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Religion faced with questions

11 April 2014

Adam Ford reads two books about today's challenges to belief

God Revised: How religion must evolve in a scientific age
Galen Guengerich
Palgrave Macmillan £15.99
Church Times Bookshop £14.40 (Use code CT127 )

Science and Religion in the Twenty-First Century
Russell Re Manning and Michael Byrne, editors
SCM Press £35
Church Times Bookshop £31.50 (Use code CT127 )

WHAT is it that people don't want to be, when they declare themselves to be "spiritual but not religious"? This is the question that Guengerich continues to ask in God Revised: How religion must evolve in a scientific age. He shares the perplexities that confront so many of us in the modern world, and his book, in part, is an intriguing account of his own journey from his somewhat claustrophobic upbringing in a Mennonite community (liberal cousins of the Amish) to becoming pastor at the Unitarian Universalist Church of All Souls in Manhattan. His faith evolved far from its origins, but he always gives thanks for the Mennonite mine from where came his gold.

His thinking is widely eclectic, drawing on many sources from Socrates to Bob Dylan, from contemporary film to modern novel, but most of all perhaps from his experience of pastoral dialogue with the people who come to join the community at All Souls: I suspect that he likes nothing better than to be phoned well after midnight by a troubled member of his congregation (except perhaps for certain ice creams and pecan pie).

Traditional ideas of a supernatural Trinitarian God are rejected, along with what he calls the sin of scriptural idolatry (we should show appropriate respect for the Bible but not give it blind allegiance). It was the biblical attitude to women that spurred his departure from the Mennonite Church and sparked the beginning of the transformation of his faith.Religion, he avers, must evolve; otherwise it will be like a horse-drawn buggy on a high-speed freeway. God in his language is not an idea, but an experience: the experience of being connected to all things, from the universe to personal relationships.

Despite the subtitle, this is not a book, in any way, about science: it is about living mindfully in a modern secular world, with an open and questioning faith. The discovery that the author makes is that, whichever way we turn, we become increasingly aware of the truth that we are utterly dependent for everything, even life itself, on sources beyond ourselves and even beyond our control. It is here that he encounters the mystery that he is still able to call God.

The response to this realisation of our total dependency can be one only of gratitude (and here is a chapter well worth reading again). From this discipline of gratitude we begin to receive guidance on how to live our lives - and discover the need to find a faith community, where we can share our explorations.

Science and Religion, in contrast, is very much about the evolution of modern science and the exciting challenges it poses for theology. The editors have brought together ten lectures delivered at St Mary-le-Bow, in the City of London, since 2004, by well-known theological heavyweights (Polkinghorne, Ward, Moltmann, et al.). These Boyle Lectures are a welcome revival of the 17th-century lectures, many delivered in the same Wren church, endowed, then, by the Hon. Robert Boyle, a noted scientist and devout Christian. They are marked by academic rigour and a deep desire to bring real working theology to a wider audience.

It would be an impossible task to summarise so much academic meat in a short review, except to note that anyone interested in this field of thought will find these lectures to be an essential and accessible guide to some of the best thinking of our times. The first lecture by John Haught might be said to set the scene, by taking us beyond the slick and sometimes popular view that science deals with fact while religion dabbles in delusion, to explore the fruitful dialogue that emerges when there is true debate between theology and evolutionary theory.

The Revd Adam Ford is a former Chaplain of St Paul's School for Girls.

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