In Praise of Natural Philosophy


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

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

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


The historic Grossmünster church next to the Theology Faculty in Zürich

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



The charming quad of the Zurich Theology Faculty

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


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

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

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

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

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


The Divorce of Poetry and Science

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

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

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

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

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

Do not all charms fly

At the mere touch of cold philosophy?

There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:

We know her woof, her texture; she is given

In the dull catalogue of common things.

Philosophy will clip an angel’s wings,

Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,

Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine

Unweave a rainbow.

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

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

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

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

The Lost Science-Theology of Wisdom

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

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

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


The Lord Answering job out of the Whirlwind by William Blake

Have you entered the storehouses of the snow?

Or have you seen the arsenals of the hail,

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

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

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

Science is the

  • participative,
  • relational,
  • co-creative

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

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

Towards a New Natural Philosophy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Science is Important in the Training of Church Leaders

image001Last month the Equipping Christian Leaders in an Age of Science team from St John’s College, Durham University  and the SATSU at the University of York, took this message to The Annual Conference for Theological Educators, 2018 at the Church of England’s Hayes Conference Centre near London.

As well as working to bring top research scientists and church leaders (bishops in the C of E and equivalent levels of authority in other denominations) together in theme-based workshops, and serving policy-makers at the Mission and Public Affairs division in Church House, the ECLAS project has steadily been building up a resource of training material for ordination-training, lay-ministry training and in-service development, to assist pastors, priests and other church leaders in engaging with science in their pastoral, teaching, mission work.

The UK is a little behind the US in some ways on this score – there has been a very successful Science for Seminaries programme running under the auspices of the AAAS (the US equivalent of the British Association for Science) for a number of years now.  The reasons are the same however:

  • For too long the Church has been persuaded that science is a threat, rather than a gift, largely as a result of the late 19th century invention of the ‘conflict myth’.
  • Christians have largely forgotten that their theological tradition has been responsible for enormous advances in science, including the development of experimental method in the 17th Century in the tradition of Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle.
  • The result is that the late-modern, socially-determined, anti-scientific and theologically flawed (to say the least) teachings of so-called ‘Creationism’, have taken root quite widely.
  • The consequences of confusion for church members with a vocation to science, or seekers outside being put off the good news message of Christ, are extremely serious.
  • The voice of reason, truth and rejection of fear-tactics that the church can bring to public dialogue is needed desperately in a current series of debates around science, engineering and medicine. Climate change and genetic medicine are just two examples.
  • There is a vast resource of ancient Biblical wisdom that needs to be mined for all of the above, which would represent a much more authoritative grasp of scripture in the task of understanding the relationship between humans, God and nature, than a narrow discussion of Genesis 1, for example.

We know, from research carried out by the ECLAS research fellow, Dr. Lydia Reid, with over 1000 people engaged in church leadership, that science topics occur very frequently in conversation in the course of their regular ministry, but that confidence to deal with them is very often lacking.

FaWis_450Most importantly, the basis for that confidence, a worked-through Theology of Science is pretty-much absent. That is why this was a central aim for the Faith and Wisdom in Science book (and why the project gave a copy to every participant at the conference!). The church does not need to stay on the ‘back foot’ in defence of a science it perceives as outside its domain of knowledge and threatening to its basis of belief, but get on the ‘front foot’ of doing what it does best – thinking and acting how to serve the world in the light of God’s gifts – in this case the extraordinary gift of an ordered universe, and one that humans can learn to understandon an earth that we can care for.

That is also why we have now provided several classes of digital resource on the project webpages (see below) that seminaries, ordination courses, and bible colleges can use to insert within existing modules, rather than squeeze in extra ‘science’ modules in already-stuffed curricula.


Short Answers to Big Questions  are video-shorts from Revd. Prof. David Wilkinson and Prof. Tom McLeish (the present writer) tackling what the vision of a science-engaged church is, what it can achieve in pastoral and mission service, how we deal with questions of Biblical interpretation and findings of science such as cosmic expansion and evolution.

Lesson Plans are written material for units that can be delivered in 1 hour, 3 hour or longer ‘chunks’ of courses on Bible, church practice, history and more. Each is written by an expert theological educator who is also scientifically-informed, and in many cases practicing scientists. Here is a snippet from a great example – Oxford Diocese Science Missioner Dr. Jenny Brown writes about bringing science into preaching …


Try out some of this material for yourself!  And drop us a line about it at the contact on the ECLAS site!




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.




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.


How Christian Faith Supports Science

‘Can you give us a few words on how a Christian worldview assists science?’, was the question put to me a few weeks ago by the organisers of an event in Leeds run by Faith in Scholarship under a new resource called The Church Scientific.  I wasn’t able to attend in person at the launch, sadly, but was able to put a few thoughts together for a video message they showed.


Galileo Galilei


‘Wait!’ I hear you say.  What a ridiculous question – for centuries Christianity has exerted a drag force, surely, on the forward momentum of science? Think about Galileo, evolution … how can a worldview that elevates dogma in spite of evidence possibly assist a scientific outlook of evidence-based fact?

So runs the tired, and (paradoxically) ill-informed, dogmatic and not-at-all evidence-based view sadly trotted out in public and the media today.  And more than sadly, taught to children in a way that plants an ignorance of history, of philosophy, of a true notion of science and indeed of a true idea of Christianity that can last a lifetime.

