Friday, March 22, 2013

N. T. Wright: Can a Scientist Believe the Resurrection? Part One

Dr N. T. Wright, then Bishop of Durham, delivered this lecture " on 15 May 2007 at Babbage Lecture Theatre, Cambridge. It is also posted here on the website of the excellent Cambridge-based science and theology group, Christians in Science. We discussed this lecture at a meeting of the Chico Triad on Philosophy, Theology, and Science (who also participate in Scientists in Congregations), and the paper received high marks from our scientists. It seemed timely and relevant. So I'm reposting, starting with the first section (more to come during Holy Week). Let me know what you think.
N. T. Wright, probably writing another book

Thank you for your welcome and for the unexpected invitation to deliver this lecture. ‘Unexpected’, because I don’t normally lecture on titles with the word ‘science’ in them, for a good reason: I make no claim to know anything about science. I did precisely one year of physics and chemistry at school, and, since I knew before I began that I was going to give them up to concentrate on classics, I did as little work as I could without actually entering a penal zone. In fact, my chemistry report in summer 1963 said, ‘He has maintained his position’ – which I may say was 24th out of 24 – ‘with occasional signs of interest now and then.’ I did, however, love mathematics, with its elegance and harmonies, and it was the subject I was most sorry to give up after O level; but that’s another story.

So a question beginning ‘can a scientist . . .’ is a dangerous one for me to address. Of course, it is possible to give a short and trivial answer, rather like the man who, when asked whether he believed in infant baptism, replied, ‘Sure! I’ve seen it done!’ That, of course, exposes one of the problems with the phrase ‘believe in’: does it mean ‘believe that it can be done’, or ‘believe that it should be done’? And there are other possibilities too, as we shall see. Similarly, to the question ‘can a scientist believe in the resurrection?’ one might simply reply, ‘Sure! I’ve seen it done!’ I know plenty of scientists who firmly and avowedly believe in the resurrection, and some indeed who have given a solid and coherent account of why they do so. I salute them but do not intend tonight to engage with the different ways in which they have presented their case. I want, rather, to explore the fault lines, if that’s the right expression, between different ways of knowing, particularly between what we may loosely call scientific knowing and historical knowing, and between both of these and those other modes of knowing to which we give, very loosely, the names of faith, hope and love.

And my case, you will not be surprised to learn, is that these ways of knowing do in fact overlap and interlock much more than we usually suppose. Certainly, much more than a certain kind of rhetoric would try to persuade us: it has been a feature of the last two hundred years to invoke a kind of pan-enlightenment thesis, namely that the methods and results of modern science have delivered us from the dark superstitions of the past, sometimes designated ‘mediaeval’, so that everything that went before, say, 1750, with a few golden exceptions, was ignorance and guesswork and everything since then has been an upward path towards the light. I am sometimes accused of being anti-Enlightenment, and there is a grain of truth in that because I do think that postmodernity has got some important points to make; but I want to assure you that I have no wish to return to pre-Enlightenment dentistry, sanitation or travel, to look no further. I merely note that there are obvious ambiguities as well as obvious massive gains. The movement that gave us penicillin also gave us Hiroshima. Somehow, as most admit and I suspect all know in their bones, science in the strict sense can never be enough, enough, that is, for a full and flourishing human life in all its dimensions.

But the question then turns on the word ‘believe’, and here too there are puzzles to explore. Plato, of course, declared that ‘belief’ was a kind of second-rate ‘knowing’, more or less half way between knowing and not knowing, so that the objects of ‘belief’ possessed a kind of intermediate ontology, half way between existence and non-existence. This way of thinking has coloured popular usage, so that when we say ‘I believe it’s raining’ we are cushioning ourselves against the possibility that we might be wrong, whereas when we say ‘I know it’s raining’ we are open to straightforward contradiction. But this usage has slid, over the last centuries, to the point where, with a kind of implicit positivism, we use ‘know’ and ‘knowledge’ for things we think we can in some sense prove, and ‘believe’ and its cognates for things which we perceive as degenerating into mere private opinion without much purchase on the wider world.
And the Christian claim was from the beginning that the question of Jesus’ resurrection was a question, not of the internal mental and spiritual states of his followers a few days after his crucifixion, but about something that had happened in the real, public world, leaving not only an empty tomb, but a broken loaf at Emmaus and footprints in the sand by the lake among its physical mementoes, and leaving his followers with a lot of explaining to do but with a transformed worldview which is only explicable on the assumption that something really did happen, even though it stretched their existing worldviews to breaking point. More of that anon. What we now have to do is to examine this early Christian claim more thoroughly, to ask what can be said about it historically, and to enquire, more particularly, what sort of ‘knowing’ or ‘believing’ we are talking about when we ask whether ‘a scientist’ can ‘believe’ that which, it seems, ‘the resurrection’ actually refers to.

