Archive for the ‘Bible’ Category
When describing her own Christian faith, Rosalind Picard, a Professor at the MIT Media Lab, said that ‘I know some people will assume I have lost my marbles…I also know that if they move beyond such superficial characterisations and ask hard questions, the ones about real meaning and purpose, that they will see more of what I see.’ That is how I feel in trying to describe my own faith. I’ve already given some hints about what I believe in previous blogs, but I thought it would be good to spell it out a bit more.
How can a scientist be a Christian? W.K. Clifford, a mathematician and philosopher at University College London in the nineteenth century, said that ‘it is wrong always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything on insufficient evidence’. I agree with Clifford, although Read the rest of this entry »
The development of the Big Bang theory is an example of how faith responses can contribute to the scientific discussion in a positive way. Rodney Holder, an Anglican priest and former cosmologist, has contributed to this conversation for a number of years. He has just published a new book, ‘Big Bang Big God: A Universe designed for life?’ that aims to bring the debate to a wider audience.
Until the 1920’s, the scientific consensus was that the universe is a static entity: it has always been there, and it always will. Einstein’s general theory of relativity linked matter, time and space and Einstein came up with a solution which gave a static, eternal universe. In 1927 the Catholic priest and physicist Georges Lemaitre came up with another solution, in which the universe was expanding.
A couple of years after Lemaitre came up with his new model, Edwin Hubble discovered astronomical evidence for an expanding universe – the famous redshift. Then in 1931 Lemaître came up with a further solution in which the universe expanded from a highly compact initial state which he called the ‘primeval atom’. Some scientists objected to Lemaitre’s proposal. Einstein thought it was ‘abominable’, and the Cambridge Professor of Astronomy Fred Hoyle derisively called it the ‘Big Bang theory’, Read the rest of this entry »
The Greek philosophical idea of the disembodied soul has affected the way we view ourselves, even at a scientific level. We still have the very deeply rooted idea that it’s the mind or brain alone that does our thinking, despite evidence showing that the rest of our bodies also affect the way we think. For example, it’s harder to understand sad or angry statements if you can’t frown (because of Botox injections), and children find it easier to learn when they act a story out rather than just read it.
The evidence for embodied thinking hasn’t been given very much attention, because our dualistic model of the person as ‘body plus mind’ is so deeply rooted Read the rest of this entry »
My theologically trained colleagues tell me that the Hebrew Scriptures are very concrete in their use of language. It’s not surprising, then, that a rather abstract concept like creativity never appears in the Bible. The creativity of God, however, is a strong theme running behind the whole text. There are images of God creating like an artist or craftsman, and one of the most famous is a beautifully poetic passage in the book of Proverbs. Wisdom is such an important part of God’s character that it is personified in Proverbs, and in Proverbs 8 wisdom is said to have been like a master craftsman (or workman) at God’s side as he created the universe.
Jesus is the Son of God and reflects God’s character perfectly, so we should expect to see creativity in his life. He was a carpenter’s son, and in those days a boy learned his father’s trade so there’s no reason to doubt that he learned to make things out of wood. Jesus began his ministry as a travelling teacher when he was around thirty, so he must have been a fairly proficient craftsman by then. We don’t read in the Bible, ‘Jesus fixed the table, and then they all sat down to the Passover meal’, but it may have happened! Read the rest of this entry »
The Christian church is not always the first place environmentalists run to when faced with a potentially global catastrophe. Nevertheless, Christian theology provides a sound basis for caring for the planet we live on, and also for living constructively in a time of uncertainty and worsening climate conditions. On the 21st June, Jonathan Moo and Robert White’s book, Hope in an Age of Despair will be published by IVP. The premise of the book is that the Christian ‘Gospel’ message affects all of creation*, and is about the way we live now as well as our hope for the future.
For Christians, creation is valuable because it is valuable to God. The whole world was declared ‘good’ in Genesis, so the ‘products’ of land and sea have an intrinsic worth that goes far beyond their economic value. Of course we do use and enjoy what we find in the world, and that’s a good thing in moderation.
