Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Big Questions in Science


Matthew 13,13-17, Psalm 65.9-13

Last summer a book was published called The Big Questions in Science. I took a look at some of them - the ones I could understand - and I found that with many of the questions there was an intriguing connection with religion.

Scientists often argue that science and religion are incompatible, or at least that they're radically disconnected, and many theologians and spiritual thinkers would agree. After all, science is evidence based, religion is faith based. Yet the questions which fascinate science are often strikingly similar to the things which make up the spiritual quest of humankind. 

Admittedly that's not true of all the preoccupations of scientists and technologists.  The quest to find a robot which can look after granny while the rest of the family get on with their lives doesn't sit comfortably with the Old Testament injunction to honour older people. 

And I don't think there's much overlap between spirituality and the obsession of modern mathematicians with the strange magic of prime numbers, even though without them a lot of the ways in which we use the Internet today simply wouldn't work. We mightn't see so many spiritual blogs and prayer diaries on-line because without prime numbers it would be impossible to stop outsiders from hacking into them and posting uninvited comments. But that hardly adds up to a connection between mathematics and prayer.

For thousands of years pagan religions have worshipped the sun as the source of all life and everything else that exists on earth, and modern science has come to the very same conclusion. So there’s a connection between science and nature religion, even though the Bible and the other major world faiths view the sun as just one among all the many created things that exist - a light to mark the difference between day and night. 

When it comes to the importance of the sun, therefore, the major world religions and modern science would seem to diverge, although many Christians would now accept that our traditional hostility to Paganism blinded Christianity to the obvious reality that the sun does after all play a critical role in nurturing life on earth. And because we also believe that human beings are tasked with being stewards of creation, we might now find ourselves sharing the enthusiasm of modern environmental scientists for finding cleaner ways of harnessing the sun's energy, such as using sunlight and water to create a clean energy source. Only this week the World Council of Churches decided to stop investing in firms that extract carbon for fuel and to invest its resources in renewable energy instead.

But although I’m sure we all want to know what happened to the missing Malaysian airliner that disappeared in the Indian Ocean, and although it's certainly one of the wonders of creation, I'm fairly sure the seabed - the last great unexplored frontier on earth - is of far more interest to oceanographers than it is to even the most wonder-struck person of faith. That said, it was one of the psalmists who wrote these words, '├Łonder is the sea, great and wide, creeping things innumerable are there, ...and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.' Some people think Leviathan means a whale but elsewhere he's described as having many heads, so he's more likely to be a high octane version of the Loch Ness monster, a fiercesome creature lurking in the ocean depths Searching for strange and as yet undiscovered creatures is just the sort of thing that modern scientists want to do, so the hunt for Leviathan goes on and makes at least a tenuous connection between science and faith.

However, the sort of scientific questions which have real religious significance today are ones like these: 

What is the universe made of, and how come it seems to have a lot more stuff in it than we can see? And, getting closer to the nub of things from a spiritual point of view, are we alone in the universe or are there any other beings out there with the same level of intelligence, or a higher level of intelligence than us? Might there be spiritual beings in the universe, beings without a physical body but nonetheless capable of communicating with us by transmitting their thoughts, and perhaps even of travelling forwards and backwards in time?

And where does all this speculation leave God, who - of course - is in a different category from any other living being, in that Christians believe he transcends the universe, meaning that he's above and beyond it, but he’s also at the same time immanent in it, meaning that he is present in everything which exists, or maybe it is more correct to say - with St Paul - that everything lives and moves in him?

Then there's the ultimate question, of course, 'Why are we here at all?' Why doesn't anti-matter cancel out all the matter in the universe leaving only energy in its wake? And, given how unlikely our universe is - what a miraculous or incredible combination of circumstances was required to make it the way it is now - scientists are wondering whether we actually inhabit a multiverse. Just as there are billions of stars in our galaxy, and and billions of galaxies in our universe, perhaps could there have been billions of universes in our multiverse?

Perhaps some of these universes were viable and some were not. Perhaps some lasted for a split second and others have endured for aeons. Some, like our own, might have expanded to a vast size, and some of these might then have contracted again. Countless billions might still be in existence now, and of these some might be capable of supporting life but most would probably not. 

If this all sounds highly improbable, it's the subject of genuine scientific debate. But if a great many scientists are sure that we don't need God to explain our universe, can they be so sure that God isn't behind the multiverse? If we're going to believe in the existence of billions of universes which we can never see, then it's no less reasonable to speculate about a God who has perhaps been patiently constructing universes - or enabling them to exist - for all eternity.

We could go on speculating about time and space, but there are other equally profound questions which interest both science and religion. What, for example, makes us different from a banana plant? You can go to Nostell Priory and see some banana plants growing in the kitchen garden there. On the surface they look very different from us. They can't walk, or talk, or think, or feel. But, like us, they're living things and they share 50% of our genetic make-up. So we're quite close relatives, really, second cousins twice removed, and we're virtually brothers and sisters with a chimpanzee, with whom we share 99% of our make-up. 

So very tiny differences can account for huge variation. What is it that really sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, except for all that fur? Ethics professors used to think that human beings know the difference between right and wrong, whereas chimpanzees don't. But the behaviour of both parties doesn't quite bear that out. Perhaps the real difference lies in our ability to reimagine the world - to think of alternative ways to shape the world and then try to bring them about. Is that gift of imagination what connects us to God in a unique way compared to other living things?

And why do we dream? Religious people have never been in any doubt, at least until the modern era. Traditionally, they believed that dreams teach us something. Either they are the voice of our conscience or else, if they are inspired, they can be messages from God. Scientists pooh-poohed that idea, supposing that dreams were where we play out our fantasies or where the brain simply unwinds after a long hard day. But now they're connecting dreams to learning after all.

Finally, there's the vexed question of how long we can go on living. Scientists wonder now whether it might be possible to make someone live for ever. It's not going to be an option for most of us but maybe the rich could pay to inherit eternal life. Would it, though, be life in all its fullness or an increasingly brittle sort of life, a bit like the increasingly desperate attempts of celebrities to fend off old age by having their skin stretched ever more tightly over their shrinking frame?

We often think that we're out of touch with the rest of society, that they're no longer interested in the things that inspire us. But I think we're all asking very similar questions. It's just that we're coming up with very different answers. Perhaps we should be bolder when these big questions come up in conversation. Perhaps we should be prepared to challenge other people's assumptions, to come at the same question from a bit of a tangent, to offer a faith solution - not as a complete answer but as part of the answer.

In our Gospel reading Jesus describes a situation in which ordinary people listen to what religious people are saying, but never understand; look at the surface but never perceive what lies beneath. He suggests, following Isaiah's prompting, that the fault lies with the people themselves. Their hearts have grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; a bit like the annoying habit of small children when they cover their ears and shouting lalalalala because someone is telling them an inconvenient truth. But, whether or not they share the responsibility for their blinkered world view, God longs to heal them. And if we are blessed with eyes that see and ears that hear that gives us a challenge, an imperative, to share what we know.
 
We often worry that the rest of society is out of touch with our concerns and preoccupations, that religion and spirituality are no longer part of other people’s agenda. But the real challenge facing us is to help people see that the big questions which concern them do in fact have a religious dimension. And that means not being afraid to tackle some of these questions head on when family, or friends, or colleagues start talking about them, so that we can help them to see that there may be more to the answers than first appearances might suggest and that faith might have something to contribute. And it's our task to show people that the whole universe, perhaps even the whole multiverse, shouts for joy and overflows with richness because it belongs to God longs to God.

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