Why God loves science and science needs God
Professor Tom McLeish spoke at the annual Science lecture at Norwich Cathedral on May 10 and encouraged people to think of science as God's gift to us.
Report by By Nick Brewin and Patrick Richmond
"God loves Science and Science needs God”: This was the thought-provoking title of a recent lecture in Norwich Cathedral. The theme was that science and curiosity-driven research should be at the heart of a Christian worldview. Christian faith can help science be a healing enterprise, rather than the inhuman, threatening one that some fear.
In his lecture, Professor Tom McLeish, a distinguished scientist from Durham University, presented a positive framework for Christian thinking relevant to the needs and interests of science and technology today. How should Christians understand science? What is God’s gift of science for? How should we use our science to develop the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth?
As Chair of the Education Committee of the prestigious Royal Society, Professor McLeish is concerned to promote scientific understanding. However, he sees no conflict between his Christian beliefs and his responsibility to promote science. Taking a historical perspective, he illustrated how Christianity is a natural foundation for scientific thinking, and has motivated many scientists to make discoveries and to apply their new knowledge with wisdom for the betterment of humankind. He quoted from Nicolaus Copernicus who speaks for many scientists with a religious viewpoint: “To know the mighty works of God, to comprehend His wisdom, majesty and power; and to appreciate the wonderful workings of His laws, surely all this must be a pleasing and acceptable mode of worship to the Most High, to whom ignorance cannot be more grateful than knowledge.”
Drawing on his new book “Let there be Science,” McLeish explained how modern science arose in a Christian culture from “natural philosophy,” meaning the love of wisdom about nature, which has always been closely inter-twined with religious thought. This powerful relationship has driven human enquiry for thousands of years.
For example, in the book of Job, God asks a series of questions about understanding the natural world, culminating in “Do you know the laws of the heavens? And can you apply them to the earth?” Indeed, Job is seen by McLeish as a fascinating early celebration of enquiry and human investigation into the nature of the earth and sea, the plants and animals, and the heavens and stars. Thus, the creative questions motivating “science” and “faith” have been intertwined from early times. Christian thought is concerned with the whole created order, not just human beings.
In the New Testament, in the writing of St Paul for example, we find an understanding of all creation in need of redemption. Biblical books like Job recognise that engaging with nature can be painful and mysterious. Christ brings in a New Creation and gives Christians a ministry of reconciliation and healing, cooperating with God. McLeish gave examples of how the practice of science can heal the broken relationships of humans with themselves, with each other and with the natural world.
However, we cannot ignore the fact that there is considerable resistance and mistrust, not only between some members of the scientific community and the Church, but also between scientists and non-scientists, who see science as opposed to art and threatening to humanity. Moreover, the media thrives on stories of conflict. Too often, science is presented as a dispassionate, inhuman process of discovery, while Christianity is dismissed as being a set of backward-looking superstitions with no relevance to the modern world. Neither of these viewpoints is accurate or helpful: Science, like religion, is a deeply human activity, pursued through the passions and creative questions of scientists, while Christianity challenges and encourages every one of us (scientists and non-scientists) to develop loving, wise, hopeful relationships with creation, with humanity and with God.
Many would argue that religion has done a lot of damage over the centuries, enforcing reactionary attitudes in the face of science-driven progress. On the other hand, many note that science and technology have also been a mixed blessing. The media thrives on stories of the alarming threats that science and technology can create: global warming; nuclear holocaust; Frankenstein foods; designer babies, and so on. McLeish sees in many media stories about science echoes of ancient, pagan attitudes and fears, ideas that nature is sacred and that scientists are messing with it, opening Pandora’s Box, and that ordinary people are the victims of conspiracies by uncaring, powerful, mysterious elites.
McLeish offered a more hopeful vision. For a Christian, there are no pre-determined histories or boundaries for science and technology, but God ought to be at the centre. The church should celebrate the deep humanity of science. The intellectual relationship with nature can be healing and the larger Christian vision of science as part of a love of wisdom can help heal divisions between science and the arts and humanities and promote a more thoughtful engagement with the media and public about the opportunities and challenges that science creates.
This was the ninth annual Cathedral Lecture organised by “Science Faith Norfolk” (SFN) a local group affiliated to Christians in Science.
The next SFN meeting will be held on Monday 3rd July (7.30 – 8.45 pm) at Trinity Meeting Place, Essex St. Norwich. Dr Peter Woodford (from the Department of Zoology, Cambridge University) will give a talk on “What can evolution tell us about altruism? - Implications for ethics and morality”. All are welcome to attend. For further information, contact: Prof Nick Brewin, Secretary, Science Faith Norfolk: 07901 884114 firstname.lastname@example.org. There is more information on the SFN website.
The new book by Tom McLeish: Let there be Science! is co-authored with physics teacher Dave Hutchings. A previous book, Faith and Wisdom in Science, explores the same topics at greater depth.