On the outskirts of the city of Rome, you will find networks of tunnels dug nearly 70 feet underground. If you have the courage to descend the stone stairs, you will find something even more surprising: some of the first recognisably Christian burial sites in the world. In these catacombs, Christians of the first several centuries buried their dead. The Roman persecutions meant the Christians needed secretive places for burials; only then could they avoid desecration. But the most surprising thing about these ancient tombs is that Continue reading →
I’m often asked, “can a scientist believe in miracles?” I meet people telling me stories of answers to prayer that defy science, hoping that these will convince scientists to believe in God. Miracles are of course part of the package for a Christian – we all believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. During one of our recent events on science and faith, the scientists in the congregation were prayed for, and I was delighted when one of those people (who had been feeling distinctly grotty) reported feeling much better. On the other hand, questions like this reveal some worries or ideas about science that need some unpacking. Continue reading →
“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,” so wrote R. J. Berry in his book Real Science, Real Faith. Having discovered that he either couldn’t or shouldn’t do any of the “holy” jobs, Berry, known to most as Sam, eventually realized “that we have all been given different talents and callings, and that there is not (and should not be) such a thing as a typical or normal Christian.”
Sam Berry was anything but a normal Christian. He attended his local church regularly, went to the monthly prayer meetings whenever he could, and served on the church council. For the last 30 years of his life he was licensed to preach, and for about 20 years he took part in national synod meetings. This would have been a huge commitment on top of a regular job and raising three children, but Sam was a high-capacity person who was not content to conform to the stereotype of “also-ran”—those who run races but never win. He demonstrated to the best of his ability that every single Christian is in full-time ministry.
Ruth Bancewicz is a Senior Research Associate at The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, where she works on the positive interaction between science and faith. After studying Genetics at Aberdeen University, she completed a PhD at Edinburgh University. She spent two years as a part-time postdoctoral researcher at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Cell Biology at Edinburgh University, while also working as the Development Officer for Christians in Science. Ruth arrived at The Faraday Institute in 2006, and is currently a trustee of Christians in Science.
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 things 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.
This week we hosted William E. Carroll from Oxford University, who gave a seminar on Creation and Contemporary Science: The Legacy of Thomas Aquinas. I am grateful that Carroll articulated a theory of God’s action that I had tried (and failed) to express during last week’s discussion on God’s action.
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.