Picture: painting by my son, who has grown up very happy that faith and science inhabit the same planet!
Blogs are a useful medium, in that thoughts can happen without the demands of other genres.
Throughout much of my career in Christian ministry, I have been able to reflect with congregations on science and faith. In a lockdown situation, this is rather difficult, but this is that time of year!
Herewith therefore, some inevitably flawed and opinionated thoughts from this experience.
Ever since the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth, and indeed, well before, I have found it beautifully useful, as a grassroots minister in various places, to emphasise the mutual concern of science and organised (Christian) religion, where both are pursued with the discipline, integrity and openness proper to their traditions and cultures. Perhaps, also, with love.
From the outset, people in the (Welsh, English and Scottish) congregations were overwhelmingly grateful and encouraging.
More than twenty years ago, a lady in a village church came and said how good it was for her that she ‘can now own up to believing both in God and dinosaurs’.
More worryingly, a church-connected child in a city primary school ( about 2010) was told by a teacher, precisely, that these things were incompatible. Museum curators who had been hassled by obnoxious Creationists, were extremely wary about any contact with churches, but generally also relieved that this was not the only face of religion.
The myth of the war between science (observation) and faith (interpretation) has been so pervasive, and damaging, and the barriers between these fields so heavily fortified, that we did need a period comparable to the recognition of colonial injustices, of the rights of colour, or women, and LGBTQ+ communities, when perhaps people of faith for a while stood back, as if we only had things to learn, and listen, rather than contribute.
It’s sad and complicated, that this point will be reached at different points in different places, but from where I’m standing, it’s happened, and I can’t continue putting energy into battles no longer worth fighting, (here) even if skirmishes continue elsewhere. My condolences if you’re still under heavy fire.
If the cultures of science can also trust faith (though I appreciate people of faith can make this enormously difficult!) we’ll be getting somewhere. But ‘victory’ is the toxic option for all.
Similarly comes the shocking point at which even faith/science initiatives can become a distraction from the existential urgency of multi-layers environmental crises, ignoring these with the same apparent anxious meticulousness as some Biblical education bodies still undoubtedly do.
Some years ago, my congregation accepted funding from a foundation happily encouraging churches to engage with science, with – in the small print – a prohibition on environmental projects. The resultant exploration was fun and worthwhile, though in 2021, I hope every colleague in ministry would spot that glaring moral inconsistency and call it to account. Science/faith must never be an excuse for fiddling whist the Earth burns.
With the fun branding of ‘Dinosaur Sunday’, and inspired by the ‘Clergy Letter Project’ in the US, I led congregations on explorations both of scripture and science. The magic that spreads through a congregation when a genuine (and local) fossil is brought reverentially into the sacred space of worship has been wonderful to see. In these excursions , it seemed that evolution- as life’s adaption to changing circumstance through engagement with disaster – provides a hermeneutic (a mode of analysis) far more congenial to scripture than the forcible imposition of a nineteenth century model of linear progress.
Likewise, we should proceed with far more respect for the efforts of our forbears, more ready, helpfully to recycle whatever resources, spiritual or otherwise, if we do not only see ourselves automatically as superior to previous generations, but assess instead, how well they adapted to their time, place and environment.
As environmental chaplain, I have had the opportunity, additionally, to discover the hermeneutic of recycling: that the spiritual and other ‘assets’, with which threat and oppression were encountered, can and should be repurposed (rather than crassly, blindly re-used) as we encounter global threats which appear without precedence. Even some scary and wild parts of our traditions can be valued and reassessed as spiritual responses to crisis, and the real challenge of Endings, rather than the comfortable capitalist mythology of a singe-use planet, which can be discarded.
There’s certainly an idolatry of ‘eternity’ seen as a featureless continuum, rather than a succession of ‘ages’ with turmoil at times of transition. This emerges from the specious ‘logic’ that because God is assumed to be endless, the pursuit of endlessness – and endless economic growth at all costs – must be sacred!
And yet elsewhere in the archive of faith, we find a befriending of mortality; a recognition that endings – and even death – are not failure, but part of life. Memento mori! Creation is serially recycled. Nothing is single-use. Thank God.
Can anyone begin to engage with the state of the Earth, without accepting that disaster -or even extinction – is a possibility? Can anyone engage with Christian Scripture without a similar acknowledgment?
Following that particular leap, of re-use, re-cycling, repurposing, things go deeper: discovering the surprising coherence – as a record of experience- of an Old-Testament closed-earth view of sky and soil (heaven and earth as one Creation) , and the deep awareness of the cycles of nature, identical with divine partnership in continuing life. And the ‘kingdom’ the ‘reign’ or ‘way of rule’ of that sky seems close to these cycles. There is no ‘incompatibility’ with science here, if we approach with respecting humility. Likewise the wonderful, if differently expressed insights in science and scripture, of what human beings share, down to a molecular level, with all the life. In Christianity, ‘the Word was made flesh’, rather than merely human.
In my own ‘field’ of theology, where I seem to have become more a ‘folk-singer’ than ‘classical musician’ I note that poetry, preaching and storytelling are potentially the most sophisticated tools we have for processing existence, where a more systematic approach sits back and assumes that for just so long as we analyse something, then we will have no cause to ‘fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day’. Ivory towers are as fragile as any other human construction. The life of the world and the danger we urgently face, does not wait for an essay to be fully referenced. Urgency is now a condition of existence, not a threat to it, though if we do speak or act urgently, we do so in humble awareness that we may turn out to be mistaken. And grateful for any chance to correct or refine our provisional vision.
