Faith and Wisdom in Science – a first read review

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.

Faith and Wisdom in Science is available from Amazon UK and from Oxford University Press.

This review first appeared at Daniel's blog here

11 thoughts on “Faith and Wisdom in Science – a first read review”

  1. The onus is not on disproving resurrection, or virginal births, but to demonstrate that such ever happened. There are things that are science and history, and these are neither. Mythology is not science by definition, and the “one-off” claim (and these were never one-offs – resurrection is general, in two religions, virgin births proofs of ‘prophets/ deities chosen by God’) means not science and not history. Theology loses out by not being naturalistic, it gets stuck on the myths of one religion or religions, instead of joining in the general understanding of what works and what operates. Fractals do operate, equations that are ‘beautiful’ operate, and these open themselves out to naturalistic theological comment – what is it to say equations are ‘beautiful’ when they are simple and are demonstrative of something fundamental to how life works. And I’d agree that the 7 years and we are different, yet continuous, within a life-form, via shedding and replacing, is another naturalistic reality worthy of theological comment.

    This gives the clue as to how religions remain relevant. In naturalistic theology, a discussion about time can reflect upon religions and whether circular/ spiral or linear about time and a relationship there to science, in the matter of shedding and replacing, one can make a reflection with Buddhism and the transient and continuous without getting stuck on rebirth; there was once the ground-breaking book called The Tao of Physics by Frijof Capra.

    A religion of a God intervening in history, of miraculous beginnings and endings, and a timeline of a beginning and an end, does clash with science, a science that has its own mathematical and observational/ experimental beginnings and endings for time, the universe, the sun, the moon regulating the earth, the earth, humankind evolving and its end, the individual life of tens of years. Plenty to theologise about there, rather than some version of ‘A Spaceman came travelling’.

    • “The onus is not on disproving resurrection, or virginal births, but to demonstrate that such ever happened. There are things that are science and history, and these are neither.”

      OK, I agree in part here. But this is quite a different statement to your previous one, which was that a science of theology meant an end to virgin births and bodies rising from the dust.But, if these things are not science, how can science say anything about them, one way or another?

      I’d disagree with “not history”. The resurrection, at least, has left a massive imprint on history, both in a traceable and consistent modification of the Jewish worldview into the Christian one, and in terms ofcultural changes (think, for example, of the change of the “sabbath” day from Saturday to Sunday). There are historical questions to be answered there. I’ve read your discussions on that other thread about resurrection, and I’d really recommend you take a look at NT Wright’s “The Resurrection of the Son of God” (or if you haven’t time for that long book, perhaps “Surprised by Hope”) for an outline of a better historical argument.

      But yes, there is beauty in equations. There is faith there too. Sometimes I have seen a new scientific theory preferred (perhaps loved?) because of it’s mathematical beauty, perhaps even when it seems to contradict current experimental evidence. Sometimes the beauty-lovers turn out to be vindicated, in the end, when new evidence comes to light.

  2. Daniel, from what you find in the book (or in your imagination), is there a theological basis for Christians to actually advocate for science, both as a human activity and as a body of ever-provisional findings? Or, if the Church failed to advocate for science, would that be as inconsistent with the gospel as a failure as a failure to advocate for peace? In our Templeton conversations here, the question has been a persistent one.

    The stakes are high. Most people are no longer peasants prostrating themselves before men in starched white lab coats arrayed under a banner of the Periodic Chart. Science is a commodity bought with taxes and venture capital. There are conservative and liberal professional scientists, and alas there are also professionally conservative and liberal scientists. For much of the general public, expressed opinions on say, evolution or global warming, are not so much reasoned and critical beliefs as badges of identity and temperament. The mythopoetically challenged (ab)use the language of science to say the human things because it is the only language they have. And yet– both actual science and various simulacra of it are the standard model of public reason, even for those who take it too much for granted, play it as a game, or never really got the point of it. Cynicism about science per se is no better than cynicism about any other kind of reason, and just because our societies somewhat rely on science, this cynicism enables damaging pathologies not seen before now.

