God bless theologians

I had a wobble this week. And like most people when they have a wobble I retreated to somewhere safe, somewhere that made me feel better.

I had had enough of being in charge of stuff and of doing hard things. If I could have teleported I would have headed to a beach in the Outer Hebrides. If I could have found a wormhole, I would have headed back to childhood. Quantum loop gravity having not advanced that far, and being aware of the many reasons I couldn’t just run away, I did the next best thing and was drawn to pick up some decent theology.

Another escape? Well perhaps a little - my three years studying theology at college with meals provided and a common room with a well stocked bar was brilliant. But this was more than a flight from reality.

Theology is not just a technical discipline to be practiced in ivory towers and lofty pulpits. It is a way of engaging with the world, with the wisdom handed down to us, and an activity that should, at its best, help us make sense of who we are with respect to God, and to all the stuff and hard things that we are hit with.

It a recent blog post written in tribute to Jarrid Wilson who died by suicide this week, the Revd. Will van der Hart draws attention to the devastating effect of adopting to binary view of wellbeing writing:

“Life has been reduced to well or ill, happy or sad, in or out, privileged or deprived. Our binary judgements have become a curse to empathy. They leave people imprisoned in the mismatch between their visible circumstances and their invisible pain.”

It is into this vacuum created by such binary living that theology can be of greatest use to those of faith. Good theology draws God into the ambiguity of experience, invites the Crucified into our feeling of hopelessness, sucks into our aching heart a foundation that can be healing.

But it is not to see theology as a great big sticking plaster. There are no easy answers, and often the pain and suffering do not simply evaporate. But it does offer into the vacuum a true hope, that we are never alone: the love of God is absolute, despite what we might see outside, read in the newspaper or feel in our hearts. Sometimes the pain is simply too much. But at it’s best theology does help.

God bless theologians, and other healthcare professionals.

Gathering to heal: dangers and opportunities

I am on my way to Heathrow and a flight to Aberdeen. The Denis Duncan Lecture is being held tomorrow in King’s College Chapel, the medieval heart of the University of Aberdeen, an event twelve months in the planning. From all over the country people are heading there as I type - my trustees, Guild staff, the speaker, ticket holders, guests and panellists. And tomorrow, we will be live broadcasting a lecture and discussion on the internet focussing on health, healing and church. 

The healing ministry is one which stirs deep emotions. It has caused so much harm in the past  when people have be subject to poor theologies: ‘You will get better if you pray harder’; ‘What sin is causing this illness?’, ‘What have you done to deserve this - repent and you will be healed’. And you are quite wrong if you think that these are medieval sentiments; I run a national Christian healing charity, and, sadly, I could run a healing charity to heal bad healing ministries and wouldn’t be short of work. 

So, running healing events require good theology and a historical sensitivity. Luckily, we are looking forward to hearing The Revd. Dr. Doug Gay, one of Scotland’s leading theological voices who not only has an impressive academic record but has worked extensively in the parish. 

Jesus commanded his disciples to heal and to make disciples, and we are far more comfortable with the latter which fit more easily into Mission Action Plans and quantitative analysis. Healing is far more difficult to speak about, at least in a responsible way. It is also a much more personal subject; we tread on holy ground when we gather to talk about healing - even quite managerial or organisational meetings rarely stay theoretical.

For we are each in need of healing, and this is something that transcends all faith boundaries. Agnostics, those of other faiths, those of none - our health, our existence and the meaning of it all unites every human being. What also unites is not only our need, but how we have been shaped by illness, injury, hurt, pain and disappointment. It is these that make us who we are today, even more than our biology. It is experience that makes us, and so often it is the negative more than the positive that does it. And so it is the healing of these hurts, injuries and pain that define us also. 

I was listening to ‘Oremus’, a prayer by Padraig O Tuama of the Corrymeela community recently. He writes that prayer is the building of altars out of the stones that have made us stumble. In his image, prayer is deep connection with the pain and loss, it is communion with the failures and the injury, and that through that relationship of picking up the stones and fashioning a place of worship we not only find healing, but find God. For me this is deep, and true healing, that is so far from measuring a miracle or seeking doctrinal confirmation. It is this vision of healing and health that I wish the church would identify and facilitate in communities. 

The Denis Duncan Lecture will gather leaders, community members, the interested in health and healing and those who want to know more. But like all events when we touch on healing, they are holy gatherings because people come with their stories, their desire for healing, and a bag full of stones that they have fallen over along the way. My prayer is that it is a time of weaving together, building up and an openness to deep healing, and to the God who is with us always. 

For more information on the event, and to register to watch the live webinar click here

Fitness and faith: the sins of the flesh?

This morning the Sunday service on Radio 4 came from Ireland where Pope Francis was mid Papal visit, and the crowds (smaller than in past years), had gathered for a festival in celebration of the family. I listened with hope and positivity, hoping for something that would edge towards the reconciliation with Rome that is the dream of many Anglicans. There were a few glimmers, but I was left disappointed with the paternalism and authoritarianism of the message. I was told that my desires were not to be led astray by the individualism of society today, and I had the feeling that the Bishop may have been talking about the desires of the flesh, though he left the listener to decide on the exact desires which were to be avoided. Of course an individualism which excludes community, love for the poor, and a desire for God is not the Way of the Cross, but the history of the church and its theology surrounding the body is not without complication and perhaps could have done with a little ‘fleshing out’.

So, I am pondering the degree of my ‘sin’ as I sit blogging in the gym cafe on a Sunday evening.  There are other things I could be doing - running the home, sewing labels on my kids’ school uniform, spending time with my husband, calling my parents, watching the TV - like many working mums it is a high rope balancing act to hold it all together. But I have chosen to prioritise my fitness, my flesh, over other demands on my time.

In January, the Guild of Health and St Raphael is running a day conference on ‘Faith and Fitness’ exploring the links between our body and our spiritual life. It is an area that for me has kept demanding my attention. When I was depressed, it wasn’t prayers, or therapy, or drugs, or the spiritual masters that pulled me out of the hole - it was running. I feel better, more connected to creation, when I am in it, sweating and pushing my body to its limits. Whether it is on a treadmill, running the streets around whatever conference I am on, or on the water in a boat or canoe, or body boarding with the kids (and with little success) - the spiritual connection hit is awesome. 

And it is not just me - I have been collecting stories from the faithful and agnostic alike. A trail running agnostic cosmologist, a Christian philosopher, a personal trainer inspired by the Rocky films, a one legged divorcee who hated the world and got me to teach him to sail- all have told me that somehow, being in creation and using their body has led to previously unimagined spiritual depths. And the converse is true, I have collected a much more difficult bunch of stories that when people have gone through trauma involving spiritual abandonment, their reaction has been to abuse their body. There is something here, something important that the Church and theologians skip over to the detriment of God knowledge. We are created body and soul, and a 2000 year history of favouring the latter over the former, has led to spiritual paucity and stunted growth. 

