Bridging

‘[I]f pastors are not ‘up to the job’ of distilling and understanding the writings of scholars in various disciplines, how will our laypeople do it? This is one of the things that parishioners want from their pastors. We are to be a bridge between the world of scholarship and the world of the street and the pew. I’m aware of what a burden this is. I don’t know that there has ever been a culture in which the job of the pastor has been more challenging. Nevertheless, I believe this is our calling.’

Tim Keller, ‘Creation, Evolution and Christian Laypeople’

The Work and Ministry of Physics

Hubble mosaic of the majestic Sombrero Galaxy

Earlier today I was thinking about the theory of cosmic origins known as the Big Bang theory. I’m no cosmologist, but the theory seems to correlate very well with what we observe in the universe (in three key ways: cosmic expansion, microwave background, and the abundance of less-dense elements). Many Christians seem unduly nervous about giving any credence to many of the insights of modern science, even where science is trying to interpret empirical data. Perhaps another quote I came across today will be surprising. It’s from Jean. Yes, that one.

Moreover, let us not forget that there are most excellent blessings which the Divine Spirit dispenses to whom he will for the common benefit of mankind…. He fills, moves, and invigorates all things by the virtue of the Spirit, and that according to the peculiar nature which each class of beings has received by the Law of Creation. But if the Lord has been pleased to assist us by the work and ministry of the ungodly in physics, dialectics, mathematics, and other similar sciences, let us avail ourselves of it, lest, by neglecting the gifts of God spontaneously offered to us, we be justly punished for our sloth. (Institutes 2.2.16)

How we need to recover the expansive idea of Common Grace as Calvin construed it, and indeed the partnering concept of a Law of Creation.

Christianity and Creation

P1010070Over the past few weeks I’ve been making my way through Planetwise, by Dave Bookless, National Director of A Rocha UK, a Christian environmental conservation charity.

Early in the book, Dave Bookless reminds us of the historian Dr Lynn White’s accusation, made in 1967, that Christianity was the most human-centred religion.  You can read White’s paper, published in Science, here. What White wrote was that ‘[e]specially in its Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen.’ He also concluded that:

Since both science and technology are blessed words in our contemporary vocabulary, some may be happy at the notions, first, that viewed historically, modern science is an extrapolation of natural theology and, second, that modern technology is at least partly to be explained as an Occidental, voluntarist realization of the Christian dogma of man’s transcendence of, and rightful master over, nature. But, as we now recognize, somewhat over a century ago science and technology—hitherto quite separate activities–joined to give mankind powers which, to judge by many of the ecologic effects, are out of control. If so, Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt.

However, White saw hope not outside of Christianity, but within it. In his paper he appealed to St Francis of Assissi and his attitude to the creation.

His view of nature and of man rested on a unique sort of pan-psychism of all things animate and inaminate, designed for the glorification of their transcendent Creator, who, in the ultimate gesture of cosmic humility, assumed flesh, lay helpless in a manger, and hung dying on a scaffold.

That’s fair enough. But the idea that all creation is made not for man, but for God, and the idea that man is a steward of all that God has made – exercising rule over it in trust, on behalf of God – these ideas are not Francis’. They are found in the scriptures. Right there in Genesis 1 and 2. However, the Christian church has (sometimes wilfully) misread these scriptures, or not noticed them in its rabid desire to defend a literal reading of the biblical account of creation. So bent on proving Genesis 1 against science, the Church has been blind to the great theological messages contained in it. These messages rise to their full glory in the NT, where we are told that in fact creation is not merely for humanity, but for Jesus Christ – and hence properly for humanity only in Him. He is for creation, and creation is for him.

When the Church as a whole sees that the creation has a future in God’s purposes, that we are created as God’s image to be stewards of its glory on His behalf, and that our calling to this stewardship is being realised in Christ, then perhaps we will take ecology seriously and White’s well-founded critique will begin to be addressed.

A Godless Creation

mothThere are plenty more answers needed if the full-blown concept of undirected Darwinian evolution (accounting for not only variation but speciation) is ever going to be accepted as fact – even though a lot of people think that day has already come.  Some time ago I noted down from a radio interview a  very honest and helpful list of questions that there are still no answers to, provided by Dr Anjali Goswami, UCL and Prof Scott Armbruster, Portsmouth University.

  • What actually drives morphological variation?
  • How do we get the variety of forms that we see today?
  • Why do we see those and not other forms?
  • How does natural selection operate in the wild?
  • How does speciation occur?
  • What created the patterns and diversity we see today?

You might add to this the extremely difficult issue of DNA.  Karl Popper writes (‘Scientific Reduction and the Essential Incompleteness of all Science,’ in Ayala, FJ and Dobzhansky, T (Eds.), Studies in the Philosophy of Biology (London: MacMillan, 1974), 270):

What makes the origin of life and of the genetic code a disturbing riddle is this: the genetic code is without any biological function unless it is translated; that is, unless it leads to the synthesis of the proteins whose structure is laid down by the code. But, as Monod points out, the machinery by which the cell (at least the non-primitive cell, which is the only one we know) translates the code ‘consists of at least fifty macromolecular components which are themselves coded in the DNA’ [citing Monod]. Thus the code cannot be translated except by using certain products of its translation. This constitutes a baffling circle; a really vicious circle, it seems, for any attempt to form a model, or a theory, of the genesis of the genetic code. Thus we may be faced with the possibility that the origin of life (like the origin of the universe) becomes an impenetrable barrier to science, and a residue to all attempts to reduce biology to chemistry and physics.

That was written in 1974, but I’m pretty sure nothing much has changed on that one. The evolution of life must have this as its headline: in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

Immortality and Longevity

Cryogenic StasisThe philosopher John Gray has written a book entitled The Immortalisation Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death.  In Gray’s view, the search for immortality is delusional, illogical.  However, humanity still applies its greatest achievements in learning to seek to overturn death: for example, Ray Kurzweil’s well-known speculation as to whether immortality will eventually be realised by being able to preserve a distinct human consciousness within a software system, and to instantiate that consciousness within a virtual realm.  Or the much older idea of cryogenic stasis.

One particular question arises in my mind: does ultra-Darwinism have an explanation for the undeniable human longing and search for longevity and immortality?  Ultra-Darwinism is built solely upon the principle of the survival of the strongest genes, the most adaptive genes. Life is geared to propagation.  Death is fundamental to the mechanics of Darwinism.  If humans are merely concerned with propagating genes, what purpose is served by longevity and immortality?  Especially beyond the time when propagation is possible.  And yet humans yearn for it.

Of course, in Christian theology, death is ordinarily the necessary precursor to immortality through resurrection.  The Athenians were askance at Paul’s proclamation of resurrection, but for Paul this is how the human yearning for immortality will be realised.  Even those who remain alive at the moment of the transformation of the cosmos must themselves pass through the transformative process through which those who have died have passed (1 Cor 15: 51).