As part of my attempt to learn enough Spanish to get by on holiday, I often read the excellent Spanish newspaper El País online. On Saturdays it sends me its special supplement “Materia” on subjects of scientific interest. Today, for example it reports on world – wide investigation into using viruses as agents of destruction against cancer cells. It notes that this works on the same principle as vaccination, invented by Edward Jenner, whereby a micro-organism that causes disease can be re-designed for therapeutic purposes.
A Spanish network of scientists are working on the Adenovirus family of viruses, which can be programmed to attack tumour cells. There is already anecdotal evidence that this approach may be successful.
When I consider all the kinds of scientific study which over centuries have created the possibility of this research – anatomical, genetical, chemical, biological, nano-technological to name but a few- I am moved to an awed respect for the patience and power of the scientific method. The capacity to frame ever- new hypotheses about the world and to test them rigorously has immeasurably enriched human knowledge and enhanced human lives.
This respect has driven me over years to be impatient with all sorts of religion that are careless with facts. From the sloppy emotionalism of evangelical ecstasy, through the ritual perfection of upper class Anglicanism to the bullying certainties of Free Kirk morality, there are many examples of a distaste for letting facts getting the way of faith, and of a pulpit rhetoric that remains six feet above contradiction.
Others, looking at the disjunction between religion and science have argued that there is no contradiction between them, because science establishes facts while religion announces their meaning. That seems dubious to me. The scientific theory of evolution, which has been for more than a century the most fruitful hypothesis about the development of life on earth, is not simply a collection about facts, but a narrative about the meaning of those facts. Christian opposition to the Theory began by denying the facts of the fossil record, (the missing link) then attacking the narrative (how could humans be descended from apes?), then by dismissing the entire Theory as an atheist or communist plot. The truth is that Christian theologians saw correctly that both the Theory and the facts that supported it denied aspects of the biblical account of creation, and questioned many of the church’s doctrines. There is no way any philosophy or religion can dispute the meaning of the facts that underpin the Theory, without accepting and understanding them and the meanings that scientists have given them. A theology of creation might be more than the theories of science but it cannot be less. Any attempt to by-pass the facts is a denial of the creator. The facts are holy; God is in the facts.
The reluctance of churches and theologians to reckon with scientific method and its results has left a huge backlog of work to be done by those who refuse to accept a dichotomy between faith and knowledge. There is as yet no foundational theological work on creation that deals comprehensively with the theory of evolution, or with the discoveries of particle physics, or with the models of cosmologists or investigators of the human brain. Instead there are a plethora of re-runs of ancient controversies or eager engagement with fashionable issues.
i have just re-read a book* about the theory of information by James Gleik which I do not fully understand but which introduced me to the many sciences of information and their related technologies, helping me to understand just a little about the IPad on which I am typing this blog. Computers have already transformed the world in which I live but most churches have used them as I do, to communicate their beliefs, rather to investigate these beliefs in the light of the computer revolution.
I was moved recently to read Dante’s Divine Comedy in a new translation by Clive James. It is the story of the journey of a pilgrim through hell and purgatory to heaven and to the final vision of the “love that moves the sun and the other stars.” It is of course a great exposition of ChristIan faith, but is also a work of science fiction using the best science available to the author, so that faith, poetry and science form a single story of overwhelming beauty.
Yes, the explosion of knowledge in our time means that Dante’s grasp of all relevant science would be impossible for any one person today, but his book is a better model for theology than anything I know except the Bible. If we believe in the victory of God’s love in the world, we should be eager to welcome all new knowledge of the world into our understanding and practice of faith, for if we reject it we may be rejecting a revelation of God’s love.
The facts are holy; God is in the facts.
- The Information, by James Gleik. Fourth Estate