Searching for Goodness: Natural Theology in Historic Cambridge

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Emmanuel College, Cambridge © Sean Hickin, cropped, Creative Commons BY-NC 2.0

Are ethical values real? According to Dr Louise Hickman, a philosopher and theologian from Newman University, this is the question that drove the ‘natural theology’ discussion in the centuries leading up to Darwin. Louise spoke about this topic at the Faraday Institute this summer, and I will summarise her lecture here in my own words.

Left to our own devices, said the natural theologians, people are capable of developing their own awareness of God and knowledge of him. This knowledge is entirely separate from any belief that God has revealed himself to people in any other way, such as God’s relationship with the people of Israel, or arriving on earth as the person of Jesus Christ. Continue reading

Why I am a Christian

Chris Wittwer, http://www.sxc.hu/
© Chris Wittwer, http://www.sxc.hu/

When describing her own Christian faith, Rosalind Picard, a Professor at the MIT Media Lab, said that ‘I know some people will assume I have lost my marbles…I also know that if they move beyond such superficial characterisations and ask hard questions, the ones about real meaning and purpose, that they will see more of what I see.’ That is how I feel in trying to describe my own faith. I’ve already given some hints about what I believe in previous blogs[1], but I thought it would be good to spell it out a bit more.

How can a scientist be a Christian? W.K. Clifford, a mathematician and philosopher at University College London in the nineteenth century, said that ‘it is wrong always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything on insufficient evidence’. I agree with Clifford, although Continue reading

Beauty, Science and Theology. Part 2: Understanding Beauty in Science

This series of more extended posts sums up my recent work on beauty in science and theology, and is reproduced (with permission) from the BioLogos blog.

Beautiful Brain © Dr Lizzie Burns 2009

Understanding Beauty in Science

It is of course possible to appreciate the beauty of creation[1] intuitively, simply delighting in a scene full of colour, pattern and variety. We instinctively enjoy wide-open vistas, long stretches of clear water and high lookout points.[2] We also seem to value symmetry and order. But there is great pleasure to be had in training the senses to a higher degree of observation, and this is something that poets practice as well as scientists. W.H. Davies’ poem ‘Leisure’ encourages the cultivation of a deliberate habit of unhurried observation. I also love Elizabeth Barrett-Browning’s slightly caustic observation:

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Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries… Continue reading

Science and Religion in the Writings of CS Lewis

Image from http://www.heartsandmindsbooks.com

Last week at the Faraday Institute we hosted Michael Ward, chaplain of St Peter’s College Oxford, and expert on the writings of CS Lewis. In his seminar Ward spoke about Lewis’s treatment of science and religion.

CS Lewis was in favour of science, but attacked scientism. You can see this in his portrayal of Uncle Andrew or Eustace Scrubb in the Narnia books, or Professor Weston in That Hideous Strength. Anything that strips humans of their values and respect for each other is to be strongly resisted.

Lewis’s model for the relationship between science and religion was very straightforward. Religion is the worldview that affects all of life, and science is a just one of the areas that is affected Continue reading

Jurgen Moltmann: The aesthetic dimension of science

Tanaka Juuyoh, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

German theologian Jurgen Moltmann spoke very movingly in his CIS-Faraday Lecture ‘From Physics to Theology: A Personal Story’ on Tuesday. Moltmann described in detail his experiences as a soldier in the Second World War, his discovery of Christianity and early immersion in theology.

In his teens Moltmann was a keen student of chemistry, physics and maths, doing experiments in cellars with his friends and competing with them to learn more and more advanced theories. His education came to an abrupt halt when he was drafted into the German army at 16 and spent five years in uniform: about a year fighting and four years in British prisoner of war camps.

As a prisoner Moltmann, like many of his companions, suffered from boredom, horrific nightmares and deep depression. After his first winter in a Belgian camp the beauty of spring cherry blossom filled him with overwhelming joy. Eventually he was moved to a POW camp in Kilmarnock where he experienced warm hospitality and acceptance by his Scottish hosts, and began to feel human again. When a British army chaplain gave him a Bible Moltmann read it, first out of boredom and then with real interest. He realised that Jesus had also been through ‘the valley of the shadow of death’. Moltmann’s discovery of a God who loved him helped him to find hope again.

After just over a year of captivity Moltmann heard of a camp where the younger prisoners whose schooling had been interrupted by the war could study for university entrance exams. ‘Norton Camp’ had a well-stocked library and here the Moltmann read his first theology books, enjoying an almost monastic experience of intensive study and spiritual growth. After attending a post-war Student Christian Movement conference where he experienced reconciliation with young people who had fought on the other side, he decided to study theology.

In the second half of his lecture Moltmann spoke about the human dimensions of science: power, beauty, truth and wisdom. Unless ethical power develops as far as scientific power, science will remain dangerous.

Moltmann is the first person I have heard to actually flesh out what beauty in science looks like (though I expect others have written on this – answers on a postcard…) According to Moltmann, beauty in science can be experienced as symmetry, simplicity or unity. And beauty is seen most clearly when systems are moving from chaos to order, or vice versa. While beauty is not worth searching for in science for its own sake, Moltmann is convinced that beauty is a sign that you are nearer the truth, and that this sort of beauty is not subjective. Beauty may be useless from a utilitarian point of view, but it is meaningful in itself. I wonder how much an experience of the horrors of war informs this theologian’s love of beauty?

God’s Works

© Ruth Bancewicz

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, who is 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)