A Sense of Awe: science, faith and wonder
September 30, 2011 0

Of Gothic cathedrals and natural wonders

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Interviewing Nancey Murphy and Denis Alexander

Allow me to introduce two guests featuring on the coming Encounter program. One grew up on the land in North America and finds little awe in nature but wonders at Gothic cathedrals. The other, from Britain, has had his fill of cathedrals but finds the mountains awe inspiring.

Recently they shared their thoughts on such matters and others too, including how they deal with doubts about their faith; the metaphysical implications of their messy desks; and their confidence in both science and God.

Nancey Murphy is a philosopher of science and theologian from Fuller Seminary in California, and Denis Alexander, all his life a scientist, is now Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Christianity in Cambridge.

Below you will find a transcript of my lengthy interview with them at the recent Tasmanian conference. Please use the comment form, not only to comment on the content of the interview, but also to let us know what parts of the interview you think should be used for the radio program in November. Editing is imminent and we value your feedback.

Chris Mulherin: We’re at a conference at the beautiful Tamar Valley near Launceston, Tasmania. There are perhaps a hundred people here, mostly Christians professionally involved in science and technology. The conference is run by ISCAST, the Institute for the Study of Christianity in an Age of Science and Technology, and the conference theme is ‘Disenchantment—faith and science in a secular world’. I’m talking to two of the main speakers at the conference; Nancey Murphy from the United States, and Denis Alexander from the UK.

Nancey Murphy, you’re a philosopher and theologian at Fuller Theological Seminary in California, and famously, you don’t believe in the soul, although you’re a Christian. We’ll get back to the soul, but first: what led you into the philosophy of science?

Nancey Murphy: I had started out in college with the intention of going into Clinical Psychology, but I found that I was not cut out for that kind of career myself—too much of an inclination to tell the clients what to do rather than letting them sort it out for themselves But also, it was the era of Behaviourism, so I was working in a psychiatric hospital where they were attempting to treat schizophrenia and brain damage from sniffing alcohol and glue with token economies: giving them little rewards that they could save up and go to movies, that sort of thing. And so the field just seemed to be completely useless at that time. Fortunately, at the same time that I was losing one career plan I was urged by my advisor to take a course in philosophy of science, and found it just absolutely exciting; so I decided that was the area that I would move into, and went to Berkeley from there and studied that field.

Chris Mulherin: What was so exciting about the philosophy of science?

Nancey Murphy: Well, in particular, it explained why Psychology had gone off on such a strange and narrow road; because psychologists were attempting to reproduce the methodology of the natural sciences, and that meant that only observable behaviour counted as a subject matter for Psychology, and that leaves out all of the most important parts of what motivates people.

Chris Mulherin: Great, thank you very much. Denis Alexander, you’re a biochemist and immunologist, and now Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion in Cambridge. I wonder if you could tell us about the Faraday Institute, and what brought you to be running it.

Denis Alexander: Well, I spent the last forty years in the biological research community, and I suppose during that time—you know, as a scientist, without very much time to do other things—one becomes aware of the kind of discourse between science and religion that’s not very helpful, and we’re thinking about some of those extremists out in the public domain who make very strong comments against religion, or sometimes for religion in the name of science. And I suppose I got a little bit tired of that and a longing for something a bit different. And so as I headed towards retirement and winding down my laboratory, I was trying to think about ways of addressing that.

So together with a colleague, Bob White, who’s Professor of Geophysics in the University of Cambridge, we decided to put in for a grant—because scientists spend all our lives writing grants, it’s what we do—and so we wrote in a grant, and got quite a bit of money as a grant, and decided that we would set up an institute that would bring theologians and philosophers and scientists and historians round the table in the same institute to form an interdisciplinary research enterprise together. So the Faraday Institute started up in January 2006. It’s in fact part of my college in Cambridge, which is St Edmund’s College, it’s a graduate college. And so the fellows of the college, the fellows there, they very kindly voted us in as part of the college. And it’s a very natural place for this kind of institute to be, because every Cambridge college has every discipline represented within the college, so it is already an interdisciplinary community of people. And so it made a very natural base in which to set up a small research group, doing research in this particular area of science and religion.

Enchantment and disenchantment

Chris Mulherin: Thank you. Now, the topic of the conversation here at the conference is ‘re-enchantment’. What is this question about ‘enchantment’ and ‘re-enchantment’—Denis?

Denis Alexander: Well, I think the question about disenchantment very much revolves around the whole idea of science from the early Modern period; scientific discourse becoming very dominant in people’s thinking. And I suppose it’s not a very long step from there to saying ‘actually, maybe that’s the only narrative, the only story to be told’—the only story that we have is a scientific story, and that scientific story may be about mechanism. Of course they had the wonderful pictures of clocks; you know the 17th century, and the clock was a favourite kind of metaphor for thinking about the universe, and how all the planets revolve around  according to an ordered way of doing things and so on.

