Absolute Proof

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What would it take to convince you that God exists, beyond the shadow of a doubt? Or what sort of data is someone looking for when they ask me to ‘prove the existence of God scientifically’. Aside from the fact that science is about evidence and not proof, this question raises all sorts of issues. If, as Christians believe, God is a person to be known (though not directly seen) then what sort of evidence should we be looking for? If Jesus really was God’s son in human form, do we need physical evidence of his existence? If God is all-wise, then perhaps he would reveal himself in a way that is less obvious, like the teacher that makes you want to think and challenge your assumptions.

It was questions of this type that got some of the Faraday staff involved in a new creative adventure. When the author Peter James was contacted out of the blue by someone who claimed to have definite proof for God, it got him thinking. The evidence might not have been very compelling, but it sparked an idea that simmered for twenty nine years. Over that time James  spoke to a whole range of people about what they would consider to be absolute proof for God, and what the consequences would be if it was available to everyone on the planet.

The list of people James spoke to in his investigation includes some of the usual suspects in science and religion, including Prof Bob White and Dr Denis Alexander at The Faraday Institute. I was intrigued to see what effect this research would have on the novel, and I wasn’t disappointed. I won’t give much away about the plot other than what it says on the jacket, but it was fun to see that Absolute Proof bears what appear to be some of the fingerprints of these academics. There are mentions of Blaise Pascal, Arthur Eddington, Anthony Flew, Intelligent Design, and an exploration of what a monkey might do if you gave it a typewriter. The characters include a thought-provoking Bishop, an utterly corrupt televangelist, and a famous scientist who sets out to either kill religion or make money from it – depending what suits him best.

Of course the interpretation of the arguments is James’s own. I can see (in my humble opinion) some gaps in his understanding of Christianity, design arguments, and the science but the book is still well worth reading, and not just because it’s fun. It’s an exploration of what it would take for a hard-nosed newspaper reporter to change his mind on the question of God’s existence. What would an encounter with God be like? What would drive someone to leave everything behind and risk his life to find that out, and who would want to stop him?

I’m sure we could all contribute our own ideas to a book like this. As part of the cumulative case for God I would want to throw in some exploration of the impact of the church on society, and of people who find themselves doing things they – and the people who know them best – didn’t expect themselves to be able to do. I’d want to explore the Middle Eastern cultural background of the events of Jesus’s life and why they would have had such a massive impact at the time. It would also be worth looking at the political ramifications of the Biblical Christian message that always produces such polarised responses. But this is evidence, not proof, and is already available to anyone who looks for it.

If a more dramatic all-or-nothing proof were given, I would expect it to be the sort of spiritual encounter that nobody could deny. Right now our understanding of God can only be partial, based on personal faith that grows as the evidence for God’s existence becomes apparent to an individual. It’s is as if we’re looking at a reflection in a murky mirror,[1]so the person and much of his attributes are visible but he is also frustratingly veiled. The Bible is clear that when Jesus comes again, every person on earth will recognise who he is, and that he’s worth worshipping. The course of human history will hit a huge chasm as the enormity of this spiritual reality and its consequences suddenly hit home.

So what would it take to sharpen the image in the mirror? Perhaps a face to face confrontation with God – if such a thing were possible without being completely obliterated – or Jesus in human form, but this time without the disguise of a poor man. Or what if our own spiritual senses could be exposed to a blast of God’s love that left us in no doubt as to who he was? In the same way that a parent can be utterly convinced that they love their newborn child, while at the same time being incapable of describing the experience in words, everyone would know the reality of who God is. This is all complete speculation and might sound a bit crazy to anyone who isn’t a Christian, but the question of what would convince you of God’s existence is an interesting one.

Peter James wrote that Absolute Proofwas “undoubtedly the hardest book I’ve ever written, from the sheer scale of the subject matter, but also the one I have learned the most from.” The ending is of course surprising, and left me with a number of things to ponder. I expect any Christian would say something along the lines that God’s revelation of himself has always required some deciphering and careful thought. It’s not an academic puzzle, but is accessible to anyone who has a bucket load of honesty, realism, and an open mind. Such things are a gift from God in the first place, available – I think – to anyone who asks. It seems that only a few can find their way down this path, and the journey always involves some kind of suffering and sacrifices.

