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Science and Religion – Br. Geoffrey Tristram

“The heavens declare the glory of God.
and the firmament shows his handiwork.” (Ps 19:1)

Does it?  Do the heavens declare the glory of God?  When you look at the heavens, do you see written/declared/proclaimed, God’s glory?

I think I was about 15 when I came across Bertrand Russell’s slim volume Why I am not a Christian and I declared to my friends and my teachers, probably pretentiously, to shock, that I was no longer a Christian.  When I looked into the heavens, I may have seen something inspiring, but I would have told myself that it had nothing to do with God.

Well, as you can see, as the years went by I changed my views.  But I never lost my respect for the scientific method and for the vision and purpose of science, nor sensed any real clash between the purposes of science and religion.  Even back at the Renaissance, there was a clear demarcation between what was called natural philosophy (what we call science), which concentrated on empirical evidence from nature, and theology’s concentration on the world beyond.  Interestingly, Sir Isaac Newton wrote as much about the Book of Revelation as about the theory of gravity.

So it seems particularly baffling to me, why so much fuss is made about the teaching of science in schools in our country.  To try to mix the empirical scientific method, with a priori theories about God, creationism or intelligent design seems wrong-headed.  In my own experience, especially the experience of coming to faith, they are different languages, science and religion, employing different modes of perception. 

I taught for five years in a high school in England.  We weren’t too far away from Cambridge, and one day we invited Prof. Stephen Hawking to speak to our students.  You’ll remember A Brief History of Time, which many people bought, but not so many managed to read!

As you know, he suffers from cerebral palsy, and speaks through a machine.  After his lecture, a group of us had lunch with him and his then wife.  The conversation turned to questions of God and religion.  He would not be drawn on whether he believed in God or not, but one phrase he used has stayed with me.  He is a committed scientist, but he said, “in life there are other sources of inspiration.”  I found that helpful, because it rang true to my own experience.  My own encounter with God came from “another source of inspiration,” which I would call the mystical.

Albert Einstein once wrote this: “The most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is of the mystical: it is the source of all true science.  He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand wrapped in awe – is as good as dead.”

“The heavens declare the glory of God
And the firmament shows his handiwork.”

It is not the task of natural scientists to speculate as to whether God is the author of the heavens.  But there are “other sources of inspiration,” as Stephen Hawking put it, and when we stand with Einstein, wrapped in awe, gazing into the heavens, we may indeed experience with the Psalmist, something of the glory of God.

My point is that different methods are appropriate for different focuses of study.  The scientific method is not appropriate for examining Gd.

There is an extraordinary poem by the Welsh poet R. S. Thomas, called Raptor.  It is about our vain attempts to measure and examine God – the God who comes to us in awesome and fearful ways.  This is how the poem begins:

“You have made God small,
setting him astride
a pipette or a retort
studying the bubbles
absorbed in an experiment
that will come to nothing.
I think of him rather
as an enormous owl
abroad in the shadows,
brushing me sometimes
with his wing, so the blood
in my veins freezes….”

Just reading it sends a shiver down my spine.  God as an owl whose great wings brush me as he flies by in the night.

R. S. Thomas himself was very interested in science, and it was an important source of inspiration for him.  But so was poetry, and what he has said about poetry is, I think, helpful in understanding faith and worship.  He said, “Poetry is that which arrives at the intellect by way of the heart.”  I think we could say the same about this act of worship.  Much of what we know about God arrives at the intellect by way of the heart.  Or, as Pascal put it, “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing!”

Falling in love with God is not always something we can explain well rationally.  We may need to turn to poetry, or to religious metaphor and imagery.  This source of inspiration is hugely important.  You may not be able to describe rationally why you fell in love with the person you are married to.  You may not be able to examine your relationship empirically, and yet you trust this source of inspiration enough to have based probably the biggest decision in your life on it, by deciding to marry that person!  “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.”

I believe God is drawing each of us to fall in love with God.  He plants seeds of longing and desire deep within our souls, beyond the range of scientific examinations.

What brought you to God?  What drew you to know and love God?   What was the source of inspiration?

