My Path from Chemistry to Theology

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Nearly 40 years ago, when I was an ordinand, I was asked to be a representative at a large WCC gathering on the subject of science and religion, which was held at MIT, near Boston, USA.  At the conference I struck up a friendship with a Professor from Hungary, who was on his first trip from behind what was then known as the Iron Curtain.

He and I went to a series of seminars in the Conference on the theme of ‘the nature of faith in science and religion’.  It was fairly high-brow stuff, and I can remember him saying to me after one of the meetings of the seminar: ‘You know, Peter, after each of these seminars I am becoming more confused, but each time it’s at a higher level’.

Well, perhaps my hope is that everyone here today might carry forward any confusions they have, at a higher level.  My introductory address will try to keep to the foothills of the contemporary dialogue between science and religion.  I will describe the reaction stages on my own journey from my early studies in Chemistry to my later theological studies and career in the ministry of the Church.  I shall set my remarks in the framework of autobiography, and pause at some of the intermediate states, and catalysts, along my journey.

The story begins in Birmingham, where I was brought up in modest circumstances.  Like many of my generation, the 11+ and grammar school opened up possibilities which had been entirely denied to my parents.   I rather drifted into specialising in the sciences at A level, and then you generally made a sharp choice between the sciences and the arts and humanities.  C P Snow’s ‘two cultures’ was the order of the day.   It still is, to a degree, but less so.

I can remember an existential moment when I was 13 or 14, when I had to choose between history and biology for ‘O’ levels, as they were then called.  The Headmaster was an historian, and I was the only one in the top stream to choose biology.  Later, when I chose a topic in historical theology for my doctorate, I felt I was in part redeeming that earlier choice.

In fact, I came to think that historical enquiry is rather like inorganic chemistry, the branch of chemistry which had attracted me most.  If physical chemistry attempts a relatively complete description of physical processes, and organic chemistry is basically the chemistry of one atom, carbon, which has the same number of bonding electrons as bonding orbitals – the basis of long-chained molecules – inorganic chemistry considers the rest of the inanimate world.  In the process it attempts to discern patterns in nature, and why they exist, yet always with considerable imprecision.  There are differences, of course, but is the study of history that different?

So, in 1969, I went to Oxford, to Merton College to read Chemistry.  I had an interesting range of teachers, a young Mary Archer among them.  To have one’s work marked by her was an experience both fragrant and chilling.  A future Professor of Chemisty, Peter Atkins, then a young lecturer in Physical Chemistry, also taught me.  Widely appreciated for his prolific text books, he is also known for his ‘militant atheism’, as he lists in his recreations.  A sort of Sorcerer’s Apprentice to Richard Dawkins.

Many years later, some 15 years ago I had the great pleasure of sitting next to Peter Atkins at lunch, after preaching the University Sermon in Oxford.  He turned up out of curiosity to meet a former student who was now a Bishop.  He came to lunch, that is, not to the service beforehand!  As with many people who become aggressively anti-Christian, he had had an unfortunate encounter with student evangelical Christianity.  Having exonerated me – up to a point at least – from being a paid up member of the God Squad, the conversation flowed.  As we parted, I could not resist saying that, unlike him, I didn’t have enough faith to be an atheist.  I think he understood what I meant.

But let me pick up the story from my undergraduate days.  I hadn’t been brought up in regular contact with the Church, although school assemblies etc had provided a vague framework of worship and hymnody.   I found myself drawn on a Christian journey, which I regard, in retrospect, as I regarded at the time, as a quest for meaning.   What was life about?  Why was there a world?  What was the purpose of my life?

As I indicated earlier, the option of atheism seemed unattractive, and unlikely to be true.  Could one look at the world with its order and beauty, even if set amid much disorder and ugliness, and the flux of evolution, and conclude that there was no ultimate purpose or meaning behind it?  Could it all be down to chance?  This seemed to me to be the way of either desperation or hubris, and certainly, in human terms, a considerable ‘act of faith’.

