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Posts from the ‘creation’ Category

15
Jan
Francis-Spufford-green

Francis Spufford on Childhood books 4: Why Narnia matters

For me, though, the standout of Francis Spufford’s reading memoir The Child That Books Built is the chapter entitled The Island. For it is here that he waxes lyrical about Narnia. It is not just because he chimes with the countless numbers who loved C S Lewis’ books (despite the likes of Philip Pullman and Polly Toynbee). It is the fact that he grasps something of their theological wonder (which will come as no surprise perhaps to those who have enjoyed his Unapologetic). Read more »

4
Jul
Warhol - Marilyn

The Pop-Culture Game-Changer: Ted Turnau’s Popologetics

Every now and then a book comes along which demands serious attention. Ted Turnau’s Popologetics is just such a book. I should be up front at this stage and declare that he is a friend, so perhaps some will merely assume this is a question of mutual back-scratching. I can assure you it’s not (I’ve received no commissions… as yet). But still, this is a great book. For a whole range of reasons: it is very readable and lucid; it makes its case with wit and self-deprecating humour; it is a model of how to handle disagreement (theological and otherwise) with great grace and generosity; and it demonstrates extensive appreciation of the field and offers a rich mine of treasure to any reader. Read more »

3
Apr
Josh avatar

BananaMationMan is back: The Creation as you’ve never seen it before

Well, the boy’s done good again. For most of the weekend, Joshua (aka Bananamationman) worked on a very ambitious white-board stopmotion narrating the story of the Creation from Genesis 1-2. It’s frustratingly brief – but then when you realise it took around 11 hours of drawing and photographing each move, you can understand! There are some lovely touches – my particular highlights are the waves, the fish and the bird.

Awesome. Beams of paternal pride pour forth!

Read more »

30
Mar
earth from space

Friday Fun 19: Steve Turner’s MY DAD

All is not what it at first seems. It starts out like the classic boast of the school playground. But the playground is certainly not where it all ends…

Steve Turner is a wonderful poet whose poems always twist and jive with the best of them. I just wish he’d get back on the case and write some more… Get on with it, Steve!!

So here’s  My Dad, taken from his first collection for (not just) children, The Day I Fell Down The Toilet and other poems. Read more »

27
Jan
Hockney at RA launch 2012

Forget Avatar: David Hockney’s ‘bigger’ vision is the one to relish

When Avatar came out, I couldn’t help but get swept up in James Cameron’s astonishing conception. This is because a hopelessly bad movie was redeemed only by an awesome visual feast of digital artistry, And others were equally swept up. So much so in fact that I noticed at the time that there was a popular sense of despairing yearning for a world as beautiful and stunning as Pandora. Which led me to start a slightly flippant post called Antidotes to Post-Pandora Blues. I never finished it for some reason, but the exhilarating new Hockney exhibition this morning at the Royal Academy brought it back to mind. Read more »

14
Nov
NASA - antarctica from space

A natural cantata for a frozen planet: Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus

I’d guess that only the most hardened petrol-heads and urbanites will fail to be moved to awestruck wonder by episodes in the BBC’s latest natural world epic, FROZEN PLANET. Quite apart from the stunning (ant)arctic panoramas, there are the focused dramas of a pack of killer whales harassing and (hours later) overwhelming a minke whale. Or comic moments, like the waddling penguins slipping on the ice, or the traffic jam of two narwhal clusters, equipped with their unicorn-like tusks and having to negotiate a head on meeting in a narrow, one-way only ice channel. Read more »

7
Jan

A courageous nod to God in a Soviet-era show-trial

Came across this fascinating morsel in a short New Yorker article by David Remnick from the run up to the recent Mikhail Khordorkovsky trial in Moscow. This fallen oligarch, it seems, has taken on the mantle of the dissenter from the Soviet era – not least because he is being pursued by former KGB agents and sent to the gulag. And so some unexpected comparisons have been made with those who genuinely work dissenters. And an archetypal example was Josef Brodsky. The article makes for some pretty chilling reading

