The Book of Job and Science come alive on Stage!

Faith-In-The-Questions-poster-423x600Imagine the long river of longing, questioning, pain and triumph, that starts from the pen of the long lost author of the Book of Job, and flows to the present day, when human desire to see deeply into the structure of nature takes the form of ‘science’.  Both of the great wisdom poems in Job, the ‘Hymn to Wisdom’ of chapter 28 and the ‘Lord’s Answer’ of chapters 38-42 describe reaching out into the cosmos, and deep down into the structure of the Earth with the insight and imagination of mind and eye.  They also grasp the nettle of pain, of the frustration of incomprehension, especially in the face of the chaotic, the unpredictable, the seemingly purposeless.  This is also why science is also so very deeply human – all of life, hope and creativity is there.

Job on stage

Justin Butcher plays Job

Now imagine these two visions – the ancient poetic figure of Job, and that of a modern scientist facing the challenges of the unknown – brought into the same focus, the old longing to understand meeting the severe challenges of physics, mathematics and nature.  Job and his friends circle around each other, around the unanswered questions, and on a stage that circles itself amid a cosmic backdrop of the universe he longs to comprehend, including its chaotic and threatening aspects.


Job and friends 2

Job rails against his comforters



It was brilliant.  It worked. Job as scientist, Christian, and sufferer, right but also self-righteous.  Felix’ articulation of view of those for whom science is a threat, an inhuman desiccated exercise of the mind that dries up emotion and aesthetic.  And it sparked off wonderful questions and discussion for the panel of four scientists who are also Christians each evening.

Personally, working with Riding Lights and Nigel Forde has been inspiring.  To see some of the themes (and even some of the lines!) of Faith and Wisdom in Science woven into a vibrant dialogue between a modern day Job and his friends, has been a wondrous experience.

It left us all wanting to do more, to help the church embrace science as a gift of God, to support scientists in their calling, to appreciate the interplay of science and art in being human for everyone, to participate in the great work of healing our relationship with nature.

Look out for it later this year or next on a national tour!

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


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.



Shakespeare and the Scientific Imagination

What fun it is to roll up the sleeves, make for the Forest of Arden, and join the dance this weekend in celebration of the life of England’s greatest writer, and the greatest writer of English.  All are welcome, and the marvellous universality and plasticity of Shakespeare’s thought and language mean that story, politics, dance, war, love, music – all life, all perspectives play out and discover themselves in the living plays and poems of the Bard.

So what about science? The Guardian’s weekly podcast has invited scholars to unpack the psychology of hallucinations in Macbeth, the meteorology of tempests in – well – of course, The Tempest and the rhetoric of crowd control in Julius Caesar.  But what of science itself?  Does the deepest drawer from the well of English language pour out for us any metaphor, any narrative that might help us grasp what this extraordinary empowering is – that we are able, with our eyes and minds, to comprehend nature inwardly as well as outwardly?



Sir Joseph Noel Paton’s The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania; Scottish National Gallery


Of course he does; but we need to read carefully – not all writing about ‘science’, perhaps even the majority of it, owns the name.  For ‘science’ is a new term for a long human story that is far better referred to by its older name ‘natural philosophy’ – ‘the love of wisdom to do with nature’.  The long case for this long story is what Faith and Wisdom in Science is all about.  It tells a tale of purpose too, of a broken relationship with nature, characterised by ignorance and harm gradually, by a labour of love, receiving healing through knowledge and wisdom.  A ‘sheer inhuman otherness’ of nature, identified in the 20th century by thinkers like Steiner and Arendt is gently rendered ‘commensurable’, one might say ‘imaginable’.  Steiner writes that this is the role of art, but it answers perfectly the question of what science is for.

So let us hear Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream expand on the poet’s work, in his ostensible brush-off of lunatic, lover and poet in one apparently dismissive wave of the hand (Act V Scene I):

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

Shakespeare’s ‘poet’ gazes over the entire universe, and in the pattern of the natural science texts from antiquity and the early medieval centuries from the genre De Rerum Natura (Lucretius, Pliny, Isidore of Seville, Bede) starts with the heavens and encompasses all as it falls earthward.  The universe is full of ‘the forms of things unknown’, but the poet give them form – a form that allows their image to dwell with humans.  It is a sort of incarnation – the heavenly and unknown ‘dwells among us’ in its local habitation.  Above all, the nameless is given a name, so that we can know it, refer to it, describe its relations, powers and inner nature.  For Shakespeare, the poet’s task is identical to that of science.

