Living With Science, Loving with Faith

A homily I wrote for chapel at St Peter’s School, York as part of a recent Science & Religion workshop day (P.S. Science and Religion with the kidz is now my full time job – visit our project website for more details) 

Reading: Genesis 2:8-20

Living with Science, Loving with Faith

There has probably never been a time in history where there were more worldviews and beliefs available to you in the marketplace of ideas. And there has never been a time in history when our scientific ambitions and achievements have been as world-changing as they are today. And in the noise of all this ambition, invention, discussion, and debate we have to ask ourselves: how do we choose what direction we should go in next? What science should we do, and why? And who should make those decisions?

You see, science does not exist in a vacuum – it is not just a collection of observable facts about the universe. Science is an activity done by humans, for humans – and so what those humans believe is important, or beautiful, or true, will impact the science they choose to do – and the way they do it.

You may have heard that scientists somehow leave their beliefs at the door when they enter the lab. I disagree. When we look at the shape our scientific research takes, the things we prioritise, the issues we don’t – we get a very clear picture of what we put our faith in as individuals, and as a society.

When wondering what drives our science, we can follow the money: what is being funded? By whom? And for what? What would you invest in if you had money to spend on science research? How would you decide what was important? Behind your choices would be a set of values, or beliefs about the world, that shaped your decision, whether you were aware of it or not. Perhaps that’s a value like ‘it’s good to help people’, or ‘we should look after the planet’, or ‘knowing more stuff about the universe is exciting and important’. But what are those values rooted in? How do you know they are true? Can you prove that it’s good to help people, or that saving whales matters, or that the universe is exciting? And if you can’t, why do you believe those things?

In our reading today, we are reminded of two things: the rich diversity of the world, and also the importance of human engagement with it. In Genesis Adam stands before God and is told to both look after and get to know the world around him. He is told to care for the earth and give names to the animals whose home he shares – today we would understand these as scientific activities: conservation and zoology.

And how far have we got with these ancient activities? One of the great ironies of living in this scientific age is that all our exploration has made it clearer than ever that we know very little about the universe, or even about the creatures that live on this planet. We cannot travel to the bottom of the ocean, and we cannot understand the inner life of other animals. Our false sense of authority has led us to the point of destroying our environment and dooming the species we name to extinction. We have more power to benefit or damage creation than we’ve ever had before, and we have, it seems, failed to deliver.

I called this reflection ‘Living with Science, loving with Faith’ because I am totally convinced of two things: firstly, our scientific endeavours have fundamentally changed the world in which we live for the better, and perhaps in some ways for the worse. Whether you are interested in science as a school subject or not, your entire way of life is dependent on its work and discovery. This is valuable, and important. Secondly, it is increasingly apparent that gaining more knowledge about how the world works does not seem to help us to behave better. It is possible – and indeed normal – to be highly educated and also contribute to the world’s problems. So we need science, and we need faith – faith that our set of values are useful, and true, and will guide us towards pursuing what is good. It is through this act of faith in something more important than our own personal happiness that we learn to love the world around us.

It is my faith in a creator God that gives me the conviction that both the pursuit of knowledge and the pursuit of the greater good are worth the time and effort. Each one of us is challenged to ask ourselves: where do my values come from? Where are they leading me? What do I want the future to look like? And am I ready for the responsibility that comes with that vision?

 

 

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Pushing on the Door of God: Patience in Suffering

(Short homily delivered at Trinity Theological College, Singapore, 14/10/16)

The description of ‘patience’ and ‘endurance’ in today’s James chapter sounds a lot like a description of faithfulness: we are to stay faithful in our suffering. But how? I have had some truly terrifying moments in my life when it felt like I could not endure anymore and I wished my life would end. How do we keep faith through those times? It seems impossible. Perhaps this is because we have the wrong idea of how to stay faithful, or ‘patient’ in our suffering.

