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.