A Sense of Awe: science, faith and wonder

A Sense of Awe—audio transcript

Below is the full transcript of the Sense of Awe program that first aired on Sunday November 6, 2011 on ABC Radio National’s Encounter program. You can listen to the audio or download it here.

Chris Mulherin: Hello and welcome to Radio National’s Encounter. This program is part of a radio and web based project called. It’s a project that you the listener are invited to take part in, but more about that later.

The theme is the disenchantment of the world famously proposed by sociologist Max Weber almost 100 years ago. Weber said, “The fate of our times is characterised by rationalisation and intellectualisation and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world’. Precisely the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life.”

I’m Chris Mulherin and today I’ll be introducing you to three people who are all engaged in relating science to their Christian faith. Let’s start in Tasmania where I met two of our guests.

Chris Mulherin: We’re at a conference in 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. Fortunately, at the same time as I was losing one career I was urged by my advisor to take a course in the philosophy of science, and found it just absolutely exciting.

Chris Mulherin: 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: Yes, 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 often not very helpful. And I suppose I got a little bit tired of that and a longing for something a little bit different.

Together with a colleague we decided to put in for a grant; 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.

Chris Mulherin: 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 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’… 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 the planets revolve according to an ordered way of doing things and so on.

So I think that sense of mechanism became dominant very early on in the scientific movement. Perhaps they felt, therefore, ‘nature is disenchanted’; we no longer look on it as something valuable, and made by God, and morally validated by God, but something which is just there in its own right. ‘We don’t know why it’s there, but that’s the way it is.’

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 of these other beings. But there’s really no question of going back. And so disenchantment makes a lot of sense to 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.

Chris Mulherin: Including 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.

Nancey Murphy: Yes. I started out in philosophy, and the question of mind/body dualism was a live issue in the 1960s and ’70s. 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, emotional capacities.

Chris Mulherin: So it seems that you can have it both ways; you can say that human beings are just physical beings, but that doesn’t 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.

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, the difference between a living organism and a machine; but then you’ve also got to go up the scale of complexity amongst living organisms in order to get finally to the point where you can begin to talk about sentience, intelligence, intentionally goal-directed behaviour, and so forth.

Chris Mulherin: Nancey Murphy there and before her Denis Alexander talking about how the rise of science has contributed to disenchanting the world.

We’ll return to enchantment and wonder soon, but first we’re going to talk more about science and its relationship to faith. Let’s start by meeting our third guest who I spoke to recently in Sydney.


Chris Mulherin: John Lennox, you’re an Oxford mathematician but perhaps better known as one of those who does public battle with Richard Dawkins and the new atheists. Recently you debated atheist philosopher Peter Singer in Melbourne. Why do you divide your time in such disparate pursuits?

John Lennox: I don’t think they’re entirely disparate pursuits, I’ve always been interested in the broader implications of science and the issue here is that people like Richard Dawkins are arguing that if you are a scientist, the only logical position you can take intellectually is atheism. And I dispute that and I quite honestly don’t like seeing science abused in that way. So I want to put across a counter-argument into the public space and let the people judge.

Chris Mulherin: Let me ask you about science in the public space. I wonder if there’s a tension between two attitudes to science? What we might almost call absolute and relative views of science. One view perhaps represented by the so-called new atheists is very confident that science is the only grounding for truth and knowledge. Another view seen, for example, in scepticism about global warming, shows a lack of confidence and a disenchantment with science.

John Lennox: Well I’d call the first attitude scientism. Because it is an attitude to science that science is the only vehicle to truth. In other words I think we’re having an over-reach here. And really great scientists like Sir Peter Medawar were very clear on the limits of science. Medawar puts it this way: that it’s very easy to check that science doesn’t tell us everything; it can’t even answer the simple questions of a child: Why am I here? What is the meaning of life? And so on.

So science is there, it’s wonderful, but we do it a disservice if we make it the sole criterion of truth. And that’s absurd of course because science is not coextensive with rationality. If science were the only way to truth, you’d have to shut half your universities in Sydney for a start.

Chris Mulherin: You have criticised scientists such as Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins for going beyond their scientific expertise into areas of incompetence shall we say.

