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Interview: Chris Jeynes, material scientist and biblical scholar

08 June 2018

‘I studied physics because I wanted to know how God made the world’

I work at the University of Surrey Ion Beam Centre, although only part-time now, mostly doing thin-film depth profiling by Ion Beam Analysis. Currently I’m collaborating with industrial partners who make a phase-change material called germanium antimony telluride, which is used for memory sticks. Haven’t you ever wondered what magic allows so much data to be written and read so quickly on such little things, which are getting better, and cheaper, so rapidly? It’s not magic: it’s the material science of these thin films.

A typical day involves working out lots of intricate technical problems associated with pushing this science forward. There isn’t really anything typical, since materials problems are so various. Laboratory work may be a difficult experiment, or routine collecting of data. Sorting out the data afterwards may be routine, or may demand method development.

The issue of testing is itself deeply interesting to me. Of course, the Grenfell Tower materials testing is a case in which the public are taking an interest. Yes, we do need experts. What’s more important in the Grenfell Tower case is the politics — with a small “p”. Who sets the regulations? How are they evaluated? How are they enforced? What was the impact of the huge cut in the budget of the enforcement authorities on their effectiveness, to say nothing of their morale? What was the effect of the switch of enforcement authority from the fire service to the councils? How baleful was the cost-cutting pressure in the tender­ing process for the cladding contract?

Yes, I do think God guides us through physics. The Holy Spirit is frequently identified with wisdom, and of course, God guides everyone who wills it, even physicists. I studied physics because I wanted to know how God made the world.

You must understand that science itself is a Christian activity. We can do science only if we think that the world is rational and compre­hensible in principle, and also that we — fleeting scraps of matter in a totally insignificant part of the cosmos — are capable of this under­standing. These are both huge assumptions requiring an enormous leap of faith. It’s a historical fact that the rise of science in Europe was midwived by Christian philosophers. Galileo quoted Buridan verbatim, who relied on William of Ockham, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, and many others.

But science is public. God sends his rain on the just and the unjust equally. Aquinas referred to the “Book of Nature”, which is open to everyone, believer or not; and God loves truth. One of my atheist friends said to me: “I hold nothing sacred.” I replied: “Yes, you do: you hold the truth sacred.” Good science depends only on loving the truth.

Do I believe that better technology can bring about the Kingdom? No. When John the Baptist came preaching the Kingdom of God at the Jordan, he was saying to the people: “Your exile is ended: you can enter the Promised Land.” But, you say, hadn’t the people returned from Babylon? Hadn’t their exile had been ended for 500 years? If so, then why does Ezra refer to “slaves” in “bond­age”, and Nehemiah to “slaves” in “distress”? No, Ezekiel had seen the glory depart, and the people knew very well it had not returned. The Kingdom is about the return of the glory of God. Which widgets you have in your pocket is hardly relevant to that.

I was brought up in the Church, but, as a young man at university, I worked critically through everything I’d been told, eventually becoming convinced that I’d essentially heard the truth from my parents. One day, I read Psalm 40 with new eyes, and heard it with new ears: “I waited patiently for the Lord and he inclined unto me, and heard my cry. He brought me up also out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay and set my feet upon a rock.” The cynical often poke fun at the existential angst experienced by the young, but it’s nevertheless very real, and when a youth finds his footing after being in the horrible pit, a sort of miracle has occurred. It was poetry from three millennia ago that opened my heart to God then and it’s continued to do that ever since.

All translations have their virtues. The King James Version follows Tyn­dale, who is bril­liant. These old literal ver­sions are very helpful when consult­ing the Hebrew and Greek, together with Strong’s Concordance. But they can be hard to grasp, and I usually use the NIV to see what the text says. The Jerusalem Bible is interesting, and I also use Rob Lacey’s The Word on the Street. It’s a paraphrase and abridged, but where he gives a text it’s very good, approached as a theatre script — which my daughter took all over the country with the Lacey Theatre Company, very interesting and quite correct.

God doesn’t much care what knowledge we have. From his point of view, the best of us knows nothing. Instead, he looks on the heart, and the heart-response of his people. He loves wisdom, and the learned may be foolish and the unlearned may be wise. We’re doing well if we manage to avoid knowing less than nothing. I’m clever and I have blue eyes: I’m not responsible for either, nor do either give me any credit. But I am responsible for the use I put them to. Knowledge is powerful, and we’re responsible for how we deploy our powers. We must deploy them, however, and not bury them.

I pray most for justice, which is another way of saying the Kingdom of God. It’s injustice that makes me angry. But prayer is not primarily about laying requests before God. It’s about conforming ourselves to him. This is what “heart response” means; so praying is primarily about listening to God.

The wisdom I’ve learned is that we mustn’t be silent. God responds to our cries; he doesn’t respond to our silence. He waits, and, indeed, he looks, for our response to him. Understanding this, I’ve been bolder in putting my light in a candlestick, and not under a bushel.

N. T. Wright has been the greatest influence on my life. His Christian Origins series of books has established what scholars for the last century or so have derided: the credibility of the resurrection. The issue is impossibility — something that is rather important for a scientist. But Wright has established three historical facts, which are: (a) people knew then, just as people know now, that the dead do not rise; (b) some­thing happened on Easter Sunday AD 30 that shook the world; and (c) the testimony of the Evangelists is not incredible in its own terms. There are all sorts of reasons why the Gospel texts could be shown to be incredible. They could be late, or fakes, or terribly badly written; but there’s much recent scholarship that shows that none of these things is true. Wright has also shown that the earliest Christian texts, the letters of Paul, can be read to give an entirely believable reconstruction of the transformation of Jewish doc­trine into Christian belief. These new tools are outstandingly far-reaching.

Curiously enough, hope is commanded; so what gives us hope is obedience to the command of God. For God “calleth those things which be not as though they were”, a beautiful verse of Romans which, if you look at the Greek, explains that wonderful word “ontology”. We have no reason to be hope­ful: the world’s in a terrible state, and well on course to get worse. Nevertheless, we must hope.

If I was locked in a church with anyone, I’d choose St Augustine. I’d want to ask him why he didn’t use the simple argument from the unity of man and wife to the unity of the Trinity instead of his extremely difficult, but beautiful and brilliantly elegant, argument from the ontology of the will.

Professor Chris Jeynes was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. For infor­mation about his scientific work and publications, and work on the Psalms, see www.surrey.ac.uk/people/chris-jeynes. To read about thin-film depth profiling, see: http://dx.doi.org/10.1039/c6an01167e.

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