So, I am getting fit for ‘Faith in Fitness’, and exploring what I learn on the way. So, its time to quit the cafe and hit the gym. I have booked a personal trainer session, and I will blog here as I explore  this ontology, the theology and the practice. Wish me luck! Or join me in this journey 

If you want to book on the Faith and Fitness click here


Gardens and healing: the theory behind the sense

Originally published in The Church Times, May 2018 

We all know it: Being in a garden, or a natural green space, makes us ‘feel better’. I regularly go to my favourite green spaces, habitually seeking something that make me feel ‘more me’. And even if I can’t get outside, a memory of a warm summer’s day in my childhood garden with the bees buzzing drunkenly by while the breeze shifted the leaves in the copper beach, is sometimes enough to lift my mood and heal my soul.

But is there wisdom and true knowledge beyond this common human experience? Do gardens really heal?

Firstly, let’s not be so quick to dispense with our emotional experiences of the garden. The chemist and philosopher of science Michael Polanyi wrote that humans are not merely outside observers of our universe but part of it, and if we wish to understand the physical world there is true knowledge to be found in our experiences of being here. The philosopher Fiona Ellis recently wrote that it is indeed in the ‘ambiguities of human experience’ that knowledge seeking should begin. So, what of that experience that gardens give us – can science tell us anything that can bolster our deep instinct to go there to find health?

Our modern medical health care system can trace its roots back to the monastic communities of the Middle Ages many of which built gardens for the ill. For the monks, enclosed gardens were seen as important for the healing of the patients. Indeed, hospital and hospice architecture today often uses natural spaces and gardens deliberating in their design.

Over the last forty years, there has been a growing body of evidence presenting the healing effects of nature at a psychological and physiological level. The idea of a ‘therapeutic landscape’ was first coined by medical geographers who recognised places which had a reputation for facilitating healing in body, mind or spirit.

Studies have shown that it is at the neurological level that gardens can promote healing. For example, when people are stressed and distracted as a result of modern life, gardens bring about positive changes by shifting our mind into a more meditative mode of thinking. Research into recovery times have shown that looking out of a window at a natural scene helped patients to recuperate more quickly than having an artificial environment. And if you can actually get your hands dirty, then the healing benefits only increase: recent work has linked gardening and health improvement particularly in those with dementia and those who have symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder.

But the research linking healing and gardens is not just focussed on the psychological benefits. A long term study in Japan looking at the physical effects of ‘forest bathing’ (i.e. spending time near trees) and found that spending time with trees had a measureable impact on the human immune system, linked to the inhalation of chemicals naturally released by the trees.

The body of evidence supporting the physiological and physiological impact of gardening is growing. Not only is this a satisfying metaphor, but it gives a firm foundation for the Green Health Awards. Churches lie at the heart of communities across the country, and there is real potential that church green spaces might be developed into a myriad of garden oases with the potential to make a tangible difference to the health of the church and the community it seeks to serve.

The Drawbridge Lecture 2018 from The Christian Evidence Society

Drawbridge Lecture ‘brings together the best of science with the best of theology’

On 22 May 2018, around 100 people gathered in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral for a unique lecture in the heart of the capital. The Drawbridge Lecture has been running since the 1930s, and has featured Christian leaders and thinkers such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Russian dissident poet of the Cold War era, Irina Ratushinskaya, and Professor Alister McGrath. But the 2018 lecture was different.

So often, the science and religion debates are hijacked by those with the loudest voices – the militant atheists, the creationists and the controversialists. But the Christian Evidence Society decided to put on an event to help the scene evolve and become more representative of what many people know: that science and religion have always had much in common, and have much to gain from engaging with one another.

The lecture was delivered by Marcelo Gleiser, who flew in from Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, where he is a professor of cosmology and natural philosophy. He has published many books and articles on science, and now is also the director of a centre dedicated to the cross disciplinary engagement of science and culture.

His lecture was called ‘Unknowns in Heaven and Earth’, and focused on his concept of science as a human endeavour, exploring the unknowns of the universe. He sees science as a human project of exploration, rather than a method by which a grand unified theory will eventually be discovered. He told the audience that in all likelihood we will never get to the bottom of some of the mysteries of the universe, not because we don’t know enough, but because they are by definition unknowable. For example, the speed of light produces limits on what humans will ever know, and science should be limited in its function to pronounce on ethics and other more subtle facets of human life.

The Revd Andrew Pinsent of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion, at the University of Oxford responded to Professor Gleiser. It was notable that there was far more they agreed about than disputed. And a conversation followed, prompted by questions from the audience, in which these two greats in their field often responded in unison, and sought channels of communication where there was diversity.

Dr Gillian Straine, a trustee of the Christian Evidence Society, and the organiser of the event, says, ‘The energy, excitement and commitment in the room was palpable, with a sense of bringing together the best of science with the best of theology to see whether we can evolve the science and religion debates in this country. What I wasn’t expecting was the sense of importance and urgency Professor Gleiser and Dr Pinsent gave this task. I came away understanding better how we must work together, and do so urgently, to understand and care for our planet in a time of ever growing complexity.’

As an agnostic, Marcelo Gleiser has a different spiritual and philosophical outlook from many people of faith. However, Andrew Pinsent ably showed the evidence that Christianity is a faith that can confidently enter into debate with science, and together explore what it means to be human on the edges of the knowledge we have about the physical universe.

Revd Canon Edward Carter, Chair of the Christian Evidence Society, says, ‘Over the years we’ve had many distinguished speakers giving the Drawbridge Lecture, and Marcello Gleiser was right up there with them all. He gave us a thoughtful and intelligent take on the Christian faith from a serious scientist’s perspective, and I’m delighted we’ll be making a video of his lecture available. I’d recommend him to anyone grappling with faith, and I personally found what he said very encouraging and helpful.’

Simon Jenkins and Gillian Straine

Photo: Stuart Leeds

Originally published on


Premier FM Podcast of "Unbelievable? Can Faith Survive Cancer and Science?"

Rev Gillian Straine is an Anglican priest with a background in science. She tells the story of how she dealt with the spiritual and medical challenges of being diagnosed with cancer aged 21, as told in her book 'Cancer: A Pilgrim's Companion'. 

She also shares news of a free public lecture by internationally renowned physicist Marcelo Glasier in London on Tue 22 May.

Atheist guest Alom Shaha is a secondary school physics teacher and engages with Gillian on the question of faith, illness and science. He shares his story of rejecting his Islamic upbringing after the death of his mother and how he fell in love with the world of science. Alom has recently authored a book of practical science experiments for kids 'Mr Shaha's Recipes For Wonder'.


