Faith and Neuroscience: Wisdom, Training, and the Numinous

B0010280 Healthy human brain from a young adult, tractography
Healthy human brain from a young adult © Alfred Anwander, MPI-CBS, Wellcome Images, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

What help can people of faith receive from neuroscience? This was the question that Revd Dr Alasdair Coles asked in his lecture at the Faraday Institute last week. Alasdair works at Addenbrookes hospital, Cambridge, both as a neurologist and as a hospital chaplain. He brought both these perspectives to his talk, which I will summarise here in my own words. Continue reading

Paying Attention

© Ruth Bancewicz

Encountering something new and terrifying is not an experience many of us seek out deliberately, but simple astonishment is usually a fruitful emotion. We have the opportunity to learn when we come up against the unfamiliar. Astonishment imprints something in our minds, and prompts us to ask questions. Take a child’s first encounter with a grasshopper: How can such a little thing make such a big noise without seeming to move a muscle? Why does it jump away so fast? How can it jump so high with such little legs? Such questions can lead to a lifetime’s fascination.

Theologian Jurgen Moltmann has written about the experience of wonder and its importance in both science and theology. The ancient Greek philosophers taught that knowledge begins in wonder. When we are open to something and give ourselves up to discovering what it has to show us, we learn. When we already ‘know’ what it is about we shut down our perceptions and it has nothing to tell us. Continue reading

The Research Scientist’s Psalm

Image courtesy of NASA

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.

Psalm 111: 1

Finally, there is a seamless relationship between history and science. God’s creation, his generous provision and his interaction with us are all part of the same story. As Berry has said:

We are here for God’s purposes, on God’s terms and in (and for) his world. For Christians, science should be both a religious activity and an intellectual discipline.

R.J. Berry, The Research Scientist’s Psalm, S&CB (2008) 20, 147-161

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.

(The Harmony of the World (1619), end of Book)

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?