Maxwell's take on faith and science

(Mervin Bitikofer) #1

I have a two-fold agenda (at least two that I’m admitting to here) for pasting this excerpt of correspondence written by James C. Maxwell – the greatest physicist of the 19th century.

  1. It may be fruitful for exposure and reactions in this very forum given the encouragement many Christians need to reclaim their stolen mantle of skeptical examination.

  2. Since I want to use much of this in my classroom - I would really like to know what the phrase “Hebrew O’ Clo” means in the last displayed paragraph below. Any scholars out there willing to help me out on that?

James Clerk Maxwell in published correspondence with Lewis Campbell, p. 178

The Rule of the Plan is to let nothing be willfully left unexamined. Nothing is to be holy ground consecrated to Stationary Faith, whether positive or negative. All fallow land is to be ploughed up, and a regular system of rotation followed. All creatures as agents or as patients are to be pressed into the service, which is never to be willingly suspended till nothing more remains to be done; i.e. till A.D. + ∞. The part of the rule which respects self-improvement by means of others is: – Never hide anything, be it weed or no, nor seem to wish it hidden. So shall all men passing by pluck up the weeds and brandish them in your face, or at least display them for your inspection (especially if you make no secret of your intention to do likewise). … Again I assert the Right of Trespass on any plot of Holy Ground which any man has set apart … to the power of Darkness. Such places must be exorcised and desecrated till they become fruitful fields. Again, if the holder of such property refuse admission to the exorcist, he ipso facto admits that it is consecrated, and that he fears the power of Darkness. It may be that no such darkness really broods over the place, and that the man has got a habit of shutting his eyes in that field, which makes him think so.

Now I am convinced that no one but a Christian can actually purge his land of these holy spots. Any one may profess that he has none, but something will sooner or later occur to every one to show him that part of his ground is not open to the public. Intrusions on this are resented, and so its existence is demonstrated. Now, I do not say that no Christians have enclosed places of this sort. Many have a great deal, and every one has some. No one can be sure of all being open till all has been examined by competent persons, which is the work, as I said before, of eternity. But there are extensive and important tracts in the territory of the Scoffer, the Pantheist, the Quietist, Formalist, Dogmatist, Sensualist, and the rest, which are openly and solemnly Tabooed, as the Polynesians say, and are not to be spoken of without sacrilege.

Christianity—that is, the religion of the Bible – is the only scheme or form of belief which disavows any possessions on such a tenure. Here alone all is free. You may fly to the ends of the world and find no God but the Author of Salvation. You may search the Scriptures and not find a text to stop you in your explorations.

The Old Testament and the Mosaic Law and Judaism are commonly supposed to be “Tabooed” by the orthodox. Sceptics pretend to have read them, and have found certain witty objections and composed several transcendental arguments against “Hebrew O’ Clo’,” which too many of the orthodox unread admit, and shut up the subject as haunted. But a Candle is coming to drive out all Ghosts and Bugbears. Let us all follow the Light.

[[end of excerpt]]

I have my ideas on how to interpret his 2nd to last paragraph above as he speaks of “finding no other God but the God of salvation” – but I wouldn’t mind any commentary on that too to make sure I don’t misunderstand him.

Powerful witness from a faithful man, no?

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #2


Mervin, most of us I think are familiar with liberal Judaism, but not the Orthodox side of the faith, which includes mysticism based of the Kabballah. This what I think Maxwell is referring to and rejecting. I do not think you need to include this in your presentation.

(GJDS) #3

I do not think that he means orthodox Christianity has taken this outlook - I recall that Isaiah is read widely in orthodox Christianity, and on the law, the ten commandments are taken without any reservation. I wonder if he uses the term the way we currently use fundamentalism? Also the skeptic may be liberal theologians who have worked hard to present the OT as promoting slavery, genocide and many other irrational claims.

Just my impression - however your quote re-emphasises the correct notion that Christianity places the truth next to Christ, and for this reason, many debates and discussions take place amongst us, to come closer to what is true.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #4

Thanks, Roger. And I’m not preparing for any formal presentation here. This is just frosting on the cake of a high school physics course taught in a Christian school. I can’t really set a lot of time apart for such as this given that it can’t be a full-fledged “Philosophy of Science” course. But given the vast majority of students probably will never see such a course, I grab what opportunity I can to expose them to the issues and the real history, always cultivating a fearless approach to science as I can.

