Starting new conversations about science and faith

Starting new conversations about science and faith

By Dr Ruth M. Bancewicz

Underneath the ground in any healthy forest is a network of fungi. These mostly hidden organisms criss-cross the ground, connecting with the tree roots and each other to form a highly connected web of interactions that is crucial to keeping the ecosystem healthy. The largest, oldest trees are often the communication hubs. Water and nutrients pass from tree to tree, so that saplings are supported by the older ones. When one tree is nibbled by insects it sends out signals that are passed to others via their fungal connections, warning them to ramp up their defence systems. A fungal fruiting body –the humble mushroom –is therefore a reminder of the vast network of fungal matter hidden safe underground that plays a large part in keeping the forest alive.

As the science of the wood wide web has become clearer in the last couple of decades, books and documentaries have helped the wider public to revel in the wonder of it. We can marvel at the volume of fungi under the earth: approximately 900 tonnes per square kilometre. We can ask what is the value of an old growth forest rich in established fungal connections, and what circumstances – if any – might justify destroying it?We can also wonder if this living network is a parable of how the church operates: held together by a huge number of people working together behind the scenes at grassroots level.

As the newly established Anglican Science Commission gathers momentum, we will have more and more opportunities to think about science in church contexts. Christians have always been involved in the development of science, or natural philosophy as it was called until relatively recently. For many scientists in the past, faith was a large part of their drive to explore the world. The astronomer Johannes Kepler didn’t make it as a theologian, but found that he could serve God in science. He wrote that ‘Our worship is all the more deep, the more clearly we recognise the creation and all its goodness.’

The physicist James Clark Maxwell also found that faith and science worked hand in hand, and expressed this in a prayer. “Omnipotent God, who has created man in your image and has made him a living spirit so that he can seek and have power over your creatures, teach us to study the work of your hands in such a way that we can subject the earth to our use and strengthen our reason in your service, and receive your blessed word, so as to have faith in the one you have sent to give knowledge of salvation and the remission of our sins.”

Stories of men and women worshipping God with science are so commonplace that one sometimes wonders how the science versus faith debate has manage to survive. Another physicist, Professor Wilson Poon, has written, ‘To speak of “science and religion” suggests that “science” and “religion” are like two jars sitting on a shelf that can be scrutinised individually and compared as two instances of the same kind of thing. For me, religion is the shelf that holds up all the other jars…’

As someone whose role is to support the church in its engagement with science, I am delighted to hear that the Church of England is taking formal steps to integrate science into its mission and ministry. This continues a tradition of engagement with science by clergy through the Church’s history. For a long time lecturers – including natural philosophers –at Cambridge University were ordained.

There was the iconic nature-loving clergyman Gilbert White, and the physicist and Roman Catholic priest Georges Lemaître who proposed the Big Bang theory, and one could go on. There have of course been some skirmishes, but deeper historical enquiry often reveals a more nuanced story than the conflict stories that are often told. For example, the most reliable records of the debate between Bishop Wilberforce and Charles Darwin show that it was Darwin’s science that was being debated, not the compatibility of evolution with the Biblical account of creation. Time and time again, historians have found that the simple warfare narrative of science and religion has been overblown or at times simply invented.

Of course there are issues where the Church needs to take a stand, and debates will be important. But it’s not the church against science, rather the church advocating for effective and ethical use of scientific knowledge. For example we could ask, ‘How can we use AI to protect people and create opportunities?”,How can we ensure that people around the world have access to clean water?’ or ‘How can we use the best of environmental science to guide our churches policies around energy consumption?’

Alongside these conversations, I believe that it is also important to revel in scientific discoveries for their own sake. For example, many Anglicans living within 30 degrees either side of the equator will have access to coral reefs. These precious ecosystems cover about 0.2% of the ocean floor but are host to about one third of all sea-dwelling species. We may be familiar with many of the species of fish, coral and crustaceans that live in these places, but scientists are only just beginning to discover something ofthe diversity of microbial life.A litre of seawater contains up to a billion tiny plankton and bacteria, and every centimetre of coral is covered with tens of millions of bacteria.

When we take time out to enjoy the fruits of scientific research, our eyes are opened to the beauty, intricacy and diversity of creation. We are also prompted to ask new questions. For example, the science of marine ecology raises a number of questions that it cannot answer by itself, such as‘What is the value of a coral reef?’, ‘Why do we find it so beautiful?’or ‘How should we interact with it?’ These questions pose theological or philosophical conundrums that strike at the heart of who we are and our place in the living world. They build bridges for scientists (whatever their religious commitment may be) and the church to have conversations that go beyond the immediate debates about application of scientific knowledge.

The utilitarian results of results of science are of course essential because they help us to care for people and creation, but that is not our only motivation for doing science. The Bible (Job, Psalms and Proverbs in particular) tells us that we can learn wisdom from creation. Like any occupation, science can also be a crucible for character formation, and for demonstrating Christlike behaviour to colleagues and students.

There is one more impact of science on faith that comes up time and time again in conversations with Christians in the sciences. The Psalms tell us that all creation praises God. What better way to praise him ourselves than by discovering more about his creation and letting that sense of awe and wonder fuel our worship of him?Ultimately, the result of the church’s mission and ministry is a global communion of people worshipping God, so I hope that this aspect of science – its ability to raise our hearts to God in worship – will play an important part in the Anglican Science Commission’s future work. I look forward to seeing what it looks like for the church worldwide to incorporate an engagement with science into its ministry in a routine way, and the work and worship that will inevitably come from that engagement.

Dr Ruth M. Bancewicz is Church Engagement Director at The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, Cambridge. Her latest book is Wonders of the Living World: Curiosity, awe, and the meaning of life (Lion Hudson).

You must be logged in to post a comment Login