Tom McLeish
 on October 02, 2014

The Tradition of Wisdom for Today: a Relational Theology of Science

If discussions of science and religion sometimes get bogged down in Genesis, perhaps that is because they have not made the preparatory journey through the rich Wisdom books.


“Do you have wisdom to count the clouds?” asks the voice of God from the whirlwind, within the stunningly beautiful catalogue of nature-questions in the Old Testament Wisdom Book of Job. I have become increasingly convinced that it is with this text where all biblical explorations of our exploration of the natural world must start, balancing as it does both the light and the dark sides of the world; the sunrise and the hurricane, the known and the unknown. If discussions of science and religion sometimes get bogged down in Genesis, perhaps that is because they have not made the preparatory journey through the rich material of the Wisdom books, which also contain a collection of creation stories. They use simpler language and metaphors than the Genesis texts, which speak of creation in terms of setting in place boundaries and foundations, demarking the heavens and the earth; order and chaos.

The Wisdom Tradition reaches its zenith in Job. Scientists of all faiths and none are invariably impressed by their first reading of “The Lord’s Answer” (Job 39-42) with its ancient exploration of the stars, meteorological phenomena, the living world, and strange unknown beasts. When Job complains that the Creator is as out of control of moral justice as he is of the workings of creation itself, God’s final answer to Job’s complaint has a striking and unusual form: each verse is a probing question. Surely more of an invitation to think and to observe than a mere put-down, they direct Job out of himself and into the world around him. Perhaps therein is the deepest connection to science – we know that our fundamental creative step is to frame the right question, not to jump to the next neat answer.

I have long hoped to use a scientist’s personal reading of Job, as well as other Wisdom texts, as the starting point for the case that science is a deeply human and ancient activity, embedded in some of the oldest stories told about human desire to understand the natural world. In my recent book Faith and Wisdom in Science, this starting point has inspired a journey towards modern science that visits stories from medieval, patristic, classical, and other biblical sources along the way. Writing in the North-East of England, I have, for example, found delight in the scientific writings of our local 7th century scholar, the Venerable Bede. Not only a great early historian (famously the author of An Ecclesiastical History of the English Speaking Peoples), Bede sees his calling to expound wisdom as a Christian scholar to include an account of the workings of nature so that people should not be afraid of it, but should understand. In his account of natural phenomena, De Natura Rerum, he even corrects Pliny the Elder’s wrong theory of the hydrological cycle, identifies the influence of the Moon as the principal cause of the tides, and ventures a natural explanation of earthquakes as subterranean instabilities. The book whose current chapter we call “science” has many previous episodes. Taking such a “long view” of the history of science with its roots in biblical wisdom, I wonder whether much of the current science and religion debate operates within a wrong assumption about the narrative relation of science and religion. The activity we now call “science” maintains continuity within human culture as old as any story, art, or artefact.

A close reading of modern science from the perspective of ancient wisdom tradition unearths a second damaging, hidden assumption – that “religion” and “science” are culturally separated not only by time but by the domains in which they apply. Discussion of “non-overlapping magisteria” and its variants, for example, adopts a geometry of their interrelation which is inconsistent with their own desire to speak about the whole of creation. A narrative approach, by contrast, is able to develop an approach to science (or in its more ancient form natural philosophy – the “love of wisdom of natural things”) that can draw on theological and cultural roots.

The narrative journey of wisdom soon picks up recurring themes that begin to weave a theological background for science. Although the Bible doesn’t speak in modern scientific terms, it does reflect over and again on our human relationship with nature – the foundation on which science builds. At each point wonder and responsibility come together – and the meeting is often painful. From the thorns and briars of Genesis 3, to the destructive earthquake and floods of Job, the terrifying deconstruction of creation in Jeremiah’s prophecy (Jer. 4) and even the groaning of all creation in Romans 8, we are reminded that Bede was right – we do need to mend our relationship with nature. Following this theme of pain in human confrontation with nature constitutes one way to develop a “theology of science” (rather than settling for conflict, truce, or separation between theology andscience). In doing so we recognise that both scientific and theological worldviews must be “of” each other, for each must speak about everything that is. Theology must speak of science, not just to it.

