Towards a theology of science: Tom McLeish’s "Faith and Wisdom in Science"

Tom McLeish is Professor of Physics at Durham University and a theoretical physicist whose work is renowned for increasing our understanding of the properties of soft materials.

Below is a summary of what I have learned from reading Tom McLeish’s Faith and Wisdom in Science (Oxford University Press 2014). It is not a summary of the book itself, which contains much more than I mention, and it is not a review, for which I would lack competence.

This is not just another book about the relationship between science and Christianity. Well, it is about that relationship, but from a perspective that is new to me. McLeish takes the first steps—quite a few, in fact—towards a theology of science. This may sound as if he is trying to take the high ground: Christianity above science. But he doesn’t. He grants that if there can be a theology of science, there can also be a science of theology (i.e. scientists of other disciplines who take theology as their object).

McLeish’s approach is two-pronged. First, he sets out to show by presenting examples that science is not something cold and mechanical, but that its practice is exciting and creative. He agrees with philosopher Karl Popper that science never possesses the ‘truth’. Scientists are always in the business of putting up and testing new hypotheses. Those that survive the test remain until another someone comes up with a better hypothesis that accounts for more than the earlier one. The oft cited case is that of Einstein’s theory of relativity replacing Newton’s mechanics. But McLeish makes the point—forcefully—that Popper had nothing to say about where hypotheses come from, and this is where creativity is central. Often a hypothesis is triggered in a scientist’s head by some seemingly random event. But this is not the end of scientific creativity, as creativity is typically very much involved in figuring out how one tests a hypothesis.

In support of his assertion that science is creative and fascinating, and thus deeply human, McLeish recounts a number of stories from science. Some of these are, as one would expect, quite modern. But some are drawn from much further back in history, before the supposed dawn of modern science. They include the church father Gregory of Nyssa from the fourth century, the Venerable Bede’s De natura rerum from the thirteenth century, and the extraordinary pioneer Robert Grosseteste from the same century who wrote insightfully about light. To be sure, these and others lacked the testing facilities of modern science, but they display both great curiosity about the universe and daring ingenuity and insight in proposing how it works. They are without question part of the history of science. That is, they are part of the accumulation of human thought about the universe that has brought science to where it is today, even if what they studied was labelled ‘natural philosophy’ rather than ‘science’.

McLeish’s second prong is to show that this stream of thought—this curiosity about the universe—is manifest in the Old Testament to a degree that I had certainly not imagined. He takes us through the Old Testament wisdom literature and shows us again and again that the pursuit of ‘wisdom’ entails asking questions about the structure of creation. Proverbs 8 is a delightful poem in which Wisdom is one of the speakers, introducing the reader to the complexities of creation. Whilst its form is not ‘scientific’, it presupposes a tradition of deep thinking about the way the universe came into being and the way it functions. The same is true of Psalms 33 and 104, Jeremiah 10 and 51 and ‘deutero-’Isaiah 28, 40, 45.

The Old Testament culmination of this train of thought is that towering piece of ancient literature, the book of Job. McLeish calls it the summit of wisdom literature. Job finds himself deprived of his family and his wealth, sitting in the dust, his body covered in sores, with no idea why this has happened to him, as he has, he believes, led a righteous life. He complains about his state, but doesn’t criticise God. Instead, he seeks to understand the world of which his state is a part and the God who controls it. At more than one point he thinks the world must be out of God’s control, as he cannot see God’s justice in it. At others he complains that he can’t see what God is doing and would like to talk to God about it (e.g. 9:1-12, 13:13-28). Interpolated in the midst of this are poems about God’s wisdom (12:13-25, 28:1-28) which talk about the marvels of the earth but conclude that final understanding of them lies only with God himself. Finally, after Job has argued the toss about these matters with his three friends (who seek answers in terms of the current superficial theology), God speaks. His answer, which embraces chapters 38 to 41, takes Job and us on a tour of the earth and the universe. He begins:

Where were you when I founded the Earth? 
Tell me, if you have insight. 
Who fixed its dimensions? Surely you know! 
Who stretched the measuring cord across it?"

Some commentators have seen this irony as a great put-down. Job is ignorant and should remain so: he shouldn’t ask questions. Indeed, God offers no answer to the question, why is Job in the state that he is? Instead he takes Job on a breathtaking tour of the universe:

Can you bind the cluster of the Pleiades, or loose Orion’s belt? 
Can you bring out Mazzaroth in its season, or guide Aldebaran with its train? 
Do you determine the laws of the heaven?
The tour also provides striking knowledge of the natural world.
The wings of the ostrich are beautiful, 
but are they the pinions of stork or falcon? 
For she leaves her eggs on the ground, 
and lets them warm in the dust, 
forgetting that a foot may crush them, 
and that a wild animal may trample them, …"

McLeish devotes a longish chapter to Job, drawing on David Clines’ translation and commentary. He rejects the put-down interpretation, and instead sees this, especially after the opening thunderous verses, as an invitation to participate in wisdom (i.e. knowledge) about the universe. To be sure, knowledge is ultimately God’s, but we are invited to participate in its pursuit. Seen like this, God’s extended answer is not a put-down, but a response to Job’s questioning whether God is in fact in control and his desire to understand how the world works. God doesn’t tell Job how the world works, but invites him to come along and find out. Indeed, the list of questions that God poses here are questions that the writer must himself have formulated and questions that science is still addressing.

Job sees his plight as a part of the world as a whole. For him, there is no separation, for example, between justice and the physical world. Reflecting Jewish thinking they are part and parcel of a single universe. The Fall in Genesis 3 has a profound effect not only on humanity but also on the natural world.

This unity is present in passages which address more directly the implication of Job’s questions, namely that the universe is somehow out of joint, and this affects both humanity and the non-human world. McLeish points to Isaiah 11, which speaks of a righting of wrongs that will transcend human society:

The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, 
the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. 
The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, 
and the lion will eat straw like the ox. 
The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, 
for the Earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

A powerful element in Jewish thought was the ever-present threat of chaos, seen in the weather and especially in the much feared sea. McLeish points out that it is no coincidence that when the righting of wrongs initiated through Jesus is finally completed in the New Jerusalem, there is no sea (Revelation 21:1). Chaos has vanished.

Where does all this take us with regard to a theology of science? In Surprised by hope Tom Wright shows that the Christian hope is the New Jerusalem, in which all wrongs have been righted. Somewhere he points to the fallacy practised by Christians who say that there is no need to right the wrongs of the society in which we live now, as they will all be put right in the world to come. He asks whether they will postpone right living to that world too. The answer is no, they won’t. Wright responds that if the world in which wrongs have been righted is the model for our personal practice, then it must also be the model for for our social concerns. We need to help our society to be a more just, more compassionate, more loving place. But the world to come is a world in which not only all things human but also all things physical have been righted, and this too becomes a model for our behaviour: that we pursue knowledge of the universe as a whole, both non-human and human, following the way that was long ago set out in the wisdom literature, following God’s implied invitation to Job and following in the footsteps of those for whom curiosity became natural philosophy and eventually what we call science.