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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

IHRR.png

Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience, Durham University

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

 

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

A Christian Voice to the question, ‘What is Science For?’

BBC Radio 4 once nearly caused me a nasty road accident. I had foolishly believed that a drive along the A1M might be safely accompanied by the last of a series of panel discussions on ‘Culture in our Times’ (very ‘radio 4’). All very worthy and improving it was too as I recall – until the last few seconds of the programme when the chair cut in with something like, “Do you think that it’s strange that we’ve been debating ‘culture’ for 6 weeks now and haven’t once talked about science?”. One of the panellists came back immediately with: “Oh no! No – we wouldn’t want to be talking about anything as anoraksic as science in a discussion of culture.” This was of course the point at which I nearly lost control of the car …

It so saddens me – what we have done with science: put it in a little box with ‘geeky’ and ‘weird’, and filtered it for

Why is Science not more like Music?

Why is Science not more like Music?

public consumption in a way that no-one can see the art, the imagination, the love, despair, beauty in it – unless they have gone through years of special training. It stuck me recently that if we had done with music what we have done with science, no-one would ever go to hear a real live jazz quintet, or a symphony orchestra, or an opera. They would happen of course – but only in laboratory conditions away from untrained public ears. We might get the tune hummed to us the next morning on Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme and a slightly condescending interview by John Timpson with a conductor or bass player, but the idea that ordinary people might appreciate the difficulties of live harmony and counterpoint would be ridiculous; except of course, that we can – because music is at the heart of being human, whether we just enjoy listening, or can play the Brahms violin concerto from memory.

The 60’s social critique Jacques Barzun once wrote ‘Science with us is not with us an object of contemplation’, and he was right. But it could be. As a lover of creativity and art as well as a scientist I have long felt, long known that science belongs in that ‘basket’ of activities that make us human, where we also find story-telling, song, painting, sculpture, dance, poetry, philosophy, language, … All of these are ‘with us’ ‘objects of contemplation’. You might say that they all have their own human stories – their own ‘social narratives’.

But right now science doesn’t have a social narrative that ties it to the deeply human and creative – the very idea to some here will sound ridiculous – but this strange divorce has many harmful consequences from which I just want to pick out three – in politics, in education and in religion (so two out of three taboo topics – I’m working on making it three out of three with sex as well but you’ll have to stay tuned for that)

nuclearThis first is in the area of science and technology-based policy and its discussion in the public area. Have you noticed that we don’t seem to be able to carry on an adult conversation about this in public and in the press? I’m talking about fracking, climate change and global warming, genetic modification, nuclear power, nanotechnology – we might call them the ‘troubled technologies’. Rather than a reasoned debate on of whether and how to take these things forward, people tend to retrench to their initial positions and lob opinions over the parapet. The politics of conflict, usually fuelled by an intransigent ignorance on all parts, takes the place of informed engagement and convergence. Some of my Durham University colleagues in the faculty of social science have been interested in this phenomenon for a long time, and I was fascinated by their careful research, teasing out the hidden narrative structure of some of these debates. In a large project analysing the fraught Europe-wide discussion of potential nanotechnologies, for example, they found that behind and underneath a conversation ostensibly about appraising risk and benefit lay five unseen narratives:

  1. Be careful what you wish for
  2. Don’t open Pandora’s Box
  3. Don’t meddle with sacred Nature
  4. They will keep us in the dark
  5. The rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer.

Philosopher Jean-Pierre DuPuy calls these ‘narratives of despair’: desire, evil, the sacred, alienation and exploitation. It’s not that science doesn’t have a social narrative – it has actually accrued many contradictory and dark narratives such as these – and all the more powerful and damaging for being silent ones. Like sharks circling under the surface on which the public discussion swims, they control the debate by their fear-inducing presence, without having to surface themselves. Did you notice one thing about them? The ancient ones are all pagan, the modern all grimly secular.

