Month: October 2017

Science and religion

As part of the Seasons of the Soul series it has been suggested that I talk about transitions in some sense this morning, but I’m also conscious that today is Bible Sunday, that Halloween is coming and that 31st October is the 500th Anniversary of Luther making public his 95 theses and thus starting the Protestant reformation. I’ll be making reference to all of these in what I say this morning but whether I address any of them appropriately will be up to you to decide.

As part of the Seasons of the Soul material we’ve been asked to reflect on transitions in our own faith lives. I’ve certainly been on a journey with God but it has generally been a process of gradual transition rather than any “blinding light” revelation. Perhaps the most fundamental transitions were early in my life. I was born into a church family with a father who was a local preacher and a mother who was Sunday school superintendent. In my early teens, however, I decided to stop going to church. There was probably an element of revolt against parental authority in this and it can’t have helped that I was one of very few boys of my age at the local church. At least equally important, however,   a growing awareness of a disconnect between what I was being taught in science lessons at school and what I was being taught at church and in Sunday school.

I didn’t go into a church after that for the best part of a decade. I completed a degree in physics and theoretical physics, then a PhD and embarked on a career of scientific practice and research ending up as a university professor. I am, to my very deepest roots, a scientist.

In my early twenties I felt something, something I would now describe as God, calling me back to the church. An important part of that transition was learning how to become a Christian and a scientist at the same time. It’s been a slow progress to feel truly comfortable being both. Sometimes I’ve been helped by the Christians I’ve encountered on my journey and sometimes, to be quite honest, I’ve found other Christians a particular hindrance. Eventually though I’m happy with the position I’ve arrived at and thought it might be worth sharing in case it is helpful to others.

The best way I can think of doing this is in the form of a mini lecture and I hope you’ll indulge me in this for a few minutes. (You can view this in the video below)

When presented like this the idea seems so obvious so why haven’t we started to think about things in this way a lot earlier. One answer of course is that many theologians have, but I think a large factor preventing others doing the same is that it requires theologians to have a better understanding of science than most do at present. In Britain at least we have a model of education that assumes  that you specialise in either the sciences or humanities from quite an early age and those who go on to study theology tend, as a consequence, to have a poor understanding of science.

I think another issue is that the amazing success of science can feel like a threat. It can feel as if religion will be overwhelmed by science. To face this we need confidence that science and religion address different questions. There are questions which in the modern world science answers much more convincingly than religion but the are other questions which science can give no insight into whatsoever.

Crib Goch ridge

This is a picture of Snowdon and the Crib Goch ridge. Science can tell us of how the mountains were created by geological processes and weathering over an unimaginably long period of time, but it cannot tell us that the result is beautiful, because science has no concept of beauty.

Syrian child

Science can tell us how this child in a Syrian hospital is suffering from malnutrition because he is not receiving the appropriate nutrients, but it cannot tell us how that child’s life is valued by his parents, because science has no concept of value.

Windgather

This is a picture of my daughter and her friend at Windgather Rocks. Science can tell us that those variations in the colour of the sky arise because dust particles in the atmosphere scatter the sun’s light differentially depending on its wave length, but it can tell us nothing of the joy that is causing those two girls to leap into the air and celebrate, because science had no concept of joy.

Science and religion tell us very different things, and those of us who are religious need the confidence to assert that what relation tells us is far more important.

The final issue with this way of looking at theology is that, at times, it appears that science and scripture disagree. Given that it is Bible Sunday it is probably appropriate that we finish by looking at this in a little more detail. I think the key to this is to realise that the Scripture and Science have different objectives. The aim of science is to give an objective explanation of how the world is, something we might call literal scientific truth. Scripture on the other hand was written, primarily, to embody a vision of God, something we might call religious truth. If we approach the Bible looking for literal scientific truth then we are going to come away disappointed because even though it was inspired by God it was written by people in a pre-scientific age. On the other hand if we approach the Bible looking for religious truth then we are going to come away empowered by the writings of the most inspired religious geniuses that have ever lived.