John Lennox: My point is not that we go into other areas. We all do that. But it’s: when we go into other areas we should check the best arguments from those areas. And my problem with Hawking and Dawkins and so on is that for instance, when it comes to something like the sheer existence of Jesus Christ, they don’t even check with the ancient historians.

Chris Mulherin: Mathematician John Lennox on the limits of science.

At the opposite extreme to the scientism that Lennox describes, I wonder if there is a lack of confidence in science seen in popular culture?

Denis Alexander from Cambridge:

Denis Alexander: I think, to a certain extent, that is the case, the influence of postmodern philosophy has crept in to a lot of culture, films, what people absorb sometimes without really knowing about it, to the extent that they believe all forms of knowledge are relative, and therefore if something comes along like science which claims certain things happen to be true, that sounds quite old-fashioned, actually. Of course scientists, we as scientists actually believe some things are the case and some things are not the case. And that, people I think, find quite hard to cope with, even though it might be supported by plenty of data and evidence and so on.

And that makes it particularly difficult in discussions about vaccinations, and various things that some people have strong opinions about, which might actually be, and often are, very small minority opinions within the scientific community. But by the time they come out into the public domain it sounds like, ‘Oh, the whole scientific community disagrees about this thing.’ Well, really they don’t actually.

Chris Mulherin: Do you think that skepticism about climate change is an example of what you’re talking about?

Denis Alexander: Yes I do, certainly, as a typical scientist, I tend to trust my colleagues and trust their analysis of things, and the data. And the data does seem hugely overwhelming that there is a human involvement in terms of the present rate of global warming. And it seems to me that the deniers… they are a small minority within the overall big picture of things. And so, I think, it’s unfortunate. You know, if people have an innate skepticism about all kinds of scientific data, because, you know, our grandchildren will end up in a planet that for many people won’t be very habitable. It will have a huge impact upon poor people in certain parts of the coastal areas of Bangladesh that will be inundated because of rising sea levels and so on. And so, it’s often the poor who will suffer.

Chris Mulherin: You said, I think, that you trust the judgment of other scientists, because you’re not a climate scientist yourself. Where does trust come into science?

Denis Alexander: Actually, trust is implicit to the scientific enterprise. And without trust the whole of the enterprise would not function; it would be dysfunctional. And the reason for that is that you simply have to place on trust a huge amount of data, published data, by other labs in other parts of the world, in order to carry out a research program.

Now, in fact, in practice, what you find in the scientific community is that one tends to trust, some laboratories more than others. You find, you know, some labs generally get the story right. So, yes you need to be a skeptic, but you cannot be a total skeptic and do science. It’s totally impossible.

Chris Mulherin: Denis Alexander from the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion in Cambridge.

You’re listening to Encounter and this program is part of a project called A Sense of Awe: science, faith and wonder.

The project includes a website and Facebook page where you can join in the conversation. Just go to abc.net.au/rn/Encounter. And you’ll find a link there to the Sense of Awe project. We’d love to hear from you. Already one of our followers has asked us to talk with John Lennox about the possibility of proving your beliefs.

If good science requires a healthy dose of scepticism, and if trust too is an essential part of science as we’ve just heard from Denis Alexander, then what about the idea of proof?

Lennox is a mathematician, and for him neither faith nor the natural sciences are about the sort of proof that mathematics deals with. Both have their own sorts of evidence. So let’s move on to the relationship between faith and science starting with John Lennox on proof.


John Lennox: Proof is a word which in English has several different meanings. And in its most rigorous sense you only get it in pure mathematics; starting with a set of axioms, using an agreed system of logic coming to a conclusion. But you do not get that anywhere else outside of pure mathematics. Not even in the natural sciences. Because there we can talk about evidence, pointers and so on. Unfortunately people sometimes use the word proof there and get it confused with the rigorous definition, so that when they talk about proof of the existence of God, they’re never going to be satisfied because with half their mind they’re thinking of the mathematical sense of proof and of course in that sense you cannot prove God. So I like to cut through that and say what we can do is give evidence for the existence of God and argue the case. We can give pointers and I believe we can give very powerful evidence and it is enough to base faith on.

Denis Alexander: There are all kinds of parallels and interesting resonances between the scientific community and between the household of faith. After all, the religious enterprise is about a search for understanding, a search for coherence, trust is involved, we have to trust others who’ve gone before us to tell us about their experience, about their theology, about their understanding of the faith.