Education. I love to visit schools, especially sixth forms – I sometimes go to their general studies sessions to talk about art and science, or science and faith or something like that. And as in all teaching it quickly becomes apparent by the looks in their eyes who the very bright ones are who are engaging critically with every idea, and who I’m having to work a bit harder for … At some point I like to ask those who did not choose to follow science subjects why they didn’t. The struggling ones sometimes say that they found it too difficult, or weren’t ‘good at it’. That’s itself a sad thing – rather than allow a young person to find an appropriate way of engaging with one of the most astonishing of human accomplishments, we manage to engender a belief that they aren’t good enough for it. But the bright ones never say Eagle Dark matterthat; they say something like, ‘I didn’t see that science would give me room for my creativity or imagination’. It’s like a knife through my heart – what have we done when we have so mis-told the story of human re-imagination of the entire cosmos, from the life-cycle of galaxies to the intricate chemistry of plant cells, that our children don’t see any room there for creativity? And so very likely they never do. I have come to believe that one of the cruellest things you can ask of a young person is, ‘are they on the science side or the arts side?’ It’s one of those nasty questions that entraps and restricts rather than frees and creates possibilities.

The church has not escaped from its own versions of ‘narratives of despair’ when it comes to science – or even of ‘narratives of conflict’. Although historians now recognise that 19th century polemics with titles like Andrew White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom are just that – un-evidenced polemics without a shred of history behind them, yet the myth of those conflicts lingers on at the same time as the real conflict of ‘young earth creationism’ infiltrates a biblically and scientifically illiterate church. On the surface, above the circling of these two very dangerous submerged sharks, is a Christian church in most places keeping its distance from science.

What we desperately need is a true story to tell about science, one that enables us to understand it within the long cultural history of humanity. It will tell us what science is for – a narrative of purpose – the philosophers would say, a teleology. And that is why, even if we are secular, we look to theology for resources here. Of all the humanities, theology is alone in still comfortably talking about purpose when in all others it has evaporated from modern discourse. Now when I say ‘purpose’, I’m not looking for an answer at the level of ‘it helps us make better aeroplanes’. Of course it does that, but I’m interested in where science belongs in the story of being human, and for an answer that might sit alongside an answer to the question, ‘what is the purpose of music?’ What does science do within the project of being human?

For scientists who are also Christians, this is by far the most important and fruitful question to ask at the nexus of science and religion. As a professor of physics and Anglican lay reader I am always being asked, ‘how do you reconcile science and religion?’ – a question that begs so many false assumptions that I never know where to start. It belongs in the class of ‘have you stopped beating your wife yet?’ questions. I’m not even going to recognise the framing. The real question is the one we can allow ourselves to explore if for once we can get off the back foot of apologetics and on to the front foot of thinking theologically about the world. It is the question, ‘What God’s gift of science do, as a means of work within God’s Kingdom?’

REal PresencesI’ll never forget the unexpected source of my first clue towards an answer to this question of purpose. A post-holocaust atheist Jewish thinker of the stature of Prof. George Steiner might be the last person you would think might reach for Christian theological narrative in a critique of the post-modern humanities! But in his deep and moving short book, Real Presences, he does just that – drawing on the three-day Easter shape of lost-ness and despair, waiting in the ‘not-yet’, and future hope, to articulate the human experience. And within this he talks about the purpose of art, in a simple statement that left me breathless:

Only art can go some way towards making accessible, towards waking into some measure of communicability, the sheer inhuman otherness of matter.

This is a wonderful idea – that the human is special among the animals because in some strange way we don’t feel at home in the physical space and time within which we live. The world frightens us with its ‘sheer inhuman otherness’. But – ‘Only ART?’ Surely this is exactly what science does – bridging this gulf of inaccessibility, and by observation, contemplation, mathematical reasoning and careful experiment, ‘waking into some measure of communicability’ this strange spiritless stuff around us, and of which we ourselves are made?

