In Search of a Consistent God: A Scientist Explores Faith

Breakfast Talk at St Chad’s, Shrewsbury, on the occasion of the 2015 Darwin Festival.

Abstract

Many contemporary adults learned the stories from Genesis at a tender age or embraced the idea of God as a suitable answer to childish questions about who created the Universe. But this causes deep doubts when modern science contradicts Genesis and questions are posed of God the Unquestionable Answer.

A person who came to faith already well-versed in science might see God in quite a different way, not least since the only God worth believing in is a God consistent with the contemporary world. The true God must be entirely consistent with the world’s tragedies and disappointments and the diversity of reported religious experiences, and robust enough to withstand future scientific discoveries.

Adrian invited me to come and speak to you today because in a Q&A I gave at the Orkney Science Festival in 2013, he felt I was proposing a way of understanding God accessible to the modern mind yet challenging to the preconceptions which he and many other Christians held. As I reflected on this, it helped me realise that my understanding of God must be rather different from many of us who have grown up in a Christian environment. And I think the best way of exploring this is to share my own story with you.

I grew up in a family which had a Christian background, but where my parents were not churchgoers. My Mum’s father was active in his local Anglican parish, and under his influence I was baptised as a baby, but he died when I was still an infant. My own Dad, a postman, was interested in science and enjoyed BBC programmes like Horizon and Tomorrow’s World. At the age of seven I got hooked on astronomy, and a year later spent a very enjoyable day with the popular astronomer Patrick Moore. By the age of ten, I had devoured all the books on astronomy in the local children’s library, and then got sidetracked into computer programming through the gift of a Sinclair ZX81.

To me, even at that age, the scientific approach to understanding the world made sense. You study the world around you, you describe it, and so you pin down the rules of how the Universe works. All the evidence seemed to point to a Big Bang at the beginning of the Universe; dinosaurs and other fossils indicated that life on earth has taken different forms in different periods dating back over many millions of years; and our growing knowledge of how DNA controls living cells made it quite natural that species would evolve and adapt in the way Darwin described. I don’t think I ever asked why things were the way they were; I was quite content with descriptions of how things worked. The Universe clearly had rules, and it fascinated me to learn what they were.

As for church, I attended Sunday School throughout my youth, and there was good religious education at the State primary school I attended; at that time, Wales was still culturally Christian. The parables of Jesus became very familiar and Christianity presented some very clear moral rules. I absorbed the teaching of Jesus and the history of Biblical Israel. I would have known the stories of Adam and Eve, and Noah and the Ark, from a very young age; but when I learned the science of the Big Bang and evolution I was happy enough to note that the Bible was “what we used to think” but now we had a better idea, based on evidence.

I started taking the Christian faith more seriously at the age of 11. In 1985, my grandmother died, and I said the first serious prayer of my life. “Lord, look after my granny; I hope she has gone to be with you. And if you are real, please show me.”

In the weeks after that prayer, I had a strong and powerful sense of Someone being present in my life. I tried praying for lost things to turn up, and they did, with startling regularity. God now had my attention, and I started to read the Bible seriously for the first time. R.E. in the second year of Comprehensive School focussed on the Old Testament, with a module on the early part of Genesis and a clear explanation of how stories could be meaningful myths rather than historical accounts. By the time I was taking my GCSEs in science, I had decided to become a Catholic, because that seemed to me the best way to respond to the invitation of Jesus to eat his body and drink his blood. Along the way I became aware that many evangelical Christians believed the Bible to be literally true in all regards, but that the Catholic Church interpreted it in such a way that a church member was not required to take Genesis literally. Indeed, a Catholic priest had developed the mathematics behind the Big Bang theory!

Even at that age, I realised that there were two problems facing a Christian who was also a scientist. Was Genesis historically accurate? And did Jesus work miracles? The first seemed to me a non-problem. If Genesis wasn’t meant to be read that way in the first place, there was no reason not to accept the Big Bang and Darwinian Evolution as the current best explanation of why the world was as it was. It was rather satisfying when my later theological studies confirmed that it was only in the light of the 16th Century Reformation that both Protestant and Catholic Christians started trying to read Genesis that way; previously, Christians through the centuries had loved and respected the beginning of the Bible as rich symbolic stories whose main message was that the physical world was something good in itself and loved by God.

As for miracles, this seemed to need a different solution. The New Testament gives many accounts of Jesus as one with the power to heal and control nature; not only that, but he commanded his apostles to go and heal the sick and cast out demons, too. The New Testament would need a huge amount of rewriting if this were not what Jesus had really meant! Further, I had read something of the history of the Pentecostal movement and the Charismatic Renewal which came into the Catholic Church in 1966. If what the Pentecostals and Charismatics claimed was true, then God’s healing power was alive in the 20th century just as much as in the lifetime of Jesus. As a scientist, consistency appeals to me, and this was certainly consistent!

