Book Preview: NT Wright on Science, Jesus, and Natural Theology

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© Ruth M. Bancewicz

Few today would argue that we can straightforwardly begin with the natural world and argue our way up to a view of God that corresponds more or less to the Christian one. … Natural theology as popularly conceived, that is, the attempt to reason up to God without the use of revelation, was always a strange and culturally conditioned thought experiment. Most humans do not work like that most of the time. I think—although a forceful presentation of this argument would take many more words than I have space for here—that this contrast of two types of knowledge, that which we have by revelation and that which we have by unaided observation and reason, makes two mistakes.

First, it flattens out what actually happens in revelation, and for that matter what actually happens in observation and the use of reason. For a start, the Bible is not, as it were, naked revelation. Precisely because of the sort of book it is, it invites and indeed demands reflective reading. It means what it means because it is the book a community reads to give direction and order to its common life, hope to its common sorrow. The Bible demands that people live within its teasing and troubling narrative and try to make sense of it, or perhaps to let it make sense of them. The Bible should not be treated as, so to speak, a list of naked truths given on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. That is a rationalist parody—a trap into which many would-be orthodox Christians have fallen. In the same way, observation and reasoning never take place in a vacuum (unless you artificially create such an epistemological vacuum and demand that everyone live inside it). When we observe the natural world, we are involved observers, trying to make sense at the same time of what that involvement might mean, including the question of what “observation” consists in and how it affects the observers, in this case ourselves. This will then naturally involve a critical awareness of our own context, cultural encyclopedia, and so forth. So the idea of natural theology, as often imagined, creates an artificial disjunction. It colludes with the trivial idea that scientific knowledge is somehow objective and faith-knowledge is somehow subjective. Things are more complex, and interesting, than that. This is where the theme of an epistemology of love would help, though there is no space here to develop that important notion.

Second, this false antithesis then gets bundled up with the regular antithesis between induction and deduction. Scientific knowledge is thought to be inductive, starting with raw data and working up without a big overarching narrative, whereas theological knowledge is supposed to be deductive, starting with divine revelation and working downwards. The Western world has privileged the former since Descartes. Many theologians are currently hurrying back to the latter, looking for a “perfect” vision of God from which everything else might be deduced. Both models are oversimplifications. They have bedevilled the debate between exegesis and theology as well as between science and faith. It’s time to think more clearly about how all knowledge actually happens and to see the larger integration, held as I believe it must be within a Trinitarian (that is, Jesus-shaped and Spirit-animated) ontology and expressed in an epistemology of love.

At the heart of all this stands the story of Jesus. That has been the problem as well as the promise. How “scientific” is history, not least the history of Jesus? But without knowing for sure about Jesus, how can any of this be anchored? What use might it be to say that looking at Jesus will give us the clue as to how creation, as well as new creation, came about or comes about, if “looking at Jesus” turns out to be a complex series of “ifs” and “buts” in which all chance of historical knowledge seems to recede like a rainbow’s end?

There are many problems, of course, about making any claim about past events. The practice of history is not like the practice of the so-called hard sciences; the experiment cannot be repeated. But there are nevertheless rules of procedure which correspond to scientific enquiry, namely the method of hypothesis and verification with the aim of getting in the data (in the historian’s case the source material of whatever kind), doing so with appropriate simplicity or elegance, and shedding light on other areas. History is, in other words a form of knowledge, not merely of opinion. Disputes continue both at the level of method and at the level of specific application to Jesus, as they would to the detailed interpretation of any figure of the past; some theologians may well worry about whether this leaves their Christology, and with it their whole construction of the faith, and in our present case their whole view of creation and new creation, without proper anchorage. It is incumbent on those who study Jesus as Christian historians both to present the history as what it is, a publicly available argument and narrative, and to insist that, despite the questions which attend all historical accounts, this is more than sufficient for Christian faith.

One could say much more here, but that is for another occasion. I conclude with the following reflection.