And of course, particularly in the Christian faith, we are very, very dependent upon witnesses; witnesses to the resurrection, in particular. So I see a lot of interesting parallels there with science.

Chris Mulherin: I imagine a lot of people would say that the parallels are overdrawn; that surely science is about the physical, material world that we can look at, that we can be confident about what the truth is. Whereas theology and religious belief have to do with an immaterial world, perhaps, or, I think it was Bertrand Russell that said faith was believing in things that you know don’t exist. There is a fundamental distinction, surely, between the sorts of truth that science is trying to unearth and the sorts of truth that religious people talk about, isn’t there?

Denis Alexander: Well, I think there are differences, key differences, and there are also some similarities. Science has been an immensely successful enterprise. Mainly and partly because it restricts its investigations to a rather limited array of questions, and by focusing on these rather specific questions, it therefore has the ability to set up experiments, to test theories, find data that will count against theories and will refute them, and making the way for newer and better theories and so on. And so, it’s been successful because of that restriction of the questions; it doesn’t seek to answer the big questions of life, of why we’re here, or whether there’s a god… All those sorts of questions. So, it’s highly successful in that sense.

I think there’s far more similarities between the religious quest for truth and the scientific quest for truth, than many people realise. And certainly in the case of my own faith, which is the Christian faith, it depends very much on certain things that Jesus said, and certain things that happened to Christ, and the historical data that we have concerning his life, death, resurrection.

It’s not as if, you know, it was simply founded on somebody’s religious feelings, or as in Buddhism, of course, where it doesn’t really matter if the Buddha lived or not, the pathway to enlightenment would still be there. That’s not the case actually, in the Abrahamic faiths, where they’re very much hinged on certain historical events being the case. And what I find really interesting is when you read someone like the Apostle Paul, you know, writing to the early church in Corinth in the first century, and he’s writing about the resurrection of Christ, and he says, ‘Well, actually, you know, if Christ didn’t rise from the dead, then let’s eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.’

Chris Mulherin: So you think there are scientific evidences for religious beliefs?

Denis Alexander: I wouldn’t call them scientific evidences; myself, I would make a distinction between history and science. Now, clearly all historical events, without exception, are unique events. They’re not reproducible, in the same way that scientific data can be reproduced in the lab, or in general anyway. So, the world of history is a very different world from that of science. On the other hand, I suppose you could say that the legal way of thinking, where you’re making an inference to the best explanation, in terms of who committed the crime and how did it happen, is more similar, perhaps, to the way that Christians might think about the historical basis for their faith.

But again, many of the sciences are historical sciences, and, after all, I’m an evolutionary biologist and a lot of our construction of the evolutionary tree is based on a kind of inference to the best explanation of what happened many, many, millions of years ago, let’s say in Cambrian explosion. So there are data, but we have to piece together the interpretation of those data in science, and of course the same happens in the historical understanding of Jesus of Nazareth.

Chris Mulherin: I wonder if you could tell us about the ranks of academia, and any thoughts you might have on why it is that it seems that top world class scientists can be adamant committed atheists, and others can be committed religious people who see no conflict between their science and their faith?

Denis Alexander: I think that’s to be expected, really. Because I don’t think that science itself can adjudicate between these sort of big metaphysical questions. And science simply isn’t up to the Herculean task of deciding whether theism is true, or atheism is true, or indeed whether democracy is better than dictatorship.

So it’s not a surprise to me at all that there are scientists who have very different views. But not only about religion, of course, they differ in politics, they differ in their choice of music. And when you live with the scientific community as I have for the past 40 years, you know, in the lab, you realise that it’s an incredibly diverse community. You’ve got plodders, you’ve got thinkers, you’ve got wild whacky people, you’ve got people who love rock music, you’ve got people who only go for classical. I’ve had communists in my lab, I’ve had probably neo-fascists. The scientific community is just really, really, heterogeneous, and so that applies to religion as well. And why not? It’s exactly what you would expect.

Chris Mulherin: This is Encounter where we’ve been talking about the nature of science and how it relates to faith. Now it’s time to focus more on the third aspect of our science, faith and wonder theme.

We’ll start by thinking about beauty and then move on to ask about whether the universal sense of wonder and transcendence might be a pointer to truths beyond human subjectivity.


