Should a Christian do Science Differently?

FaWis_450Welcome, first of all, to a considerable number of new subscribers to the Faith and Wisdom in Science blog. I hope you find the posts and reports helpful, and do remember that its a blog in order to open up discussion. You can post questions and comments for me and others, although I will moderate to the standards of respectfulness and openness that this adventure is all about.
There are a few other resources on the blog site for those who are new – if you have a copy of Faith and Wisdom in Science then the (increasingly few with each reprint I hope) corrigenda are to be found on the Errata page. There is also a page containing links to media presentations, interviews etc. here.  lettherebescienceAnd don’t forget that if you, or someone you know, perhaps a high school or university student would like, or like to give away, a rather faster read of the message that science is not an obstacle to faith, but a gift from God, and not a threat to the Church but an equipping to a task, then the broader readership Let There Be Science co-written with school physics teacher Dave Hutchings is a great introduction.


Over the Easter break I had the fascinating experience of (1) speaking at the UK Christian festival Word Alive in Prestatyn, North Wales (of which a future blog when the materials are online) and also attending this year’s meeting of the European Society for the Study of Science and Theology (ESSSAT) in Lyon, France. Both in their different ways were challenging and interesting and full of people with good ideas and questions. The Lyon meeting was entitled Nature and Beyond: Immanence and Transcendence in Science and ReligionBut at both, very different, settings, the question, ‘What Difference does it make?’ was weaving throughout the discussions.

Of the very large topic of the ESSSAT title, the session that I spoke in was concerned with ‘Methodological Naturalism’ (MN) – that is the actual methods that scientists use to do science, the experiments, theories, hypothesis-testing, invocation of physical and chemical laws and so on. As first formulated formally by Medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas, the observation is that when we do science, we investigate nature on its own terms. Belief in God, in other words, is not necessary, nor impinges on the tools we use to find out about nature. ‘Methodological’ means ‘to do with tools and method’ and ‘naturalism’ means ‘on nature’s own terms’, or if you like, omitted explicit requirement of belief in, or actions of, God.

The first thing to be clear is that Methodological Naturalism is very different from ‘Metaphysical Naturalism’ – this is the entire worldview that omits the divine. But in spite of this, some Christians have expressed discomfort that MN works, and that Christians can somehow ‘forget about God’ in the function of science. One such is Andrew Torrence of St. Andrews University, who has recently written a paper about it, Should a Christian Adopt Methodological Naturalism in the journal Zygon.

I addressed the question in my talk at Lyon (and there will be a full paper later in the year), and others have written a reply for the journal itself, but there are a few very important things to say about this.

The first is about common grace – God gives gifts of tools for all sorts of reasons: gardening, medicine, cooking, teaching, singing, woodwork,… in an important way the scientific toolkit of method belongs to this set.  Everyone gets given this! (in principle – we need to learn and practice!). So to look for a special toolkit in science for Christians is like looking for a special way to bake a cake.

The second is to do with the three-way relationship between God the Creator, the natural creation, and ourselves. Since the articulation of the commission in Genesis 3 to make nature fruitful ‘by the sweat of our brow’ it has been understood that the work of gaining knowledge of nature as part of the work of healing our broken relationship with it, and that the way that nature works, has, like our own natures, a freedom to it, to explore possibility of structure and development, that does not require the moment by moment disruption by God.  Our calling as scientists is to look into nature with the same love and interest as its Creator, and doing that is part of our obedience.

Thirdly, MN does not exclude the possibility of miracles. Science is as able to detect anomalies as well as it detects regularities, but leaves it as that.  Reporting them is what science does, explaining them beyond science is, by definition NOT what science does.

Fourthly,  the relationship between the human and the natural world needs to be understood within the tradition of wisdom. This is the source of healthy relationship-building. It goes well beyond the, somewhat flawed, ‘two books’ analogy of reading nature as a second revelation, and becomes what theologian Eleanor Stump calls a ‘second person’ narrative (see short paper in appendix below).