Dinner with a neurologist

My research interests lead to an healthy enthusiasm to talk about illness, healing and medicine whenever I get the chance. In medical science, there are some fertile cross over areas where the physiological study of, for example, the brain, pain, personality and genetic randoness lead ‘naturally’, I would argue, into discussions with philosophy, faith and theology.

On a girl’s night out recently, I found myself sat opposite a medical doctor who had specialised in neurology. So, between the starter and main course, we discussed M.E. and happened on to a favourite question of mine: ‘What does it mean to be healed?’

M.E. is a particularly controversial illness as it is a disease where the arguements over its cause, treatment and management are incredibly partisan and, at times, political. There are few specialists in the U.K. and people who suffer with it are often isolated and unable to access treatment and help, with doctors divided over whether it is a purely psychological condition or one with physical origins. 

My friend did have an opinion over what causes ME, but what was startled me was that she didn't believe I was asking an important or relevant question. While she conceded that the origin of a disease might help to find the cure, she expressed huge frustration that patients fixated on the question, ‘Why?’. She catalogued diseases that they could cure but no one knew the reason for the illness, and contrarily diseases which had a clear origin but remained incurable. The patient’s pesky desire to know why the disease was affecting them was not a question of interest to her as a physician trying to cure bodies and minds, or relieve suffering.

This radical physicalism was a shock to me. As someone with cancer cured by drugs, but healed through an investigation into the origins of my disease, my story and my faith (See ‘Cancer, a pilgrim companion’, SPCK, 2017), I found it deeply shocking that a doctor would have this brief, concise dismissal of a patients desire to know ‘Why?’. But it was a useful shock and one I use now as a timely reminder of the power imbalance that can exist in the dialogue between science and religion (here medicine and faith) to the detriment of those who ask these questions, and search for deeper understandings of life. 

As a Christian, I believe that I am made in the image of God and charged with dominion over the created order as described in Genesis; Humans exist to care for and handle the earthly things of life, including bodies and minds. Therefore questions about disorder and disease, and how they fit in with our theological understandings of ourselves and our relationship with the God of love, are urgent. Whether an academic, pastor or sitting in the kitchen making tea for someone lost in grief for the disease they have been diagnosed with, these are our questions too - why do things go wrong with our body, and what does disease and healing mean? There is a danger that we are simply dazzled by modern medicine power to explain, and bow down to the questions that they deem as relevant. 

The doctor’s power to heal is usually limited to the physical, and they daily have to deal with enormous questions of life and death, and their power and powerlessness. They have a heavy burden to bear, and must develop ways to deal with contingency of life and death, of randomness and uncertainty.  

But, there is a higher healing that we have the potential to access: spiritual healing where the central aim is not the health of the body and mind. Christian faith promotes peace despite the state of the body, the potential for reconciliation with the Creator even for the diseased and incurable. Cure and health are not ruled out of course, but it is not the only outcome that spiritual healing aims to provide. God’s spirit provokes us to continues to ask those questions that frustrate the physicalist, because we are created not just with a body, but with a mind and a spirit too. Further, we not only ask these questions but find answers too. The cure may be found in the hospital drugs and the physicians skill, but healing is found in reconciliation with God and God’s love for the beloved who asks ‘Why?’, and finds healing in the answers that echo back. 


Strange bedfellows: An article originally published in The Church Times, 19th February 2016

‘Sundays are your busy day, eh vicar?’ I cannot imagine that anyone in full time ministry would have not heard this one before. It may be funny (at least the first time) but it reflects a very common idea in our society today: religion happens on a Sunday, and the rest of life, including business, commerce and science, happens elsewhere and at another time. This divided way of thinking is part of the landscape now for the science and religion debates with a loud minority protesting that the two have no place in fraternising with one another. But this idea does a great disservice not only to contemporary thinking, but also misrepresents the historical relationship between ideas about God and the study of the natural world.

The history of science and religion has been caricatured by New Atheist writers such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. For them, the role of science as a contributor to theological thinking has been as a ‘David’ picking a fight with a ‘Goliath’. Contrary to this, history shows a complex and nuanced picture with its beginnings in the Greek period where science was called Natural philosophy, the love of wisdom regarding the natural world. There are a litany of theologians who engaged in and contributed over the past two millennia to what we now call science, such as Bishop Grosseteste of Lincoln and the Venerable Bede. In the 13th century the great works of Aristotle, which included nearly everything that was known about the natural world, were rediscovered in the emerging universities of western Europe, studied by churchmen and Christianised. The scientific revolution in this country was largely led by religious men such as Robert Boyle and Francis Bacon. Indeed, the question of how science has contributed to theological thinking is just asking for a reference to be made to the, ‘What has Rome ever done for us?’ sketch in the Life of Brian.

Let’s just take a couple of examples from the contemporary scientific scene. The Big Bang cosmological theory is widely accepted. It describes how the universe began in a cataclysmic explosion 13.7 billion years ago when everything emerged from a single point of immense density at unimaginable temperatures. Around 10 million ago planets formed and life began on earth about 3.8 billion years ago. This description is qualitatively at odds with a literal reading of Genesis 1. However, there are many ways in which Big Bang science has been interwoven into theological thinking. For example, the theory shows that the universe is rational, and there is no scientific reason for this to be the case. The unity, beauty and comprehensibility revealed in the science have led some to profound theological reflections. For example, Paul Dirac (1902-84), the British physicist writes that ‘God used beautiful mathematics in creating his world’.

For the scientist, priest and theologian John Polkinghorne, the rationality of the world and the rationality of our minds are linked in his idea of God as ‘the common ground of our rationality’. In this theological model drawn from the science, God is not there simply to meddle in the workings of each moment, but rather is the background of everything.

Cosmology is a great illustration of a branch of science asking questions that now resonated strongly with the theological quest of understanding God: Why is there something rather than nothing? What is the role of chance and randomness? Did our emergence happen randomly, or were we a guaranteed outcome at the time of the big bang?

If questions of existence, randomness and contingency are both scientific and theological questions, they are also questions for the individual Christian to wrestle with: how does God answer prayer? How does God interact with the natural order? Where is God in the apparent randomness and chance of human life?

A second example of science dialoguing with theological thinking is in Quantum Mechanics. Quantum theory demonstrates that it is not possible to know precisely both where a sub-atomic particle is and how it is moving. At its fundamental level, matter itself appears not to be entirely predictable. Christians believe that God created all matter, and so it is a problem how God, who is omniscient and omnipotent, can have made the universe with such randomness and uncertainty apparently woven in. Theologically there have been several responses. Perhaps God is the one deciding these unpredictable interactions: God as the certainty in the uncertainty. But others have found this ‘god of micromanagement’ unpalatable and theology must continue to wrestle to understand a universe which science is revealing to be contingent, with an uncertain future and full of apparently random nature.

