What’s Under the Microscope Can Lead to Worship

B0004157 Organelles within a liver cell
Inside a cell, © University of Edinburgh (cropped) creativecommons.org

This year’s Wellcome Image Awards are truly awe-inspiring, and a reminder for me to look for moments of wonder and worship in my everyday routine. The online winners’ gallery includes a stunning map-like image of a mouse’s retina, a close-up of a human lens implant, and a teardrop-shaped bundle of DNA being pulled into a brand new cell. A non-scientist might not understand exactly what is being shown in these pictures, but with their bold colors, shapes, and textures, anyone can appreciate their beauty.

My field of biology has always been a very visual subject, and today that visual element can be expressed in stunning high-resolution color photographs. Wafer-thin sections of tissue can be stained with specialist dyes, showing where cell division might be going out of control in the first stages of cancer. Living cells are labeled with fluorescent tags, highlighting where a certain type of molecule is needed. Even in whole organisms, these natural fluorescent dyes can be used to track the development of a specific organ.

For some scientists, these experiences of awe and wonder point to something beyond science. Read more

R Bancewicz 2015 mugshot small
© Faraday Institute

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.

Teaching the Beauty of Biology: Jeff Hardin

Belief in God can lead to a greater appreciation for science. This is the experience of Jeff Hardin, author of this week’s guest post. In today’s podcast he shares how for him, scientific discovery leads to worship. He also speaks about the work of Abraham Kuyper, and C.S. Lewis’s idea of ‘patches of Godlight’.

To find out more about Jeff’s work and faith, and the importance of beauty in both science and Christianity, see God in the Lab: How Science Enhances Faith (Monarch, 2015).

Science and Religion in the Writings of CS Lewis

Image from http://www.heartsandmindsbooks.com

Last week at the Faraday Institute we hosted Michael Ward, chaplain of St Peter’s College Oxford, and expert on the writings of CS Lewis. In his seminar Ward spoke about Lewis’s treatment of science and religion. CS Lewis was in favour of science, but attacked scientism. You can see this in his portrayal of Uncle Andrew or Eustace Scrubb in the Narnia books, or Professor Weston in That Hideous Strength. Anything that strips humans of their values and respect for each other is to be strongly resisted.

Lewis’s model for the relationship between science and religion was very straightforward. Religion is the worldview that affects all of life, and science is a just one of the areas that is affected Continue reading

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!

Exploring the universe

The Kepler 11 system compared to our own (Image courtesy of NASA)

Each new discovery, even every new theory, is held at first to have the most wide-reaching theological and philosophical consequences. It is seized by unbelievers as the basis for a new attack on Christianity; it is often, and more embarrassingly, seized by injudicious believers as the basis for a new defense.

But usually, when the popular hubbub has subsided and the novelty has been chewed over by real theologians, real scientists and real philosophers, both sides find themselves pretty much where they were before. So it was with Copernican astronomy, with Darwinism, with Biblical Criticism, with the new psychology. So, I cannot help expecting, it will be with the discovery of ‘life on other planets’ if that discovery is ever made.

from the essay ‘Religion and Rocketry’ by CS Lewis, 1958

Religion and Rocketry is a fabulous and faintly sarcastic essay, where we see CS Lewis wrestling with the issues raised by the existence of intelligent life on other planets, while keeping in mind the massive conjectures needed to even address the question. (The final paragraph, which I will leave you to read for yourself in this transcript, is a very important one for those involved in the intellectual defence of Christianity.)

The above quote was used by NASA Astronomer Jennifer Wiseman in the conclusion of her lecture ‘Exoplanets, Life and Human Significance‘ in Cambridge this week, in which she explained the science behind the search for life on other planets, and explored the theological implications of any positive findings.

Wiseman’s lecture was particularly timely because a team of astronomers working on the Kepler space telescope recently identified a solar system something like ours. In their Nature paper they report ‘… observations of a single Sun-like star, which we call Kepler-11, that reveal six transiting planets, five with orbital periods between 10 and 47 days and a sixth planet with a longer period. The five inner planets are among the smallest for which mass and size have both been measured, and these measurements imply substantial envelopes of light gases.’

The Kepler observations are not evidence for the existence of life on other planets, but they are a step in the right direction if there is any such evidence to be found. The question of life on other planets is very important for those engaged in origins of life research, who are always extremely excited about even the smallest glimmerings of evidence for life. It seems to me that the discovery of good evidence for microorganisms on other planets may reasonably be expected to be discovered in the next few decades, and may well turn the whole field of origins of life research on its head. (If I am proved wrong and anyone holds onto this blog post for that long, I’ll be flattered.)

The discovery of intelligent life is still the stuff of science fiction. But what would be the implications of such a discovery be for the religious community, and Christians in particular?  Theologian Ted Peters conducted a survey of more than 1,300 people from seven different religious traditions. The majority responded that contact with another intelligent life form would not cause the collapse of their faith.

So where does that leave us? With our human urge to explore very much intact. You could debate the wisdom of spending millions on space exploration but, with a move towards space telescopes and perhaps commercial space flight rather than multimillion dollar space shuttles, space exploration is – I think – something that we should not ignore. As Wiseman said in the Test of Faith documentary,

…I think it’s exciting as Christians to go exploring, because we’re never going to find anything that’s outside of God’s realm. Everything is part of this majestic creation, and the more you discover the more amazed you get by thinking about God, and so I think exploration is a divinely Christian activity and people should be excited about it.