New Book: ‘Let There Be Science’

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

Let There Be Science!

Why God loves Science and why Science needs God

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

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

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

Dr Marek Kukula, Public Astronomer, Royal Observatory Greenwich

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

The Ordered Universe of UBC, Vancouver

Here is a blogpost I wrote for the Ordered Universe page, from the last event at UBC – St John’s College, on the Medieval Science of 13th century polymath Robert Grosseteste, who envisioned a Big-Bang genesis for the cosmos, and a three-dimensional theory of colour!

Ordered Universe

Friday last saw the Ordered Universe project hosted at a very civilised Dinner-and-Lecture evening at St. Johns College, University of British Columbia, in Vancouver. medbigbangvancouver

Tom McLeish, Co-investigator of the project had been in the Vancouver area all week on a lecture tour organised by the Canadian Science and Christian Affiliation (CSCA). After four events based around his book Faith and Wisdom in Science, as well as several science seminars (in Simon Fraser University and UBC itself), this last event, as all others organised by long-suffering and ever-kind host Gordon Carkner, focussed in on the unique collaboration of humanities scholars and scientists digging deeply together into the natural philosophy of Robert Grosseteste.

st-johnsvancouver St John’s Graduate College, UBC

A Medieval Big-Bang Theory: An Interdisciplinary Tale, began with a personal story about Tom’s first encounter with Grosseteste, from Jim Ginther’s regular HPS seminars at Leeds in the 1990s, then his astonished reading of the treatise on…

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Last of Five Days of Genius in Rethinking Purpose of Science

Here is a shared Blog from my wonderful and scholarly host in the Vancouver area Universities and Colleges, Gordon Carkner. He identified the Faith and Wisdom in Science story as one that the community in British Columbia might be interested in engaging with, and invited me, organising the entire complex week of lecturer, seminars, academic visits and discussions. I am still reeling from the experience of meeting so many lovely and deeply thoughtful people. This is what he writes towards the end of the week.

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Tom McLeish is an original and creative thinker, a broadly informed intellect and a super nice and approachable guy. A deeply curious person, he is offering a game-changing perspective on contemporary debates of science and religion, science and the humanities. He restores our sense of awe and wonder at our place in the cosmos and also our responsibility for it. Professor McLeish represents science while drawing on insights from a wide variety of disciplines (history, medieval studies, poetics, sociology, art, a variety of sciences) to weave his tapestry and to give us fresh eyes of delight. He has spoken at SFU, downtown Vancouver, Regent College and UBC GFCF, Trinity Western University, plus a lunchtime discussion on Chaos and Creativity. His lectures just keep getting better and richer each time, and the question engagement extends the insights and delicately increases the nuance. His book Faith and Wisdom in Science is a…

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Faith and Wisdom in Science in Vancouver – and Harvard

vancouverThis week I am enjoying my first ever visit to Vancouver to give a series of lectures and discussions on Faith and Wisdom in Science and the ideas and actions that flow from thinking through a Christian Theology of Science.  There are a few science lectures thrown in (in biophysics of protein dynamics – at Simon Fraser University, and the molecular rheology of polymer melts in processing – at UBC), and a final Friday night at St John’s (Graduate) College, UBC, on Medieval Science and the Ordered Universe Project.  Last night saw a fruitful and friendly welcome at Regent College.

The question sessions following the science/theology talks so far have been fascinating

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Faith and Wisdom in Science (OUP 2014)

and inspiring (the questions that is – I can’t speak for the answers). The central section of the presentations, focussing on drawing resource from Biblical wisdom literature, draws on the close reading of the Book of Job that forms the central chapter of Faith and Wisdom.  So one of the questioners wanted to know about Jesus’ sayings about nature in the gospels, and their significance.  As in the cycles of speeches between Job and his comforters, way before the probing questions of the Lord’s Answer in chapter 38, the gospels, too, are full of nature metaphor and action.  The calming of the waves, the wind-image of the Spirit, the liking of the ‘signs of the times’ to the signs that the coming of the Kingdom is close – all these speak of a relationship with the natural world that reflects the Godly Wisdom of a deep seeing, an inner understanding, and an investment of significance into the material, natural world.  More thinking required here!

Another question searched the dilemma facing the church in sharing both the positive narrative for science and its consequences for an ethical, hopeful and fruitful managing of nature in future.  Given the explicit Creation-Fall-Election-Incarnation-Resurrection-Ministry of Reconciliation-New Creation story within which science and technology make sense as God’s gifts, how is all this worked through in a world that largely does not recognise that big story?  It reminded me of a wonderful question from an atheist sociologist at one of the first ever university-based discussions of the Faith and Wisdom in Science idea: ‘I wish I could share in your vision and hope, but as an atheist I can’t begin to share your assumptions: what can you give me?’