So I think that sense of mechanism became quite dominant very early on in the scientific movement—in the early modern scientific movement. And so perhaps it wasn’t such a very far step for people to say, ‘hey, why do we need a clock winder— we’ve got the clock, and the mechanism is enough, that’s all we need, and we don’t need God’, as it were…  this great clock winder, clock manufacturer. We can just look at the clock, and we can just be satisfied with the scientific descriptions as they are by themselves, without recourse to other forms of narrative. So I think there might have been a trend there, towards deism, first of all; thinking about God as being very far away and not involved in people’s lives, that sort of thing. And then gradually deism, for some people at least, went into practical atheism. Perhaps they felt, therefore, ‘nature is disenchanted’; you no longer look on it as something valuable, and made by God, and morally validated by God, but something which is only there in its own right. ‘We don’t know why it’s there, but that’s the way it is.’

Chris Mulherin: Nancey, I wonder if you’ve got any comments on enchantment and disenchantment?

Nancey Murphy: Well, actually I’d been looking at the topic a bit differently, following primarily Max Weber’s concept of the removal of fairies and ghosts and spirits and devils from the worldview. And if you think of it in those terms, then you might think wistfully back to the Middle Ages, where life was much more interesting because there were all these other beings. But there’s really no question of going back. And so disenchantment makes a lot of sense for me; wistfulness for the past where it was so much easier to believe in God makes a lot of sense to me. But if disenchantment has to do with getting rid of those spiritual beings apart from God, then I don’t see any way of going back.

The soul

Chris Mulherin: Including the soul! Could you tell us about the soul? Some people, I guess would say—and certainly some Christians would say—you’re doing too much disenchanting if you take away this notion of the soul. Tell us about your views on the soul.

Nancey Murphy: Yes. I started out in philosophy, and the question of mind/body dualism was a live issue in the 1960s and ’70s. So I followed the arguments; the arguments seemed to be split pretty much half and half… I didn’t put that together with my own Christian background—I grew up Catholic, and of course the soul was part of the Catholic teaching—still is—but I guess I kept those two issues in separate pockets. But once I got involved in the theology and science discussion, and became aware of the writings of authors such as Arthur Peacocke… his understanding of the qualities that have been attributed to the soul or mind is that they are emergent properties, and dependent on the complexity of the organism that has them. And so I realised at that point that I could very easily bring my religious point of view together with my philosophical point of view and argue that, although we don’t have a separate metaphysical entity, a mind or a soul, that does not deny our spiritual, mental or emotional capacities.

Chris Mulherin: So let me see if I’ve got this right: it seems that you can have it both ways; you can say that human beings are just physical beings, but that does not necessarily involve reducing them to just the functions of atoms or molecules. Is that what you’re saying?

Nancey Murphy: Exactly. And I think it’s important to add that if you take a physicalist view of humans, and you are a Christian, then you have to be sure that you’re not denying any essential Christian teaching. And so a lot of my work in recent years has been to examine first of all contemporary interpretations of Scripture to ask what biblical scholars claim the terms soul, heart, mind, and so forth mean; and then also try to figure out the history of the development of doctrine in order to understand where Christians got the idea that body/soul dualism is essential Christian teaching. And it came into the Christian tradition quite early, and so most Christians throughout most of Christian history have in fact been dualists.

Chris Mulherin: I think I’ve heard you use the example of an ant colony to explain something about this idea of emergence; and how we can be physical beings and yet have something more than what it seems, by implication, being physical beings would mean. Can you tell us about the ants, and how that helps us understand it?

Nancey Murphy: I’ll try. Modern science began with the conception of the world as composed of particles—so think of tiny billiard balls, whatever. And if you think of human beings, and you assume our thinking is done by our brains… there’s much too much of a tendency to think that there are all marbles in there; and of course you can never imagine getting consciousness, intelligence etcetera out of a bag of marbles, no matter how carefully you arrange them. And so an essential step in getting away from a bare, materialist account of the world as a whole, and in particular human thought and behaviour, is to recognise that as you go from inorganic matter across the threshold of the living, the organic side of the picture, you have an incredible change in the nature of systems and organisations. They become goal-directed. And if you look at the simplest of biological organisms, they are goal-directed, not consciously, but they behave in such a way as to preserve their own lives—if they hadn’t, they wouldn’t be here.

So in order to understand how humans can be anything besides, to put it crudely, a bag of marbles, you have to first of all appreciate, as I’ve said, the difference between a living organism and a machine; and you’ve also got to go up the scale of complexity amongst living organisms in order to get to the point where you can begin to talk about sentience, intelligence, intentionally goal-directed behaviour, and so forth.

In attempting to get across the difference in concepts that you need to talk about an intelligent system—since we can’t understand our own brain functioning adequately—we need as simple a model as possible of that form of complexity; which sounds paradoxical, but really isn’t. And the best example that I’ve found is an ant colony. The colony itself has its own higher order emergent properties, such as its capacity to shift its functioning in order to fit into different environments.

Chris Mulherin: Okay. Denis, what do you think about Nancey’s soul-less philosophy?

Denis Alexander: Well, funnily enough, I have a position which is very similar to Nancey in this respect, and I came at it through a very different kind of a route. In fact when I was growing up as a young Christian I was an undergraduate reading Biochemistry, but also reading quite a few Christian books, and all of them seemed to say quite different things about the soul, and have their own different opinion about it. In fact I remember reading about a writer, Watchman Nee, who was very popular at that time, and he had a lot to say about the soul—and I found that pretty confusing, I’ll confess. So I thought ‘well, blow that—I’m just going to read the Bible, and I’m going to see what it says about the soul. How does it use the word soul? How does it use the word spirit? How does it use the word heart?’

