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Walking with Stan Rosenberg | Parks Road, Oxford

We take a walk with historian Stan Rosenberg and talk about the often blurry lines between the sacred and the secular.


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The Arch at Oxford University Museum of Natural History

We take a walk with historian Stan Rosenberg and talk about the often blurry lines between the sacred and the secular.

Description

We’re trying a new segment on the podcast where we walk with someone, letting the place inspire the conversation. Today we take a walk with historian Stan Rosenberg and talk about the history of science and faith, inspired by some of the buildings built in the 19th century at the University of Oxford that show the often blurry lines between the sacred and the secular. Then, the conversation moves back all the way to the 4th and 5th century with a discussion about science and faith in the mind and the times at Saint Augustine. 

  • Originally aired on October 13, 2022
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Before You Read

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Transcript

Rosenberg:

The world is contingent, it is made, and we are part of it. And that’s what allows us to understand it, that there’s a coherence between our mind and this world and so therefore, we can study it. 

My name is Stan Rosenberg. I am the Executive Director of skilled scholarship and cushy. We start that over. My name is Stan Rosenberg, and I’m the Executive Director of scale, which is scholarship and Christianity in Oxford. And I am also vice president of scholarship and research. And I am also vice president of research and scholarship for the Council of Christian colleges, universities. And also I can say as part of a scale I’m on the theology faculty of the University of Oxford

Hoogerwerf:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Colin Hoogerwerf, standing in for Jim Stump this fall. 

The last few episodes we’ve been bringing you some of the conversations we had while a few of us were in Oxford and Cambridge in the United Kingdom. We have another one of those for you today, with Stan Rosenberg. 

Over these last few years we’ve gotten pretty good at doing digital interviews. In some ways it’s a lot easier. Everybody can sit comfortably in their own chairs, computer screens in front of us with our notes and audio controls, and usually pretty controlled background noise. But when it came to scheduling interviews during our time in the UK we decided we wanted to make the best use of being in a real place with another person as opposed to our voices meeting somewhere in the ether. And so this episode is the first of what we hope will become a new segment on the podcast, where we take a walk with someone and let the place inspire the conversation. 

Stan Rosenberg is a historian, so walking through the University of Oxford, where the first evidence of teaching was from over 900 years ago, was a good place for Jim and Stan to have a conversation. The conversation starts with a discussion of two buildings, a natural history museum built like a church, and a college—which was originally a theological college—built with the proceeds of science. It leads to a conversation about the blurry lines between the secular and the sacred and then Jim and Stango a little further back in history to talk about science and religion from the mind and the times of St Augustine, which is Stan’s expertise. 

Now off to the streets of Oxford. Here’s Jim with the interview. 

Interview Part One

Stump:

Well, Stan, thanks for talking to us. 

Rosenberg:

Pleasure. 

Stump:

Here we are strolling down. What street are we on? 

Rosenberg:

Norham gardens 

Stump:

Norham Gardens. Headed toward Parks Road. And three Americans in Oxford, but two of us are quite a bit newer. How long you been here? 

Rosenberg:

Well, I’ve been here for, starting my 24th year. I’m also British dual national. So two Americans and a mixed.

Stump:

So history is your professional training. And was that what you had always intended? Or how did you?

Rosenberg:

I don’t think I grew up thinking I wanted to be a historian. I grew up with a sense of the significance of it and I was at a little Bible School in Chicago for a year after college before going on to university, sorry, not—after high school before going to university. And growing up with a historical sensibility, I found myself asking questions at this Bible school that didn’t fit in well with the tradition, if you will, or our traditional ways as an-anti tradition of thinking about the world. And things that didn’t quite make historical sense. So I went back to my state university, Colorado State, where I grew up and did my undergraduate degree in history and minors and Philosophy and Religious Studies and honors to focus in on asking a question, what don’t we know about our past? Because it’s what we don’t know that enslaves us, it’s not knowing that enslaves us. It’s not knowing. And felt like I really need to have a clear understanding of the world and on my own world. So you could almost say that the Bretheren, the Plymouth Bretheren, chased me to the father’s, the church fathers. 