I think that the answer is not ‘nothing’ by any means.  Back to St. Paul and his brilliant summary of the work of the Church – the ‘ministry of reconciliation’ of 2 Corinthians 5.  To talk about our work being that of ‘healing broken relationships’ is something that everyone knows about and everyone wants.  To point to ways in which we can hope to reverse the mutual harm that we and our planet are inflicting on each other, by framing the challenge in those terms, and then by proceeding as one does in the healing of any broken relationship, is a practical way ahead that anyone can buy into.  Replacing ignorance with knowledge, fear with wisdom, and mutual harm with mutual flourishing – this is a framework for political and social care that has already generated practical outcomes, such as the Responsible Research and Innovation policy in the UK and Europe.

I hope to be able to say more about the work that new theologically-generated narratives can do in our managing of science and technology at a Harvard STS-Programme seminar next week (on the day of the US presidential election!), Narratives of Hope: Science, Theology and Environmental Public Policy rainbow.  But that is for next week. Today there is more at UBC with Investigating the Deep Structure of Modern Science: the Search for Wisdom.

I am extremely grateful to the Canadian Scientific and Christian affiliation for supporting the visit, and to my kind hosts and organisers for all their tremendous hard work.

NATURE features Christian Leaders and Scientists Project

Nature, the international general science journal, published an article this week about the Christian Leaders in an Age of Science project that I co-lead with Revd. Prof. David Wilkinson, Principal of St. John’s College Durham University. Written by our Project Manager, Revd. Dr. Kathryn Prichard, it’s pithy and personal approach has attracted a long and varied comment stream!

Kathryn tells it how it is from the title on:

kathrynReligion and science can have a true dialogue

She begins with a personal account of the sort of activity that senior church leaders (bishops and equivalent) get up to with the scientists at Durham University when we get them all together for a day:

Eagle Dark matterI work for the Archbishops’ Council in the Church of England, and this summer I did something that many people would think is impossible. I sat in a dark lecture theatre engrossed in a computationally generated 3D journey through the Universe. Virtual stars whizzed past and seemed narrowly to miss colliding with my head as we accelerated through galaxies and past exploding stars. I listened to cosmologists speak on research into dark matter, particle physics, the rate at which the growth of the Universe is accelerating and the possibi­lity of multi­verses. I asked questions and they responded.

Read the open-access article itself to find out more!

The comments have been very varied – from the predictable (the article itself anticipates them) vilifying Nature for dropping its standards, to nuanced and personal comments from scientists who are Christians, and have thought deeply about the relation between their faith and their science.  Those that see only negative tensions between religion and science might bear in mind a few sets of ‘data’:

(1) It is historically uncontroversial that religion, and Christianity in particular, served as a stimulus and support for science. Francis Bacon articulates the theological reasons for the rise of experimental science in the early modern era, to take just one key example.  A great collection of reading here is Galileo Goes to Jail – and other myths about science and religion (edited by Ron Numbers)
(2) The ‘conflict’ notion is, for the most part, a historically invented polemic myth from the late 19th century (see the ‘Draper-White’ thesis), constructed for other reasons (the new book Territories of Science and Religion by Peter Harrison is well worth a read for both these points)
(3) The extraordinary scientists throughout history who have found deep motivation from and connections with, their faith to do science, are testimony to the positive support for science at the personal level (Copernicus, Newton, Boyle, Maxwell, Faraday, Born, … to name a very few)
(4) Our project aims at catalysing the potential support for a healthy understanding of science and scientific thinking that the church can give at personal, local and national level, and which is natural for it to do. We’ve seen great examples of churches supporting science festivals, for example. We are working with senior leaders because they tend to come from humanities backgrounds and lack confidence (but not intelligence, learning or enthusiasm) in science. Their meetings with the scientists we arrange under science themes have been transformation for both, time after time.

Perhaps the most important clue to the ways in which a healthy religious life can support science at its core was given by the Nobel Laureate Isidor I. Rabi when once asked why he became a scientist:

”My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: ‘So? Did you learn anything today?’ But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. ‘Izzy,’ she would say, ‘did you ask a good question today?’ That difference – asking good questions -made me become a scientist!”

