James Clerk Maxwell: Faith, Church and Physics


‘Einstein esteemed Maxwell so highly that an image of the Scottish scientist adorned the wall of his study at Princeton.’

James Clerk Maxwell is regarded as the greatest Western scientist between Newton and Einstein. In his latest book, Bruce Ritchie outlines the importance of faith to this legendary scientist.


James Clerk Maxwell: Faith, Church and Physics
By Bruce Ritchie
Published by Handsel Press


When I was thirteen one of my Christmas presents that year was The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Science, published by Purnell and Sons. I had spotted it on the shelves of a newsagent’s shop in Jedburgh, and my cousin Graham and his wife Elsie gave it to me as a gift. The book was a treasure trove for a teenager interested in science, and it still has a place in my bookcase. As the years passed, its sections on the history of science, which highlighted prominent figures through the centuries, interested me more and more. Each scientist was given an artist’s illustration plus a concise pen-portrait, and the list included great names: Archimedes, Bohr, Curie, Dalton, Darwin, Davy, Edison, Einstein, Galileo, Hertz, Mendeleev, Newton, Planck, Röntgen, Rutherford, Simpson, etc.  

Tucked away in a secondary list, and without the prestige of an illustration, was a brief, twenty-six-word reference to James Clerk Maxwell: Physicist. Studied heat properties of gases. Predicted existence of radio waves before they were discovered, and completely changed chemical theory with his electromagnetic theory of light. Despite this fleeting mention, Maxwell was of such stature that the American physicist Richard Feynman predicted that, in the long view of history, the most significant event of the nineteenth century would be Maxwell’s discovery of the laws of electrodynamics. Similarly, Steven Weinberg argued that without Maxwell’s famous equations contemporary physics would be unimaginable. Concerning the same formulae, Ludwig Boltzmann exclaimed: ‘Was it a God who wrote these signs!’ The equations are carved into the wall of Warsaw’s University Library. Albert Einstein said that the four men who laid the foundations of physics on which he constructed his theories were Galileo, Newton, Maxwell, and Lorentz. He also stated that one scientific epoch ended and another began with James Clerk Maxwell. When Einstein made his first visit to the United Kingdom, he was asked if he stood on the shoulders of Newton. He replied: ‘That statement is not quite right; I stood on Maxwell’s shoulders.’ Einstein esteemed Maxwell so highly that an image of the Scottish scientist adorned the wall of his study at Princeton. Commenting on Maxwell’s influence, Einstein stated in 1931 that people used to conceive physical reality as material points, whereas after Maxwell they conceived physical reality as represented by continuous fields, which were not explicable mechanically but which were subject to partial differential equations. Einstein regarded this transformation in the conception of reality as the most profound and fruitful change for physics since Newton. For Einstein, the special theory of relativity owed its origin to Maxwell’s equations of the electromagnetic field; he also held that Maxwell’s notion of the electromagnetic field could only be grasped properly through his theory of relativity. 

In fairness, Purnell’s Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Science did have another reference to Maxwell. Near the end, in a section dealing with historic events in science, it identified 1873 as the year when Maxwell put forward his electromagnetic theory of light. The Encyclopaedia was a young person’s volume with no pretensions to being a comprehensive almagest of science, and the very fact that it mentioned Maxwell at all is to its credit. Moreover, its statement that Maxwell completely changed chemical theory with his electromagnetic theory of light, should have been enough to alert any careful reader to science of immense consequence in his work. But at the time, and with my limited knowledge, the information on Maxwell failed to spark a ‘Wow!’ moment. He seemed less important than the familiar big names. Since then, Maxwell’s significance has increased in the consciousness of society, with a stream of books and the occasional television programme highlighting his critical contribution to understanding the fundamentals of reality. 

I read mathematics at university, and although we looked at equations associated with Einstein’s relativity theory we did so as an exercise in mathematics rather than as a reflection on the nature of the universe. Nonetheless, like other students of the time, I purchased James Coleman’s Relativity for the Layman and Banesh Hoffman’s The Strange Story of the Quantum, read them, and tried to get my head round the concepts involved.  

Unexpectedly, it was when I studied theology that Maxwell became more significant. Our professor, Thomas F. Torrance, was working on the relationship between methodology in the natural sciences and methodology in theology. This involved reflecting on how to think objectively in each discipline, plus consideration of the disruption imposed on human thought by the type of concepts which our minds attempt to comprehend. Our ability or inability to ‘picture’ an idea can profoundly affect how we understand it. Torrance focussed on what he termed ‘the deep level conceptual interface’ between theology and science, rather than on the old questions of science and religion such as whether science proved or disproved God. Important to him was how Maxwell enabled physics to move beyond Newton, and how Maxwell explored the source of the rationality embedded in the created order. Torrance pointed out to us how Maxwell envisioned fields of force, instead of picturing individual objects acting on one another. He also stressed that our visual imagination is so accustomed to thinking in terms of objects hitting objects—since that is what we see around us—that we limit what we consider to be possible. Maxwell himself eventually moved beyond a visual representation of reality to a mathematical one. Though his deep-rooted instinct was to start with the empirical and the geometrical and to source everything in these, he came to realise that he needed to work differently, by-passing constraints imposed by the visual imagination. This radical new way of thinking inhibited early acceptance of his ideas. It was only after his death that Heinrich Hertz (1857–1894) and Oliver Lodge (1851–1940) validated his theories empirically.  

Torrance taught us that theology needed to break away from similar limitations. He insisted that theology had to reconceptualise how things are: not from a visual construct, but from an auditory construct (analogous to Maxwell’s mathematical modelling) and proceed from there. As students we found this massively stimulating. And Torrance went further. He argued that Maxwell was able to exchange a Newtonian view of reality for a more relational understanding—as required in Field Theory—precisely because of his Christian faith and because of the relational way of thinking which the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation required. That did bring a ‘Wow!’ moment! 


James Clerk Maxwell: Faith, Church and Physics by Bruce Ritchie is published by Handsel Press, priced £15.00.

Launch: JAMES CLERK MAXWELL: FAITH, CHURCH and PHYSICS by Bruce Ritchie Tickets, Wed 6 Mar 2024 at 17:00 | Eventbrite

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