The crux for Christians, who believe in a loving God, is science which suggests randomness: for the randomness leads to uncertainty and possibly to suffering. This was brought into sharp focus in the debates surrounding Darwin’s publication of his theory of evolution by natural selection. Theology responded with ideas of God being in the process of evolution, and even suffering within the created order.

If this all seems grand and complicated. there are two things that we can all do in response to these debates. Firstly, we have a duty as Christians to engage with science. Science is the best of what we know about the universe, and if we believe that God made it, then our theology and faith must reflect the very best that we can know. Publications such as the New Scientist offers us a good way to begin.

Secondly, action might be needed in our lives. It might be that you do some theological reflection on an area of science which is of interest to you, whether it is genetics, fundamental physics or astrobiology. Nothing should separate us from our own universe. For it could be that God will be at work in us through such enterprises. Consider the work of environmental science. It has clearly shown that humans have perturbed the natural system in a way that is unprecedented in the history of the planet, and the final effects of this are unclear though they will probably affect the poorest people on the planet most acutely. The Trinitarian view of God highlights the importance of relationship and interdependency which can be extended to underpin a theology for ecological living. The science has direct ethical outcomes, and, for Christians, theological ones too.

Many working scientists who are Christian would deny that they leave their beliefs at the door when they go into their laboratory. Indeed, scientists frequently speak of the wonder and awe into which science leads them. And it is in this vein that we should all enter the debates between science and religion. Science studies God’s world and offers us not only an opportunity to learn more about God and ourselves, but inspire us to praise the creator of the universe and serve God in caring for his wondrous creation. 

Running and Resurrection

No meals to cook. No washing up. No school run. Yes, this conference in Durham was to me a veritable spa break, for I am a mother to young children. And in the vast quantities of free time, or at least they seemed enormous, I spoilt myself with self indulgent activities such as sleeping.

I also did what just a year ago would have been an act of madness: I rose at 6am to go for a run. It was cold, and Durham is hilly. I got a bit lost, and a definitely ran around in circles. But watching the moon and stars above the cathedral rise up as I ascended towards the finish line it seemed that it was worth the effort. And more than this, I felt I was claiming something for myself. Not just time away from my gorgeous family whom I love. But I was claiming the streets of this new city for myself, and I felt powerful doing it, pleased with my overweight, post partum body.

I have found since starting running that the body confidence that it gives has led not into the shallow pleasure of loosing a few pounds but rather it has been a holistic experience of healing. For someone who has gone through a traumatic birth and other illness experiences, trusting my body is not always easy. But slowly, as I have built up the miles, completed the odd race and tentatively listed 'running' as hobby, I have begun to claim my body back and trust it once more. 

And so I claimed those Durham streets for myself. But as I ploughed around, plodding and cursing the hills, I also claimed my body and my right to be there. And I claimed those streets for all who are not where they want to be: for the over weight, the lonely, the depressed, the odd, the outsider, the desperate, the afraid, the lost, the shy. I claimed them for the ill and those who feel worthless. I claimed them for mothers who give their body for the creation of life itself. I claimed those streets and as I stood panting in the shadow of the cathedral, stuck erect over that city, I did so before the clergy came to pray and before the sun arose. 

Science, philosophy and theology: agents of peace making?

This time last week somewhere in Switzerland within a castle on top of a hill, a group of philosophers, scientists and theologians were wrestling with the language of logic and the science of the Big Bang. Some were atheist, others agnostic; and amongst the religiously inclined there were representations of many world faiths, including Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism and Taoism. As you might imagine, we were not short of material to discuss.

We had quickly become entrenched in semantics and definitions; this was neither a surprise nor a problem. Without a clear idea of what words mean, especially to those with whom you are trying to have a conversation, no meaningful dialogue can happen. For example, unless you know something about quantum mechanics, you probably won’t get very far using the word ‘particle’ with a physicist. Or using the word ‘fall’ with a theologian might become problematic if you think it simply means something that you should avoid doing down the stairs. And you should definitely not attempt to talk to a four year old about TV, unless you know what he means when he uses the word ‘Iggle Piggle’. Language matters, and many hours were well spent at the conference discussing what scientists, theologians and philosophers mean when they use the word ‘logic’.

But we had reached an impasse. And, for this junior conference attendee, boredom and frustration had begun to set in; we seemed to be going around in circles, toeing the borders of our areas of comfort and expertise, and not getting any further.

Then something strange happened; a frission of excitement ruffled through the room. First, a philosopher broke rank admitting that his strong atheism is partly due to parental upbringing. And then someone talked about non-traditional forms of logic, where belief and the influence of the moral good come into play in some forms of logic. It doesn’t sound like much, but it profoundly changed the direction of conversations. And it happened in a session where we had to consider ‘the other’ and communication not only with across disciplines but to another human being.

Defences were let down. We named fears and deeper processes that were going on in these discussions. We gave a little room to our personal stories, and why as humans we defend certain ways of thinking. By admitting that our logic systems are personal, we made room for a little humility and acknowledgment that we make choices about how we think, whether theist or atheist.

It might be called an epistemic humility but this is just a fancy way of saying that no one likes a smart a***. Fancy or profane, this is a truth that is at the heart of good communication and wisdom seeking. From heads of state coming together to sort out terrorism, to married couples arguing over who should unload the dishwasher next, we need to be aware that the decisions we make about how we think might not be universal and by attempting to understand the ‘other’ then real progress might be made.

We were there to discuss the Big Bang, an area of science which is at the edge of knowledge. And on that hill, human beings (Jew, Christian, Jain, Muslim, Agnostic, Atheist and Hindu)  met and thought deeply about the existence of the universe, the science which describes it and whether it might have any deeper meaning. For me, the important stuff happened not in the semantics or technicalities of the discussion, but when we considered what it meant to communicate with another human being. Then, we had progress, whatever that might mean. And the agent for this was science – human pursuit of knowledge about the world. It is a small, but not, I hope, insignificant contribution to reconciliation, in a world that so desperately needs a little peace. 

A 'concentration' of philosophers, scientists and theologians

I was recently asked to speak about the ‘inherent logics of faith’ and compare them to the ‘logics of science’, especially with regard to cosmology.

As I crafted my contribution to this discussion, I was stumped by the use of the word ‘logic’. Now after the event, where a concentration of philosophers, theologians and scientists all gathered around this issue, I remain unwilling to offer a full derivation of the logics of faith, at least one that I would recognise as an apologetic.

