How can a Christian live an authentic life in science? R.J. (Sam) Berry is a prolific writer and editor in the science and religion world, but his lifelong career was in genetics. Here, in part 4 of my series of extracts from Real Science Real Faith, he explains how he became a scientist, and gives one example of how his faith and science interacted.
As a Christian at university, I was faced with a hierarchy of possibilities. The really holy people became missionaries, the rather holy people were ordained, and the fairly holy people became teachers; the ‘also rans’ did all the other jobs in the world. I hope I was prepared to serve abroad if God wanted me there, but I felt no particular call. I was tempted to Continue reading →
Following the popularity of the dating of the crucifixion, this week’s post is on another aspect of Sir Colin Humphrey’s work on science and religion – his work on miracles.*
Can a scientist believe in miracles such as the Resurrection? To understand miracles we must first understand ‘normal’ events. For scientists, normal events are described by theories and laws. Laws are well established theories which have survived many tests. Laws therefore describe the past: they do not prescribe the future (ie, predict what must happen in the future) but they do raise our expectations to a very high degree. For example, we would be astonished if Continue reading →
Last week we had a discussion at The Faraday Institute on how God acts in the world. How can we understand the way in which God sustains the world day-to-day, and his providence? We’re not talking about miracles here (which do happen, and by definition are special signs of God’s grace), but about God’s interaction with the world of matter and energy. Also, what about ‘miracles of timing’? How does God answer my prayers without rearranging the whole cosmos every time? Of course an all-powerful God can rearrange the whole cosmos whenever he chooses, but at times he seems to use the normal workings of the world to carry out his purposes.
For some the question of how God acts is not particularly troubling: God does what he wants. For others, John Polkinghorne included, it would be both intellectually lazy and ungrateful not to give time to the question ‘how exactly does God act?’
In the Bible God reveals himself as an all-powerful all-loving being who creates and controls everything that exists, so bringing about his purposes. God’s ultimate revelation of himself was through his son Jesus, who set us the example of doing a lot of praying. The early theologian Augustine’s interpretation of the Bible was that God upholds creation and established laws that govern everything, though he is not constrained by them. Later in church history, Thomas Aquinas spoke of the unchanging God as the timeless primary cause of all things. All the other processes of the world involve time and therefore change, and he referred to these as the ‘secondary causes’. It is these secondary causes that scientists investigate and seek to understand.
Certain physicists, Laplace included, then proposed that the universe is deterministic. If we were intelligent enough, the theory goes, we could predict every event though the behaviour of its constituent parts. However, we now know that we do not live in a deterministic universe and so quantum uncertainty, chaos theory, emergent phenomena and the complexity of the human brain have all been suggested as the ‘causal joint’ through which God works. Others find the notion of a ‘causal joint’ unsatisfactory because it implies that God is not continually upholding and sustaining everything that exists. Of course during these discussions God continues to act, hopefully amused rather than angered by our philosophical probing.
Aquinas’s understanding of how God acts in the world does justice to the Biblical account of the world, and happens to do justice to the scientific account too. God transcends the created world and is neither part of it nor constrained by it. So God acts in the world without being a ‘competing cause’, so to speak. We observe gravity, the speed of light, the fundamental forces within and between particles, and so on. These forces and constants are acting in what could be described as the ‘horizontal dimension’ of our experience. God both sustains the horizontal dimension and acts in the ‘vertical dimension’. Clearly Aquinas view does not completely satisfy the scores of theologians and philosophers who have worked on the question of God’s action in recent decades, but for me it makes sense of what we know of God.
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.
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.
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’m starting with a very short article that I wrote for the Everything Conference website, because it sums up so much of what I think about this area: awe and wonder at the world that science reveals to us, and the Creator who made it all. To get the full impact you really need to read the last 15 pages of Dawkins’ book.
If you have been paying attention to the press in recent years you will no doubt have been bombarded by the message that science and faith are in conflict with each other. Some would say that science and faith are incompatible because science is about reason, while faith is about believing in things that don’t exist. But I am a scientist and a Christian, and for me Christianity is the worldview that makes the most sense in the light of everything I know and experience in the world – including the historical evidence for Jesus and his resurrection.
Let me share an insight with you. As I finished reading Richard Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’, I was inspired by his last section entitled ‘The mother of all burkas’. If you ignore the obvious anti-religious allusion (you could think of being in a gigantic post-box instead) and focus on Dawkins’ wonderful description of how science opens our eyes to how incredible the world is, this piece of writing can actually be a powerful call to worship the creator who made everything revealed to us by science.
“Our eyes see the world through a narrow slit in the electromagnetic spectrum. Visible light is a chink of brightness in the vast dark spectrum, from radio waves at the long end to gamma rays at the short end. Quite how narrow is hard to appreciate and a challenge to convey. Imagine a gigantic black burka, with a vision slit of approximately the standard width, say about one inch … The one-inch window of visible light is derisorily tiny compared with the miles and miles of black cloth representing the invisible part of the spectrum, from radio waves at the hem of the skirt to gamma rays at the top of the head. What science does for us is widen the window. It opens up so wide that the imprisoning black garment drops away almost completely, exposing our senses to airy and exhilarating freedom”.
Dawkins then goes on to show how science turns our everyday perception of things upside down. Science opens a window on an invisible world more fantastic than we could ever have imagined. This is the world that I believe God made.
I immediately turned to my daily Bible reading in Luke’s gospel about Jesus’ healing of a dead girl. With my imagination still in the invisible world of science, I saw Jesus as the one who knows that invisible world inside out and – more importantly – spoke it into being. How does Jesus’ awesome power relate to his ability to raise people from the dead? Obviously we won’t be able to understand how that works in scientific terms. We can’t routinely study dead people coming back to life in a lab. A miracle is a one-off event, usually in response to prayer, when God shows us how incredible he is and how much he loves us. But this healing and others like it show me that God is the creator of the universe and has the power to transcend everything, including the knowledge we’ve gained using the tools of science.
The view of the world that I have outlined here is a huge incentive for Christians to do science. We need to understand the world God has made and learn to use all the rich resources that are available to us through science and technology in the most appropriate, fair and sustainable way. And what better way to provoke a sense of awe and worship than to share scientific discoveries about the universe? Lastly, the knowledge that God is sovereign and can transcend everything we know is deeply humbling, and a reminder that he is our ultimate teacher. From where I’m standing, good science and genuine faith are definitely compatible.