Lent Reflection: Destiny

Black Hole supermassive artwork NASA:JPL-Caltech copy
Supermassive Black Hole (artist’s impression, NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The period of Lent comes as a remembrance of Jesus’ fast for forty days. He goes out to the desert, away from the distractions of life – away from friends and family as well as food. I look at this with awe. I’m connected online pretty much every moment I’m awake. I like food, and I like the fast pace of twenty-first century life with its ever-changing stimulus. I currently live in Tokyo, which can do intensity in all its forms. There are districts here where the bright lights, flashing neon and wall of sound is like a physical blow. Take two steps and there is yet another loudspeaker, megascreen, or crowd of people. I love it! Food, friends, family, fun – I could just about manage a day away from these things. I can’t imagine having the strength of will to abandon them for over a month.

In the Bible there is a startling snippet of a story from that time. It comes just after Jesus had been publiclyidentified as the Son of God, the Messiah, the one all Israel has been waiting for. With God’s voice declaring over him ‘you are my son, whom I love, with you I am well pleased’, the weight of expectation was on him. How was he going to deliver his nation? Would he be a triumphant king, driving out the Roman oppressors, restoring peace? What sort of Messiah was he going to be? How would he fulfill this destiny?

So for Jesus this time in the desert really started with his identity as ‘Son of God’. And the question of identity, ‘Who am I?’, is perhaps the most basic but most difficult question to answer. We define ourselves through many different things – our job, our families, our faith. For me, I’m an astronomer, and I work on black holes using space satellites. This is why I live in Tokyo. I was part of the team planning how to use data from a new Japanese satellite that launched last year. Yes, I’m a rocket scientist – which always goes down well when introducing myself at parties. I’m married – my husband is a mathematician – and that just doesn’t get the same reaction! But neither jobs nor relationships last forever, as I found out in rather dramatic fashion.

I had organized a year sabbatical from the UK to work on the new satellite data. Just before we boarded the plane to come to Tokyo I got emails saying that they had lost radio contact, and that something quite drastic had happened to the satellite. My first day here in my new job has to go down as the worst ever. It was cherry blossom time, and clouds of incongruously joyous pink flowers were blooming as my friends and colleagues were coming to terms with the fact that we’d lost the biggest satellite Japan had ever launched – the one they’d spent years of their working life building. We had hoped for seven years of discovery and excitement with the new data – career-changing breakthroughs. We got three weeks. All things in life are transient; they can and will be taken away sooner or later.

Better, then, to build our identity on something more solid. I’m a Christian, which comes as a surprise to people who think science and faith are incompatible. Modern science has indeed disproved a literal six-day creation six thousand years ago, but that’s not the only interpretation for the first few chapters of Genesis. Augustine of Hippo, one of the great theologians and fathers of the early Church, wrote a book called ‘The Literal meaning of Genesis’ in 408AD. This is long before anyone had any need from science to question a literal six-day creation. Yet he wrote ‘what kind of days these are is very difficult and perhaps impossible to understand’. And he urged that we should be willing to change our minds about how we interpret Genesis in the light of new evidence. Augustine then would probably look in bemusement at the idea of a science-faith conflict, and so do I. For me, the more I know about the vast, yet intricate and beautiful Universe in which we live, the bigger and more awe inspiring is the God who made it.

My Christian faith is a more fundamental part of my identity because it defines me in terms of a relationship that is eternal and unchanging rather than subject to the transience of life. In the language of the Bible, God is somehow beyond time. This actually resonates well with an astronomer’s view of time. The ‘Big Bang’ origin of our universe is not just an explosive beginning of matter and energy, it’s the origin of space and time as well. In Einstein’s gravity, space and time are not a fixed backdrop on which the Universe unfolds, but a dynamic, integral part of its evolution. Insofar as a creator has a separate existence from their creation, God is likewise outside of the space and time of this and any other Universe.

For Jesus, the declaration of his eternal identity as God’s son came also with affirmation that he is loved by God and pleasing to him. Affirmation, approval, love – these are things we all need – they give us bedrock security. Jesus is going to absolutely need to have this as his basis in the years that follo: in the years when public adulation and fame could go to his head and the competing pressures of other people’s expectations are going to be intense. He is absolutely going to need to know that he is loved and approved of by God.

But given this, all manner of options open up. He is the Son – which makes him the heir – sharing in the identity of an almighty eternal God, the one who made all things, and who has all power. Surely an all-powerful God who loves him, who has publicly identified with him, and is pleased with him will answer his every prayer? This is where the story of Jesus in the desert ends, with him being tempted three times by the devil to use God’s power for his own purposes. All three start the same way with his identity: ‘since you are the son of God’ says the devil.