Of course, there are ‘logics’ applied in the faith. Biblical interpretation can follow a logical method, there are the rational proofs of God particularly championed by Aquinas, and some defend a natural theology where patterns or coincidences in nature are used to defend the idea of a ‘hands on’ Creator God. These might all be held up as evidence for God, to be used in a logical argument but, for me at least, they would never be a full account of my faith.

Faith is a choice, a gift, a way of thinking that is always, partly transcendent; it is reason meets revelation not only on an individual level, but also globally if we consider the place of divine revelation in the history of the faith. Faith is also deeply personal. Some are attracted to rock solid theology, proofs, and answers. Others are more comfortable with the darkness, unknowing and questions. Can we include not-knowing in an ‘inherent logic of the faith’?

Inherent means a permanent, essential, or characteristic attribute, from the Latin meaning, ‘sticking to’. But has there ever been unilateral agreement on the faith, and her theology? And when it comes to applying that logic to interpretation of, for example the big bang, we all know that two people can interpret the same event in different ways, even paradoxically.

A faith-logic that I would be comfortable with must include paradox, anti-logic and diversity in unity. And for this is offer three ‘proofs’: all Trinitarian theology, the anti-logic of the cross (1 Corinthians 1:22-25) and a creation Christology of Jesus Christ, the Word or Logic of God, at the beginning of the universe (John 1). These are held together and, when used in the defense of a faith logic, are often best illustrated through personal narrative and involvement.

Christian logic is built on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the faith logic of a Christian involve us in this story. It is in our lives that the proof of the logic might be found. Lives where the first become last and the last first, where giving away our belongings makes us rich, and where freedom comes throughslavery. It is illogical and uneconomic, but it is the faith-logic, a lived experience of being a child of God and part of the body of Christ in this suffering world.











The importance of the Q and A

Yesterday I gave a talk at St. Paul's Cathedral, as part of  their Sunday Forum series (https://www.stpauls.co.uk/learning-faith/adult-learning/sunday-forum). I spoke about science and religion in general, and then discussed the role of the human in the future of the subject.  The audience was engaged and responsive, and I am very grateful to Elizabeth Foy and others who work at the cathedral for giving me this opportunity. 

I enjoy speaking; it's an opportunity to learn more and improve. But it is facing the Q and A that I find most tricky but  (if I quell the panic, listen and reflect), I know I can learn most about the field, which is nothing if it is not communicated outside of itself and used to help make positive changes in the lives of the faithful.

The questions I faced yesterday were all excellent, revealing the problems and opportunities of engaging with the world of science and religion. Here are a paraphrase of five which chimed, and five short  reflections: 

1. Is there still room in science for a fundamentalist interpretation of the bible to lead to insights about the world today? 

As a committed liberal (in the strict sense of the word) I  am predisposed to answering questions of fundamentalist interpretations of scripture negatively. However, these questions are asked earnestly, and good people of faith are worried about engaging with science and religion for fear of the conflict into which they might enter. We need a way to have these conversations safely, humbly and with love. 

2. A person doing their GSCEs asked how they answer people who say that science has all the answers? 

How we educate young people (from preschool upwards) about science, theology and forms of knowledge is key. How do we encourage free and confident thinking while teaching within the strictures of curricula and examinations? How do we help teenagers, who are so predisposed to black and white answers, to play in the grey areas and experiment with ideas? And how to we help them do it with confidence?  

3. The Christian who doesn't see science and religion as a problem to be solved - if God created the world, and all of science, surely, there is no 'science and religion' field and no conflict? 

I think that this is a marvellous position, one which, in theory, reflects where I am. However, there are a number of real conflicts to be faced. These include the perceived conflict which we must challenge even if we don't accept that it is true; the conflicts in the ethical outcomes of science; and the very human need (and I wonder where this comes from) to seek unity, and that includes unity in the details of science and religion. 

4. Give me hard facts, for example about the number of Christian scientists. 

So this isn't a question, but a call for foundations, for numbers, and for certainty. And this desire is completely understandable. We are, for want of a better image, at war. The media is keen to print anything that disporves God; people buy New Atheistic books in droves; and the myth of conflict abounds. We naturally want evidence and a tribe of fellow seakers to back us up in the idea that science and religion are not in conflict. 

5. Given the history of scienctific discoveries and theory change and looking at the role of uncertainty in Quantum Mechanics, should scientists not show a little more humility? 

This is a question about the nature of knowledge, and which kinds of knowledge are recognised as being important. Historically, scientific knowledge has been in the ascent, with others types of knowledge, including thoelogical and philosophical, being politely shown the door. However, after recent scientific scandels, public trust is wavering, and it is an important question how other forms of knowledge step back into the public arena. Theological knowledge needs to play its full part, and science must take its place amongst many forms of knowledge if we are going to find balance and use all forms of knowledge open to us. 

Facilitating, education, empowering - these are the answers to the future of science and religion for theists.

I heard the other day, that a four year old asks on average 75 questions per day, while a 45 year old asks 6. And while it is perhaps the test of every parent to put up with such an onslaught, it is the 4 year old who is wise in their approach to the world. Thank you for your questions - and I join with you in the quest to find answers and let them deepen my knowledge of God's world. 

Confident Apologetics (originally posted on www.threadsuk.com)

Someone (‘Bob’) asked me for some apologetics the other day, in the same way that someone might ask for the directions to the bus stop or a short history of the SNP. Bob was fed up, he told me, with atheist scientists demanding countless defences of his Christian faith, while they could dismiss their detractors with a quick science fact, or graph. Why, he pleaded, did Christians need to heap their evidence up in a pile and go to great lengths to defend themselves, while the scientists seem to stride with confident ease in and out of tricky questions with a single, winning statement?

Christians have always had to defend themselves and prove their faith before generations of detractors. Indeed, it is part of the call to be a Christian to spread the Good News, actively and in places where the message is hard to hear. And it is in the nature of the beast to be difficult to explain: it is about faith, after all, which is a gift and a way of life based more in story than in a hard currency such as evidence derived from repeatable experiments.

But Bob was echoing concerns heard in other quarters; indeed it seems that in the academy too, the world of science and religion is facing a crisis in confidence. At the recent annual conference of the Science and Religion Forum (www.srforum.org) we heard a note of ambivalence about what the future might hold. This is a forum which includes some of the greatest names in the field (Arthur Peacocke is a former President) yet numbers were down and the field felt ‘flat’. The same questions are being asked and the same bits of science explored. We are not reaching into the academy at large nor are we reaching the general public, despite the continuing popularity of the so-called militant atheists.

Are we not explaining ourselves? Are people bored? Is science and religion academically dubious? Is it all so intractable everyone is fed up? Is it not important?