And so one Christmas vacation I just sat down, and I did a word study all the way through, probably with the help of a commentary, if I remember it rightly—one of these commentaries that had really small print, which I can hardly read now—but went through all the uses of the words ‘soul’, ‘spirit’, and ‘heart’ in the whole Bible, Old and New Testament, and I sort of decided at the end that basically ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ are used interchangeably, and they’re not used with any clear definition. And certainly in the Old Testament and very much in the New—to a large degree though not quite so much—they are used in a way which reflects this sort of tri-partite ‘three aspects in one’: if you like almost a trinity in the personality of being, human beings, where they are a soul. And of course we read in the early chapters of Genesis that Man became a living soul. He wasn’t given one as an extra, it wasn’t like a sort of plug you stick into your USB port on your laptop, but actually he became a living soul. And then I read the animals became living souls as well, so that was interesting; and so as you work through the Hebrew idea of soul/body/spirit you realise that our understanding of ‘bits’—of three separate bits—doesn’t fit at all, actually, with the Hebrew concept of what being a soul is all about. The Hebrew concept of being a soul is about being a real person, it’s about the real ‘me’.

And what’s interesting is if you compare the King James Version with, now, a modern translation of the Bible, of course you find the number of mentions of the word ‘soul’ has gone down hugely in the modern translations; because in the old King James it would say ‘my soul does this’ or ‘my soul does that’; well of course a modern translation would just say ‘I did it’. It was ‘me’ that did it. So even the language of the King James, I think, helped to perpetuate this idea that there’s something like some separate entity; a Platonic soul that somehow flies away when you die—you know, the ‘door of the cage opens’; your soul flies away. You just don’t see that in the Bible. The Bible’s about the resurrection of the body—it’s interested in bodies, and I think that’s the key.

Nancey Murphy: We agree on that entirely.

Religious claims to enchantment

Chris Mulherin: Great! Well then, I won’t comment, will I? Let’s move on to the more general issue of enchantment and re-enchantment. On the website we’ve had some discussion about the idea of re-enchantment, and enchantment, and particularly some commentary about the tendency of religious people to claim the right to be the ‘enchanters’—to be the ones who have an enchanted world—and that a secular atheist position, viewpoint, doesn’t have an enchanted world by necessity.

Yet at the same time we have people like Richard Dawkins, for example, who at the atheist convention last year in Melbourne opened his talk b y telling people that they ought to be joyful and grateful for their lives. He did say that would be ‘gratefulness in a vacuum’, but that they ought to look at life with wonder and awe. Do you think that re-enchantment, enchantment, is something that only religious people can claim a right to?

Denis Alexander: Okay, well—I find it fascinating that Richard has become a sort of modern Existentialist, because in a sense ‘this is where you are’. I was brought up with the French existentialists; that was my bedtime reading as a student. And so of course there it’s the affirmation of existence, and the affirmation of joy in the face of total joylessness and pointlessness, which is at the heart of much of the writings of people like Albert Camus and similar writers, and so you get this existential declaration—affirmation of the value of life, even though you know in your heart of hearts that, really, it’s a complete waste of time.

Now, it just seems to me that Richard Dawkins is following entirely in their steps, because in his atheistic world view—which of course in other writings as well, he admits, is a pretty miserable view, actually—and he’s got this famous quote, that when you look at the world around you it just looks completely pointless and indifferent to any feelings that you might have. So in the face of this total meaningless, ultimately meaningless universe, he is declaring that you have to be joyful. He is declaring that you have to affirm certain things which are irrational, and I find that, as a scientist, very curious. And fascinating, as well, because I think it just simply is a recycling of existential world-views—he may not even be aware of that, but I think that’s what it sounds like when I listen to Dawkins say those sorts of things.

Nancey Murphy: I’m a big fan of philosopher Charles Taylor; and he’s written a tremendous volume, both size-wise and importance-wise, called A Secular Age. And he traces the disenchantment of the modern West, beginning in the 1500s up to the present, and gives an account of how the various aspects of enchantment within religion were gradually disposed of. But he makes the point that religion couldn’t simply be dropped as entirely superstitious, because that would’ve left the culture without any sort of moral resources.

If your original understanding of what makes life really worthwhile comes from a theistic point of view that says ‘the really worthwhile life is the one that pursues God as energetically as one can’, and that that pursuit is going to not be frustrated in the end because there is a God, then how on Earth do you understand a really good life if you no longer have that framework of beliefs? And so Taylor explains the steps that had to be taken in order to find moral resources apart from theism, and one of those resources has been the development of humanism: humans themselves have to be seen as ultimately important, or else your dedication of yourself to pursuing the good of humankind isn’t itself ultimately valuable.

There are other writers, such as James Turner, who emphasised along with the development of Humanism the sense in which science and the increasing knowledge that we have of the wonders of the natural world came to fulfil some of the same sorts of longings for transcendence that had been fulfilled by God in the past. And so I think it’s not terribly surprising that scientists who are well aware of the complexity, of the immensity, the wonders of the universe we live in, find in that something that stirs up the senses of awe, and wonder, and gratitude. Gratitude for what, one can’t say, but nonetheless, once that you feel that you’re oneself a part of that marvellous system, and once you recognise that you yourself have the capacity to feel wonder and awe, then you can be grateful for being a part of all of that.