If you were asked why do you believe in God, what would you say?

Would you speak theology?  Poetry?

Would you speak from your head?  Or your heart?

What would you say?

What have you seen/heard/experienced?

What do you know to be true?

Bertrand Russell, whose book Why I Am Not a Christian had a formative effect on my adolescent life, remained an atheist to the end, but towards the end of his life he wrote these poignant words.

“The center of me is always and eternally a terrible pain.  A curious, wild pain – a searching for something beyond what the world contains, something transfigured and infinite – the beautiful vision, God…I do not find it – but the love of it is my life.”

May God the great lover, may God the great owl, may God whose glory the heavens declare, may the great God never stop seeking you, till you are found and brought home to God forever.

Amen.

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23 Comments

  1. Pam on September 28, 2014 at 16:58

    Thank you for this – loved the quote by R.S Thomas but how sad that Bertrand Russell never saw God in what he knew of the world . Reminds me of a quote I once saw ” Hearts are wild creatures , that’s why our ribs are cages”. I think God is the only one who can release our hearts, free our hearts , because He is the one who created them. For me too , science and religion are complementary and do not clash and all love is beyond reason. Indeed love is a wild thing.

  2. Eunice Schatz on September 27, 2014 at 10:49

    I am intrigued by the word science, meaning “knowing” and how in the eagerness to know more, the scientist believes that what he/she has just “found” by way of new knowledge is not enough in itself, but leads to ongoing curiosity about what they do not yet know. And so they go on, in a kind of faith, to probe what is unknown. This is not totally unlike my pressing forward to “know Thee”—which is “life eternal” as Jesus said in John 17:3.

  3. Char on September 27, 2014 at 07:22

    Yes, there is a strong tendency to create false oppositions and divides — society at large seems to want to simply things that cannot be simplified. Yes, science and religion speak through different languages and use different forms of perception 🙂
    ¨PS: Yes, my math profs would often look at a proof for a mathematical truth and declare it “nice” — by ‘nice’ they meant exact, clear, and beautiful — to say that to those not involved in mathematics would just cause confusion — they would not understand the way the words (language) was being used — talking about ‘fields’ in mathematics is not the same as ‘fields’
    in biology or other science — the same words are used differently 🙂 🙂 🙂

  4. Phil PARADINE on September 27, 2014 at 05:57

    Perhaps one way of exploring the similarity between science and Christianity, especially to those having received a scientific training, but not yet started on a faith journey, is to suggest that both require running the experiment, to see if the results can be replicated. If others cannot come up with similar results in the lab then science journals will require withdrawal of the conclusions. The bible provides the journal of the experiences of people in relationship with God. We have the choice of seeing if similar results can be obtained, without need of advanced degrees or expensive lab equipment.

  5. Anne on July 27, 2014 at 21:43

    God himself drew me to love Him. I believe in God because my heart is overflowing with love. I love because He, in Christ Jesus, first loved me.

  6. judy on July 27, 2014 at 09:28

    I just returned from Iona and these words ring truer than ever. Peace.

  7. Editor on July 9, 2013 at 12:30

    Alan, thanks for your comment. The quote comes from a letter to Lady Constance Malleson written October 23, 1916. Russell was explaining how he identified with the writer Conrad. You should be able to find it in Russell’s Autobiography 2: 75-6.

  8. Alan on July 7, 2013 at 20:02

    Beautiful. I have shared with many and probably will continue to do so. I would love to know the source of the Bertrand Russell quotation made near the end of his life. I am quoting it and thinking about it and want to locate the source. Thanks.