In 1964, a twenty-three-year-old poet was arrested by the Leningrad K.G.B. and charged with the crime of “malicious parasitism.” His name was Josef Brodsky. One Communist Party newspaper denounced his poetry as “pornographic and anti-Soviet”; another noted archly that he wore “velvet pants.” The authorities permitted him to testify in court, but they soon regretted their decision, and their failure to prevent a brave woman named Frida Vigdorova from taking notes on the proceedings. Vigdorova wrote down this exchange—the most famous legal exchange in Russia since Stalin’s show trials—and the transcript was smuggled to the West:

JUDGE: And what is your profession?
BRODSKY: Poet. Poet and translator.
JUDGE: And who told you that you were a poet? Who assigned you that rank?
BRODSKY: No one. (Non-confrontationally.) Who assigned me to the human race?
JUDGE: And did you study for this?
BRODSKY: For what?
JUDGE: To become a poet? Did you try to attend a school where they train [poets] . . . where they teach . . .
BRODSKY: I don’t think it comes from education.
JUDGE: From what, then?
BRODSKY: I think it’s . . . (at a loss) . . . from God.

The judge sentenced Brodsky to five years of internal exile. Living in a village near the Arctic Circle, he crushed rocks and hauled manure by day. At night, he wrote, and he improved his English by reading Auden and Frost. Brodsky’s mentor, the great Silver Age poet Anna Akhmatova, laughed at the K.G.B.’s shortsightedness. “What a biography they’re fashioning for our red-haired friend!” she said. “It’s as if he’d hired them to do it on purpose.”

Akhmatova was hardly naïve about the capabilities of Soviet justice—she had lost a husband and countless friends in the Gulag—but she could see that the state was providing a linguistic genius with an aura of heroism. By the time Brodsky returned to Leningrad, he was a mature poet, whose brand of dissidence was an implacable disdain for the Soviet regime and an enduring devotion to the Russian language. The state soon found it necessary to exile this untamable creature abroad.

What struck me most about this is the sheer incompatibility and even clash of their worldviews. The judge who can only see things in institutional or societal terms – ie to be a poet you must be taught or commissioned by the state etc; against this young Jewish poet sees that we are far more than biological machines (see previous post).

21
Dec
Hannam God's Philosophers

Rehabilitating the Medieval Scientific Mind and why it matters

Sir Isaac Newton is a titan in world science, so it’s no surprise that he features on the very first, and the penultimate page of James Hannam’s excellent, 2009 book God’s Philosophers (which made it onto the shortlist for the 2010 Royal Society Prize for Science Books.

Read more »

10
Nov

Inconsistencies and Impositions in Victorian New York: the dangers of Christian presumptions

I didn’t quite know what to expect having picked this book up in the States last year. I think I assumed it would be something on the lines of a Victorian version of Hustle or the fascinating novel Dizzy City by my old friend Nicholas Griffin (who is certainly NOT to be confused with his odious BNP namesake). You know, a fun, historical romp through true stories of New York hucksters and con-artists.

But it wasn’t quite that at all. In fact, the more I read of this enjoyable, well-written but sometimes awkwardly structured, book, the more I realised it had serious intent. In fact it was sad but unfortunately recognisable in its portrayal of Christianity.

The Fantastical World of the "Lunarians"

For the focus is of a series of anonymously written articles in the pioneering penny-newspapers of 1835. This became known as The Great Moon Hoax. In time, it became clear that they were the work of English émigré, Richard Adams Locke. But they gripped the whole of New York and were later serialised in many other cities’ papers. He described in great detail the apparent findings of the famous astronomer English Sir John Herschel from his Cape Town Observatory: an entire civilisation of flying man bats and other fantastical creatures living on the moon. People discussed at great length whether or not it could possibly be true. The city was divided.

Absurd Impositions

One thing that few people realised, however, even after Locke came clean, was that he was not seeking to create a hoax – but to write a satire. He was satirising the extraordinary lengths to which some theologians would go in an effort to bend and influence scientific discoveries to their worldview.

So The Sun and The Moon is, in fact, a book about widespread reactions against the Christian gospel and contains a cast of many names well known to those familiar with the period: Edgar Allan Poe, P T Barnum, the Herschel family, even the father of James Gordon Bennett (whom I’d previously only encountered as a mild expletive!). Integrating science and theology is of course a noble and even essential enterprise. But the lengths to which people would go does no credit to either science or theology. Here is one example that especially got under Locke’s skin, taken from a book called Celestial Scenery.