Both Jesus and the first Christians used Psalm 8 as one of their key texts. The psalmist praises God for his wonderful name in all the world; then, looking at the moon and the stars, doesn’t ask “so who is God?” but instead “so what is a ‘human being,’ what is ‘man,’ or the ‘son of man’?” That is the challenge and the clue. The answer, reflecting Genesis, is that God has made humans in his image, a little lower than the angels, and has crowned them with glory and honour, putting all things under their feet. The gospels and Paul link this with Psalms 2 and 110, and particularly with Daniel 7, and insist that this has come true in a new way in Jesus, in his humiliation and exaltation.

In other words, if you want to know the meaning of creation, look at humans, but if you want to know the meaning of being human, look at Jesus. From Genesis 1 onwards, the story of humans is told as the focal point of the story of creation, just as from Genesis 12 onwards the story of Israel is told as the focal point of the story of humans; then, in the Gospels, the story of Jesus is told as the focal point of the story of Israel, and then also of humanity and therefore also of creation. In other words, we learn about creation by reflecting on the claim that God made humans to stand at the metaphysical bridge, the dangerous interface between heaven and earth, and we learn what that human role itself meant when we reflect on Jesus himself, what he was, what he did, and what he accomplished. When we look at new creation, we look back and reflect on the meaning of creation itself. When the New Testament says that “all things were made through him,” we don’t start with a view of “how God made the world” and insert Jesus into that. We start with Jesus himself, as I have tried to do in this essay, and we therefore reflect on creation itself not as a mechanistic or rationalistic event, process, or “fact,” and not as the blind operation of impersonal forces, but as the wise, generous outpouring of the same creative love that we see throughout Jesus’s kingdom-work, and supremely on the cross. This, I think, is part of what Paul meant when he wrote, “He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation.” This is why historical-Jesus work is so difficult but also so necessary. It is necessary for understanding Christian origins, of course, but necessary too if we are to understand creation and new creation and indeed our own place and vocation within that narrative. There is more to the theme of “Christ and the Cosmos” than normally meets the eye.

 

book_coverTaken from Christ and the Created Order: Perspectives from Theology, Philosophy, and Scienceby Andrew B. Torrance & Thomas H. McCall, editors. Copyright © by Andrew B. Torrance & Thomas H. McCall. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com

Guest Post: Making the Molecules of Life

geothermal ChampagnePool-Wai-O-Tapu_rotated_MC Christian Mehlführer wikimedia ccc2.5 crop
© Christian Mehlführer, Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license

At what point did chemistry become biology? In what type of environment did this transformation take place? These are major questions for those seeking to understand the origins of life on Earth.

A major breakthrough was hailed as far back as 1953 in what is now the famous Miller-Urey experiment in which the chemically simple molecules of water, methane, ammonia and hydrogen were mixed together in a glass chamber into which a powerful electrical current was discharged. The idea of the experiment was to simulate lightning in the ‘reducing’ atmosphere of the early Earth. To the amazement of the scientists the watery liquid in the glass chamber began to change colour and by the end of a week was deep red – indicating the presence of complex amino acid molecules. The building blocks of proteins had been synthesised from non-living material.

Getting the geo-chemistry right

Unfortunately for Miller and Urey, the chemists had not been speaking to the geologists. We now know that the choice of simple chemicals for this experiment was not representative of the atmosphere or the oceans of the early Earth. Early Earth studies and our knowledge of our planetary neighbours show that the Earth’s earliest atmosphere was carbon-dioxide rich. It was also more ‘oxidising’ than the atmosphere used in the experiment, so in reality the early life molecules had to be constructed from a much more difficult array of starting materials. Sadly, even as recently as 2011, at a meeting on the chemical origins of life at the Royal Society in London, chemists and Earth scientists still seemed to be following parallel but non- overlapping tracks.

A deeply troubled childhood

The clues to chemical synthesis of biological molecules must start with a detailed understanding of the Earth in its infancy. And it was a very different planet from the one we know today. Watery – yes, actively volcanic – yes, but with no continental land masses and with a very different atmosphere, dominated by carbon dioxide and methane. This was a planet in the shadow of a faint sun, which should by rights have been frozen but was warmed by its blanket of insulating gasses. In its earliest stages the Earth was totally inhospitable, bombarded with meteorites and asteroids which created so much energy on Earth as to boil the upper levels of the oceans and trigger massive volcanic eruptions.