Perhaps that is why Wordsworth (in his preface to Lyrical Ballards) juxtaposed the poet and the scientist, declaring both to be seekers of truth, and predicting that the poet would inspire and light up the new findings of the scientist in ways that would stir the human soul.  Here he is in transcendent mood on the statue of Newton:

… with his prism and silent face

The marble index of a mind for ever

Voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone.

‘Giving to airy nothing a local habitation and a name’ is a wonderfully rich description of what science does, why it is so deeply human, and why it can stir in us an aesthetic as rich as poetry or music.  Vitally, it also draws on the same aesthetic to power its difficult search for words, names, forms that represent, that re-create, the universe around us.  The Dirac field of electrons is a local (mathematical) habitation in our minds in which electrons can receive a name.  The LIGO experiment and its interpretation in terms of the gravitational waves emitted from merging black holes is our imagination bodying forth, and returning with a form of the wildest ‘thing unknown’ we have yet imagined.

Can Science be more like Music? An Experiment with Light and Song

The_Light_of_Music_by_TWe4ksmallKarl Popper once wrote: “A great work of music, like a great scientific theory, is a cosmos imposed upon chaos – in its tensions and harmonies in exhaustible even for its creator”. If this is true (and it needs some unpacking before we can get to work on that question) then might great music be a source of illumination of great physics? Might physics inform and deepen our enjoyment of music? I don’t know – but I mean to find out with the help of scientific and musical colleagues in Durham this November, when we set out on a musical and experimental exploration for the International Year of Light.

FaWis_450Of course, musical themes and analogies surface frequently in Faith and Wisdom in Science.  I even imagine a nightmare world, in the introduction, where we have ‘locked away’ music from general human enjoyment and celebration in the same way that we seem to have done with science. Music, of course, has its ‘ladder’ of expertise – with international concert soloists at the top, and most of us somewhere towards the bottom – but nevertheless happily enjoying, and critically engaging with, the production of music in its new writing and performance.  The problem with science is that someone seems to have removed most of the lower rungs of its ladder!  Can we get them back by enjoying science and music together?

Perhaps it was hearing about the idea of the International Year of Light that alerted me to the amount of music, especially choral music, which seems to be inspired by the idea of light. Of course one reason for this is that light itself becomes a metaphor for so much beyond: understanding, hope, creation itself, which in turn inform and inspire music.

The first page of the printed score of Hayden's Creation (Novello edn.) - a musical depiction of chaos.

The first page of the printed score of Hayden’s Creation (Novello edn.) – a musical depiction of chaos.

Perhaps the ‘classic’ (in every sense of the word) musical moment that captures light-inspiration is the chorus in Hayden’s ‘Creation’ where order bursts out over the composer’s brilliant musical depiction of chaos: “… and … there … was… LIGHT!” – the chorus tip-toes over the introductory words from the Book of Genesis then explode in a cascade of fortissimo harmonies. Shut your eyes and you hear space filled with coruscating colour and brilliance.

But I think that Popper meant more than this by his musings on music. He is talking about form – that essential constraint on imagination that turns inspiration into art. Here he is surely onto something, for in science too we achieve understanding both through powerful imagination (‘could like be like a wave in some sense?’) and severe constraint (‘what happens if I direct a beam though this tiny hole …?). Could it be in this sense that both art and science fashion the order of form and pattern from the chaos of unfettered wild imagination and ignorance – and is it this that makes both music and science so basically human?

We are inviting all comers to an afternoon of hands-on experimental exploration of light from 2pm at Trevelyan College, Durham on Saturday November 14th. Three themes frame the activities – light as a combination of wavelengths and colour, light

Trevelyan College, Durham University

Trevelyan College, Durham University

as a carrier of information and light and a conveyer of energy for life. It will come as no surprise that we plan to explore the glaring analogy of colour and musical pitch during the afternoon – but we want to go further. Then for one hour from 4pm the Durham Singers will pick up on these same themes in a programme of music from 400 years of history. Two centrepieces to look forward to will be the Bach chorale Jesus, mein Lebens Licht, from the 17th century and a world Premiere of Light by local composer Janet Graham. Graham’s new piece sets words by another North-East artist – poet Gordon Hodgeon, now totally incapacitated by spinal injury, yet still writing. Light carries ‘words’ of information of chemistry and dynamics to us from distant stars. In this piece, Light literally becomes for us the only carrier of the poet’s words, distanced by the light-years of extreme disability. It looks like being a thoughtful and a moving occasion, and also an inspiring one. Come and join us!

Christian Voices in the Contempory World: at All Saints Ecclesall in Sheffield – Humble Science?


Gary Wilson, vicar of All Saints in celebratory mood.