Science and religion as an academic field began fifty years ago, around the time of the publication of Ian Barbour’s influential book detailing a structure for understanding how science and religion might relate: in conflict, independence, dialogue or integration. People picked their method and argued for it and for years we have favoured such schemes, backed up with arguments and defined positions. We have debated over the critical realism of John Polkinghorne vs. the cosmic synthesis of Teilhard de Chardin. We have picked up with the latest theories of science and stuck God in, or argued how God still exists despite it, or fashioned God into it.

But at this conference, rather quietly and from several different independent speakers, a new theme emerged: the importance of the human bubbled to the surface. We talked about stories and identity, existential philosophy and pastoral theology, and the new technology surrounding human development. We opened up, and let go of our schemes and theological defences and found that with new ideas and avenues of thought, comes a new hope and an invitation for participation.  

As an academic discipline, science and religion has attempted to bridge two areas of knowledge. First, the work of science which presents the very best that we know about the world at this moment. This includes evidence, theories and models. The other sphere of knowledge, includes many sources: the bible, human experience, worship, history, theology…. Science and religion attempts to build bridges between these two sources, because, many believe, how they link fundamentally matters to human identity.

This is much easier to see from the ‘religion’ side. What we know about religion, however that knowing is defined, is part of how we construct our identity. But how we move from the sources of the knowledge (Bible, experience, worship etc) requires interpretation and, to make it more complicated/interesting, how we interpret the knowledge of religion varies between each of us. All of us have a different story about our faith. For example, I have read the story of the resurrection in the Bible and understand it with respect to my own experiences, the worship of the church and theology, and have used it to understand a little of who I am, in the eyes of God. But it probably doesn’t completely match your interpretation and understanding.

What, I wonder, if we use the same power and confidence in the practice of interpretation for self identity seen in the sphere of religious knowledge, and instead apply it in the sphere of scientific knowledge. How could interpreting science affect our identity? For example, might looking at the uncertainty in the mathematical theories of quantum mechanics shed light and insight into our transient and serendipitous lives. Or, might playing with a computer simulation about evolution draw us into a deeper understanding of our Creator God and our part in the created and evolving order?

To get to the heart of this, we must make a differentiation between explanation and understanding. We can read explanations of the natural world and break it down to see how it works, but the understanding comes, the changes to our identity comes, when we ask what the scientific knowledge means, to me, individually, loved and created by the same God that made the world. When we can understand on a deep level the world around us, use it in the same way as we use religious knowledge, then perhaps each of us, and our stories, become the place where science and religion meets.

Christians need to be unafraid of science and unafraid to let it inform our faith. Try a little wonder, be unashamed to be awestruck by the cosmos or genetic engineering. Then ask what it means for you, and your status as wonderfully made in the image of God. From this place, we can confidently defend the faith for which one man died and rose again. It’s a story, after all, that changed the world.


Escape from ISIS (Originally published on www.threadsuk.com)

It is not every day that I get invited to BAFTA to watch a premier. In fact, it has never happened before, and I was thrilled. After a day of juggling children, I arrived glammed up and excited to meet friends. Free drink drunk, I took my seat in the plush auditorium and soaked up the event, impressed to note the seat in front of me had been gifted by Yoko for John. But as the feature began, I suddenly and desperately did not want to see what was about to happen. I knew, of course, that this was a documentary on ISIS and women, but in the rush and the anticipation of a night out, I had not thought about what I might see. And now I couldn’t leave. I had to remain and watch unfold before me stories from a world very far away from London’s busy Piccadilly.

Channel Four’s latest episode of Dispatches, Escape from ISIS, has been hailed by The Spectator as ‘so important it ought to rank with John Pilger’s exposés of Cambodia’s Killing Fields’. It documents the bravery of a group rescuing Yazidi women and girls held captive as slaves by the so-called Islamic State. It contains original footage of life inside the regime and one can almost taste the fear under which so many are forced to live. The viewer sees the young men of ISIS slumped on sofas with guns laughing about their slaves girls; the darkened smoked filled rooms where brave men plot with iPhones to rescue their women; the dull thud of rocks hitting a woman caught in adultery; the biblical scenes of escape through purple tinted fields into the arms of family members; the faceless, heroic guides who melt into the landscape once they have delivered people out of the Islamic state.

 But what stays with me are the stories that are told. The story of the veiled girl with dead eyes telling us her story of being raped by her ‘owner’, then six other men, then twelve. So brutal were the rapes that she is still in pain and no matter how hard she brushes her teeth, she cannot get rid of their taste. Or the woman whose story is so traumatic that its telling provokes a panic attack so violent that she collapses. It is her fifth such episode of the day. Or the story of a pre-verbal child who tells it with a pudgy toddler hand making the sign of a slit throat. We found out at the question and answer session following the program, that one of the female interpreters killed herself after being close to these stories. It is the stories that I heard, more than anything else, that remain with me as I travelled home from the glamour and the plush seats.

 For these stories are now part of my story. Normally, a trip to BAFTA would elicit a story no more interesting than a self promoting status update on Facebook or a rushed selfie posted on Twitter. But I find myself unable to forget or simply leave them behind. Watching has been costly: I cried, I felt sick and I was angered by what I saw. These are all dangerous signs because they indicate that there had been a movement from TV viewing as entertainment, education or distraction, into a place of compassion and solidarity. And it is a risky place because it has the potential to change us. 

Compassion is the emotion that arises in the immediacy of innocent suffering and from solidarity with those who have to bear it. It is so much more than sympathy, or pity. As Christ suffered on earth for our salvation, so is God with all who suffer. Nothing can make sense of the suffering shown in this documentary. But God promises to be alongside all who suffer. Through Christ and what happened on the Cross, God himself is a victim and must bear witness to it first. As Bonhoeffer said, only a suffering God can help. If this is the God in whose image we are made, it is then no small wonder that the suffering experienced by our sisters causes us to cry and mourn.

And don’t be afraid of the anger either. We don’t really do anger in Christianity and especially not in churches because anger is dangerous and messy. But anger erupts in places of injustice and spaces void of love. The word ‘anger’ is from the Latin verb aggredi meaning ‘to move forwards’. It is a primary emotion, as important as love in the human capacity to survive. Think of how powerful an angry baby is and how quickly it can use anger to make others respond. Of course anger can have negative consequences, but in its positive manifestation it is unrivalled in its ability to demand justice, good relationships and the primacy love.

The change I have undergone is that I cannot forget that this is happening. And just as this documentary bears witness to stories of suffering, the Christian must carry on the work of telling the stories. Our faith is based on a story and so we know that stories change lives. The Bishop of London in his address on the 10th anniversary of the 7/7 bombings said that communities are made by the stories that they tell. In our community which is indisputably global, the sufferings of the raped women and children taken by ISIS is our story too and we must ensure it is told over and over and over again. In love, faith and hope, even in the face of such darkness and brutality, we must keep bearing witness until there are no new stories of suffering to tell. 