Finding the right environment

It might be that the inhospitable environments on the early Earth hold a clue to the beginnings of life on Earth. Maybe life started in a place protected from the violent activity on the planet’s surface. Maybe it began in the deep oceans. Ever since the discovery of ‘black smokers’ in the deep oceans in the late 1970’s this environment has been considered a possibility for the origin of life. Black smokers are an example of a hydrothermal vent system – that is a jet of hot water at 300-400oC, which is vented into the deep ocean. The water is hot because it has been in contact with molten rocks beneath the ocean floor, and because it is hot it has the capacity to dissolve a particular suite of chemical elements from the rocks of the ocean floor. When the hot water mixes with cold ocean-bottom water a range of chemical reactions take place which form a ‘black smoke’ of sulphide particles which rain down onto the ocean floor. This mineral-laden, high energy and today biologically diverse environment has been identified as a most probable place for the synthesis of organic molecules to become the building blocks of life.

Darwin’s warm little pond

But the very energy identified to create complex biological molecules in black smokers may also be its undoing, for it has been argued that the temperatures in hydrothermal vents are so great that the delicate molecules created would then break down. Hydrothermal vent fluids are also acidic, and deemed a chemically unsuitable medium for organic synthesis. More recently, attention has turned to what in chemical terms is a polar opposite environment – one in which highly alkaline fluids are formed. This may also have been in an oceanic environment, but a cooler one – and one in which watery fluids interact with rocks that are now buried deeper in the Earth, called the mantle.

A modern analogue of this alkaline environment can be found today where rocks which normally form deep in the ocean are now preserved on land. In these places cool alkaline vents produce methane gas, which comes into contact with modern carbon dioxide and makes mud – intriguingly similar to the ‘warm little pond’ spoken of in Charles Darwin’s letters. This may well have been the situation all over Earth in the early history of the planet.

An impossible task?

Of course studies of this type ultimately need to show how the key molecules of life – the large molecules of DNA and RNA (which today is the intermediary between DNA and proteins) – might have been synthesised on Earth and on other planets. So how far along the road are we in this process? Put simply, not very far. Not least because we know so little in detail about the earliest history of the Earth and Earth-like planets. The danger of course is to say that what has happened was impossible without some external intervention, but that leads us into the dangerous territory of a ‘God of the gaps’. A god who only ‘pops in’ to help us when we are stuck is not the God of the Bible, who Christians believe is actively involved in his world.

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© Faraday Institute

Professor Hugh Rollinson is Course Director at the Faraday Institute and Emeritus Professor of Earth Sciences at the University of Derby. After graduating from Oxford Hugh worked for a number of years as a field geologist in the Geological Survey of Sierra Leone. This was followed by a PhD at the University of Leicester and then a post-doc at the University of Leeds. He then joined the University of Gloucestershire and worked there for 20 years, during which time he took a three year leave of absence to work as Associate professor of geology and head of Department in the University of Zimbabwe. He then took a position as Professor of Earth Sciences and Department Head at Sultan Qaboos University in Oman for six years after which he served as Professor of Earth Sciences and Department Head at the University of Derby. Hugh’s academic interests are in the earliest part of Earth history – the first two billion years of planetary evolution and these are summarised in his text ‘Early Earth Systems’ (Wiley-Blackwell, 2007).

Hugh has had a life-long commitment to the Christian faith and has sought to integrate his beliefs with his scientific work. This has largely been through serving the local church wherever he has lived. He has a strong commitment to making the Christian faith accessible and engaging in dialogue with those who hold divergent views.

 

Guest Post: Conversation Piece

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© DG Empl, Flickr, cropped. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“Come in.” He looked at me over the top of his glasses as I entered the office. “And who have we here.”

“I was looking for Dr. Purcell,” I said. “I’m George, her new PhD student.”

“Ah.” The man put down his pen and folded his arms on the desk. “Trish has just popped out for vital caffeine supplies. She won’t be long. Make yourself comfortable.”