So how will he use the power that comes with this identity as son of God? What is his destiny? How does he want to be remembered?

I think all of us want to be remembered for something. We want our lives to have had some impact – whether that be in the memories of family and friends, or across a wider community. As humans we build cities, create works of art, write books, launch satellites. All these things leave an imprint of our lives on the future.

But what is there that has lasting impact? My satellite lasted three weeks! Perhaps for people with children, there is the thought that some part of them gets passed on forever through their genes. Their childrens’, childrens’, children,shaping and experiencing the far future that we will never get to see. But how far can this go?

As an astronomer, I can take a long view. We know that the Sun will run out of its nuclear fuel in around five billion years from now, and that in its final death throws it will expand and evaporate the Earth. Maybe we will have developed space travel by then. Maybe in some far future there will be colonies round other stars where an inheritance from us still plays a role. But those stars themselves will also eventually run out of fuel and go dark. New stars and planets form, born out of the gas and dust in galaxies, so maybe we could move to these. There is an eternity of future time in our Universe, as it will expand forever rather than re-collapse. But its future is not the same as its past or present. In an infinitely expanding Universe eventually all the matter gets more and more spread out. The galaxies run out of gas from which to form new stars, and the old ones die out. Even black holes, a subject close to my own heart, will eventually evaporate, meaning that the last possible source of energy to sustain life is lost. Perhaps there can be multiple other Universes. But I think by now you get the picture. Our lives have no impact or influence against an eternity of time in a Universe of darkness.

But does the fate of the physical universe determine our ultimate destiny? I believe that if there is a God then our lives instead have eternal significance. It is universal in human cultures to wonder about the bigger picture, to wonder about the significance of our lives in the light of eternity. Bede, in his early Middle Ages text The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, talks of Christian missionaries coming to a pagan Anglo-Saxon community. They describe the fleetingness of life as like a swallow flying in through a Mead Hall window.  The bird flies into the fire-light, only to fly out again through a window on the other side. The text reads:

“whilst he is within, he is safe from the wintry tempest,

            but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes

            out of sight, passing from winter to winter again. So man appears

on earth for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went

before we know nothing at all.”

Or in the language of the Bible in Ecclesiastes, “He has made all things beautiful in their time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”

How do we fathom what our lives mean if the physical reality is not all there is? Jesus went into the desert knowing that his life was not ultimately defined by the physical universe, but in relation to his identity with God. And in the desert, in those forty days of fasting, I think he got to the point of knowing that his identity in God meant that he did indeed share in the power of the almighty eternal God. At any rate, that’s how I read the first two temptations ‘tell these stones to become bread, the devil says, and ‘throw yourself off the temple roof and have hosts of angels rescue you.’ These are not things that would tempt me, I know they are beyond my power. But he was tempted by them, because he’d got to the point of knowing it was within his power as someone who was fully human but whose essential identity was God.

But then the third one is even more direct, with the devil saying that he could give Jesus the world and everything it -every transiently beautiful thing. But Jesus knows that he is heir to both this world and to an eternal kingdom, so he walks away. He knew who he was, he knew his destiny, and this gave him the strength to turn away from the internal temptations we all face at the prospect of power. He weighed his life in the balance of eternity, and decided that his choices, his destiny, mattered on a much larger canvas than this physical Universe, however infinite it may be in either time or space.

It’s blossom time again in Japan, as our year here draws to an end. Not quite cherry yet, but early plum, holding out the promise of spring after the desert of winter. The idea that the transience of blossom adds to its beauty is something which is quite deeply embedded in Japanese culture. It’s here for just three weeks: one where it’s starting to come out, one where the trees are covered, and one as they fall. Frankly, I think I would have appreciated the beauty of the new satellite more if we’d had more than three weeks of its new data!  But all things are fleeting. What matters is that we weigh our life in the balance of eternity, and know that with God our choices – our destiny -matters on a much larger canvas than this physical Universe, however infinite it may be in either time or space.

This reflection is the transcript of a Lent Talk on BBC Radio 4, on 9th April 2017.

 

chris_done_crop
Chris Done grew up wanting to be Spock from Star Trek, so doing a PhD in Astrophysics at Cambridge was living the dream. She worked on theoretical models of the intense high energy X-ray radiation which can be produced when material falls towards a black hole, before it disappears forever below the event horizon. She then moved to the USA, to NASA, Goddard Space Flight Center, and started to work more with observational data from these systems. An unexpected highlight was that she became part of the team doing real time control of an X-ray telescope in the payload bay of the Space Shuttle!