Stump:

Well, I want to come back to asking you some more about Augustine and some of your own research. But first, you got to tell us about this place. We’re walking, walking along right now.

Rosenberg:

So we’re walking down Parks Road next between Keble College and the Natural History Museum of Oxford and the Pitt Rivers Museum. It’s like an iconic location within Oxford. So this is a spectacular building. It’s such an interesting building and it puts the lie, if you will, to many of the myths that we deal with in science and religion. We are so much shaped by myths, some good, some bad, some indifferent. But this really challenges some of the myths because for some that know or many that know, this is the place where we remember where the great, the famous debates happened between Wilberforce and Huxley over Darwinian thought and so there is, up in the attic— 

Stump:

1860 something? 

Rosenberg:

The building opened in 1859. So it’s just soon after it opened.

Stump:

The same year as The Origin.

Rosenberg:

That’s right. Yeah. The same date. It started, it was built between 1857 and 1859. Let’s go over and look at the arch. So as soon as you look at it, you know there’s something interesting going on. So look at the building. What does it remind you of? Like look at these window sconces.

Stump:

Looks like a church.

Rosenberg:

It looks like a church. And look at the grand entryway. Look at the arch. It looks like a church entrance. And then look up at the top. And you can see there at the top, at the apex of the arch, an angel. This is the image that we have on the back of the book that I did on Darwin and evolution that BioLogos sponsored, Finding Ourselves after Darwin. So we have this image on the spine, very purposefully. So you see here at the apex of a natural history museum, an angel, and in one hand it’s holding a book—and it’s not specific which book but it’s clearly a theologically intended book, whether it’s the book of life, or it’s the scriptures, it’s very clearly that. And then in the other hand, it’s a cell that’s dividing. And so you have an angel of the Lord, maintaining a sense of both the book of Scripture and a book of life. You have a museum dedicated to the natural world that looks like a church.

Stump:

So it’s not like this building was repurposed from something or other. 

Rosenberg:

It’s not repurposed. It was intentionally designed. And it was designed to be a memorial to nature but a memorial to nature that’s clearly within a sense of this tradition of engaging deep belief together with a commitment to understanding and engaging with the natural world.

Stump:

Poke our heads in. [enter museum] And there’s something very interesting about the funding of this building.

Rosenberg:

Yeah so this building—and we’ll go outside and talk about another building across the street in a moment—but this building was built by the proceeds of the sale of the Bible. So Oxford University Press owned the copyright to the King James Bible and with a grant of 30,000 pounds, in 1857, which was a princely sum then, so the University Press provided the funding from the copyrights of the sale of the Bible to the natural history. So we have the income from the Bible paying for this natural history museum. This is not at all this sense of this utter separation. So one of the problems is we have confused conflicts—plural—with conflict as an abstract singular. So, of course there are going to be conflicts in life, we all face conflicts currently, constantly. So there’s nothing problematic saying that there are particular conflicts between science and faith. We have conflicts between science and science. There are conflicts within faith, between faith and faith. So the problem is not posing that there are conflicts that have happened, and we’d be dishonest and discreditable to say that there’s no conflicts at all. But nor do we need to say that there’s conflict as a singular abstract statement as if this defines a necessary relationship.

Stump:

A necessary part of the relationship somehow, right? 

Rosenberg:

And this, I think, this structure and its location and its history, test that notion and provide a counter example, a very profound counter example.