  9. Fred Adams on July 6, 2013 at 13:57

    Br. Geoffrey.
    Thank so much for this work on God/Religion. I teach high school science and often have need to clarify what is empirical science and what is the spiritual dimension, and show how they do not contradict. Your words add to the perspective, and quoting Pascal and Hawking are wonderful reinforcement and building pieces. Blessings. Fred

  10. Bob on July 5, 2013 at 17:51

    I think today’s question is much more to do with who has the authority to pontificate authentically about which “other sources of inspiration,” are true than a conflict between the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of life. Some thing along the lines of which ‘fruits’ are nutritious, sustaining and life enhancing rather than preserving of privilege and status quo?
    Thank you for doing these I do enjoy them every day. Margo

  11. Sister Priscilla Jean Wright on July 5, 2013 at 15:44

    This is a very moving reflection. I also was trained in science, but I never saw the
    the two disciplines as two opposites ,but rather as complementary. Religion attempts to explain the great Unknowable,while science tries to explain what we can see or discern with technology .

  12. George Hanford on July 5, 2013 at 15:21

    Very helpful in bridging the gap!

  13. Merrill Ann Gonzales on July 5, 2013 at 14:12

    Under His wings, under His wings… words as old as our faith…. I’ve always pictured those words to mean the life force of any great bird…. and often paint osprey and red-tail hawks (eagles a bit large for my compositions.) As you read about these birds you discover that they too declare the glory of GOD.
    GOD Bless & Keep You
    Under His Wings
    Close to His Heart
    Love+Peace
    Healing Joy
    Merrill

  14. Ruth West on July 5, 2013 at 11:55

    I have heard God compared to many things, but never to an owl. Definitely food for thought. Thanks.

  15. DLa Rue on July 5, 2013 at 08:10

    About that time in my life I was wrestling with C.S. Lewis’ “Til We Have Faces,” and not long after found the late John Coburn’s (then priest, later Bp. of this diocese) little book, “Prayer and Personal Religion” in a church book sale.

    The need sometimes to explore the limits of ones faith in order to know its content is one to pay attention to.

    And having been a camp counselor, the image of the owl is one I’ll add to my prayer-metaphors for God. Still nights with hooty sounds speaking to the soul.

  16. Anders on July 5, 2013 at 08:06

    Thank you. Reading this leaves me questioning how the church today can address this “curious, wild pain – a searching for something beyond what the world contains”. Somehow I believe that it is in learning to embrace the mystical presence of God, the paradigms of Jesus parables, the stories of the Old Testament. To many, men in particular, the Old Testament is about a vengeful rather than a lover God, and the letters of the New Testament are organizational management / community building, an inspiration pointing to the modern age we are finding less relevant today. How to embrace “another source of inspiration” to define how the “firmament shows his handiwork” in the age of the Twitterverse?

  17. Polly Chatfield on August 31, 2011 at 06:34

    I think of you writing this just before you had to leave your beautiful and sheltering home for a year. We talk about “acts of faith”, but this feels like an act of hope, of trust in God the lover, that God would bring you safely back to your own nest, you brothers who are like owls among us. Thank you for so much beauty.

    • Christina on July 27, 2014 at 13:49

      Dear Polly: Thank you for your Reflection. Our Bishop preached this morning on the bombing of Coventry Cathedral in 1941. As you know, it was rebuilt. Ever since, at twelve-o’clock on Friday mid-days, some of the congregants, and anyone else, gather outside the Cathedral to pray for Reconciliation. Every Friday – rain, snow, shine.
      We here, in Kingston, Ontario are going to take up this practice in September – same time, Fridays, on the Cathedral steps and join our brothers and sisters 3,000 miles away to pray for Reconciliation in our world.
      Blessings to all the Brothers and those who read these daily Words.
      Christina

  18. Charlotte on August 25, 2011 at 06:45

    Thank you for framing in words my own sense of the infinite and the holy.

  19. Joyce Scherer-Hoock on August 25, 2011 at 06:35

    Great reflection Geoffrey. I had exactly the same experience with Russell’s book at the same age. The book is still on my shelf at church with all my Bible commentaries next to it. Fortunately the next book I read was, “Miracles” by C.S. Lewis.

  20. David on March 22, 2011 at 09:08

    What a wonderful reflection! Thank you for your insights.

  21. David on March 22, 2011 at 09:07

    Thank you for a wonderful reflection!

  22. Joy Cass on February 14, 2011 at 19:39

    Thank you, Br. Geoffrey. This is so lovely, and speaks to the experience of my own heart.

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