On the other hand, a rather conventional view of God, as essentially a distant Creator, who set the world in motion and only deals with it from a distance, as it were, was equally unsatisfactory.  The world didn’t run like clockwork, and life seemed to me to be too subtle, too complex, and too mysterious, to support a quasi-Masonic view of God as the Great Architect of the universe, but no more.

The Christian Faith, by contrast, presented me with a vision of a God who not only created the world, but embraced its imperfections and limitations, unto death itself, in a mysterious act of redeeming love.  Over the years this sense of the inner truth of the Christian Faith, and its intrinsic beauty, in what the Psalms call the beauty of holiness, have progressively impressed themselves upon me, but I freely accept the limits of our understanding – in this life we can only see through a glass darkly.  I accept that Christian belief is vulnerable to the critique which figures such as Richard Dawkins have popularised.  It is not a new critique.  2000 years ago, Christians were mocked for their belief that in Jesus Christ the Son of God had lived a human life; they were mocked as if reinventing the old Graeco-Roman myths of the Gods on Mount Olympus deigning to visit the earth. Educated gentiles 2000 years ago thought that they had grown out of that.  To the Jewish mind, and not least with the crucifixion in mind, it was not so much a foolish, as a blasphemous idea.

Dawkins is right to focus upon this central claim of the Christian Faith, that God entered our world uniquely, and therefore necessarily mysteriously, in Jesus Christ.  What he regards as mythological madness, for Christians is the key to all wisdom.

Dawkins is also right, from his perspective, to assert that the universe looks exactly as it might if there were no God.  The essential invisibility of God is central to Jewish and Christian belief – remember that when asked for a sign, Jesus said the only sign that would be given is the sign of Jonah, a cryptic prefiguring of the Cross (Mt12).   The invisibility of God, which lies behind the OT prohibition of idols, is asserted as strongly in the NT as well: it is only in the ordinary, down-to-earth humanity of Jesus that God can be seen, and only then to the eye of faith.

I believe that this deep biblical tradition of the essential invisibility of God derives from the basic distinction between the Creator and his creation – the Creator whose ways are not our ways, whose thoughts are not our thoughts (Isaiah 55).  It’s there in the Genesis story of creation, when Adam and Eve can hear God speaking, but they can’t see him.

This helps me to understand why worship was very important to me from the outset of my Christian journey.  The Christian Faith, with its mysterious and paradoxical proclamation of the birth and death of the Son of God in Jesus Christ, with its subtle combination of the assertion of God’s radical presence amid his apparent absence, naturally lends itself better to expression in worship than to theological analysis.  At the heart of Christian worship, in the Holy Communion, the symbolism is of encounter with God, through the sacrament of participation in the life and being of God.

This ritual celebration of the presence of God in our world, and in our lives, drew me.  The 9am celebration of Holy Communion in the College Chapel meant more to me than the set-piece sermons by well-known preachers which were offered in abundance in Oxford.  A simple celebration of Holy Communion has remained central to my spirituality.

In Oxford I came across the ideas which were popularised by the distinguished nuclear physicist, Peter Hodgson, who was a Fellow of Merton’s neighbouring College, Corpus Christi, and a committed Roman Catholic.  I was helped to understand how the metaphysical foundations of experimental science could be seen to derive precisely from the Christian belief in creation.   The argument is not as widely appreciated as it should be, and in brief is as follows.  Experimental science rests on two basic beliefs.  Firstly that nature is rational, in the sense that, if an identical experiment is performed twice, we should expect the same result each time.  Secondly, that the rationality of nature is a contingent rationality, that is to say, it is not a necessary rationality which might be predicted in advance.   The rationality of the world has to be discovered by experiment, not by prediction from some imagined, or presumed, or discovered, first principles.

In the ancient world neither of these basic beliefs was established in Graeco-Roman culture.  While the world was presumed to have a certain rationality, it was essentially an other-worldly rationality, which was reflected in, but adversely   affected by, embodiment in the material world.   The spiritual forces which were trapped in the material world – gremlins as they were later named – would potentially disrupt the reliability of experimental results.  That’s why Archimedes’ proto-science could never take off as a general cultural force.

