The Measure of God: History's Greatest Minds Wrestle with Reconciling Science and Religion

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2006-08-30
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publications
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The Measure of God, now in paperback, is a lively historical narrativeoffering the reader a sense for what has taken place in the God and science debate over the past century. Modern science came of age at the cusp of the twentieth century. It was a period marked by discovery of radio waves and x rays, use of the first skyscraper, automobile, cinema, and vaccine, and rise of the quantum theory of the atom. This was the close of the Victorian age, and the beginning of the first great wave of scientific challenges to the religious beliefs of the Christian world. Religious thinkers were having to brace themselves. Some raced to show that science did not undermine religious belief. Others tried to reconcile science and faith, and even to show that the tools of science, facts and reason, could support knowledge of God. In the English speaking world, many had espoused such a project, but one figure stands out. Before his death in 1887, the Scottish judge Adam Gifford endowed the Gifford Lectures to keep this debate going, a science haunted debate on "all questions about man's conception of God or the Infinite." The list of Gifford lecturers is a veritable Who's Who of modern scientists, philosophers and theologians: from William James to Karl Barth, Albert Schweitzer to Reinhold Niebuhr, Niels Bohr to Iris Murdoch, from John Dewey to Mary Douglas.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii
ONE THE SANPYFORD MYSTERY: How the Gifford Lectures Began 9(19)
TWO THE END OF PHILOSOPHY: The Rise and Fall of Idealism 28(27)
THREE THE "SAVAGE HIGH GODS": Anthropology 55(26)
FIVE DOES GOD PLAY DICE?: Physics 117(29)
SIX SOCIAL FORCES AND SIN: Sociology 146(27)
SEVEN HOW IT REALLY WAS: The Science of History 173(26)
EIGHT FROM BARTH TO BEING: The Revolt Against Reason 199(29)
NINE A DESIGNER UNIVERSE: God and the New Sciences 228(31)
TEN RELIGIOUS PLURALISM: The Limits of Knowledge 259(25)
ELEVEN THE MEASURE OF GOD: Scotland, America, and the Giffords 284(21)
Appendix 305(14)
Notes 319(24)
Index 343


The Measure of God
History's Greatest Minds Wrestle with Reconciling Science and Religion

Chapter One

The Sandyford Mystery

How the Gifford Lectures Began

In the Summer of 1862, when the United States was embroiled in its second year of the Civil War, the Scottish city of Glasgow was enthralled by its own bloody episode. On July 4,the maid at the prosperous Fleming household at Sandyford Place was brutally murdered.

The Sandyford Mystery had "everything requisite to a great criminal drama," a crime writer said, especially its two unlikely suspects, a debauched grandfather and a sailor's wife. Old James Fleming lived with the corpse for three days while his family summered at their coastal villa up the Clyde, the river that had made Glasgow a hub of trade and shipbuilding. When investigators eventually arrived, they found that Jessie McLachlan, a twenty-eight-year-old mother who was a friend of the maid and a former employee at the house, had left three bloody footprints behind.

By modern standards, this was not exactly the high-stakes criminal drama of an O.J. Simpson murder trial. But for 1860s Scotland it came close enough. There was wealth, class, politics, and, as could happen only in Scotland, a bit of metaphysical philosophy mixed in as well. The Flemings' spacious flat in Sandyford, scene of the murder, was just one token of Glasgow's growing affluence. Old Fleming, who at eighty-seven was a hunched and balding figure with sideburns and a hooked nose, was a rustic who had turned to textile manufacture. Now his son headed an accounting firm and had joined the nouveau riche. From Glasgow to Edinburgh, not a few clerks and lawyers had become rich by managing the new commercial vitality—lawyers such as Adam Gifford, who would be the chief prosecutor of Jessie McLachlan.

