Created in Love

Sermon at the Monday Evening Celebration at the Sion Community Mission in Clayton & Ashley.

Scripture: I John 3:1-2

“I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.”

I do! I say these words, or some version of them, every Sunday at Mass!

But what exactly do I mean by calling God the “creator”?

We live in the midst of wonderful, creative, human beings. Each of us creates things every day, from a cup of tea or coffee to the content of a dozen emails. When we see a complicated object, our first instinct is to ask “Who made that? And what’s it for?”

200 years ago, a cleric of Lincoln Cathedral, William Paley, pondered what would happen if he went out for a walk on the common. If he found a stone, he wouldn’t ask who made it and why it was there – stones happen. But suppose he found a watch? Surely something as complicated as a watch means there must be a watchmaker? And 200 years ago, there was only one possible answer: God made it.

But maybe there’s another explanation. What if every living thing contains a template of how to grow, a template that gets tweaked when it passes on to the next generation? That would mean the most successful – the most fitting – templates survive and multiply. This was the idea at the heart of Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection.

And do living things really contain templates? They do. We call them genes. The earliest proof of this was found by a Bavarian Catholic monk, Gregor Mendel, who studied what happened when you cross-breed pea plants. But it took a long time for other scientists to give him credit, because he only published in a local journal. Now we know exactly how genes work – they are built using a chemical called deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, which holds together four chemical building blocks.

The Oxford biologist, Richard Dawkins, has written many books explaining how all this works for an audience who aren’t specialists. One was called The Blind Watchmaker – the random processes of evolution lead to plants and animals so complicated we would assume they had been designed, but evolution can get there without the help of a pre-determined blueprint. Some Christian critics objected that it wasn’t very likely that random chance could take all the steps needed to create all of our complex organs. But it’s not impossible, and Dawkins underlined that by writing another book, Climbing Mount Improbable.

One of the things evolution suggests is that our brains are hard-wired, when we see something complicated, to ask “Who made that? And what’s it for?” If we’re living among human beings who might be our rivals, that’s a good survival strategy… it might stop us falling into a carefully-laid trap. But we might fall into another trap – the trap of looking for an intelligent hand behind something which has a natural explanation.

Evolution happens. We have hospital superbugs because bacteria can evolve very quickly. We have different breeds of cats and dogs, and peas and wheat, because we have selectively bred these animals and plants over human history. And when we dig up fossils, we can compare both the body shape and the DNA of ancient life with life today. All of these are pieces of a jigsaw. There are lots of missing links, but the few pieces we have fit into a clear pattern.

One thing we don’t have a good idea about in biology, is how the very first living cell came into being. Evolution can’t rescue us here – before the first set of DNA came together in a living cell, some very special chemistry must have happened. Was that a miracle guided by God? Well, perhaps – but be careful! Science tells us that lots of things that looked really unlikely in the past turn out to have a good explanation. Maybe if we understood this better it wouldn’t look like such a miracle, too.

What about the Universe as a whole? How did that get going? 100 years ago, most astronomers though the cosmos was basically unchanging. The stars and galaxies had always been in their place and always would be. Then Albert Einstein came up with the General Theory of Relativity, and we realised that gravity would eventually cause all the galaxies in the universe to fall together. But clearly that hasn’t happened, so Einstein put a “fudge factor” into his maths to balance it out.

Enter Mgr Georges Lemaître, a Belgian Catholic priest and mathematical genius. He pointed out to Einstein that if the Universe were expanding, the fudge factor wouldn’t be needed. Almost everyone said that was silly, the Universe wasn’t expanding. But an American named Edwin Hubble went off to measure the speeds of our nearest galaxies and confirmed that all but two were moving away from us. Hubble got his name attached to a space telescope you’ve probably heard of. Lemaître get his name attached to the maths which describe the expansion of the universe, which are a bit less famous. Two years later, he pointed out that if the universe was expanding it must have started from a point, which he called a ‘cosmic egg’. One of his rivals, Fred Hoyle, called that a silly idea – who would believe the universe began with a “big bang”? Lemaître did – and he lived long enough to learn, a few months before he died, that radio engineers had picked up a signal from space which matched the radiation which would be left in the universe from a Big Bang beginning.