Chris Mulherin: John Lennox, what makes mathematics beautiful?

John Lennox: Describing beauty is almost impossible because we perceive it, rather than describe it. If you look at a Rembrandt painting and start to try and describe what the beauty is you see, your words sound absolutely pathetic. And I think that’s true. It is a matter of perception that when you come across an interesting theorem or you even think of Newton’s famous laws-that wonderful compression of many observations, of Kepler of the motions of the planets, and you see it in one simple equation from which you can deduce everything else-there is a magic about that. The fact that the universe can be described in that way. And I would say it is perception. It’s an ‘ah ha’ effect. It’s exactly the same effect as you get when you look at your first nebula through a telescope or look over the edge of the Grand Canyon. You can’t put that into words but you can see the beauty. Beauty is a thing we see.

Chris Mulherin: If it’s a thing we see, is it part of the nature of the universe? Or is it merely a subjective thing? Can it be reduced to brain science and neuronal firings?

John Lennox: Of course it’s subjective. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t real. And the notion that it can be reduced to neuronal firings is I think myself, rather silly because that kind of extreme reductionism that you get with some of the new atheists — they reduce all thought actually, to neuronal firings — well if that were the case we’d never know it. Because it turns everything into irrationality and undermines the very foundations of cognition.

Clearly, thought involves the firing of neurones. Just as a Rembrandt painting, involves paint. It involves physical stuff and canvas. But it is more than that. The whole is more than the sum of the parts and we perceive a beauty in it that cannot be found in analysing the pigments and the chemistry and the physics of the ink and the canvas.

Chris Mulherin: Let me interrupt John Lennox as he talks about whether a Rembrandt is more than pigments on canvas. At the Sense of Awe website which we are running in conjunction with this program, one of the options is to leave an audio comment. One listener recorded the following thought:

Listener’s recorded comment: I think that the relationship between awe, aesthetics and meaning is a very interesting one, with considerable nuance and ambiguity. For example pondering the sheer vast size and age of the universe can sometimes elicit responses of loneliness and futility. Yet it can equally inspire feelings of awe and worship. Where some hear a noise, others hear a tune.

Chris Mulherin: Thanks to James Garth for that comment. Now back to John Lennox in Sydney as he responds to the issues James raises.

Chris Mulherin: Do you think that the aesthetic sense is part of the created universe and evidence of God?

John Lennox: Well I do yes. From where I sit, human beings are special, they’re made in the image of God. And one of the parts of that image of God… God is a God of glory and beauty. ‘The heavens declare the glory of God.’ And he’s given us the aesthetic sense, the capacity to perceive it. So it’s not a knock down proof that there is a God but it’s certainly consistent with the notion that there is a God.

Chris Mulherin: Let me move on to the idea of naturalised religion. Does transcendence have to have supernatural foundations?

John Lennox: Well. Something is better than nothing so to speak. I’ve got a very good friend who’s a very good science journalist and he says the bottom line for him is that there’s got to be something more than this… What is this something more? What is this transcendence? We perceive it, we sense it. Well let’s talk about it.

Now one of the claimants that is going to enter this field very rapidly is the Christian claim that there is a God who’s responsible. He is the transcendent God. So we can ask now more specific questions as to whether there’s any evidence in history and so on that God might have revealed himself. So tying down the transcendence is very important but I don’t write off people at all, who come to me and have said, ‘There’s a lot more to it than this material stuff.’

Chris Mulherin: John Lennox, Oxford mathematician and public defender of the Christian faith talking about the aesthetic sense and whether it leads to God.

You’re on Radio National and this is an Encounter with science, faith and wonder.

Back in Tasmania, I asked Nancey Murphy and Denis Alexander about the connection between enchanting the world and the religious sense.

Chris Mulherin: Let’s move on to the more general issue of enchantment and re-enchantment. On the website we’ve had 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 doesn’t have an enchanted world.

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 by telling people that they ought to be joyful and grateful for their lives; that they ought to look at life with wonder and awe.

Denis Alexander: Okay, well-I find it fascinating that Richard has become a sort of modern Existentialist. I was brought up with the French existentialists. 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 these sort of writers, and so you get this existential declaration-affirmation of the value of life, even though you know really in your heart of hearts it’s completely a 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. So in the face of this total meaningless, ultimately meaningless universe, he is declaring 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. Because I think it 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 saying those sorts of things.