We talk about God being ‘full of faith’, ‘faithful’; and what we mean is that He is committed to relationship with us, no matter what. If faithfulness is a relationship, I think our biggest mistake when it comes to pursuing patience in suffering is trying to endure alone. If you’re like me, you heard this passage in James and read it as an individual, not as a community member. But at the same time, if you’re like me, some of the moments of true encouragement in your faith have been when you have gone from feeling alone to remembering that you are not, because you shared your suffering with someone. The experience of faith is not meant to be a solitary one. As Christians, we have put our faith in the only person – the Son of Man – who ever suffered completely alone – and He has not permitted anyone to suffer alone since.

I was diagnosed with clinical depression when I was 16, after a series of traumatic events. I have been on different forms of medication for anxiety and depression ever since. One of the hardest things about depression is how alone it makes you feel – even when you’re not. People seem like strangers – you fear that they are distant, and then you want them to be. There comes a point when you start feeling guilty for even existing. There is this feeling of disconnectedness to the rest of the world, a longing to feel part of it in a way you don’t feel you are. A wall of numbness seems to separate you from everyone else. And sometimes people in the church have reinforced that loneliness, with their fear of my diagnosis, or their unwillingness to understand, or their advice to just pray more, and harder, and to have more faith, and all will be healed. But I have also been surrounded by Christians who have allowed me to name my depression as it is, and they have loved me. Their willingness to take some share of my pain was a covenant, a promise to love me, even though it was no light burden that they were offering to carry. We must not only be patient in our own sufferings, but patient in bearing the sufferings of others. We are never alone, and as Christians we can remind each other that God is there: there is no ‘I’ in our endurance of suffering.

God comes to us gently, with human hands that hold us when we cry, and it is only later that we realise that God was there in the touch of others. That is not to say that humans can replace the divine. But we can present the divine to each other. If we are to be the body of Christ, then that seems exactly what we are called to do. Loving those suffering begins in being willing to listen without restriction as they share pain, and trusting that God is present with us.

Imagine the loss of God’s presence! Jesus’ suffering on the cross was under true conditions of utter loneliness: no one with whom to share his pain – not even his heavenly Father, in the end. Picture the world’s suffering on His shoulders, unable to tell even His closest friends the huge burden He bears. And, worst of all, the one person who might know, who might hear, who might share in this torment, has shut the door: Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani. The door of God had never been shut before. Praise be to God, the door has never been shut since.

In some ways, the love I have received in the midst of my mental illness has convinced me of this. God’s door has never been shut for us. Sometimes it is hard to see it open, because we convince ourselves that the door should look like cosmic signs instead of human faces. But if the Door of God can be found in the comfort of human touch – if Christ can be found in human arms and hands – we are not only able to stand like welcomed beggars before the Door, clutching our suffering and knowing that it will be received, but we are able to help each other come to the Door of God. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ… who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God.” What a privilege! May we all learn what a privilege it is to bear with each other as we seek patience in suffering!

More ‘Things I wrote Recently’

I know blogs aren’t supposed to act as holding sites for writing elsewhere, but there it is.

George W Bush and the ‘Armies of Compassion’: a longish article for Theos Think Tank on American political religion and the presidency of GWB. Irony filters recommended.

The NHS is Public Grace: short reflection for Threads on the ways the National Health Service demonstrates grace in our ‘secular’ public sphere, why that is unusual, and why that is worth protecting.

Your Shoes Don’t Fit My Feet (On Rescuing Empathy): Would we do better work without All The Feels? A blog post for Dwight Hall at Yale responding to recent article by Professor Bloom, called ‘Against Empathy’.

Magee Interviews: Joy Johannes, FISH of Greater New Haven: Interview for Dwight Hall at Yale. Joy Johannes is the Executive Director of FISH, who provide nutritionally sound grocery assistance to the home-bound in the New Haven area.

Voluntourism: Is It Any Good?: Helping or hurting? A blog post for Dwight Hall at Yale considering ‘voluntourism’ and some tips for making your service trip a positive one.