Storm Scenarios: Keep Calm and Battle On

waves sea turmoil-1182510-1280x960 Freeimages John Boyer copy
© John Boyer, Freeimages

One day Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Let us go over to the other side of the lake.’ So they got into a boat and set out. As they sailed, he fell asleep. A squall came down on the lake, so that the boat was being swamped, and they were in great danger. The disciples went and woke him, saying, ‘Master, Master, we’re going to drown!’ He got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided, and all was calm. ‘Where is your faith?’ he asked his disciples. In fear and amazement they asked one another, ‘Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.’

Luke 8:22-25

Perhaps the storm stopped suddenly of its own accord, but the disciples were not fooled. They had seen a number of these ‘coincidences’ in Jesus ministry, and they weren’t about to ignore this one. Jesus had calmed the waves with only his words. Wasn’t this an act of God? Who else could be in complete control of creation?

I’m not sure whether the disciples were more frightened before or after the storm, but it must have been a key moment in their relationship with Jesus. These twelve men had been travelling with him for some time now. They had been living and eating with him, learning, being sent out on mission, been told off for being stupid or competitive, and supported through all their struggles. So what did they learn through this incident, apart from the fact that their teacher might well be the promised Messiah, or possibly even the Son of God? Continue reading

Panopticon

Presidio Modelo, Cuba. Friman, 2007
Presidio Modelo, Cuba. Friman, 2007. http://commons.wikimedia.org

This is the metaphor that Alister McGrath used for his Science Festival lecture a couple of weeks ago (see part 1 here). It’s a slightly grim word because it refers to institutional building design, and prisons in particular, but it’s useful here. A panopticon is a building in which you can see into all the rooms from one vantage point, and McGrath used this to illustrate how he came to faith. Fairly early on in his studies at Oxford University, he realised that he could make sense of everything he saw from the vantage point of Christianity.

Empirical fit is important for a scientist. McGrath studied molecular biophysics, and he has applied scientific principles to his faith. There’s a principle in science of ‘saving the phenomena‘: your theory has to make sense of what data you have. What worldview makes most sense of what we observe in the world? Some think that science is the only way to make sense of life, but McGrath agrees with CS Lewis, who says that ‘I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

McGrath outlined three types of explanation that Christianity satisfies. Continue reading

If science is the answer, what are the questions?

A Leprechaun counts his gold. Ignacio Leonardi, freeimages.com
A Leprechaun counts his gold. © Ignacio Leonardi, freeimages.com

This was the title of a lecture that Alister McGrath gave last week at Wesley Methodist church, as part of its excellent ‘Science meets Faith’ series, and also the Cambridge Science Festival. McGrath’s talk was a series of rapid-fire arguments for belief in God that sparked off a vigorous discussion afterwards on the subject of proof or evidence for God. I found some of his arguments very helpful, and particularly those that showed how important faith is important in other areas of life besides religion.

The mathematician and philosopher W.K. Clifford said that ‘it is wrong, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence’. But who decides what is sufficient evidence? Some beliefs would widely to be agreed as right even though we can’t prove them, for example that democracy is better than totalitarianism. To come at it from another angle, we don’t believe in Leprechauns because we can’t see, hear, touch or smell them. But we believe in gravity even though we can’t see, hear, touch or smell it. Gravity makes sense of the data, so we believe it is a real force. We have evidence for some things, but not absolute proof. The evidence may also be open to alternative conclusions, and we have to decide what makes the most sense. In other words, we have the ‘absence of totally supporting evidence, not a total absence of supporting evidence’. Continue reading

What do Christianity and science have in common?

Svilen Milev, www.sxc.hu
Svilen Milev, http://www.sxc.hu

This is a cartoon of the molecular structure of DNA. Obviously no one has ever seen it – it’s too small even for the most powerful of microscopes. It was discovered by James Watson and Francis Crick (and several others) using x-ray crystallography in crystals of DNA. After their famous Nature paper was published, the science of molecular biology flourished and Watson and Crick’s model for the structure of DNA was tested in many ways. Now we have so much evidence for the double helical structure of DNA that no biologist would doubt it.

The structure of DNA hasn’t been ‘proved’. You can only prove things using maths. Science is about disproving things – narrowing down the options and getting nearer to the truth. So in a way we believe that DNA is a double helix by faith – faith that is well founded on the ‘laws’ of physics, and lots and lots and lots of reliable evidence. I’d be fairly confident to stake my life on it.