But finally, Christian calling makes ALL the difference in doing science, as in doing anything. The reasons we do it, the way we interact with others in its performance, the choice of tasks to undertake, the very creative inspiration in the science we do – – all this and more can and does draw on a life of prayer, learning, worship and theological understanding. The toolkit is just the beginning.


For those who would like to read a little more deeply there follows, as an appendix, the 4-page ‘long abstract’ paper for the ESSSAT conference.


Methodological Naturalism but Teleological Transcendence: Science as Second Person Narrative

A metaphorical story of reading has dominated the theological framing of science, or more properly natural philosophy, since the high Medieval period.  It is the dual narrative of the Two Books: that of a twin revelation though the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature. The 12thcentury scholar Hugh of St Victor in his compendium, the Didiscalion, wrote,[1]

This wholw world is like a book written by the finger of God …’,

Reading the two books became a dominant metaphor for the application of human sense, reflection, and insight into nature. It surfaces in Grosseteste in the 13thcentury, notably in Galileo in the early 17th, and especially in the ‘hermeneutical stance’ of early modern science. An example is found in Boyle’s advocacy of the early form of ‘citizen science’ known as Occasional Meditation. He writes[2]

The World is a Great Book, not so much of Nature as of the God of Nature, … crowded with instructive Lessons, if we had but the Skill, and would take the Pains, to extract and pick the out: the Creatures are the true Aegyptian Hieroglyphicks, that under the rude form of Birds, and Beasts etc. conceal the mysterious secrets of Knowledge and of Piety.’

The metaphor finds its flourishing in the natural theology of Paley and the authors of the Bridgewater Treatises. To deduce a personal creative agent of interventionist design in the structure of a biological lensed eye is precisely to read and interpret the text of the Second Book in terms of its author. The narrative of the Two Books is compelling for aesthetic, cultural and theological reasons. The parallel growth of literacy and science in Europe from the medieval period onwards, the emergence of printing, widespread education, and the new forms of writing and publication that accompany early modern science, render it almost irresistible. But we now know that simplistic adherence to the metaphorical reading of the Book of Nature as a conceptual framing for science generates a set of irresolvable problems at its nexus with theology.

The first is the structural flaw in natural theology that became increasingly visible during the nineteenth century, and was exposed in the greatest clarity by the ascent of the theory of evolution by natural selection. The passivity of written text fails to follow faithfully the emergent explorative potential of the tree of life. A written word implies an immediate and proximal author, yet an evolved species, perfectly accommodated to its environmental niche, did not require a pen to inscribe it there.

The second implication of the metaphor of the book is that its readers may deduce the character and purpose of its author through sophisticated levels of reading. Nature becomes a veiled or coded message from, and concerning, its Author. So if the Sacred Page can say of itself, [3]

In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to people in other generations as I has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets.

then nature also becomes a once-veiled but increasingly transparent mode of insight into the person and nature of God. In the developed form of reading nature that became Natural Theology, we look throughnature towards a vision of its Creator. Attractive though such neo-oracular, albeit Christianised, interpretation of how to read nature might be, it runs rapidly into the thicket of theodicy – what must we deduce, in this mode, about the creator of catastrophes and carnivores?

A third issue, delayed until it appears on the beach of the late-modern period as the tide of near-universal theism retreated, is a problematizing of scientific method. If the effective practice of science is unaffected by any personal stance of belief, and if both its methods and conclusions align with a material metaphysics, namely the set of practices and assumptions termed ‘methodological naturalism’,[4]what value theistic belief and practice? The adoption of methodological naturalism has sat uncomfortably with some believers, and some theologians,[5]because its deployment of method that ostensibly ignores the divine seems to imply irrelevance of a position of faith.  Attempts to reintroduce particular differences in scientific methodology with a theistic philosophy run into insuperable problems at the experiential and epistemological levels.

The impasse at all three of these levels can be traced to the progressive narrowing of a philosophy of science to epistemology, ontology and methodology – the very categories that would be employed in literary criticism (of reading), ignoring another essential human category of teleology. The gradual silencing of the category of purpose from academic discourse is itself a potential source of its marginalisation, and plays to the pretence of a human viewpoint onto nature abstracted from it, rather than embedded.