A “theology of science” embraced fully within mission, teaching, worship, prayer, and practice also urges the church to drop any perspective which identifies science as a threat, but rather sees it at the heart of our human calling to live as agents of healing and hope within the natural world. Considering biblical wisdom in both Old and New Testaments can begin to add color to what a “theology of science” might mean. There are seven reappearing ideas worth summarizing here:

  1. A linear history from creation to new-creation – learning about nature is one aspect of our story that makes the future different from the past.
  2. The astonishing human ability to understand matter – seeing deeply beneath the surface of phenomena is what God himself does, and calls us to follow.
  3. The association of Wisdom with knowledge of nature introduces a mutual relationship that then drives a careful consideration of science and technology – we have a responsibility to work in fruitfulness with the world rather than exploit it.
  4. The pain of the human-nature relationship reminds us that, like all callings, engaging with nature under God’s authority will not be easy – at its simplest level it affirms that doing science is hard.
  5. The tension between order and chaos is ever present – as well as one reason for the pain of the storm and the earthquake, it also reminds us that a perfectly ordered, crystalline world is a dead world.
  6. The central role of questions affirms the risky and open journey – and the humility of living as learners.
  7. The exercise of love needs to be present – both in dealings with the natural world and among the community of disciples who answer God’s invitation to Job and those who follow to seek answers to its deep questions.

Each of these seven themes finds continuity and application with science today and its role in society. For example, the ancient theme of chaos motivates a closer look at statistical mechanics. This branch of theoretical physics seeks to understand the properties of materials (gases, liquids and solids) composed of vast numbers of molecules. It is remarkable that by assuming highly chaotic motions of these constituents (that we could never hope to chart individually), we can understand highly ordered, emergent properties such as pressure and strength. This science of order-from-chaos surely has consequences for science-theology studies (so building on the more frequently-discussed topics of cosmology – the study of the stars and galaxies of the universe, or quantum mechanics – the strange counter-intuitive physics of the atom ). Again, the idea of doing science as an expression of love initially appears strange, but is actually an honest experience that might do much to demystify science and reveal the deeply human commitment it draws on. Love is both mentioned and expressed within the scientific community more that we admit.

A condensed statement of this “theology of science” draws on St. Paul’s masterly summary to the first-century Corinthian church of the entire Christian calling he shared with them: “we have the ministry of reconciliation.” If the business of Christianity is the healing of broken relationships, as St. Paul would have us understand, then when we do science, perhaps we are expressing a ‘ministry of reconciliation’ between humankind and nature. Like all damaged relationships which begin in mutual ignorance and fear, leading to hurt within both parties, this relationship needs healing. The biblical vision is that ignorance be replaced by understanding, and that mutual exploitation and harm give way to a fruitful husbandry guided by wisdom. Surprisingly, science becomes a deeply religious activity – it finds a locus within a religious worldview, not opposed or outside it.

The church has many urgent lessons to learn from biblical wisdom and the long human story of science. Thinking through the purpose of science within the calling of the people of God might equip the community of believers to better deliver a distinctive voice into the troubled public world of science and technology. There are important decisions to make, and make soon, on the political process of decision-making in science and technology, our relationship with the global environment, and our ability to manipulate the genetic code. There are better ways of treating science (particularly in education and in the media), and healthier narratives by which both religious and secular communities can celebrate and govern science, than those that currently dominate the public forum.

Understanding science within a larger, biblically-informed theological project of healing and reconciliation shows that, far from fearing its consequences, the church can embrace it as one of God’s greatest gifts and callings.

About the author

Tom McLeish

Tom McLeish

Tom McLeish, FRS, is Professor of Natural Philosophy in the Department of Physics at the University of York, England, and is also affiliated to the University’s Centre for Medieval Studies and Humanities Research Centre. His scientific research in soft matter and biological physics, draws on collaboration with chemists, engineers, and biologists to study relationships between molecular structure and emergent material properties, and was recognized by major awards in the USA and Europe. He currently leads the UK ‘Physics of Life’ network, and holds a 5-year personal research fellowship focusing on the physics of protein signaling and the self-assembly of silk fibres. Other academic interests include the framing of science, theology, society and history, and the theory of creativity in art and science, leading to the recent book The Poetry and Music of Science (OUP 2019).