Recently I attended the annual conference of Christians in Science, which took place in Oxford. The theme of the conference was miracles. There were several presentations, all of high quality, and discussion times. Since then I have been turning this subject over in my mind.
The word “secular” refers to an important principle, but it is one that is widely misunderstood, and the word is used in two very different (almost opposite) ways, which leads to confusion. This touches mostly on politics and governance, but it connects also to science and many other human endeavours.
In the following I will first outline two ideas which I will call simply P and x. Then I will discuss the meaning of the word “secular”, and the fact that we need to develop better ways of speaking clearly.
The Bible is recognized by very many people as the most important written text in existence, the “greatest treasure this world affords” as it says in the coronation service for English monarchs. But this does not mean all these people come to the same conclusions from what they read. This is because there is more than one way of understanding how to learn from the Bible. I will describe this in terms of three metaphors, and, as an illustration, apply them to the consideration of same-sex marriage.
Events in Syria and Europe have made me decide to postpone some other thoughts and instead comment on something at the heart of Islam. This overlaps with a Christian issue, and it needs careful handling, so this is a long post (almost 3000 words). I hope readers will give it a fair hearing.
This blog is not a commentary on political and religious affairs in general. It is about science and religion. However, now more than ever, we need accurate thought about what will help, in the long term, to overcome religious violence, and therefore I am posting here some relevant material. I will be discussing the way we approach the Bible and the Qur’an.
But the silence in the mind
But the silence in the mind
is when we live best, within
listening distance of the silence
we call God. This is the deep
calling to deep of the psalm-
writer, the bottomless ocean
we launch the armada of
our thoughts on, never arriving.
It is a presence, then,
whose margins are our margins;
that calls us out over our
own fathoms. What to do
but draw a little nearer to
such ubiquity by remaining still?
by R.S. Thomas, from the collection Counterpoint, 1990
image: detail: Mother and Child by the Sea, Jozef Israëls
I have been reading We make the road by walking by Brian D. McLaren (Hodder and Stoughton, 2014). Here is a quotation from it. I will not comment further; he makes the point so well.
A little girl once asked her mother if the Bible story of Elijah flying to heaven on a chariot of fire was ‘real or pretend’. How would you have answered here question?
You might try to explain that sometimes a ‘pretend’ story can tell more truth and do more good than a ‘real’ one—as Jesus’ parables exemplify so powerfully. You might explain how real stories are often embellished with pretend elements. Or you might respond as that little girl’s wise mother did: ‘That’s a great question! Some stories are real, some are pretend, and some of the very best ones use a mix of both reality and make-believe to tell us something important. What do you think about the Elijah story?’ The mother’s answer didn’t tell the little girl what to think. It invited her to think — as a bona fide member of the interpretive community.
image from http://wildlifesnaps.com/search_results.php?species_common=Martin,+House
Carnsore Point, Co. Wexford, Ireland. September 20th, 2009.
A poem by R.S. Thomas:
Summer is here.
Once more the house has its
Spray of martins, Proust’s fountain
Of small birds, whose light shadows
Come and go in the sunshine
Of the lawn as thoughts do
In the mind. Watching them fly
Is my business, not as a man vowed
To science, who counts their returns
To the rafters, or sifts their droppings
For facts, recording the wave-length
Of their screaming; my method is so
To have them about myself
Through the hours of this brief
Season and to fill with their
Movement, that it is I they build
In and bring up their young
To return to after the bitter
Migrations, knowing the site
Inviolate through its outward changes.
R.S. Thomas, included in R. S. Thomas, Collected Poems: 1945-1990
[image from https://mexicoinstitute.files.wordpress.com/ 2013/03/folk-art-community.jpg]
Particles in the universe come in two types, named bosons and fermions, after Satyendra Nath Bose and Enrico Fermi (“boson” is pronounced with a long ‘o’ and a hard ‘z’, to rhyme with “goes on”). Bosons include things like photons (particles of light), which can be absorbed or emitted in large quantities. Fermions include things like electrons and protons which form the building-blocks of matter. The chief distinguishing characteristic of these different types of particle is that bosons can congregate together in the same region of space and state of motion, all moving along together. Fermions, by contrast, only ever exist one at a time in any given place and state of motion. Photons in a laser beam are an example of bosons gathered together in the same motion. Electrons in different orbitals in atoms are an example of fermions avoiding one another. This leads to the fact that atoms with different numbers of electrons behave differently, which is the basis of chemistry.
A Man Digging Potatoes, Thomas Frederick Mason Sheard
So far in this blog I have tried to offer ways for people unsure about religious language to find a way in, and I have objected to various unsubstantiated or ill-argued claims coming mostly from outside the Christian movement. However, in the interests of balance and straightforwardness, I want to admit this week that the worldwide Christian movement itself has deep problems and often does much harm. I think it does a huge amount of good too, but it has its own characteristic problems and they will not go away quickly or easily.