She returned to the UK, first to Leicester University and then to Durham, where she became one of the first women to be appointed as a Physics Professor. She now specialises in combining the best current theoretical models of what happens to material falling towards a black hole with the best observational data, working especially with the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) using their innovative X-ray satellites. So she gets paid to do rocket science, and think about black holes!

 

 

 

Churches Engaging with Science

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© Greg Balco (International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration)

Joanne is studying the mighty Thwaites glacier in Antarctica. She drills down through the ice, collecting rock samples from below it for laboratory analysis. Her team will run tests that tell them when the rocks were last exposed to daylight, providing some clues about how the ice sheet has expanded and contracted over the past millennia. Ultimately they hope to gather enough data to be able to predict how glaciers like Thwaites might respond to current and future climate conditions, and the impact they may have on sea level over the coming decades.

Science is all about gathering evidence for physical phenomena by making measurements and observations. Looking at these data, scientists can develop general principles about the way things are, often describing them mathematically. In this way we have learned that glaciers shape landscapes, that water is made out of hydrogen and oxygen, and that energy and mass are interchangeable (described by the famous equation e=mc2).

Science can support our theology, reminding us how wonderful the creator must be to make such amazing things. We can also give theological reasons for doing science. Continue reading

From Science and Belief to churches@faraday: Finding a home on the new Faraday Institute website

Next month will mark the ten year anniversary of the first post on Science and Belief. The initial aim of this blog was to explore the positive relationship between science and faith, as part of a project that resulted in a whole series of events, articles and other input into the Christian community in a number of different countries, including the book God in the Lab. Five years later, I began a new project which explored the wonders of the living world, asking what questions do these raise for the scientists who study them?

Both of these projects were based at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, where I have been employed since it was founded in 2006. I was appointed at the Faraday Institute’s first Church Engagement Director in 2018, and since then I have been getting to grips with what our contribution might be in the long term to the conversation about science and faith in the UK church.

Part of my role is to keep providing and recommending resources for churches, including online content and social media. So I am very excited that the upcoming new Faraday Institute website will include a prominent section for churches, called churches@faraday, where we have gathered together the threads of the different projects I have been involved in at Faraday so far. We will also be recommending the best of what’s on offer from other organisations, as well as adding new resources of our own at regular intervals.

The new Faraday Institute website will be launched in the coming weeks, and at that point Science and Belief will move to a new location on churches@faraday. At that point the blog will become fortnightly, to allow us more time to feed into other aspects of church life. You can look forward to content from theologian Alister McGrath, astronomers Christine Done and Jennifer Wiseman, and an Easter reflection from Revd Dr Rodney Holder.

When the time comes, you just need to subscribe to the wordpress blog feed on churches@faraday. We will send an invitation and a link for signup to all Science and Belief subscribers, as well as including a link on the old blog page, so you won’t need to remember or look up anything!

In the meantime, enjoy my post ‘More Than Rational’, which was recently published on the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity’s Connecting With Culture blog.

 

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© Faraday Institute

Ruth Bancewicz is Church Engagement Director at The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. She studied Genetics at Aberdeen and Edinburgh Universities, and spent two years as a part-time postdoctoral researcher at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Cell Biology in Edinburgh, while also working as the Development Officer for Christians in Science. Ruth is a member of Christians in Science, and a Fellow of their US counterpart – the American Scientific Affiliation.

 

 

 

 

The Strength of a Seed

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Tim Hill, Pixabay

The winter aconite is a ray of hope in the dark days of January, often flowering before the snowdrops come out. It’s easy to assume that these fragile short-lived flowers are produced by equally fragile plants, but often the reverse is true – especially when it comes to seeds. Aconite seeds need to sit in a cold damp place for several months before they can start to germinate. If you put me in a cold damp place over winter I would absolutely not flourish – in fact I would probably catch pneumonia!

A friend recently told me something I didn’t know about seeds, which her Father – who happens to be expert in tropical silviculture (forestry) – had passed on to her. I knew that some seeds need to lie in the soil for years before they can germinate, and others need to be exposed to fire, but I didn’t know that some could last longer than the trees themselves and still produce a seedling.

There is a league table of long-lived seeds that scientists have managed to coax into germinating. The winners so far are the narrow-leafed campion seeds that had been buried by squirrels in the Siberian permafrost over 30,000 years ago. The scientists who persuaded these seeds to grow didn’t just manage to produce little green shoots that died after a few days, but the plants matured and produced seeds of their own.

