What Animals Teach Christians about Getting Along

Portuguese_Man_o'_War_at_Palm_Beach_FL_by_Volkan_Yuksel_DSC05878
Portuguese Man o’ War By Volkan Yuksel (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The deadly marine wonder, the Portuguese man o’ war, resembles a jellyfish with its beautiful blue and purple ship-shaped bladder and impressive 30-foot stinging tentacles. What may at first appear to be a single organism is actually a colony of four completely different types of polyp, working together so closely that they are not able to survive Continue reading

The Bible and Human Origins

1024px-Great_Isaiah_Scroll
Great Isaiah Scroll. Photographs by Ardon Bar Hama, author of original document is unknown. (Website of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
 Science may have changed the way we read the opening chapters of Genesis, but we still need to respect the historical integrity of the text. This was Mark Harris’s reflection as he opened his lecture on The Bible and Human Origins  at the Faraday summer course last month. When it comes to questions of human identity and where we came from, the focus for most Christians is on the first three chapters of Genesis. Harris spent his talk looking at different interpretations of this text – especially the story of the fall – and the questions those interpretations raise for both science and faith. Continue reading

H is for Hawk

© Rose Meyer, freeimages.com
© Rose Meyer, freeimages.com

Do we struggle, or snuggle for existence? This is a question that Martin Nowak, Harvard’s Professor of Mathematical Biology addresses in his book SuperCooperators, and it is also played out in H is for Hawk, the Cambridge writer Helen Macdonald’s beautiful account of her relationship with a goshawk.

Macdonald had developed an interest in falconry as a child Continue reading

Hope for the Ocean

Indian Fisherman. © Asif Akbar, freeimages.com

This is the final part of my interview with marine conservationist Bob Sluka. Here he reflects on the science-faith dialogue in the non-western world, and how he finds his place as an academic and a Christian in the world of marine conservation. (Part 1, Part 2)

To me, there appeared to be a separation of science and faith in the Maldives and India. People’s religious devotion in those countries had more to do with personal faith orientation. They were very devout people but they didn’t seem to talk much about how their faith interacted with their science. Of course I wasn’t thinking that way either at the time (see part 1).

In South Asia and India there was so much poverty that the questions that came up in a faith context were about suffering and other problems. The science-religion question doesn’t necessarily come into conversation. We had to focus on people as individuals with spiritual and physical needs, and help them as whole persons in a holistic way. Science is certainly not keeping people from God in those countries. Nearly everybody in the non-Western world is religious, so there isn’t the perception we have here that scientific data indicate there is no God. With increasing numbers of people who are educated in Western universities, or as certain people promote atheism then it may become more of an issue. Continue reading

Jurgen Moltmann: The aesthetic dimension of science

Tanaka Juuyoh, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

German theologian Jurgen Moltmann spoke very movingly in his CIS-Faraday Lecture ‘From Physics to Theology: A Personal Story’ on Tuesday. Moltmann described in detail his experiences as a soldier in the Second World War, his discovery of Christianity and early immersion in theology.

In his teens Moltmann was a keen student of chemistry, physics and maths, doing experiments in cellars with his friends and competing with them to learn more and more advanced theories. His education came to an abrupt halt when he was drafted into the German army at 16 and spent five years in uniform: about a year fighting and four years in British prisoner of war camps.

As a prisoner Moltmann, like many of his companions, suffered from boredom, horrific nightmares and deep depression. After his first winter in a Belgian camp the beauty of spring cherry blossom filled him with overwhelming joy. Eventually he was moved to a POW camp in Kilmarnock where he experienced warm hospitality and acceptance by his Scottish hosts, and began to feel human again. When a British army chaplain gave him a Bible Moltmann read it, first out of boredom and then with real interest. He realised that Jesus had also been through ‘the valley of the shadow of death’. Moltmann’s discovery of a God who loved him helped him to find hope again.

After just over a year of captivity Moltmann heard of a camp where the younger prisoners whose schooling had been interrupted by the war could study for university entrance exams. ‘Norton Camp’ had a well-stocked library and here the Moltmann read his first theology books, enjoying an almost monastic experience of intensive study and spiritual growth. After attending a post-war Student Christian Movement conference where he experienced reconciliation with young people who had fought on the other side, he decided to study theology.