In his letter Locke addressed only a single point from Celestial Scenery, which he believed would be sufficient to illustrate “the serious trespasses of Dr Dick’s theological school of philosophy upon the paramount jurisdiction of physical science”. Thomas Dick had long insisted – the face of substantial evidence to the contrary – that there could be no volcanoes on the moon. Volcanoes, like earthquakes and hurricanes, were evidence of God’s displeasure, and God could be displeased only with sinners; because the lunarians existed in a state of innocence, their landscape would not be blemished with such agents of physical destruction. “Is not this pretty stuff to pass for philosophy,” asked Locke, “and to be presented to our youth as a rule of judgement in determining questions of fact?”

The real world of nature, he pointed out, contains an astonishing multiplicity of functions, and it was the height of arrogance – not to mention pitiable scientific reasoning – to reserve to oneself the right to define certain of them, arbitrarily, as the products of ‘goodness’ or ‘sin’.

The fang of the viper, the claws of the tiger, the tail of the spider, the sing of the wasp, and the beak and talons of the eagle, are as ‘very good’ for their respective purposes, as the milky foundations of the mammalia, or the curious chrysalis of the butterfly… (Moon & Sun, p278)

Unfortunately, by such extreme lengths, the cause of apologetic integration was severely discredited. It demonstrates the need to be very careful about what reductionist assumptions we bring to bear on the discussions. For is it really the case that volcanoes can only be understood as a sign of judgement? Or that lunarians are necessarily innocent? Etc etc etc.

Distressing Inconsistencies

P T Barnum

Another of the subplots of the book, sadly, is the inconsistencies of Christians during the Second Great Awakening. Barnum was a fascinating figure, the inventor of the ‘humbug’ which he saw not as a con, but as an entertainment.

As P T Barnum explained in his book on the subject, a humbug “consists in putting on glittering appearances – outside show – novel expedients, by which to suddenly arrest public attention, and attract the public eye and ear.’ Superficially, at least, Barnum’s humbug is similar to Edgar Allen Poe’s diddle, as each is a form of hoax. The diddle, however, is carefully designed to preclude any awareness that it has taken place: the grocery story owner does not realize he has been tricked out of his whiskey, or the camp-meeting attendee out of his bridge toll. A humbug, on the other hand, noisily calls attention to itself; it also allows for the possibility of doubt, and requires consent from those who participate in it. The humbug might well turn out to be authentic (many of Barnum’s attractions were just what they were advertised as being), but whether it is true or false, the customers must depart believing they have gotten their money’s worth. A promoter who fails to provide his customers what Barnum called a “full equivalent for their money” will be denounced as a swindler and a fraud, while one who delivers a proper humbug will find his customers coming again and again – the first time because they believe his attraction is authentic, the second time because they are not sure, and the third time to figure out how the trick has been pulled off. The entertainment lies in the nature of the attraction (although as Barnum pointed out, a certain amount of ‘glitter’ is essential) than in the implicit competition between patron and promoter, each one seeking to outwit the other in a game of deception. (p263)

But one of his key influences was the small-town Christianity of his childhood, one which he resolutely rejected in adulthood. And he had many of his ideas from the cons pulled off by Christians – in contrast to whom, he liked to think, he had seized the moral high ground. This is a simple illustration of this:

Barnum loved to tell the story of a grocer who doubled as the deacon at the town’s church. One morning, before breakfast, he called down to his clerk:

“John, have you watered the rum?”
“Yes, sir.”
“And sanded the sugar?”
“Yes, sir.”
“And dusted the pepper?”
“Yes, sir.”
“And chicoried the coffee?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Then come up to prayers.” (p103)

This was clearly someone who hadn’t read his Bible, and in particular his Leviticus 19 or Amos 8. But it is all too believable.

A challenge

I enjoyed the book as it brought to life the streets of early Victorian New York in a remarkable way. But I was also challenged afresh: for the acute need for both rigour in our apologetic and integrity in our living. And there, but for the grace, go I…

10
Sep

King Edwin of Northumberland’s conversion and the sparrow in the storm

Came across this lovely story from Bede while reading Gene Fant’s God as Author. It’s a book I enjoyed and picked some lovely gems from it. May post some more sometime. But he recounts this story to illustrate the way in which our experience of the world (as general revelation) interacts with our understanding of worldviews and life, especially when we encounter special revelation.

