Peering down a microscope can bring us closer to God

A sample about to be loaded on to a helium ion microscope in Dublin (one of only ten in the world) (Photo: PA)

I have just been reading Fr Aidan Nichols’s book, Lost in Wonder: Essays on Liturgy and the Arts. It is an erudite reflection on the need for beauty in liturgy and church architecture, among other things. The phrase “lost in wonder” is meant to suggest the sense of awe a person would feel intuitively when in the presence of the numinous or transcendental, ie in the presence of God.

I am not trying to arouse debate on banal modern liturgies or churches that, as Fr Nichols describes them, look like “hotel foyers”. What interests me here is his conclusion, which he calls “By way of an ending: Religion, Science, Art”. Science and art are two different strands of human endeavour. They both reflect the beauty and harmony of creation. Nor does scientific knowledge have to be in an antagonistic relationship to a religious understanding of the universe made by God. The secularist mindset today thinks that science can “prove” everything, including why and where the quaint impulse to religious belief is located in the brain. But what if, as Fr Nichols asks, “Symmetry, balance, rhythmic sequence [are] disclosed through cinematographic enlargements of the microscopic… By analysing the size, surface and volume relationships of a wide variety of living forms, it can be shown how there is a degree of mathematical orderliness in virtually every realm of organic nature.”

This was the experience of the scientist Francis Collins, director of the genome project, when he looked through a microscope; it led him to “awe” and belief in God. Naturally, not all scientists respond in the same way. Fr Nichols remarks, “As the name of Richard Dawkins reminds us, some scientists remain at the mercy of a 19th-century ideology of materialism, for which organisms are merely very complex machines, their organisation determined by physical and chemical laws, rather than functional wholes purposively organised, each more than the sum of its parts.”

Fr Nichols is optimistic that the Dawkins-type mindset is changing. He writes: “When science and art come together again, we can see that the universe itself is the ultimate work of art, exhibiting to an astonishing degree the integration of parts within the whole – which was… St Augustine’s definition of beauty.” My own scientific knowledge is pitiful. But I understand enough of what Fr Nichols is saying to know that science is a more beautiful, because awe-inspiring, pursuit than its atheist purveyors would have us think.

Incidentally, biographer Peter Ackroyd, interviewed last Sunday on Desert Island Discs, remarked that there were two ways of looking at the world: a “spiritual” way and a “secularist” way. He identifies himself with the former outlook, adding: “I am convinced there are forces and powers in the Universe of which we have no inkling.” He is not yet “lost in wonder” – but getting closer.