I spent Friday afternoon sitting next to Bishop Graham of Norwich in his Cathedral’s spacious conference room, fielding questions about science and faith from a determined field of 6th formers. Dean Jane Hedges chaired a mixed panel of lay ordained, religious believers (of different kinds) and not, and including two working scientists (I was the physicist – at the other end of the row an Oxford biologist). What are the top questions young people in Norwich want to explore, when given that opportunity? Before reading on you might want to see how many you can guess. Here are five of them…
- Did the laws of physics spring from nothing? How does this relate to the idea of God?
- Many churches still preach creationism as a literal interpretation of Genesis. This message is in direct contradiction to evolution and the evidence provided by physics. Is there too great a gulf between faith and reason to reconcile the two?
- If God is the God of ‘gaps’, what gaps are left for God to fill?
- How would science explain apparent metaphysical features of the world such as free will?
- Science is based on empirical evidence and religion is based on ideas. Should religion have to prove itself in order to be valid in today’s society?
This isn’t the place to record our answers – but to reflect on the diverse concerns and assumptions behind these probing questions. Take the last – there is essentially no public grasp of the history of thought informed by anything deeper that the historically-false ‘conflict’ paradigm of Christianity and Science. The information that not only were all the early modern pioneers of science Christians (Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Bacon, Boyle, and Newton a Unitarian), but that they worked under an explicit theology for why they were doing science , comes as rather a surprise.
From that starting point it is not a surprise that faith and science have become tangled in pupils’ minds as competing explanatory frameworks – so God rescues and inhabits the ‘gaps’ in our explanations (until there are no gaps left…). Science itself becomes misunderstood – the notion of ‘scientific proof’ is appealed to (it doesn’t exist) – and a grasp of ‘religion’ also – we found ourselves asserting that Christianity is not just ‘about ideas’ but about practical living that works. The most troubling questions – troubling because they arose, not because they are hard to answer – were about the conflict of science with young earth creationism (and it came up more than once). This is a terrible 20th century heresy that is taught in more churches than most people think, poisons young minds and reduces Bible-reading to thin, selective and disrespectful proof-texting. The Church needs to speak out on this much more strongly, for here is a real conflict – one has to throw out essentially all that we have learned through science to countenance it.
So it is a wonderful thing that Churches and Cathedrals are increasingly recognising that they are natural places to host science festivals, such as the Norwich science week in which the debate took place. Lectures, hands on experiments – even a simulated volcano spewing fire – all graced the festival week. To move from seeing science as a vague secular threat, towards celebrating it as God’s Gift, is an essential journey for the Church today. This is not only so that the apologetic questions can be re-framed in proper historical and philosophical light, but because science needs the church to support its mission even more now than it always did. This is the central point of the book Faith and Wisdom in Science, in which I argue that a ‘Theology of Science’ needs urgently to replace the opposition of theology and science.
To take just one strand of evidence for this claim: examine the fractious and conflictual
public and political debates about science-based issues like climate change and genetic medicine. These discussions need the patient, reconciliatory service of our community of faith if they are to progress. St. John’s College, Durham University is currently running a project Equipping Christian Leadership in an Age of Science (funded by the Templeton World Charity Foundation) to bring senior Christian leaders and scientists together. Earlier this year it hosted a remarkable workshop on earth sciences, theology and the church in which I experienced for the first time a thoughtful (and prayerful) engagement of opposite views on fracking. Another strand of the project, recently launched, is the offer of competitive funding to churches with imaginative ideas on engaging with science. The Scientists in Congregations initiative awaits your ideas.