Well tonight, our theme is “Created in love”, and so far, I haven’t given much credit to God for creating anything. When we see beautiful things in nature – the swirling gases of a planet like Jupiter, a beautiful nebula in space, or our deepest peek at the distant universe – our human instinct is to go “wow, only God could have made that”. Actually, the more we understand about science, the more we can write down the rules, the easier it is to explain how these beautiful patterns come about without needing God to fine-tune anything.

But that still leaves one question. Where do these rules come from in the first place? Perhaps there is only one possible set of rules that works without causing contradictions. If so, those rules spring from the mind of God, whose nature includes all things that are true. If there’s more than one possible set of rules, did God do some selective choosing?

The Catholic Church leaves us free to believe in the Big Bang and in Evolution. We’re also free to believe that God created the world by a miracle a few thousand years ago. But if God did create it more recently, all the evidence indicates that God made it looking as if it had been around for a lot longer, in a Universe more than 13 billions years old, on a planet 4.6 billion years old, and with fossils going back for millennia.

Perhaps we get misled when we open the Bible and the first thing we see is the Book of Genesis. But how often have you watched a film, or read a novel, where the opening sequence isn’t part of the main story, but is something like a dream or fantasy sequence to set the scene? If you were an ancient Hebrew and you opened a scroll to see the words “In the beginning…” that’s like us seeing *“Once upon a time…” or “In a galaxy far far away…” – it’s a cue that what’s coming next is meant to teach us through poetry and story, not science and history. Jesus told stories – think of the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son – about people who never actually lived. In the same way, the earliest part of the Bible also tells stories.

What, then, is the Bible trying to teach us by giving us the story of the Six Days of Creation in Chapter 1, and Adam & Eve in Chapter 2? Every day God creates something in Chapter 1, we are told “it was good”. When God creates human beings, “it was very good”. The story restarts in Chapter 2, which is a different picture of creation. God creates Adam, and then from his rib, Eve. They walked in friendship with God “and they were not ashamed”. God sees that we are good. We have no need to be ashamed. We are invited to be friends with the God of the universe! This is a powerful message! And it is all the more powerful when you realise that most of the other cultures who lived alongside the ancient Hebrews told different stories, much less complimentary about human beings. For them, we were nothing more than bits and pieces who had grown out of the limbs hacked off battling giants and demigods. Would you want to see yourself as the toenail of some minor deity? No thank you!

The whole Old Testament is a story of God trying to tell human beings that they are loved. Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Samuel, Elijah and Ezekiel each receive some kind of visit from God. The message is not only for them, but for their descendants or their communities. When Jeremiah was called to be a prophet, he was told that God knew him from his mother’s womb – that’s where the words of our opening song, “O the Word of My Lord”, come from. God’s words to Jeremiah! Through the prophet Isaiah, God consoled the people who had seen Jerusalem destroyed: “I will not forget you. I have written your name on the palms of my hands.”

The point of Genesis is to reassure us that we are made in the “image and likeness” of God. Because we are intelligent, because we are creative, we are like God. God is love, and we understand about love because we are people who love. Sometimes that breaks our hearts. If we are parents of grown-up children, we know we can’t shadow their every move, protecting them from their own foolishness. But when that phone-call comes at three in the morning – “Daddy, I’ve made a stupid mistake – come and rescue me!” – what Dad wouldn’t attend to his daughter like a shot?

When the Bible speaks of love, it often uses the word agape. This is not the same word used for sexual attraction, nor is it the word for just “liking” something. Agape is the kind of love which chooses the well-being of another person and makes whatever sacrifices are needed for the good of the other. This is the love that God has towards us. This is the “kind of great love” which the Father has lavished on us.

Later this week, we’ll look more closely at what it means for God to save us from our sins and forgive our faults. But for tonight, we are invited to stay with the wonder of what it means to be God’s children. All human beings are made in the “image and likeness” of God. But those of us who have been baptised have an extra privilege! We have been adopted into God’s family, we have been granted the right to call God, “Father!” For many of us, this happened when we were babies; some of us accepted the invitation to God’s family when we were older. Either way, we are member of God’s family – not because we have done anything to earn his love, but because He loves us anyway.

Perhaps you have doubted whether there can be a God because you worried that we would have to reject sensible things we have learned about science. Relax! You don’t! The Second Vatican Council said (Gaudium et Spes #36) that it was the rightful job of science to follow the evidence and come to whatever conclusions were warranted. But way back in the third and fifth centuries, the great scholars Origen (Contra Celsus 6.6) and St Augustine (De Genesi ad literam 1:19–20) already said we didn’t have to take Genesis literally!