This journey is mirrored – in a more sensational and differently interpreted form – in the path that reporter Ross Hunter takes in the book. It’s not the average book club book, but it is worth discussing if you can (see questions below). For a deeper exploration of the idea of evidence for God I would turn to some of the books in the bibliography, especially anything from Alister McGrath.

original_400_600Peter James’s Absolute Proof (Pan Macmillan, 2018), is available from the usual suppliers.

 

 

 

Questions for book clubs:

  • What questions did the ending of the book leave you with?
  • What did you find convincing, or unconvincing, about the plot?
  • Which characters did you find yourself identifying with?
  • What did you think about the use of science in the plot?
  • What other ideas would you like the book to have explored?
  • What other people would you have liked to introduce the author to (you don’t need to know them personally!) as he did his research?
  • What do you think would convince you of God’s existence, beyond all shadow of a doubt?
  • What would you do if that happened!?

 

 

[1]1 Cor 14:12

Guest Post: Normal Congregations Need Not Apply?

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One particular conversation has happened numerous times. When I’m asked about what I do, I reply, “I’m involved with religion and science,” and I often hear a still-unexpected response, “Religion and science? That’s not for me—I’m not smart.”

It’s hard to know what to say next. I do tend to think that this dialogue requires our best thinking. But I’m also troubled by an implied resistance. Is faith and science for elitist, “heady” congregations only?

Felt Needs

In the world of shepherding churches, pastors often talk about “felt needs.” In that light, is the integration of Christian faith and mainstream science something that we, as people in the pew, feel we need? That’s the big question I’ve faced with my team as we’ve worked to bring science to church since 2010 through two large grants in the United States (Scientists in Congregationsand Science and Theology for Emerging Adult Ministries).

Being Quick to Listen

Maybe we’re speaking and not listening. I’ve learned that we have to listen to what people are actually asking for. Here’s an analogy with another “faith and” movement. A recent Christian Today article “God of the Second Shift” posed the question, “When we talk about faith and work, why are two-thirds of the workers missing?” Too often the movement ignores two-thirds of the American workforce, the working class.

Similarly, in faith and science we miss most of the congregation. Most churches aren’t situated near a university or in a science-saturated city. As this article notes, church attendance, at least in the United States, has stayed fairly steady for the college-educated in the past several decades, but has markedly declined for those without a college degree. Most importantly it concludes with the simple phrase, “Beginning to listen.”

Different Questions

And if we listen, maybe we’ll find that we don’t know the specific topics in science and faith that actually interest congregations. Scholars ponder the connection between the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo and quantum cosmology, or how Chalcedonian Christology relates to Bohr’s concept of complementarity. Despite how intensely interested I am, I’ve realized that it causes the eyes of many church members to glaze over. How about instead the studies that demonstrate a connection between smart phone usage and anxiety, or the between gratitude and happiness? That lands.

The Never Ending Reality of Warfare

There’s a recent book that just came across my desk with the apt subtitle, The Warfare Between Science and Religion: The Idea That Wouldn’t Die. How true that is. To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the end of the warfare—at least in the minds of the public—have been great exaggerated. When I do listen to the “person in the pew,” I hear concerns about apologetics and the legitimacy of Christian belief in an age of science and technology.

Despite what many who study this field believe about the “Draper and White thesis” and it died long ago, I still hear from all sides of the church that church members fear losing faith. For conservatives in the States, there’s also considerable alarm over the “e word,” evolution, that’s wound into this. “If I accept modern science, I’ll lose my Bible, Adam and Eve, and ultimately Jesus Christ.” But for liberals or mainliners who love science, the problem is frequently the presence of so many leading atheist scientists. I was speaking at an Evangelical Lutheran Church synod convocation this fall, and I heard this: “My daughter loves science, but since so many prominent scientists are atheists, she decided not to do church Confirmation because she wants to be a scientist.”

Key Influencers

In order to be heard, we also have to figure out how to engage the influencers of the congregation. So much of the work of bringing together faith and science requires not primarily intellectual and rational discourse, but engagement with group influencers or endorsers and group identity.

