Over the past month, these are the events in faith, science and culture that have been catching our attention.
30 May – A robot priest has been unveiled in Germany to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. In a bizarre crossing of theology and technology, the robot, which has the catchy name BlessU-2, ‘delivers blessings in five languages and beams light from its hands’. A handy YouTube video shows how. The intention of its creators is that BlessU-2 will prompt debate about how artificial intelligence might impact religion, theology and church life in the near future, which is a growing area of study and debate.
25 May – Catholicism has been added to the Very Short Introduction series by OUP. This is a pocket-sized introduction to Catholicism by Gerald O’Collins, giving a lightning tour of the history of the church, followed by the main strands of the life and teaching of Catholicism. Says Jean Vanier, Founder of L’Arche Community: ’This is an excellent little book which reveals the heart of Catholicism, written by a theologian steeped in the vision of Vatican II and Pope Francis. It would be important reading not only by those who do not profess this faith but also by all those who do.’
18 May – Andy Angel’s new book, Intimate Jesus: The Sexuality of God Incarnate, is apparently the first book to open up for general readers key questions about Jesus’ experience of human sexuality and his attitude towards it in himself and others. Theologians and church leaders have historically been extremely reluctant to talk about the sexuality of Jesus at all. The book examines all the sayings and actions of Jesus and others in the Gospels which relate to sexuality, and explores their cultural context in the Jewish, Greek and Roman worlds of the 1st century.
18 May – Soulfulness is a new book by Thought for the Day presenter, Brian Draper. he is ‘Britain’s foremost popular spiritual thinker,’ says Oliver James: ‘He has no equals in linking the inner with the political and personal outer. This is a remarkably practical exploration of elusive yet core elements of our existence.’ Draper challenges us to live not just mindfully but soulfully. Not merely to be less stressed, but to flourish, dynamically and creatively – to be present – through living intentionally and compassionately.
18 May – Rob Bell has a new book our called What is the Bible? The book offers a fresh take on the Good Book, taking readers through its highlights and lowlights, and talking about some of the biggest questions it raises for a modern reader. Says Bell: ‘Some people see the Bible as an outdated book of primitive, barbaric fairy tales that we have moved beyond. And then there are the folks who talk about how important and central and inspired the Bible is but then butcher it with their stilted literalism and stifling interpretations. But you, I want you to read the Bible in a whole new way.’
17 May – Robert H Nelson argued in a piece in the Independent that while atheism is growing in numbers, ‘such trends have ironically been taking place even as… the probability for the existence of a supernatural god have been rising’. Nelson, who is Professor of Public Policy at the University at Maryland and the author of God? Very Probably (2015), looks at physics, the philosophy of human consciousness, evolutionary biology, mathematics, and the history of religion and theology to explore whether a supernatural god exists. His conclusion? ‘The existence of a god is very probable.’
14 May – The ‘no religion’ population of Britain is a new report which shows that 48.6 per cent of the population now identify as nonreligious. And it showed that 90 per cent of people raised with no religion (the ‘Nones’) have retained this identity into adulthood, while less than 5 per cent of ‘cradle Nones’ now identify as a Christian. In slightly better news for religion, Nones have stopped growing as a share of the population, and a quarter of them admit to praying, with 4 per cent of them praying on a daily basis. The Guardian had a thoughtful piece on the report, asking, Has the UK hit ‘peak secular’?
10 May – Richard Dawkins: The Stephen Fry story of 7 May (below) had an interesting knock-on effect, with Richard Dawkins announcing that he would be ‘available for arrest on a charge of blasphemy’ in June, when he gives a lecture in Dublin. He tweeted: ‘The Irish blasphemy law must go. An embarrassment to the civilised world, it encourages the uncivilised one.’ It also led to New Zealand discovering it had a blasphemy law of its own, which came as a surprise to both the prime minister and the Anglican archbishop.
7 May – Stephen Fry unexpectedly appeared in the media spotlight when the Irish police announced he was going to be investigated for blasphemy. The story related to a much-tweeted video interview Fry did two years ago (in February 2015) with presenter Gay Byrne on RTE, so the investigation seemed to be rather late in coming. In the interview, Fry had asked, ‘Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?’ The Telegraph ran with: ‘Stephen Fry under police investigation for blasphemy after branding God an “utter maniac”.’ Two days later, the investigation was apparently halted, ‘because the Garda Síochána could not find enough people to be outraged’.
Photo: Screenshot of video by Volker Rahn