As it turns out, ‘Izzy”s mother was displaying the most faithful awareness of her Jewish tradition – for any close reader of the Bible (this ought to include Christians as well of course) is immediately struck by the importance all the writings urge of questions.  One of the tired  and uninformed canards in the science and religion conversation is that the latter cuts off questions in place of acceptance of dogma.  Nothing could be less accurate.  One of the oldest nature-wisdom poems we possess is to be found as ‘The Lord’s Answer’ in the Book of Job. It consists entirely of questions about the workings of the natural world, from the stars to the lightning and snow, to the wild animals and the trees.

The very greatest question, ‘What is Truth?’ appears at one of the most climactic moments of the whole Biblical narrative, in the tense and probing discourse between Jesus and Pilate before the crucifixion. There is no greater gift to those who would seek to know and to understand than a great question.

 

 

 

Take your Vicar to the Lab – and she can bring her Bishop too

The ‘Theology of Science’ developed in Faith and Wisdom in Science leads to a set of consequences for how science might find new resonances and recreation in the media, arts, education and the church (these are discussed in chapter 8 of the book – Mending our Ways, Sharing our Science and Figuring the Future). In particular, once the false mythology of a necessary conflict between science and the church is discarded in the face of actual history, practice and philosophy, and when it is replaced by an understanding of science as God’s gift, then all sorts of possibilities for a positive role for the church in science opens up once more.

labAn opportunity to experiment with ways that churches can support science and scientists is currently being provided by a large project based at St. John’s College, Durham University, UK.  Funded by the Templeton World Charity Foundation, Equipping Christian Leaders in an Age of Science has five strands, one of which invites churches of all denominations to submit proposals for projects, costing up to £10 000, under the umbrella title Scientists in Congregations.

The first eight projects have just been announced, as varied in geographical placement around the UK as they are in approach.  From a large cathedral-based project to mount spectacular science exhibits ‘from Dinosaurs to DNA’ in Ely, to café-style debates with scientists on the implications of their work around north Leeds, applicants have used their imagination.  A title that has caught the attention of the media such as Christian Today (and by no means just the Christian media) was Take your Vicar to the Lab.  ‘Why on earth would either you or they want to?’ was the question in the minds of many who heard about it.  It was thrown at me in a live interview on BBC Radio York this morning, and the subject of a rather perplexed article in Computer Weekly.

So why would a vicar (pastor, priest, etc. …) want to ‘visit a lab’? The great Christian thinkers of former ages would have no problem understanding (once they had had explained the concept of a ‘lab’).  Gregory of Nyssa, one of the formulators of the Christian creeds we know today, and the doctrine of the Trinity, writes of the way that our God-given minds evidence themselves by the way they think into to workings of nature.  The deduction of the existence of invisible air, and the cause of the phases of the moon, are just two examples given in his remarkable 4th century treatise On the Soul and the Resurrection.  The extraordinary English 13th century polymath, Robert Grosseteste, later Bishop of Lincoln, saw our re-thinking nature as part of a work of healing a relationship with the world dimmed by disobedience and Fall.  And this very thought can be found at the birth of early modern science in the writings of Frances Bacon.

Talking of Bishops, another strand of the Durham-based project held a conference of senior Christian

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Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience, Durham University

leaders this week (some of them did indeed sport the purple shirt) considering the science of earthquakes and floods, including the social science of managing their aftermaths.  Together with thinking together about evolution and the human experience of pain, this was theological thinking ‘on the wild side’. A visit to Durham University’s Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience created a productive forum for the church leaders and scientists to talk about the global and cultural pattern of risk, and how local faith communities might work better with international aid organisations.  Practical action, amid the answerless and shared experience of loss – that sounded like a faithful continuation of some of the Biblical wisdom we read and studied together from the Book of Job.

 

So Vicars, Bishops in the lab, yes, and in the earthquake zone, the epidemic and the flood plain, and working along scientists, doctors, engineers and aid workers in mutual service of both God and fellow human being.

What is Science For? Answers in the entire Bible (not just in Genesis)

Try Googling ‘Science and Christianity’ – the next word in the auto-suggest list is ‘conflict’. Hit return and the first page of titles includes the questions, ‘Are Science and Christianity at War?’ and ‘Has Science Disproved God?’  When I was asked with others to participate in this year’s Cheltenham Science Festival Debate, we were given the by-now-predictable title of ‘Can Science and Faith Co-exist?’ Do I sound a little tired already of facing the continuous barrage of such questions (or rather of the same question posed in a thousand different ways)?  Yes, I admit that I do, and am somewhat enervated as well, for they are so monotonously posed that I believe that in the church we have now been persuaded that this is the only question that one can ask about science and faith.

SciRelThe ‘can you reconcile…?’ question assumes that Christian (and other religious) belief is prima facie in some sort of boxing match with science, and that our only real task is the apologetic one of fighting back from the ropes, if we are lucky still to be on our feet.  The question takes for granted that science is a threat to Biblical belief, and that Christianity is a threat to science.  None of this is true – neither the assumptions behind the question, nor the primary significance of the question itself.