The integration of mere Christianity and mainstream science isn’t simply about knowledge, but, as researchers have discovered, one’s “intuitive cognitions” or “feelings of certainty” make the decision about acceptance of evolution, for example, and override rational concerns. As surprising as it sounds to me (since I’ve been a pastor, I wondered about how much people really listen to us) a ministry leader’s voice offers feelings of certainty that are central to defining a social world and thus of what can be thought or not. Here I turn to Calvin College sociologist Jonathan Hill, who (in his book, Emerging Adulthood and Faith) noted that friends, family, pastor, and other trusted voices are critical for opening college to explore mainstream science. “For most students, then, it matters little what their professor teaches… What their friends, parents, and pastor thinks is going to be far more important, because their social world is inextricably tied up with these significant others.” We believe things because those around us make them believable.

Translators Please Apply

Finally, it will require those of us who are specialists to translateour concept and especially to use clarity and simplicity in language. C. S. Lewis, who to many is the brilliant Christian apologist and author of The Chronicles of Narnia,had a day job of being a prominent Oxford and Cambridge scholar. Lewis learned how to translate, among other means, through his talks to the Royal Air Force during World War II as well in speaking about religion to a broad audience through the BBC—which, of course, later became his most well-read nonfiction book, Mere Christianity­. As he later wrote, “My task was therefore simply that of a translator—one turning Christian doctrine, or what he believed to be such, into the vernacular, into language that unscholarly people would attend to and could understand.” Translation, for Lewis, required less nuance in language and simpler sentence structure. For many of us, it also requires simplifying ideas, even rounding off some edges of scholarly controversy.

Lewis observed, “People praise me for being a translator. But where are the others? I wanted to start a school of translation.” My hope is to be part of translating this conversation of faith and science to the wider church so that talking about science becomes just something congregations naturally do. But even more, I’m looking to start a movement of translation.

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Greg Cootsona is a lecturer in religion, philosophy, and humanities at California State University, Chico. If you have comments, feel free to connect with him atgreg@cootsona.net. Greg blogs at cootsona.blogspot.comand tweets at GregCootsona

The Incarnation: Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

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My frame was not hidden from you

when I was made in the secret place,

when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes saw my unformed body;

all the days ordained for me were written in your book

before one of them came to be.

Psalm 139:15-16

You began life as a single cell – a fertilised egg with mother and father’s DNA mingled together in a unique combination. This miniscule blob was all of you for a few hours, until it began to divide: 2 cells, 4, 8, 16, a ball, a hollow ball, and then something more complex. You were still tiny, but developing a nervous system, a head, a body, arms and legs. By that point your mother would be only too aware she was expecting a baby – the physical symptoms would have been hard to ignore. Continue reading

Guest Post: How Science Works – Evidence for the earliest life on Earth

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Science is a quest for truth about the natural world, and for the scientist this search for understanding an exciting adventure. In much of my work it begins with a search for patterns: patterns which are consistent and from which meaning can be extracted. This consistency coupled with a straightforward way of uniting and integrating the data they provide underlies much of scientific logic and draws heavily on the idea of an ordered world.  For the scientist who is a Christian, this is God’s ordered world, and understanding the natural world leads to a better understanding of how God works. Continue reading

If Curiosity Were a Crime…

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What would life be like if British society had taken a different path in the mid-nineteenth century? What if science was seen as having all the answers, subjects like phrenology continued to be taken seriously, and other branches of knowledge were outlawed completely? A number of things might have gone off the rails: asking questions about meaning or belief in a deity could have been seen as so shameful they were made illegal, perhaps women would have been denied any kind of education, and people of other races might have been treated with even more suspicion than they were already.

This scenario is the setting for The Curious Crime, Continue reading

Wild Advent: Watch a Murmuration

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The flocks of starlings over the winter create one of the most impressive spectacles of nature seen in the UK. From being a noisy, chaotic, chattering muddle, when it’s dusk, they gather in great numbers to roost. Moving as one, they take to the air, forming a pattern that swirls and shifts in the sky before suddenly all dropping back down to the land. Continue reading

Randomness Keeps You Breathing: A physicist’s perspective on the richness of the created order

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People love order. Whether it involves a garden, a filing system, or an alphabetical bookshelf, we often get a sense of satisfaction from a good tidying-up job. If you’re thinking “That description doesn’t fit me”, I bet there is at least one area of your life where you are geekily, control-freakily, organised. What about your hard drive, the ‘filing system’ that only you understand which extends off your desk onto the floor and any other available surface in the room, or even aspects of the way you store things away in your memory?

Perhaps this love of structure is why Christians tend to see randomness in nature as a bad thing. Continue reading