Awe without God?

Chris Mulherin: I wonder—I’m trying to put myself in the shoes of my atheist friends, and I can imagine them saying ‘I find it really offensive that religious types suggest that because I’m an atheist I don’t have a right to look at the universe and respond with a sense of wonder and awe.’

How do we respond to those people who are incensed at the thought that religious people are saying, effectively, ‘you have no right to awe and wonder, because you have no object in your belief system that can justify awe and wonder’?

Nancey Murphy: Well, I’ve never thought that myself; I have never met anyone who has said it, nor have I met anyone to whom it has been said! But I think it’s rather outrageous because awe, after all, is a human feeling—a human emotion, a human conscious state—and if we have the capacity for awe, then the question is just ‘at what do we direct that capacity?’, and the physical universe is certainly worthy of awe.

Denis Alexander: Yes, as a Christian I would say that all people are made in the image of God, and they all share that sense of linkage even though they may deny that or not be aware of it, so awe… capacities such as awe and wonder, the sense of transcendence, are deeply built into the human psyche. Everyone experiences that, so I don’t think I’d use the language of ‘rights’ as in somebody having a ‘right’ to it. I just think it’s a fact of life—you know, why do people experience a deep sense of love, or wonder in poetry or all kinds of things that you experience through life. I think that as a Christian I’d say it’s all part of being made in the image of God, and being made in the image of God doesn’t depend on people’s belief systems. You can be an atheist, or agnostic, or whatever; but in that framework, or if you like in that matrix of understanding, this is just the facts about human existence.

However, I would like to go on and say, I think, to my atheist friends, that actually if you want to be more reasonable, if you want to be a more rational person, then it’s more rational to actually have a worldview that incorporates the reasons for that sense of awe, and so that you actually know to whom it should be directed and ultimately… and also you have the basis for not being surprised when that sense of awe comes along. Not simply as an evolutionary narrative—we can give an evolutionary narrative to that—but also the theistic narrative is a broader, bigger narrative within which we can place awe, and see that it has a reason. And it’s pointing forwards, it’s like a signpost to the Kingdom, we’re actually pointing forward to something else, bigger and greater, which is yet to come as well. So I think within a Christian worldview having the sense of awe is a more reasonable… it has a more rational basis to it than, I think, you would have otherwise.

Chris Mulherin: Well, I think you might have answered my next question, Denis, but I will ask it now and I’ll ask Nancey: it’s about the relationship between awe and the sense of transcendence, and the real nature of the world around us. The question is: does the sense of transcendence tell us something true about the world outside our brains? Do these experiences of wonder and awe reveal something about the universe to us?

Nancey Murphy: I don’t think they do. If one didn’t have additional reasons for believing in the existence of God, it would be perfectly rational to say that human beings simply have evolved with the capacity to have these wonderful feelings, and that tells us nothing about what the feelings are directed at.

Denis Alexander: Yes, obviously you can have an evolutionary narrative for anything you want, in terms of our own experience, our own psychology, and so on; but I think that I would want to go on and say that while I accept that, and I accept Nancey’s point, I think that actually if one wants to be more reasonable about one’s own experiences, then placing them within a wider story can give them a coherence that they wouldn’t otherwise possess. So in science… I mean, what am I doing in my lab? I’m looking for coherence; I’ve got all these data there, and I’ve got different experimental results, and I’m looking for a story. I’m looking for a narrative, a theory if you like, that makes sense, that hangs together, and that’s publishable. I want to publish it; you can’t just publish data, you have to publish a story, especially if you want to get into a good journal. But I think in the broader sort of sweep of life, also, because I don’t like living in two compartments in my life, so I’m also looking for coherence in my personal experiences as a human being in the wider breadth of life.

I think it’s really important that we don’t have two compartments in our lives—I have to say that, for many scientists, they are behaving in a very logical and rational way when they are in the lab, and then they go out into wider culture where they are very influenced by postmodernity, relativistic ways of thinking … they end up actually thinking in a very different way outside the lab, and it seems to me that it’s more rational really to seek a coherent worldview that helps you to make sense of your own experience both within the laboratory and also in the wider world: in one’s personal relationships, in one’s sense of awe and wonder in the world around us, and so on and so forth. And as a Christian I have to say that Christian theism, I think, does provide a coherent worldview in which these different aspects of life actually make sense. And there one has a narrative that brings together—that draws different threads together—and that makes them into a much more coherent story.

Morality and the awe-full

Chris Mulherin: Nancey, one of the issues that I know that you’ve thought about is a sense of awefulness; the sense of awfulness that we feel at gross moral injustices, and that sort of thing; and I wonder if we could turn the question about or around another way, and think about that sense of awfulness that we have at immorality—at injustice—and what that has to do with transcendent realities.

Nancey Murphy: One of the biggest questions throughout the modern period is whether it’s possible to support moral injunctions without having a divine command to back them up. So one of the projects of the Enlightenment period was an attempt to find ways of founding moral reasoning on human reason alone, rather than on reason in addition to revelation. I believe that that attempt has been given enough time to have succeeded—if it were going to succeed—and it hasn’t. So after three or four hundred years of attempts, if the conclusions are still in disarray, I think it’s time to conclude that the experiment has been a failure.

Chris Mulherin: So we can’t be good without God?