King Edwin of Northumbria (apparently)

The Venerable Bede (c673-735) records the story of King Edwin of Northumberland at the hands of the missionary bishop Paulinus. Edwin was willing to hear the preaching of Paulinus and to convert at once, but he called together a meeting of his council of elders, which included his pagan high priest, Coifi. Paulinus presented the gospel to him, and one of the chief advisors replied with this observation:

“Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thegns and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a moment of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.”

The adviser was stating the insight that something he had observed in nature had created in him an imbalance, a longing for something more. Clearly drawn on a personal experience of watching such a sparrow’s flight, the adviser heard the gospel of redemption and eternal life as the restoration of that balance that had been lost. Moreover, Coifi, the chief priest, revealed that he too had found in his own observations of life and nature an imbalance.

“I have long realized that there is nothing in our way of worship; for the more diligently I shought [sic] after truth in our religion, the less I found. I now publicly confess that this teaching clearly reveals truths that will afford us the blessings of life, salvation and eternal happiness. Therefore your majesty, I submit that the temples and altars that we have dedicated to no advantage be immediately desecrated and burned.”

God as Author (pp82-83)

Now Bede was probably indulging in not a little bit of artistic licence and historiographical imagination here (especially with Coifi’s speech – that seems pretty unbelievable – or am I just being an old cynic?). But I did find the image of the sparrow a very powerful and suggestive one indeed.

19
Mar

The Wild Places 2: Putting us in our place

Have already drawn from Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places – and I think I will do so a few more times. One striking motif from the book is the way in which the natural world, and especially wild places, puts us and our lives into perspective.

Natural Perspectives

I picked this up in his previously quoted experience of inverted vertigo – but he sums the whole phenomenon characteristically well: “To reach a wild place was, for me, to step outside human history.” (p7)  A few aspects of this struck me. This image below is of another place in Scotland Macfarlane visited.

Stob Coire nan Lochan and Bidean nam Bian (by Tony Simpkins) - click for Flickr original

1. Wild Time

So, here he is in the same valley of Loch Coruisk on Skye:

As we were walking the final miles back down the side of the loch, the weak sun seething in the water drops still on our skin, and the river beside us shaking out its own light, I saw that a rainbow had formed in the sky over the valley below us, joining both sides of the sanctuary. We walked on towards the rainbow, and as we advanced, it seemed always to retreat, keeping the same patient distance from us. I recalled a quotation I had once written down in a notebook, but for which I had lost the source: ‘Landscape was here long before we were even dreamed. It watched us arrive.’ (p59)

Then I just love this idea of wild time:

To be in the Basin, even briefly, is to be reminded of the narrow limits of human perception, of the provisionality of your assumptions about the world. In such a place, your conventional units of chronology (the century, the life-span, the decade, the year, the day, the heartbeat) become all but imperceptible, and your individual gestures and impulses (the lift of a hand, the swimming stroke taken within water, the flash of anger, a turn of speech or thought) acquired an eerie quickness. The larger impulses of the human world – its wars, civilisations, eras – seem remote. Time in the Basin moves both too fast and too slowly for you to comprehend, and it has no interest in conforming to any human schedules. The Basin keeps wild time. (p61)

2. Wild Scales

But it is not just the perspective of time that is important – it is also the way the wild pierces the pride of our autonomy.

[Wallace] Stegner argued that a wild place was worth much more than could ever be revealed by a cost benefit analysis of its recreational economic value, or its minerals and resources. No, he explained, we need wild places because they remind us of a world beyond the human. Forests, plains, prairies, deserts, mountains: the experience of these landscapes can give people ‘a sense of bigness outside themselves that has now in some way been lost.’