Nancey Murphy: I’m a great fan of philosopher Charles Taylor and he’s written a tremendous volume called A Secular Age. And he traces the disenchantment of the modern West 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.

Denis Alexander: Capacities such as awe and wonder, the sense of transcendence, are deeply built into the human psyche. Why do people experience a deep sense of love, or wonder in poetry or all kinds of things that we experience through life. I think that as a Christian I would say is 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. They can be an atheist, or agnostic, or whatever.

However, I would want to go on and say, I think, to my atheist friends, if you want to be more reasonable, if you want to be a more rational person, it’s more rational to have a worldview that incorporates the reasons for that sense of awe, and so that you know to whom it should be directed ultimately… and also you have a 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 of course the theistic narrative is a broader, bigger narrative within which we can place awe, and where we can see it has a reason.

So I, in science… I mean, what am I doing in my lab? I’m looking for coherence; I’ve got all this 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.

Nancey Murphy: I think it’s not terribly surprising that scientists who are well aware of the immensity, the complexity, the wonders of the universe that we live in, find in that something that stirs up the same senses of awe, and wonder, and gratitude. Gratitude for what, one can’t say, but nonetheless, once you feel yourself 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.

Denis Alexander: I think it’s really important that we don’t have two compartments in our lives-I have to say, 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 it helps you to make sense of your experience both within the laboratory and also in the wider world.

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. One person asks, ‘What has been the most profound experience of awe in your life? 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, I think, 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; just hiking for several days, not seeing anybody; seeing valleys completely covered in woods where there had been no deforestation. I think certainly that created in me as an 18-year-old at the time, wandering around North America, that certainly created in me a very deep sense of awe.

Now there have been other times, I think, in a rather different way, in the course of a 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 pretty much any antigen-that’s a virus, bacteria, parasite, whatever -that’s thrown at it, it will do something about it, not always totally successfully, but it will have a go at defending itself.

I mean 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 that have been hanging around for a while and then gradually pieced together to make a coherent story: that sense of the penny dropping; the sense of a map 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.

Chris Mulherin: Nancey, experiences of awe?

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 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. 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.

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 is 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: I don’t actually like the word ‘nature’ very much. I believe when I go into the laboratory and explore God’s world, that’s exactly what I’m doing. Science for me is a holy enterprise because we have the great privilege of finding out a little bit more about how the created order works.

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.

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 quite the same way again, because once we realise that what we do actually makes a difference; 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 it a whole different dimension really, I think, and it enchants the world in a sense by reminding us that this is something which counts for eternity.

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 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 been moved to praise, is for instance the first time I was able to visit a Gothic cathedral in Europe. Again, it’s the people around me who charge me with a sense of God’s presence, and help me to rise up to their level of worship, awe, 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 ‘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, isn’t it, which plays quite a role in all of this?

Nancey Murphy: And I think that illustrates in a way what I was saying before about re-enchantment, a sense of wonder, a sense of awe: is that it’s simply, in 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, that says more about us than it does about the mountains and if one is struck by wonder and awe and 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: Differing responses to nature and to Gothic cathedrals from Nancey Murphy and Denis Alexander. Let’s turn to the idea of mystery. Another aspect of awe and wonder is the sense of mystery; perhaps the conviction that there are things which 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 for example of the vigorous critiques of religion by some of its popular despisers-that mystery is a hocus-pocus word for things that we don’t yet understand, but things that science will one day reveal.

Let’s start with John Lennox. I asked him if he thought that using the word ‘mystery’ is a cop-out?


John Lennox: I think it’s risky. The thing is, I would rather talk about humility. In a sense that we don’t know everything and like old Socrates, the older he grew the more he realised how little he knew. To say everything’s a mystery can be a cop-out for people who don’t want to investigate any further. That’s certainly true.

So I would want to say yes, there are mysterious things in that we don’t completely understand them and they can evoke awe in us and we don’t really realise why that happens or what the process is, but we can keep investigating. We’ve got all kinds of, in a generalised sense, appetites and C. S. Lewis made the point that it would be strange if we all felt hungry and we lived in a universe where there was no such thing as food. And this sense of transcendence, of awe, of a God space… It would be very strange if there was nothing to fill it. And I believe there is of course.