It was always useful groundwork to share in a worship context, insights about the great age of the Earth, and evolution. Creationism has precious little to offer in comparison. 4000 years, and a big stick if you disagree, compared to 14 billion and counting. For someone concerned with building up the faith of a worshipping community, awe and wonder are amongst the most basic building blocks.
There were two additional bonuses: first, the clear awareness that both faith and science are essentially evidence-based, even if the modes of what can be admitted as evidence vary sharply, and secondly, that both fields, in order to maintain any authority at all, must needs modify their statements and habits when new evidence comes to light.
Awe and wonder should sharpen our abilities to process such evidence, rather than insulate us against them. And yet it is possible so to love a snapshot way of expression and of faith, that such enrichments come as a threat.
We see, all of us, ‘though a glass, darkly’ pending enlightenment with a small “e”. The capital E of the rationalist movement in the Age of Enlightenment, whilst lending authority to positive ideals of liberty, progress, toleration and more, also intimidated and entrenched division between different, but inevitably overlapping aspects of the broad richness of human reason, when not limited to its verbal expression.
Alongside the great achievements of the Age of Enlightenment, the place of women, of enslaved people, and those lacking the privilege of the philosophers, let alone of fellow creatures, was not at all fully addressed by that movement, and worst of all, the priority of purely human modes of thought over all else in Creation, laid some terrible foundations that it has taken the threat of environmental catastrophe finally to shake.
The objectification of everything other than ‘Man’ ( sic) forbidding ‘who’ in place of ‘it’, remains a shortcut to violence, exploitation and gross injustice. The frequent biblical insight of the co-occurence of injustice and environmental devastation should be no surprise. Welfare and happiness, though notoriously difficult to quantify, are values nonetheless. Science always requires the humility to acknowledge, that to disregard the immeasurable is an experimental expedient, rather than a final resting-place. And the most disciplined of scientists remains richly human.
Though Christianity can teach, with integrity, that ‘conquest’ is an inferior outcome to reconciliation, nonetheless, conquest, domination, victory and the pursuit of perfection, were powerful spiritual drivers of an age when ‘improvement’ of, for instance, Britain’s native wetlands, took precedence over the understanding on which that improvement was believed to be based.
The Voice of the Earth, which is now ( with irony?) conveyed by the insights of science, together with the voices of marginalised and oppressed humans, was always easy to ignore in these circumstances.
Working ecumenically, I have discovered that traditions and ‘churchmanship’ are far less significant as to whether a congregation is able to embrace care for the Earth than the presence or absence of trust in science. Catholics and protestants, liberals and evangelicals, conservatives and progressives all inhabit the same common home, all cherish the same scriptures, though of course, with diverse traditions of interpretation.
But, truly, a critical trust in the honest observation of the Earth (as opposed to the crypto-spiritual overstepping of this by militant atheist movements) should be native to all wings, at least, of the Church.
In this, the re-emergence of the scientific respectability of regarding, for instance, the Earth, as a ‘living’ entity in her own right, as well of the erosion of the human monopoly on language, complex communication, intelligence, reason, and feeling, have been signs of hope.
Many authoritative leaders, above all Pope Francis, have recycled the authority of spiritual – yes, personal – relationship with the Earth married to scientific observation, in the pursuit of justice.
The more we do learn about the ‘simplicities’ of nature, the more we are challenged by her complexity and the interdependency of all life.
Of course, our species has a decisive role, and having long since ‘filled the Earth’ with our populations, we have also reached the tipping-point frontiers, simply to step back and ‘leave well alone’ is not an option either.
With regard to the continuing destruction of habitats and ecosystems by humanity, there is no fence left on which to sit. We learn instead, from the experience of invariably faith-based liberation movements:
“In the end, “ says Martin Luther King, “we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends”.
Will the Earth now say likewise?
Desmond Tutu adds
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
This mouse, we have discovered, is neither vermin nor a mere object of pity, but the key to our own survival.
Two, perhaps unscientific, words, also along here: ‘Halleluyah anyway’.
The ( unwitting) Enlightenment intimidation of spiritualities, which often extends to the unspoken demand that the transforming power of hope must demonstrate a clear rational pathway, is most often rebelled against only by those who have already lost everything.
By those who have nothing to lose but their chains. Even out of lament, hope can emerge. Faith has a vital -and arguably objectively positive – role in maintaining ‘hope against hope’. From them we learn. Them we neglect at our peril.
Just as a scientific observer cannot but be part of the experimental environment, a community which, with eyes wide open is not naively optimistic, but rather embraces the spiritual resilience of apparently irrational hope, will encounter different outcomes to one which has only rationally extrapolated despair.
In the meantime, some generations of religious teachers unwittingly(?) took the species absolutism of the Enlightenment to heart. Representing the human responsibility for fellow creatures (including the land/earth) which is such a huge theme of the scriptures, as dominational sovereignty, and where this seemed too authoritarian, to the cosier ‘stewardship’, which, though honourable, demands, spiritually, little less than looking after someone else’s property, rather than a partnership. I have encountered (and in my training read) respected teachers of previous generations of religious scholars who, though acting with discipline and integrity are as oblivious of their anthropocentric bias as would be (the early) Immanuel Kant to ‘Me too’ and ‘Black lives Matter’.
To have to account for your treatment of an entity who ‘looks you in the eyes’ repurposes the laboratory. Science, though pursued passionately by participants in a very particular culture, with rules, doctrines and prejudices, will never be morally or spiritually neutral, though efforts in that direction are often honourable and perhaps essential.
Maybe this is a ‘get used to it’ insight. Like the one that all scripture is necessarily interpreted.
For all of us, ‘by their fruits, you shall know them!’
Please, let us all both learn and contribute. It’s later than we thought. More difficult. More exciting.