Let’s illustrate this by the story I told you earlier, the story of creation. Scientists tall us that the universe was created about 14 billion years ago in unbelievably short event which we now call the Big Bang. The sun was created about 4.5 billion years ago when a great gas cloud condensed and earth was created a little later as a byproduct of this progress. Scientists are a little less sure about how the moon came into being but the most likely explanation is that it was produced when an object the size of Mars collided with earth. None of this maps on to what we read in Genesis but we shouldn’t expect it to. Genesis was not written by people who had any knowledge of astrophysics, it was written by people who wanted to express the significance of creation.

If we want to find out what that significance was we have to read the Bible in  a different way and seek out the religious truth that is embedded within the story. To do this we look at the text and find that one short phrase is repeated seven times, “and God saw that it was good”. The religious truth embedded in Genesis is not that the universe was created in six days but that the universe is Good. Science has no perspective on the universe as good, bad or indifferent. Only religion can tell us that the universe is good. If we free ourselves from the expectation that the Bible must be literally and scientifically true then we are liberated to appreciate the religious purpose for which it was written. Not only that but we reach a conclusion that almost all humans on this planet can agree with instead of setting ourselves up for losing another battle with science.

There is a tendency to think that if we admit that the Bible is not literally and scientifically true that it is diminished in some way, that it is less than true. My favourite theologian, Marcus Borg, states this differently. He sees the writings of scripture as “more than true“. The significance of the religious claims in the Bible is far more important than the question of whether the stories are literally and scientifically true or not and it is only if we can free ourselves to concentrate on this that we will be able to appreciate what those claims are.

So over the next weeks and months, when you pick up your Bibles and come across those passages where what is written seems to contradict a scientific understanding of how the world is, pause for a moment and seek out the religious inspiration of the original author. Don’t worry about what is less than true, focus on what is more than true. Problems in Biblical interpretation will dissolve in front of your eyes which will be opened to a new and fresh understanding of our faith which speaks powerfully to the modern world out of the experience of the ancient world. That understanding is based on justice, mercy, faith, hope and love, five concepts which science can tell us absolutely nothing about, but which are infinitely more important to us as humans than any of the 2.5 million scientific papers published each year.

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Praying with hope – I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief!

I was the third preacher ask to addressed the issue of prayer and given the title Praying with hope and the text, “I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief”  (Mark 9:24). You can read this in context at Bible Gateway.

This is a sermon in a short series on prayer. Philip has asked me to preach this morning on how we can pray with hope. Given the gospel story and specific text he has suggested he would appear to be expecting the emphasis to be on situations where it is difficult to have hope. The issue is particularly important because many of us will go through times when it feels difficult to maintain hope.

The story I shared with the children earlier (Sally’s place) is principally the story of two parents coming to terms with the death of an adult child to disease. Put yourself in their position, where is the hope in that situation? What about people who are facing death themselves or the death of a spouse? Moving away from death many people in our contemporary world are struggling so hard to find employment that pays sufficiently well to support their families, where is the hope in that situation? What about the people sleeping rough on our streets, people who may once have held down a secure job and lived in the heart of a loving family but have fallen off the rails for some reason, where is the hope in that situation? All of us, yes all of us, know directly or indirectly of someone who is living in a situation which appears desperate, where hope is difficult if not impossible. I’m just going to stop for a few seconds to allow you to focus on someone who you know, or know of, who’s situation appears desperate and beyond hope.

It is not just at a personal level that we have a problem. There are so many aspects of our society that seem desperate. A glance at the papers, or a short time listening to the news on television or radio is all that we need to be reminded of this. Our planet is being degraded at an alarming rate and we are already in a period of mass extinction that hasn’t been experienced since the dinosaurs died out. There is an epidemic of obesity across the world which is threatening to overwhelm the health care resources of even the most advanced economies. Floods and hurricanes devastate parts of the planet in one way whilst forest fires and drought destroy others. A madman opens fire on people enjoying a music concert for no apparent reason.

In considering a Christian response to such situations we have to start off with an acknowledgement that they are real. Many individuals are living through truly bleak experiences. Our physical world is really threatened. Our society, from many different perspectives, is progressing in the wrong direction. Glib prayers that pretend that God is good and that all will be well if we only trust in him sufficiently are not appropriate. How does it help a parent who has just lost a child to be told to focus on how loving God is? Despair, in many cases, is not a failure to see how wonderful God is, it is a rationale response to the desperate situations that we find ourselves in.

