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. 

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.

 

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.

http://www.blogs.hss.ed.ac.uk/science-and-religion/2015/09/07/the-future-of-science-and-religion/

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.

 Amen

 

 

 

Interpreting holiness

I can’t stop watching the political leaders’ debates on the run up to the General Election. I am not learning much about their policies, and I don’t believe much that is said, but I can’t quite tear myself away from the posturing and scary looking-into-the-camera/my soul moments. What is most fascinating is their use of data, how the same set of statistics or facts, or looking back on the same period of time, can be used by opposing parties for contradictory effects. In politics, as in many areas of life, it is all a matter of interpretation.

Interpretation is an act of explaining something. In science, huge masses of information is interpreted to extract useful data and it is a process that is required if sense is to be found. It is a journey from stuff without necessarily any meaning, to stuff that has significance in some way.

I was recently asked to be part of one of a Faraday Institute course in Cambridge where the topic of the weekend was ‘The Big Questions’ of science and religion. There were speakers on topics including fine tuning and evolution, and I spoke on quantum mechanics and models of God. It was a well organised weekend, and I would highly recommend any of the events at the Faraday Institute. After each talk, the participants broke into groups and discussed what they had heard, primarily fairly technical talks on science and religion. What emerged in these groups and in the discussions I had around the talks and over dinner were highly energised, searching and profound.

Much of science and religion comes down to interpretation of the facts. Whether that is of the seeming co-incidences of fine tuning evidence, the mathematical models of big bang or the competition of nuture and nature in genetics, we all personally deduce whether the science has any potential for conversation with theology and whether any congruence has a personal impact on faith. We have visceral responses to the information of science, just as we do to religion itself, and when these are put into conversation, what emerges can be genuine struggle and uncertainty.

I spoke about the uncertainty inherent in the subatomic world and placed it alongside models of God without suggesting how the two may be linked. It seemed to raise (or at least it seemed to me) a great deal of uneasiness and many questions. This is just one example of when science (along much of life!) challenges ideas about God, our place in the universe, our role as Imago Dei and our ability to determine our future and we are drawn from the physical into the metaphysical. And so this factual course of engaging with the best of science in conversation with theology became a holy place. A place where people were sitting under their figurative fig trees and pondering ideas about God.

Interpretation is so important and it is highly personal.  At this weekend I was privileged to be there and to listen to others responding to my talk and the other speakers, sometimes refining intellectual points but often working hard to interpret how the science impacted on their own faith lives. Time and time again as I eavesdropped on the group discussions looking at quantum mechanics, or genetics, or big bang theory, they all returned to the same point: Prayer.

Prayer, relationship with the divine, is the place where science and religion meet in the personal. Stories emerged of illness and suffering, of places and spaces, of times and events, where prayer mattered. Despite the rationality of the talks, the evidence, the equations, conversations swung back  to personal experiences of God and how they were interpreted and how they are now understood in the light of new information about the world that God made.

On this course there variations in denominations, in age, in gender, whether lay or ordained, leaning towards the rational or the mystical, but when science and religion are put into conversation, this course was for me a great reminder that we are all walking on Holy Ground.

 

 

A fear of infinity

I had the chance of a life changing experience one February night in 2002 at an astronomical observatory deep in French Provence. I was part of a small group gathered in the darkness at one of the telescopes scattered throughout the isolated wilderness while the astronomers trained it on the Horsehead Nebula. We stood around with contained excitement (we were physicists after all) waiting to have a peak. And 'having a peak' meant allowing photons from that famous stellar nursery, 1500 light years from earth, to enter the eye, create an electrical signal on our retina and do something physical in our brain. These photons would have travelled some 8817938059775412 miles across space, beginning their journey to our eye around the same time as Britain was sorting itself out after the fall of the Roman empire. 

In science, such timescales and distances are part of the common language and it is something that we can all tap into simply by observing the night sky and thinking about what we are seeing. But dealing with such huge sweeps of space and time can be disturbing and raise questions that stray into the metaphysical.