Science and Religion: The Future

I recently attended the annual conference of the Science and Religion Forum, held in the University of Durham. The topic of the conference was the future of the field; surprisingly, perhaps, the outlook is mixed.

The conference heard that Science and Religion as an academic pursuit is not fully accepted in the academy, is not often taught in our theological colleges, is not of interest to the general public and is held back by appealing only to a small segment of the population. For a more detailed summary of the conference, the link below will take you to the closing reflections from Dr. Mark Harris.


But new avenues were opened that shone light such that progress might be made into areas of engagement that could re-energise the field, dominated as it has been, by schemes and models, arguments and speculation. And the seed of this reinvigoration is the humble human being.

Whether it is taking seriously the value of story and how we construct identity, or the use of existential philosophy to reflect on the meaning of science, or indeed engagement with Transhumanism which experiments with ideas of how science can improve humanity, we are invited to enter fully into these debates, each one of us, and take them into new places. It is about human identity, it is about humans doing science and it is about celebrating the very best of science and looking, with astonishment and hope, at the world in which we dwell and asking what this means for us, wonderfully created in the image of God. Over to you.....

Guest Blog by Nathan Oxley

Pope Francis' Environmental Encyclical 

Today sees the publication of “Laudato Si”, the Pope’s encyclical on the environment. Encyclicals are for Catholics (and there are 1.2 billion of them in the world) but in this one, Pope Francis aims to “address every person who inhabits this planet”. In it, he warns of the impacts of climate change and calls for changes in consumption and production patterns, as well as offering theological reflections on the relationship of humanity to the natural world.

A draft of the encyclical was leaked on Tuesday, and has given some commentators a chance to sneak in some early analysis – some delving into the theology of the text, others seeking to connect it to a more general and non-denominational spiritual connection with nature.

I think both readings have something to offer – and other responses are possible too: this is a political text (the Pope is a head of state and diplomat as well as a spiritual leader, and has previously commented on climate change agreements), and should be seen in the context of a long line of attempts to set the tone of debates on morality and ethics within the church, but also beyond it – with mixed results and reactions.

For me, though, this encyclical is significant and interesting in a number of ways. It articulates a contemporary Catholic position on the relationship of humanity to the rest of creation in the light of ecological challenges we face. That’s a position that is distinctive and different in very radical ways from any number of UN reports, mission statements, corporate responsibility plans, worldwide consultations and so on.

The Catholic – and, in particular, Franciscan – element of this is fundamental. “Laudato Si”, the encyclical’s title, is a reference to St Francis’ Canticle of the Creatures with its references to “Brother Sun”, “Sister Moon”, “Brother Wind”, “Sister Water”, “Brother Fire” and “Sister Mother Earth”. St Francis of Assisi wrote it in 1225, a year before his death.

This song is the key to the Pope’s encyclical. It positions us in a very particular relationship with our fellow humans, but also with other parts of creation – that of brotherhood/sisterhood – which in turn is set in relation to God. We may or may not be in the Anthropocene, but this isn’t an anthropocentric view of the universe. Any analysis of the letter and its reception by Catholics worldwide, from Brazil to the Philippines, that glosses over that fact is bound to be inadequate.

The Pope also links this understanding of nature to St. Francis’ life and mission. The Saint’s poverty and simplicity of life are “una rinuncia a fare della realtà un mero oggetto di uso e di dominio” (“a refusal to treat reality as a mere object to be used or dominated”) (p.11). This isn’t to romanticise poverty or seek to impose it upon people, but is a call for the privileged and wealthy to live more simply, not as an end in itself, but in response to this fraternal relationship with other creatures.

For those who can’t relate to these theological questions, there is plenty to chew on in the document – the draft I saw (pdf) ran to 192 pages – from positions on the ‘technocratic paradigm’, culture, science-religion relations, technology, intergenerational equity and the need for dialogue.

But it is worth reflecting on the strangeness of a world in which a 790-year-old religious song can frame, however indirectly, international negotiations on climate change and global justice. Whether this influence is a good or bad thing, and whether this latest encyclical’s meaning for a billion Catholics will lead to any traceable influence on what happens, is open to question, but “Laudato Si” will have a peculiar and unique place in the story of this crucial year for ongoing debates on sustainability and development.


Nathan Oxley is a research communications professional working at the STEPS centre, a global research and policy engagement centre, bringing together development studies and science and technology studies. 

Mind the Gap: A sermon preached at St. Catharine's College, Cambridge; May 2015

May I speak in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

I want to begin by telling you a story, a story about two men, named Noel and Gabriel. Despite these two rather Churchy and very Christmassy names, this is a science story. My Phd was in atmospheric physics, studying the flow of heat through the atmosphere, and I was part of a multi university campaign to collect data around storm systems in Australia. It had been years in the planning. We had developed a novel instrument to measure radiation and were to fly it with a host of other instruments on a high altitude plane. To maximise data, a second plane would fly directly below and shoot a laser up to map the sky beneath the higher plane. We coordinated with civil and military air traffic. We launched radiosondes, we mapped satellite paths. We finally arrived in Australia and spend several weeks preparing the instruments.

Studying the atmosphere is by definition full of uncertainty. But none of us had made provision for one very powerful, and very human problem. Noel and Gabriel the pilots, paid to fly in formation, hated one another. By night raging arguments, and by day after take off they would fly in different directions, before finally conceding to fly where they should, and the scientists breathed a sigh of relief when the data collection could finally begin. You can plan things well, but even in science, there are some factors that are simply beyond control.

It is a relevant story to begin with, as this evening, I want to talk about gaps. And just like the gap between Noel and Gabriel’s plane, the readings tonight also focus on gaps, and how to fill them.

 The first reading, from the Song of Songs, is about love, and its vast power. Love blows like the wind, it bangs at the door, it drives on, it demands, it is strong, fierce. It describes the human emotion – many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. Love is a force, which might be compared metaphorically to some of the  fundamental forces in nature, for example gravity or electromagnetism, which make themselves known in separation. For example, if two magnetics are attracted to one another, it is when there is a gap that we are able to sense that force, the pull or the repulsion between the different polarities. Between humans, there is always a gap between the lover and the object of that love, and love is the bridge, the force that drives them together and makes it such a raging flame.

 Nick Cave, the Australian songwriter, gave a lecture to the Vienna poetry festival on the subject of love songs. The love song is a human attempt to reach the beloved, and always must, according to Cave, have both love and sadness to fully explain the workings of the human heart, the gap is there and, though we are drawn to bridge it in relationships, a sad distance always remains, it is, "that mysterious power that everyone feels but no philosopher can explain’.