Within Christian theology it has become necessary to look for another narrative metaphor, that more faithfully frames the relational aspect of the human condition to the natural world, accounts for the success of methodological naturalism within a theodicy, and places science within a coherent setting in relation to the narrative of creation-fall-election-incarnation-resurrection-new-creation. In particular, its relational content must be at the same time faithful to our experience of nature, and to the theological story with which we make sense of our human condition. In complementary terms, late-modern discourse has tended to categorise narratives about nature as ‘third person’. In her magisterial reworking of theodicy by example, Eleanore Stump[6]points out that much Biblical narrative is inherently ‘second person’, however, and that the category-error of forcing ‘third person’ structure onto it leads to artificial hermeneutical problems, rather like the three we have identified in the ‘Book of Nature’ approach to science.  A vital case in point is found in the Book of Job, which adopts not only a second-person approach to theodicy, and to the relationship between God and humans (through the example of Job himself), but also introduces a second-person approach to the relationship between humans and the natural creation.[7]In support of the claim that, within the Biblical Wisdom tradition, the Book of Jobconstitutes the best Biblical starting point for a narratology of the human relationship of the mind with physical creation, let us read from the point at which God finally speaks to Job (after 37 chapters of silence) in chapter 38:4-7:[8]

Where were you when I founded the earth?

Tell me, if you have insight.

Who fixed its dimensions? Surely you know!

Who stretched the measuring cord across it?

Into what were its bases sunk,

or who set its capstone, when the stars of the morning rejoiced together,

and all the sons of God shouted for joy?


The writer delineates a beautiful development of the core creation narrative in Hebrew wisdom poetry (a form found in Psalms, Proverbs and some Prophets that speaks of creation through ‘ordering’, ‘bounding’ and ‘setting foundations’[9]), but now in the relentless urgency of the question-form, throughout its history the imaginative core of scientific innovation. The subject matter of the poetic question-catalogue moves through meteorology, astronomy, zoology, finishing with a celebrated ‘de-centralising’ text that places humans at the periphery of the world, looking on in wonder at its centre-pieces, the great beasts Behemoth and Leviathan. This is an ancient recognition of the unpredictable aspects of the world: the whirlwind, the earthquake, the flood, unknown great beasts.

Long recognised, as a masterpiece of ancient literature, the Book of Job has attracted and perplexed scholars in equal measures for centuries, and is still a vibrant field of study right up to the present day. David Clines, to whom we owe the translation employed here, calls the Job ‘the most intense book theologically and intellectually of the Old Testament’[10]. Job has inspired commentators across vistas of centuries and philosophies, from Basil the Great, to Kant, to Levinas. Philosopher Susan Neiman has recently argued the case that the Book Job constitutes, alongside Plato, a necessary source-text for the foundation of philosophy itself.[11]

However, although readers of the text have long recognised that the cosmological motif within Job is striking and important, it has not received as much comprehensive attention as the legal, moral, and theological strands in the book, albeit with a few notable exceptions.[12]Arguably the identification of a direct link of the subject matter of Job to the human capacity for natural philosophy goes back at least as far as Aquinas, who refers at several points to Aristotle’s Physicsin his extensive commentary on the wisdom book,[13]  but these connections are rare in preference to metaphorical readings. This de-emphasising of cosmology might partly explain why Job 38, from which we have taken the extracts above, known as ‘The Lord’s Answer’ has had such a problematic history of reception and interpretation. Does it really answer Job’s two questions about his own innocence and the meaninglessness of his suffering? Does the ‘Lord’ of the creation hymns correspond to the creator Yahweh of the Psalms, the Pentateuch and the Prophets? Does the text even belong to the rest of the book as originally conceived? Some scholars have found the Lord’s Answer to Job spiteful, a petulant put-down that misses the point and avoids the tough questions.[14]But are these interpretations justified? Even looking at the text through the fresh lens of science today resonates with the difficultyof questioning nature, even its painfulness, as well as its wonder––that is how scientists respond at a first reading time and again.