Nancey Murphy: Well, there are two different issues. One is, ‘can a person who doesn’t believe in God be a good person?’, and they obviously can. I would like to make a distinction that’s probably a little bit overdrawn, but I would pick out the category of people that I would call ‘intellectual atheists’. These are people who have thought very deeply about the question of the existence or non-existence of God. And because they’ve done that… and to some extent they’ve been forced to do it because they’re in a country like the United States in particular where most people claim to be believers—they’re obviously in the minority. So they’ve had to think much more carefully about their positions than a lot of Christians do, especially the nominal Christians. And given their level of reflectiveness, I think what goes along with that is a level of reflectiveness about the moral order; about what counts as a good life. And in fact even some of the outspoken atheists that I know are actually some of the best people that I know. There’s been also one tiny empirical study done surveying atheist and non-atheist students, and the atheists actually reported a higher level of participation in what we would think of as morally good actions.

Chris Mulherin: So the question isn’t about whether atheists can be good people?

Nancey Murphy: Right. The question is whether we can all come to agree on a single moral system. And if you’re in a shared culture, and sort of the mainstream of that culture, then it is very easy to think that there is a moral consensus. We all agree that it’s wrong to steal, it’s wrong to lie, it’s good to be a faithful friend, etcetera; but there come to be moral questions where the road divides between Christians and non-believers.

One of the atheists that I count as a good friend of mine is Owen Flanagan, who has written a book in which he’s specifically setting out to show that you can get along perfectly well without the concept of a soul, and without the concept of God, and still be a thoroughly moral person. And he’s got probably the most subtle and reflective account of human morality that I’ve read written by a philosopher; but his account involves, as a very important component, human flourishing, and it also includes benevolence. So he wants to promote the development of benevolence to the maximum degree possible. He also wants human beings to pursue their own flourishing to the maximum amount possible. But when it comes to my giving up some of my own opportunities for flourishing on behalf of benevolence for others in need, that’s where he draws the line.

And so there’s the paradoxical statement in Christianity that ‘she who loses herself for others will gain it’; there’s no comparative point of view in Owen Flanagan’s moral system. So how could you answer that question? He would say, ‘well this is the only life you’ve got—how could you waste it by sacrificing it for other people? You’re defeating the whole purpose.’ Whereas I would say, ‘no: if I sacrifice the whole of my life in this life, even if I’m killed, that doesn’t mean that I’ve lost everything because I believe that there is a God who has better things in store for me after this life.’ And there is absolutely no way that Owen and I could settle our differences without answering the question of whether there is a God or not.

Experiences of awe

Chris Mulherin: Nancey and Denis, we’ve been running an online discussion about this program. It can be found at asenseofawe.net. We asked people to send questions I might discuss with you this weekend. So let me ask you the following double-barrelled question:

One person asks, ‘What has been the most profound experience of awe in your life; and secondly, has that experience played a part in your belief that the universe points beyond itself to a transcendent reality?’

Denis Alexander: I can’t say I’ve had an amazing, profound experience; but there have been certainly moments in my life when I’ve experienced a deep sense of awe and wonder simply at the wonder of creation—more than in the laboratory, probably, although I’ve had those moments as well. But I think experiences such as climbing in the Canadian Rockies by myself; hiking for several days, not seeing anybody; seeing valleys completely covered in woods where there had been no deforestation, and where there’s this sort of wonderful virgin forest and so on. I think certainly that created in me as an 18-year-old at the time, wandering around North America—as one does, when you’re 18—that certainly created in me a very deep sense of awe. Now, I was already a Christian by that time, so my awe was directed in worship very much; so I had a deep sense of worship. So it wasn’t as if I was coming as an atheist to look around, and then having this experience. I was already informed, if you like, by a Christian worldview in that sense.

There have been other times, I think, in a rather different way, in the course of research life, of a sense of really awe at the way systems work. I mean, as an immunologist… the immune system is a very complex system—it’s amazing it works as well as it does, actually, most of the time, because when you think it can cope with more or less most of the time with pretty any antigen—that’s a virus, bacteria, parasite, whatever —that’s thrown in, it will do something about it, not always totally successfully, but it will have a go at defending itself. That, to me, is an amazing system, and I think there are certain points in research—some quite recently, actually—where bits of data in the laboratory which have been hanging around for a while and then gradually pieced together to make a coherent story: that sense of the penny dropping;  that sense of things hanging together makes sense, and suddenly appearing out of the data. A map that wasn’t there before. That is a really wonderful experience in science, actually, when things come together. And also, of course, you know that you have a paper to publish! That’s a wonderful experience as well.

Chris Mulherin: The ubiquitous push to publish.

Denis Alexander: Absolutely.

Chris Mulherin: Nancey: experiences of awe, and are they pointers to the transcendent?

Nancey Murphy: I would not have thought to describe them in terms of awe, but looking back I realise that I was very, we would say as Christians, blessed, or in less technical terms, fortunate, that in my childhood I had numerous experiences of the presence of God. I went to a Catholic school, we had plenty of opportunities to pray; we were encouraged to pray on our own quite a lot of the time. And apparently I was one of very few children who experienced the sense that there was someone I was speaking to; someone who was present to me while I was praying. So that has been extremely significant in my life, and it serves as a sort of anchor for me when the intellectual challenges come along to Christian belief; and since I essentially specialise in teaching about the rationality of Christian belief, I know how fragile our apologetic arguments can be.

