Professor Morna Hooker
24th November, 2013
This term, we have listened to some of the scientists who are Fellows in this College speaking about their different disciplines and their approaches to them. I am not a scientist, and you may be wondering – as am I – what I am doing rounding off the series. I have two explanations. One is that the chaplain ran out of volunteers, and so fell back on his usual stop-gap. The other, which I prefer, is that he thought it appropriate to conclude with some sort of theological comment. The series is, after all, entitled ‘Science and Religion’. So far we have heard a great deal about science, not much about religion. So where does religion fit in?
The specific topic he has given me is the creation narrative in Genesis, which is hardly surprising, since any discussion of the relationship between science and religion is bound, sooner or later, to focus on the question of creation. As we heard earlier, the Genesis account tells of God creating the world in 6 days – a task so arduous that God decided it was necessary to take a day off on the seventh. Even though the Psalmist tells us that a thousand years are a mere day in the sight of God, this is clearly a very different story from that told us by astronomers and geologists, who describe creation in terms of billions of years. And this, of course, is the point, for it is not just a different story but a very different kind of story.
Last week, I was talking with some of our graduate scientists and engineers. One of them expressed surprise at the title of this term’s series of addresses. Surely it is case of science or religion, he said, not science and religion. I thought that we had abandoned that battle in the nineteenth century, but clearly many have not heard that an armistice has been agreed. And indeed, the chaplain spoke at the beginning of term of those who still believe that science and religion are mutually incompatible. They are encouraged by the fact that in certain places, some Christians attempt to maintain the literal truth of the biblical narrative. Just how they manage to do so while living in the modern world I do not understand. Do they still adhere to the nineteenth-century notion that God created fossils and placed them in the geological strata in order to confuse the scientists? These so-called creationists muddy the issue, providing easy Aunt Sallys for Richard Dawkins to attack, and leading millions to assume that scientists and Christians must be in opposition. You will have noticed that there has been no hint, in any of the addresses we have heard this term, that this is so.
Last week, many of us heard Rachel Oliver talking about her work in nanotechnology – a world of very little things in which, though she clearly knew a great deal, she felt she knew a very little. And in contrast, she spoke about attitudes at the end of the nineteenth century, when many scientists believed they had discovered everything there was to discover and could explain everything. And then Einstein developed his theory of relativity, and quantum mechanics were born. ‘I suspect’, she commented, ‘that we still know very little’. As with all true scholars, she was aware that the more she knew, the more there was to know. The universe, we are told, is expanding. And so is knowledge.
The common theme that runs through all the talks we have heard this term is that of humility. We are clearly fortunate, for not all scientists are so humble. And neither are all theologians! The temptation to tie up all the ends, to produce an over-arching theory, is always present. We must never, said Rachel, lose our sense of wonder. We must always be prepared to confess that we do not know. It was a confession made by the author of the book of Job, centuries ago, as he imagines God addressing Job:
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?
Tell me, if you know and understand.
Who fixed its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line over it? . . .
Have you comprehended the vast expanse of the world?
Tell me all this, if you know. . . .
Can you bind the cluster of the Pleiades
or loose Orion’ belt?
Can you bring out the signs of the zodiac in their season . . . ?
Did you proclaim the rules that govern the heavens
or determine the laws of nature on the earth?[i]
But doesn’t the story in Genesis 1 claim to tell us just how God laid the earth’s foundations? Not in any way that a scientist would recognize, since it does not claim to present a ‘scientific’ explanation. Did you notice that light is created at the very beginning, and that three days and nights then elapse before the sun and moon are formed? No, the Genesis narrative is, as I said earlier, not simply a different story but a different kind of story – a story about our role in a world made by God. Religion, suggested Melinda Duer, seeks to do for ‘humanness’ what science seeks to do for our physical world: provide a framework in which we can understand it. So what does it mean to be human?
Many cultures have stories about ‘how things began’. Often these are not so much accounts of what happened in the past as explanations of why the world is as it is now – and the story of how things went wrong when Adam sinned in Genesis 3 is one such attempt to explain why things are wrong with the world today. But Genesis 1 seems to be attempting something more. It seems to describe, not so much what the world is like now – did you notice that all the animals were apparently created vegetarians? – as what it should be. Men and women were created in the image of God – created to be like God. But are they? Is Genesis 1 perhaps trying to fathom the purpose of creation? And what does it mean to be ‘in the image of God’?
The author of Colossians 1 had no doubts about that. It meant, he claims, to be like Christ, who is himself the image of God. And the description that follows is what we might well expect to find in a description of God – a description of one in or by whom all things have been created; and by ‘all things’, he explains, he means everything in heaven and on earth, things visible and invisible, both earthly rulers and the unknown forces that control the universe; the whole universe, he claims, has been created through him and for him. He exists before all things, and all things are held together in him. That is the kind of theological language you might expect a hymn-writer (which is what the author of this passage is) to use in describing God.
But – and here is the surprise – the author is describing, not God himself, but Christ! And that, you will agree, is some claim to make about someone who lived and died as a human being a few years earlier. How can he possibly do so? Because, he believes, Christ is the image of God, the reflection of God’s character. In him, he says, God chose to dwell in all his fullness, and through Christ, God reconciled all things to himself, making peace through his death on the cross. Look beyond the theological jargon, and you will see that what our author is claiming is that the true character of God is revealed in the life and death of Christ – in an integrity that was prepared to die for the truth, and a love that was prepared to die for others. Nor were these just one-offs. They are, he says, the underlying principle of creation, the thing that makes the universe tick, that holds everything together. We see this principle embodied, claims the author of Colossians, in Christ, who is the image of God. So here is the pattern for the lives of men and women, who are, according to Genesis, created in God’s image. Live in this way, and the whole of creation will be brought together in harmony.
What intrigues me about this is the fact that the vision presented in Colossians chimes in with something Mick Brown said in his talk. Now Professor Brown refuses to use the word ‘God’. To him, he tells me, that word has no meaning, and it would be dishonest for him to use it. But he spoke of a troika drawn by three horses – religion, science, and politics – and asked: who or what holds the reins? His answer was that he would like to think it is charity. He preferred ‘charity’ to love, he told me, because in the modern world ‘love’ has lost its real meaning. Most of us abandoned the word ‘charity’ for precisely the same reason! But whatever word you choose to use, we seem to be talking about the same thing: namely a concern for others, an empathy which puts their well-being first. What holds the reins, he suggested, is what he terms ‘charity’, and what I call ‘love’. Rachel Oliver spoke of God as a law-giver – giver of the laws of physics that control the Universe – and the biblical vision is that the fundamental law is to love God and to love one’s fellow men and women. Science and religion may use different languages, and adopt different approaches, but clearly they can converge.
At the end of his book The Selfish Gene,[ii] Richard Dawkins concludes that we human beings ‘have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth’ and ‘can even discuss ways of . . . cultivating . . . pure, disinterested altruism’. But if we do, he suggests, this is to defy our nature. The biblical narrative tells a very different story. It suggests that pure disinterested altruism is not a defiance of our nature, but part of the divine plan. And that, to use Melinda Duer’s term, is the biblical understanding of our ‘humanness’. Live in that way, and creation itself will be brought into harmony, for underlying the many little things and the immensities of our universe there is a pattern that makes sense and gives purpose to our lives.
[i] Job 38.
[ii] Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, OUP 1976, p. 215.