Tom McLeish: A Tribute

On behalf of the ISCAST community, we offer our condolences to the family and friends of Tom McLeish, a friend and distinguished fellow of ISCAST.

Alan Gijsbers, past president of ISCAST, wrote the following tribute.

ISCAST owed a lot to Tom McLeish. We first became aware of him with the publication of his first science–Christianity book, Faith and Wisdom in Science (2014). I reviewed it enthusiastically. I regarded the book as ambitious on a number of fronts.

The first is that McLeish sought to make science more accessible to the layperson.

Secondly, he sought to broaden a theology of creation, drawing on the whole of the Bible rather than just from the first three chapters of Genesis.

Thirdly, he sought to embed the “love of wisdom” (philosophy) within a broader understanding of all knowledge, wisdom, and insight, breaking down the barriers between the arts and the sciences (and, of course, the queen of the sciences: theology).

Fourthly, he expounded the history of the science—Christianity conversation far earlier than the usual starts in either the Enlightenment, the Reformation, or the Renaissance (depending on your historical assumption and biases), going back even to before the coming of Christ.

Fifthly, he embedded his understanding of nature (natural philosophy) within the story of Job and the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Sixthly, he sought to broaden our understanding of science, replacing the notion of a tight scientific method with a study of the order and chaos of creation by asking key, astute questions and seeking greater understanding of the world and our place in it.

Seventhly, and ambitiously, McLeish sought to place the pursuit of science within a broader socio-political context of a sceptical public and a cynical political environment where political masters control scientific pursuits by their control of the purse strings, and our social imaginary.

On the strength of this book, we invited Tom to visit us in Australia, and he gave generously of his time and enthusiasm; not just in Melbourne, but around the country. He lectured on his favourite physics of complex fluids. He also lectured on the Ordered Universe Project, looking at the works of Robert Grosseteste, an eleventh-century Bishop of Lincoln and polymath who studied various physical phenomena. But most particularly at that time, Tom advocated for a theology of science (in its broad sense) as a way of addressing the chaos of the world and healing the pain in the world.

In 2018, we were delighted to hear that Tom was given a newly created chair of Natural Philosophy at the University of York where he could fully stretch himself into those conversations outlined above. Could he do more?

In his next book, The Poetry and Music of Science (2019; reviewed here), Tom launched into his favourite dialogue (between the arts and the sciences), pointing out that imagination and creativity are the hallmarks not just of poetry, music, novels, and the like, but also of our approaches to the created world. He also, with David Wilkinson, another ISCAST visiting lecturer, developed ECLAS (Equipping Christian Leadership in an Age of Science) with his slogan, “When we do science, we participate in the healing work of the creator.” ECLAS’s vision has three strands: science in seminaries, leadership conferences, and scientists in congregations. Their website is worth visiting.

Tom also gave us some wonderful long-range contributions. When, in October 2017, gravitational waves were discovered, he happily got out of bed to talk about the news with Melbourne ISCASTians sitting around in the evening in our lounge room down under.

I also have a number of personal reminiscences which are precious, not least when, within an hour of arriving in Melbourne, he was standing on a footbridge over the Yarra at Westerfolds Park and saw a platypus in the water! After all, he had just seen a mob of kangaroos; why not?

If Tom had lived longer, we would have loved to have enjoyed his enthusiastic, creative company again. He was warm; he was generous; and he was encouraging. He will be missed.