Another very important period of my life was my first years in Berkeley. I’d grown up in what I would call a Christian ghetto—everyone I knew was either Catholic or not-Catholic, and it didn’t even matter what kind of not-Catholic you were, we were so homogeneous. Then I went to UC Berkeley, and I felt that I was the last Christian on Earth. But simultaneously I’d joined the Charismatic Renewal; and now even in the eyes of other Christians that’s one of the more naive manifestations of Christian practice. But it was perhaps… well, it was definitely the most exciting period of my life, spiritually.

Charismatics believe not only that God listens when we pray, but that God actually speaks in return through words of knowledge, or words of wisdom, or prophecies; and also Charismatics, like Pentecostals, pray in tongues—we always sang in tongues. It sounds like, I imagine, the heavenly choruses sounding. And so those were a lot of, may I use the term, ‘awe-full’ moments! ‘Awesome’ moments, I suppose, is a better way of putting it. And they just felt to me almost unsurpassable. It doesn’t surprise me when new religious movements come along, very much influenced by the Holy Spirit, they find themselves having ecstatic experiences, and you really do have a feeling that nothing could get any better than this, at least in this life, and it gives you a strange feeling that the end has got to be near, because where are we going to go from here?

Nature and awe

Chris Mulherin: For some people, nature is where nothing could get better in this life. Denis, you mentioned creation… I wonder about the human response to nature, to a beautiful sunrise or a mountain view. One of the speakers at this conference said this morning: ‘you can’t re-enchant nature; nature isn’t enchanted—it’s created. To talk about re-enchantment is to realise that nature is creation; that it points to a creator.’ What do you think is the connection between nature and the idea of enchantment?

Denis Alexander: Well I think the … obviously you can take that question in many different ways. As a Christian I think I would want to take it in the way that the speaker took it: that is as a created order. I would want to take it as created order. I don’t actually like the word ‘nature’ very much. In fact Robert Boyle—I must just say this—wrote a wonderful book in the 17th century called This Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature. It’s the title of his book, and it’s an interesting title, because Robert Boyle had this great sense of all that he was studying being part of the great works of God. So he was doing God’s work when he did his chemical experiments, and so on and so forth. And I certainly believe the same; I believe when I go into the laboratory and explore God’s world, that’s exactly what I’m doing—it has … it’s a holy enterprise. Science for me is a holy enterprise because we have this great privilege of finding out a little bit more of how the created order works.

But I think that’s not just an experience, obviously, that scientists have; but that everyone can have as we experience the world—the created order—around us, and something imbued with God’s faithfulness that… I mean, why are things the way they are? Why do things behave in reproducible ways? Why is the electron on this side of the universe, as far as we know, behaving the same way as the electron on the other side of the universe?

It seems to me that God’s faithfulness in upholding the created order is what makes science possible; and also imbues it, enchants it if you like, with something very special: that this is a work of art; it’s a work by a wonderful artist—God—who is this great musician (to switch metaphors a little bit) who goes on composing, and who goes on creating. Creation is something with past, present and future tense; it’s something ‘going on’. God is creating and making new things all the time. So in a sense that gives a wonderful depth, I think, to our understanding of the wonderful created order around us.

Once we really grasp that, we’re never going to look at it in the same way again; and neither are we going to look after it in the same way again, because once we realise that in the Christian view of things—that is, what we call a New Heavens and a New Earth, have continuity to the present one— that what we do actually to this present Earth actually makes a difference, you know, to the New Heavens and the New Earth; that we’ve got to look after the planet not just for utilitarian reasons, but actually because we’ve been entrusted with it by God to care for it and to look after the world around us. That gives a whole different dimension really, I think, and it enchants the world—if we want to use that language—in a sense by reminding us that this is something which counts for eternity. What we do now actually has implications not just for now but for the New Heavens and the New Earth, and that’s a very, very deep sense of… gives a deep sense of wonder and awe to me, actually, just thinking about that.

Nancey Murphy: My reaction to nature is really quite a bit different, and I think it’s because for me nature has always been the ordinary and the plain. I grew up on a cattle ranch; I spent hours and hours outside; but nature is the place where I encountered sand being blown in my eyes, being bitten by flies, having to work much too hard in the heat, and so on and so forth. And my parents loved fishing and camping, so I’ve spent plenty of times in the mountains looking at beautiful sunsets over lakes; but that’s mundane to me—that’s just normal life. The place where I found wonder, awe, and have been moved to praise, is for instance the first time I was able to visit a Gothic cathedral in Europe. And again, it’s the people around me who charged me with a sense of God’s presence, and help me to rise up to their level of worship, of awe, of appreciation for the wonders of God.

Denis Alexander: …whereas I, of course, was brought up with hundreds of Gothic cathedrals, and sensed no sense of awe at all, just dull ‘oh no, not another Gothic cathedral’! Whereas the mountains, you see, were something totally novel and new. Often it’s the novelty aspect, as well, doesn’t it, which plays quite a role in all of this?