Are you a bad Catholic if you don’t believe there was really, historically, a Prodigal Son or Good Samaritan? No, of course not.

Are you a bad Catholic if you don’t believe there was really, historically, a couple called “Adam & Eve”? No, of course not. We are asked to believe that we are all descendants of the first human being who sinned – but that’s no different from saying that we are all descendants of the first of our ancestors who had the extra brain capacity needed to think about right and wrong!

If you don’t want to take my word, here are a couple of popes:

Today, more than a half-century after the appearance of that encyclical, some new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than an hypothesis. – John Paul II, 1996 (original French)

We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary. – Benedict XVI, 2005

“I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.”

I do! I say these words, or some version of them, every Sunday at Mass!

But what exactly do I mean by calling God the “creator”? I mean that the universe unfolds via the Big Bang and Evolution, following rules which come from God. This may be a rather hands-off kind of creation, but that doesn’t bother me in the least. God’s word tells me clearly that God loves me and wants me to be part of his family on earth and happy with him for ever in heaven. One day God will change the rules of the universe so that all of us who have ever lived will be raised forever in indestructible bodies. I don’t know how that’s going to work, but I believe it because Jesus rose from the dead. That’s why, with a physics degree from Oxford and a PhD in astrophysics from Cardiff, I am content to stand before you and profess that not only do I believe in God who created me, but: “I believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen!”

A cloud of gas in space, resembling a human eye

The Helix Nebula, sometimes nicknamed the “Eye of God”

Original Sin

Yesterday, I took part in a Radio Wales discussion to be broadcast on Sunday, prompted by the recent publication of a book.

Born Bad”, by Australian historian James Boyce, traces the idea of “Original Sin” and its influence on Western history. It got me thinking…

What is Original Sin? It’s a status that we have in God’s eyes. When God looks at the human race, He sees that we are all descendants of the Original Sinner, the first human who failed to carry out His will perfectly. We belong to an imperfect race – but God takes away our status of “original sin” when we are baptised.

How do we know this? It’s another way of expressing truths in the Bible which say we died through Adam but are made alive through Christ (Romans 5:12 and I Corinthians 15:22).a red apple clasped by open hands

When I was asked to make a closing comment for the programme, I said that Original Sin was a true concept, but not one particularly relevant in the 21st Century. Why would I call it “irrelevant”? It’s because in the past we have tried to use “Original Sin” as an answer to several deep questions, an answer that may have seemed plausible then, but can’t hold in the light of what we now know.

In what follows, we need to understand that there are some questions to which the Catholic Church has an official answer (a doctrine), solemnly defined by the authority of the Pope, and other questions on which we are free to hold differing opinions.

As Catholics, we’re free to believe that the Bible story of Adam and Eve is literal, or figurative. But it is a doctrine that all humans descend from one original sinner. Now that’s not incompatible with the theory of evolution; indeed, evolution proposes that for any particular trait which we regard as making us human, we are all descendants from the original ancestor with that trait.

Why do human beings sin?

It’s a doctrine that our vulnerability to being tempted (the technical name is concupisence) came into the world because of the first human’s sin. But inheriting Original Sin isn’t enough to explain why we sin – after all, the first human sinned, and Our Lord experienced temptation, even though neither of them were marked by Original Sin!

There are many questions for modern biology and psychology about “nature versus nurture” and to what extent our good or bad behaviour is driven by the genes we inherit. But the doctrine of Original Sin doesn’t allow us to claim that we were “born bad” – at most, only that we were “born vulnerable”.

Why is there death?

The Deuterocanonical Book of Wisdom asserts that “death came into the world through the Devil’s envy”. But there’s plenty of evidence that stars exploded, plants died and animals ate other animals long before humans were around. How can we make sense of this doctrine? St Paul affirms that death comes to all humans because of sin, and we need to nuance this reference to death so it applies only to bodily death experienced by human beings, creatures with immortal souls.

Since all the biological evidence shows that human beings are part of a natural world with a cycle of life and death, we cannot plausibly assert that the first true human to evolve should have been immortal on the basis of their biology. But if we believe in a God with the power to work miracles, we could believe that God wanted to give the miraculous gift of “never dying” to the first human. We could also then hold that God in fact withheld this gift because the first human wouldn’t live in perfect obedience to God.