Steiner points us to a task of reconciliation with the physical world that needs to be done, and to a long extended story that describes its history, its present and its future. For just this idea of learning to see the world in a new and powerful way –of learning to see it in all its solid fabric of rock and water and ice and space – in the same way as its Creator sees it – lies at the heart of what the Old Testament calls ‘Wisdom’.   Here’s an example – the ‘Hymn to Wisdom’ in the Book of Job tells us why it is that God knows the way to wisdom:

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

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

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

A special kind of looking, a special kind of seeing, and measuring – this is the ancient ‘way to wisdom’. This deeply physical book, seeped in Nature imagery from beginning to end, has always fascinated me. At its climax we find what surely must be the most striking of all nature poems from the ancient world – in the form of God’s long-awaited answer to Job’s demands for an explanation of his unjust suffering. It is not the answer we expect, because it takes for form of questions – 163 of them – and all about the natural world:

Were you there when I laid the foundations of the Earth?

Do you know the way to the storehouses of the hail?

Where is the way to the abode of light?

Can you bind the stars of the Pleiades or loose the cords of Orion?

Questions about the areas of science we now call astronomy, meteorology, geology, zoology and more pile up in stunning sequence as Yahweh asks Job to think about how to constitute a creation rich enough and delicate enough to support the complexity of the inhabited skies, oceans and land of the Earth. It’s as if he is saying to the angry Job – yes I can make you the comforting, ordered, world you wish for, the world without storms and floods and earthquakes – but it will be as ordered as a stone, as a crystal – it will be a dead world.

I’ve often suggested to scientist colleagues that they read these chapters from Job – and invariably they come back astonished at the probing imagination behind the text. Now one of the reasons that scientists find the Lord’s Answer to Job so impressive is to do with its very form. For we know that, at the heart of science, is not the so-called ‘scientific method’ with its experiments, tests, refutations and all that. For the ‘method’ would have nothing to work with if new ideas, bold hypotheses, possible worlds, were not first imagined. And the central imaginative, creating act in science is the formulation of the creative question. To those school sixth formers who could not see the creative content of science, we need to ask not ‘can you find the right answer?’ but ‘can you imagine the creative question?’

And to the church we need to say, ‘recognise science not as the secular world’s threat to your belief, but as God’s gift in your service of community, nation and world’. And more than that – recognise that the activity we now call ‘science’ is really only the name of the current chapter in a book that humankind has been writing for centuries, whose earlier chapters were called by other names. Only a century or two ago I would not have been called a scientist, but a ‘natural philosopher’ or – if you like – a lover of wisdom to do with natural things. Perhaps it would be better if we still were to call science by that humbler and older name that contains both love and wisdom within itself, to recognise that science has the ancient story of wisdom as its own story.

Then perhaps we could start to go about our work of healing, of mending, of gently and firmly replacing falsehood with truth – and start to work with science rather than in fear of it, and loving away those fearful narratives of desire, evil and the sacred in nature, with the narratives of reconciliation, of knowledge, of wisdom and of hope.

Faith and Wisdom in Science goes Down Under

I am at present enjoying a warm, stimulating and rich visit to several universities and colleges in Australia and New Zealand at the invitation of ISCAST (Christians in Science and Technology) and the University of Otago.  At each stop there is a chance to discuss the Faith and Wisdom in Science approach to a theology of science, and also present research on biological physics and on the Durham and collaborators project on medieval science, at relevant departments and centres. ISCAST have a page listing all the events in Australia here, so I wont list them again.  But  in Otago I will be talking about Interdisciplinary research as well as a Public lecture on the Faith and Wisdom in Science theme in their Centre for Theology and Public Issues.

KangasI had a remarkable first 3 hours in Australia.  The flight landing at 6am gave me a few hours for a breather with my affable host the ISCAST President Alan Gijsbers.  We took off to the glorious Westerfold Park in greater Melbourne – ‘would you like to go find some kangaroos?’.  And here they are looking alert and somewhat suspicious of my close and stealthy approach (stealthy for a clumsy pom that is) just before they took off.  The mother with pouched joey bounding as ably as the large males in the group earns every admiration.

