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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

A Conversation about Faith and Science

I have just come back from a stimulating hour at the Durham Book Festival. I was on a platform in front of an attentive crowd to interview a local author. Tom McLeish is a Professor of Physics at Durham University. He is also a committed Christian and a reader in his local church. He and I have got to know each other in our University roles, have enjoyed theological chat and even played Brahms together (he is a proficient horn player). He has just written a stimulating book called Faith and Wisdom in Science (published earlier this year by OUP). This was the theme of our conversation.

I've read a few books on the topic of 'science and religion' (I'll explain in a moment why I put that phrase in quotation marks). To be honest, some of them were theologically na├»ve, and the best of the rest were usually worthy but dull. Tom's book is in a class of its own. For one thing, it's so well written. For another, it gives us a fascinating glimpse of the scientific practitioner at work. Tom draws on his own and others' research to illustrate his argument (and not an equation in sight!). The range of his writing is extraordinary: the sciences, music, classical and medieval literature, cultural history, social anthropology and of course theology. For me as a theologian, it was a surprise and a privilege to be given new insights into biblical texts at the hands of a physicist. 

The book's argument is that we need to get away from the sterile antithesis implied by the words 'science and religion'. Wisdom, Tom says, is about recognising that science and religion are both ways of speaking about everything, and therefore, are always about each other. So we need a science of theology and a theology of science: two human narratives that between them triangulate our reading of the world. Only in this way will we get beyond the the argumentative mentality (as practised by Richard Dawkins and others) that in turn pushes theology into indefensible corners such as literal readings of the creation narratives in Genesis. 

The centrepiece of the book, surprisingly, turns out not to be Genesis at all, but the Book of Job. Tom argues that it is here that we see how Hebrew wisdom contemplates the cosmos and begins to discern meanings in it. There is observation about how nature 'works', not least its wild, baffling elements, and there is insight into its moral fabric, including how simplistic theories of rewards and punishments simply can't work. If I were still teaching OT wisdom literature to undergraduates, I would put this Job chapter on my reading list. It's superb, beautifully done.

Wisdom is a contemplative activity as well as a practical attitude to life. And this, says Tom, is how science should be. Before the term 'science' entered common currency, it was known as 'natural philosophy'. Philo-Sophia: the love of wisdom as it is expressed in the natural world. I find it striking that Tom should write about the place of love in scientific endeavour. Not just the love of explanation or of an elegant theory but love of practising the 'art' itself (yes, he writes about science as an art too). Maybe that's been said before, but I found the idea most appealing. 

As a superannuated mathematician, I had more than the odd pang of regret that I no longer inhabit this scientific thought-world. The author has a passion for helping the young to love science and is its best possible advocate. He wants church leaders to become more articulate in the sciences so that the conversation between faith and science comes out of alliance, not confrontation. Tom: almost thou persuadest me to become a scientist (apologies to Acts 26.28 in the King James Version). Or at least enjoy the occasional gentle foray into maths and physics when retirement comes. 

1 comment:

  1. Hello,
    thanks for this - casts a fresh light on what can be a sterile, entrenched debate. Would be intrigued to know if you'd file John Polkinghorne's work under 'theologically naive' or 'worthy but dull' though...
    in friendship, Blair