In the fullness of time, because of our “happy fault”, Jesus died so that we could become members of his body and be more closely united to God when we are raised after our deaths – a gift even greater than the undying bodily life which could have been given to the first human.

Is it sinful to have sex even within marriage?

Discussions about “Original Sin” often get caught up with a very old idea that there’s something inherently sinful about the way babies are made within marriage. This in itself confuses original sin (which is a status) with the question of whether it’s a sinful act to conceive a child. But in any case, the idea that marital sex is sinful was never an official doctrine of the Church. Marriage between two Christians is a sacrament, and St John Paul II pointed us towards the idea that the bed of a married couple is a holy altar on which this sacrament reaches its consummation – a sacred moment indeed.

Do unbaptised babies go to heaven?

It’s a doctrine that infants who die before being baptised don’t deserve to go to heaven. But it is only an opinion suggested by scholars that God holds these souls in a place called Limbo which isn’t quite as happy as heaven. Pope Benedict XVI asked some top theologians to look again at this teaching and in 2007, their report said that we can believe that God does admit unbaptised children to heaven, but does so as an undeserved gift.

This case gives us a good example of how carefully we must express the Church’s teaching. Pope Innocent III taught that “the punishment for original sin is the loss of the beatific vision” – in other words, every human being born into our sinful race, because they belong to a sinful race, is not automatically entitled to go to heaven. It sounds like Pope Innocent III was saying that unbaptised babies couldn’t go to heaven. But the statement also leaves room to say that even though they are not entitled to it, God admits them to heaven as an undeserved gift, an act of mercy, a grace. In this Year of Mercy, perhaps we can comfort someone who has lost a child with the idea that the Church trusts in God’s mercy towards infant souls.

The only reason we can’t give a 100% cast-iron guarantee that unbaptised babies go to heaven is that neither the Bible nor the Tradition going back to the Apostles says anything definite on the matter – we can only extrapolate from our general knowledge of God’s love and mercy. Meanwhile, it’s right and proper that we do present our babies to be baptised because God wants us to work with him in the work of redeeming the world; every time we celebrate a sacrament, we do things God’s way, and heaven rejoices.

In summary…

Yes, we were born tainted by Original Sin. No, the act by which we were conceived was not intrinsically sinful. Yes, our bodies will die.

It was never logically coherent to blame Original Sin as the sole reason why we commit actual sins, but our modern scientific knowledge is beginning to allow a much more detailed consideration of how genetics shape human behaviour.

Empirical evidence rules out the idea that death (of plants and animals) only takes place because of the first human sin, and positing that the human body is meant to be intrinsically immortal is highly implausible.

Over the centuries, particularly concerning unbaptised babies, the Catholic Church has carefully nuanced its teaching so that statements which seemed to point in one direction are now taken as pointing in another. The very concept of Original Sin is therefore reduced to a status which a person acquires at conception and loses by baptism, but which has very little practical consequence when distinguished from concupiscence.

Born Bad? No – we are made in God’s image and Genesis assures us that we are very good.

Born imperfect? Yes – but we are invited by a merciful God to walk the path of the sacraments all the way to heaven.

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.


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!

Fit for Purpose? Darwin’s Excellent and Meaningless Theory

Sermon given at St Chad’s, Shrewsbury, on the occasion of the 2015 Darwin Festival. Reading: Genesis 8:4-13.


Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection is often referred to as “Survival of the Fittest”, a phrase which plants a subtle yet dangerous notion of excellence in the casual listener. A better label might be “The Survival of the Fitting” as often, species fit in to their environment in very inconspicuous ways.

Science alone gives us no reason to think that our era is special, and every reason to think that the species which exist today are simply a snapshot of forms that life could feasibly take on earth, with many life-forms no “better” or “worse” in any objective sense.

The everyday work of scientists takes place under the assumption that no sense of “meaning” or “purpose” is required to understand the natural world. Yet humans naturally yearn for a sense of direction in life. Expecting Darwin’s theory to provide this leads us down dangerous paths; at best, biology indicates what humans could be, not what we should be.

As for whether the Bible is a suitable guide, we will deal briefly with whether it is trustworthy on questions of the creation of the universe, the existence of species, and the first sin of the human race before embracing it as our natural selection for the perfection of our species!

We’ve just heard a report of a scientific experiment read straight from the pages of the Bible. Noah is, in fact, the Bible’s first recorded research scientist!