Then we walked on to a bridge over the river Yarra, within the park.  Conversation continued as we gazed down towards the muddy waters.  Then there was an intriguing and oddly-shaped dark swimming animal right below us on the surface. ‘Oh look Alan – there’s a platypus’ I commented, not expecting much interest.  After all this WAS Australia and we HAD just seen a mob of kangaroos on land, so on water ….  Alan exploded with astonishment.  He has lived Platypushere for a number of years that it would be impolite to specify and this (photographed by him as it dived) was the first ever sighting by him of one in the wild.

Such good fortune has stayed with me so far during the trip in continued sightings of and conversations with rich and rare Australian human wildlife.  The questions and discussions at presentations of the wisdom approach to a Theology of Science have been as insightful as they are stimulating, from the Alan Day Memorial lecture in Melbourne, to a Tabor College Public Lecture in Adelaide, or an Emmanuel College lecture within the Centre for the Study of Science Religion and Society.

The discussion has been deepened by questions that will challenge a lot of further thinking:

  • What does a wisdom theology of science say to inform a responsible policy of forestry management? (think about it – this is a GREAT question to bring the strands together into a practical focus, and posed by Richard Gijsbers, former forester himself).
  • Does the ‘faith and wisdom’ critique of natural theology open up a new way to understand Karl Barth’s approach to the relation between theology and creation?  (I had previously absorbed a rather naïve view that Barth is not strongly relevant to a science faith dialogue, but this was hasty)
  • With Richard Gijsbers in the forest talking environmental theology in situ!

    With Richard Gijsbers in the forest talking environmental theology in situ!

  • Does the relational and invitational interpretation of the Lord’s Answer to Job add any insight to the way it might have been read in Hebrew context?  (Now this is a vital question, but a hard one as we don’t really know what the historical context was, though the exile is a good start…)
  • What is the role and meaning of ‘fear’ in the reconciliatory work between humans and nature?

This and more should keep this channel hot for a while.  And we still have Sydney and all of the New Zealand leg to go. More anon I should think.

The Faith and Wisdom in Science Story in Three Steps

Lincoln CathedralIt’s proving a very interesting summer thanks to two invitations to give lectures

Faith and Wisdom in Science (OUP 2014)

Faith and Wisdom in Science (OUP 2014)

and discussions on the material in Faith and Wisdom in Science over three consecutive sessions, rather than squeezing it all into one evening.  The first, in June, was from the West Yorkshire School of Christian Studies (WYSOCS) to deliver the input for their annual study weekend.  The second is from York Minster, to give their annual series of three summer lectures.  The first happened last month, the York Minster series has one more to go (so you can still come!).

I’ve found the opportunity to let the story of the thinking behind the book ‘breathe’ rather more spaciously very stimulating, and satisfying.  The narrative is less rushed, preparatory material can be enriched, and – best of all – we can devote almost the entire second lecture to a good wallow in the Book of Job and its wonderful nature poems, painful questions and search for Wisdom.

The WYSOCS audio files can be found here, for those with the patience to hear them, and I will be posting the slides on the Minster web site in due course. The three-section structure for FaWiS goes something like this:

  1. A historical summary of relation between science and religion
  2. The search for Wisdom: Creation stories in Psalms and Proverbs, and the Book of Job
  3. Through the New Testament and towards a Theology of Science

The first hour and discussion can set the scene – how did we get into this mess?  We look at Tertullian’s infamous ‘What has Athens got to do with Jerusalem?’ outburst in Against Heretics but in the context of a thinking perfectly able and willing to recruit Stoic logic to his Christian purposes.  Another contrast is the wonderful Gregory of Nyssa whose On the Soul and the Resurrection contains a beautiful forth century therapeutic application of scientific thinking at his sister Macrina’s deathbed.  A little more ‘myth-busting” taking in the scientific advances of the medieval Islamic and Christian worlds, for example, take us to the early modern acceleration of science – and its explicit (Baconian) Christian teleology.  So we find the ‘conflict’ narrative to be a social construction of the 19th and 20th centuries that creates havoc with the social context of science, and in the church.