But such landscapes, Stegner wrote, were diminishing in number. The ‘remnants of the natural world’ were ‘being progressively eroded.’ The cost of this erosion was incalculable. For if the wild places were all to be lost, we would never again ‘have the chance to see ourselves single, separate, vertical and individual in the world, part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the other animals, part of the natural world and competent to belong in it.’ We would be ‘committed wholly, without chance for even momentary reflection and rest, to a headlong drive into our technological termite-life, the Brave New world of a completely man-controlled environment.’ (p82)

3. Wild Life

The Hypnotist (by left-hand) - click for Flickr original

But what of the animals that fill these wild landscapes? They remind us of our reality as well…

So few wild creatures, relatively, remain in Britain and Ireland: so few, relatively in the world. Pursuing our project of civilisation, we have pushed thousands of species towards the bring of disappearance and many thousands more over the edge. The loss, after it is theirs, is ours. Wild animals, like wild places, are invaluable to us precisely because they are not us. They are uncompromisingly different. The paths they follow, the impulses that guide them, are of other orders. The seal’s holding gaze, before it flukes to push another tunnel through the sea, the hare’s run, the hawk’s high gyres: such things are wild. Seeing them, you are made briefly aware of a world at work around and beside our own, a world operating in patterns and purposes that you do not share. These are creatures, you realise, that live by voices inaudible to you. (p306-7)

Correctives and Convictions, Grandeur and Grace

I write this post, having read this book, in the heart of London W1 – an area that has been a thoroughly urban environment for centuries. You will hardly find a more ‘man-controlled environment’ on the planet. Which is why I love the stature and dignity of the trees growing in the grand Georgian squares; which is why I love the early-morning cries of gulls gathering on local rooftops; which is why I love to escape London from time to time (despite it being my home, my birthplace and my roots). And through this book, I can imagine being away from it all. Without these reminders and correctives, I will easily fall into the trap of thinking that I, a mere human being, might just be the master of all I survey. What nonsense… This is reason enough, surely, for doing all that we can to preserve the world’s wildness…?

But there is a flip side. We mustn’t fall into the opposite danger: of thinking that we are therefore irrelevant, helpless and hopeless, infinitesimal specks in the overwhelming, unfeeling grandeur of the cosmos. For the wonder of believing in a created order and a divinely imagined and imaged humanity is that we are both profoundly connected to the natural world while still, in essential ways, separate from it. We are neither indistinct from it nor independent of it. The miracle of grace is that we matter in this cosmos because we matter to the one who made it.

To be cut off from the wild and natural is to be insulated from the scale, grandeur, provision and power of God’s world. To be cut off from the wonders of divine grace in Christ is to be insulated from the meaning, purpose and sense of place within it. Which is why insulation is so dangerous…

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11
Mar

The White Mountain: timelapsed Milky Way

All too short, but epic in scope, and too wonderful for words…

Taken on Mauna Kea, Hawai’i: The White Mountain by charles leung

…and he made the stars also…

HT John Naughton

2
Feb

The infectiousness of wonder: Richard Holmes and the romance of science

Richard Holmes’ magisterial Age of Wonder has worked its magic on me. Having worked my way through it over several weeks before Christmas, many of its scenes and images have jostled unforgettably in my mind. This is not simply the account of a great period in the Royal Society’s history (although it is that); nor is it a cultural history of the Georgian era in Britain (although that would have been completely fine by me, since that’s easily one of my favourite periods).

It is instead a window into the relationship between the sciences, the arts and the popular imagination at a very important moment for the culture of the modern world. Combined with Holmes’ easy and fluent writing style and gentle humour, this makes it constantly compelling, regularly provocative and always insightful. I simply couldn’t put it down, eagerly anticipating the next ‘aha’ moment! One myth that Holmes seeks to dispel (and does so expertly) is the common notion that the Romantic era was anti-science. Of course it was more complex than that. Holmes is a renowned biographer of the Romantic poets and so clearly qualified constantly to weave his tale of scientific endeavour in and out of their’s.

Giants of the Royal Society

The book opens in 1769 with a very young Joseph Banks intrepidly setting his sights on Tahiti (and thus pioneering the world of cultural anthropology), and ends in the 1830s with the next generation of scientists like Faraday and Babbage.

A young Joseph Banks returned from Tahiti, by Reynolds (1773)

Various names from the British scientific pantheon take turns in Holmes’ spotlight (like the William Herschel and his equally gifted sister Caroline, Mungo Park, Sir Humphry Davy), and we see what drove them and inspired their science, as well as their impact on the likes of Coleridge, Percy & Mary Shelley (there’s a brilliant chapter on her pioneering novel Frankenstein), Keats and Byron etc. But if there is one constant thread, it is the guidance and patronage of Banks, in his capacity as President of the Royal Society.

