Monday, March 16, 2009

Dr. Bob's Science Week Sermon

Lent 2 2009
Genesis 17. 1-7&15-16
Romans 4. 13-end
Mark 8 31-end

This weekend marks the beginning of National Science and Engineering Week. Right across the United Kingdom there will be thousands of activities taking place in schools and with the public to celebrate the achievements of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Here in South Yorkshire we have the largest regional programme in the country. Over 450 events will take place in schools, museums, universities and colleges with many thousands of people taking part. There is enormous public interest in what we now call STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics; and enormous public debate.

So, why do we bother? Surely science is something for the experts - best left to those who know. Traditionally, there are three reasons why we promote the better understanding, appreciation and awareness of science:

First of all it is for cultural reasons; science and technology are now so much part of our culture that we often speak about society being defined by its technology - what is called techno-culture. We have always done this; speaking about the Stone Age, or the Bronze Age or the Age of Steam. A thought on which you may want to ponder is what technology would define our age, is it the age of the antibiotic, or the microchip; the Genetic Age or the Space Age. Science is as much part of our culture as Shakespeare or Milton and we would view anyone who did not have some scientific knowledge as deficient in their education.

The second is a democratic reason; because we live in a technologically advanced society we have to make decisions that are informed by science. Decisions such as whether we should eat pizzas which have puree from genetically modified tomatoes or should I have given my children MMR vaccine, or whether the coolant in our fridge is likely to harm the Ozone layer. As members of a participatory democracy we no longer leave everything to the authority of the experts but are expected to make decisions for ourselves.

The third is an economic reason: increasingly our industry needs a technologically aware workforce. We live in a region where the old low skill industries have largely gone but have been replaced by high technology, high skill industries. We have manufacturing companies in this region with full order books for the next 20 years but an ageing workforce that will retire in the next ten. Even in the current economic climate we have a skills deficit in this region that means we import skilled workers. It is salutary to note that until recently, one of the first posters you came across on leaving the terminal at Robin Hood Airport was in Polish for numerically controlled machine operators.

The key mantras for people like me who work in this field of public science education are: Horizon scanning - what will be the next big idea that will appear that the public will need to know about; and Upstream Education -educating the public about it early so that they are better informed and do not panic. To the theologically trained ear these sound like gifts of scientific prophecy.

I am quite amazed that I have got so far through a sermon on science without mentioning Darwin. I had harboured the secret hope of not mentioning Evolution at all, but this is Darwin year - it is also the year of Galileo - so the alleged conflict between science and religion is very much on the agenda - often because conflict sells more column inches than real debate. It is an artificial conflict that has largely been imported from the United States and generally represents the collision between bad science and bad theology. There is a debate to be had but the debate is not about simplistic interpretations of science versus naive interpretations of scripture. The debate is much older than this and is about the respective roles that human reason and divine revelation should play in our understanding of ourselves and of the world. I have no problem with the theory of evolution - that is the best explanatory model for how the natural world came to be - but I am also aware that this model, like all scientific models, is contingent and open to falsification and change. If it were not so we would still be teaching about Phlogiston and Elective affinities in Chemistry; Miasma and spontaneous generation in Biology; the Sun would still orbit the Earth and the stars would rotate on their crystal spheres.

So I would appeal for two things: first of all to take the dialogue with science seriously because it should be a true dialogue and not simply opposing camps shouting at each other with megaphones. The second is an appeal for the Church to engage more seriously in the public understanding of theology - for us not to be afraid of the Christian heritage of ideas and scholarship that has formed the foundation of so much of Western Civilization and - indeed - of science and technology.

The Bible is not a scientific text book but it is a repository of poetic truth and wisdom. And poetic truths are so enduring and so important to us. The creation stories of Genesis speak an important truth about our relationship to this world and to God. They make it clear that our existence is on a par with the rest of the universe; that we are made from the dust of the earth - the same stuff as the stars. Our faith is incarnational which means that the human flesh of God in Christ is of the same stuff as ours.

I though I might conclude by setting out one or two of what Einstein called "thought experiments": just to see how a fruitful dialogue between science and religion might look. Rather frustratingly they will be questions without answers but I hope they are fruit for thought.

1. Advances in biology mean that virginal conception is now less of a miracle than it used to be. The church in the west has often referred to the Virgin Mary as the "Mother of God" whilst in the East the orthodox churches talk about the "Theotokos" - the God bearer. Does our modern understanding of biology mean that Mary gives her genetic material to Jesus - gives him her humanity or is she the surrogate womb into which the divine seed is laid?

2. Biochemists tell me that the molecules I eat are broken down and reformed into my flesh and my blood - if this did not happen I would not grow and live. How does this insight inform my understanding of what is happening in the Eucharist?

Science is very good at answering the question How? but it does not answer the question Why? Theology is about answering the question Why? That is why theology is sometimes called the Queen of the Sciences. For us to be complete human beings we need to understand not just how we came to be here but why. We as Christians have that wonderful insight that the incarnation brings us of a God who is so involved with the world that he became part of it. During Lent we reflect upon the Son of God who is the Son of Man, who in the wilderness pitted his flesh in naked humanity against the temptation to be more than human. In doing so he showed us our path -our destiny - to that truth, that mystery, that in death we shall be united with God:

that in Christ we and the whole universe are redeemed.


Isn't he good?