Note: The BioLogos blog is on hiatus from regular content as we prepare for the launch of a major revision to our website. In the meantime, we are running excerpts from some of our favorite books on science and faith. This week, we are featuring excerpts from God in the Lab by Ruth M. Bancewicz.
I became so convinced that creativity is important in science that when I was interviewed for a Masters course at Edinburgh University I mentioned it (ever so modestly) as my own best quality, and something that suited me for science. I was then humbled as I started my first long-term lab project and realized what scientific creativity actually involves. Precise experimental technique, patience, careful observation, resourcefulness and experience are just as important as bright ideas. E. O. Wilson is right: science is a mixture of poetry and accounting.
Both this and the next chapter are about the process of doing science. Creativity and imagination are essential ingredients in everyday research, and they are also important to people of faith. Why do we value creativity so highly? Where does creativity come from? There is a wealth of thinking on this subject in both science and theology.
For many scientists who are also Christians, their faith grows as they learn to use their creative gifts in the lab. And not only does science enhance faith, for these people faith can also enhance science. Christianity is about living life to the full, and for a believing scientist their faith gives them a framework for doing what they do to the best of their ability. My hope is that when we understand these motivations, it will help us to have a more fruitful conversation about science and faith.
Creativity came up in a number of my conversations with scientists at the start of this project, and also in a survey of European researchers, where creativity was named as one of the values that was most important to them. I approached Dr Ruth Hogg, a vision scientist from Northern Ireland, to find out what she thought about creativity in science and her own Christian faith. I had already met Ruth when she was living in Cambridge, working at a post-doc in the Vision Laboratory at the University of Cambridge. She had trained as an optometrist, and decided to focus on research rather than purely clinical work. After a PhD in Belfast, a couple of years of post-doctoral research in Melbourne, and a stint at Cambridge, she moved back to Northern Ireland to lecture and run her own research group at Queen’s University, Belfast.
Ruth works on age-related macular degeneration, which is the biggest cause of blindness in the older generation. The macula is the most sensitive part of the eye and is responsible for most of our vision, especially detailed work like reading. Work on this disease is urgently needed because, as Ruth explained, “There have been treatments developed in the last five years that have advanced things slightly, but it still has a big impact on people’s quality of life. There’s still a lot to do.” She and her colleagues are looking at the different factors that affect whether a person will develop macular degeneration later in life, and particularly those that are inherited.
Ruth is a very creative person, and the first thing I discovered on talking to her is that she is an accomplished pianist. In her mid teens she wanted to be a musician, but she eventually settled on science instead. So Ruth’s perspective is coloured by this early experience. “I guess I’ve always been able to see the creativity required to do science. Anybody who has done classical training knows that although there is creativity within music, there’s also a very strict structure that we all need to work within. We need to understand harmony and theory, and so on. It’s really only through understanding that theory that you can learn to take your music to a different level.”
Ruth has found that science, like music, involves both learning and inspiration. “There’s a method that we’re all working within, but to do something new and exciting you really do need the creativity.” Even the entry requirement into the world of science requires creativity. She reminded me that “the basic criterion for a PhD is to produce something novel within your field”.
To be creative in science, said Ruth, “you’ve got to know where the field is going, and how you can contribute to it. There are only limited sources of funding, so you have to be innovative in finding thing to apply for. That in itself can be a good thing, because it broadens your horizons, and makes you think a bit more widely. Teaching students requires a kind of creativity as well.” Ruth had a number of other interesting insights about creativity in science and faith, so I will return to her story at various points throughout this chapter.
What about our own creativity? We are evolved creatures, but we are unique. We have a highly developed capacity for imagination, language, and culture. The Bible describes how God brought us into a relationship with himself and gave us responsibility to care for the earth. And as Ruth Hogg has said, although we are unlike God in so many ways, there is a family resemblance: he made us in his own image, and the capacity for relationship and responsibility are an important part of that. Through a long and patient process God has brought us here, and our abilities are a gift to be accepted and cherished, not a power to be wielded and forced.
Ruth’s creativity as a scientist and a Christian is inspired by what she sees around her. She said it’s hard to compare our creativity to God’s because “the extent is just so massively different. You can see so much variety and diversity in the world, and it’s hard not to be bowled over by that”. A number of Christian writers have also commented on the difference and similarities between our creativity and the creativity of God. Their insights helped me to see where my own creative contributions – both in science and in other areas – might fit into the grand scheme of things.
Dorothy L. Sayers is famous for her Lord Peter Wimsey detective stories, but she was also an accomplished poet, playwright, essayist, and translator. She wrote on theological themes a number of times, drawing on her own Christian faith. When writing about artistic creativity, Sayers highlighted the fact that only God creates from nothing. “Here there can be no comparison: the human artist is in the universe and bound by its conditions. He can create only within that framework and out of that material which the universe supplies.”
Sayers also pointed out that creativity must be one of God’s most important characteristics, because it is the first thing we learn about him in the Bible. And if we reflect God’s image, it’s not surprising that we should have some of his creativity. “The characteristic common to God and to man is ... the desire and the ability to make things.”
J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, was a contemporary of Sayers, and also a Christian. He took the idea of human creativity further, coining the term “sub-creation”. We create, he said, because we are somehow like our creator. In The Silmarillion he wrote that
the making of things is in my heart from my own making by thee; and the child of little understanding that makes a play of the deeds of his father may do so without thought of mockery, but because he is the son of his father.
Moving to the present century, Adrienne Chaplin is a philosopher of art and musician who has focused most of her recent work on the relationship between art and Christian faith. Like Sayers, she uses the words “human creativity” cautiously because we cannot create from scratch. Chaplin teaches that we are creatures with God-given gifts, including creativity, and we apply them in different ways to cultivate the world as best we can.
The theologian J. Richard Middleton sums all this up in his book on the image of God. For him, the Genesis account “depicts God as a generous creator, sharing power with a variety of creatures (especially humanity), inviting then (and trusting them – at some risk) to participate in the creative process”. In Genesis chapter 2, the sun and moon are to “govern” the day and night, and the earth and waters are invited to “bring forth living creatures”. Humans, however, have a special role, “to extend God’s royal administration of the world as authorised representatives in earth”.
So creativity is clearly an important part of who we are as human beings, and a gift that we should use. What I find most helpful is the humble perspective that all four of these authors give: a reminder that the ultimate source of our creativity comes from outside of ourselves.
Excerpt from GOD IN THE LAB: HOW SCIENCE ENHANCES FAITH by Ruth M. Bancewicz. Reprinted by arrangement with Monarch Books, an imprint of Lion Hudson PLC (UK). Copyright © 2015 by Ruth M. Bancewicz
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://biologos.org/blog/creativity-in-science-and-faith