Stump:

Okay, so we walk out of here and right straight across the road— 

Rosenberg:

Across the road is Keble College, which is dedicated to John Keble, who was one of the founders of the Oxford movement. So, the Oxford movement was a reform movement of the church in the 19th century, here at Oxford, that focused on restoration of faith and piety by focusing on the high, the sacramental aspects. Ao it was a much more, it was within the Anglican tradition, but a much more Catholic focus of the tradition as an attempt to restore it. So as we look at it, you see it’s built with red brick, which is very different. It’s not well received in Oxford, unlike dressed stone where so many of—you are staying at Christ’s church this trip and all those buildings that are built with dressed stone, so beautiful and elegant. And here we have red brick. Now we can’t see it right now because the trees have so much foliage but at the edge of it is the chapel, which we could see from the steps there. And so I think there’s an interesting counterpoint or kind of apposition that we often talk about between sciences and religion there because you have the chapel of Keble College, built in the 1870s, as I recall, which was built by the product of science, if you will. So the new agricultural science of the 19th century, which discovered the use of nitrates as a fertilizer, depended on the sale and the gathering of bird guano, and particularly bat guano as a rich form of nitrates. And so that chapel was built with the donation from this businessman who made his fortune importing guano from the South Pacific to England, and maybe to the States as well, for the nitrates for agriculture. So you have, across from a museum built by the product of the sale of the Bible—

Stump: 

Which looks like a church. 

Rosenberg:

—which looks like a church, you have a church built with the product of science, the benefits of science. And I think that puts into nice apposition, this kind of world we live in. It’s not opposition. They are on opposite sides of the road, that’s totally accidental. That doesn’t, I think, symbolize anything particular. It’s just that right here within perspective of each other you have science contributing to the life of, the religious life, and you have the Bible, the religious life, contributing to the life of the mind, science, the life of the mind around scienc a commitment to the natural world. By the way, as you look up, that upper row of windows on the left, that’s the room where the debate happened.

Stump:

So in many ways, the boundary lines are much more blurred between science and religion.

Rosenberg:

Absolutely. That’s a good way to describe it. That’s a good way to describe it. You had so many scientists who were faithful and even those who lacked faith often expressed it then in uncertainty. So you’ll remember that Huxley described, and I think he coined didn’t he, coined the term, agnostic as a way of describing it not as anti-religious but as ill defined, blurred, uncertain, 

Stump:

Keeping your options open

Rosenberg:

Keeping your options open. But you have those who follow faith and those who don’t, throughout the generations all the way back. But I think the sense of a blurred identity, blurred history, blurred culture is critical.

Stump:

So talk a little bit about these relations between science and religion that you experience here in Oxford in the UK in general, as opposed to what we find in the United States? 

Rosenberg:

Yeah, it’s a very different situation. Now, granted, my experience is more in Oxford and Cambridge and around these academic centers. But it’s still nonetheless, there are aspects of it that are representative and I’ve talked with others around it. Whereas in many, much of evangelical culture, in the US one often finds a suspicion of science, and anywhere from uncertainty, outright antagonism to particular strong interpretations and discoveries and foreign views, you rarely find that here. There might be a particular reaction to a particular finding. Is this the best way of interpreting it or describing it? Or is this theory or thesis hold up? But nowhere near the kind of antagonism. So I’m around, you know, in my 22 years I’ve gotten around this country a fair bit, and know people from out and in, I cannot think, it doesn’t mean they don’t exist, but I cannot think of an evangelical that is worried about Darwinism, for example. Darwinian thought is not seen as being somehow antagonistic or contradictory to the faith. That the ways in which we understand and engage the Bible and science doesn’t require us to take a polarized view.

Stump:

So why do you think that is? So we just come from the Huxley Wilberforce debate here, so it’s not like there was never any religious objection, or at least objections that had some kind of religious overtones.

Rosenberg:

There were certainly objections. There were also affirmations that had religious overtones in the 19th century in England. So people like Charles Kingsley, a priest who famously was quite a strong supporter of Darwin and others. I think it’s important we engage the cultural aspects. I’m a historian. And my job is to look at how ideas are formed in society, how they’re transformed, how they’re transmitted, where they come from. And so one of the interesting things, and here I’m indebted to our colleague, David Livingstone, from Queens, Belfast. But one of the interesting things is to look at how differing peoples who come out of the same creedal backgrounds and doctrinal background differ. And you have to ask, why do they differ? So David, in his work, looked at Presbyterians and looked at particular Presbyterians who share the same creed, the same doctrine, the same broad tradition, and how did they differ in southern United States, and in Boston, and in Dublin, and Glasgow, I think, or was it Edinburgh that he studied, and in London and looking at different places. So from a scientific standpoint, you know, you’ve got to control and a test. So the controlling factor here is that they share the same creed, same theological culture, same doctrines. And the test is there in a different locale. 