The Biblical link between seeds and spiritual growth is well-known: the parable of the sower being the most famous story. I’ve failed in the past to see this as a strong image. I know that seeds last a long time in the soil, and that if you dig and water a patch of earth the seeds that were hidden underground will burst into life – but I hadn’t seen past their tiny and seemingly fragile nature. My friend’s story of incredibly tough seeds made me go back to the Bible for a second look.

1 Peter 1:23 says, “For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.” For me, the 30,000 year-old campion plants help create a picture of what sort of longevity can be achieved with even a perishable seed – never mind an imperishable one. In 1 John 3:9 we read that “No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them”. The word ‘remain’ takes on a new meaning when you think of those seeds hidden in a piece of fruit, buried by squirrels 38 metres below the frozen surface of Siberian soil. I suspect John had something more active in mind than a suspended state of animation: a steady germinating of faith in someone’s life, which is fed by learning, fellowship and the activity of the Holy Spirit. But this passage did start me thinking about what happens to that seed over different people’s lives.

The person who experiences something of God receives a gift which has the potential to germinate and lead to them following him wholeheartedly, resulting in a fuller life. As the parable of the sower tells in chapter 13 of Matthew, things can happen that snatch the seed away, kill it before it has finished germinating, or choke its growth. But what about the ones that get trampled, churned too deep into the earth to receive the warmth and light they need to grow? Those seeds don’t always die, but they can lie dormant, alive but inactive, until the earth is turned over. Or perhaps they’ve been snatched away by a squirrel and buried 38 metres below ground in a frozen burrow! The possibility of that experience, scrap of knowledge, or snatch of conversation resulting in a changed life may seem infinitesimally small, but it remains possible. The seed may be incredibly tough, and just waiting for a chance to grow.

The Gospel narrative plays on the fact that it took a long time for the disciples to understand the full implications of Jesus’ teaching – a germination process that took many of them three or more years. I don’t think it’s too much of stretch to draw out of the parable of the sower to include the observation that it can take a long time for people to work their way through various barriers, sticking points, phases of forgetfulness and so on. Finally they receive the encouragement, challenge, example, or whatever else it was they needed to start them down a path that ultimately leads to becoming a follower of Christ.

I want to be careful in how I let my knowledge of science inform how I interpret the Bible. If I’m adding new information that’s totally inconsistent with the mainstream of Biblical teaching, then call me out. But if science can enhance our understanding of the Bible, making its truth more vivid or easier for modern minds to understand – without adding to or taking away any of its truth – then I think we should take advantage of everything it has to offer.

Do the Bible and Science Contradict Each Other?

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Shutterstock

As a child Rosalind Picard, a Professor of Computer Science at MIT, was encouraged by a neighbour to read the Bible – starting with the book of Proverbs. She expected to encounter fantastical stories, but found it profoundly wise. She went on to read the whole Bible, and found herself changing in response to what she read. Later she described that time as “an experience of being spoken to. When you enter into a conversation with somebody, if you’re willing to truly listen, then you are also open to being truly changed.” Rosalind enjoyed being made to think. She began to question her assumptions about Christianity, and although it was a long time before she became a Christian herself, that journey started for her with the Bible.

For a Christian, the Bible is God’s word to us; it tells us about God’s character and creative purposes, how he has related to people in the past, and his promises for the future. Science is a specific way of studying the world, exploring the physical properties of things – a wonderful way to explore God’s creation. With this in mind, if the Bible and science seem to be contradicting each other, surely we have made a mistake in interpreting one or the other? Continue reading

Can Science Prove God Exists?

Chemistry
Shutterstock

To risk sounding like a smart aleck seven-year-old, technically speaking you can only prove things mathematically. If you need to know that one plus one equals two, don’t go to a chemistry lab. The natural sciences deal with objects and forces that can be observed and measured. Scientists look at the evidence from their experiments and try to come up with a way of thinking about the material world that makes sense.

For example, if I travel around my local area and see nothing but brown cows, then I could try out the statement that “all cows are brown”. I couldn’t prove that all cows are brown. I could never rule out the existence of a different-coloured cow somewhere in the world. Scientific knowledge is always provisional. Continue reading

How Can a Christian be a Scientist?

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luvqs, Pixabay

I used to ask this question as a student. It took me a while to get to know the University staff who were Christians. I was aware of pressing ethical issues and controversial questions about science and the Bible; I knew science was a demanding career that might compete with church commitments; I knew some high-profile scientists were hostile to Christian faith. I wondered, who could make it in the world of science and still hold onto their faith? Continue reading