If all creation praises God, as it says in the Psalms, how can we join in? This is something that Rachel Oates, has thought about quite deeply over her years as the Environmental Coordinator at Lee Abbey. I met up with Rachel a few weeks ago when I was leading a conference at Lee abbey, and she led a ‘praying with creation walk’ as part of that week. Here, she explains the thinking behind the concept. Continue reading
How can a psychologist study religion? Today’s podcast comes from the newest member of staff at the Faraday Institute, Joe Tennant, who is a psychologist. Here I ask him about his life and work, and what methods a psychologist can use to study belief in an invisible God (transcript below). Continue reading
If Christians are called to “love the Lord your God with your whole mind, your whole being, and all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5), then what happens when neurological disease strikes? Dr Clare Redfern is running a project with neurologist Revd Dr Alasdair Coles, based at Addenbrooke’s Hospital and the Faraday Institute. They are investigating whether degenerative diseases within the brain, in particular Parkinson’s Disease, affect people’s religious faith and spirituality. In this month’s guest post, Clare describes some of her work.
Parkinson’s Disease is well known as a disorder that produces physical features such as tremor, slowed movements and speech. The degeneration of neuronal networks in the brain also frequently produces emotional and cognitive effects. We are looking at how people with Parkinson’s Disease think and feel about faith and religious belief. If they are believers, might they lose interest in prayer or worship? Does God seem more distant, or possibly closer?
In reviewing the work of others in this field, I have been Continue reading
This week’s post is from Sir John Houghton, former Director General of the British MET Office, and former co-chair of the scientific assessment working group of the IPCC. This post was adapted from a chapter from the book Real Science, Real Faith (Monarch, 1991)*
When people discover that I am involved with weather forecasting and also that I am a Christian, I am often asked if I believe that there is any point in praying about the weather—praying for rain, for instance, when it is badly needed. I reply that I believe it is entirely sensible and meaningful to pray about the weather as, indeed, it is to pray about other things. But I also say that my belief in the meaningfulness of prayer in no way alters my determination as a scientist to develop the very best means of weather forecasting, nor does it cause me to doubt that the behaviour of weather systems follows deterministic scientific laws.
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.
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.
This Christmas post is taken from ‘Nature’s Witness’ by Daniel Harrell. This series of extracts is from chapter 6: ‘God is great, God is good, but maybe I’ve misunderstood?’, that explores the vastness of the universe, God’s creation of it, and the presence of suffering. I’ve chosen some portions that I thought were appropriate to the season – that ask why God created the universe and why did he care about us?
When I consider the works of your hand, which you display in all you have created, I am at once awed and bewildered. I believe, yet sometimes I need help to believe. I wonder at your creativity, and at the same time I wonder why your creativity looks so different than I would expect. I wonder why the earth evolved instead of simply appearing, and why life has taken such a long road to get to where it is. I would have expected you to act more immediately and efficiently. Yet I know that my expectations are extensions of my own desires. And though you may be the author of my desire, I am the one who distorts it and imposes those distortions on you, I know that I must humble my understanding to your unveiling. Yet to observe your world and your ways creates a collision within my mind, a dissonance that I desperately long to resolve.
You’re infinite, and I’m finite, confined by time and by my sin and thereby limited in perception and understanding. Your eternity dwarfs my capacity to comprehend it. Your holiness outshines my feeble faith. Any claim to know you sounds presumptuous. And yet as a God of love you unveil yourself so that I can know you. Revelation is part of your character. You show us yourself in order to draw us to yourself. Your work and your word extend love and beckon our response of love. Relationship is your essence and you invite us to partake of it. You are love and your love is magnificently splashed across the universe and intricately wired into our souls…
Life itself your gift and yet each life hardly registers as a whisper in the vastness of time. And time itself registers as barely a whisper in the vastness of eternity. I and every other living thing are but insignificant moments in an unsearchable string of moments that are swallowed up within an infinity where no moments exist.
By your power you made the heavens and the earth. You created reality, breaking open existence with divine and furious heat. The dust of the starry heavens became the dust of the earth, the dust from which you made every living thing…
Were you so intent on making creatures in your image and granting them a world to inhabit that you’d spend thirteen billion years of cosmic and planetary life to make it happen? All for the slight blip of relationship you enjoyed with humanity before we fell from your favour? Who are we that you would go to such lengths, not even sparing your own Son, but giving him up, and with him, giving us all things? This is too great. I can’t understand it. We don’t deserve it…
Your handiwork is like a potter’s art. But my mind is like a potter’s wheel; round and round and round I go.
I heard a talk last week by Howard Cedar, a developmental biologist from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Cedar has spent his career working on epigenetics – a series of annotations that need to be understood in order to read that language. To produce different cell types, huge numbers of genes have to be switched off, and that’s achieved by a series of biochemical changes to the DNA – methylation, for example. So far so good, but it seems that this methylation can sometimes be affected by the environment, as seen in the famous (to developmental biologists) ‘agouti mouse’ experiment. If you feed ‘blond’ pregnant mice a special diet, their offspring get blonder. Other examples in humans include studies of populations that have undergone periods of starvation, or lifestyle studies including smoking*. In his talk, Cedar was cautious about the applications of this type of experiment to human medicine, but it’s fascinating work – and will hopefully become useful for improving health in the future rather than simply being alarming for parents-to-be.
I had a conversation with Howard Cedar about science and religion, and his response was that they do not mix – rather like Stephen Jay Gould’s non-overlapping magistera (‘NOMA’) but further apart. I think one of the reasons was an encounter with a Christian student who decided to pray that his experiment would have a certain outcome. I suspect the student concerned hadn’t thought very hard about the nature of science. We do experiments to discover more about the world God has made, and how he chooses to sustain it, and that’s an incredible privilege. Our successes in science are tiny steps towards understanding the world God has made. I suspect that when an overstretched student prays that God will reinvent the laws of the universe so that their next paper can be a success, they provoke a chuckle from the Almighty…
*For an introduction to the area of Epigenetics see chapter 10 of The Language of Genetics, An Introduction by Denis Alexander. If you’re reading this on a university campus and want to go deeper, you can find Howard Cedar’s latest papers here.