Nancey Murphy: And I think that makes… illustrates in a way what I was saying about re-enchantment, a sense of wonder, a sense of awe: is that it’s simply, it itself, a human emotion, a human capability, a human response. And it can be directed at a variety of objects; so if we are struck with wonder when we go into the mountains, then it says more about us than it does about the mountains, which are obviously there, and if one is struck by wonder and awe when thinking about God, however important that is to the individual, I don’t think it makes any significant moves in the direction of answering the question of whether God exists.

Chris Mulherin: Let’s turn to the idea of mystery. Another side of awe and wonder is a sense of mystery; perhaps the conviction that there are things that are hard or even impossible for human beings to understand, things that we still hold to be true. Some people would say—and I’m thinking here particularly of the vigorous critiques of religion by the so-called New Atheists—some people would say that mystery is a hocus-pocus word for things that we don’t yet understand, things that science will one day reveal. Do you think that using the word ‘mystery’ is a cop-out?

Denis Alexander: Well, I think in science the word mystery is used in several different ways; we need to be a bit careful here. So one has the… uses the word mystery as something which is genuinely mysterious but we have every chance that we’re going to discover it eventually and uncover those mysteries. And I personally think that’s what science ought to be doing; I think we should press back the boundaries of science as far as we can.

On the other hand, there are things in science which possibly are intrinsically mysterious in the sense that our brains are not equipped really to get our heads around them—and I’m thinking here particularly of things like quantum mechanics. And, you know, my colleagues who teach quantum mechanics would say, I mean … the first thing you’d say in a class of students you want to understand the mechanics is ‘just don’t try and imagine it, because you’ll get a headache’. You’re never going to be able to understand, comprehend in any kind of common-sense kind of way, or even a pictorial way, the realities of quantum mechanics. And yet if you take Schrödinger’s equation, which is one of the basic equations that you need to use in quantum mechanics, that works every time! I mean, that data is … whatever you throw at Schrödinger’s equation, it works very well. Every time it’s been tested, it’s extremely successful.

And so here you have fundamental properties of matter simply not behaving in any kind of common-sense kind of a way; I mean you simply can’t get your head round it. And for example the idea of entanglement, where what happens to one particle of matter is intrinsically bound up with what happens to another particle of matter; it’s not something… it’s quite occult. I mean if you’d suggested that in the 18th century, you would’ve been probably accused of occult kind of ideas: of magic, that sort of thing. But the experimental data is very clear in pointing towards those kind of realities. So there are things in science which are very well supported by the data, but they are mysterious in the sense that we simply cannot get our heads around them.

Now, it might be in the future that we’ll have grand unified theories, or different kinds of theories that might enable us to get our heads around them. I rather doubt it, actually; I think that probably our heads haven’t evolved to get around lots of things that are actually real, and are real in science. We believe them, and they’re very well supported by the data, but we simply can’t cope in terms of comprehending them, exactly what they mean actually. So that’s probably intrinsic mysteries which are right there in science. So I think that for the atheist who’s a scientist and who blames religious people for believing in mysterious things—well, science is full of mysterious things in that sense, so there are mysteries all over the place.

Nancey Murphy: I don’t like the word ‘mystery’. It’s often used as a cop-out or conversation stopper. The way that I prefer to speak is to say that there are some aspects of our theological worldview that are very easy to talk about because ordinary language serves for that purpose. So for instance at one extreme of the spectrum is the crucifixion of Jesus. You don’t need any sort of special language to understand nails, and hard wood, and loss of blood, and so forth. Our language is suited to the physical world.

At the opposite extreme is Jesus’ resurrection three days later—here we’re talking about what we presume reality is going to be like after this world has been radically transformed; and as the language we’ve got available to us is based on our experience of the physical world as it is now, those categories necessarily have to be used… our everyday categories have to be stretched a long ways, and in some cases stretched very thin in order to convey or get across the theological points that we’re trying to make. So for instance, with regard to Jesus’ resurrection, and the resurrection which I think awaits other humans—and in fact I think that it necessarily will apply to the entire cosmos—it’s a transformation of physical reality, but it can’t be physically then the way it is physically now, because decay is an essential aspect of the material world that we’ve got. And so there are a variety of different pictures of what Jesus was like after the resurrection, sometimes emphasising his physicality—for instance, he could eat—other times emphasising how different he was; that he could appear and disappear at will through closed doors. And so obviously there just isn’t any single literal way to describe what a resurrected person is like.

So I don’t… I wouldn’t say that it’s a mystery, because that seems to say that there’s nothing that can be said about it. I think that when we find something that is close to impossible to describe well we ought to be able to say why it’s close to impossible to describe well, such as the point that I’ve been making about the tailoring of human language to the physical world as it is now, and the expectation that the physical world will be physical in some sense, but the stuff of which it will be made is something we simply can’t conceive.