Denis Alexander: 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 we’re going to 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 simply not equipped really to get our head around them-and I’m thinking here of particularly things like quantum mechanics. My colleagues who teach quantum mechanics always say the first thing you say in a class of students you want to understand quantum mechanics is ‘just don’t try and imagine it, because you’ll get a headache’. So there are things in science which are very well supported by the data, but they are mysterious in the sense that we simply can’t get our heads around them.

So I think 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.

Nancey Murphy: I don’t like the word ‘mystery’. It is 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 on the spectrum is the crucifixion of Jesus. You don’t need any sort of special language to understand nails, and hardwood, and loss of blood, and so forth. Our language is suited to the physical world.

At the opposite extreme is Jesus’ resurrection-here we’re talking about what we presume reality is going to be like after this world has been radically transformed and since the language we’ve got available to us is based on our experience of the physical world as it is now, our everyday categories have to be stretched a long ways, in order to try to convey or get across the theological points that we’re trying to make.

So 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 explain why it’s close to impossible to describe well.

Denis Alexander: When we’re talking about the character of God-to the extent that we know anything at all about the character of God our 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 that could be described so easily and rationally that we could get our little heads around it. And I’ve often thought how parallel that is with science-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 totally get our head around.


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 existential mysteries, those times when, if you have them, they become doubts that niggle at your faith? Do you have those sort of doubts?

Nancey Murphy: I have doubts regularly. And, in fact, often in my classes 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 believe that it’s possible to be a rational Christian, 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. And you know, I’ll pop all kinds of stuff in there: questions that come up, and things you don’t really understand. So I stick them in the ‘in tray’. If you just think of a loving relationship, maybe some days you’re in love with somebody, or maybe you have a wife or a partner and you have doubts about whether they really do love you or not. Now, of course if you analyse that relationship every day-with your ‘in box’ full of doubts-your relationship will quickly founder.

In that sense the relationship with God through Christ is one of trust; not of 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 so you can’t allow every single doubt that pops into your in tray to kind of disrupt that relationship. And I’ve found there’s always things in the in tray, but things go in and out, it’s not static, 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 doubts. But we have to keep the relationship going; that’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.’

Nancey Murphy: We can even explain that habit in neurobiological terms; we don’t have enough capacity in 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 of 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 bit of a rationalisation to me, about Nancey’s desk! Nancey, what about your spiritual ‘in tray’ ?

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; some of the issues remain the same, for instance the problem of evil. Other issues change over the years, so I’m always trying to look ahead and 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 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 he said, ‘Well, uh, Professor Murphy, I was, sort of, uh, wishing you could just give us the answers.’

John Lennox: I’ve got a telescope in my garden and one of the things I love to do is go out and just let the sky, the night sky, the galaxies, the Orion nebula, have an impact on my mind. I find that awe inspiring. And just to contemplate on what the astronomers have revealed to us about the immense size of the universe. I find that very healthy. It’s a good thing to do.

Chris Mulherin: You’ve been listening to A Sense of Awe: science, faith and wonder — an Encounter project on abc.net.au/rn/encounter.

You can also leave comments on the program there or you can go to the special website dedicated just to this project where you will find more discussion as well as full transcripts and audio of the uncut interviews with our guests.

You can find that special website at asenseofawe.net. That’s asenseofawe – one word – dot net. There you can also find links to our Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Thanks to Dave Manton for technical production of this program and also to those people who have contributed in the last couple of months on the Sense of Awe website. Please visit the website and continue the conversation. I’m Chris Mulherin. I hope you’ve been stimulated to think about science, faith and wonder.

One Response to “A Sense of Awe—audio transcript”

  1. Cathy Cameron says:

    Thinking of awe, I am reminded firstly of the first time I walked into the room in Yirrkala North East Arnhemland where the “Church Panels” are displayed. These are the panels created by the elders showing their creation story and were originally made to be displayed on either side of the altar in the newly built church. On walking into the room and seeing these, totally unexpectedly, I was quite overcome and dissolved into tears, feeling in the presence of something inexplicable and intensely sacred. How does science explain this? I have never before done this in front of a piece of art and have visited many of the worlds great galleries. Also I had no previous knowledge whatsoever of these panels.

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