If Lent is a traditionally a time for deprivation of comfort, hard discipline and resisting temptation then it must be a wise church, if a particularly determined one, that invites a ‘Faith and Wisdom in Science’ evening of talk and discussion as part of their Lent course. So it was that the vicar of All Saints, Ecclesall, Gary Wilton invited me to lead an evening for a lively, attentive and challenging group of about 170 as part of their Lent course ‘Christian Voices in the Contempory World’.  Perhaps approproately also, we spent a fair bit of time in the Book of Job, a story of anger, pain and penitance as well as the most profound ancient text I know that treats the relation between humankind and the material world around us.

Actually I had first met Gary in 2012 at a conference on dialogue between Science and Religion that he was arranging as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s representative in Brussells for CERN.  The Director of the great European particle physics facility, Rolf Heuer, had requested the three-day meeting, since repeated, as part of CERN’s responsible engagement with the global public.  That meeting, bringing scientists and theologicans, some believing some not (in both camps) and representing Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism, was extremely interesting.  A fair bit of the material on different religions’ approach to science derives from pointers given to me at that meeting (in chapter 8 by the way).

The Sheffield evening was no less stimulating. After the talk, we covered two sets of three questions from the audience.  They both fitted together in interesting ways.  The first (summarised) set was:

  1. How can lay people really engage with science in a meaningful way?
  2. Can Narrative act as a way into science?
  3. Do we not need scintists to show more humility?

I think that these belong together because one of the offputting things about science is the way that scientists tend to assume the role of unassailable expert when we communicate science.  It needs to be said much more often that scientists make mistakes over and over again – it is hard to re-imagine the world and find ways  of seeing into its deep working structure.  We get closer all the time, but the difficulties and the slip-ups ought both to keep us humble, and to remind us that we need all the help we can get.  I still believe that the musical analogy I use in Faith and Wisdom in Science has some value here.  Just as musicians need the many ways in which audiences give them feedback in performances, so scientists need to listen to the reception of their work.  We should not underestimate the intellectual ability of non-experts to think about and question science (this is continually done in the mind-numbingly slow and superficial presentation of science on television).

One way of doing this is indeed to work through the narrative of a science story.  I think that no-one has done this better than Bill Bryson in his A Short History of Nearly Everything.  The twists and turns, the disappointments and delights, the characters and the catastrophes of science are all there.  Underlying the book is also the desire, born in a lay person with no science background, to grasp at some idea of the deep human need to understand why the sky is blue.  But crucially it also drives at a knowledge of how we now understand such things.  I think  that more along the lines  of Bryson’s approach, together with an expectation that lay audiences can and will help scientists to think more imaginatively, and an emphasis and development of the poetry and play of science, may recover lost ground.  Humility is indeed a good place to start.

More from Ecclesall in the next post!

What’s the Story? And why all the Theological Baggage? – Grilling the book at TORCH from all sides

TORCHThe Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities (TORCH) is currently running a series of events on Humanities and Science. At the intersection of this programme with their regular ‘Book at Lunchtime’ seminars, on February 11th an Oxford based panel of three disciplinary experts shone their critical torchlights on  Faith and Wisdom in Science.

Perspectives from English Literature (Prof. Sally Shuttleworth), History (Prof. John Christie) and Physics (Prof Ard Louis) proved a sharp and effective way to touch on critical aspects of the book. For all of them both positive responses and critical questions turned on the central theme of narrative. Should we, and how can we understand science itself and narrative? And as the book itself asks, where can we find and deploy a constructive cultural narrative for science that might unlock some of the current misrepresentations and political tangles around science and technology in the public forum? Louis referred to the ‘lament’ that science is not a cultural possession in the same way that art or music is, and urged the advantage of telling the messy story of real science practice. Christie sketched the obscured historical details within the stories of Galileo and Newton,

Galileo  Galilei

Galileo Galilei

and of the Biblical basis for Frances’ Bacon’s vision for modern science, which serve deconstruct the worn old myths about confrontation of science and religion. Shuttleworth welcomed the telling of the stories of science as questioning and creative, yet suffering the fate of almost always being wrong.

Faith and Wisdom in Science sets out to explore what resources Judeo-Christian theology can supply in constructing a social narrative for science – one that might describe both what science is for, and how it might be more widely enjoyed. It draws on history to claim that the project we now call ‘science’ is in continuity with older human activities by other names; ‘natural philosophy’ in the early modern period and in ancient times just ‘Wisdom’. The theology of science that emerges is ‘participatory reconciliation’, a hopeful engagement with the world that both lights it up and heals our relationship with it.