To begin to answer, at a textual level, the charge that the ‘Lord’s Answer’ isn’t an answer, we need to observe that the intense nature imagery of the Book is by no means confined to Yahweh’s voice. On the contrary––nature imagery is employed from the very outset of the prologue, and throughout the disputations between Job and his friends. Indeed, every theme picked up in the Lord’s Answerhas already appeared in the cycles of dialogue between Job and his friends. The entire book is structured around the theme of wild nature. There is, furthermore, an ordered pattern in the realms of creation explored predominantly in the three cycles of speeches, moving from inanimate, to living then cosmological nature, as the tension between Job and his friends reaches its crescendo of personal invective in the third cycle.

Between the speech-cycles and the Lord’s Answer is a third vital strand of material. For the question to which chapter 38 is the answer, is found in the equally magisterial ‘Hymn to Wisdom’ of chapter 28, which begins with a remarkable metaphor for human perspicuity into the structure of the world – that of the miner underground:

Surely there is a mine for silver, and a place where gold is refined.

Iron is taken from the soil, rock that will be poured out as copper.

An end is put to darkness, and to the furthest bound they seek the ore in gloom and deep darkness.

A foreign race cuts the shafts; forgotten by travellers, far away from humans they dangle and sway.

That earth from which food comes forth is underneath changed as if by fire.

Its rocks are the source of lapis, with its flecks of gold.

The subterranean world takes us completely by surprise – why did either an original author or a later compiler suppose that the next step to take in the book was down a mineshaft? Reading on,

There is a path no bird of prey knows, unseen by the eye of falcons.

The proud beasts have not trodden it, no lion has prowled it …

There is something uniquely human about the way we fashion our relationship to the physical world. Only human eyes can seethe material world from the new viewpoint of its interior. It is an enhanced sight that asks questions, that directs further exploration, that wonders. The conclusion of the hymn points to the shocking parallel of the human wisdom of the miner, and the divine wisdom of the Creator (28v23):

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,

when he made a decree for the rain and a path for the thunderbolt –

then he saw and appraised it, established it and fathomed it.


It is by no means true that the hymn concludes that wisdom has nothing to do with the created world, for the reason that God knows where to find it is precisely because he ‘looked to the ends of the earth, …, established it and fathomed it’. It is, as for the underground miners, a very special sort of looking – involving number (in an impressive leap of the imagination in which we assign a value to the force of the wind) and physical law (in the controlled paths of rain and lightning). This is an extraordinary claim: that wisdom is to be found in participating with a deep understanding of the world, its structure and dynamics.

A reading of the entire book reveals that it continually navigates possible relationships between the human and the material, throughout the cycles of speeches, the Hymn to Wisdom and the Lord’s Answer.[15]From ‘nature as eternal mystery’ to ‘nature as moral arbiter’, alternatives are rejected, until the Hymn to Wisdom itself points to a new notion of relationship. This new voice hints at a balance between order and chaos rather than a domination of either. It inspires bold ideas such as a covenant between humans and the stones, thinks through the provenance of rainclouds, observes the structure of the mountains from below, wonders at the weightless suspension of the earth itself. It sees humankind’s exploration of nature as inImago Dei, and a participation in Wisdom herself.

The story of search for wisdom through the perceptive, renewed and reconciliatory relationship with nature, begins to look like a potential source for a new theological narrative of nature in our own times. It is rooted in creation and covenant, rather than Aristotelian tradition; it recognises reasons to despair, but undercuts them with hope; it points away from stagnation to a future of greater knowledge, understanding and healing – it is centrally teleological. Furthermore, it offers a stark opposition to the stance of natural theology.  Rather than looking into nature in the hope of perceiving God, we look with the Creator into creation, participating in his gaze, his love, and his co-creative ability to engage in nature’s future with responsibility and wisdom.  The applicability of methodological naturalism is unproblematic because it is God’s gift of sight, as creative chaos  becomes the gift to nature of freedom in possibility.

[1]Hugh of St. Victor Didascalicon (Book 7)

[2]The Works of the Honorable Robert Boyle, Vol. I, New Experiments Physico-Mechanical Touching the Spring of the Air, p.16 A new edition (1772) London: W. Johnson et al.

