It’s important to have debates about science and Christian faith and to dig into the hot topics, but we can’t exist solely on a diet of controversy. We also need to be able to sit back and enjoy the wonders revealed by science and the big questions they raise about meaning and purpose. What’s the universe for? What do you do with your feelings of awe and wonder? Where do we get our sense of the value of the living world from? These are the sorts of questions that have driven the Wonders of the Living World project from the start, and we are delighted to be able to share them with you.
Our book and study materials for adult church small groups will be released on 14th June, with a zoom launch event on that date – watch this space for details. In today’s post we meet the contributors to the book and videos and hear some of their thoughts about the big questions we’ve been exploring.
Dr Ruth Bancewicz, Genetics, Faraday Church Engagement Director: What has been the thinking behind this material?
Transcript: Every scientist experiences some sense of awe and wonder in their work, whether it’s something mathematical, something very beautiful, something very surprising, something that just logically fits together so wonderfully, there’s always that sense. And for a Christian there is also something that goes further – their sense of awe and wonder can feed into their worship of God, the great creator who made it all. And from their science there comes knowledge that is useful, there are ethical decisions they have to deal with, but there’s something extra, there’s something in their work sometimes that reminds them about something to do with the character and purposes of God. We’re not talking about proof for God, but it’s more something that might resonate with their faith as well as leading them to worship. It might make them think a little bit about the character and purposes of God. So what we’re trying to do in this study series is to help you to appreciate the intricacies, the complexities of the science, to celebrate creation and enjoy it, but then also to think about these questions of meaning and purpose that science can raise.
Cara Parrett (formerly Daneel), Marine Biology, now on the Faraday Youth and Schools team: How did you get involved in the project, what’s your role, and what have you enjoyed so far?
Transcript: I’m Cara Daneel, I came over from South Africa to work on the wonders of the living world project with Ruth Bancewicz at The Faraday Institute. I applied for this job because when I saw the job description, I was just so excited, so intrigued, and also kind of surprised. In South Africa I had studied science at school and university, and never really throughout that whole time had I been encouraged to explore the synergy between my Christian faith and the science. So to see a job description where biology and belief played a role at an institute where science and religion were in the title, I was immediately hooked, and really excited, and I couldn’t not apply really.
I think the most important part about this project is that it’s a communications project. And not only that, but it’s a communications project about the positive aspects between science and religion. Having this positive narrative, I think would have truly helped me when I was thinking through these things as a science student, where I felt like sometimes I was just treading water in the science and religion discussions around me. And I didn’t really have a positive note to interject with in those discussions. So I think the communication of these aims is key. But this project then goes a step further, and it doesn’t just communicate to scientists, it also communicates to people who have very little scientific knowledge or research, and that’s great as well. I think they will get the same thing out of it that I would have as a science student back then, because who can’t learn more about the natural world and just be intrigued and moved to wonder? I’ve just loved learning about all the work of the scientists that we’re featuring. And diving into their research worlds, and just being directed towards all the wow factors that they’ve come across. It’s been amazing to see what they’re working on, and to research it so I can explain it to others. I’m learning loads in the process.
Prof Alister McGrath, Biophysics, Theologian: How can a feeling of awe and wonder in science prompt people to ask questions that science can’t answer?
Transcript: I think my most vivid experience of wonder took place in the 1970’s when I was on vacation in Iran. We were travelling on a bus in the middle of the night because it wasn’t hot then, and the bus broke down. We found ourselves in the middle of this solemn black desert, and the night sky shone with a brilliance like I had never seen before. That just overwhelmed me, it made me think there is something really wonderful here. Now I was a Christian by that time and I knew how Christianity could answer that but it just struck me, that sense of wonder has two possible outcomes. One is science – this universe is wonderful, what’s it all about? But of course it is also about religion, the deeper levels of things that science can’t really engage. I think one of the things I have discovered over time is that maybe this sense of wonder both opens the gateway to science and to faith, and that those two together are able to answer questions which on their own they simply couldn’t.