For a long time I have wanted to think about a much more important question. As both a Christian and a scientist since my early adult life, the ‘can you reconcile …’ question has simply been a non-starter – on the level of ‘have you stopped beating your wife?’ – it simply begins with the wrong assumptions.  Having experienced the human ability to do science, to uncover and understand something of the inner structure of the world, as God’s gift, among the many other gifts that follow from his supreme one, there was always a deeper, and much truer question to ask: ‘What is Science For within the Kingdom of God?’  Or, in other words, within God’s great project of creation, incarnation, redemption and the renewal of creation, what part does the gift of science play, and to what purpose? In other words, ‘What is Science For?’

BibleIf we are continually embroiled in the apologetic defence of the (within the family of faith) non-question of conflict, then we never allow ourselves the space to dig deep into Biblical material, theological reflection, and critical evaluation of our experience that needs to be the mark of people ‘transformed by the renewal of [our] minds’ (Rom 12:1). Perhaps that is also why the ‘science and faith’ debate is so little engaged with a wide resource of scripture. There is a lot said about the first chapter of Genesis, to be sure, but not so much from the many other narratives of creation throughout Torah, Wisdom, Prophets and the New Testament too.  Here seems to be a project: what does the whole testimony of scripture say about the purpose of science, and what would be the consequences of such an exegesis for the practice of Christian and scientific communities today?

Of course, consulting a concordance for the word ‘science’ is not a great idea. That does not, however, mean that our question is anachronistic, just that we need to know what science itself is at a deeper level.  Fortunately we do not need to look historically back very far for clues, for only a century and a half ago I would not have been called a ‘scientist’, but a ‘natural philosopher’ – or, unpacking the Greek etymology, a ‘lover of wisdom to do with nature’.  Before going any further, you could even try this on your science-suspecting friends and colleagues.  Replace the implied knowledge claim of ‘scientist’ (a Latin-derived claimer of knowledge – ‘scio’ – I know) with the softer Greek, and you might find that more people warm to the idea that we might be engaging with nature in a search for wisdom within the context of love.  The historical truth that science emerges from love and wisdom for nature speaks of it as a relational activity.  So, rather than look up ‘science’, let us ask where in the Bible we are asked to think about the human relationship with the created material world.  Immediately the texts pour forth like a river.

The first thing to notice is the frequency with which the creation story is told and retold: take a moment or two to look up a few places where the narrative refers back to God’s act of creating the world: Proverbs 8, Psalm 19, Psalm 33, Psalm 104, Isaiah 40, Isaiah 45, Jeremiah 10, Hosea 2, John 1 are just a few of the places where different language, a rich variety of metaphor, or fresh pictures are used to remind God’s people that it was their Lord who laid the foundations of the Earth, separated the land and the sea, spread out the heavens. The delightful and playful creation account in Proverbs 8 begins the story of wisdom – here she (Sophia) is a little girl at the feet of the Creator, playing with the rivers and mountains. The profound prologue to John’s Gospel contains a deliberate echo of the creation stories that begin with ‘in the beginning’, and in a brilliant stroke of prophetic insight identifies the Hellenistic creative and ordering principle of logos with the incarnate Christ.  More is true: creation stories are used to a purpose.  Creation stories, wherever they occur in scripture, tend to form bridges from a position of hopelessness and lost-ness to a renewed hope.  So the great recapitulation of creation in Isaiah 40 leads directly to the announcement of the One coming to redeem Israel. Psalm 33 takes a (brief) journey through the creation of the cosmos to take the psalmist from despair to hope.  Blink and you miss them- some of these accounts are very short, which in turn tells us just how developed the two Genesis creation stories are (in chapters 1 and 2), but brevity does not imply insignificance.  Human relationship with the physical creation is also a growing theme in these recurrent motifs – the celebration of the wisdom of the farmer who knows which seeds to plant at what season is the focus of Isaiah 28; we don’t just sit back and contemplate physical creation, we engage with it.

Perhaps the most profound of all the wisdom scriptures, in its description of our relation with the natural world, is the enigmatic Book of Job.  I have never tired of losing myself in this wonderful book since first I fell captive to what must surely be the greatest poem of natural wisdom in all ancient literature – the so-called ‘Lord’s Answer’ of chapters 38-42.  Here, for the first time since the prologue, the Lord finally appears to Job in answer to his repeated demands for vindication and admission that his suffering is unjust.  But rather than tackling Job’s complaints head-on, Yahweh takes the man on a journey through all of creation, and at every waypoint asks him a question:

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

The Lord Answering job out of the Whirlwind, by William Blake

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?

