What is Science For?
Try Googling ‘Science and Christianity’ – the next word in the auto-suggest list is ‘conflict’. Hit return and the first page of titles includes the questions, ‘Are Science and Christianity at War?’ and ‘Has Science Disproved God?’
When I was asked with others to participate in this year’s Cheltenham Science Festival Debate, we were given the by-now-predictable title of ‘Can Science and Faith Co-exist?’ Do I sound a little tired already of facing the continuous barrage of these questions? Or rather of the same question posed in a thousand different ways? Yes, I admit that I do, and am somewhat enervated as well, for they are so monotonously posed that I believe that in the church we have now been persuaded that this is the only question that one can ask about science and faith. Furthermore, the question assumes that Christian (and other religious) belief is prima facie in conflict with science, and that our only real task is the apologetic one of fighting back from the ropes, if we are lucky still to be on our feet. The question takes for granted that science is a threat to Biblical belief, and that Christianity is a threat to science. None of this is true – neither the assumptions behind the question, nor the primary significance of the question itself.
For a long time I have wanted to think about a much more important question. As both a Christian and a scientist since my early adult life, the ‘can you reconcile …’ question has simply been a non-starter - on the level of the ‘have you stopped beating your wife?’ sort of question – it simply begins with the wrong assumptions. Having experienced the human ability to do science, to uncover and understand something of the inner structure of the world, as God’s gift, among the many other gifts that follow from his supreme one, there was always a deeper, and much truer question to ask: ‘What is Science For within the Kingdom?’ Or, in other words, within God’s great project, shared with us by revelation, of creation, incarnation, redemption and the renewal of creation, what part does the gift of science play and to what purpose?
If we are continually embroiled in the apologetic defence of the (within the family of faith) non-question of conflict, then we never allow ourselves the space to dig deep into Biblical material, theological reflection, and critical evaluation of our experience that needs to be the mark of people ‘transformed by the renewal of [our] minds’ (Rom 12:1). Perhaps that is also why the ‘science and faith’ debate is so little engaged with a wide resource of scripture. There is a lot said about the first chapter of Genesis, to be sure, but not a lot of the many other narratives of creation throughout Torah, Wisdom, Prophets and the New Testament too. Here seems to be a project: what does the whole testimony of scripture say about the purpose of science, and what would be the consequences of such an exegesis for the practice of Christian and scientific communities today?
Of course, consulting a concordance for the word ‘science’ is not a great idea. That does not, however, mean that our question is anachronistic, just that we need to know what science itself is at a deeper level. Fortunately we do not need to look historically back very far for clues, for only a century and a half ago I would not have been called a ‘scientist’, but a ‘natural philosopher’ – or, unpacking the Greek etymology, a ‘lover of wisdom to do with nature’. Before going any further, you could even try this on your science-suspecting friends and colleagues. Replace the implied knowledge claim of ‘scientist’ (a Latin-derived claimer of knowledge – ‘scio’ – I know) with the softer Greek, and you might find that more people warm to the idea that we might be engaging with nature in a search for wisdom within the context of love. The historical truth that science emerges from love and wisdom for nature speaks of it as a relational activity. So, rather than look up ‘science’, let us ask where in the Bible we are asked to think about the human relationship with the created material world. Immediately the texts pour forth like a river.
The first thing to notice is the frequency with which the creation story is told and retold: take a moment or two to look up a few places where the narrative refers back to God’s act of creating the world: Proverbs 8, Psalm 19, Psalm 33, Psalm 104, Isaiah 40, Isaiah 45, Jeremiah 10, Hosea 2, John 1 are just a few of the places where different language, a rich variety of metaphor, or fresh pictures are used to remind God’s people that it was their Lord who laid the foundations of the Earth, separated the land and the sea, spread out the heavens. The delightful and playful creation account in Proverbs 8 begins the story of wisdom – here she (Sophia) is a little girl at the feet of the Creator, playing with the rivers and mountains. The profound prologue to John’s Gospel contains a deliberate echo of the creation stories that begin with ‘in the beginning’, and in a brilliant stroke of prophetic insight identifies the Hellenistic creative and ordering principle of logos with the incarnate Christ. More is true: creation stories are used to a purpose. Creation stories, wherever they occur in scripture, tend to form bridges from a position of hopelessness and lost-ness to a renewed hope. So the great recapitulation of creation in Isaiah 40 leads directly to the announcement of the One coming to redeem Israel. Psalm 33 takes a (brief) journey through the creation of the cosmos to take the psalmist from despair to hope. Blink and you miss them- some of these accounts are very short, which in turn tells us just how developed the two Genesis creation stories are (in chapters 1 and 2), but brevity does not imply insignificance. Human relationship with the physical creation is also a growing theme in these recurrent motifs – the celebration of the wisdom of the farmer who knows which seeds to plant at what season is the focus of Isaiah 28; we don’t just sit back and contemplate physical creation, we engage with it.
