A sermon given by the Most Reverend & Right Honourable Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, at an Evensong attended by Fellows of the Royal Society on the occasion of the 350th Anniversary, St Paul's Cathedral, 9 June 2010

From this evening's first lesson [Proverbs 8:22–9:6]: ‘Whoever finds me finds life.’ It has been said that the seventeenth century was the last era in European history in which Europeans at least could persuade themselves that they could know everything.

One of the factors which made this cease to be true was of course the advent of the Royal Society. The very impulse which in the seventeenth century persuaded people to exercise, develop and extend their curiosity in so many directions was to prove fatal to the notion that any one person or even any one small group of persons could know everything. But looking at that first great generation of the founders of the Royal Society, what is so striking is the range of subjects, the different kinds of curiosity at work: from what seems trivial to what seems about as metaphysically abstruse as you can get, from the nature of light itself through to the composition of ants’ eggs and the mechanics of the recoil of guns—not to mention that unforgettable experiment to determine whether spiders were indeed immobilized by powdered unicorn horn (I have to tell you that the results were inconclusive).

It was an age where global information and the beginnings of a global market were bringing more and more phenomena within the purview of the European intellectual. And we can't separate the beginnings of the Royal Society from that extraordinary political and commercial revolution. There were no prohibited areas for curiosity. And if, in the early days of the Society, strong discouragement was given to any discussion of God or of current affairs, that was because these were subjects deemed to prohibit rather than open up discussion. Discussion is indeed somewhat hampered if the expression of certain opinions is likely to be fatal.

It meant for quite a long time that the proceedings and the interests of the Society were, you might almost say, gleefully chaotic. A century and a half after the foundation of the Society, an orderly German mind like that of Goethe was heard to complain of the disorderliness of the proceedings of the Royal Society in the United Kingdom. But the profusion of curiosity, the great expansion of interest and questioning in diverse areas, led of course to a profusion of methods—that is, to a recognition that there was more than one kind of intelligent question you could ask about the world around you. And that profusion of methods is part of what destroys the ideal of knowing everything. A move towards methodological variety and eventually into independent scientific disciplines means that part of the scientific spirit is always to recognize that there is another kind of intelligent question to be asked. This congregation will not need reminding that science is not about the provision of answers but about the constant refining of questions, and the generating of new styles of questioning.

Wisdom, says the Book of Proverbs, has built her house, she has hewn her seven pillars. The house of Wisdom is a house of many dimensions: seven pillars, not simply four walls. It is upheld by a variety of questionings; the so-called scientific worldview is itself a complex pattern of deeply diverse disciplines, very resistant to any idea of global reductionism, to the conclusion that there is one and only one kind of basic question. And in the context of the Old Testament lesson this becomes intelligible when we recall what is said earlier about wisdom. ‘Ages ago I was set up … before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth.’ The wisdom celebrated in Proverbs is something that is there, mysteriously, before all particular phenomena, all limited questions. It is the wellspring from which all truthfulness, all intelligence, flows, and never itself an object among others. It is what gives life to the life of questioning. It is what gives life to the observing eye and the reflecting mind. The wisdom celebrated here is something indeed that could never fully be dealt with by any one question, or any one style of questioning.

It is—in a way that some modern minds find difficult—a wisdom constantly returning to humility and unfinished business. But that perhaps is just another way of saying what was said just a couple of decades ago by the philosopher of science, Joseph Margolis, when he reminded his readers (in a book rather provocatively entitled Science without unity) that all sciences are human sciences. All sciences are bound to the unfinished business of human communication, the sharing of language, metaphor and model. Human science is science that recognizes time passing and recognizes the truth that as soon as one question is answered another is generated. And in a world where all science is human science in that sense, it makes sense to turn to our New Testament lesson [Luke 11:33–36]; because there we have the prescription that reminds us of the qualities necessary for the scientific world view. Keep your eyes open. A skewed eye, a blocked or a lazy eye, a selective eye, these are in the long run the sources of corruption—not only the corruption of ideas but corruption of humanity. To keep the eye open is to keep open the possibility of health for the whole body (says Our Lord). And surely not only the body of the individual but the body of a society.

Keep your eyes open. Continue to be human—that is to recognize how many ways there are of asking intelligent questions. Remember that Wisdom's house is built with many and diverse pillars. To remember this is to guard ourselves against one of the persistent temptations of science and indeed of all scholarship, the temptation—expressed once again in the words of Joseph Margolis—of thinking that the human is dispensable: when the conclusions have been reached and the formulae settled, the human, the unfinished, the time-bound are somehow brushed aside.

The early exuberance of the Royal Society—and exuberance is not I think an unfair word for it—the voracious appetite for the trivial and the metaphysical together, is a very good reminder of the origins of science in the human: human curiosity, yes, and the human willingness to be surprised and to begin again. Which perhaps gives a bit of context to that text with which I began: ‘Whoever finds me finds life.’ Searching for and finding wisdom is a process of moving into life, a self-aware life, a self-questioning life, above all a life that is a growing in mind and emotion. It is curious that when we speak of finding or discovering life these days we very often mean one of two things at least. We talk of finding life elsewhere in the Galaxy or indeed the Universe. We talk of finding and forming life in the laboratory. Great and controversial enterprises; and yet to find life for ourselves and our immediate neighbours and our human society is not simply a matter of uncovering mysteries at which we wonder, not simply a matter of finding new means of control. It is surely above all a finding joy in the sheer process of finding, recognizing that our unfinished business as human beings is one of the things that gives us fulfilment as human beings. An extraordinary, but a life-giving, paradox: joy and fulfilment in not having finished, not having drawn a line, but recognizing that another question looms on the horizon; not to have found once and for all the single set of questions whose answer will finish our seeking, but to be gratefully, humbly, and sometimes just a bit jealously, aware that next door another set of questions is in operation bringing a new kind of joy and fulfilment in the unfinished-ness of our business.

Science needs to remain human in that sense, to be self-aware of itself as human science, aware of incompleteness, aware of the joy of non-fulfilment. And at that level at least, science is bound to be operating with an image of humanity itself as a life form attuned to truth and to growth. Metaphysics, perhaps, or even worse, faith; and yet it is hard to see how the real life of the scientific enterprise can be sustained without that image of what is properly and joyfully and fulfillingly human. Recognized or not, the resonance of this with the life of faith is worth noting. Faith, our Christian faith, presupposes that we are indeed as human beings attuned to truth and to growth, made by a God whose love has designed us for joy, and discovering that this directedness towards joy mysteriously comes alive when we look into the living truth, the living wisdom, of the face of a Christ who drives us back again and again to question ourselves so that we stay alive.

A faith that can discover joy in penitence, self-questioning and growth is a faith that can reasonably (I use the word with forethought) hold out its hand to a science that is determined to be human. That kind of faith and that kind of science joined hands 350 years ago; and while at times the grip has somewhat slackened in the intervening period, I dare to hope in the name of eternal Wisdom that we may yet join again in our search for the joys of being human, the joys of being wrong, the manifold wisdom in which we find life.