“Humility Before The Facts” (COSAC Devotion #2)

Humility Before The Facts
Reading John 9:13-25

Visiting Tasmania’s West Coast is an enjoyable if somewhat surreal experience. I have very dear friends in that remote part of our island state who show great hospitality and generous Christian fellowship. Lady Jane Franklin visited the West Coast, carried in a sedan chair. Thus far, I’ve only managed to get there in a sedan! The West Coast could only be reached by road for the first time in the 1930s when the Lyell Highway from Hobart was opened.  The other road, south from Burnie, was opened as recently as 1963.

As Geoffrey Blainey notes, the government commissioned a geological survey of the area in the 1860s in the hope of finding gold and attracting miners back from the Victorian goldfields to which Tasmanian men had flocked. Taxation being a colonial matter, their loss was serious for the Treasury. The geologist chosen to lead the survey was Charles Gould, a 25-year old graduate of the University of London, contracted on £600 per year to conduct a comprehensive geological survey of the state and to produce a book on the subject.

Gould was a careful scientist who spent ten years on the job before the money ran out. He correctly deduced the presence of coal in the north-east of the state, and there is a tiny hamlet of wooden buildings on the winding road between Scottsdale and St Helen’s named Gould’s Country.

But returning to the West Coast, it was Gould’s party who failed to find gold but found instead the huge copper ore body, mining of which gave rise to the Mount Lyell Mining and Railway Company, the richest copper mine in the Commonwealth and the basis of pretty much all enterprise on the West Coast for 100 years.

The road into Queenstown from Hobart crosses the West Coast Range before winding down to the town among the barren moonscape left after the timber was removed, topsoil lost to the heavy rainfall and sulfurous smelter emissions acidified any remaining soil.

It was Gould who named the peaks of the West Coast Range.

If you, as an educated scientist recently arrived from the intellectual hub of the UK, were given the task of naming six mountains, I wonder what you would choose? Rock Bands? Politicians? Bishops, perhaps?

The debate raging in Gould’s home country as he trekked through the dense Tasmanian rainforest was that prompted by the publication just two years earlier of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Gould, it seems, was well across this huge issue for the scientific and religious world. He named the taller peaks after three professors, each of whom were perceived to be unconvinced by Darwin’s hypotheses, generally seeing Darwin as leaving less room for God, or at least a ‘creative power’.

Joseph Jukes had visited Hobart on a scientific expedition, had charted the Great Barrier Reef and had prompted the survey of Tasmanian geology on which Gould was engaged. Gould names the highest peak Mt Jukes, although we don’t know how accurately he was able to measure elevations.

The next highest is named Mt Sedgwick. Adam Sedgwick was Jukes’ old Cambridge prof. In fact, Sedgwick, the son of an Anglican vicar, occupied a chair at Cambridge for 55 years! Increasingly evangelical in later life, Sedgwick saw science and faith as intertwined. In a talk to the Geological Society of London in 1831, Sedgwick said:

No opinion can be heretical, but that which is not true…. Conflicting falsehoods we can comprehend; but truths can never war against each other. I affirm, therefore, that we have nothing to fear from the results of our enquiries, provided they be followed in the laborious but secure road of honest induction. In this way we may rest assured that we shall never arrive at conclusions opposed to any truth, either physical or moral, from whatever source that truth may be derived.

What a clear statement of the way we as Christians need to see scientific endeavour in the light of our faith.

The third peak in descending order of height is Mt Owen. Prof Richard Owen was the driving force behind the founding of the Museum of Natural History in London. At one stage he had the right for research purposes to the carcasses of all animals which died at the London Zoo, and his wife arrived home one day to find a newly-deceased rhino in the front hall! Owen coined the term ‘dinosaur’, meaning terrible reptile. Owen had a lot to do with Darwin, and believed they shared a belief in a ‘creative power’. Owen led elements of the resistance to Darwin’s ideas, and feuded publicly with Huxley. Without wishing to oversimplify things, Owen seems to have placed great store on his belief that humans were qualitatively different from animals.

Peak four is named for another student of Sedgwick, one Charles Darwin. Darwin, too, had visited Hobart on the Beagle 25 years earlier and reputedly climbed Mt Wellington in an afternoon. I must say I prefer the drive to the top myself!

Peak 5 is named for the man whom came to be known as Darwin’s bulldog, Thomas Henry Huxley. Huxley is believed to be responsible for the term ‘agnostic’ as a way to label his own theological views. Huxley pursued the public airing of Darwin’s ideas, and his 1860 debate at Oxford with Sam Wilberforce coached by Richard Owen is seen as a key moment in the acceptance of evolution as the best explanation for the origin of species. Huxley, a self-taught man, was a strong advocate of public education and notwithstanding his agnosticism supported the reading of Scripture in schools. That said, he advocated an edited version of the Bible, ‘shorn of its shortcomings and errors’. He famously said, “I do not advocate burning your ship to get rid of the cockroaches!”

And the lowest peak of the six, ‘though the name which means most in the economic history of Tasmania, is Mt Lyell itself. Charles Lyell, a Scottish baronet, was a devout Christian who had difficulties reconciling his Christian beliefs and natural selection. He plumped for what he termed ‘centres of creation’ to explain aspects of the fossil record. Lyell trained as a lawyer and moved to geology when his eyesight deteriorated. Presumably he could see boulders better than fine print in contracts! His key book, Principles of Geology, in later editions shows that Lyell was gradually coming out in support of Darwin.

Where did Charles Gould stand in matters of faith? Since the higher peaks of the range seemed to be named for people who were more opposed to Darwin and the lower peaks for Darwin’s supporters, some people argue that this is evidence of Gould’s position.

What is clear is that this period was one of intense debate as honest, hard-working scientists and Christians weighed up the evidence and did their best to reassess their understanding of Scripture in the light of developments.

John, in chapter 9 of his Gospel, records the detailed exchange between the man whose eyesight Jesus restored, his parents and the religious leaders.

It’s easy to marvel at the apparent blindness of these leaders, or to ridicule them. But they too, like Christians working in scientific endeavours in the 19th century, had their long history of a certain world-view, a world-view which was being seriously challenged by this incident, and others of which they were no doubt aware.

And the fellow himself would have grown up absorbing that same position.

But what a refreshing response we see from him, clear-headed, non-judgmental. (John 9:24,25)

A second time they (the religious leaders) summoned the man who had been blind. “Give glory to God,” they said. “We know this man (Jesus) is a sinner.” He replied, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!”

Like the world of Charles Gould, ours presents plenty of challenges to our faith. Our task is to be humble before the facts. We are to maintain our quiet confidence in ‘whom we have believed’ and in God-breathed Scripture. Like the man born blind, we can rehearse the facts, with courtesy and humility, being open to the need to adjust our position as we grow in our understanding of the way God works.

And like Gould, we need to be across the issues of our day, to strive to think through whatever the challenge is to our faith, and as Peter says in his first letter (1 Peter 3:15), prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.’

Let us pray . . .

See, COSAC – Conference: Science & Christianity 2011  and  “Keeping on” (COSAC Devotion #1).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *