‘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:

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

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:

heisenberg-werner-large

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!

beer

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!

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).

What do Creation Stories do in the Bible?

Earthrise captured by the Apollo 8 mission in December 1968.
Earthrise captured by the Apollo 8 mission in December 1968.

One of the central themes of Faith and Wisdom in Science is the rich seam of creation-story material in every genre of Biblical literature, yet the strange paradox that, apart from some notable exceptions, this is largely ignored in the mainstream science/religion discussion.  As a further damaging consequence, when that debate ever resumes its close Mercurial orbit around the well-trodden turf of Genesis 1 and 2, interpretation of those texts become distorted without the foundation of creation story material in Psalms, Prophets and supremely the Wisdom books.  Since I claim that all this material is fundamental to answering a theological question about what science is for, as an essential prelude to how we govern and use science in our time, a close study of the whole Biblical picture of our relationship with nature assumes supreme importance in the church today.

A previous post, The 20+ Creation Stories in the Bible, did not much more than list some of the material that needs to be brought together in an healthy Bible-study program on creation.  That post pointed out that Genesis has by no means the monopoly on creation stories.  There are fundamental alternative images and language used in, for example, Proverbs 8 and Job.  Ah! The wonderful Book of Job! I drew attention to the reception of the creation story tradition in the New Testament genres of Gospel and Epistle too.  But there is more, of course, to say here.  We need to think about the role creation-stories play in the Biblical narrative, where they occur, in what moods and what the achieve.

Take Psalm 33. It follows hard on the heels of the penitential Psalm 32 (When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all the day long – 32v3).  The last verse of Ps32 and the first of Ps33 have turned this backward looking reflection on transgression and decay into an exhortation to praise, but it remains at this point a command.  There is no source of transformational energy to effect it. The narrative is moving towards the closing verse of Psalm 33: We wait in hope for the Lord; he is our help and our shield.  But in order to reach that closure, the psalmist needs to chose a path that goes by way of a creation story:

By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth.

He gathers the waters of the sea into jars; he puts the deep into storehouses

its important to note that all the fundamental components of a Biblical creation story are here: the formation of boundaries, the ordering of chaos, the action of Word.  All this is embellished and formalised in the Genesis narratives, but the essentials are bridgeall in these shorter accounts in Song and Wisdom. The point here, however, is that the story of Creation, rather than just standing at the beginning of time as a monument to the first moment, becomes a bridge from despair to hope.  This active transport of the contemplation of the creative act through the process of healing and redemption, the bridging from fall to new creation, is ubiquitous when you have once recognised it.  The delightful, playful Wisdom-generated creation story in Proverbs 8 serves the same purpose.  Like Psalm 33, it answers a ‘call’ (this time not a call to praise but a call to wisdom) but lacking in the source of power to realise it, by unleashing the energies of God’s creation itself to create hope, and a direction towards the enacted Wisdom of the rest of the book of Proverbs.

The great creation story in the Lord’s Answer to Job (Ch 38) BlakeonJob

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me if you understand.

Who marked off its dimension? Surely you know!

Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set,

or who laid its cornerstone while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?

serves the bridging need once more.  It resolves the tangled and angry impasse of the cycles of dialogues between Job and his comforters (who are of course rather accusers), expands the creation motif into a panoramic tour of the entire created order, but eventually takes Job to a place where both his body and his mind can be healed.

The New Testament visits Creation and our painful present relation to it in just the same way.  Romans chapter 8 cannot reach its goal of nothing separating God’s servants from their maker except by way of All Creation groaning until the sons and daughters of God are revealed.

The Johannine ‘signs’ may, at least partially, be understood in this light. After the feeding of the 5000 in John chapter 6, redolent with the symbols of the Exodus, the people want to make Jesus king, but by force. Nature itself illustrates this out-of-joint-ness with a terrifying storm that threatens to overcome the disciples in the Galilean fishing boat.  But, bringing three mighty Biblical strands together in one action: (1) a recollection of the crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 14); (3) a recreation and re-bounding of water in a new physicality (Psalm 93); (3) a fulfilment of the cosmology of Job (Job 9v8), Jesus walks to them across the waves. And the boat immediately reaches its destination (Jn 6v21).

Our relationship with created nature today features science at its heart.  But the role of this relationship, and its Great Story, has not changed.  Mending our ways with creation is still the bridge between the ignorance, fear and waste of our past, and to a future of knowledge and wisdom.  This is what makes a theology of science to urgent to work through and work out.