Denis Alexander: Just to add one point there, I also think actually that when we talk about the character of God—to the extent that we know anything at all about the character of God; and that’s only because we’ve been told in some form or other, and Christians will want to say we know something about the character of God through the person of Christ—but language very quickly runs out. And I’m also quite deeply suspicious of people who say well, you know, for example thinking about the Trinity, and ‘isn’t that very mysterious and irrational.’ It seems to me profoundly worrying if God was a being who could be described so easily and rationally that we could get our little heads around it. I would… I’d be very worried that that sort of a God would be a human creation, actually. And the fact of the deep mysteriousness of God, and I’m thinking here particularly of the doctrine of the Trinity, is actually quite reassuring to me, because I think the Trinity arose by the disciples actually experiencing Christ, who is God in the incarnation; they knew God as Father, they experienced Christ in person, and gradually came to the recognition that he was God. And then of course they experienced the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. So it was through their personal experience that the doctrine of the Trinity emerged. And I’ve often thought how parallel that is with science; that in science often we simply have to—coming back to quantum mechanics, for example—we have to describe the properties of matter as we understand them as fulfilled by empirical data. And sometimes we just have to describe; that’s the way it is. It’s a brute fact of our own experience that we actually can’t perfectly get our heads around. So there are some interesting parallels here, actually, between scientific and religious ways of thinking.

On doubt

Chris Mulherin: You suggested that some of the difficulty of describing God can actually be a reassuring thing; that God isn’t so easily described in human terms, because that might make God a human creation. What about those mysteries—those existential mysteries, those times when, if you have them, they become doubts that niggle at your faith? Do you have those sort of mysteries or doubts?

Nancey Murphy: I have doubts regularly. And, in fact, often in my classes—our seminarians preparing for ministry, they’re all graduate students—I sometimes ask them ‘raise your hand if you’ve ever had serious doubts about the truth of Christianity’, and almost all of them raise their hands. I don’t think we would be rational, thinking people if we didn’t have doubts sometimes. If you’re simply, quote, ‘taking it on faith’—another phrase I don’t like, and don’t like to use—then to have a doubt is simply to contradict what you’ve got; it’s a terrible thing. But if you believe that it’s possible to be a rational Christian, and if you find your capacities to describe the sense in which it’s rational, then you ought to have doubts.

Denis Alexander: Yes, I was always told, I remember, as a young Christian that having doubts is extremely normal, which clearly it is. At the same time probably it’s not a bad idea to have a little kind of in tray in the back of your head. I’ve created an in tray, and, you know, I’ll pop all kinds of stuff in there as they come up. You know, questions that come up, and things you don’t really understand. So I stick them in the in tray. Because I think obviously… well, if you just think of a loving relationship, I mean maybe some days you’re in love with somebody, maybe you have a wife or a partner or whatever, and you have doubts about whether they really do love you or not. Now, of course if you analyse that relationship every day—your ‘in box’ full of doubts—your relationship will simply flounder.

So in that sense the relationship with God through Christ is one of trust. It’s not a blind trust; it’s not a blind faith. But on the other hand, like any relationship, it has to be nurtured and looked after and cared for. And so you can’t allow every single doubt that pops into your in tray to kind of disrupt that relationship. So it’s good to have an in tray, and it’s good to address those things, not just leave them there; not procrastinate, but actually tackle and to read more widely about them, and to think about them, and also to discuss them with others—and that’s always been my practice, actually. And I’ve found there’s always things in the in tray, but things go in and out, it’s not static I’m thankful to say, but things get cleared, they go in the ‘out box’, you see, but other things pop in. And I think that’s, to me, the normal Christian life; and it certainly will never be totally free of questions and doubt. But we have to keep the relationship going; it’s important.

Chris Mulherin: You strike me as an ordered person, Denis—I don’t imagine you have a very messy desk, or a very high pile in your in tray!

Denis Alexander: My desk is an absolute mess; I’m always being told ‘how on earth can you find anything’, and I say ‘well, as long as I don’t tidy it up, I can find anything’.

Chris Mulherin: An academic to his heart!

Nancey Murphy: We can even explain that habit in neurobiological terms: we don’t have enough capacity for our brains to store everything that we need, and so we participate in what’s called ‘external scaffolding’; and so leaving the pile of work that you’ve got to do out where it’s visible, and another pile of work next to it that’s also visible—you’ve got to do that in order to keep yourself aware of all the jobs you’ve got to do. So it’s a very rational thing for you to be doing!

Denis Alexander: Oh, thank you. That’s a great relief, thank you!

Chris Mulherin: That sounded like a rationalisation to me, about Nancey’s desk! Maybe we need to get her to send us a photo of her desk! Nancey, what about your in tray, your spiritual in tray of questions? Do you have one of them?

Nancey Murphy: I’ve never thought of it that way. I suppose I think of it more in terms of the students that I’m teaching. I’m trying to keep up with the kinds of issues that are arising in their culture, and issues that they’re going to have to confront as pastors and other ministers to the Church; and these issues—I’ve been teaching seminarians now for 22 years—some of the issues have been the same, for instance the problem of evil. Other issues change over the years, so I’m always trying to look ahead and to ask ‘what do I need to be learning in order to be able to address the questions that they are going to need to answer?’ Now, that doesn’t mean that I’ve got cut and dried answers. I remember one year early in my teaching career I asked the students for reflections on the class on the last day, and one of the guys who’d been sitting in the back row finally tentatively raised his hand and said, ‘Well, uh, Professor Murphy, I was, sort of, uh, just wishing you could give us the answers.’

Chris Mulherin: ‘The answers’. We wish! We wish! I’ve been talking to Nancey Murphy from Fuller Theological Seminary in California, and to Denis Alexander from the Faraday Institute in Cambridge. Thank you very much, it’s been a very interesting conversation.

Denis Alexander: Well thank you very much, our privilege.

Nancey Murphy: Thank you very much, Chris.

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