 In the second reading, from the prophecy of Revelation. We hear an angel writing across the gap between heaven and earth to the church of Laodicea. That gap, a result of sin, is the reason for the church and all human searching for the spiritual life. The angel advises the church to repent and strive for the things that heaven, not earth, values, to listen to her, banging the door across the gap, hear the voice across the gap, and we recall that vision of a new heaven and a new earth promised later in the prophecy for the end times, when the gap is shut and we finally can exist in a place where there are no tears, or pain anymore. 

 Gaps on earth between humans, and gaps between earth and heaven, and the power of forces to move between them, all images drawn from our readings tonight. Gaps are not things themselves, but spaces/emptiness/nothingness between things; in the same way that darkness is not a thing, but merely absence of light. Gaps appear everywhere, we usually don’t notice them, they are places of movement. They bridge, they offer space, they are places where something might happen.  And  I have been asked to preach tonight on another gap, the gap between science and religion.

 In the science and religion debates, the gap between the two have been the impetus behind much debate for many years, indeed since the gap first emerged in the scientific revolution. Today, polemical atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, sell many books as they build great walls in the gap. While others will provide fundamentalist interpretations of scripture to try to convince you that there is no gap.

 But the gap is there, and it is real, and we have a variety of ways that we can build bridges to cross it. Intellectually sustainable bridges, spiritually satisfying, and even rationally defendable ones. And it is up to you how you do it.

 Why should we do it, why should we find ways of holding to both science and the Christian faith with integrity? Well simply because as theists, we hold to the doctrine of creation: God made the world. and if you believe that, then what science says, the very best of human knowledge about that same world, must be taken seriously.

 So, what are these gaps? Well, lets name a few: we believe that we are created by God and hold the Genesis description of creation to be of value, but science says we are subject to evolution with pain and suffering and a process that times great swathes of time. Science describes a deterministic physical world, but faith holds a God that intervenes, answer prayers, performs miracles. We are individual loved souls but with minds that may prove to be deterministic cognitive computers. Science has told us that we live in a universe billions of years old, we are tiny specks, as Douglas Adams says, on an utterly insignificant little blue green planet, yet made in the Image of God. We must be able to handle these well and build bridges confidently.

 And it is up to you how you do it. For we are all attracted to different types of knowledge and truth, God speaks to us as we are able to hear. The bridges across these gaps are less about filling the book shelves with the right answers, and more about faith and about you personally. The science bit of science and religion is always science (rational knowledge, repeatable experiments, knowledge held in community) but it is to be put into conversation with what we know about God, and that is part subjective and personal. I could tell you about my reasons for faith, my experiences of prayer and redemption, and love and whatever, you may find it interesting, even edifiying, but it can never be as convincing to you as your own experience of God will be. This, along with religious knowledge derived from the bible, tradition and doctrine, is then put into conversation with science always therefore makes science and religion to some degree personal and subjective, and different areas of the science and religion debates will be more attractive to you as bridging places than others.

 So let’s first look at a couple of rational bridges between science and religion. In cosmology, science has revealed that the balance between the fundamental forces which was set a fraction of a second after the Big Bang, is so finely balanced that if it had only been slightly different life would never have evolved in the universe. Some theists see this as evidence of design. A bridge then that spans across the ‘why are we here’? question.

 A second rational bridge is found in quantum mechanics. This physical and mathematical description of the subatomic world, shows it is inherently unpredictable and uncertain, unlike the world we deal with at levels bigger than an atom. Some theists see a place within the mathematical uncertainty for God to act undetected. A bridge that spans the ‘How does God operate in the world’ question.

 But we needn’t be so objective in our use of science. Perhaps the models and ideas in science could be used metaphorically in a creative conversation that opens up ideas about God to others, and can be used to fill in our theological gaps.

 Let me give a completely different kind of example of this: I think many of us have a life story plan in our heads: study this subject, pass this exam, get this job, marry this person etc etc. We may even have a mechanistic theology even: good people get rewarded and go to heaven, bad people get punished. One could say that this is Newtonian mechanics writ large: cause and effect, control and order. But what about what when some random event occurs, and something come along to wrecks our nice story, ruin the plans and introduce chaos into our plans. This is disturbing and naturally upsetting.

 What happens when we dangle into this situation an image from physics, from quantum mechanics even, that there is uncertainty in the physical order too. Into the litany of complaints and moans about how life has dealt me a poor hand, offer an semantic shock is offered, a new model or metaphor is considered, into how we describe our life, and see whether suddenly this description of physical matter changes our view of God and God’s plan for us.

 Metaphors can be an inspiration for theological and philosophical thought, where their surplus of meaning cannot ever be fully dispersed into literal language, but always remain a tool to enlarge and feed in meaning. As the philosopher Paul Ricoeur wrote, ‘the symbol gives rise to thinking’, and for theists these thoughts may be of God even when the metaphor itself arises outside of strict theology.

 Or another metaphor this time from medical science. Cancer is often popularly described as something that must be fought against. It is the evil entity within our body, battling against you, and we must wage war against it using the weapons of the knife, or radiation or chemicals. How often do we hear it said that ‘she fought hard’, or ‘he is battling cancer.’ Some people like the war metaphor, to others it is negative and unhelpful. What is we dangle a different metaphor for cancer, one from science that sees cancer as a wily fox deliberately subverting the cells own defense mechanism, or even more ecologically as cells driven by the very same impulse to divide and live as all the other “good” cells. In reframing the image, basing it on good science, offering new metaphors, I know of people in this situation who have been drawn into deeper and profound theological places, enlarging their view of their own situation and of God, and of suffering, remembering always that Jesus is with us no matter what we have to face in life, and no matter what the outcome.

 In the science and religion debates, we are not being asked to build solid bridges to score points or solve problems. We are the people of faith, seeking understanding, and we are among the sources of our own epistemological library. We don’t have to be focussed on the rational only, though that will appeal to some, understanding and explanation coexist with other sources such as our experiences, our feelings, as well as texts and tradition. This kind of thinking, of playing with metaphor and working in an interdisciplinary way, transcends explicit proof and verification, and instead builds a framework for testing hypothesis, and sensing places where faith affirmations are epistemologically valid. Our bridges might take seriously the tension that exists between critique and conviction, in a humble and holistic way as we seek gently and openly to verify how we make our own personal balance between faith and reason in the gap between science and religion.

 Just like in affairs of the heart, or the great gap between heaven and earth, so too in the science and religion debates, the gap will always remain, but we are called to mind this gap well, and to seek to find our own bridge across, using whatever tools work for us, praying as we can, and not as we can’t, for the grace to grow in the knowledge and love of God, for his sake, and for the sake of all humankind.