What we need, then, is a dose of Wisdom – and we turn to the strand of creation stories in the Bible for a taste of writing about human relationship with the nature in the ancient world.  The 20 creation stories in the Bible get a brief overview, as well as bridgetheir purpose.  They are used ubiquitously as bridge texts between present trouble and future hope.  Psalm 33 is a prime example.  We also review them from a structural perspective – their common features of ordering, of setting boundaries between land and sea, heavens and the earth, laying foundations, and finally  the role of Word in the creative act.  The short creation story from Ps33 runs:

6 By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth. 7 He gathers the waters of the sea into jars; he puts the deep into storehouses. 8 Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the people of the world revere him. 9 For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm.

This takes us into Job, with the structure of circling dialogues, each invoking nature imagery to illustrate Job’s great double accusation – that God is as out of control of the moral law as he is of the natural law.  Injustice flows like the wadis – dry one day and in uncontrolled and destructive spate the next. The Hymn to Wisdom of Job 28 points us towards the wisdom of perceptive searching and seeing into the natural world by weight and measure (this is the Wisdom of God) and towards YHWH’s answer in chapters 38-40.  This is not the ‘petulant put-down’ of some critical readings, but a teacher’s questions of a pupil or debating adversary – and they lead Job into the position of how one creates a world of fruitfulness, life, and humanity, “Were you there when I laid the foundations of the Earth …”.

So by the start of the third session we are building up a picture of a theology of science that is old, deeply embedded into the human, takes a responsible stance as God’s co-workers, is reconciliatory of our relationship with nature.  We are called to replace a relationship characterised by ignorance, fear and harm with one filled out with knowledge, wisdom and mutual flourishing.  That is what God’s gift of science is all about – not a threat to faith, but a gift of talents to exercise it in obedience and humility.  We can spend some time on consequences for public shared science, education, the media, the political debate of science based issues such as climate change, fracking, genetic medicine, that as things are get stuck in immobile oppositional negative narratives of despair.

The longer breath of presentation seems to elicit a deeper vein of question as well.  At WYSOCS I was pressed, for example, on the ‘no prior boundaries’ conclusion – that the Biblical material asks us to take responsibility for what we do and do not do with our knowledge of the world.  So it is not a priori evident that we should not, for example, deliberately manipulate the human genome.  But nor is it obvious that we should just because we can.  In every case we need to take wise, theologically informed, participative, reconciliatory discussion into the public square.  Was there an occasion when there was an experimental piece of research I wanted to do, but which I felt was a theological no-go area?  As a theoretician myself, I am blessed with not finding myself in this position!  However, I am aware of, and was involved in, a discussion with an academic ethical advisor to the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) in the UK about a project aimed at scoping a geo-engineering technology.  It was stopped, and I agreed, because there had been very inadequate public consultation and involvement of the ethical issues, unintended consequences and plan for further public debate, as well as a possible conflict of interest.  It had been framed in an ‘engineers and scientists know best’ narrative.  This is a good example of the application of theological thinking, but in a secular context, to the benefit of our relationship with nature.

More questions and initial directions of answers from WYSOCS and the Minster lectures over the summer!

Laudato Si – Reflections from Faith and Wisdom in Science

rainbowLast week Pope Francis published his widely anticipated encyclical Laudato Si.   It is a considered yet impassioned plea for new attitude and action towards our planet and environment – ‘Care for our Common Home’.  It is adressed not just to Catholics or the wider Christian communion, but to everyone. Immediate comment was almost universally warmly receptive, though tended to focus on particular statements or to extract highlighted ‘soundbites’ from within the lengthy sweep of its 186 pages. But its great strength is to be found in the very breadth and depth that the Encyclical allows itself. Before suggesting changes of political and personal attitude and behaviour, Laudato Si surveys a Biblically-informed theological discussion of science, technology and our responsibility to nature. Since this is also the essential foundation of Faith and Wisdom in Science, I rather think it the task of this column to look hard at the theology of science that the encyclical builds on, before reacting to its recommendations.

