After-dinner musings of a bishop who caught the science bug

Three scientists and a bishop found themselves sitting in a train one day, and the bishop decided to take advantage of the situation and ask each of them the biggest question of all. So, he asked the first scientist, who was from Oxford, how many scientists does it take to change a light-bulb? Ah yes, came the reply, change, that’s a very interesting concept and one we’re slowly getting our heads round in Oxford. Tell me more. Pressing on, though, the bishop quickly put his question to the second scientist, who was from Cambridge. Light-bulbs, the professor replied, what an old-fashioned idea. Come over to our science park and I’ll show you the light sources of the future. The invitation was an enticing one, but the bishop stuck to his script and asked the third scientist, who was of course from Durham just how many scientists it did take to accomplish the operation. Now that, said Principal Wilkinson, is a really big question, and I can share the news with you that Professor McLeish and I have just been given a very big grant to set up a project to explore it. How about joining in? We need someone safe to hold the ladder, if you’re free.

So – I think I’m probably here to hold the ladder, or more particularly to say a little about how a very humanities sort of person has ended up as a big fan of this religion and science project, and feels he is getting a lot out of it – and rather hopes you will too.

It all goes back to an encounter in the headmaster’s study when I was 13. After two years at grammar school, we had to choose our educational track: classics (it was a rather pretentious place despite being part of the socialist republic of Sheffield), modern studies, aka the rest of the humanities, or science. Little swot that I was I was getting top marks in everything, so it wasn’t an easy choice, but modern studies it was, and another 13 years later I was the proud possessor of an Oxford doctorate in an arts subject so abstruse that I remain the world expert in it. In fact, the only expert. If the arts are basically of no practical use, my motto ran, then let’s be as useless as possible. Inevitably, after a short academic teaching career I went on to study theology…

But another story was going on too. For some strange reason I did something like AS maths alongside my arts A levels, and then as a graduate read Bertrand Russell’s Principia Mathematica alongside Bernard of Clairvaux, and taught science-based linguistics alongside old-time Oxford phonology. As a vicar, New Scientist graced my study alongside the New International Version; as Archdeacon of Carlisle I ran a conference on my predecessor in that role, one William Paley, calling in favours to bag former fellow theological college students John Polkinghorne and Alister McGrath as speakers; and when I landed in my present role in Cambridge it was natural to link up with the Faraday Institute – and this project when it started.

All this was background stuff really, but coming to one of the first of these conferences a few years ago now moved things on to a new level. The organisers had the Cunning Plan of throwing both the bishops and the scientists on day one by wheeling in Giles Gasper from the history department to baffle them with pictures of thirteenth century Latin manuscripts of the writings of Robert Grosseteste, who was both an energetic bishop and a serious scientist, writing stuff still capable of engaging scientists today. It was a good move, but had a different effect on me, as I quickly realised that not only could I as a mediaevalist read the manuscripts, but I had even worked on some later material that derived from them.

It didn’t take long to team up with Giles and when my sabbatical finally arrived last year to join his Ordered Universe project producing interdisciplinary readings of the good bishop’s work, with scientists, medievalists, theologians and specialists all round the table together.

Thanks to the very generous offer of a visiting fellowship here at John’s I was able not only to put in the leg work to add my own edition of the later text to the project, but also to spend precious time with the scientists and theologians of today and indeed tomorrow finding my feet a bit better in the dialogue between them which is in reality far from the stereotypical story of conflict that dominates the media. Returning to my diocese, which is admittedly well endowed in both disciplines, I was soon able to gather a network of around 50 people together and sow the seeds of using those resources to make the dialogue and interaction even better than the good it already is – particularly out in the parishes as well as in the academic groves.

Why does this matter to me? There’s a touch of evangelistic interest, I admit: I want and I want us as church to be able to speak the language of those around us and show how the gospel is good news in their context too. But at a deeper level it is about intellectual integrity. Despite the immortal example of Zaphod Beeblebrox, and it’s about time you read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe if you don’t get the reference, I refuse to wear two heads. As a medievalist perhaps inevitably I must and do approach the world around me on the basis that there is one reality and one truth, however varied our perceptions of it. So it matters to me to engage properly with both science and theology – and the fine arts and other disciplines – and indeed with the relationship between them, believing that together they will paint a richer picture of the one reality than any one of them could on their own.

That quest was there for me in the famous Christmas reading from the beginning of John’s Gospel. In the beginning was the Word: logos, rationality, intelligible and communicable, at the heart of all we encounter and forming its ground rules. Through him were all things made: the whole of what we encounter forming one reality; black holes may baffle us, and even form the boundary conditions of intelligibility, but they are not back doors into a Disneyland of alternative realities. And in him (the Word that is) was life: all that is part of life and all that is life-giving is part too of this great enterprise of apprehending and appreciating our one reality with its one ultimate truth.