A quick look at human history or the state of one’s own heart shows that we are often selfish and abuse our privileges. That abuse has led to the current crisis of biodiversity loss, pollution and climate change. So what’s the solution – hope for ‘the end of the world’ to come quickly so we can all be whisked off to heaven? Thankfully Moo and White outline a more sensible solution than sticking our heads in the sand. Read the rest of this entry »
And now for something a bit different… The reliability of the Bible is an important question, and the many scientists who are Christians have weighed the evidence for this at some point in their lives. A couple of weeks ago, the Biblical scholar Dirk Jongkind gave a seminar at the Faraday Institute on ‘Science and the investigation of the New Testament documents’. Jongkind’s research is on some of the oldest manuscripts of the New Testament, and in his seminar he explained why he thinks the overall message of the Bible is preserved, despite variations between manuscripts. What follows is a summary of some of what he said, but I recommend watching the video for fuller information.
Scripture is basic to the activity of theology, so good access to the original wording is essential. Unfortunately the first copies of the New Testament have been lost. What’s more, what manuscripts we do have show evidence of corruption during transmission. The job of textual critics such as Jongkind is to investigate what might be the oldest recoverable wording.
Time for a Christmas post! The BBC series The Nativity featured three scholars from the East who pieced together history, prophecy, politics and astrology to predict a momentous event in Judaea. They threw all their resources together and traveled for days to be present at the moment when God stepped into the world he had created. Stepped isn’t quite the right word, but the fact that God came to us through the birth canal of a Judaean peasant girl is hard to describe elegantly – it’s not the PR spectacle that we would have planned if God’s arrival on earth had been left to us. God knows what we’re like and he chooses to communicate with us in ways that turn our petty assumptions upside down.
God’s welcoming committee included scholars – perhaps Zoroastrian – who used astrology to predict his birth. This is a fantastic example of ‘common grace’. Astrology isn’t given the time of day by either scientists or Christians today, but it worked for the Magi. I can’t help thinking that the arrival of these learned men at the birth of Jesus is a great link between science and faith. What better way to discover God than to explore the world and follow where the evidence leads?
I was at the annual meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation (the fellowship of Christians in Science in the USA) a couple of weeks ago. One of the talks that I heard was by Gregory Bennett, a geologist – and I’d be interested to hear what the theologians and philosophers think of it.
God’s providence – the way in which he acts in the universe – provides a basis for science and technology. The fact that an experiment gives the same result today and tomorrow has to be taken for granted or you couldn’t do science – it just happens, and that’s why we have ‘laws of nature’. But within a Christian worldview that makes perfect sense.
Gregory Bennett put forward a detailed analysis of providence:
- God constantly sustains the world so that the properties of things are preserved.
- God cooperates with created things, directing their distinctive properties to cause then to act as they do.
- God directs all things to accomplish his purposes.
So God is very hands on and ‘does’ everything – even making my pen fall to the ground when I drop it. This is a very active kind of sustaining, and is consistent with the language of God sustaining and providing rain, food and so on that occurs throughout the Bible.
I have sustained him with grain and new wine (Genesis 27:37)
He covers the sky with clouds; he supplies the earth with rain and makes grass grow on the hills. (Psalm 147:8)
He provides food for the cattle and for the young ravens when they call. (Psalm 147:9)
Bennett described ordinary providence – working through ‘secondary causes’ that we can understand scientifically in terms of the regular operation of things in the world, and extraordinary providence – where no secondary cause can be seen. Extraordinary providence would be a miracle (in my opinion not the only kind of miracle – I think miracles of timing also happen) – something that draws attention to God and his interaction with us.
You can listen to the whole talk here.
I’m a scientist who believes that miracles can happen. I don’t think I’m all that unusual. I could name a lot of other scientists who believe the same thing, and from time to time they make themselves known – as in this Nature article.
