about relationship above all. Our relationship with the natural world underlies what ‘science’, which is more a set of tools to achieve it, lies deeper and is foundational to science, not science itself. Job is at the headwaters of that narrative – that is the claim.

Job Blake

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

The other essential preliminary is the implied claim about what YHWH is notdoing.  What you term the ‘standard’ interpretation of Job 38-42 (though when you actually work through the commentaries it doesn’t look that way, especially among the more scholarly of them) is that the string of questions is meant as what we would term a ‘put-down’.  This is YHWH speaking from an elevated position of authority down to the presumptuous Job, unleashing a volley of rapid-fire tests of his knowledge and understanding to the end that it is clear to Job that he has neither [1].  So part of the support for an invitational interpretation needs to be a critique of this one.

(1) The introductory trope (v3) ‘Gird up your loins like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me’. This is of course as close an answer to your original question as you could want – it is of course, and quite explicitly, an ‘invitation’.  Specifically it is an invitation to (metaphorical) combat between two male (the verse is gendered) contenders. Quite the opposite of denigration, the invocation of this standard invitation to combat [2] is a mark of respect as an opponent, so Hartley, ‘Neither [Job’s] affliction nor his inflamed rhetoric has diminished his intrinsic worth as a human being’ [3].  Job scholar David Clines imputes a desire to win to YHWH, rather than to browbeat at this point [4].  This may ‘locally’ be the point, but as Stump points out in her magisterial study of Biblical wilderness experience and theodicies, the overarching aim of YHWH is to love – understanding that love must at times be severe, permissive of a free response, and teleologically restorative [5].

(2) The form of the Answer as questions. The pejorative use of questions, common (perhaps sadly) in our own society, is by no means universal.  In particular the question-form is not used this way in ancient Hebrew, but predominantly as a stimulus to reflection, thought and learning.  It is the central educational instrument.  The preponderance of questions throughout Biblical literature is itself significant.  The Jewish love affair with the questioning mind persists to this day.  It is enshrined in the Seder liturgy of course, in the role of the children present whose task it is to ask the important questions. The cultural love of the question carries down to to our own day; it is reflected in the story told by Jewish physicist Isidore Rabi, whose mother would ask him every day on coming home from school, ‘Did you ask any good questions today?’.  So the questions in The Lord’s Answer ought first to be interpreted through this, thought-provoking lens, not that of point- scoring (or several other possible interpretations such as a request for information, a rhetorical pathway to a trap and so on). A closely lasted set of divine questions, also referring to natural creation, as noted by Habel [6] is found in Second Isaiah (e.g. 40:12-15, 45:18-22) where their point is to generate reflection in the recipient to the end that they conceive of God’s power to act.  Westermann also refers to these ‘trial speeches of Second Isaiah where YHWH and the gods of the surrounding nations confront each other in a legal process, the purpose of which is to decide who is truly God.’ [7]  Essential to this background is that when YHWH defends himself that is not an end in itself, but rather a preliminary that then allows humans to follow the true God into their true task (in the case of Second Isaiah to take up the role of ‘The Servant’ in renewing the relationship with God’s People (Ch 49). A New Testament echo is Jesus invitation to John’s disciples to interpret what they see – he too answers a question with a question (Matt 11:2-10).  So the questions in Job, which fall into this pattern of ‘education’ (literally ‘leading out’ of course) to a purpose is the appropriate expectation – the readers task is to identify what it being learned and to what purpose.

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When all the angels sang for joy … Job Ch. 38

(3) The structure and quantity of questions, and the context of Job’s earlier questions. There are approaching 170 of them.  It would take 2 or 3 only to establish that YHWH possessed knowledge and Job ignorance. The extensive litany tells us from a structural point of view that more is going on here. I have detailed the categories, realms of nature, and detailed referential links to the nature metaphors invoked in the earlier cycles of speeches of the book before [8] so won’t go into unnecessary detail here. However, we must recall that these are productive, leading questions –  sort that suggest investigations in such of answers. They also cover the catalogue of nature’s wild side, from the depths of the oceans to the clustering of the stars. They touch on Job’s partial, but incomplete knowledge.  Within the framework established in (2) above of education to a purpose, it is more than suggestive that that purpose has to do with nature itself. The vital point here is that YHWH’s questions do tackle head-on the actual substance of Job’s complaint.  It bears repeating – Job’s accusation is not primarily that he is suffering unjustly but that this is just part of a much wider problem of a cosmos out of control.  It is the aleatory strike of the lightning bolt (36:32), the earthquake (9:5), disease (10:9) and the flood (6:15) that constitutes the foundation of his case against YHWH.  This is why it is appropriate for the Answer to address the free reign of natural processes that give rise to the rich complexity that the magnificent survey of Job 38-42 encompasses.