[3]Ephesians 3vv. 4,5 (NIV)

[4]See e.g. Joseph B. O. Okello (2015) A History and Critique of Methodological NaturalismEugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock.

[5]Alvin Plantinga (1997) Philosophical Analysis Origins & Design18:1

[6]Eleanor Stump, Wandering in DarknessOxford: OUP (2010)

[7]Tom McLeish, Faith and Wisdom in Science, Oxford: OUP (2014)

[8]We take quotations of the text from the magisterial new translation and commentary by David Clines, Thomas Nelson pubs., Nelson, Vol. 3 (2011).

[9]W. H., Brown, The Seven Pillars of Creation, (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2010).

[10]David J.A. Clines, Job 1-20 (Dallas: Word Books, 1989), Introduction.

[11]See her article, ‘The Rationality of the World: A Philosophical Reading of the Book of Job, (date accessed: 7/12/2016).

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

[13]Thomas Aquinas Expositio super Iob ad litteram, translated by Brian Mulladay and available on the web here:

[14]David Robertson, “The Book of Job: A Literary Study,” in Soundings, 56 (1973) 446-68.

[15]McLeish op. cit.





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.


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 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)


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


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


  • 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.


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.


The Lord Answering job out of the Whirlwind by William Blake

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.



Re-embedding Science in the Human

logo-zwart-poThis title was the one given to me by my hosts in Maastricht this week for the Brightlands Campus spring Science Lecture.  The experience was  rich and fascinating one.

I have been fascinated for many years by the effectiveness of deep collaborations between industrial and university scientists, and have tried several experiments along those lines myself.  For ten years I and a team of physicists, chemists, engineers, mathematicians and computer scientists from six UK universities worked with our industrial counterparts in six global companies in a giant project to elucidate and innovate with the molecular rules that govern the connection between molecular structure of polymers and the flow of their melts.  A number of us currently run an industry-university PhD training centre in ‘Soft Matter and Functional Interfaces’ between the universities of Durham, Leeds and Edinburgh, and 24 companies in polymers, coatings, food and personal care.Print

The point here is emphatically not the usual ‘application of research’, or ‘public benefit of science’ stories.  Told and retold by government departments to justify science spending, these Sheherezade-like tales that are needed every day to keep science funding from being cut-off I have criticized as part of the cultural lack of understanding around science today, in Faith and Wisdom in Science.  No, the truth is that more intellectual traffic flows from industrial screen-shot-2016-01-22-at-8-22-45-amscience into academic in a healthy collaboration – for the industrial research digs deeper than a disconnected academic lab would do, driven by business need into the rich loam of the world’s material complexity. And here new phenomena are discovered. This has been my experience for 30 years of doing science.  The most satisfying fundamental pieces of science that I have bee involved with have all arisen from long-term industrial collaborations.

But the Maastricht folk have taken this to a new level and invested in a shared site – labs, computers, pilot-plants, … academic and industrial groups from several businesses sharing the same campus.  I was impressed!  Even more so that 3 or 4 times a year everyone is encouraged to come to hear an afternoon of two lectures.  One is from an early-career scientist from university or industry, the other from a more experienced scientists.  Topics are of general interest but usually scientific, so I was surprised and delighted when Brightlands asked me to talk on what is really a secular version of my thesis in Faith and Wisdom.

lettherebescienceThe point is that if science is to become recognised as a public and human good in a way that goes beyond the instrumental or the monster, to take two of the poles that Dave Hutchings and I describe in the new Let There Be Science, then the science-religion question needs to be defined anyway.  For it is the theological tradition that leads to a rediscovery of the human purpose for science, and its human value in reconciling our precarious condition in the world.

Question time was fascinating – and one young scientist asked if I were able to stay for the Dutch March for Science – an international event, or series of events, taking place yesterday to appeal for the central importance of science in the face of its political marginalisation, especially in the USA. March for_sciencedcIt’s a good point – science will become truly valued when the science community create other ways in to enjoy and contemplate science, as well as urging its vital role in establishing truth, and good policy.


I also sold out of an entire suitcase supply of both books!

Rather looking forward to going back there again next year, which I think is the plan.