    The apparent answers are ‘yes’ and ‘almost.’ And since one can ground these answers in either the ‘analogy of being’ or the ‘analogy of faith,’ members of both of the largest theological families should be able to see this. Where then is the evangelical constituency that will take this on? Perhaps they have read your fine review.

    • Bowman

      I’ll need to be brief, but thank you for your insightful comments and questions. So, yes, the book is very much about developing an argument for “Christians to actually advocate for science, both as a human activity and as a body of ever-provisional findings”. I’m not sure I would but it in the same category as advocacy for peace, but certainly in the same category as advocacy of art, music, dance, sociology and all other human activities which connect us to the world around. Also, I think a Christian theology of vocation (in terms of simply encouraging culture and creativity in all pheres of work) is sorely needed. Earlier in my blog, I posted quite a lot on Andy Crouch’s book “Culture Makers”, which has something to say here.

      But, yes, because of the currently high stakes in the faith-science interactions, and in terms of the percaptions of science in society, I think a Christian advocacy for science is particularly needed at present.

  3. I’m not sure I understand what Pluralist is trying to say here.

    I look forward to hearing Tom McLeish talk about this book at the Ian Ramsey Centre’s seminar on Thursday 19th June, 8.15 (free glass of wine!) for 8.30pm, Sutro Room, Trinity College, Oxford. Visitor’s are very welcome – just turn up.

    He will be joined on a panel discusssion by Bishop John Prichard, Prof Alistair McGrath and Prof Steve Blundell.

  4. I haven’t read it, but a science of theology is naturalistic. It means an end to virgin births and bodies rising from dust and all the other supernatural and magical. Good too, because the whole fractal nature of chaos into system is far more interesting, and yes that can be fruitfully theologised. That’s the fascination and necessity of coheence that a tiny virtual number included equation can show unpredictability of outcome, and yet in the large a systemic interaction that gives stability and duration to realities.

    This whole approach does come at the price that is exposes Christianity as an alternative cosmos that is just a fiction. Evolution, for example, is a chaos, always local and specific, and only systemic once it is large and one creature preys on another and cannot out-eat its food supply. Gone, then, is the idea that there is some Genesis to Revelation grand plan, or any interventionist God. The other day I looked back at a service I was involved in – a requiem mass to boxes of bones – and even the Anglican service taker admitted that the whole thing was a fiction.

    In his sermon he said: “Our bodies are already made of the ashes of dead stars, and to imagine the Day of Judgement as a vast process of bio-reconstruction doesn’t get us very far – as one of the Bless me Father books had it years ago, what happens if you get eaten by a cannibal? Who gets which bit on the Last Day? For chemical truth is not the only truth, and there are some things we can only hint at – and we turn to poetry and art and music to tell of the things which cannot be told in the laboratory.”

    In other words, in the clash with science, the old theology is thrown into poetry and fiction. It is why these ‘textual’ post-evangelical or radical orthodox theologies are just playful games. They end up being bubbles of fiction. So let’s do theology about how life actually exists – subject to chance, probability, the fractal, and enough to wonder towards without having to preserve ancient cosmologies within old doctrines.

    • Hi Pluralist. Perhaps you should read the book! You’ll probably find it both is, and isn’t, about the sort of things you are talking about.

      I don’t think you are correct when you say that a science of theology “means an end to virgin births and bodies rising from dust and all the other supernatural and magical.” That is simply to claim that, since people don’t normally rise from the dead, it can’t ever happen. But, science studies the repeatable: such things are, by definition, not repeatable. I cannot think of any repeatable experiment to disprove the resurrection.

      Similarly, arguments such as the cannibalism one, about resurrection, are as old as the doctrine of resurrection itself… the sadducees and pharisees debated such things. Each time you breath in and out, you exchange molecules with your surroundings. Your skin sheds layers all the time, to be replaced from below. You eat, and it does not all pass immediately through you. What makes you “you”? Is it simply the molecules from which you are made?

      But a scientifically based skepticism is not necessarily a bad thing – there is much that is silly said on both sides of the argument. The book of the review is more of an outflanking move, in any case: it is for those of us who are tired of the old “clash between science and theology” arguments. And “theology about how life actually exists – subject to chance, probability, the fractal” is definitely on its agenda.

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