Science in Christian Perspective



Faraday, Sandemanian
Raymond J. Seeger

NSF (Retired)
4507 Wetherill Place
Bethesda, Maryland 208

From: JASA 35 (June 1983): 101.

A 13-year old errand boy delivering newspapers in Marleybone, London: what are his expectations to contribute to the intellectual development of the world? Look at his heredity: the father a blacksmith, the mother maid-servant to a farmer, one uncle a weaver, another a grocer, still another a tailor-good stock, respectable workers-but intellectual prospects? Look at his environment: cramped quarters above a coachhouse, his allotment one loaf of bread a week at one period, his schooling limited to the four R's, readin', 'ritin', 'rithmetic-and religion. Cultural opportunities? At twenty one as an apprentice book binder he wrote to the President of the Royal Society, Sir Joseph Banks, for assistance in obtaining a scientific job, however menial. Persistent inquiries resulted in a message, "No answer required!" Submitting a bound-copy of notes he had made on four lectures given by (Sir) Humphry Davy, Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Institution, he was appointed a laboratory assistant there at 25 shillings per week plus fuel and candies for two rooms in the R.I. What a bleak future! Nevertheless, this self-trained analytical chemist became Director of the Laboratories of the R.I. This non-mathernatical natural philosopher contributed the liquefaction of chlorine and the discovery of benzene, the motor and the dynamo, the laws of electrolysis and the Faraday effect of polarized light, diamagnetism and the "ice-pail experiment" with induced electric charges, et al. His successor, the physicist John Tyndall, called Michael Faraday, "the greatest experimental philosopher the world has ever known."

Faraday has been called "the arch-empiricist," a misnomer. An empiricist looks at everything and listens to all sounds; an experimcntalist looks and listens for something. The former has a Baconian empty mind, the latter an open mind seeking to check a theory (from the Greek word for view) with observed facts. An imaginative theory guides the experimentalist just as suggestive facts stimulate the theorist. In the case of Faraday, experimental thinking about nature involved wonder and joy. He recommended the teaching of science as comparable to that of the classics as a means of educating the judgment.

Faraday's family were Sandemanians, followers of the 18th century deposed Scottish Presbyterian minister John Glas and of his minister son-in-law Robert Sandeman, who died in Danbury, CT, after seven years sojourn in colonial America (he established six churches here). Faraday himself did not join the church until one month after his marriage to Sarah Barnard (he was 30, she 21); he became an elder and had to preach occasionally (a book of four of his sermons was printed; a Sandeman lent me a copy when I was at Oxford. At that time I visited a surviving church in Edinburgh and had dinner with the clerk of the one in London). The Sandemanians are opposed to any established church; they believe strictly in the Bible and in Christ. In a London sermon Faraday himself said, "I cannot do better than to read to you the words of the Scripture instead of multiplying my own words."

In a letter ( 1844) to Lady Lovelace, he noted, "In my intercourse with my fellow creatures that which is religious and that which is philosophical have ever been distinct things." The agnostic Tyndall commented unsympathetically, "When Faraday opened the door of the oratory, he closed that of the laboratory." Consequently he has often been held up as the example par excellence of the compartmentalization of science and religion. Closer examination, however, reveals that his attitudes towards both are quite similar. They are both rooted in the same experimental view of nature. In his only public address involving science and religion (Prince Consort Albert in the audience) he confessed, "The book of nature which we have to read is written by the finger of God." This lecture is published at the end of a volume on Experimental Researches in Chemistry and Physics, where he states, "These observations are so immediately connected in their nature and origin with my own experimental life; either as a cause or a consequence, that I have thought the close of this volume not an unfit place for their reproduction." He believed the universe is intelligible, beautiful, and adaptable to man's usedesigned by a rational, wise, and good God (cf. Rom. 1:20). He wrote, "The beauty of electricity, or of any other force, is not that the power is mysterious and unexpected, but that it is under law, and that the taught intellect can even now govern it." And so, he sought relations among the various forces in a unified nature: electric, magnetic, and even gravitational.

He regarded facts as fundamental, the observed ones of science and the revealed ones of religion. Each group, however, is surrounded by an aura of speculation, i.e., theory or theology. If these auras are large, overlap will occur and inevitable conflicts owing to the incompleteness and imperfection of each. (Everyone, I believe, will continually experience such personal conflicts of science and religion, but hopefully they will change as one matures.) In Faraday's case speculation was relatively less important so that the apparently independent facts remained separated-without conflict.

Faraday's life was consistent with his faith and hope. He had an unquenchable thirst for truth, but he recognized his own limitations (Job 9:20 was boldly marked in his own copy of the Bible). He pursued truth industriously throughout his whole life. Above all, he had great humility, born out of reverence for God and His universe, man and his environment. Tyndall noted that in Faraday's case, "You cannot separate the moral and the emotional from the intellectual." This irreligious colleague described him in Christian terms, "blameless, of good behavior, apt to teach, not greedy of filthy lucre, but patient" (cf. I Tim. 3:2-7).

At seventy-five this recipient of the Royal Society medal, the Rumford medal, the Copley medal (twice), a D.C.L. from Oxford University, one who expressed disinterest in the presidency of the Royal Society and a knighthood, was quietly laid to rest in Highgate cemetery. The grave, which is difficult to find, has a simple slab (erected in 1933 by a technical society); it reads

Michael Faraday
Born 22 September 1791
Died 25 August 1867