First of all, what’s a miracle? Miracles are signs of God’s particular grace to his people in particular circumstances. They are events that happen in response to prayer or a desire to connect with God. Their mechanism or timing defies normal scientific reasoning, and show us something special about God’s character. I think this is a Biblical definition of a miracle – a sign; a wonder; something that shows us how amazing God is and how much he loves us. And a miracle doesn’t HAVE to defy scientific explanation – some miracles are ‘ordinary’ events with incredible timing.
Why should a scientist believe in this sort of thing? Put quite simply, if God created the universe he can do what he likes with it! We know from experience that things in the universe can often be reduced to ordered, rational principles, like the ‘law’ of gravity, the speed of light, and so on. I believe that God sustains the universe: if he wasn’t there the whole thing would disappear. And God chooses to sustain things in an orderly way – so we get seasons, patterns and the ability to do science. But is God bound by these laws? I don’t think so! Why should he be? Occasionally he chooses to act in a different way: in a way that defies scientific explanation, and the resurrection of Jesus provides a powerful example – something that all Christians believe happened.
Going back to whether a scientific explanation can be found for a miracle, I think our desire to find stories that defy scientific explanation is a symptom of our scientific culture. If you want to say anything significant these days you need some sort of scientific evidence to back it up, and Christians often buy into this. This makes it extremely tempting to spend a lot of time justifying miracles – especially miracles of healing – as events that cannot be explained scientifically, and dismissing miracles that can be explained scientifically as nothing remarkable, when something very remarkable indeed has happened – someone prayed and God acted.
The Bible doesn’t differentiate between miracles that defy scientific explanation (like Jesus turning water into wine) and those that don’t (like the wind blowing all night and driving the waters of the red sea back – the picture in this cartoon I think overdramatises it a little, but it was nonetheless an incredibly remarkable event that etched itself on a whole nation’s consciousness for thousands of years afterwards) – both types of event are possible, and both are ‘signs and wonders’ pointing to God’s incredible power and care for us.
More importantly, Jesus recognised that miracles alone will do nothing to convince people that God is serious about caring for us. Miracles were an important part of Jesus’ ministry, and are still important today, but some of the people who watched Jesus heal person after person were the same people who cheered for his execution. And Jesus himself said that even if someone rises from the dead people still won’t believe if they don’t want to. It’s only within the whole picture of what Jesus came to do that miracles really make sense.
I watched the film The Nativity Story a few weeks ago. I picked it up at a well-known supermarket for just £3 so I was a bit dubious about what it would be like, but I was pleasantly surprised. The production values are great and the story is told well. Of course a lot of detail was added to the gospel accounts but the extra content was – as far as I can judge – pretty much in keeping with what we know of the period historically, and the original message was faithfully preserved. I thought the film makers did well in creating the atmosphere of an occupied country, showing Mary and Joseph’s developing relationship and, though everyone knows the story (?), introducing some suspense. I objected to the very cheesy birth tableau, but perhaps that was to be expected…
There is a definite science and faith link in the story of the birth of Jesus. Colin Humphreys is Professor of Materials Science at Cambridge University, and is one of the people who has helped to date the birth of Jesus more accurately in recent years. I’ve heard him tell the story of how he saw in his daughter’s ‘Great Men of History’ book that the dates of Jesus’ birth and death were not known very accurately. Being a Christian, he thought it was important to know a bit more about such momentous happenings as the nativity and crucifixion of Christ. He got together with an astrophysicist from Oxford University, WG Waddington, to work out the most likely dates of both events. The Nature paper that he and Waddington then wrote on the date of the crucifixion is his most cited scientific paper – a somewhat unusual thing for someone whose stock-in-trade is electron microscopy.
There’s a good summary of Humphrey and Waddington’s work on the date of the birth of Christ in the journal Science and Christian Belief. There are debates about what the ‘star of Bethlehem‘ might be, so it’s harder to pin down the date of Jesus’ birth. But Humphreys says that ‘The evidence points to Jesus being born in the period 9 March-4 May, 5 BC, probably around Passover time: 13-27 April, 5 BC’. Happy Easter?
And finally, a Christmas cracker joke to finish the year off in style. Q: Why did the Rooster crow before daybreak? A: His cluck was too fast.