By very definition, a miracle is an act of God which contradicts what the normal working of science predicts. That could be the breaking of an absolute law, or it could be a divine tweak to ensure an outcome which was already theoretically possible, but statistically overwhelmingly unlikely. Turning water into wine would be the first kind, but the kind of nudges which would enable a tornado to assemble a junkyard into a Jumbo Jet would be the latter. My journey into faith had begun with the sense of the presence of Someone who was answering my prayers; I saw no problem in believing that this Someone had the power to suspend the usual workings of science for some higher purpose. This does leave one key problem: how does God decide who should benefit from a miracle, and which prayers will be left apparently unheeded? A God who heals sometimes is an extremely frustrating being to worship. But empirical evidence rules out the idea of a God who always grants what we ask; and a God who never heals seems inconsistent with the New Testament. My inner scientist would love to construct a theoretical model of why God might choose to grant, delay or withhold healing and compare it with the case studies available; but that would take more time than I have in parish ministry, and I might come up against the problem that God’s thinking far exceeds human rationale!

The only God worth believing in is a God consistent with the world around us. This rules out the God who always heals, but leaves enough space for the God who heals here and there; one-off events are notoriously difficult for science to examine, as experimental science presupposes the thing being examined will always follow consistent rules. It also follows that, since I live in a world where people get sick and die at tragically young ages, natural disasters strike without warning, and human beings inflict violence on one another on a depressingly regular basis, the only God worthy believing in is one who exists alongside that. I have read most of the Bible and have yet to find the passage where God promises his followers that they will always be protected from sickness, death, tragedy and violence. On the contrary, the Old Testament made God’s protection contingent on the whole nation keeping the covenant (and when did that ever happen for an extended period?) – and disciples of the New Covenant are warned they can face persecution and execution if they follow Jesus. True, some Gospel passages seem to promise that prayers will be answered positively on demand, but Jesus also gave us a parable about a persistent widow as a lesson about patience in prayer!

During the last 15 years, as a seminarian and a priest, I have interacted with many children in Catholic schools. From many conversations, a repeated pattern seems to emerge. The children were taught about Adam and Eve, Noah and the Ark, at a tender age, an age when they implicitly trusted whatever significant adults told them. This belief in a creator God formed the bedrock of their understanding of God and the authority of the Church. As teenagers, they learn about Evolution and the Big Bang. But the childish ideas of God-the-Creator are so deep rooted that they cannot set aside a historical reading of Genesis without losing faith in God and the teaching Church. The baby gets thrown out with the bathwater.

Now, as a good scientist, this is only a conjecture. Some sociological research would be needed to test my hunch. But the longer I work in Christian ministry, the more concerned I am getting that what we teach young children sets them up for doubt and disbelief at a crucial age. Pope Francis recently commented of the danger of building on derived ideas rather than primary truths about Jesus. It seems to me crucial that what we teach our children about God must be ideas which will hold firm, while becoming more nuanced, when they are adults.

Now I’d like to focus more closely on the question of who God is. I first encountered God – not the idea of God, but the actual presence of a Someone who I identified as God – at the age of 11. Then, as I read the Gideon New Testament I received later that year, everything I read about the one Jesus called Father seemed to fit with this Someone. This was the source for my understanding of God – a few glimpses of this Someone in prayer, and the message of Jesus which filled out the picture with much more detail.

Did I expect this Someone to protect the world from all disasters? No. That wasn’t part of the package. Indeed, there is one text in the Gospel which I have never heard preached on, which is crucial in this regard – the collapse of the Tower of Siloam. Jesus refuses to give a moral cause for a physical tragedy – you can almost hear him saying the sad words, “These things just happen.”

Did I expect this Someone to intervene in the world in answer to prayers? Yes, and some years later, when I got involved in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, I heard many first-hand testimonies from people who had seen remarkable things.

Did this Someone match the God of the philosophers? In my teens and early twenties, I would have had my first exposure to arguments like the Five Ways of St Thomas Aquinas, the kind of arguments which say everything has a cause, except for the very first link in the chain which must be an Uncaused Cause, and that – declares the theologian with a flourish – “is what we call God”. This left me deeply unsatisfied – the Uncaused Cause, the Unmoved Mover, the Ground of All Being, seemed very abstract from the Someone whom Jesus presented as a loving Father. Nevertheless, since Scripture says that in God “we live and move and have our being”, I will take on trust that the Father is indeed the Ground of All Being and the primal origin of whatever goes along with that.

One issue which did trouble me what I became a Catholic was this. Every Sunday in church, I would recite the Creed along with my congregation, saying: “I Believe in God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth”. But what did I mean by affirming God to be the Creator?