The very title of the document, and of course the author’s assumed pontifical name, are both taken from the founder of the movement to which he belongs – St. Francis of Assisi. The endearing honesty of the message is stamped on the introductory pages, which remind us of Francis’ especial love of nature, of all creatures, and the human care to which God entrusts the world. The very language of ‘Brother Sun’ and ‘Sister Earth’ prepares us for the deeply relational thinking that pervades the document, which later (§65 and §66) identifies the vital ‘relationship of human beings to the world’ as a broken one, as damaged as those with our neighbour and with God. The language used of this relationship with the natural world is

The Lord Answering job out of the Whirlwind by William Blake

The Lord Answering job out of the Whirlwind by William Blake

covenantal and reciprocal throughout. In Faith and Wisdom I found just this astonishingly profound category of relationship to emerge from the Wisdom tradition of the Old Testament – Job, for example, is assured that his anger and suffering, and also his questioning of nature itself, can become a pathway to a time when he is ‘in covenant with the stones’. Biblical affirmation of the goodness of physical reality, and our vital relation to it, really is that strong.

Francis likewise takes a Biblical reading informed by the Wisdom tradition to move away from a naive opposition of science and faith. On the contrary, he draws on science explicitly to inform theology: ‘the best scientific research available today touch[es] us deeply and provide[s] a concrete foundation for the ethical and spiritual itinerary that follows.’ (§15). That itinerary passes, as it did symbolically for Job, and as it does for St. Paul’s reflection on our relation with creation in Romans chapter 8, though a necessary pain: ‘Our goal is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it.’ (§19) If Francis feels pain, and also anger, at the current misshapen framing of that relationship as one of exploitative domination (‘Clearly, the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures §68), he expresses continual hope that a new and very different approach might follow (‘Instead, our “dominion” over the universe should be understood more properly in the sense of responsible stewardship’ – §116). This is authentic Biblical encounter with the natural world – there is only one place in Old or New Testaments where human relationship with nature is not within the context of pain, and that is within the hope of the new creation (Revelation 22).

The Faith and Wisdom story reaches yet more radical conclusions of our responsibility to use scientific knowledge with wisdom, identifying humans ‘in the image of God’ as participative co-creators in a universe which has not finished the work of creation. This is a vital point – we have the care of something growing and developing, not simply of a finished product. We

Self-assembly of molecular structures (Barrett group, McGill University)

Self-assembly of molecular structures (Barrett group, McGill University)

are able to harm a future, not just deform a present. Laudato Si draws on a remarkable passage from the celebrated medieval thinker St. Thomas Aquinas to explore and apply this idea. It might even be called a ‘theology of self-assembly! In his Summa Theologica Thomas illustrates the phenomenon of natural emergence: “Nature is nothing other than a certain kind of art, namely God’s art, impressed upon things, whereby those things are moved to a determinate end. It is as if a shipbuilder were able to give timbers the wherewithal to move themselves to take the form of a ship” (§80). The world is pregnant with possibility. I wonder what Thomas would make of today’s theories of self-assembling cell-membranes, an example I used in Faith and Wisdom to illustrate how the apparent chaos of the molecular world is necessary for order and a structure to emerge.

The science and the theology of Laudato Si work powerfully together. Under the surface of its language lie not only the analytic toolkit of science, which informs us of the dominant human causes of global warming, but also the integrative, holistic methods of complexity and the science of systems. The rain-forests are the ‘lungs of the planet’ (§40); A fully interdisciplinary approach is needed to address the ‘deepest problems of the global system’ (§111). Both science and faith create global communities – and an attentive reader will not miss the explicit acknowledgement of reflective contributions from church leaders in Japan, Brazil, New Zealand, Bolivia, USA, Paraguay, Germany, Canada and more. Sufi and Jewish thought is welcomed as well as Christian. This is connectivity embodied as well as urged.