I think science is wonderful at asking questions. Some of those questions can be answered, but very often when you do answer them they simply open up yet more questions. But of course there are some more fundamental questions I think science simply cannot answer – they transcend its capacities to answer, and you might think of non-empirical questions like, “Why am I here? What is the meaning of life? What is good and how do I live a good life?” These are real questions and they’re good questions but they’re not scientific questions. And the psychologists tell us that we really need answers to those questions if we are to lead a fulfilled human existence. You find some scientists who say, “Well because science can’t answer them there are no answers to be given”, but actually most realise that there are answers waiting to be discovered – it’s just that science can’t deliver them. Science fills in part of a big picture but there are parts of the picture you have to fill in from somewhere else. Science is part of the answer but only part, and faith supplements it, giving us a vision of life that is exciting and reliable and also something that we can inhabit meaningfully.
Dr Margaret Miller, Marine Biologist: What is the value of creation and what does that have to do with us?
Transcript: I certainly have always had the perception of nature having intrinsic value; of creatures within nature having value and existence in and of themselves. And I think Christian scripture describes God’s creation as good, and as each of the different components as God creates them being deemed good. And I think that’s indicative of the natural tendency I feel I have to ascribe intrinsic value to creatures in nature. Working with and studying corals can be a discouraging endeavour. The bad news tends to be much more predominant than the good news. Certainly as a Christian I derive hope from the good news, that Christianity offers, that there is a God who cares about us and a God who has created a plan for us as humans to be redeemed, and I think also a plan for all of creation to be redeemed. I think that humans have a role in that – we know that we have responsibility as stewards of creation. We don’t do a great job of that, but God has promised… I think the concept we have of partnership with God in that stewardship, and maintenance, of nature gives me hope that it’s not just me trying to save the corals, but there is a partnership. And as I said it’s participating in, to some extent, God’s interest in the maintenance of those ecosystems functioning.
Prof Stephen Freeland, Biochemist: How do you think science and faith fit together?
Transcript: I see that science is a God-given capacity for understanding the order and the patterns within the universe. But that it cannot and will not replace other ways of knowing, of which my faith… I’m not sure if my faith is another way of knowing or if faith is at a level above all of these, I think art is a different way of knowing and I don’t think science contributes much to improving my relationship with art. Science can contribute things to know about it, can help it become fascinating, but there’s a different way of knowing there. I think my faith is more like an umbrella that acknowledges these different ways of knowing and centres around the idea that there is always going to be something more. I don’t understand the point of view that there is nothing more. I regard that as a step of faith. I think there is something more and I regard that as a step of faith. I don’t believe that my faith is rational because I don’t believe that the boundaries of rational thought allow me to really explore my faith deeply. But I believe science can contribute to my faith.
Prof Jeff Hardin, Biologist: How do you think science and faith fit together?
Transcript: For me, studying the wonders of the living world is an exercise in art appreciation. For me, God is the creator of everything, and so discovering how that creation works – that’s what science is about for me. So for me the joy of discovery is also the joy of appreciating the world that God has made. And discovering the intricacies of how that living world works, especially in my case, understanding how embryos develop is really an exercise in saying “aha, that’s how God has made the world!” And understanding in a way that no one else has actually ever understood – that that’s how it works – that’s really part of the thrill of discovery for me, and leads me to thank God for the amazing world that we have to enjoy and to explore.
Dr Rhoda Hawkins , Theoretical Physicist: What do you think we can find out about God from his creation?
Transcript: There’s one thing I don’t think we can find out about God by looking at creation, and that is whether God exists or not, because science by definition studies the physical universe, the physical world, and God is outside of that. But if we believe that God exists and we believe that God made the world, then we can find out more about what God is like from what see in nature. And I’m not sure exactly who first said it, but Francis Bacon used the analogy of two books – that we can read about God in God’s word (for example in Bible). We can also read about God in the book of God’s works, which is God’s creation. So I do think that by looking at the world around us and looking at it through eyes of science, we can find out more about what God is like. And when I look at some of the things that I study in science, I never cease to be amazed at quite how impressive the world is, and how impressive the mechanisms are for how things work, the intricacies, and the variety, and yet the depth of simplicity at times of underlying physical laws and principles. It really is beautiful in many ways, and leads me to think about God. I’m not saying that I have any proof, but I’m saying that by looking at the world around me it tells me more about God and it leads me to worship God, to worship this creator who has made these amazing things and processes in the universe.
