The challenge of science
Simon Heans reports from last month's Faith Movement conference
Cast your mind back to your schooldays. Was there a teacher who made a special impression on you? At St John Fisher School, Purley, in the 70s and 80s there was just such an influential figure. Fr Roger Nesbitt was a chemistry master there in that period and was responsible for a number of vocations to the priesthood. He and one of his former pupils, Fr Stephen Dingley, a PhD in Astronomy, both spoke at the October conference, Catholicism and the Challenge of Science, organised by Faith Movement, which I attended on behalf of New Directions.
Gateway to God
Fr Stephen told us a story about conducting a retreat for teenage confirmation candidates. ‘Surely,’ one of them said, ‘you wanted to become a priest before you became a scientist.’ The youth was of course expressing the widely held belief that, if not actually incompatible, religion and science don’t mix. ‘No, no, quite the contrary,’ replied Fr Stephen, ‘my vocation to the priesthood grew out of my scientific studies.’ The conference talks were about elucidating that response, to explaining how ‘science is at the threshold of God.’
Fr Hugh McKenzie, a computer scientist by training, began proceedings by addressing the question ‘Why Faith Movement?’ He spoke of the prestige of science in our culture and the corresponding lack of respect for religion (‘If it’s a science programme it’s a documentary, if the subject’s politics there’s a debate, but a religious programme, unless it’s hymns for granny, will have people talking about their feelings’). He argued that during the last century, agnosticism ‘evangelised the Church’ – he did not mean the CofE! – and that we need a ‘new synthesis of faith and reason’ which takes seriously the current dominance of scientific reason. He also gave us a memorable definition of science: ‘thinking things after God thought of them first’. It was then left to Frs Dingley and Nesbitt to tell us how faith understands God’s thoughts.
Fr Dingley concentrated on how the physical universe shows evidence of God’s thought. He was at pains to show how science has uncovered ‘a cosmos, not a chaos’. Picking his way expertly through three centuries of scientific history, from Newton on gravity (the force that causes apples to fall and planets to stay in orbit is the same), through electricity and magnetism (aspects of a single reality), to the present search for a Grand Unified Theory, he argued that the coherence of the physical universe progressively uncovered by science points to a ‘unity principle’ at its heart.
He then went on to tell us about the history of the universe from the huge explosion of matter and energy (the Big Bang) through the formation of stars and then rocky planets on which complex chemicals were produced, leading to the synthesis of the first molecules of life and the emergence of the plant and animal kingdoms. The fact that we are dealing here with ‘a line of development and not a mess’ points to ‘a Designer who desires development’.
The master key
Fr Nesbitt introduced us to ‘God’s Master Key’, Jesus Christ. The purpose of his talk was to show us that the ‘Unity-Law of Control and Direction’ exhibited in creation applies also to the Incarnation thereby linking, synthesizing, faith and reason. But of course before the Incarnation there must be man.
The evolution of man is built into the order and development of the universe as its purpose, for with man creation passes to a higher order of being. Because of his large brain – and Fr Nesbitt’s computer images showed clearly just how much larger it is compared with even the chimpanzee’s – unlike his fellow creatures, man does not receive his control or direction from the physical environment. He is part matter but he is also spirit, beyond matter. (The account of human uniqueness given by faith offers a fascinating approach to the problem of ‘ensoulment’.) He will therefore only find real control and direction in God himself, who is pure and infinite Spirit. God is the true environment of man. As animals find their full meaning and happiness in their material environment of food, water, the sun’s warmth etc, so man finds his full meaning and happiness only in God. ‘Grace is the sunshine of the soul’, said Fr Nesbitt.
On this account, the Incarnation follows from Creation, for how else does God control and direct mankind who is both spirit and body. He pointed out the uniqueness of the messianic character of Israel’s religion in whose sacred liturgy and moral teaching humanity is prepared to receive Christ who is ‘lord of history and the human heart’. He then went on to speak of the sacramental system – especially the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist – and the teaching of the Church as part of the continuing Unity-Law in its provision for mankind until the Law reaches its final perfection with the Second Coming.
Faith Movement is one of the lesser known ‘new movements’ in the Catholic Church. The editor of its bi-monthly magazine, Fr Patrick Burke, said with a rueful smile that it has a reputation for holding ‘odd views about evolution’. But I hope I have said enough to show that this is not kooky fundamentalism RC style. In the Faith pamphlet Can we be sure God exists? (which concludes ‘modern science has proved that God exists’!) Richard Dawkins is described as ‘our favourite atheist’, and quoted in support of the view that natural selection is not a random process but an instance of the Unity-Law of Control and Direction.
The editorial in the current issue of Faith magazine makes a helpful distinction between the orthodox doctrine of creation for which natural selection poses no difficulty – as long as we believe Dawkins when he says evolution is not ‘a theory of ‘chance’ – and the creationism advocated by the likes of Southern Baptists. It suggests that the latter should more properly be called ‘special-creationism’, for what it really teaches is that every life-form is made by a special act of creation, and it counsels Christians not ‘to present God’s creative design as if he were granddad in the potting shed with components on a shelf, a workbench and a pencil behind his ear!’
Why should Anglican Catholics be interested in Faith? By way of an answer here are two quotations from the postscript to Catholicism: A New Synthesis by Edward Holloway, its founder: ‘the painful development of the "High Church" from the heart-searching debate which Cardinal Newman initiated, has not been in the name of Unity or of Ecumenism, but in the name of the rediscovery or the fuller discovery of the truth of Christ.’ Here is the second: ‘the Anglican is well aware of that sheer chaos of doctrinal belief which is bringing his own communion to disintegration and public contempt.’ The book was published in 1969.
The Faith website is www.faith.org.uk
Simon Heans is Vicar of St Barnabas, Beckenham
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