A Quaker Astronomer Reflects

a Quaker astronomer reflects
  • Book

    Jocelyn Bell Burnell in 1967
  • 48 pages
  • Level: all audiences

Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s A Quaker Astronomer Reflects: Can a Scientist also be Religious?, was published in 2013 by The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Australia. It is a short overview of what is known in astronomy, with comments relating to religious belief. This small book grew from a lecture she gave in Australia.

Click here for a PDF copy of A Quaker Astronomer Reflects, courtesy of Quakers Australia.

Click here for a preview, courtesy of Google Books.

Burnell is an accomplished astronomer, now retired, who has served as President of the Royal Society and President of the Institute of Physics in the United Kingdom. She is perhaps best known for her role in the discovery of pulsars in 1967. She has also held leadership positions in the Quaker denomination, and in this book she touches on worship, Bible study, and St. Theresa of Avila as well as astronomy. Her theology is unorthodox, as she in some sense sees God as separate from the natural world, which in her view stands on its own. However, she claims no training or expertise in theology, and in A Quaker Astronomer Reflects she contrasts the wealth of opportunities that a scientist has to develop scientifically with the scarcity of opportunities to develop theologically:

My astronomy and my Quakerism have grown up together and are comfortable bedfellows. But note which bedfellow has done the accommodating! My scientific understanding emerges unscathed by contact with Quakerism. My Quaker bedfellow has bent to fit in with what I have learnt as an astronomer. I have wondered if this is because I am light on Quaker theology in this area, or indeed whether Quaker theology is light in this area. Whilst I have talked to scientists about science and the scientific method, there has been not much place to talk with Quaker theologians on these sorts of topic.

But Burnell notes that her faith is not all about matters of “the head”—not all about astronomy and Quaker theology. There is for her a very strong part of her faith that is all about matters of “the heart” that she experiences in worship. She writes:

I ‘know’ there is a God, a living, loving God who works through people, prompting, nudging. A God of inspiration, of creativity; a God we can sense in the silence of a gathered Quaker meeting. One who holds a mirror up to us so that we can see our behaviour, keep our standards. One before whom masks, poses and postures drop away; one who knows us as perhaps only our parents knew us; there we are most truly ourselves.

I know that in a good Meeting for Worship what is required of me is that I am present before God, that I am silent and still and let go of things that are not at that moment relevant. I have not words to worship with (sometimes I find myself using the word ‘creator,’ but know it is not meant in any literal sense!); I move beyond words.

So close is the sense of communion that breathing becomes prayer. I encounter a God who supports us, cares for us, grieves with us, empowers us and acts through us in the world, but particularly at such moments calms, heals, holds and sends us out again a little more sensitive, a little wiser, to make a better world.

I am aware that I have been several times prompted [spiritually] to minister in a Meeting for Worship, or to speak on a particular topic, without understanding why, but follow that leading and do so, subsequently to discover I was speaking to a need unknown to me….

There is a suggestion that religion is a human construct, that it is all in the brain, that neuroscience will, in a few years, explaining it all. Neuroscience is certainly riding high at the moment, has plenty of confidence and is making all sorts of claims. I doubt if they can all be true, but we will have to wait and see which are and which are not! Sometimes I have had promptings to speak which spoke to needs that I did not know existed, things that even my subconscious could not have been aware of, so I am not sure that religion is just a human construct. On balance I am inclined to believe in an external God.