Perhaps the most profound of all the wisdom scriptures, in its description of our relation with the natural world, is the enigmatic Book of Job. I have never tired of losing myself in this wonderful book since first I fell captive to what must surely be the greatest poem of natural wisdom in all ancient literature – the so-called ‘Lord’s Answer’ of chapters 38-42. Here, for the first time since the prologue, the Lord finally appears to Job in answer to his repeated demands for vindication and admission that his suffering is unjust. But rather than tackling Job’s complaints head-on, Yahweh takes the man on a journey through all of creation, and at every waypoint asks him a question:
Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea?.....
Where is the way to the abode of light?....
..From whose womb comes the ice?...
.. Do you know the laws of the heavens?
And can you apply them to the earth?
Scientists to whom I have recommended the reading of these chapters have always come back astonished – for here are the foundation questions of the sciences we now call ‘meterology’, ‘oceanography’, ‘cosmology’, ‘astronomy’, zoology’. More than that, as all working scientists know, the vital step in all successful science is not the finding of the correct answer (in spite of the years of schooling that would have us believe so) but the formulation of the creative question. Einstein, Heisenberg and many others have noted this.
Strangely, ‘The Lord’s Answer’ has received some tough criticism in the scholarly literature. On the one hand it is charged with irrelevance – Job is concerned with the moral issue of the suffering of the righteous, not the provenance of the snow or the lightning. On the other, God is accused of the petulant put-down – of suggesting by his list of unanswerable questions that Job is ignorant and should cease his complaining. Neither objection holds on close reading, however. For one thing, the entire Book of Job is replete with nature imagery. All the animals, plants and phenomena referred to in the Lord’s Answer have already been invoked in the three cycles of discourses between Job and his friends over the first 37 chapters. Job’s complaint is in fact a double one: he accuses God of allowing chaos to reign in the natural world just as much as he does in the moral world:
What he destroys will not be built, whom he imprisons will not be freed.
He holds back the waters, there is drought; he lets them loose, they overwhelm the earth.
As for the reason for God’s appearance, far from diminishing Job, he is invited to ‘stand up’ and debate on Yahweh’s level, as in a courtroom. The vital context for the long questioning poem is the earlier ‘intermission’ to the cycle of discourses in chapter 28 often called the ‘Hymn to Wisdom’. Mysteriously beginning down a mine, following the miners as they ‘dangle and sway’ on their ropes, looking up at the earth from beneath, the author wonders that of all the creatures, only human eyes are able to see the inner structures of the earth in this way. Then the depths of earth and sea are questioned on where wisdom can be found – without avail. The Hymn ends with identifying wisdom as a divine way of seeing:
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,
I find the picture of the miner’s eyes peering into the deep structure of the world from the glimmer of a lamp to be a faithful metaphor for science itself – that part of culture that develops our gift of seeing beneath the surface of phenomena in the light of observation, imagination and reason. Coming from Durham, where I work, it is also particularly significant – the former mining communities around the city still know Job 28 as ‘the miners’ prayer’ – and it appears in stained glass in Easington Colliery parish church. But there is more, for the close of the chapter indicates that it is in just this ability that we are made in the image of God as regards Wisdom, for this ‘deep seeing’ into the world is what Wisdom is, and what the Creator does.
Seen through a New Testament lens, a calling to heal a broken relationship with the world, by replacing ignorance with understanding, fear with wisdom and mutual harm with fruitfulness, looks like the fruits of the gospel of truth. St Paul wrote to the Corinthians (2 Cor5:7):
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ – new creation;
The old has gone, the new has come!
All this is from God, who reconciled himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation:
That God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ
The ‘ministry of reconciliation’ or, more simply, ‘healing broken relationships’ is what the gospel announces. It’s a great soundbite for what Christianity means, because everyone knows about broken relationships. We are able to participate in God’s ministry of healing because the relationship upon which all others depend has been healed by Jesus’ incarnation, death and resurrection. In this he is ‘reconciling the world (kosmos) to himself’ – that is the physical and natural world as well as the people in it. One of the most surprising and glorious aspects of the gospel is that God calls us to participate in this work. Perhaps the most humble of all broken relationships is that between human beings and the natural world. Like other cases, it shows its flaws by beginning in ignorance and fear, and in the propensity for mutual harm (we have long known that nature can harm us, but it is only in the last century that we have discovered just how much we can harm nature too).
Take the ancient invitation to Job, and thereby to all who follow him, to engage in a deep and questioning way with the natural world, together with the Pauline ministry of reconciliation, and perhaps we have the beginnings of a Biblical answer to the question, ‘What is Science for within the Kingdom of God?’ In a small way, mending our relationship with the creation is just what a redeemed and loved creature made in God’s image might be expected to do. Seen in that light, far from being a threat to faith, science becomes one of the most holy Christian ministries one could imagine.
Tom McLeish FRS, Professor of Physics, Durham University