Sermon on the Fourth Sunday of Lent

Sunday 15th March 2015 

The Fourth Sunday of Lent (Mothering Sunday)

Christ and Modern Science 

O Lord of every shining constellation, 

that wheels in splendour through the midnight sky, 

grant us your Spirit’s true illumination 

to read the secrets of your work on high.

Christ and modern Science is the subject for today’s reflection. I suspect we have all come with some preconceived ideas about what you are hoping to hear, and for those of you who know me well, you will understand that for me, sermons are about making us think, not wanting us to all agree. I’m delighted when people go home and talk about the issues raised, and begin to get passionate about why they believe in what they believe in!

Science is such a great subject because it affects the whole community: Christians, people of the other faith communities, and those who claim to have no faith at all. Here are some random thoughts of mine about Christ and Science.

I guess the advancement of Science is born out of a human desire to know more and more about the world we live in? What is it about gravity? What is it about reproduction? What is it about light and darkness? What is it about life and death? The desire for knowledge is no different from one faith community to another, its perhaps part of human nature to want to know more.

Up until the Enlightenment people of faith – Muslim as well as Christians – sought to understand about the world as part of their search for God’s will for themselves. It is only relatively recently that science and faith have been seen to be at odds with one another. So you could say that science is born out of the desire to know more about God and the world we live in.

One of the books I’ve read which has had a lasting effect on me, is Edward Patey’s ‘Faith in a Risk Taking God’. Patey maps out from the Big Bang onwards, a theology of how God created the Universe, and of the role of humanity, as stewards of the earth, but having done so, allows us the capacity to destroy the earth, to kill one another, and ultimately to kill God, as in the crucifixion of Jesus. God takes a risk with us, that we might in turn, take a risk with him. This notion of risk is perhaps focused in the idea of free will, and that we need to do science in order to exercise our free will as stewards of God.

Rather than focus on the extraordinary journey of the science revolution, the title for today is modern science, and so let’s just consider some of the latest scientific discoveries of the last few decades.

Firstly, there has been much research into understanding the science of food. We have areas of the world with major problems of famine, mainly due to issues of agriculture, the land is not conducive to reproduction of food, the weather is either too hot and dry, or flooding regularly destroys the land, and any crops sown in it. Other parts of the world have an abundance of food, with food mountains and waste products in abundance, whilst others go hungry. Scientists have been working hard to understand the DNA of plant life, and the advancement of this has now led towards Genetically Modified Food, which could be an important answer in the quest to produce enough food, in the right place, to feed everyone, and help alleviate those in the world who go hungry.

Secondly, over the last twenty plus years there has been much science research into understanding more about the beginning of life. Our understanding of the reproduction of human beings has enabled us to help men and women, who have been unable to conceive, or to carry full term, and to give birth and enjoy parenthood. Members of our own community have benefited from IVF, alongside thousands across the world. But now, scientists have developed ways in which we can begin to remove certain DNA from the embryo, and on the one hand begin to influence certain aspects of the human body, like the colour of your eyes and hair, and on the other hand, prevent suffering from certain hereditary diseases, now with the use of three peoples DNA to create a child, rather than the normative two. We know that in the past certain children would have died at birth, with many of their mothers too, and that now, the vast majority survive, with the advancement and knowledge of medical science.

Thirdly, as well as understanding something of the beginning of life, we also have a strong desire to know more about the end of life. Science is so advanced, that we can hook people up to machines which literally keep people alive for as long as we need too. We can shut the body down, giving the brain and other organs time and space to recover from disease and damage, and treat the body with chemicals to speed up the healing process. People do come out of induced unconsciousness, and make either a full or partial recovery. Others are kept alive until the family can arrive from across the world, and say their good buys. Many people who would have died from Cancer after a short illness, now find their cancer to be a chronic condition, which can be managed over time, if not irradiated. As a consequence of modern science we seem to have much more control over the beginning and the end of life. Now we have so many more difficult decisions being forced upon us, for which we are often so ill equipped to deal with, because we can end up ‘playing God’: yet as flawed human beings we lack the wisdom of God and  human mistakes can be made. Surely there comes a point when humanity needs to recognise a level of humility and our limitations, and seek repentance and forgiveness about our mistakes.

But what should the Christian response be to all this science?  I think the honest answer is that there isn’t a definitive answer, and that depending on how we read and understand reasoning, scripture and tradition, we may well come up with differing viewpoints. When reading Scripture or holy texts, we can read literally what is written on the page, and take it at face value. We can also read between the lines, and try and understand, what wasn’t written, and to understand the context, the time in history, and the audience the text was written for.

There will of course be those who do believe that quite literally the world was made in seven days, (well six days of work and God rested on the Sabbath,) because that is what Genesis tells us, and yet we know that Science tells us that can’t be true. If we understand the story of creation as only being a metaphor or an analogy concerning God’s engagement with how the world was made, we might value the idea of days to mean thousands of years, and without the literal meaning, the science and the theology no longer conflict, but are in harmony with one another.

Having suggested there is no need for a literalist reading of the Creation account there is still a need for us as Christians to be able to respond to the critique of the New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, the author of The God Delusion, who argue that science either proves there is a God or that it disproves the existence of God.  There have been various responses by Christian writers, such as Alister McGrath’s The Dawkins Delusion.  In essence there are two useful lines of argument.

The first is to tackle the new atheists on their own scientific ground and point out that science never proves anything, it puts forward hypotheses and tests them to see if they can be falsified.  Neither the hypothesis that God exists nor the hypothesis that God does not exist lend themselves to testing and falsification: therefore not only can the New Atheists prove anything about God, in suggesting they can they are misusing their own scientific discipline.

The second is to recognise that science and religion address different aspects of living in this world and Universe.  Science attempts to answer the question of how things we observe happen.  Religion attempts to answer questions about why things happen and to evaluate what is and would be good and what is and would not be good.

Both science and ethics are needed for human life to be good.

So to conclude: to yearn to know more about the world, and to understand what it means to be human, I believe, is an essential part of our nature in being a human being, given to us in creation by the creator. For many people of Faith, including Christians, science and belief may or may not sit happily together, depending how we accept reasoning, scripture and tradition. God gave us a brain to use and develop, and we can use this knowledge to either care for the world and improve life here on earth, or we can use it to destroy the earth and ultimately ourselves, for we belong to a risk taking God. Ultimately though, our desire to know more about what it means to be human, leads us to meet with the God who made us, and who gave us his Son Jesus Christ, that we might have salvation and redemption, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

O Life, awakening life in cell and tissue, 

from flow’r to bird, from beast to brain of man; 

help us to trace, from birth to final issue, 

the sure unfolding of your age long plan.

Amen.

Reverend Canon Hilary Barber