Physics can explain a lot without needing God’s help. Physics can even account for ways in which matter can appear out of nothing. Though this sounds rather implausible, it has been borne out by experiment – if you don’t want to take my word for it, look up the term “Casimir effect”. OK, it’s still a big jump from there to suggesting that physics can explain how the whole Universe could appear out of nothing – but not so big a jump as to be unthinkable. Current research, using machines like the Large Hadron Collider – the Big Bang machine at CERN in Geneva – aims to pin down the laws of physics in extreme circumstances to see if they do allow this. Physics might be able to explain the whole Universe as a possible or even necessary consequence of mathematics.

One kind of answer says there never was a beginning, that the past extends backwards for ever. Astronomers used to think this about the Universe (the “Steady State Theory”) and the Hindu religion also imagines the universe in endlessly repeating cycles. But Einstein’s General Relativity says that time and space are two ways of looking at the same thing, so when we talk about the Universe beginning we are talking about the beginning of time, so whatever “caused” the universe is outside time. Normally a cause is the thing that happened “before” to set things off, but if there is no time, how can there be a “before”? So the kind of answer we are looking for is one which is “always” true, not always in the sense of “every minute” but always in the sense of “by its very nature, so it cannot change with time, and can hold ‘outside’ time”.

There is a repeated pattern in physics that whenever we apply maths to the universe, things which are mathematically possible are found to be physically real – the starkest example would be the prediction of antimatter before it was actually discovered, simply because square roots can be negative as well as positive! Perhaps there is only one mathematically consistent way a Universe can be. In that case, logical consistency would be sufficient reason for the Universe to exist!

What we haven’t worked out yet is whether ours is the only kind of universe that can exist, or whether there might be more than one universe. If there could be more than one kind, then why is it our kind? There are at least three possible explanations – perhaps there are many bubbles with different kinds of universe, and of course – pacé Darwin – we live in the one most fitting for us. Or perhaps, as some people believe of quantum theory, conscious observers may be required to help a quantum universe decide which way it is going to be; this forces the Universe to crystallise in a way which accommodates us. Or perhaps it’s a random accident that the Universe makes it possible for us to exist. Then we get into the “God of the gaps” territory of whether it was actually God who fine-tuned the whole Universe. I am always wary of this way of thinking because given long enough, scientists are good at coming up with sound reasons for unlikely-seeming things actually taking place.

One thing I am sure of: it is mathematically possible for the Universe to be here, otherwise we wouldn’t be. So what do I mean by calling God the Creator? The God of the Bible introduced himself to Moses as “I am the one who exists” and Jesus said “I am the Truth”. If there is a mathematical theory which explains the whole Universe, that wouldn’t do away with God – it’s a manifestation of the truth which is God, and with St John I can cheerfully agree, “through God’s Word, all things were made”. I wouldn’t want to limit God to being a statement of mathematical truth – but if the loving Someone I encountered in prayer is the ground of all Being, then I am content to acknowledge this Someone as also the embodiment of all necessary logical and mathematical truths.

The final thing I will share about myself is that I have never spontaneously asked the question: “What is the purpose of human life?” – and perhaps this is because I have grown up with a science-shaped brain which intuited that such a question is not meaningful in a scientific framework. Of course, as a teenager I had to ask myself what I planned to do with my individual life, but the fact that I enjoyed science and maths seemed a good enough reason to take a degree in physics at Oxford. Once I discovered that God was real, it became meaningful to ask in prayer: “Lord, what do you want me to do with my life?” – but God was not the answer to a question I was asking. Rather, the discovery that God was real added a layer of meaning which did not seem strictly necessary for the scientific understanding of the Universe.

Sometimes our emotional reactions to the universe lead us astray. A friend once pointed out the famous Hubble Space Telescope picture of “God’s eye” (the Helix Nebula) in a newspaper. For her, its beauty and the resemblance to a human eye suggested that God must be behind it. I find it beautiful too – but I don’t need God’s intervention to explain why it looks that way. An exploding star will ALWAYS put out a circular rim of debris with beautiful wispy dust inside, and I’ve seen plenty of other space clouds that look not unlike that one.

My faith in God exists alongside my appreciation of the universe we live in. Nothing in the beauty of nature proves to me that there’s a God – indeed, as a professional scientist, my job was to look at nature and ask, “How much of this can we explain with logic and reason alone?” Rather, my faith in God is because of the loving Someone who was there when I first prayed out of the depth of my neediness, and who I discovered had entered into History in Jesus of Nazareth: the same Jesus whose triumph over death we will celebrate this Easter. My faith in Scripture tells me that Jesus, the Word of God, was intimately involved in the making of all things that exist. My training in science allows me to marvel at how wonderfully nature takes its course to result in our beautiful world, of which Jesus Christ is Lord, yesterday, today and forever. Since Jesus said, “I am the truth”, I am content to accept that mathematical and logical truths are part of who Jesus is. I hope he explains it to me when I meet him in heaven!

Pope Benedict XVI looking down a microscope - because a believer can also explore science!