But if commercial times set the mood in the 1860s,the legalities of Scottish law would turn the trial into an extraordinary controversy. Old Fleming's son had "intimate" ties to the chief investigator. While that must have smiled on the fate of the elder Fleming, who collected rents for his son and attended church twice the Sunday after the murder, he also had Scottish law on his side. Scots Law is perhaps most famous for its third courtroom verdict—besides "guilty" or "not guilty" a jury may declare "not proven" and set a suspect free. Yet Scottish law also had a unique emphasis in its prosecution of murders: although all parties to a murder shared equal guilt, a suspect turned prosecution witness was guaranteed total immunity. In the end, Old Fleming was made legally white as snow: once a prime suspect with blood spattered on his nightshirt, the old man became the Crown's chief witness in the murder and robbery trial of the hapless Mrs.McLachlan.

In those ballad-like days of "the trial of Jessie McLachlan," the law, prosperity, and much else about Scotland could still be traced to the single most important political event for the nation: the Union of 1707. In that year Scotland abolished its parliament, and while keeping its legal system and established Presbyterian church, the nation merged with a single British parliamentary system. Even though it was a difficult political bargain, the historical windfall was great, for now Scotland dramatically expanded trade with England. By the time of the McLachlan trial, Scotland was called "the workshop of the empire," a world of looms, ships, bridges, and train systems, financed in turn by tobacco, coal, steel, textiles, and banking.

Before the Union of 1707, Scotland had exported its native philosophy here and there, but after the political union, Scottish ideas became something of a world commodity. Over at the University of Glasgow, the moral philosophy professor Adam Smith began his musings on this project. To compensate for Scotland's loss of political independence, Smith believed, the nation should dominate the world with its ideas. The nation had already begun to export its inventions, tackle foreign explorations, and show the muscle of sheer commercial tenacity. In addition to that, an event called the Scottish Enlightenment would blossom between 1740 and 1790,and now Scotland had its ideas to export as well, a joint venture of tough-minded clergy, libertine literati, and stern philosophers.

Although the ships left mostly from Glasgow, Edinburgh played its role, and it soon became known as the "Athens of the North," both for its rocky cliffs with neoclassical architecture and for its learning. From this Scottish period came the skepticism of David Hume of Edinburgh and the Christian realism of Thomas Reid of Aberdeen. Adam Smith offered a historical mode of thinking, known for its four stages of civilization, rising up from the primitive hunter-gatherer to, of course, the Scottish professor. Having watched the shipping trade in Glasgow as he taught moral philosophy, Smith proffered the idea of joining free markets with moral sympathies. The idea was published as The Wealth of Nations in 1776,the year of the American Revolution. More than a century later, Winston Churchill claimed of Scotland that no "small nation" besides Greece had contributed so much to human progress.

In September of 1862, however, even the academic rumblings of a "second" Enlightenment paled next to agitation over the McLachlan murder trial. 1 It was "the topic not only of the hour, but of the year," said crime writer William Roughead. Newspaper circulations had grown fivefold, and while the Glasgow Herald sided with Fleming as "the old innocent," the others railed at the court." It was manifestly impossible that the accused could have a fair trial in Glasgow," they editorialized.

Down at Jail Square, where the Glasgow Green sat alongside the River Clyde, legal teams had to fight their way through crowds to enter the court. Dozens of witnesses testified; floorboards with a bloody footprint, ripped up as evidence, were displayed before a rapt audience of fashionable ladies, reporters, and even city officials. McLachlan sat stoical in her white straw bonnet with ribbons and veil, her hands tucked under a black woolen shawl. As advocate-depute for the Crown, Adam Gifford wore black robes and a wig. On the final day, he disclosed his own "deep feeling of anxiety and responsibility" as he dispensed the final measure of Scots Law."

The Measure of God
History's Greatest Minds Wrestle with Reconciling Science and Religion
. Copyright © by Larry Witham. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Excerpted from The Measure of God: History's Greatest Minds Wrestle with Reconciling Science and Religion by Larry Witham
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