Review of Tom Macleish: Faith and Wisdom in Science

Tom McLeish: Faith and Wisdom in Science, Oxford, OUP, 2014

This is a significant and unique book in the area of the interaction between science and faith in my experience.  The writer is Professor of Physics and former Pro Vice Chancellor of Research at Durham University and the descriptors of his writing by significant referees include “verve and vision,  erudite, rich and discursive” I certainly concur.

His goal is a “theology of science”, a suggestion put forward first I think by Karl Barth in the first volume of his Dogmatics and taken up previously by T F Torrance and Alister McGrath. Quite surprisingly Macleish begins with the sad state of current negative opinion about science in the modern world. He sees this response in many areas: in senior secondary students he addresses; in the political pressure for short term results and “wealth creation”  from scientific research by government; by the privileging of secondary and tertiary learning in science compared with primary research (i.e. scientists critiquing others rather than creating their own research); the fact that journalistic media, obsessed with conflict as entertainment, has little interest in scientific good news stories other than as a filler at the sagging end of a program; and finally the fact that the average punter is persuaded that science is for boffins presenting transcendant and arcane truths that don’t matter much, in language impossible to understand.  In general, he argues, the common man has lost “faith in science” let alone being interested in “Faith in science!”

In relation to religion McLeish focusses on the “clamour of voices” including the “new atheists” (Dawkins/Atkins/Hitchins et al); loud and dogmatic fundamentalist extremists in all faiths; Romantic and New Age post-enlightenment sidelining of science as just one of many metanarratives;  and the careful “complementary” analysis of science and faith put forward by Christian physicists like John Polkinghorne and evolutionists like Francis Collins and Darrel Falk.

In dealing with this clamour Macleish calls for an entirely new vision of the relationship of science and faith based on a return to an earlier understanding of “science” as “natural theology”..the exploration by thoughtful folk of many earlier generations and cultures of the wonder, beauty and importance of the world we inhabit. It is a science of love and care for the world which comes from questioning the world, from ancient wisdom, from the wonder and delight in beauty which has always been part of the human make-up. Using both modern examples (Einstein and Macleish’s own cross-discipinary research) and historical examples (e.g. Faraday, Grosseteste,Brown, the Venerable Bede and Gregory of Nyssa’s sister Macrina) McLeish suggests a new whole community way of thinking about science.

His inspiration comes from an in-depth analysis of the Biblical Wisdom and prophetic literature and in particular a careful  in-depth analysis of the Book of Job as well as a further chapter on creation theology in the New Testament especially Paul and John.  In particular Macleish focusses on the questions God asks Job in chapters 38 and 39 as a pattern for the re-engagement of science with humanity. In addition to asking rich fertile questions Macleish adds the need for a re-imagination of the cosmos “beneath its surface” ; insistence on the deep perception of wisdom including love, care and wonder of and for the world; and finally winning knowledge through pain which includes the whole range of disciplines not just a “priesthood” of a scientific elite. McLeish calls for scientists (natural philosophers) to see their role as “the husbandry of creation”, underpinning the healing of the world that has been brought to the brink by human exploitation and a re-emergent chaos. “Natural philosophers” are to bring shalom to the world working across disciplines in a whole community approach.

These ambitious goals will require from religious thought leaders a removal of the false distinction between creation theology and salvation theology ensuring that the resurrection is taken seriously as a ‘substantial, materially embedded sign of hope” and the “greatest possible sign that physical embodiment matters”. McLeish reminds us that New Testament eschatology points us to a city, not a return to some “Arcadian vision of rustic simplicity”. Mankind is a part of creation, not an enemy and is to use human skills, vision and mind to participate with the Holy Spirit in the love, care and reconciliation of the cosmos. This is our creational purpose as stewards in covenant with our creator,  recognising as the Wisdom literature shows that chaos and power are irreducible parts of the created order and we should never think either in science or in faith that we will ever completely understand or master the creation. Our goal is not to “leave behind” the world, whisked away to some disembodied existence but to join in creation’s groaning travail as we  journey from ignorance to knowledge and finally to wisdom. Macleish summarises this theology of science as “a story of reconciliation by participation.” (p264) He concludes with God’s final questions to Job and to us: Can we learn what ‘loving wisdom of nature’ might mean? Do we have the wisdom to count the clouds? (Job 38:37).

We dismiss the challenge of this book at our peril. Macleish is no naive idealist..many of his suggestions are already being put into practice. The world’s human leadership is terminally fractured and wounded and western media has handcuffed itself into reporting on short-term political advantage ignoring so much that is of goodness, love, sacrifice and genius in the world. Both science and Faith will need to change and fast if “faith and wisdom in Science” is to be found.

Richard Prideaux, Senior Chaplain, Newhaven College

(richardprideaux.wordpress.com)

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