The second of this series of conferences that I came too gave me some glimpses of what that enterprise can look like. It was on complexity, and Wilson Poon from Edinburgh got our juices going when he framed the question, what does it mean for something to die convincingly? A different way of defining life. And then we delved into the realm of teleology, often forbidden fruit, but here open to debate as we pondered the possibility of what I might call causation by ultimate context, shaping the emergence of unpredictable outcomes from complex conditions.

These have, I’m afraid, been back of the envelope musings, produced in fact on a train journey sadly devoid of scientific company, but – and I said there was just a touch of evangelical interest in all this for me – the envelope seems to be addressed to someone called Wormwood, and that means it must be a new addition to the canon of Screwtape Letters, written purportedly by a senior devil to a junior one during the Second World War and offered to the nation by no less than C S Lewis himself. Perhaps we’d better look inside…

A mild explosion takes place and the sound of ghoulish laughter is heard.


I do hope you liked my little surprise. A little bit of theatre always helps to distract our patients from our more serious but secret business of winning them for Our Father Below.

And winning I believe we are. Since I wrote to you seventy years ago both religion and science have changed a lot – and a lot of how the change has gone in the mind of our two-legged patients is down to us. Our colleague Gruntsnot in the Department of Obfuscations reports that priests and professors alike are in despair at how the general public repeatedly fails to understand what they are about.

So keep on making sure that our charges see as many biassed and silly stories in the press and on Facebook as possible, so that they will feel that Bishop Armless is no differnet to a terrorist and probably a threat to their children too, who believes all kinds of things (remember never to let your patients ever check just what sort of things exactly) that no-one in today’s world can possibly go along with (and remember too to keep them away from any actual real believers who might spoil their imaginings).

And as for Professor Frackaway, whatever fracking is (and don’t let your people look it up too closely) it is obviously harmful to their children too, and playing God with the environment (not that they actually believe in our Enemy, or change their actual behaviours to preserve the environmental balance in any serious way).

What’s more – and the Department of Alternative Realities has worked wonders here – most of our patients seem to think that Armless and Frackaway are deadly enemies with totally incompatible beliefs, so do be careful not to let any of your own subjects near Durham at the moment where they are dining together.

With Durham in mind – and I am watching carefully to make sure that you are not taken in yourself by the ramblings of our Enemy’s servants like Wilkleish who teach there – I am alarmed to have no report from you on any attempts to disrupt the research of such targets as Kasper and Guite there who are in danger of reminding patients that science and religion have a long history of working in partnership. Be sure to keep on planting vague but colourful ideas in their minds of the persecution of Galileo or the routing of Huxley and keep your charges away from real history, not to mention real science and real religion, at all costs.

What we must work on all the time are feelings not thinking. If any of our patients really started to analyse the rantings of some of the atheist comedians old Windbag in Counter-Evangelism has recruited, they might start to laugh at them themselves, and we would be sunk. If you can’t suppress thought entirely in favour of another glass of wine or the latest Twitter storm, make sure your charges soon meet someone who has been put off religion by a bible-bashing fundamentalist – Counter-Evangelism have had some success with them too – and all being well they will write our Enemy off completely.

What we don’t want, above all, is sensible and serious conversation, and patients starting to listen to each other and not to us. Use any unsurenesses they’ve got to feed their need to feel secure in what they already know, not take on something new. If you don’t feel sure yourself about the mechanism, and I accept that disembodied beings like us will find it hard, take a revision course in the Extra-Infernal Studies Department on what the two-legged ones call pyschology and you’ll soon get the hang of it. Remember: if we’re not sure of something, one of our seniors will soon correct us; when these humans aren’t sure they mostly try to correct someone else.

The biggest danger, though, my dear young cousin, is not our incompetence – and you are particularly incompetent sometimes – but Enemy activity itself. For us and any right thinking downwardly-mobile person, it is quite clear that truth is what you make of it, and disorder is the natural state of things. It isn’t too hard to talk about it relativity, Schrodingers Cat, entropy and chaos in a way that makes those sound the entirely obvious and ultimate nature of things. Just don’t try it on a real scientist or yo may get your tail pulled.

Our Enemy, though, persists unaccountably – if only we could really understand why – in promoting the idea that the universe has an underlying order and purpose, and that there is one reality and one truth, even if there are many viewpoints on it. And what is worse, he seems to have the power to awaken the same ideas in our patients. So that little nuisance from somewhere called Huntingdon gave our boys the slip and keeps on blogging about science and religion both shine light (light – ugh!) on the same one reality and has rounded up a motley gang of people who think the same. Snotrag who should have stopped him is now pursuing other interests – mostly mine – but I’m sure Earwax will soon trip him up and put things right again.

But be on your guard. There are a lot more so called religious leaders who are far better qualified and can very easily turn someone’s mind just enough to distract them from our soundtrack, and all of a sudden a nasty ray of light shines in and we are lost.

 So remember the mantras: feelings not facts; religion is twaddle or worse (don’t whatever you do put in a direct appearance yourself); stick to what you know, and damn the rest.

Your ever-watchful uncle,