For most Christians working in science, their work helps them to worship. The theologian Alister McGrath has written a number of books about the relationship between science and Christianity, but he also stresses that our response to what we see in science should not simply be intellectual. A Christian view of nature should recognise the intuitive sense of awe and wonder that we have when we look at the natural world, and our increased awe as our scientific understanding grows. Our response to those feelings is rational, emotional and active: worship as well as theology.
How does a scientist worship? In her writing on wonder, the philosopher and cognitive scientist Margaret Boden captures the experience of a Christian scientist when she says that ‘awe is a high degree of wonder, in which fear and respect are prominent. Andworship is a deliberate expression of awe’.Continue reading →
Psalm 111 is often called the ‘research scientist’s psalm’.
Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them. Psalm 111: 2
I’ve already told the story of how the second verse of this psalm came to be on the door of both the old and new Cavendish laboratories in Cambridge. James Clark Maxwell’s successor as Cavendish Professor of Experimental Physics was the Nobel Prize-winning Lord Rayleigh. Rayleigh was also a Christian, and he had the famous verse printed on the front of each volume of his collected papers. Geneticist R.J. Berry writes in the journal Science & Christian Belief that Psalm 111 demonstrates wisdom rooted in the study of reality. If verse two is the scientists (and artist’s) charter, it needs to be balanced by verse ten.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. Psalm 111: 10
God’s provision comes on God’s terms. In other words, the correct response to a study of nature is ‘reverence mingled with delight, gratitude and trust’. This psalm also demonstrates that wisdom is best shared in community: scientists should communicate their findings so that others can ‘delight in them’ too.
I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation.
Johannes Kepler may have had Psalm 111 in mind when he wrote his now famous prayer, which came at the end of one of his scientific works:
If I have been enticed into brashness by the wonderful beauty of your works, or if I have loved my own glory among men, while advancing in work destined for your glory, gently and mercifully pardon me; and finally, deign graciously to cause that these demonstrations may lead to your glory and to the salvation of souls, and nowhere be an obstacle to that. Amen.
I have been reading Nancy Frankenberry’s book ‘The Faith of Scientists’. The first four scientists covered – Galileo, Kepler, Francis Bacon and Pascal – were all Christians, and then the definition of faith gets somewhat broader. Einstein, Dyson, Dawkins and others are included, some of whom are vigorously against any kind of faith… I want to focus here on Francis Bacon, well known for his contribution to the development of experimental science, and whose understanding of science and Christianity is fascinating. His faith informed his thinking and writing in a very overt way, though he was largely in favour of keeping science separate from theology. (Bacon would have been shocked by Kepler, ten years his junior, whose science was so obviously driven by his theology.) In his writing Bacon highlighted the importance of some things that are now taken for granted, and contribute to the pursuit and transparency of science.
1. The need to ‘ask the right questions’ in approaching new fields of study
2. Appending methods to scientific papers
3. Publishing errata
Bacon saw science as an act of Christian service, and took truth-telling very seriously. He was keenly aware of our ability to deceive even ourselves.
May God never allow us to publish a dream of our imagination as a model of the world, but rather graciously grant us the power to describe the true appearance and revelation of the prints and traces of the Creator in his creatures.
Francis Bacon, The Great Instauration, 1620
if in anything I have been either too credulous or too little awake and attentive, or if I have fallen off by the way and left the inquiry incomplete, nevertheless I so present these things naked and open, that my errors can be marked and set aside before the mass of knowledge be further infected by them; and it will be easy also for others to continue and carry on my labours.
Francis Bacon, the New Organon, 1620
Finally, I want to share this prayer, taken from Bacon’s ‘New Organon’. This is a great attitude for work of any sort, let alone science, which can feel so fruitless at times.
And therefore, Father, you who have given visible light as the first fruits of creation and, at the summit of your works, have breathed intellectual light into the face of man, protect and govern this work, which began in your goodness and returns to your glory. After you had turned to view the works which your hands had made, you saw that all things were very good, and you rested. But man, turning to the works which his hands have made, saw that all things were vanity and vexation of spirit, and has had no rest. Wherefore if we labour in your works, you will make us to share in your vision and in your Sabbath. We humbly beseech that this mind may remain in us; and that you may be pleased to bless the human family with new mercies, through our hands and the hands of those others to whom you will give the same mind.
Francis Bacon, the New Organon, 1620 (my paragraph divisions)
“The first time I peered down a microscope at a living sea urchin embryo when I was a graduate student at Berkeley I was absolutely hooked on developmental biology. Christians, when they’re doing science, are experiencing something that I call ‘doxological fascination’. In other words, they’re locked in on the minute details of something – which academics tend to do – and yet they’re doing it for God’s glory, in the same way that Johann Sebastian Bach wrote SDG (Soli Deo Gloria) in all the margins of his manuscripts. [I know a scientist who writes SDG on all her lecture notes and in her lab book – Ruth]. They’re trying to, in Keplerian fashion, ‘think God’s thoughts after him’.
I teach two main courses, cell biology and developmental biology. In each of these courses I start by telling the students that my main goal for the semester is that they would think cells, or embryos, are cool. They laugh, but I go on with this quote that I love:
The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.
I want them to be much better than dead by the end of the semester! My students don’t yet understand how incredible embryos are, and my goal in teaching biology is that they would not be the sort that are sitting around ‘picking blackberries’. I think that this is a new idea to some of my students, and it’s a touch point that I have in common with them, whatever their faith commitments are.
In my introduction to developmental biology I use some ancient Hebrew poetry, from Psalm 139, where David is musing about embryonic development. Even when he was developing in the womb, God was there and David uses poetic language to talk about how his own body was formed. He doesn’t understand that process, but he knows it’s fearful and wonderful. So I tell my students, whether you share David’s worldview – as I as a Christian happen to – or you don’t, by the end of the semester I want you to share this sense of wonder about the incredible intricacy of developmental biology and the processes that we have the privilege of studying. Usually in the teaching evaluations at the end of the semester there are lots of comments saying, ‘Wow, he actually cares about this material’.”
I love this example of someone who is passionate about his work, and who works hard to transmit that passion to his students. I meet so many people who are surprised that a scientist might think in this way – they feel as if science somehow squashes all the life and meaning out of things – so the more people who get to hear stories like this one, the better!