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The good tensions between reason and revelation

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In 1993 I received an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University, with Thomas Watson, co-discoverer with Francis Crick of DNA. The meeting gave me the opportunity to say the blessing, coined by the sages 2,000 years ago and still to be found in all Jewish prayer books, thanking God for bestowing his wisdom on human beings.

Essentially it is a blessing to be said on seeing a great scientist, although the word scientist was not coined until 1833. What a difference between the 1st century and now, when there seems so often to be at worst hostility, at best estrangement, between religion and science. It should not be like that.

The rabbis had every reason to fear science. It was done, in their day, by the Greeks, and there was a profound difference between the two cultures, so much so that Jews had fought a war — essentially a war of culture — against Hellenism. The name Epicurus, the Greek thinker who more than anyone presaged atomic science, was synonymous for Jews with heretic.

Yet the rabbis knew wisdom when they saw it, and they valued it even though they dissented from some of its conclusions. They did so for three reasons. First, it was evidence of the fact that God had indeed created humankind “in his image, after his likeness”, meaning according to Jewish tradition, “with the capacity to understand and discern”. Intellect, insight, the ability to frame and test hypotheses: these are God-given and a reason to give thanks.

Second, scientific method can apply to religion as well. The Talmud tells the story of a Rabbi Shimon Ha-Amsoni who had spent a lifetime applying certain exegetical principles to biblical texts. On one occasion he encountered a verse which, if interpreted by his rules, would yield an unacceptable conclusion. He then and there declared his principles unsound, in effect abandoning his entire life’s work. His students were aghast. They asked him: are you really willing to give up everything you have taught because of one counter-example? He smiled and said, “Just as I received a [divine] reward for the exposition, so I will receive a reward for the retraction.” This is in effect an anticipation, many centuries earlier, of Karl Popper’s account of scientific method. Religion may not be science but it can use the same rules of logic.

Third, science, regardless of the conclusions drawn from it, provides stunning testimony to the law-governed orderliness of the universe and the beauty and intricacy of creation. That was evident to the sages long ago, and it has become all the more pronounced today. I lose count of the number of times I have had reason to say, reading about some new scientific discovery, “How many are your works, O Lord: You have created them all in wisdom” (Psalm civ, 24).

The rabbis felt so strongly about this that they said of those who could study astronomy but failed to do so that they were the people about whom the prophet Isaiah was speaking when he said (v, 12), “they have no regard for the deeds of the Lord, no respect for the work of His hands”.

One passage in the Talmud is indicative of the rabbinical approach. The topic under discussion is the question, where does the sun go at night? The sages give their account. Next they give the Greek account, that of Ptolemy. They then conclude that the Greek explanation is more plausible than the Jewish one. End of discussion. They got it right; we got it wrong. That to me is a model of intellectual integrity.

I mentioned that the Jewish blessing on seeing a great scientist uses the word “wisdom”, and that is the key concept. Judaism recognises two distinct sources of knowledge, wisdom and Torah, the products respectively of reason and revelation. Entire books of the Bible, notably Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job, are dedicated to wisdom. Unlike revelation, wisdom is universal. Anyone can achieve it, regardless of religious belief, and traces of it are to be found in all the world’s cultures.

There are tensions between reason and revelation, and that is particularly evident in Ecclesiastes and Job, two of the most dissident books ever to be included in a canon of sacred scriptures. Yet they too are part of the religious life.

So let’s continue to thank God for great scientists. Religion is about open hearts, not closed minds.

(First published in The Times)