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.





Faith in Science Education – Wisdom in how we do it

Faith and Wisdom in Science – the blog did take a summer break.  But other things happened.  In particular I had the opportunity to write (at 24 hours notice) an opinion piece for The Guardian newspaper in the UK (published August 14th) on the importance of children experiencing open-ended experimental science while at school.  There is growing evidence that this is enormously beneficial to core science learning, but, as readers of Faith and Wisdom in Science will know, it also touches on a deeply theological nerve.  Becoming reconciled with nature means working with it and observing.  This is something that everyone can experience and enjoy.

The Guardian article as printed is here (it also made the weekly printed Guardian International, to which we have subscribed for years – I was delighted!). But I thought that the full original drafted version, before editor’s cuts, might be interesting to post.  So that follows.  The most important thing is that Job made the final cut!


Science is not just the preserve of stereotypical brainy boffins you see on TV. Speaking to the Times yesterday, head of the British Science Association Katherine Mathieson, said this public image was not helpful and that she’d prefer to “see a few years of genuine open-ended research by pupils, rather than fiddling around with beakers”. She also worries that science is not a topic of common conversation. Rightly so – if we can get our minds around Premier League strategy then complexity is not the issue.’

Mathieson is right to raise concerns. The ability of people to understand the world they live in increasingly depends on their understanding of scientific ideas. Science allows us to learn reliably about nature – if an experimental result does not support a specific idea, then the idea has to be rejected or modified and then tested again. For most people such understanding by imagination and experimentation comes through education. ​Great teachers are the driving force behind the UK’s position as a global scientific powerhouse.

However, overly-tight accountability measures, rapidly changing curricula and burdensome pupil progress monitoring are just some of the enormous pressures on schools that impede creating an environment in which tomorrow’s scientists can learn and grow. Teachers often have to carry out experiments in their own time and beyond the curriculum by joining schemes like our Partnership Grants.

In 2013, a report published by SCORE found that a worrying number of primary students were not experiencing a complete science education due to a lack of resources for practical work, with the average school having only 46% of the equipment needed. The UK is failing to create a scientifically informed society that can confidently hold science properly to account by engaging, enjoying and, yes, criticising it.

Children learn about music by trying their hand at composing a song or joining a jazz trio or string quartet. Others take GCSE Art, where we expect them to try out sketching and use watercolours, mixed-media or creative photography to learn about the subject. Even the most doting relative does not expect these creations to end up in a museum or concert hall, but what they teach our children about the artistic process is essential.

Science should be treated the same way. Humans have always been curious about the natural world and the stuff that makes it up. In the Book of Job, an ancient poem asks why the stars of the Pleiades are bound together, while those of Orion are scattered. Centuries before we formalised the scientific method, we had thoughtful and playful experiments with light, glass and water as well as astonishingly careful observations of the stars. People dreamed up imaginative theories of what might be going on up in rainbows and down inside liquids and solids. It wasn’t always right, but even now science can be a messy business on the path to truth. Why should things be different in 2017?

The Royal Society emphasises ‘experimental’ over ‘practical’ science, where curiosity should go beyond following a simple recipe and people should simply try something – a thoughtful way of looking for answers. We need to reverse recent trends and increase the amount of time and money invested in experimental and problem-solving work in science and mathematics education through access to adequately resourced laboratories and well-trained teachers. To support this activity in primary schools, Brian Cox, the Royal Society’s Professor for Public Engagement in Science, presents a series of video resources to increase teachers’ confidence with experimental science and relate the experiments to the real world.

Before you reach out for your Rousseaus to bash me over the head with, I want to reassure you that experimental science in education complements rather than replaces the learning of core scientific understanding. Sir John Holman found that investigative science improved attainment in core science exams, with greater effect for pupils in less privileged areas. There are other signs of new growth – the new Institute for Research in Schools is right now realising Mathieson’s vision of ‘genuine open-ended research by pupils’.

We currently have many examples of good practice at primary and secondary schools and colleges across the UK. Investing in experimental science in all our schools to help future generations make better sense of the world around them means that one day we will have confident opinions on scientific issues like we do on technical matters like Premier League team strategies.


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


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!