I cannot write an impartial review of this book. Its author, Tom McLeish, was my PhD supervisor and continues to be a friend, mentor, collaborator, colleague; someone who has encouraged me throughout my career and (let’s be honest) promoted my work better than I can. I am somewhat biased.
Also, as both a Scientist and a Christian, there is something within me that truly feels this is a book thatought to have been written for some time. So, I don’t stand on neutral ground (but, then, which reviewers do?).
As usual, with books I enjoy, I read this one far too fast, trying to gulp it all in during a work-related plane flight and train journey. This is more of a first-impressions review; I will need to come back to the book in a little while, and might then discuss on here a few of the topics from the book in more detail.
So, to the review.
The book opens with “A Clamour of Voices,” a chapter simply listening to the often shrill and fractious voices which usually surround discussions on science and theology. Readers will be familiar with many of these: the strident claims of the new atheists; the equally absolute claims of the creationists; both suggesting that they hold a monopoly on truth. We note the science-arts divide, the feeling that art touches the heart whilst science is deeply impersonal, uncreative; that it suppresses mystery. Scientists are seen as the new priests of a secret knowledge, cut off from “normal” people; but they are also seen as a key to wealth creation and solving the problems of the world.
What are we to make of all this? Perhaps, suggests Tom, we would be as well to find out what doing science is really like, and the best way of doing that is to hear some stories about real life science; there are plenty such stories in this book. We discover that science does not end, or even begin, with the scientific method. Science is shaped much more by inquisitiveness about the world, by asking the right questions about how things are, whythey are like that. It frequently runs up against painful and frustrating dead ends. Science requires imagination, and creativity, in forming connections between things. Sometimes, new ideas need to be nurtured (loved?) in the face of seemingly contradictory facts (in the hope that the details will get ironed out in the end). Viewed like this, science is actually a deeply human activity, and is as old as civilisation itself. Indeed, suggests Tom, it deserves an older name: natural philosphy (meaning: lover of wisdom concerning nature).
Equally, a biblical view on science does not end, or even begin, with those two creation stories at the start of Genesis. If you know what you are looking for, you will find multiple creation “stories” scattered thoughout the Bible – Tom takes us on a rapid tour of them, noting common themes as we go: the establishment of boundaries (e.g. dividing sea from land); the channeling and ordering of chaotic forces; the (sometimes troubled) relationship of creation to both its creator and to humankind; the sheer joy of creativity.
In fact, Tom is gently leading our eyes up towards the most sustained, awe-inspiring, dramatic passage on nature and creation anywhere in the Bible: the “Lord’s answer” in the last few chapters of the book of Job. If you have never read this passage before – go and take a look (it is Job 38-41). You will find the most breathtaking set of questions, covering all of nature in its vast array. As a scientist it is impossible to read this poetry without sensing the beauty, and the challenge of these questions. After all, it is questions that drive us, that spur us on to delve deeper into wisdom concerning nature. No wonder Tom wants to tell us: take a look, have you seen this?
But there is a problem. The book of Job is about the injustice of life; about pain, and loss; about the fact that good people suffer whilst others get away with it; about creation apparently out of control. Job demands an answer from God, and this list of questions is what he gets in reply. It is easy to read the Lord’s answer as simply a massive put-down, or an avoidance of the question. Is it possible that looking at the text, afresh, though a scientist’s eyes might bring a different perspective? Maybe. For we can hear, amongst the questions, both an invitation and a challenge to seek after answers, to gain wisdom, to understand the physical world better, and to join with the creator in helping to shape and to order it. In other words, to do science.
A further insight, which struck me particularly, concerns the relationship between order and chaos. One of the more amazing understandings of modern science is the way that ordered structure emerges out of the apparently chaotic buzz of millions upon millions of atoms. One aspect of this order-from-chaos is the experience we know as life. We sit, continually, on the edge: life is not to be found in the swirling disorder of the completely chaotic; it hurts when the chaotic intrudes upon us. But neither is life to be found in a perfectly ordered and deterministic world: such a world may be predictable, even moral, but it is dead. Perhaps this is why an invitation to understand creation better helps to reconcile us towards living within it.
In the end, this book is all about reconciliation. Taking this particular path through both science and theology reveals that they are not so separate after all. They do not occupy separate domains, speaking about completely different things: in fact, Tom contends, if they are to speak about anything then they must both speak about everything. Their domains overlap completely. We should not be fearful when science speaks about theology – in fact we should welcome such insights, whether in terms of the anthopological account of the development of religion, or the neurological exploration of the brain during prayer. We are physical beings, formed from dust; it should come as no surprise that our experiences are in part physical, biological, anthropological. We need science of theologybut, equally, we need a theology of science. We need to explore and understand the human dimensions of science: what it is for, why we do it, and where it belongs in our history, our hopes and our values.
Tom’s suggestion for such a theology is that science permits a reconciliation between humankind and nature; it takes away our fear of the unknown otherness of matter; it permits a healing of the damage we do towards, and receive from, the natural world. It encourages us to seek after wisdom concerning natural things. Far from being discouraging, or fearful, of science, such a theology actively encourages it.
A closing chapter looks at how all of this might be cashed out in terms of science policy, education, public perception of science, and not least the “troubled technologies” which so plague our modern life. Perhaps the biggest surprise here is that a Biblically grounded theology of science does not preclude “messing with nature” – yet, in the context of a healing relationship, pure exploitation of nature is ruled out. There is much to ponder in this chapter: some is perhaps idealistic; other parts are merely sketching a direction of travel, rather than a destination. It is a journey worth taking.
This review first appeared at Daniel's blog here
Daniel Read is a husband and father of four. He is a worship leader at St John’s Church, Yeadon. He also has a PhD in Polymer Physics (supervised by Prof. Tom McLeish). He is currently a Reader in the School of Mathematics at the University of Leeds.