Advent post: Human yet Divine

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Adoration of the shepherds (1622) by Gerard van Honthorst [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,


‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,

and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’

Luke 2:1-14

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Searching for Goodness: Natural Theology in Historic Cambridge

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Emmanuel College, Cambridge © Sean Hickin, cropped, Creative Commons BY-NC 2.0

Are ethical values real? According to Dr Louise Hickman, a philosopher and theologian from Newman University, this is the question that drove the ‘natural theology’ discussion in the centuries leading up to Darwin. Louise spoke about this topic at the Faraday Institute this summer, and I will summarise her lecture here in my own words.

Left to our own devices, said the natural theologians, people are capable of developing their own awareness of God and knowledge of him. This knowledge is entirely separate from any belief that God has revealed himself to people in any other way, such as God’s relationship with the people of Israel, or arriving on earth as the person of Jesus Christ. Continue reading

Reading God’s book, with a computer…

Closeup of Babbage Difference Engine #2
Closeup of Babbage Difference Engine #2. By Larry Johnson. Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

Did Augusta Ada, Countess of Lovelace, write the first computer programme? She was twenty-eight at the time, and it was a hundred years before the first working computer was to built. Although the work is not always recognised as her own, and the title of ‘first computer programmer’ is contested, Ada’s collaboration with Charles Babbage inspired Alan Turing as he developed some of the first computers in the 1940’s and 50’s.
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Earthworms and Orchids: Why the founders of modern science cultivated virtue

© Alfred Borchard, www.freeimages.com
© Alfred Borchard, http://www.freeimages.com

I met a man at a conference this year who said he has spent his whole life studying. I have no idea how he funds his insatiable appetite for new knowledge, but it seems he has spent his days going from one topic to the other, modelling himself as a renaissance man. He told me stories of people in 1970’s Germany who spent ten to fifteen years on a single undergraduate degree, often taking just one class at a time. For him, learning was of such value that it was worth approach it steadily and patiently, as a means in itself. I find this attitude a bit extreme, but it’s an interesting way of looking at life!

I recognised this perspective when I heard Richard Bellon, Assistant Professor with a joint appointment in the Department of History and the Lyman Briggs College at Michigan State University, speak recently on values in the scientific community. Bellon has been studying Victorian scientists, or – as he says on his website – ‘obsessing about men with muttonchops who obsessed over the sex lives of plants’. Continue reading

What’s in a name?

Mateusz Stachowski, www.freeimages.com
© Mateusz Stachowski, http://www.freeimages.com

I recently discovered that a poet is at least partly responsible for the label ‘scientist’. Before the nineteenth century people who studied the material world called themselves natural philosophers.[1] Samuel Taylor Coleridge objected to this title, and although I’m sure he was not the only one who initiated a change, he was certainly involved in the renaming process. Coleridge’s suggestion was opposed by two famous scientists, and the resulting story is a fascinating insight into the real world of science and religion.

Not content with writing innovative poems like Kubla Khan and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Coleridge was also a philosopher and literary critic. He was great friends with the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davey and a number of other Continue reading

Big Bang, Big God

big bang big God coverThe 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’, Continue reading

The Vocation of Robert Boyle

© H Berends, http://www.sxc.hu

Robert Boyle was a great experimental scientist, still famous for his ‘law’ about the behaviour of gases, and yet he wrote as much about theology as he did about science. Boyle was fifteen years older than Isaac Newton, and he developed many of the laboratory techniques we still use today, including scrupulous note-taking and writing methods sections in scientific publications so that others can repeat the work. He contributed much to modern chemistry, but he was also a pioneer of science-religion dialogue.

Edward Davis spoke about Boyle, his religious life, attitudes and vocation at last week’s Faraday Institute summer course. The video and mp3 of his lecture and the other lectures at the course will be appearing on the Faraday website over the next few weeks. Two newcomers to Faraday who are also well worth listening to are Noreen Herzfeld on ‘Are Humans Computers?’ and Russell Cowburn on ‘Nanotechnology, Ethics and Religion’.

Davis’ lecture on Boyle was a fascinating insight into the life of a very unique man. Boyle was the seventh son of one of the wealthiest men in the British Isles. His siblings (he had 13) were married off to powerful allies, and Boyle narrowly escaped the same fate. Along with two of his sisters, he discovered a deeper form of Christianity than the one he had been taught as a child. So while his other brothers and sisters were living the courtly life, he developed a strong sense of vocation – at first for writing, and then for science. He believed that even those wealthy enough to support themselves must work, saying that Continue reading