That there is a very different story to be told, much more in line with how science really works and how Christian faith operates, and has operated in the development of mind, worldview ethics and imagination, is the reason I wrote Faith and Wisdom in Science and the reason that Dave Hutchings and I just finished Let There Be Science (out with LionHudson in January), which takes the idea of Science as God’s Gift to a wider readership, and develops exactly this idea.  Through the ages, the balance of evidence indicates that a Christian worldview has propelled science forward both on the individual and communal level.

For the full version – see the books!  But for a few brief pointers for thought …

  1. To do science needs huge courage, against the expectation that we might be able to comprehend the nature of the universe with our minds. The hope that we might be able to do this comes from Biblical Wisdom such as encapsulated in The Book of Job (chapter 28 in particular) and in the idea of being created in the image of God.
  2. pleiadesThe core creative activity in science is to pose the imaginative question – and imaginative questions about nature, the nature of God and the human, are the intellectual Biblical backbone.  Can you bind the stars of the Pleiades? is just one of the 165 searching questions put to Job by God (chapter 38).  The Bible’s Jewish milieu is deeply educational in the tradition of the pedagogy of questions.
  3. Science is hard!  It’s full of disappointment and struggle as well as joy (on occasion).  The painful story of any engagement with nature is the Biblical account through and through, from the ‘great commission’ in Genesis to the metaphor of creation groaning of Paul’s Letter to the Romans.
  4. Science requires us time and again to change what we believe in the light of evidence.  Sometimes this is a total about-face.  It’s a hard thing to do, to change a deeply-held view. Yet the experience of turning a worldview upside down is exactly what is required to become a Christian.  It’s good training to drop cherished ideas n the light of new observations when the idea that following oneself has already been laid aside in favour of the new direction of following Jesus.
  5. Science is done in community. It is in the end a work of love, of the world, and of the others with whom we share the work.  We can only do that in an atmosphere of respect and trust, of mutual encouragement.  It isn’t always like this in reality, but science works best when these resolutely Christian values are deployed.
  6. Science keeps you humble.  The more we learn, the bigger the ‘coastline of science’ – the boundary perceived between the known and the unknown, also grows, as Marcelo Gleiser has pointed out in his recent book The Island of Knowledge.

More is true – we have not touched here on the historical conception of the experimental science we know today through the theological motivation of the early Christina thinkers, through philosophers such as Bede, Adelard, Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, and through the Renaissance to Francis Bacon and the scientists of the 17th century.

This is not the replacement of theological thinking by a new secular tradition, but the outworking of a theologically motivated understanding that a work of healing is given to us by our Creator, alongside the tools to do it. If medicine is God’s gift to us for the work of healing broken people, the science is God’s gift to us for the work of healing a broken relationship with nature.


Can Science and Faith Coexist? – The Times Debate for the Cheltenham Science Festival

This year’s Cheltenham Science Festival is running, sponsored as usual by The Times newspaper, a festival debate.  The topic will be ‘Can Science and Faith Coexist?‘.  Chaired by journalist Oliver Kamm, there are three speakers – Robert Winston, the celebrated reproductive surgeon and public communicator of science, Mohamed El-Gomati, professor of electronics at York University, and Tom McLeish, professor of physics at Durham University (that would be me).


A casual observer might be a little surprised at the lineup.  For Winston is a practicing Jew, El-Gomati likewise a Muslim, and I a Christian.  All are working scientists.  Where are the atheists necessary to knock some sense into these faith-heads and supply the resounding answer, ‘NO!’ to the question of the debate that the current conflictual model of science and religion demands at every turn? I dare say that we will meet a few on Tuesday June 8th in Cheltenham, but I think that the organisers of the Festival have made an interesting move.

For, by implication in those they have invited to discuss the topic, the real question of the debate is much more interesting – it is how science and faith do co-exist in the lives and thought of three scientists like us.  And underlying that question is a deeper one still, and one that we might end up answering in different ways: what place does science have in our lives of faith, what, after all, is science for in the service of God?  For a believer, X and faith never just ‘co-exist’, whatever X might be.  As Paul wrote of the work of Christ in creation (Colossians 1:17),

He is before all things, and in him all things hold together

This is the question I took as primary in the book Faith and Wisdom in Science, that started this blog off.  Answering it, even for someone who  had tried to live the question for a long time, was a long but fascinating journey through history, science itself and theology.  And the answer (so far – I don’t expect that sort of journey ever to finish), has a great deal to say about how we can do science better, with more human connectivity, and a much better community engagement into what science does for humanity and how we can all engage with it.

It turns out that, even in a ‘confrontation’ with a scientist who holds and atheist position, this approach is much more constructive than the usual oppositional one.  For one thing, a Christian who see science as God’s gift, and a mark of the extraordinary way in which we are made in the creator’s image, is by virtue of that theological understanding, the strongest possible supporter of science.

A debate last year at Keele University illustrates the idea (the link is a YouTube video of the evening).  Exoplanet hunter and astronomer Coel Hellier and I were pitted against each other in a ‘Science vs. Religion’ public setting.  But we were able to explore the nuanced reasons for our differences as well as just stating them, and we engaged in thinking through ways in which science could be more celebrated and contemplated by anyone.

I’m looking forward to Cheltenham 2016!