I recently met someone who had a nine year old daughter who was terrified of infinity. She couldn't bear to think about heaven, not so much because she was scared of God or of death, but rather the seat of her terror was with the idea of eternity. It turns out that this is a real phobia with a medical name: Apeirophobia, the fear of infinity which can invoke a feeling of helplessness, causing doom and terror, making people feel rootless as they contemplate how tiny we all are in the face of the vastness of time or space. What, the women wanted to ask me as scientist and priest, should she say to her?

 As a scientist, I would commend her. She is obviously a girl that thinks. Space is unimaginably large, and time so vast here in this universe, even without thinking about what might come next, that we are so obviously and infinitesimally small in comparison. Indeed one of the first major controversies in the history of science and religion was when Copernicus and then Galileo published the idea that the earth was not at the centre of the universe, as the Bible suggests. But as a scientist I would want to comfort her with two of very recent ideas that makes the universe a little more cosy. The first is the apparent importance of human consciousness. Evolutionary studies have shown that we are not simply randomly evolving creatures subject to the environment, but rather it appears that evolution might be heading down certain routes and that the emergence of consciousness is ubiquitous. We are perhaps not as insignificant as space and time and far flung galaxies might suggest. The second scientific idea of late to encourage our intrepid thinker is the theory of quantum entanglement.  This feature of the world of the sub atomic particle shows that two particles, how ever far apart, are connected. So a photon on one side of the Horsehead nebula somehow knows what another photon several million light years a away is doing. Quantum entanglement might make the scales of time and space in our universe seem less frightening. 

As a priest, I would also commend her. She is obviously a girl who is sensitive and spiritual. Proverbs 9 teaches us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Perhaps what she is tapping into is the way of wisdom, she is beginning to understand her place in the universe and her need of God. This need is something that many have raged at. When Job demanded to know why God let him suffer, the 'answer' came to remind Job of his place in the universe: 

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
    Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
    Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
    or who laid its cornerstone—
while the morning stars sang together
    and all the angels[a] shouted for joy?

This is the transcendent God in heaven, the creator and ruler of the universe. And if that is all a bit shouty, we must balance it with the gentle immanence of God revealed in Jesus who promised his disciples that he would be with them, always. 

Many people suffer anxiety, and we all have different triggers. But this reaction to the infinite, can be soothed by the science which shows we are not so insignificant nor so very alone as space and time might suggest. But these feeling night also be viewed as a place to experience God, a bridge even between the finite and the infinite, where an observation or experience of the world opens up some knowledge of the divine. 

The Christian faith doesn't pacify us with answers. We react to it individually. Some with fear. Some inspired by its beauty. Some angry with the responsibility. Some looking forward to heavenly realm. Some struggling for justice in this meager one. By virtue of bringing together the 'shouty' God of Job and the earthy Jesus, we are individually called to use our earthy experiences to tap into the heavenly ones. Perhaps her fear of infinity, is the beginning of her journey in The Way, towards knowledge of the transcendent God who knitted her together in her mother's womb. 

It turns out that I didn't get my life changing moment when a photon of light from the horse head nebula entered my eye. It was cloudy that night, which rather buggered the whole thing up. 

 

 

 

Tantum ergo Sacramentum

A good friend asked me the other day, while we were walking to the pub past the steps at the great west door of St. Paul's cathedral, whether I had ever heard God speak to me in a direct voice. And I could only say that it had happened once when I had been on my knees before the sacrament during a service of veneration and Benediction. Hearing voices, God's or otherwise, is no prerequisite for faith of course. But that had been an important moment in my faith journey, and it is a service which I find incredibly moving.

As luck would have it, the church in our neighbouring parish offers Veneration and Benediction as part of Sunday Evensong for high days and holy days. During the service, while we are praying before the Real Presence and waiting to be blessed, it is traditional to sing verses of Pange Lingua, a Medieval Latin hymn by Thomas Aquinas:

Down in Adoration Falling, Lo! the Sacred Host we hail;
Lo! o'er ancient forms departing; newer rites of grace prevail.
Faith for all defects supplying, where the feeble senses fail

The final line struck me as a fascinating way into what we think about the human condition and into how we 'do' science as people of faith. Original sin, a great favourite of the western church as taught by St. Augustine of Hippo, states we have been ruined since the Fall when Adam, led on by Eve, messed up and we were ejected from the Garden of Eden. At the Fall we lost  that close and intimate relationship with God our creator; there was now distance and we had to work /have the gift of grace and faith in Jesus Christ to get back to that position again, depending on which part of the church you laid your hat. But whether catholic or protestant, we had been spoilt.

