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.