(4) The manner of YHWH’s appearing – of the whirlwind, is paradoxically what Job simultaneously most desires and most fears. He has already anticipated that an epiphany would crush him (9:34), yet repeatedly requested it (13:15). When it happens, it is far from crushing- Job is invited to stand up and ‘gird his loins’ (see 1 above). Furthermore the epiphany is more than suggestive of the canonical appearance to Moses on Sinai. The cover of cloud is replaced by the cover of a whirlwind, the spoken commandments by a speech of a different kind, but the context of covenant is very suggestive.

(5) The context of the Hymn to Wisdom in Job 28. The connection between YHWH’s answer and the Hymn to Wisdom is vital, for the ‘Answer’ is as much an answer to the great question there – Where can Wisdom be found? – as it is to Job’s demands for vindication and explanation. Again I have written about Job 28 in detail elsewhere [8] but the salient point is that the metaphor of the miner in Job 28 points out the special nature of humans that set us apart from other animals is that we are able to see into the structure of nature deeper than they, and by our own art. The shocking final passage of the Hymn to Wisdom parallels this as the characteristic function of God’s own wisdom. It is a call to follow the Creator into a deeper knowledge of creation. Job 38 takes the same journey to and through the depths as Job 28 – it is a personal enactment of the invitation there.  This is an invitation to take God’s perspective on nature.  That is explicit in Job 28 and a natural interpretation of Job 38, not only because of the context of the search for Wisdom of the whole book, but because that is precisely what Job needs to do.  For another stark example of being asked to take God’s perspective, see the close parallel of Jonah, where God’s lessons to Jonah are also worked through a phenomenon of nature (a sun-wilted bush) and where the key question is left hanging.  Alternatively and movingly see the entire book of Hosea, where the prophet is invited into YHWH’s emotional perspective of rejected love.

(6) The effect upon Job. Were the speeches meant as a crushing put-down (note I do not say that they are not corrective) then Job himself would have been crushed by them. Instead, his experience turns out to be palliative, and restorative – he does quieten down in terms of his complains, but he rises with a new confidence. Here the reading of 42: 6 is important and there has been considerable philological change of direction recently on the ambiguous Hebrew here (see both Habel and Clines on this verse in [4] and [6]).  The problem with translating nhm as ‘repent’ is that with the preposition used in this verse it is better rendered with the sense of changing one’s mind about something – so ‘repent of my dust and ashes’ is better than ‘repent in dust and ashes’.  Similarly the verb m’s which has been translated ‘despise’ is now thought much more likely to adopt here its legal connotations and mean ‘retract’ (‘my case’).  So Job is not crushed – he simply retracts his case and moves on: I withdraw my case and leave my dust and ashes behind me. There is an interesting aspect to the question-form of the Answer and Job’s restoration as well.  As Goldingay puts it’ ‘Much of the time what we need (not what we think we need) is the capacity to live with the questions. At one level this is what God wants for Job.’[8]

(7) The eschatological context. Comparisons with Isaiah have already been noted, but are not essential to situate the prophetic, wisdom-poem of Job within the arc of theological history of Judaism (and its inheritor).  Stories around individual characters (Moses, Samson, David, Elijah, Jonah, Job, Hosea, …) take place within a much larger and longer arc of creation, rebellion, election, redemption, restoration, new-creation.  They are themes, within movements within a symphony, and as such give to and receive from their narrative context extra meaning and depth.  In particular they give and receive along the communication channels of purpose.  The purpose of humans, called and in-breathed with the ruach and pneuma of YHWH’s own spirit, and created in his image, is to participate in the continuity of creation’s story. Job is future-directed, not only for its protagonist, but for its readers as well.

[1] D. Robertson, The book of Job: a literary study. Soundings 1973, 56, 446–68.

[2] See D.J.A Clines, ‘Loin-girding and other male activities in the Book of Job’ www.shef.ac.uk/bibs/DJACcurres/Loingirding.html

[3] J.E. Hartley in The Book of Job, Ed. W.A.M. Beuken BETL 114

[4] D.J.A. Clines (2011) World Biblical Commentary on Job, Nashville: Thos. Nelson, p.1097

[5] E. Stump (2012), Wandering in Darkness, Oxford: OUP

[6] N.C. Habel (1985) The Book of Job, London: SCM Press

[7] C. Westermann Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library, London: SCM Press 1969

[7] T.C.B. McLeish (2014) Faith and Wisdom in Science Oxford: OUP, Ch. 5

[8] J. Goldingay (2013) Job for Everyone, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press p.196

More on Job – and a breakfast discussion in Ann Arbor

UmichIt 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.

Theatre, Science, the Book of Job – and Faith in the Questions

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FaWis_450A play based on connections between the Book of Job and science!

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.

Faith-In-The-Questions-poster-423x600A 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.

foi-logoThe 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.

 

 

‘Let There Be Science’- Publication Day!

lettherebescienceHere 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:kepler

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:

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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:

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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!

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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!).

Better still – do come along to Waterstones York (tell them you are coming) at 7pm on Tues February 21st to here Richard Staples of BBC Radio York talk with me and Dave about the book – and have a glass or what have you as well!