There are so many things one could pick out from the book as it is so densely wide-ranging. But while I learned a lot about so many things of which I was previously woefully ignorant, I was especially keen to understand more of the worldview questions, and especially the theological debates which anticipated those of the Darwinian era only a few years later. (In fact, the narrative closes around the time Darwin was setting off on his fateful voyage to the Galapagos). And therefore this story is of huge importance. As Holmes says on the very penultimate page:

It seems to me impossible to understand fully the contemporary debates about the environment, or climate change, or genetic engineering, or alternative medicine, or extraterrestrial life, or the nature of consciousness, or even the existence of God, without knowing how these arose from the hopes and anxieties of the Romantic generation. (p468)

That’s absolutely right – and this book is a brilliant way to do all of that.

Herschel's 40ft Telescope

The Challenge from the Heavens

Astronomy, more than those later protagonists of botany and biology, was producing the biggest challenge to old theistic ways of thinking – especially after the discoveries and thoughts of the extraordinary William Herschel with his revolutionary 40ft telescope at Slough. This was profoundly affecting people’s sense of place in the universe – the cosmos had always been a place of awe and wonder, but now it was far bigger and far older than anyone had before imagined.

So notice the shift from Coleridge’s more neutral description of star-gazing with his father to that of Shelley’s polemical take:

At all events, Coleridge treasured the memory of (The Reverend John Coleridge) his father’s eager demonstration of the stars and planets overhead, and the possibility of other worlds: ‘I remember that at eight years old I walked with him one evening from a farmer’s house, a mile from Ottery – & he told me the names of the stars – and how Jupiter was a thousand times larger than our world – and that the other twinkling stars were Suns that had worlds rolling round them – & when I came home, he showed me how they rolled round. I heard him with profound delight and admiration; but without the least mixture of Wonder or incredulity. For from my early reading of Faery Tales, & Genii etc etc – my mind had been habituated to the Vast.’ (pp111-2)

I just love that final phrase: habituated to the Vast. Wonderful.

Shelley used Herschel’s vision of an open-ended solar system, and an unimaginably expanded universe, to attack religious belief. His arguments went as follows. The cosmos as revealed by science must contain many thousands of different nebular systems, and therefore millions of habitable planets, so it was impossible to sustain a narrow, religious concept of one Almighty Christian Redeemer. Since there would be so many other ‘fallen’ worlds to redeem, the idea of God being born and crucified on each planet became absurd. As Shelley put it provokingly, ‘His Works have borne witness against Him.’ He wrote a particularly fierce note ‘On the Plurality of Worlds’ in Queen Mab:
The indefinite immensity of the universe, is the most aweful subject of contemplation… It is impossible to believe that the Spirit that pervades this infinite machine begat a son upon the body of a Jewish woman… The works of His fingers have borne witness against him… Sirius is supposed to be 54 trillion miles from the Earth… Millions and millions of suns are ranged around us, all attended by innumerable worlds, yet calm, regular, and harmonious, all keeping the paths of immutable Necessity. (p391)

But not everyone shared that view – or saw the direct threats that science would pose to religious belief in the years to come:

For many Romantic scientists, with a robust intellectual belief in the ‘argument by Design,’ there was no immediate contradiction between religion and science: rather the opposite. Science was a gift of God or Providence to mankind, and its purpose was to reveal the wonders of His design. This indeed was the essence of ‘natural’ religion, as promoted for example by William Paley in his Natural Theology (1802), with its famous analogy with the divine watchmaker. It was the faith that brought Mungo Park back alive from his first Niger expedition. It was the faith that inspired Michael Faraday to become a Deacon in the Sandemanian Church in July 1832. (p450)

Which is much more nuanced than the vitriol of the anti-religion brigade, let alone the anti-science religious types, would have us believe. They simply ARE compatible – which his why so many cosmologists and ‘hard’ scientists are perfectly comfortable with their theism.

The Wonder of Science

Faraday's Christmas Lectures of 1856

But in many ways, the background to the apologetic debates that we get ourselves tied up is was not the book’s most valuable contribution (helpful thought it undoubtedly is). What most gripped me was the fact that I found myself again and again swept up in the sheer romance of science – the sense of awe at both the cosmic and microscopic, the desire to know, to understand God’s thoughts after him, if you like. I found myself frequently transported to the Oxford’s Christ Church meadow where spectators watching in astonishment at the first balloon flights, or to Herschel’s observatory, or to the audience of Faraday’s Christmas lectures at the Royal Institution.