But is theology the only way to get there? Are we required to carry the heavy cultural baggage of Christian history of thought and structures? Shuttleworth recalled George Eliot’s misery at the dissection of the miraculous as she translated Strauss’ ‘Life of Jesus’ at the dawn of critical Biblical studies. Yet Eliot is able to conceive of a rich and luminous narrative for science in MiddleMarchMiddlemarch:

“…the imagination that reveals subtle actions inaccessible by any sort of lens, but tracked in that outer darkness through long pathways of necessary sequence by the inward light which is the last refinement of energy, capable of bathing even the ethereal atoms in its ideally illuminated space.”

Eliot’s sources are T.H. Huxley, J.S. Mill and Auguste Comte, and of course her partner G.H Lewes,  They are by no means theological (Comte had even constructed a secular religion). Perhaps this is an example of an entirely secular route to science’s story? Yet her insight into science as a special sort of deep ‘seeing’ also emerges from the ancient wisdom of, for example, the Book of Job. In a parallel and contemporary book Seeing the World and Knowing God, Oxford theologian Paul Fiddes also calls on the material of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes to challenge the post-modern dissolution of subject and object. Participatory reconciliation emerges for both theologian and scientist motivated to draw on ancient wisdom for modern need. Was Eliot, and will all secular thinkers in the Western tradition be, in some way irrevocably connected to these ancient wellsprings of our thinking?

An aspect of the ‘baggage’ most desirable to drop, according to Shuttleworth, is the notion that scientists are a sort of priesthood. Surely this speaks to the worst suspicions of a mangled modern discourse of authority and power. Louis even suggested that the science/religion debate is really only a proxy for this larger and deeper one. Perhaps the first-temple notion of ‘servant priesthood’ is now too overlain with the strata of power-play to serve as a helpful metaphor for how we go about enacting the story of science.

But science needs to rediscover its story, and it is only by acknowledge that its narrative underpinnings must come from the humanities, that it is going to find it.

Newcastle Phil and Lit: Technology and Heidegger

This week the redoubtable Newcastle Philosophical and Literary society, in partnership with Newcastle College, extended a very warm and hospitable welcome to a Faith and a Wisdom discussion in their current series entitled ‘On the Edge’ (we were ‘On the Edge of Faith’).  It’s so heartening to see these highly civilised organisations dedicated to thinking, learning and discussion still flourishing in the heart of our great cities, selling out on a wet and cold February Thursday.

the question time was very impressive and also challenging.  We had managed to cover

Newcastle Phil and Lit library

Newcastle Phil and Lit library

a little science (Brownian motion of signalling proteins – an example of order out of chaos and a reflection on our human ability to see below the surface of nature), some science history (Grosseteste’s extraordinary cosmogony in his 1225 De Luce) and a decent look at the hymn to wisdom in Job 28 in the search for material in support of a deep narrative for science.

‘Might the apprentice conflict between science and religion stem from technology rather than science itself?’ Wondered one questioner. I think that the thrust here is that science itself is not inherently threatening, as it ‘lights up the world’ rather than ‘changes the world’.  Indeed, as John Hedley-Brooke and Geoffrey Cantor point out in theirs Gifford lectures ‘Reconstructing the Universe’, 18th and 19th century chemistry was especially challenging theologically as it was (at that time) far more than physics or biology, the science that changed the world.  And doing this touches the raw nerve of that deeply reactionary ‘playing at God and trespassing on sacred nature’ narrative that plays out even today as an underlying driver of debate around technology.  However, I don’t think that historically the role of technology over against science holds up as a catalyst of confrontation.  It was not developing technology that Draper and White invoked in their 19th century polemics that painted for the first time the backdrop of conflict on the stage of science and religion.

A second questioner challenged my reference to Heidegger as a philosopher incompatible with the Bible.  In fact I was also accused of mentioning only this one philosopher – grave omission indeed at a ‘lit and PHIL’.  But I checked that we had in fact also discussed Arendt and Aristotle during the evening, so I hope we made our quota.  Actually I had referred to him as another thinker who echoes the theme of ‘hiddenness’ of the world (in his Being and Time).  This is not of course to endorse all his thought, much of which has been accused as obscurantist. His membership of the Nazi party during the 1930s and the war years will also always be a stain on his reputation. However, there is no reason to ignore everything that such a serious thinker has said, in spite of his faults. Arendt herself drew heavily on his ideas in describing the alienation from nature in her ‘The Human Condition’.

Now I am of course realising that there is a connection between the two questions. Heidegger was a philosopher deeply concerned with how we live in a technological society.  But perhaps he lacked the roots of ancient wisdom that the book of Job mysteriously urges us towards in its reach towards today’s world from such very different times.