First, some reflections – unsystematic musings, really – on the types of knowing. I assume that when we ask ‘can a scientist believe’ something we are asking a two-level question. First, we are asking about what sort of things the ‘scientific method’ can explore, and how it can know or believe certain things. Second, we are asking about the kind of commitment someone wedded to scientific knowing is expected to have in all other areas of his or her life. Is a scientist, for example, expected to have a scientific approach to listening to music? To watching a football game? To falling in love? The question assumes, I think, that ‘the resurrection’, and perhaps particularly ‘the resurrection of Jesus’, is something that might be expected to impinge on the scientist’s area of concern, somewhat as if one were to say ‘can a scientist believe that the sun could rise twice in a day?’, or ‘can a scientist believe that a moth could fly to the moon?’. (I did actually watch the sun set twice in a day; I took off from Aberdeen on a winter afternoon shortly after sunset, and the sun rose again as we climbed, only then to set, gloriously, a second time shortly afterwards. That was, of course, cheating.) This is different, in other words, from saying, ‘can a scientist believe that Schubert’s music is beautiful?’ or ‘can a scientist believe that her husband loves her?’; and there are those, of course, who by redefining the resurrection to make it simply a spiritual experience in the inner hearts and minds of the disciples, have pulled the question towards the latter pair and away from the former. But that is ruled out by what, as we shall see, all first-century users of the language of resurrection meant by the word. ‘Resurrection’ in the first century meant people who were physically thoroughly dead becoming physically thoroughly alive again, not simply ‘suriviving’ or entering a ‘purely spiritual’ world, whatever that might be. And that necessarily impinges on the public world.

But it is the public world, not of the natural scientist, but of the historian. To put it crudely, and again without all the necessary footnotes and nuances, science studies the repeatable, while history studies the unrepeatable. Caesar only crossed the Rubicon once, and if he’d crossed it again it would have meant something different the second time. There was, and could be, only one first landing on the moon. The fall of the second Jerusalem Temple took place in AD 70 and never happened again. Historians don’t of course see this as a problem, and are usually not shy about declaring that these events certainly took place even though we can’t repeat them in the laboratory. But when people say ‘but that can’t have happened, because we know that that sort of thing doesn’t actually happen,’ they are appealing to a kind of would-be scientific principle of history, namely the principle of analogy. The problem with analogy is that it never quite gets you far enough, precisely because history is full of unlikely things that happened once and once only, so that the analogies are often at best partial, and are dependent anyway on the retort ‘who says?’ to the objection about some kinds of things not normally happening. And indeed, in the case in point, we should note as an obvious but often overlooked point the fact that the early Christians did not think that Jesus’ resurrection was one instance of something that happened from time to time elsewhere. Granted, they saw it as the first, advance instance of something that would eventually happen to everyone else, but they didn’t employ that future hope as an analogy from which to argue back that it had happened already in this one instance.

So how does the historian work when the evidence points towards things which we do not normally expect? The resurrection is such a prime example of this that it’s hard to produce, at this meta-level, analogies for the question. But, sooner or later, questions of worldview begin to loom up in the background, and the question of what kinds of material the historian will allow on stage is inevitably affected by the worldview within which he or she lives. And at that point we are back to the question of the scientist who, faced with the thoroughly repeatable experiment of what happens to dead bodies, what has always, it seems, happened and what seems likely always to go on happening, declares that the evidence is so massive that it is impossible to believe in the resurrection without ceasing to be a scientist altogether.

This is the point at which we must switch tracks and go to the evidence itself. What can be said, within whatever can be called scientific historiography, about the proposition that Jesus of Nazareth was bodily raised from the dead?

Part two in the next post...


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  2. I love Wright, and this is great stuff, but he doesn't quite get it right with the "Science can't say anything about what doesn't repeat." The Big Bang happened once, and Science looks at evidence and quite righly assumes that the basic nature of matter and energy are consistent across time. If they are repeatable now, then, it follows, they have always been repeatable and have always repeated as such. This is why a biologist would have to wonder how a dead body would come alive again--because to do so, it would violate the way organisms and tissues and cells work. The issue here isn't that Science doesn't say anything about history, but that Science doesn't say anything about the supernatural. It CAN'T claim that nothing ever supernatural has occured. And since it can't, then we are left only with history to give us an idea of whether something supernatural did occur or not.