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God and the scientists

08 May 2015

Adam Ford considers creation and a great naturalist and preservationist


HOW does God, as creator, interact with this rich and complex world - a world that can now be described and explained by science with such apparent clarity? This has become a critical question for believers.

The relationship between science and religion is bedevilled with myths, in particular the "conflict myth". A new brand of militant atheism would have us believe that religion has always opposed developments in science, preferring ignorance and superstition to enlightenment and truth. Gillian Straine reminds us that many of the greatest names in the history of science, such as Galileo, Newton, Boyle, or Descartes, were driven by theology to investigate, understand, and interpret the world for their contemporaries.

The author, trained as a physicist and now a priest, helps the reader to see the noisy polemic used by both militant atheists and religious fundamentalists for what it is: in each case, a one-sided misunderstanding of the other, shouted in the echo chamber of a closed mind. She writes clearly, with informed authority, for the general reader.

The negative "conflict" myth is traced back to the 19th-century writings of John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White, with a surprising minor contribution by Washington Irving, author of "Rip Van Winkle"! Straine then uses a three-part framework, suggested by the theologian Ian Barbour, to examine the various ways in which the realms of science and theology can relate in positive rather than antagonistic ways.

The least demanding of these is the one of mutual independence: each realm politely recognising the other as a different way of talking about the world, but with no overlap of language. The great science writer Stephen Jay Gould espoused this view; mutual respect but with the distinct warning "Don't stray into my realm."

The second way recognises that there can be a useful dialogue between science and religion, while the third goes further, aiming for complete integration, creating a coherent world-view in which science and religion work together to describe this dynamic evolving creation as the theatre for the spiritual growth of mankind. The author then uses these three approaches to explore four hot topics: cosmology and the Big Bang; Darwinian evolution; quantum mechanics; and finally the emergence of consciousness and soul.

It is in the emergence of human consciousness, the "final frontier of science", that we confront what is arguably the most fruitful subject for the thorough integration of science and religion. For this to be successful, theology needs to be able to handle the difficult topics of chance, suffering, and uncertainty in an emerging evolving process. 

DAVID FERGUSSON, in his concise work Creation, focuses on the history of theological questions about the relationship between God and creation.

He begins with early church debates about whether the material universe is eternal (a Greek notion) or created ex nihilo by the divine will. By the second century, it became a matter of orthodoxy to believe that the world was created out of nothing. We, along with all the stars and galaxies, are totally dependent for our day-to-day existence upon God, who both creates and sustains.

Fergusson believes that "The created world is integral to who we are and how we live with our companions." A theology of creation has to do with more than just "how things got started", but concerns the nature of God and our identity as human creatures. It is a branch of theology which has begun to emerge from the shadows in recent times because of our growing awareness of the fragility of planet Earth, its ecosystem, and the damage being caused by the expanding human population.

We urgently need a strong theology of nature, recognising that God's act of creation is a work in progress in which we have a part to play - a part that has to be seen in terms of pastoral care rather than dominion or control.

Creation also contains a useful annotated bibliography, giving thumbnail sketches of more than 100 works of contemporary theology which explore our relationship with God and the world. 

TIMOTHY WILKINSON's Tetralogue: I'm right you're wrong is a very different sort of book concerned with truth. Some of the best works of philosophy since the days of Socrates have been cast in the form of a dialogue; here we have an entertaining encounter on a train between four opinionated passengers.

They begin by discussing claims for truth in witchcraft and science and quickly segue into the escapist position of relativism. Tempers rise, and the reader is hooked.

This small volume would make a great present.

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