My appreciation was only deepened, not diminished, when the romantic myths of the noble scientist get dispelled. I was very struck by this point, sadly tucked away in a footnote:

Michael Hoskin has suggested in his essay ‘On Writing the History of Modern Astronomy’ (1980) that most histories of science continue to be ‘uninterrupted chronicles’, which run along ‘handing out medals to those who “got it right”’. They ignore the history of error, so central to the scientific process, and fail to illuminate science as a ‘creative human activity’ which involves the whole personality and has a broad social context – Journal for the History of Astronomy 11 (1980). To this one might add that Romanticism introduced three important themes into science biography.

  1. First the ‘Newton syndrome’, the notion of ‘scientific genius’, in which science is largely advanced by a small number of preternaturally gifted (and usually isolated) individuals.
  2. Second, the existence of the ‘Eureka moment’, in which great discoveries are made without warning (or much preparation) in a sudden, blazing instant of revelation and synthesis.
  3. Third, the ‘Frankenstein nightmare’, in which all scientific progress is really a disguised form of destruction. (p94)

Now, there were one or two moments where I did feel that Holmes’ objectivity temporarily deserted him, mainly in his depictions of theistic or Christian worldviews. Too often, Christian morality or theology was implicitly charged as unhelpful or even destructive (e.g. in the interactions between later Christian visitors to Tahiti), or individuals would be described as ‘fundamentalist’, as the painter Benjamin Haydon is on p319 (which was both jarring and anachronistic). But on the whole, I can forgive these as lapses because the narrative is so sweeping in scope and brilliantly told, and they are few and far between.

I think I’ll stop there for now – there are loads of other gems, which i might post separately and without too much verbiage. But I couldn’t have agreed more with these, the very last words of the book – inarticulately before reading The Age of Wonder, and passionately since:

The old, rigid debates and boundaries – science versus religion, science versus the arts, science versus traditional ethics – are no longer enough. We should be impatient with them. We need a wider, more generous, more imaginative perspective. Above all, perhaps we need the three things that a scientific culture can sustain: the sense of individual wonder, the power of hope, and the vivid but questing belief in a future for the globe. And that is how this book might possibly end. (p469)

27
Dec

Regent’s Park in the snow

A wondrous wander in a frozen Regent’s Park on Wednesday inspired these. Another magical winter’s walk…

Park wildlife…

But beware the Regent’s Park sharks…

1
Dec

Q marks the spot – Treasure Map 15 (December 2009)

Bit of a bumper Treasure Map this month – plenty to get chewing on…

Sacred Treasure

  • Vinoth Ramachandra offers a characteristically challenging and provocative reflection on some encounters he’s had in the USA.
  • An interesting article about Tim Keller in New York magazine: Why Tim Keller wants to save your yuppie soul.
  • Am grateful to The Simple Pastor for this critique of one church’s massive rebuild programme in Dallas. I couldn’t agree more – and looking at the church’s website videos, i have to say i found some of the assumptions about what church is almost chilling.
  • This is stunning – a graphic depiction of the Hebrew conception of the universe. Of course sceptics may have a field day with it, assuming that it fatally undermines the whole validity of such a conception. But that is to miss the point. It is all a question of perspective. This is the way the universe seems to those who live in within it – and is no less problematic than the convention of describing dawn and nightfall as sunrise and sunset. There clearly isn’t a physical 3-tier universe – but that is a far cry from suggesting that there is nothing more to the universe than the material or physical. Which is why countless cosmologists and physicists are increasingly accepting theism.
  • An enjoyable irony in the continuation of the atheist bus saga.