We know Noah was a scientist because – we are told – he does three things characteristic of a research scientist.

First, he adjust the details of his experiment one step at a time. He tries sending out a raven – then a dove.

Second, he repeats his experiment. At least, he can’t repeat the raven experiment because it hasn’t come back, but he can repeat the dove. In trial 1, it returns quickly. In trial 2, it returns with an olive branch. In trial 3 it corroborates the raven experiment by failing to return. In this way, Noah knows the water is drying up.

Third, Noah uses a complicated experimental set-up to test what a non-scientist would have approached by a more crude method – for instance, looking through one of the ark’s portholes!

I’ve used this story before when preaching about science and religion, but it seems especially appropriate here in the church where Charles Darwin was baptised. Like Noah, Charles Darwin sailed on a voyage of discovery. Like Noah, birds played a crucial part in the way Darwin tried to understand the world around him. In Darwin’s case, observing the bird-life of the Galapagos islands, and many other kinds of species, led him to propose a theory of evolution by natural selection.

Darwin’s idea is often summarised as the “survival of the fittest”. That’s a very dangerous phrase! In the English language, “fittest” implies the best, the strongest, the pinnacle of creation! What Darwin was actually describing was the survival of the most fitting. Kinds of creatures which fit best into their environment are most likely to survive. One way of fitting in is to become the strongest or smartest, but that comes with a price – big brains and thick limbs require more food energy to maintain.

Another way of fitting in is to become small enough to hide away, or excellent at camouflage. This was even the subject of a recent Doctor Who episode, where the Doctor mused about what would happen if a species evolved to perfect the art of hiding – how would we even know if it existed? The term ‘evolution’ itself has also picked up a flavour of progressing from good to better to best… what comes to mind if you try to imagine something ‘highly evolved’?

The only direction which evolution actually respects is “nearby”. A genetic mutation cannot change a lot of things at once. An organism gives rise to descendants which are similar, but perhaps not quite the same. The descendants most fitting to the environment at the time will be the most successful at surviving and breeding. There is nothing to stop evolution from ‘backtracking’ and going back to a previously used design, just as you might drive the same route to work on Monday and Wednesday even though you took a different path on Tuesday.

When we human beings analyse the abilities of an organism, we might judge a particular species to excel at doing something – but only by being the ‘best’ on some scale we choose to use. And species which excel at one thing do so at the cost of other abilities. Without mechanical aids, we human beings cannot fly, swim underwater for 90 minutes, or keep ourselves warm in an Arctic environment. Eagles, whales and polar bears might well dispute our claim to be highly evolved. And author Douglas Adams pointed out how the dolphins smile because they know they are superior to mankind, having learned how to spend all their days mucking about in the water and having a good time! Human beings, meanwhile, are marked by what we would call design flaws, if we were deliberately designed: back pain, flat feet, varicose veins and piles!

The world around us, as we know it, represents one slice in time, no more privileged than any date in the future or in the past. Natural selection will continue to cause species to change and adapt. Some, no doubt, will achieve new records on some scales, simply because the stepwise progress of evolution put that ability “nearby” to some existing genetic plan for the first time. Others will re-trace well trodden paths. When it comes to the ability to reason and use language, Homo sapiens does indeed hold the record for Planet Earth. Does that mean we will automatically increase in those abilities? If it is biologically possible to do so without needing undue food consumption, than random mutation might allow this to happen – there again, as Dawkins colourfully put it, the watchmaker is blind, so nothing is guaranteed.

When it comes to us human beings, we can no longer speak of ‘natural selection’ alone. Because our medical skills and human compassion cause us to care for sick members of our own species, and indeed our pets and our livestock, we enable less-well-fitting creatures to survive and breed, preserving gene lines which would otherwise have died out. If anything, this has a cooling effect on the rate at which humans and our companion and farm animals evolve. There again, the ability to perform deliberate genetic modifications, which will inevitably be permitted to some degree despite the protestations of religious leaders from my own and other traditions, will change the human race in ways which will ripple through future generations without limit. This has always been true of random mutation, but now Homo sapiens is personally responsible for some of these lasting changes whose consequences cannot be fully predicted.

As human beings, we have a deep-rooted tendency to seek meaning and purpose in the world around us. The ancient philosophers, following Aristotle, spoke of four causes: formal, material, efficient and final. In other words, we can understand a thing if we can answer four questions: What is it? What rules does it follow? What started it in motion? What is its purpose? Modern science makes do with three causes. We choose a thing, identify the rules it follows, and if we set it going in a certain way we can predict how its future will unfold.