I had never heard of the Kabballists (or mystical Jews) before your reference. So it may be some sort of British or old English slang for that? In any case I think you are right that it probably has little bearing on my thesis. I wanted to include the edges beyond what I reckoned to be the pertinent parts of the quote.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #5

A sort of Jewish fundamentalism, huh? That’s an interesting suggestion. Would the original Pharisees have qualified?

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #6


The point Maxwell is making is that there is nothing in Christianity which is beyond criticism. Fundamentalism, mysticism, science, and other belief systems cannot legitimately make that statement. Christianity must stand as a whole or it and all human thought must fail complexly.

I quite agree with this view, but it causes a serious problem, because the philosophical foundation that sustains science and current theology does not survive close scrutiny. The old philosophy is right and science and Christianity are wrong, or science and Christianity are right and traditional philosophy is wrong.

If Maxwell was right, the later must be true.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #7

I think there is much to admire (and I do) in Maxwell’s statements, but I was surprised at the strength of his claim on this (and yet another agenda of mine for posting here was to provoke some possible productive kickback over this). As much as I’ve excitedly banged on this “Christianity provides excellent fertile ground for science” gong, I do not press that to the same strength of Maxwell’s claim here which (as you apparently read it too) is that Christianity is the only ultimately fruitful ground for science.

I am prepared to entertain that possibility as possibly plausible given how history has actually unfolded, but here is my problem: Maxwell claims that Christianity … “is the only scheme or form of belief which disavows any possessions on such a tenure.” And consistent with this earlier he writes that no one but the Christian can purge his territories of these holy spots. But then he goes on to admit that all of us (Christians certainly not excepted as he states) will have these and that their removal is an eternally ongoing matter. Now this last concession seems reasonable to me and I think is philosophically plausible, probable, and defensible. I don’t see how being a Christian guarantees that all sacred ground is laid bare … and it appears Maxwell isn’t saying that (in which case I would disagree). But [and this is my expression of it that I think would run parallel with Maxwell’s conviction] I think the Christian is more explicitly aware of said sacred areas and is making a more deliberate or informed choice on how or if to protect them. Whereas many other belief systems are too busy denying they have any sacred grounds much less being aware of them much less subjecting them to examination! Where I would disagree with Maxwell some is that I would be a bit more ecumenical about it --even to the point of granting that many other overt religions too probably have healthy rites of self-reflection and examination and perhaps even practice it better than most Christians. So I would probably be much more pluralistic about this than Maxwell. But on the other hand I am not near as deeply studied as he was. I differ in opinion from such giants only at my peril I’m sure.

Quite a strong statement there! To the extent that we practice Christianity as a religion (as in “just another religion”) I think I would modify your statement of confidence to instead be: Christ will stand (whether our various religions in his name do or not) and will cause his church to stand as needed for now and all time. Added edit: or I should have said: “Christ does stand …”

I respect your persistence, Roger, in banging on that “let’s get our traditional philosophy corrected” drum as long as you have. Whatever comes from Christ cannot fail. Whatever comes from us can.

Thanks for your continued thoughts.

(GJDS) #8

They seem to be the “gold standard” for such. :laughing:

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #9


You make a distinction between Christ and Christianity as a religion about Christ. Some people distinguish between religion, which is corrupt and faith which is not, which can be helpful in this discussion, but also artificial.

I would prefer the definition, Christianity is not a religion, it is a relationship. It can be also a religion and a faith when it is based on a relationship to the Father through the Son by means of the Spirit. The problem arises when we try to codify that relationship by explaining how the Bible and the Holy Spirit work and saying that we must follow some particular rules such as being straight and Pro-Life to follow Jesus.

The statements that I made are similar in content to Paul saying that if Jesus has not risen from the dead Christianity is dead wrong. The life, death, and resurrection are facts, not theology. They are true or false. If Jesus never lived, or He does not live today so we cannot have re living relationship with Him and the Father through the Spirit, then there is no basis for love, faith, and hope, much less Christianity and life.

We are called to love God and to love others as Christians, not to understand God and nature. We are called to live in relationship of love. This is now we live and grow in faith. We are not called to be perfect, but we are called to care about the truth and to believe that the Truth is real and possible. We are not called to live in an alt-world or accept an alt-truth.

We are called to live in God’s Kingdom, living for Christ and all of His people.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #10

Philosophy comes from humans, so that means it will most likely fail, because it is different from that which comes from Christ.

The question is then, Why do Christians fail to critically analyze traditional philosophy?

(system) #11

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