Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Blending the Scientific with the Mystical

This sermon was delivered by Rev'd Dr James Grenfell on 16th March 2014

Text:  John 3:1-17 (The Gospel for the 2nd Sunday of Lent)

This morning we’re continuing in our series of sermons reflecting on the marks or characteristics of an authentic church and we’re going to be thinking some more about the relationship between our faith and science. Because one sign of an authentic church will be its ability to relate to other ways of seeing the world with humility, maturity, and confidence. One of the most successful and dominant ways of seeing and interpreting the world for the last 300 years has been science. So how we’re able to relate our faith to science is a good test of how we might be able to do it in all sorts of other areas too.

The relationship between faith and science hasn't always been a good one. You might remember that in the 17th century the Roman Catholic Church put Galileo on trial and then locked him up because he dared to suggest that the earth went around the sun rather than the other way around. And it’s not all been one way traffic either. Much more recently, in the last five years, there has emerged a new and much more aggressive form of atheism. It’s led by a group of scientists, the new atheists, who argue that belief in God is a primitive and a dangerous delusion. Religion is a cause of so much suffering and violence in our world that it should no longer be tolerated. Those scientists and their supporters state that religion should be actively resisted and wherever possible, abolished.

But to help us think about this some more, I want to tell you a story about James Usher. James Usher was an Irish bishop in the 17th century, the period when modern science was just beginning.  He spent decades calculating with painstaking accuracy the exact dates of the events in the Bible all the way to Genesis. He was helped greatly by those big family trees you get in the bible.  Those longs lists of descendants in the Old Testament which tell you who begat whom and which often helpfully include how old people were when they had their children. Bishop Usher managed to fill in a couple of crucial gaps by using other historical sources. He got back to the year when he thought creation took place and then  he tried to narrow down the date. He reckoned that God had an interest in mathematical harmony and so it was logical that he would have chosen to create the world on a date when the sun was at one of its four cardinal points: middle of summer or winter (the longest or shortest day, or the beginning of spring or autumn (when the clocks go forward or back). Then, looking back to Genesis, he read that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden of Eden had fruit on that was ripe. It must therefore have been harvest time in the autumn. The nearest Sunday to this date and therefore the Day on which Creation was completed was 23 October 4004 BC.

It’s easy today to laugh at Bishop Usher’s efforts or to feel sorry that he wasted so many years of his life in trying to calculate all this. Because what we can see now is that Bishop Usher was simply on the wrong track. The Bible isn’t some sort of scientific textbook and the Bible isn’t meant to be used to give you a scientific answer as to exactly when and how the world was created. The Bible contains all kinds of crucially important truths about God, about ourselves and the place we have in God’s creation. But those truths aren’t scientific ones and if you read the Bible looking for scientific type truth you’re left with a very distorted reading of the Bible and end up with answers a bit like Bishop Usher.

You can see the mistake being made the other way around too, by scientists this time. Richard Dawkins, probably the best known of the new atheists does just this. He claims that God is just like a scientific hypothesis and that you can test God using scientific methods. When you do that, he says, you find that God doesn’t exist. I don’t know about you but the God that I believe in isn’t going to be threatened or constrained by the test that some scientist has dreamed up for him. Nor can I imagine what kind of proof there would have to be to convince me that God doesn’t exist. But it wouldn’t look like a scientific proof - I’m sure of that.

In our gospel reading this morning we've heard about Nicodemus going to see Jesus at night. Nicodemus, who was a respected Jewish teacher, recognises that God is present in what Jesus is doing but wants to know more. And he has a slightly comical conversation with Jesus and manages to misunderstand totally what Jesus is talking about.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that to enter the Kingdom of God one must be born from above. In fact the Greek word for ‘from above’ (anothen) also means ‘again’ - Nicodemus takes the literal understanding and thinks Jesus is talking about entering one’s mother’s womb once again.

Nicodemus thinks Jesus means entering his mother’s womb once again and he doesn’t get it. He’s further puzzled when Jesus talks about God’s Spirit being like the wind that blows where it likes. There’s another pun here - the same word in Greek pneuma means both Spirit and wind. No wonder Nicodemus was confused.

I think that the ways in which Nicodemus misunderstood Jesus help us to think about how science and faith sometimes misunderstand each other. Science and faith use the same words sometimes but each mean something entirely different by them. Science and faith give us two important but different ways of looking at our world; they have different starting points, and methods, and ways of measuring things; but we need both of them.

Rather than trying to show how different faith and science are, a much more interesting, creative question is to ask what gifts does science bring to faith and visa versa. I think that science brings to faith a desire for clarity, an endless curiosity about our world, and a commitment to the pursuit of truth. Science can also bring with it a capacity for awe and wonder in face of the beautiful complexity and simplicity of our world. Faith can bring to science a different but no less passionate search for truth. Faith can also give to science a proper sense of humility which it sometimes lacks, that there are limits to the truth that scientific reason gives us.
As well as giving humanity enormous gifts, science has also been responsible for great suffering in our world. It badly needs the kind of truth, sense of purpose and moral values that faith can offer.

The languages of faith and science need each other. Ultimately, they both need to be blessed by the Spirit of God who, as Nicodemus discovered, blows where it wills. The immense truths of God’s presence are not exhaustively described by the language of faith any more than they are contained or disproved by science.

So an authentic church community, one which is secure in its identity as the body of Christ will always look generously and critically for the truth about God in other areas of human study.  Only by doing this can we receive the gifts that science and other disciplines have for us.


Sermons in this series:

1) Introduction

1a) Reflecting Jesus' priority for the poor and the sick.

2) Having a wide and generous understanding of God's grace - Jesus poured out grace and forgiveness to everyone he met.  Are we the same?

3) Understanding Sin as the absence of Love - How should we understand Sin?  Breaking Rules?  Who decides what is Sin anyway?

4) Encouraging Christ-ians to be producers, not consumers - We live in a consumer society. Is there a danger that some of us ‘consume’ Christianity?

5) Having an intelligent understanding of Scripture - How do we approach the Bible?  A hand-written text from God?

6) Blending the scientific with the mystical - Was the world created in six days?  How did Noah get all those animals onto the Ark?!

7) Being tolerant and open to all - How do we connect with other human beings?

8) Embracing tradition while being open to the contemporary - How can we honour the old and embrace the new?

9) Understanding that forgiveness is How the World is Set Right - Is forgiveness the answer to the World’s problems?

10) Being a Eucharistic Community - How does taking Jesus into ourselves help us?

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