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Tom McLeish, Faith and Wisdom in Science, 2023

Tom McLeish, in his dual capacity as physicist and theologian, is one of the contemporary scholars who has reflected most deeply on the science-theology relationship. In his essay Faith and Wisdom in Science, after a detailed  investigation of the biblical foundations of a theology of nature, he raises the  question concerning the legitimacy and the need to elaborate a "theology of  science" (pp. 166-212) based on the idea of reconciliation and the possibility  of a "universal priesthood" understood as a joint mission - scientific and religious  - of healing and restoration of the human relationship with nature. 

Although his essay occasionally takes on apologetic overtones - for example, by questioning the approaches of Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens - its aim is mainly constructive and propositional. Well acquainted with the academic establishment, the Durham University professor denounces the high specialisation of the university system and its increasing fragmentation into subdisciplines,  as well as the strong pressure to publish, which makes interdisciplinary work and deep reflection difficult. In this sense, he argues, academic  research needs - like so many other institutions in our society - to be healed and reconciled. It needs to rediscover the "contemplative substance of science" (p. 228) and aspire to wisdom, not just specialised knowledge and technical  application. 

This is where the centuries-old theological reflection is illuminating and cannot be dismissed out of hand as dogmatic, irrational or anachronistic. Indeed, a close reading of many biblical passages - and the theological interpretation of them - reveals the practical, not purely speculative or symbolic, character of their reflections, in tune with the desire to explore reality that characterises  both the scientific enterprise and the religious spirit. The wisdom literature - and especially the book of Job to which it pays special attention - reflects the importance of asking the right questions, an intellectual habit that is also vital in the scientific enterprise (the clarification of the research question). An intellectual  habit that meditation on biblical texts helps to develop.

For McLeish, science is not a modern invention, but "an ancient cultural project" (p. 55) rooted in the spiritual experience of humankind. The narrative  character of science reflects, in addition to the interrogative habitus, another  element of convergence - or resonance - between the two approaches to reality. Perhaps this is why the stories of Scripture and many recent episodes in  the history of science can be presented as a narrative, as a diptych, "so that  the ancient and modern narratives of nature have room to speak to each other" (p. 73). In other words, the biographies of scientists and the intrahistory of scientific discoveries show parallels that are worth exploring. 

Perhaps this is also why science and theology (McLeish opts for the academic  term theology rather than the cultural category of religion) cannot simply set boundaries and delimit their respective territories in order to avoid illegitimate interference or potential conflict: "For both science and theology claim not only to be able to talk about some things that the other also does, but  each, by its nature, demands to talk about everything" (p. 213). Against those who argue that the relationship between science and theology should be expressed in terms of "conflict" (R. Dawkins) or "separation" (S. J. Gould),  McLeish argues for the possibility of a fruitful dialogue or mutual enrichment  between the two rationalities. Moreover, just as a "science of theology" is  possible, so is a "theology of science". And that is precisely the project he  tries to outline in his essay. 

Without mentioning it, McLeish seems to have in mind the oft-quoted 1988 letter of John Paul II to Fr George Coyne, SJ, Director of the Vatican Observatory:  "Science can free religion from error and superstition; religion can  purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into  a wider world, a world in which both can flourish". A reconciled world is one in which science and religion (theology) are liberated and purified of errors  and idolatries. But above all it is a world in which they work together to restore  the multiple ruptures of our time. That is the joint "ministry of reconciliation" (p. 209) to which they are called, a ministry that can help to heal our battered human relationships, our increasing disciplinary fragmentation  and our destructive relationship with nature.  



Jaime Tatay

Pontifical University of Comillas, Madrid


 Reprinted from Reviews in Science, Religion and Theology, 2 (1) March 2023, pp. 39-40.