But, in the second place, such rationality that nature has was presumed to be a necessary rationality, reflecting the rationality of the highest form of being – in the case of those branches of Graeco-Roman thought which developed a somewhat murky concept of God, the rationality of God himself.

So, to take an obvious example, to Graeco-Roman thought the planets appeared to move in regular orbits, and thus exhibited a certain rational behaviour.  But it was then assumed that their movement must be the most obvious form of rational motion, in a circle.  Copernicus correctly deduced that the planets circled around the sun, but it was Kepler, in the early 17th Century, who deduced from the observed movements, that they were elliptical.

Modern experimental science rapidly established itself from the 17th Century, and from the 18th Century the assumptions that nature was rational, but that its rationality had to be discovered by experiment, rather than by logical derivation, became taken for granted in European culture.

What I came to appreciate was that these principles were best seen as deriving, both historically and philosophically, from the Judaeo-Christian doctrine of creation.   The fact that nature derives from the creative will of God, and was to be regarded, as Genesis puts it, as ‘very good’, means that it can be regarded as reliable.  Experiments on Monday are sure to yield the same result on Tuesday, all things being equal.  But God did not need to create.   Creation was, to use the doctrinal jargon, ‘out of nothing’, the result of God’s free decision to create.  For reasons which, from our perspective, we cannot fully explain, God chose to create the world as we know it.   In principle, from the perspective of the Christian Faith, it could have been different – a question which has subsequently exercised leading philosophers and scientists, including, notably, Albert Einstein.  Because the rationality could have taken a different form, it had to be investigated experimentally.

So, why didn’t science develop in Old Testament times, or in the first 15 centuries of the Christian era?  Historians of science argue about this, but I regard the co-incidence with the theological and social revolution of the Reformation as not a coincidence at all.   Prior to the 17th Century there were various still-births of science, in various cultural settings, but from the 17th Century the emerging free-thinking culture of post-Renaissance and post-Reformation Christian Europe provided the opportunity for the emergence of modern science.

I have dwelt on this a bit, because it laid the foundation for my belief that science and Christianity cannot be in a fundamental conflict.  Christianity calls human beings to explore and understand the world of creation, and also provides the metaphysical foundations for the scientific enterprise, even if, once established in a culture, the religious infrastructure which once provided these foundations is no longer needed to support them.

Another distinguished scientist greatly influenced me at this point: Michael Polanyi.  He lived in Oxford in retirement, having been Senior Research Fellow of my College, although I narrowly missed the opportunity to meet him in person.

Some of you may not have heard of Michael Polanyi, but I regard him as one of the great minds of the 20th Century.  He was born in Hungary in 1891 although his academic career was in Germany. As part of the exodus of Jewish scientists and intellectuals in the 1930’s, he came to Manchester as Professor of Physical Chemistry.  He was a distinguished scientist, a FRS, who arguably anticipated discoveries, in adsorption theory, and reaction kinetics, which were later the subject of Nobel prizes given to others.   As an event of poetic justice, his Canadian-based son, John Polanyi, was later awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.  One of my Chemistry teachers, also a Hungarian, George Radda, himself a FRS and now knighted, used to speak of Polanyi with awe.

But beyond his scientific brilliance, he took an increasing interest in social affairs, and philosophical questions.  In the late 1940’s the University of Manchester permitted Polanyi to exchange his chair in Chemistry for a research chair in Social Science.  During my Oxford undergraduate years I was given a college prize which I was obliged to take in books, and I obtained a copy of Polanyi’s Gifford lectures, published as Personal Knowledge. Stamped with the Merton crest, it is among my most treasured books.