Topical Treasure

Quirky Treasure

  • The power of the human imagination and a history of invention – a stunning origami animation – shame it’s just an advert for a silly old insurance company…
  • How many secretaries does a President need!? Check this out… Just imagine the pride and sense of achievement on becoming the Principal Deputy to the Deputy Assistant Secretary (and the size of business card that would be needed to fit all that in).
  • Finally, The Ultimate Productivity Tool. Very useful…
1
Oct

Q marks the spot – Treasure Map 13 (October 2009)

EN72damngoodworkswebSacred Treasure

Quentin Blake Cambridge

Topical Treasure

  • 70 years on from the start of the 2WW – here are some remarkable photos of Normandy then and now.
  • Interesting effect of photo-editing: NYTimes & Cheney in the kitchen.
  • The irrepressible and ingenious Quentin Blake has done a panoramic cartoon history of Cambridge University, in celebration of its 800th anniversary; and it’s now on display at Addenbrooke’s Hospital. Click the image and watch the slideshow…

Quirky Treasure

  • This is scary: a map of every McDonalds in the USA:

  • Love this: Inflatable street art from New York (inevitably)
29
Aug

Summer 09: Natural Abstracts Captured

Well, we’re back – and my brain is positively bulging with potential posts. I can sense the excitement you’re feeling from here.

Anyway, before getting onto some more worthy stuff, I’ve been photographically struck by a wide range of natural wonders this summer. And so reproduce a few here for your viewing pleasure.

West Dale Beach, Pembrokeshire

St Didier, Provence

Ancient Caves, Le Thon, Provence

To put this all into perspective, each stalactite takes 100 years to grow just 1 cm.


Norfolk Bonfires

And of course, last but not least…

The U2 gig at Wembley

Ok, not natural as such, but certainly (thanks to Willie Williams incredible light show) lots of abstracts… A breathtaking experience…

15
May

St Augustine on Darwin’s ‘Origin of the Species’? Read on…

Botticelli - St AugustineAlister McGrath is at his best (IMHO) when engaging with debates of science and religion. After all, he’s a scholar of both. And he’s got a really helpful and timely piece in this month’s CT on Augustine’s Origin of the Species. Augustine was of course one of the greatest thinkers in Christian history. Full stop. And he was an African. Which endears him to me even more. And in these days of militant scientific materialism and neo-Darwinist thinking, it is refreshing at least to find that someone from the ancient past who as something to contribute to contemporary debates.

Obviously, Augustine won’t help anyone engage with the specifics of  Charles Darwin’s arguments per se but as McGrath says in his conclusion, he does open up the possibility of a freedom within the interpretative bounds of handling Genesis well.

So does Augustine’s The Literal Meaning of Genesis help us engage with the great questions raised by Darwin? Let’s be clear that Augustine does not answer these questions for us. But he does help us see that the real issue here is not the authority of the Bible, but its right interpretation. In addition, he offers us a classic way of thinking about the Creation that might illuminate some contemporary debates.

On this issue, Augustine is neither liberal nor accommodationist, but deeply biblical, both in substance and intention. While his approach hardly represents the last word, it needs to be on the table.

We need patient, generous, and gracious reflection on these big issues. Augustine of Hippo can help us get started.

What is important is the possibility Augustine gives us in how to handle Genesis 1-2 in particular, without either being enslaved to the scientific worldviews of the day, or ignoring them as inevitably irrelevant. Too many interpreters fall into one or other of these 2 traps. And in McGrath’s words, Augustine was simply concerned ‘to let Scripture speak for itself’. Can’t say fairer than that.

Image: Botticelli’s wonderful take on St Augustine

11
May

Sumer is icumen in – in W1

What joy to see the sun and the leaves. Yet again felt compelled to out the snapper and grab some shots this morning. What a privilege to live just next door to the most perfectly proportioned square in London.

Just look at those purples!!

 

8
May

Anneke Kaai on CD-Rom

Have been fascinated by Anneke Kaai’s paintings for a while, faithfully published by Pieter Kwant (of Piquant Publishing – cool name, don’t you think?) over the last few years. She is a Dutch artist inspired in her art by a clear Christian faith and the images she creates are often very striking and have both an ethereal and sometimes monumental quality.

So far, four books have been produced of her work, each of them inspired by biblical or theological themes:

  • Creation
  • 10 Commandments
  • The Creed
  • Apocalypse (inspired by the Book of Revelation)

The great thing, and the reason for posting this, is that the images are now available for use in presentations in church on CD-Rom. Check it out – it’s only £10 +p&p. Bargain! And well worth it. Here is a bit of a flavour from her website:

  

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