This is a sermon about prayer, how should we respond?

I think it can help to ask where God is in such situations. We can be helped here by a modern understanding of the world. So often in the modern world we see science as an enemy of religion but I think it is more appropriate to see it as an ally. We can use what we now know of how the world is through science to inform how we think about God.

For most of human existence people have simply now known what causes disease or earthquakes or drought and it was assumed that these were, in a very literal sense, acts of God. We now know better. Cancer is not caused by God, it is caused by defects in the DNA within the nucleus of cells within our body. Earthquakes are not caused by God, they are caused by stresses that build up in the earth’s crust as a result of tectonic activity. At a societal level, global warming is not caused by God, it is caused by humanity generating too much carbon dioxide and methane. The obesity epidemic is not caused by God, it is caused by people eating too much inappropriate food as they become more affluent. Even mental illness, the focus of our gospel story, is not caused by God, or evil spirits either, but by a dysfunction in the biochemistry of the brain.

Modern science let’s God off the hook. We do not need to see God as the cause of the ills of the world, as the source of our despair, we now have alternative and much more convincing explanations. I am with Isaiah, God is not in the earthquake, the wind, or the fire.

But, of course, if God isn’t causing these things in the first place then it is illogical for us to pray for him to stop them. If cancer is caused by defects in DNA or earthquakes by seismic forces (literally) then it doesn’t make sense to pray to God and expect these things to stop or even to change.

So what can we pray for? If God, isn’t in the cause of the ills of the world, where is he?

I believe that God is not in the cause of those things that challenge us but in our response to them. God is not in the cancer, he is in the loving response of those affected by cancer. Nothing will ever convince me in the story that I told earlier that Sally’s cancer was in any way ordained by God for any reason that we couldn’t understand then and still don’t understand now. But I know that God was in the way Ray and Barbara and the rest of that family responded and in the building of that creche in Africa.

Nothing will ever convince me that the hurricanes that have recently ravaged the islands of the Caribbean and parts of the United States were summoned by God. But I know that God is in the way that governmental and no-governmental age agencies have responded to the crisis, are providing emergency relief and are re-building communities.

Nothing will ever convince me that God had anything to do with that madman who sat in an upper room at a hotel shooting indiscriminately at peaceful people attending a music concert. But I know that across Las Vegas and beyond, God is in the way that families and churches and communities are comforting the families of those that died and allowing them to come to terms with their loss, and eventually to overcome this and be re-born into new life.

So, if God is in our response, both individually and collectively, to the events that assail us and others in life, how should we pray. We should pray, of course, to allow God into our lives so that we can be agents of that response.

There is a tendency, in many parts of Christianity, which is mistaken in my belief, to see prayer as a passive activity. We can see prayer as a way of handing problems over to God and assuming that this is enough, that, in handing over the problem to God, we have been absolved for taking any responsibility ourselves. In my view prayer is much more an opportunity for God to hand responsibility to us.

Another way of looking at this is of the absolute arrogance of the Christian who expects prayer to be a time when God should listen to them. Maybe we should be more humble and see prayer as a time when we should listen to God. When we pray “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done” we are not making a demand of God, we are accepting a purpose and discipline for ourselves.

And this should give us hope, even in the most desperate situations, because however bad any situation becomes, however, bleak the future looks, there is always something we can do to make it better. In the face of personal tragedy there will always be a word of comfort we can offer or a loving embrace or a time simply to sit in silence with a person who cannot face the future. We cannot remove the cause of the tragedy but we can be part of the response.

Societal problems can be more challenging but are still fundamentally something we can respond to through the way we live and the way we give. We may feel that as an individual our actions are worthless but we need a vision of ourselves as part of the people of God. There are two billion Christians on this planet and a further four billion followers of other religions who are all, fundamentally, seeking a better world. Imagine how much could be achieved if, rather, than using prayers as a time to tell God what to do, we all used them as a time to listen to what he is telling us to do.

Go, in peace, to love and serve the Lord.

This was followed by my hymn “God of Love, where are you?