Scientists to whom I have recommended the reading of these chapters have always come back astonished – for here are the foundation questions of the sciences we now call ‘meteorology’, ‘oceanography’, ‘cosmology’, ‘astronomy’, zoology’. More than that, as all working scientists know, the vital step in all successful science is not the finding of the correct answer (in spite of the years of schooling that would have us believe so) but the formulation of the creative question.  Einstein, Heisenberg and many others have noted this.

Strangely, ‘The Lord’s Answer’ has received some tough criticism in the scholarly literature. On the one hand it is charged with irrelevance – Job is concerned with the moral issue of the suffering of the righteous, not the provenance of the snow or the lightning. On the other, God is accused of the petulant put-down – of suggesting by his list of unanswerable questions that Job is ignorant and should cease his complaining.  Neither objection holds on close reading, however.  For one thing, the entire Book of Job is replete with nature imagery.  All the animals, plants and phenomena referred to in the Lord’s Answer have already been invoked in the three cycles of discourses between Job and his friends over the first 37 chapters.  Job’s complaint is in fact a double one: he accuses God of allowing chaos to reign in the natural world just as much as he does in the moral world:

What he destroys will not be built, whom he imprisons will not be freed.

He holds back the waters, there is drought; he lets them loose, they overwhelm the earth. (Ch12)

As for the reason for God’s appearance, far from diminishing Job, he is invited to ‘stand up’ and debate on Yahweh’s level, as in a courtroom. The vital context for the long questioning poem is the earlier ‘intermission’ to the cycle of discourses in chapter 28 often called the ‘Hymn to Wisdom’.  Mysteriously beginning down a mine, following the miners as they ‘dangle and sway’ on their ropes, looking up at the earth from beneath, the author wonders that of all the creatures, only human eyes are able to see the inner structures of the earth in this way.  Then the depths of earth and sea are questioned on where wisdom can be found – without avail.  The Hymn ends with identifying wisdom as a divine way of seeing:

wisdom

But God understands the way to it; it is he who knows its place.

For he looked to the ends of the earth, and beheld everything under the heavens,

So as to assign a weight to the wind, and determine the waters by measure,

 

I find the picture of the miner’s eyes peering into the deep structure of the world from the glimmer of a lamp to be a faithful metaphor for science itself – that part of culture that develops our gift of seeing beneath the surface of phenomena in the light of observation, imagination and reason. Coming from Durham, where I work, it is also particularly significant – the former mining communities around the city still know Job 28 as ‘the miners’ prayer’ – and it appears in stained glass in Easington Colliery parish church.  But there is more, for the close of the chapter indicates that it is in just this ability that we are made in the image of God as regards Wisdom, for this ‘deep seeing’ into the world is what Wisdom is, and what the Creator does.

Seen through a New Testament lens, a calling to heal a broken relationship with the world, by replacing ignorance with understanding, fear with wisdom and mutual harm with fruitfulness, looks like the fruits of the gospel of truth. St Paul wrote to the Corinthians (2 Cor5:7):

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ – new creation;

The old has gone, the new has come!

All this is from God, who reconciled himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation:

That God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ

The ‘ministry of reconciliation’ or, more simply, ‘healing broken relationships’ is what the gospel announces. It’s a great soundbite for what Christianity means, because everyone knows about broken relationships.  We are able to participate in God’s ministry of healing because the relationship upon which all others depend has been healed by Jesus’ incarnation, death and resurrection.  In this he is ‘reconciling the world (kosmos) to himself’ – that is the physical and natural world as well as the people in it.  One of the most surprising and glorious aspects of the gospel is that God calls us to participate in this work.  Perhaps the most humble of all broken relationships is that between human beings and the natural world.  Like other cases, it shows its flaws by beginning in ignorance and fear, and in the propensity for mutual harm (we have long known that nature can harm us, but it is only in the last century that we have discovered just how much we can harm nature too).

Take the ancient invitation to Job, and thereby to all who follow him, to engage in a deep and questioning way with the natural world, together with the Pauline ministry of reconciliation, and perhaps we have the beginnings of a Biblical answer to the question, ‘What is Science for within the Kingdom of God?’ In a small way, mending our relationship with the creation is just what a redeemed and loved creature made in God’s image might be expected to do.  Seen in that light, far from being a threat to faith, science becomes one of the most holy tasks one could imagine.

 For further development of these ideas, see Faith and Wisdom in Science (OUP 2014, paperback 2016).