In the second half of his lecture Moltmann spoke about the human dimensions of science: power, beauty, truth and wisdom. Unless ethical power develops as far as scientific power, science will remain dangerous.

Moltmann is the first person I have heard to actually flesh out what beauty in science looks like (though I expect others have written on this – answers on a postcard…) According to Moltmann, beauty in science can be experienced as symmetry, simplicity or unity. And beauty is seen most clearly when systems are moving from chaos to order, or vice versa. While beauty is not worth searching for in science for its own sake, Moltmann is convinced that beauty is a sign that you are nearer the truth, and that this sort of beauty is not subjective. Beauty may be useless from a utilitarian point of view, but it is meaningful in itself. I wonder how much an experience of the horrors of war informs this theologian’s love of beauty?

Fatherhood and Suffering

© Ruth Bancewicz

Jesus used parables to demonstrate how God reveals something of himself in nature. For example God is compared to a shepherd, his word is like seed, and beautiful flowers in a field are an example of God’s lavish provision. (Alister McGrath, The Open Secret)

But any attempt to experience God by enjoying the beauty of the world will quickly founder unless the issue of suffering is addressed. Much suffering is caused by humans exercising their freewill in selfish ways, but at times death and disease seem to come through ‘natural causes’. The god of the Enlightenment, conceived by well-to-do men in their carefully tended estates, was a distant (deistic) creator of a good world. This philosophy fell apart as people became more aware of suffering and natural disasters occurring around the world. How could a good god allow such monstrous things?

What about the Christian understanding of God? If God is all-powerful and all-loving, then why do we suffer so much? I won’t address the ins and outs of Christian understandings of God’s good creation and the fall. The upshot, though, is that creation is a cracked mirror, reflecting only part of God’s glory. It has been suggested to me that because creation is somehow fallen, natural beauty is not an effective way to God – but I’d challenge that for the following reason.

Jesus often compares God to a father. But no dad is perfect, and some people are unfortunate enough to experience very bad parenting. Somehow the existence of terrible fathers didn’t stop Jesus using fatherhood as an analogy for God. Why?

I think our flawed human experience only makes Jesus’ illustration more effective. We know what is expected of good dads. At times we see glimpses of perfection, and we want more. Rather than shying away from using fatherhood as an analogy for fear of misinterpretation, Jesus knew that our best parenting moments shine out as an illustration of God’s love for us.

On that basis I think that nature, while flawed, can at times be an effective illustration of God’s own power, perfection and beauty.

Beauty – The Weight of Glory

I’ve just read CS Lewis’s ‘The Weight of Glory’, in which he considers heaven, and explains his understanding of reward and future glory in Christian theology. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that Alister McGrath references this essay quite extensively in his book on natural theology, ‘The Open Secret’.

In the first part of the essay – the part that McGrath quotes so extensively in his book – Lewis explains why he thinks we all long for heaven, sometimes without realising it. Some of the subjects we learned at school may have seemed boring at times, but opened the door to a wealth of enjoyment in the future (hopefully!) We might have had a glimpse of that future from time to time, but often it was a hard slog, learning things seemingly for the sake of it. Lewis says

‘if we are made for heaven, the desire for our proper place will be already in us, but not yet attached to the true object, and will even appear as the rival of that object.’

If we are fascinated by what we see in nature, find it beautiful, or if it awakens something in us that we can’t put a name to, Lewis would say that that is a ‘desire for our own far-off country.’ But if I were to lose myself in nature-worship I would be disappointed because I would inevitably find suffering and death lurking around the corner.

‘The books or music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing… For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not yet found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.’

Lewis would insist that this ‘desire that no natural happiness will satisfy’ is evidence, of a sort, for the existence of this ‘far-off country’.

A man’s physical hunger does not prove that that man will get any bread; he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man’s hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist. In the same way, though I do not believe (I wish I did) that my desire for Paradise proves that I shall enjoy it, I think it a pretty good indication that such a thing exists and that some men will.’

That’s not something I’ve considered before, but it’s an interesting thought!