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Faith and Wisdom in Science by Tom Mcleish

March 30, 2017

FAWISI heard a talk given by this author which dealt with the contents of this book. As well as being a top scientist* he is a lay Reader who knows his Bible well and is an excellent communicator whose enthusiasm for his subject is infectious.

* He is Professor of Physics at Durham University and also chairs the Royal Society’s education committee. After a first degree in physics and PhD (1987) in polymer physics at Cambridge University, a lectureship at Sheffield University, in complex fluid physics, lead to a chair at Leeds University from 1993. He has since won several awards both in Europe (Weissenberg Medal) and the USA (Bingham Medal) for his work on molecular rheology of polymers, and ran a large collaborative and multidisciplinary research programme in this field from 1999-2009 co-funded by EPSRC and industry.

He knows about music too.

Although he is an evangelical, he accepts the findings of biblical criticism.

Good science, like good theology, doesn’t so much peddle answers or deal in proofs as asks the right questions. Both subjects thrive on love and delight.

But Margaret Barker is a Methodist, not Orthodox p. 72), Marcion was CE, not BCE (p. 151) and Easter Saturday is not the day after Good Friday (p. 179).

He unfairly misquotes Angela Tilby that scientists make up a priesthood intent on keeping the rest of us in the dark.  (It wasn’t her opinion – she stated that ‘Many people feel that’)

He relies much on C. S. Lewis and N. T. Wright and rightly sees the inadequacy of John Polkinghorn.

It should really have been called ‘A scientist looks at the Bible.’

McLeish delivers a picture of science as a questioning discipline nested within a much older, wider set of questions about the world, as represented by the searches for wisdom and a better understanding of creation in the books of Genesis, in Proverbs, in the letters of St Paul, in Isaiah and Hosea but most of all in that wonderful hymn to earth system science known as the Book of Job.

He insists that rather than debating “science and theology” we need both “science of theology” and a “theology of science”

This 267-page book isn’t necessarily easy to read: in just a few pages he discusses the arguments against religion by Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Peter Atkins and Christopher Hitchens; he invokes Tom Paine, the poet Keats and the old argument by Bryan Appleyard that science is somehow dehumanising; he considers the debate between CP Snow and F R Leavis about the “two cultures”; a lecture by George Steiner and the famous hoax by Alan Sokal.


1: A Clamour of Voices
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; the arts-science divide.

2: What’s in a Name? Stories of Natural Philosophy, Modern and Ancient
He has a lot to say about Brownian motion, peptide molecules and the strange behaviour of jelly; also about science education, government policy, academic pressures, the public understanding of science, the differing demands and rewards of science and technology, the invocation of Frankenstein and Pandora’s Box as metaphors for scientific discovery.

He examines Gregory, the 4th century bishop of Nyssa and his sister Macrina, the Venerable Bede of the 8th century in Jarrow, and Robert Grosseteste, bishop of Lincoln in the 13th century, all of whom posed scientific questions. “First, doing science is very old,” says McLeish. “Second, doing science is a deeply human activity … real science can take place at an elderly woman’s bedside, in a medieval bishop’s house and on a sailing ship anchored by Van Diemen’s land just as much as in a modern university laboratory.”

He argues passionately that until relatively recently there was no gulf between the disciplines and gives several detailed historical examples of scientific work and thinking being practiced by individuals who would mainly be thought of in connection with theological work. Indeed the word “science” (linked to knowledge) is a relatively modern term – before about 1830 workers in the field dealt with Natural Philosophy (loving wisdom in natural things). He refutes the contention of some “New Atheists” that science is new – and only flourished when we were able to break away from old religious dogma.

3: Creation, Curiosity and Pain: Natural Wisdom in the Old Testament
4: Order and Chaos: The Comet, the Storm and the Earthquake
There are many creation stories in the Bible, and they share with science that natural inquisitiveness about the world – in fact, they encourage investigation into nature.

5: At the Summit: The Book of Job
The centrepiece of the book is a discussion of the dramatic passage on nature and creation found at the end of Job. Any scientist reading this passage will recognise that it contains most breathtaking set of questions, covering all of nature in its vast array. McLeish hears, amongst these 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. Nor does McLeish shy away from the other themes in Job (pain, suffering, injustice) – there is a sensitive, and insightful discussion of the boundaries between order and chaos. An invitation to understand creation better helps to reconcile us towards living within it.

6: Creation and Reconciliation: the New Testament creation narratives
7: A Theology of Science?
8: Mending our Ways, Sharing our Science and Figuring the Future
In the end, this book is all about reconciliation, not least between science and theology. McLeish argues, persuasively, that just as we need a “science of theology” (investigation into the phenomenon of religion) we also 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. In McLeish’s view, 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. Such a theology actively encourages science.

Epilogue: a Parable for Science

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A point often lost in the analysis of the morning stars as a metaphor for hope is that they appear when the sky is still totally dark, and there is still no other sign at all of the dawning day. Their removal signals the loss of the last vestigial ground of hope.

As we have already noted, this ancient Hebrew cosmos contains a closer connection between heavenly and earthly realms than the Aristotelian version with its essentially distinct division between the perfect and the imperfect at the Moon’s orbit. Beyond the notion that physical law may apply equally to the stars as to the Earth, we should however probably not understand here the ‘laws’ and ‘rule’ in the Newtonian sense of uni­versal physics (famously the idea that the same gravitational force accounts for the motion of a falling apple and the orbiting Moon). The connection is more likely the thought that the appearance of seasonal constellations in the heavens heralds the coming of annual rainy and dry periods on the Earth. The essential theme, though, is the idea of guidance rather than control, of a natural order that contains within itself openness, rather than a rigid predictability, and emergent order rather than an imposed one. It connects Heaven and Earth into one cre­ated system, with humans at the same time special because they are invited to participate in the wisdom of understanding it, but in no sense central or preferred. Again there is an invitation to think about how that order might come into being.

If, rather, the notion of ‘contained freedom’ lies implicit in the accounts of inanimate behaviour, it becomes explicit as the enquiry passes on to the animal world. It revisits our wild donkey, by now surely beloved to writer and reader alike (39:5):

Who let the wild ass go free? Who loosed the onager’s bonds, to whom I gave the steppe as its home, the saltings as its dwelling? It laughs at the tumult of the city, and hears no shouts from a donkey-driver. It ranges over the hills for pasture, searching for anything green.

The wild ass symbolises here, as widely in ancient Middle Eastern litera­ture, a counterweight to civilisation, the unruly world outside the city walls and urban legislation. So the point is not that God ‘let the wild ass free’ but that no one ever did: untamed from the beginning, it has always explored the open steppe and hilly ranges as its home. No rules dictate its gallop or direction any more than lightning or earthquake follow predictable timetables.

 A young person leaving their home church for theological college will receive public attention, an interview at the front of church and very possibly an invi­tation to write newsletters home. But the student leaving the same church for a degree course in physics does not have to be told in so many words to know that their choice is much less valued—the muted farewells and absence of any public recognition of their important step say it all too clearly.

Church teaching programmes, through sermons or study courses, are almost uniformly silent on science. And, as in parliament, the tiny proportion of church leadership with a science background only rein­forces the distance, a profoundly unsafe one, between the church com­munity and our engagement with nature.

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