I took the only chair that wasn’t covered in paper. The room was small and stuffy. One of the two desks – the one my companion was sitting behind – was covered in files and pens and folders. The other, presumably belonging to my new supervisor, was empty apart from a laptop and fountain pen. I glanced at the man. He was the epitome of a mad professor, all wild hair and half-moon glasses, but there had been no name on the door other than Dr. T. Purcell. Continue reading

The Myth of the Holy Hierarchy

Remembering UK scientist R. J. “Sam” Berry (1934–2018), a real scientist with real faith

“As a Christian at university, I was faced with a hierarchy of possibilities. The really holy people became missionaries, the rather holy people were ordained, and the fairly holy people became teachers; the ‘also rans’ did all the other jobs in the world,” so wrote R. J. Berry in his book Real Science, Real Faith. Having discovered that he either couldn’t or shouldn’t do any of the “holy” jobs, Berry, known to most as Sam, eventually realized “that we have all been given different talents and callings, and that there is not (and should not be) such a thing as a typical or normal Christian.”

Sam Berry was anything but a normal Christian. He attended his local church regularly, went to the monthly prayer meetings whenever he could, and served on the church council. For the last 30 years of his life he was licensed to preach, and for about 20 years he took part in national synod meetings. This would have been a huge commitment on top of a regular job and raising three children, but Sam was a high-capacity person who was not content to conform to the stereotype of “also-ran”—those who run races but never win. He demonstrated to the best of his ability that every single Christian is in full-time ministry.

Continue reading this article now (free, no signup required) in Christianity Today.

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© Faraday Institute

Ruth Bancewicz is a Senior Research Associate at The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, where she works on the positive interaction between science and faith. After studying Genetics at Aberdeen University, she completed a PhD at Edinburgh University. She spent two years as a part-time postdoctoral researcher at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Cell Biology at Edinburgh University, while also working as the Development Officer for Christians in Science. Ruth arrived at The Faraday Institute in 2006, and is currently a trustee of Christians in Science.

 

Guest Post – Life’s Origin: Probable or Improbable?

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The blue marble, NASA

Are we alone in the universe? Is there alien life out there somewhere? These are questions that have long intrigued humankind. Answers have ranged from the optimistic postulate by Frank Drake forty years ago of more than 1,000 civilizations in our galaxy alone to the much more pessimistic opinion of the astrobiologists, Ward and Brownlee, in 2000 that complex life may be extremely rare in the universe at large. Whereas the latter authors contend that intelligent life may be scarce, they express the belief that simple (microbial) life is abundant in the universe. Continue reading

Guest Post: Life as old as the Earth? The earliest evidence for living things

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Cross-section of a fossil stromatolite © James St John, flickr, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

The history of life on Earth is almost as long as the history of Earth itself. The most precise scientific dating methods tell us that our planet formed 4567 million years ago, although there are no rock samples preserved from this ancient and chaotic time. The oldest known Earth materials are about 4300 million years old, and are found in the remote deserts of western Australia. The oldest probable evidence for life on Earth has been dated between 3700 and 3800 million years, in west Greenland, and is so sophisticated that the history of life on earth must extend much further back. These observations suggest that life is a fundamental property of our planet, a feature which makes the Earth very different from its immediate rocky neighbours. Continue reading

The Stories We Tell: Science, faith, and cultural distinctiveness

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Babylonian cylinder seal. Ben Pirard at nl.wikipedia CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, Wikimedia Commons

Once upon a time, there was a demiurge called Tiamat. Tiamat was the ocean, chaotic and powerful. Tiamat’s husband, freshwater, was troubled by their sons – the gods – who had come together and made great noise, and wanted to kill them. Tiamat disagreed and warned them. But when Tiamat’s husband was then killed by the gods she wanted revenge, so she made eleven monsters to hunt them down. In the end, the young champion Marduk challenged Tiamat to a battle and killed her. Marduk cut Tiamat in two, using one half of her body to create the heavens, and the other the earth.”

When the people of Israel were exiled in Babylon, if any of their youngsters ever got to receive an education they might have been taught the Babylonian creation poem Enuma Elish. The highly abbreviated version I have given here is just a flavour of this extremely – to my ears – somewhat violent epic. I wonder what the parents might have thought about their children being exposed to stories like this? Continue reading