Prof Jeff Schloss, Biologist, Philosopher: How do you think science and faith fit together?
Transcript: How do science and faith fit together for me? I wasn’t raised in any kind of a religious tradition, and for much of my life they didn’t fit together at all. They didn’t conflict, but they just seemed to me to be very separate domains of inquiry. Science asked the fascinating questions of how world works (and that’s where my heart was drawn), and faith asked questions that earlier on I wasn’t so interested in – what the purposes of life might be, and might there be a God behind those purposes? But as I got to be more interested, I would say compelled, by the latter kinds of questions, that drove a deeper divide between the sciences and faith – or the humanities in general because I thought that science was really impotent to answer the questions that were most important for life. And the irony is this, that once I became a Christian & experienced what I believe to be… was a relationship with God, that freed me to go back with renewed enthusiasm into the study of the natural sciences because I wasn’t demanding from them something that they weren’t equipped to give. And I had the leisure, the opportunity, to pursue them just out of unbridled curiosity and joy. So in one sense they fit together because faith gives a liberty to pursue, and also a motivation to pursue. I had the sense that I was studying the marvels of the natural world, which are marvellous in their own right but become more profoundly engaging and enticing when one thinks that you’re studying the works of God.
Dr Hilary Marlow, Theologian: What is the purpose of creation?
Transcript: Psalm 150 actually talks about all of creation – everything that has breath – praising God, and Psalm 148 actually includes inanimate as well as animate creation in the call to praise. I think that’s perhaps surprising for some Christians, because I suspect that some Christians would think that human purpose is to praise God – that’s what humans are supposed to do – and the fact that all creation is called on to praise God is a little bit surprising to them. I would like to suggest that it’s a reminder that we are part of the created order. We’re not separate from it. It’s a reminder that we share a lot with the rest of creation, which is both the capacity to worship God, and the command to do so. Now of course when the Psalmist wrote those Psalms, we don’t know exactly what they were thinking about when they said “Let the mountains praise God”, or “Let the hills or the trees worship God”. What did they have in mind? They’re not concerned to explain how a rock or a tree or an animal worships. They were concerned to say that actually this is the characteristic of the whole of creation, and this is something that we share with creation rather than that separates us from the rest of creation. I think it’s a reminder to us to be humble in not assuming that just because we’re the ones with language and we’re the ones with writing and so on that we are the only creatures that offer God worship.
Prof Simon Conway Morris, Palaeobiologist: What do you think we can find out about God from his creation?
Transcript: My own view is that we are in a creation, and that creation, as we would say amongst philosophers, ‘ex nihilo’ – that is out of nothing. And I would also go further than that which is, within I believe at least Christian orthodoxy, that God sustains the world continuously. If, impossibly, he was metaphorically to take his mind off things we wouldn’t be here. We are genuinely created. If I look at the natural world I see that it’s very highly ordered. I see that, amongst other things, it allows consciousness to emerge. I see also that not only does it allow consciousness, but it allows people to understand things – to understand rational things, to understand logic, to understand mathematics, to create things themselves – as Tolkien would have said, to act as ‘sub-creators’. And all of that I regard as being consistent with existence of God. They’re not knock down arguments. They’re not absolute proofs because in another theological way, the majority of believers would say that fundamentally God is entirely unknowable. He’s not us, with one perhaps critical exception.
Explore more videos like this at wondersofthelivingworld.org/videos/
The illustrated book that these videos accompany will be released (UK editions) in June 2021.
An online book launch will be held on the evening of Mon 14th June, with a number of the book contributors participating. Watch this space for details.