There are of course places where I hesitate to affirm everything Francis says. I rather wish he had said explicitly that science is a gift of God, rather than the one-stage removed ’emerged from the gift of creativity’. But disagreement in some p art will be true of most readers. But living with those differences is also part of living and serving together in a connected and responsible way.

Laudato Si is not only a thoughtful document, it is a beautiful one. It is stern – it needs to be. It is painful. But it is not depressing or despairing. The prayers with which if finishes are full of praise and resurrection hope. It is surely right to suggest a song as we take on the urgent task of mending our ways, rediscovering simplicity, caring for the poor, receiving and using science as God’s gift, and stewarding our world for those who come after us.

Is Science Fatally Flawed?

This week’s Faith and Wisdom in Science event took the discussion to the Parish of St. Luke’s Grayshott, where vicar Moray stlukes_home_8Thomas had managed to fill the village social club (excellent beer) with more than a hundred young, old and in-between.  As usual, a very stimulating question-time, including a well-posed challenge to the question of other faith-traditions in the ‘participative-healing’ theology of science.  As that issue has been partially addressed by an ealier post on Islam and Science here, I thought I ought to comment on another challenge, which was put rather differently to others over the past year.

rainbowThe accusation was that the positive view of science as a good gift to be used wisely, but one that really does give us growing insight into the natural world, is fundamentally flawed, that science is permanently doomed to be on the wrong track because of its blinkered purview.  By implication, in this gloomy assessment of science, it can have nothing to do with the Kingdom of God.  It might have someting to do with the deployment of earthly power structures, of the domination of an intelligensia, of a sort of mind-control.  It is most certainly not the the joyous, unexpected wonder that we can, for example, understand the delicate weave of colours in a rainbow, or conjour up on our minds the molecular bonding structure of water in its various forms of ice-crystal.

A New Force

Now it is important not to confuse a view that science is fatally wrong with the simple, everyday, observation that science is wrong about some things most of the time.  The discovery that we can begin to grasp something of, for example, the structure of atoms, is wonderful because it is so difficult.  We can do it, but it takes centuries, many different minds with their own

π+ decay through the weak interaction

π+ decay through the weak interaction

perspectives, many false starts and wrong-headed ideas, flashes of hopes dashed by decisive experiments, before light dawns.  My questioner conjecured. that science is ignorant of an entire force field that it has ignored, yet which affects, among other things, the structure and properties of water.  This is actually a very instructive example, since there are force fields that untial very recent history were unknown to science. The ‘Weak Nuclear Force’ was first proposed to exist by Enrico Fermi in 1933, and was understood properly as a symmetry-broken aspect of the electro-weak force by Glashow, Salam and Weinberg in 1968.  For many years its existence as a fundamental force field was contested – and its carrying particles, the W and Z bosons were not directly detected until 1983.  Should there be a new force field yet to be discovered, there simply needs to be significant weight of experimental evidence and some form of theoretical concept that allows a predictive approach to further experiments, and what was once outside science will become part of its accepted wisdom.

All you need is love…

So before 1933, and arguably before 1983, science was ignorant of an entire force field.  Did that make it fatally flawed? Was skepticism such as it was within the science community unwarrented suppression of challenging ideas? I argue in Faith and Wisdom in Science that, on the contrary, the weakness and implausibility of young ideas in science needs the exercise of love towards them on the part of their proponents.  The theological insight that our relationship with the natural world is one that starts with ignorance and fear and makes a long and arduous journey towards knowledge and wisdom is well-illustrated by the metaphors of thorns and briars of Genesis chapter 3 and even of the pains of childbirth in Romans chapter 8.  Being wrong does not make science flawed, it is part of the painful journey to understanding that underscores science as the deeply human activity it has always been, and the highest of our imaginative projects.