Francis Phillips on the Church and science
The Roots of Science and its Fruits by Peter Hodgson, The Saint Austin Press 0.95.
peter Hodgson will be familiar to Herald readers, as many of these short essays first appeared in this newspaper's columns. He is well qualified to discourse on scientific subjects from a Christian perspective, being both a Catholic and an Oxford lecturer in physics and mathematics for over 40 years. His oft-iterated theme, behind wide-ranging subjects such as nuclear power, the philosophy of science and modern physics, is that Christianity alone provided the perfect cradle for the birth of modem science. In his words, 'Catholic theology tells us that the natural world is good, orderly, rational, contingent and open to the human mind, and these beliefs are essential to science.' Such beliefs, he points out, were foreign to other religions and civilisations (despite the early promise of Arabic scholarship). Hence science began to develop in the West, specifically in the High Middle Ages.
Inevitably, this mutual harmony at the outset between faith and science was not to last. Today in the West, dominated by a secular outlook, many scientists equate belief in a benign Creator-God with belief in a flat earth; and some Christians, fearful of the gigantic advance of science, take refuge in a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis. In his lucid, commonsensical way. Hodgson bridges this chasm between the two paths to truth, pointing out the significant achievements of Catholic priest/monk scientists such as the Polish Copernicus, the Austrian Mendel and the Belgian Lemaitre and demonstrating the inadequacy of the Creationist approach to the Bible. He quotes Cardinal Baronius, who once remarked that the purpose of the Bible is "to teach us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go".
John Henry Newman, keenly interested in science as well as theology, was sympathetic to the idea of some form of evolution and rejected the notion that God created rocks with fossils in them. Hodgson accepts the overwhelming scientific consensus that the world is probably 15 billion years old. His book includes a discussion of the Galileo controversy, a view on the phenomenon of the sun dancing at Fatima in October 1918 and a personal interest in the harnessing of nuclear power as fossil fuels grow more depleted.
In a book of this kind there is inevitably some repetition and overlap. That said, it is a readable and useful introduction to a fascinating and complex world — even for scientifically illiterate persons such as myself, who stopped at "general science", never dreamed of tackling physics or chemistry, scraped through biology by memorising the lifecycle of the earth worm and who has long forgotten the literal meaning of the word "effervescence".