Surprisingly perhaps, in the sixteenth century what you thought happened to human beings in the Fall became a motivation for science.

One group, following Thomas Aquinas, believed that human rationality had not been affected by the Fall, and therefore that it was possible for us to think our way to the truth –  that is, the truth about how God had created the world. In this group we can include Leibniz, Spinoza and Descartes, who went as far as rejecting the value of scientific experimentation and concentrated on the project of getting to truth about Creation via reason alone. 

The other group agreed with Augustine, arguing that the Fall had affected human reason and that it was no longer possible for humans directly to use their mind to get to truth. Therefore, to understand God’s Creation, experiments had to be conducted to get the rough gist of what God had designed. An outcome of this approach and theology is that it is possible to say that God is not restrained in his Creation by the limits of the human mind. This was the position of Galileo, Newton and Boyle, as well as English philosophers such as Bishop George Berkeley and John Locke .

These concerns are perhaps less pressing today and science's religious motivation all but forgotten by most. But even if you are not actively doing science in your day job, how we come to delineate between different kinds of knowledge is important. Is God slotted in to theories 'where the feeble senses fail'? Does he fill in those still vast areas where science has not yet gone? Or will our 'defects' stand in our way of a complete knowledge of the world? 

It depends on what you count as knowledge. My experience of a 'voice in my head' was real to me and remains a part of how I understand God, but could never be externally verifiable now or at the time. Yet for me it goes into the big bag of stuff which I count as evidence for God and is used alongside my faith.

The use of personal experience of God has been at the bedrock of Christianity so we should not be ashamed of it. Happily for those of us who like an -ism, it is associated with a branch of philosophical existentialism called Personalism. This school of thought which goes back to Plato but has a fine heritage throughout the enlightenment and beyond, holds that our personality, and experiences, can be used to uncover knowledge, both theological and philosophical. Human beings are intrinsically and individually, valuable particularly as we exist in community. This had obvious ethical implications. But it is also an interesting and vital philosophical school for considering the knowledge used in both science and religion. It challenges the view of scientism that knowledge about the world can only be found in the rational processes of science. Our individual experiences can also give knowledge about the world and God. For some, the rational proofs of God are a deal clincher, for others in is their personal experience, for others something else. Our experience are not just our own, but part of the community of ideas.

John Henry Newman wrote  "I am far from denying the real force of the arguments in proof of a God...but these do not warm me or enlighten me; they do not take away the winter of my desolation, or make the buds unfold and the leaves grow within me, and my moral being rejoice."

So for me, its partly the beauty and lawfulness of the natural world; its a little bit that voice I once heard; its life experienced considered through a lens of faith; its love; its so many things. But the distance of the Fall is always there, and ''Till he returns or calls me home', my explanation will always be founded on faith too. But find it comforting and liberating to recognise that my experience of life, whether voices in the head or friendship in the pub, can teach me about the divine love of God.

 


 



 



 

The Conservation of Divine Love

Vicars are famous for their post-holiday sermon stories, boring congregations with great thoughts from their recent travel destinations. Parents are similarly famous for being endlessly fascinated with (and tedious about) their offspring. I get to combine these two predilections, forgive me.

I was on holiday recently with my family, doing what the parents of very young parents do, i.e. imposing on their own parents to seek refuge. The free babysitting helped me get enough rest to be able to spend more time enjoying, and less time stressing, about the kids. My youngest is one and revealing himself to be very funny and rather naughty, much to the delight of his older brother. One of the joys, as nauseating and oft repeated as it is, is seeing the love that exists between these two little boys. And, in a self satisfied and existential moment, I found myself reflecting that we, my husband and I, had made this happen. We had created this brotherly love. Had we not met on a November mid week evening in the chapel of St. Paul's Church, Rossmore Road, London, then this instance of brotherly love would never have occurred.

