Book preview: Making Sense of Reality – A scientist’s journey into theology

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Everyone needs help when thinking through complicated questions. I arrived at Oxford University to study chemistry in October 1971. My wrestling with the complexities of quantum theory in my first term at Oxford was supplemented by a perhaps greater struggle. How could I reconcile my discovery of the intellectual vibrancy of the Christian faith with my love for the natural sciences? Would I have to compartmentalize my mind, holding them apart as strangers and possibly even enemies? I knew I could not tolerate such a dichotomization of my life of the mind. But what if it were the only option? What would I do then?

As it happened, I found someone who had wrestled with those questions long before me and worked out some sensible answers. Charles Coulson was not only Oxford’s Professor of Theoretical Chemistry; he was also a fellow of Wadham College – the college at which I was an undergraduate. As he was a well known Methodist lay preacher, he occasionally preached in the college chapel. At some point around 1973 I heard him preach on how he held his scientific and religious commitments together and why the idea of a ‘God of the gaps’ was to be rejected. I spoke to him afterwards and outlined my fears about the tensions between my faith and science. Our conversation lasted no more than ten minutes. Yet in that brief time Coulson helped me grasp the idea of the fundamental coherence of science and faith, which remains with me to this day…

…it was an article Coulson published in 1950 – the year he was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society – that publicly announced his growing interest in the field of science and religion. In ‘The Christian Religion and Contemporary Science’, Coulson…showed how the historical ‘schism’ between science and religion had emerged, leading to an inadequate engagement with life’s deepest questions. ‘Something has been lost from the totality of man’s experience,’ he remarked. If the ‘transcendental element in life’ is lost, humanity is impoverished. So what could be done to remedy the situation?

In responding, Coulson voiced his perception that things were changing. There was a greater openness within science to reflecting on deeper questions, hinted at but not answered by science itself. ‘The door is open for those conversations to begin, where in the scientist and the theologian explore the no man’s land that joins their two territories.’ … Coulson lost little time in getting those conversations under way, generally using high profile public academic lectures as a means of stimulating interest in the field…

All of these raised his profile considerably as a leading scientist who was able and willing to engage theological themes…by the late 1950s, Coulson was seen by many as the most significant voice in this field, bringing his unquestionable cultural authority as a leading scientist to bear on some fundamental questions of theology, as well as seeking to foster a more positive engagement between theology and science.

In his 1958 Eddington Memorial Lecture at Cambridge, Coulson reflected on the question of why anyone would believe in electrons. He invited his audience to imagine the response a modern physicist might make.

“Yes, I believe in electrons – not because I have seen them, or smelt them, or touched or weighed them, for I have not done so and never expect to be able to do, but because they are a concept which fulfils the function of all concepts in science, that it makes sense of a mass of apparently unrelated phenomena.”

Coulson’s point here is that a good theory is able to correlate or colligate a group of observations that might otherwise be seen as disconnected and unrelated.

He saw a creative and constructive interaction between science and religion as reflecting and safeguarding the coherence of reality. Without both science and religion, he suggested, we would have no ‘guarantee that reality was one’, so that our ‘confidence in the wholeness of life’ would be significantly impaired. Coulson was intensely averse to any ‘fragmentation of human experience’, which would inevitably lead to abandoning any attempt to ‘make sense – one sense – out of all our varied experiences’. Like theology, science is a ‘mental framework’ capable of accommodating experiences in such a way that ‘pattern and meaning’ could be discerned. For Coulson, Christianity offers a ‘conceptual scheme’ or a ‘pattern’ that informs and stimulates science.

Coulson refuses to allow that there re demarcated ‘scientific’ and ‘religious’ worlds that are each experienced in different manners. It is one and the same world that is experienced – and that experience is complex, requiring and mandating both scientific and religious approaches. ‘The two worlds are one, though seen and described in appropriate terms; and it is only the man who cannot, or will not, look at it from more than one viewpoint who claims an exclusive authority for his own description.’


Enriching Our VisionThis post was a series of extracts from chapter 2 of Alister McGrath’s Enriching our Vision of Reality: Theology and the Natural Sciences in Dialogue (Templeton Press, 2017), with permission of the publisher.

6 thoughts on “Book preview: Making Sense of Reality – A scientist’s journey into theology

  1. Qedlin Saltum September 30, 2017 / 12:42 am

    How refreshing that there actually may be some in academia like Charles Coulson who see the integral essence and value of science and faith, even manifested in religion. Without having read the book, it would be worth reading to see the full extent of Coulson’s truthful proposition.

    Truthful because without God there would not be any science, it is His invention, discovered by humanity to explore the fullness of His design, His creation, and His nature from a physical perspective: a cosmic puzzle, created from His transcendent, power, wisdom and nature. Science was also invented to provide humanity the means to benefit the world using Earth’s resources and nature’s laws. Further, Science can and will refute the cynical, skeptical and nihilistic belief systems of who can see no further than materialism, and increasingly make non-theism more untenable.

    Looking forward to the book’s vision and insight.


  2. Mick October 5, 2017 / 8:34 am

    I haven’t read the book, but I did hear McGrath speak recently on the interplay between science and faith, and Coulson was one of his significant sources.
    For me personally the exciting thing about Coulson was that he was a mountaineer and used the illustration of getting to know a mountain for getting to know anything (both in science and in theology). The point of course is that seeing a mountain from only one angle (or “point of view”) gives only a superficial knowledge about the mountain. To map the mountain you have to see it from many points of view; to know the mountain you actually have to climb it (many times). And even having climbed it your knowledge will still be superficial.
    Theology and science might be different points of view(ing) – but together they can lead to a deeper knowledge or understanding.


    • Ruth M. Bancewicz October 5, 2017 / 10:00 am

      Thanks Mick, yes that part about the mountain was in the book. It reminded me of the ‘many ways up the mountain’ understanding of religions, which relativises them from a superior perspective that can see they are all actually on the same mountain. Of course I know that’s not what Coulson meant, and looking at the chapter again, it’s very clear. Unfortunately the mountain/religion analogy is much more famous now that Coulson’s mountain/science/religion one.


  3. SL Mickley November 16, 2018 / 10:07 pm

    Great article. I found Coulson’s name on J. Wallace Warner’s list of Christians who are scientist and, thus, to this site. This line from above, “interaction between science and religion , , , reflecting and safeguarding the coherence of reality” says so much. Makes me think of Francis Schaeffer’s two storied, spiritual/material dichotomy which leads to the “fragmentation of human experience,” and actually, death. It’s Christianity that unites the spiritual and material world, “a guarantee that reality is one.” Both comforting and sublime.


    • Ruth M. Bancewicz November 22, 2018 / 12:07 pm

      Thank you, I’m glad you appreciated it. As you say, I believe we miss out on so much of life if we focus purely on the material.


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