Stump:

Geography is the variable we’re working with. 

Rosenberg:

Geography. Indeed. And with that variable you find very different responses to Darwin. Which has to cause you to ask, is the response to Darwin, fundamentally, and essentially, a doctrinal division? Or is there something else going on? And I think there’s a lot of something else. Now In the US, I think— Now, let me just be careful here to say, my area of special skill is the third, fourth, fifth and sixth centuries. So I’m venturing into a period of which I know less, but I still know something, a bit. So I think one has to take account of the fact that the Origin of the Species is published in 1859 and so it is coming to bear in the US, it is being transmitted the US just at the time of the US Civil War. And war changes and shapes and distorts a culture. And so it’s been revealed, if you will, in the US, or unveiled is maybe the better word, in the US, launched in the US, to use the modern sense of a book launch, just at the time that the US is in this convulsive—

Stump:

Deep divisions. 

Rosenberg:

—deep, profound divisions. And is a challenging way of thinking, and it’s frustrating and it is not intuitive. We tend to be an intuitive oriented people. And so those sciences that are intuitively obvious, and practical, are much easier to accept. But there’s much of our discoveries in science that aren’t intuitive. And Darwinian and thought certainly that time was not intuitively obvious. There are aspects of it that one could say, but profoundly not. And so I think we have to look at what’s going on in the US the saying OK, there’s a kind of a culture that may be less likely to engage those sciences that are not intuitive, there’s a steep pragmatism that’s a part of the US cultural tradition and history. So we are perhaps less likely to support, broadly speaking, popularly speaking, those findings that are counterintuitive. We also have a tradition of people who are, while we have a liberal arts tradition in our higher ed, we don’t have a deep learning in science broadly a part of it. So we have many who are not trained in understanding scientific lingo. So how often have you heard somebody say Darwinianism, it’s just a theory, why would you put so much into it? Not understanding how a scientist uses the word theory as something much more, stronger, and that has strong demonstrable proof to go with it, even if it’s not absolutely held, absolutely demonstrated, there’s so much conciliate so much convergence of thoughts, so many explanations that it provides and it’s a useful mechanism 

Stump:

So lots of people when I asked them about this difference between the US and the UK, start at the Scopes Trial in 1925. But here what you’re saying it sounds like the Scopes Trial didn’t come out of nowhere, that they’re already these kinds of currents at work.

Rosenberg:

That’s right. The Scopes trial was a product of its time, not the producer of its time. Now, it certainly exacerbated and perpetuated. But I certainly wouldn’t start the conversation there.

Stump:

Well, let’s go back further to the area of your specialization. And is there anything from Augustine, words of wisdom that might help us to heal the divide, to see these two in more profitable dialogue and intercourse, as opposed to separating them the way too often happens?

Rosenberg:

So it’s interesting, Augustine was preoccupied with the opening chapters of Genesis. And that is certainly the phrase to use, practically had five commentaries on Genesis one, more than most anywhere else I’m aware of, maybe more than anyone else I’m aware of. And several are quite long. And so you have a section of The City of God even key works, you think, what does this have to do with it? So his book The City of God has, has three books of The City of God, three sections of The City of God are essentially a commentary on Genesis trying to think through how do we understand the nature of the world that we live in? And the three final books of The Confessions are a commentary on it. So how do we understand ourselves, how to understand ourself and society, for Agustine was fundamentally related to how we understand the nature of the world. And then he had three commentaries on Genesis, standalone commentaries on Genesis, in addition to those two sections. For Augustine, there a couple of fundamental things to say, well there’s a lot you could say, more than you want to hear at the moment, or your readers of listeners want to hear perhaps, at the moment. But for Augustine, the natural world was really critical. He was at various points, he had several doctrinal debates that he was engaged with, and one of them was with the Gnostic tradition. The particular form it was called, group of them were called the Manachees, which he had been apart during his earlier life. And the Manichees as a Gnostic sect, de-emphasized the quality and the value of the world. That the world that we live in is the place of evil and therefore it is, by definition, evil, distorted, a distraction at best, but worse than a distraction, something that actually distorts who we are. And for Augustine, that couldn’t be. You have the God— 