But I was brought up short, knowing (somehow) that I was not only being smug, but that I was also wrong. Love is a gift of God; as 1 John tells us God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. Love, as we experience it on earth, cannot be created or destroyed, but is always a gift of God that we participate in. The love that I glimpsed between brothers, is part of God's love, infinite and available.

There is an helpful analogy with physics: the first law of Thermodynamics also known as the law of conservation of energy. The total amount of energy in the universe (a closed system) will always remain constant. For example, if you lift an apple into the air it will have a certain amount of potential energy due to the force of gravity. When you let go of that apple, the potential energy is converted primarily into kinetic energy (movement) as it falls and hits the ground with a little sounds energy loss as it goes splat. But the total amount of energy is always conserved.

Of course, the energy in a system can be converted into other types of energy. This then could be a useful springboard analogy for considering what we do with the measure of love given to us by God, or the love that we personally experience in our own lives. How do we transfer and convert this love in the world around us? Is it dissipated, distorted and wasted (see future post on analogies with entropy which is the scientific word for disorder) or is it converted in useful ways to do good work and spread the infinite love further abroad?

 

 

What's your path?

'We know more than we can tell'. These are the words of Michael Polanyi, the chemist and philosopher and for me they are important for figuring out where I stand in the science and religion debates. Many people suppose science to be testable, rational and entirely unsubjective. And while this should be the aim of science, some of its biggest discoveries have not evolved in such sterile environments. Instead, they have emerged out of creative, inquiring men and women who had an instinct, or a stroke of luck, and just went with it. Einstein's theory of relativity began after all when he wondered what it would have been like to ride on a photon of light.

The people who have shouting matches in the science and religion debates want easy answers. I have never been satisfied with that. The dissatisfaction has come from a proper respect for the scientific method and from a faith in God, and there is no doubt that there are difficulties in how these two merge together. On the one hand, science has shown that the best theory to explain the beginning of the universe is the Big Bang, whereas the bible talks about creation in seven days. There are no easy, clear ways to unite these two satisfactorily in my mind with a literal reading of the text. And so I go to figure out what I do with that. But this quest to find my path through the debates is driven my an instinct, a feeling (horror of horrors) that there is wisdom in both. I believe in God and the science; I am one person; I need to work out how I do that if I am not going to live a fragmented life, if I am going to be a person of faith with integrity. God made the world, and science studies the world - faith in a Creator God demands that we engage with science and the things that it is telling us.

Beyond the shouting matches these debates are about knowledge. Science gives knowledge about the world, religion gives knowledge about God. Science is used to help us know about our world and how to live in it, religion uses the Bible, the tradition and human reason to learn about God. But human experience is also a fountain of knowledge of the divine. And we are not just talking about the experience of the chosen few holy ones, but our own daily, boring, isolated, noisy experience of getting by every day. Our lives, lived by us, can give glimpses of the divine, a source of knowledge by definition immune to the testing of science. Few hear voices, or see visions, but we all have experiences and feelings.

When I was waiting for the birth of my second son, my body knew that I was about to go into labour long before my rational brain told me anything about it. Twenty four hours almost exactly before I had the first pains, I woke up at 3 am and was driven, it seemed, to get out of bed and have time alone. I had just moved house, to a new city, left my job, helped my husband start in a new parish and I had simply no time to think about what was about to happen. By getting up, pushed by some deeper instinct perhaps, I had a few, rare hours of peace to prepare for what was about to happen. We know more, much more, than we can tell.

There is a fear about using such moments as evidence. Now I could have been awoken because of hormones, or being ridiculously uncomfortable in late, very late, pregnancy. But my own interpretations of it was not so physical. For me it was God's presence, and a moment of comfort to be used to tell me about the divine in my own journey. It was instinct and no one can say that my interpretation is wrong.

We must not be afraid to use our instincts in these complex and more formal science and religion debates and instead believe that we must find our own way through them, in uniting for ourselves the knowledge of science and religion. They can be kept at the theoretical and technical, but there is richness is going further.

What is your path?