Science doesn’t generally ask “What’s the purpose of this?” or “What is the final cause?”. To a scientist, this only applies to objects manufactured with a purpose in mind. Human artefacts have a final cause. Richard Dawkins has written at length about how evolution by natural selection produces “designoid” objects, which look as if they had a final cause but whose characteristics can be totally explained by the unfolding of natural selection.

Nevertheless, we do seek meaning and purpose in the world around us. As a Christian believer, I acknowledge that God has a purpose for the human race as a whole – to enter into eternal life in union with Christ – and a particular vocation, or as John Henry Newman called it, ‘some definite purpose’ to which God calls us individually. I also recognise that because God’s plan was for rational creatures to come into being, it was necessary for the natural world to be of a form which allows us to live in it. I reserve judgement on whether God intervened by overriding the rules, by loading the dice or simply by setting up a favourable set of rules; but I am not the kind of Deist who believes God wound up the clockwork and retired, because I do believe in a God who works occasional miracles in answer to prayer. I simply wish to avoid invoking God to plug any gaps in our current scientific knowledge of how the universe and life came to be, because I know that my scientific colleagues have an excellent track record in working out how seemingly-unlikely things can in fact happen profusely in the right circumstances.

I began with the story of Noah, taken from those early chapters of Genesis which contain stories of deep meaning. Way back in the third century of the Christian Era, a pagan philosopher, Celsus, poked fun at Christians and Jews because of the first books of the Bible. He accused the believers of being “silly” because they accepted the first chapters of Genesis as literal and historical. The Christian writer, Origen, in turn called Celsus “silly” because both contemporary Christians and the writers of the age when the Scriptures were composed, knew that the whole point of these writings was the symbolic meaning, not the literal one! It was only in the light of the 16th Century Reformation that both Protestant and Catholic Christians started trying to read Genesis in a more literal way. Genesis declares that God created beings ‘according to their kinds’, but we need not read this as revelation that species are fixed and cannot evolve; it is simply the way the author describes animal and plant life as it existed at the time of writing.

The Epistle to the Hebrews acknowledges that God has spoken more clearly through Christ than previously. We must therefore take seriously the words of Jesus when he appeals to Adam and Eve as the basis for the permanence of marriage; even so, we can understand that Christ was affirming the moral point, not the historicity, of the Genesis account. We must also take seriously St Paul’s assertion that the whole human race sinned in Adam; however, the claim that we all descend from an original sinner is no more or less radical than asserting that we all descend from an original mutation responsible for one or other of our human traits.

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, and skeptical guests here this evening, I put it to you that Darwin’s Theory – to give it its full title – On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life is a meaningless theory. The only illustration in Darwin's Origin of Species: a tree diagram showing branching evolutionBy that I do not mean it is poor science or badly-written English. I simply mean that it does what science does – it describes what is, and has no concept of what “should be”. It is an excellent starting point, much improved upon by our subsequent knowledge of genetics. Yet the very language we use fools us into speaking of ‘highly evolved’ creatures as if they were morally superior, or creatures with ‘defective genes’ as if they were morally lacking. Biology is amoral, but we have to keep reminding ourselves of this lest the natural use of language should seduce us. I note with interest that there is only one diagram in the Origin of Species, and it is a tree where all end points – existing species – have equal status. Why? They are equal in one crucial regard, they are alive now.

The fact that human beings have evolved to our current abilities tells us nothing about whether we will, or whether we should, continue in that direction of travel. Many science fiction authors have speculated about humans evolving to become non-corporeal creatures; my co-religionist Teilhard de Chardin speculated that creation was called to reach an ‘Omega Point’ of maximum complexity and consciousness in union with God. It would be a mistake to say that Darwinian evolution requires or even suggests these possibilities; this would be to apply a scientific hypothesis beyond the limits of its applicability.

If we wish to know what kind of eternal existence God is calling us to, or how we should live our lives on earth, we can turn to the Bible and find secure answers in the teaching of Jesus. Only the Heavenly Man can teach us the values of Heaven and how we should journey there. As for the things of earth, the story of Noah gives us reason to trust that the status of the world around us can be discerned from ravens and doves – so why not the finches and mockingbirds of the Galapagos?