Above all, Polanyi taught me to look at the world in a multi-layered, multi-levelled way.  For example, even an inanimate machine could not be described simply in terms of its physical components.  Rather, a machine is described in terms of its purpose, which sets certain limits (boundary conditions) for the physical and chemical properties of its components, if the machine is successfully to accomplish its purpose.  For example, the principles of the design of a car determine which fuel must be used, but a car has a purpose beyond the chemical description of the fuel itself.  The levels are logically distinct, and attract different language: we discover the laws of science, but we invent (and potentially patent) machines.  Living systems have additional levels governed by the principles of life, which depend upon, but cannot be explained in terms of, the machine-like properties of our bodies (heart, lungs etc.), and the chemical constitution of our blood, bones etc..

Uniquely in human beings, language permits the development of concepts of truth, beauty, justice, love etc.  This depends upon our greater brain size being able to support our sophisticated use of language.  In this way, human beings are open to develop a relationship with the person of God, and develop a religious sense, in one form or another.

Polanyi’s own religious commitments were rather wistful, and perhaps significantly,  couched in reflections on participation in worship.  When he lived in Hale, in this Diocese, his biography refers to him attending evensong in a local parish.  He enabled me to make profound links between my scientific work and the theological study to which I felt called.

Polanyi’s multi-levelled view of created reality may yet help theologians to clarify historic disputes – over grace and free will for example – where the discussion can often descend into an unhelpful ‘either-or’, rather than a multi-levelled ‘ both-and’.

In 1974  I went to the University of Edinburgh for 6 years of study for a BD and PhD.  I was taught by Tom Torrance, who was a great friend of Polanyi – he became  his literary executor - who was exploring the possible philosophical and theological implications of the move from Newtonian physics to modern physics.  Let me conclude with one or two reflections on this.

For example, it is an implication of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity that the universe is finite, if also, from our perspective, unbounded.  But that means that the concept of the Universe as a discrete entity is rendered philosophically more comprehensible.  The possibility that the world is created then becomes more rationally conceivable, a fact which I believe has undergirded the 20th Century renaissance in the philosophy of religion.

Recall the Newtonian vision of the universe, where space and time are absolute and infinite co-ordinates within which all events occur.  This gives creation divine attributes, for only God can be absolute and infinite.  By de-throning space and time, and making them unambiguously aspects of created reality, Einstein removed a source of confusion between God and the world which had compromised our ability to understand either.  It is strange, but I believe true, to suggest that the Newtonian confusion of God with the world, through its quasi-divine assumptions about space and time, came in time to fuel the development of modern atheism, despite Newton’s own religious faith. I believe the philosophical and theological, and cultural, consequences of the move to modern physics has a long way yet to run, not least in relation to the understanding of order in so-called ‘chaos theory’.

To take another example, the understanding of time, dependent upon the invariable speed of light, in modern Physics helped me to ease the so-called ‘scandal of particularity’, and understand how God could act decisively at one point in history in a way which is determinative for all times and places.  This is important in an age which puts such a premium on being non-discriminatory. Ponder this thought: that if you look at the sky at night and see light from a star, the distance of the star is commonly expressed in terms of the number of light years it has taken light from the star to reach us.  But from the perspective of the beam of light itself, it arrives in our eye the moment it left the star, because for anything travelling at the speed of light no time passes.

This paradox from our physical understanding of radiation, of light, for me parallels the theological paradox that the eternal God reveals, and embodies, his eternal and universal purposes in events at a particular time and place.  It puts a wholly new perspective upon the New Testament description of Jesus Christ as the ‘light of the world’.  Jesus Christ, as he lived on earth, is recorded as saying ‘Before Abraham was, I am’, and was believed by the New Testament writers to be both ‘the lamb slain before the formation of the world’, and ‘the one through whom all things were made’.  The uniqueness and the universality of Christian revelation are not in opposition at all, but are two sides of the same coin.

When I first set out on my journey from my early scientific career to study theology, I had to tell my then boss of my plans.  To this day I can recall the look of incomprehension on his face.  He slowly took out of his desk drawer a small, dog-eared dictionary and looked up ‘theology’.  I recall him reading out the definition: ‘the science of God’.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Peter Forster