Stump: 

The goodness of the created order.

Rosenberg:

—the goodness of the created order is essential and is continuing. One of the mistakes in interpreting Augustine that has been made is to think that Augustine thinks that the world itself was broken by the fall. And that’s not Augustine’s thinking. It’s that our relationship to the world is afflicted, is broken by the fall, but not the world itself. That God has created a good place, even though this good place has some painful aspects to it, whether it be a sunburn, now it’s a gray sky in Oxford today, so we’re not worried about sunburns. But, you know, I could trip and fall, stumbling over a rock as we walk through University Parks. Pain can be a part of a good world. But it doesn’t make it a bad world or an evil world. He also really thought seriously about the development of a God who is powerful, who is great, who is loving, and also creates a coherent structure. So Augustine is really the first theologian to substantially—not the first theologian to think this but to substantially work through a notion that there is a natural world that has its own operating premises and structures, that it works. So his one time mentor, Ambrose, in a series of sermons, makes it clear that if you want it to rain you need to pray to God. That is, it was a completely volitional approach to how the natural world works. For Augustine, he allows for the place of prayer, that God can intervene, but actually, this is a world in which rain happens because the way that God designed the world, that there is a structure that makes—that’s coherent and meaningful and viable.

Stump:

That seems like a pretty important presupposition for science.

Rosenberg:

Indeed, it is. And so his work his great commentary on Genesis, called The Literal Commentary on Genesis—and I should say, in what literal means—but to say that it was quite important for the development of early modern science. So his commentary on Genesis was actually one of his most read works in the High Middle Ages. So people today may know The Confessions, may, may know his work on Christian instruction, or Christian teaching, or may know his work on The City of God. But actually, his second most read work in the 13th 14th century was his work on Genesis. And it became fundamentally important in early modern science. So in his letter to the Grand Duchess Christiana, Galileo cites Augustine’s work on Genesis extensively to defend his work on understanding the world. And it’s clear that for Augustine, and he’s, again, one of the first to really develop this notion that the world is contingent, it’s made, and we are part of it. And that’s what allows us to understand it. That there’s a coherence between our mind and this world and so therefore, we can study it. Augustine famously in book one, chapter 19, of his work on Genesis, writes that we in the church need to be extremely careful about what we say about the natural world. Now he didn’t use the word science by the way. Hopefully, your readers know that the word science and religion as we use it today are 19th century terms. Agustine says that we need to be careful what we say about the natural world from within the church because we haven’t studied it in the same way. And we need to be careful what we say lest we push people away, who have studied it and know something more about it. If in our mis-statements or misinterpretations or just miscalculated rhetoric, about the natural world, we risk pushing people away and causing them to distrust us on things of which we are not authorities. And so that why would they trust us on those areas where we are authorities. So that is we are pushing people away from paying attention to the most important reasons that a Christian has, which is to engage and support and strengthen the faith and to bring the revelation of Scripture to bear in our world. And why would they trust us to talk about matters of salvation, if we can’t even get basic details, like the nature of the cosmos correct?

Stump:

That advice, if it had been hated, would have spared a lot of turmoil and trouble in the last few generations.

Rosenberg:

Indeed.

Stump:

Well, Stan, we’ve had a nice stroll around University Parks. And we’re headed back now to the SCIO offices, which is a manifestation of some of what you’ve been talking about here. SCIO, the acronym for science and Christianity

Rosenberg:

Scholarship and Christianity.