What does that have to do with Christianity? This is something that I stake my life on every day, so I’d better be sure it’s worth believing. Like science, none of the interesting questions in life, such as ‘Is that a great painting?’, ‘Does that person love me?’, or ‘Is there a God?’, can be solved mathematically. But I think there’s plenty of evidence to back up the claims of Christianity in history, archaeology, answers to prayer, the study of the Bible, and so the list goes on.

For me the most important evidence for God is the way in which he changes lives. When someone you know well becomes a Christian you have the opportunity to see whether Jesus’ claims are true – first hand. I’ve seen it happen over and over again. That’s the reason why I’m a Christian, and why I think science and Christianity have something in common.

Science and miracles

I’m a scientist who believes that miracles can happen. I don’t think I’m all that unusual. I could name a lot of other scientists who believe the same thing, and from time to time they make themselves known – as in this Nature article.

First of all, what’s a miracle? Miracles are signs of God’s particular grace to his people in particular circumstances. They are events that happen in response to prayer or a desire to connect with God. Their mechanism or timing defies normal scientific reasoning, and show us something special about God’s character. I think this is a Biblical definition of a miracle – a sign; a wonder; something that shows us how amazing God is and how much he loves us. And a miracle doesn’t HAVE to defy scientific explanation – some miracles are ‘ordinary’ events with incredible timing.

Why should a scientist believe in this sort of thing? Put quite simply, if God created the universe he can do what he likes with it! We know from experience that things in the universe can often be reduced to ordered, rational principles, like the ‘law’ of gravity, the speed of light, and so on. I believe that God sustains the universe: if he wasn’t there the whole thing would disappear. And God chooses to sustain things in an orderly way – so we get seasons, patterns and the ability to do science. But is God bound by these laws? I don’t think so! Why should he be? Occasionally he chooses to act in a different way: in a way that defies scientific explanation, and the resurrection of Jesus provides a powerful example – something that all Christians believe happened.

Going back to whether a scientific explanation can be found for a miracle, I think our desire to find stories that defy scientific explanation is a symptom of our scientific culture. If you want to say anything significant these days you need some sort of scientific evidence to back it up, and Christians often buy into this. This makes it extremely tempting to spend a lot of time justifying miracles – especially miracles of healing – as events that cannot be explained scientifically, and dismissing miracles that can be explained scientifically as nothing remarkable, when something very remarkable indeed has happened – someone prayed and God acted.

The Bible doesn’t differentiate between miracles that defy scientific explanation (like Jesus turning water into wine) and those that don’t (like the wind blowing all night and driving the waters of the red sea back – the picture in this cartoon I think overdramatises it a little, but it was nonetheless an incredibly remarkable event that etched itself on a whole nation’s consciousness for thousands of years afterwards) – both types of event are possible, and both are ‘signs and wonders’ pointing to God’s incredible power and care for us.

More importantly, Jesus recognised that miracles alone will do nothing to convince people that God is serious about caring for us. Miracles were an important part of Jesus’ ministry, and are still important today, but some of the people who watched Jesus heal person after person were the same people who cheered for his execution. And Jesus himself said that even if someone rises from the dead people still won’t believe if they don’t want to. It’s only within the whole picture of what Jesus came to do that miracles really make sense.

Wired for belief

I just listened to a lecture on ‘Apparitions, Alien Abductions and Hearing the Voice of God’ by Glynn Harrison, a Christian psychiatrist from Bristol University. His take on spiritual experience is similar to that of the psychologist  Justin Barrett, who works on childhood belief at Oxford, but he spends a bit longer explaining the application of the scientific knowledge from a Christian point of view. Continue reading

The compatibility of science and faith

If you have been paying attention to the press in recent years you will no doubt have been bombarded by the message that science and faith are in conflict with each other. Some would say that science and faith are incompatible because science is about reason, while faith is about believing in things that don’t exist. But I am a scientist and a Christian, and for me Christianity is the worldview that makes the most sense in the light of everything I know and experience in the world – including the historical evidence for Jesus and his resurrection.

Let me share an insight with you. As I finished reading Richard Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’, I was inspired by his last section entitled ‘The mother of all burkas’. If you ignore the obvious anti-religious allusion and focus on Dawkins’ wonderful description of how science opens our eyes to how incredible the world is, this piece of writing can actually be a powerful call to worship the creator who made everything revealed to us by science. Continue reading