Stump:

Scholarship and Christianity. But scholarship in that older medieval sense that would include science.

Rosenberg:

That’s right. Any form of scholarship. 

Stump:

Scholarship and Christianity in Oxford. So you are the director of this program and a bunch of your students walking on the other side of the street here. 

Rosenberg:

Yea, a bunch of my students heading in for lectures that’ll start in a moment.

Stump:

And this is affiliated or at least you’re affiliated with Wycliffe Hall as well?

Rosenberg:

SCIO is affiliated with Wycliffe Hall. We’re a subsidiary of the US organization the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. And we exist both to provide these study abroad programs but also research and development opportunities for faculty and for senior university leaders. And we run various kinds of academic projects for expansion of scholarship and supportive scholarship.

Stump: 

And Wycliffe Hall within the University of Oxford is intentionally religious organization?

Rosenberg:

It is a Church of England Divinity School, or as they would jokingly call it a vicar factory. And it is part of the university. So an interesting aspect about life in England is secular and sacred don’t have this absolute division. And so you have a secular, what is definably a secular institution in Oxford, with a divinity school, not like if you look at Princeton or Duke Divinity School, so separated. They are legally separate institutions alongside. Here, Wycliffe is part of the University. You find the same thing over at Cambridge or up at Durham. And so secular here represents part of these cultural manifestations we’re talking about.  So secular in England means to be free from religious authority. So Wycliffe can’t rule over all the other colleges. But there’s a place for it within the culture to exist. And of the 44 Colleges and halls at Oxford, almost all of them have a chapel and chaplain. And it’s a state university. So there is a real difference of secular and sacred here.

Stump:

Well, very good. Thanks so much, Stan, for the conversation and the stroll through the parks and the Tour Down parks road. We appreciate talking to you.

Rosenberg:

It was a pleasure really enjoyed it and such a delight to talk about these kinds of important matters and I hope that zenriches your audience.

Credits:

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the Fetzer Institute, the John Templeton Foundation, and by individual donors who contribute to BioLogos. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Nate Mulder is our assistant producer. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. 

BioLogos offices are located in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the Grand River watershed. If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum or visit our website, biologos.org, where you will find articles, videos and other resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening. 


Featured guest

Stan Rosenberg

Stan Rosenberg

Stan Rosenberg founded and directs Scholarship and Christianity in Oxford (SCIO), the UK subsidiary of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.  He is an academic member of Wycliffe Hall and a member of the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Oxford, teaching early Christian history and doctrine.  He graduated with a BA in history from Colorado State University and earned a MA and PhD in early Christian studies and late antique history from the Catholic University of America.  His research and teaching interests focus on Augustine’s works (his Genesis commentaries and sermons in particular), early Christian cosmology and its relationship to Greco-Roman science, culture and philosophy, and the interplay between intellectual and popular thought during this period; he is also involved in contemporary discussions on the relationship between science and religion.  Recent research has led to a series of articles in two subject areas: early Christianity and Greco-Roman science; and the intersection of preaching, popular religion, and the development of doctrine in the largely oral culture of late antiquity.  Rosenberg is the UK Region Director for the Museum of the Bible Scholars Initiative and directs both its Logos in Oxford and Logos II in Israel projects.   Since 2002, he has directed and co-directed multiple science and religion projects in Oxford, funded by the John Templeton Foundation, the Templeton Religion Trust, and BioLogos.  He is on the advisory councils of  BioLogos and the Museum of the Bible, advising the latter particularly on science and the Bible, and patristics.  Recent work, relevant to science and the Bible, focuses on the misappropriation of Augustine’s view of evil in recent science and religion debates: "Can Nature be 'Red in Tooth and Claw' in the thought of Augustine? A Case study of the misappropriation of a major theologian", which will be published in a work for which he is also the general editor, Finding Ourselves after Darwin: Conversations about the Image of God, Original Sin and the Problem of Evil, Baker Academic, Forthcoming, 2017.