With doctorates in natural sciences and in theology, scientist and priest Dr Andrew Davison is the Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge. He is also the author of several books, including The Love of Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy for Theologians. He talks to Nigel Bovey about the overlapping worlds of science, philosophy and faith.
Dr Davison, how did you get into science?
As a child, I was fascinated by chemistry and would buy discarded chemistry sets from my school friends. I read chemistry at Oxford. I followed that with a doctorate in biochemistry, where I was looking at the metabolism of molecules that make up the fatty membranes of cells, with particular reference to lymphoma in the liver.
Where did the interest in theology come from?
While I was working on lymphoma, I started as a ward volunteer in a hospice. It struck me that – despite it being emotionally demanding – spending time with patients was the most rewarding thing that I did. Sometimes, we talked. At other times, it was simply sitting with someone.
It required everything I had – intellect, social skills, memory, interests and willingness to be present. That was part of the route to training for the ministry and studying theology. The other thing that changed my direction was noticing that I wasn’t lying awake thinking about biochemistry any more. I was lying awake thinking about theology, philosophy or ethics. I started wondering if, rather than being a bench scientist, I should be going in a more pastoral direction.
I also had a crisis of faith. As a teenager I had joined a conservative house church. I believed that that world had been made in six days and was 6,000 years old. At university, I soon found substantial evidence that said this isn’t the case. Working out what that meant for my faith was difficult, even painful, but it was part of what got me thinking about theology, and that’s never left me.
The argument that science has all the answers is one promoted by new atheists. To what extent have they hijacked science?
In the mid-20th century, the idea became popular that the one method for investigating everything was a scientific one – logical positivism. This is the idea that the only things that can be investigated are those things that can either be observed or logically derived from that observation. In time, it collapsed under its own logic – the very concept of logical positivism does not obey its own rule.
Logical positivism then re-emerged in the late 20th in a less philosophically sophisticated way in the form of new atheism. My concerns about new atheism are as much about the restrictive way it sets up the questions as they are about the answers it gives, as if all questions are scientific questions. The empirical scientific method can apply only to scientific questions. There are plenty of other topics, including metaphysics, to think about.
Science and religion are often posed as being in conflict. If science should answers only scientific questions, shouldn’t theology be similarly confined?
Theology, which is the study of God and all things that relate to God, has something to say about all areas of life, because everything in life – science included – relates to God. There are a number of models for the relationship between science and theology, including independence, conflict and dialogue. For instance, since the Middle Ages, people of faith have been engaged in the search for knowledge that we know today as science.
Some parts of the church resist abortion and stem-cell research. If it is unfair for science to answer all the questions, is it right that some religionists influence policymakers and practitioners to resist such medical procedures and explorations?
The church is not anti-medicine, it’s already deeply involved. Globally, the church provides a huge amount of medical care. In hospitals and universities, religious figures are a valued part of the ethics committees that make important decisions.
I question the idea that it is a case of religion versus neutrality. Individually and in legislative deliberations, people address such questions in terms of their vision of reality – what morality looks like, where value lies: we all have that kind of fundamental vision. No one’s perspective should be ruled out because it is informed by religious views.
The discussions you mention are not instances of religion acting outside of its realm because such medical procedures connect what it is to be human and the nature of responsibility. As such, they relate directly to one’s perspective on religious questions.
The Bible does not give an explicit ruling on every ethical question. Part of the scriptural inheritance is to think that the world is God’s good and ordered creation. This has fostered the tradition of natural law – that we can take ethical bearings for what makes sense of, fulfils and goes with the grain of what we find in the world. Christians do well not to trade Bible verses but rather argue from their vision of what makes a flourishing human life and a flourishing community.
Many people of faith have difficulty reconciling the theory of evolution and the creation accounts of the Bible. Are these narrative in conflict or are they complimentary?
I find John Calvin’s insight helpful. He points to the profound gap between the divine intellect and our own, and that we need to take seriously the Bible as God’s communication and God as the perfect communicator. Calvin says that God ‘accommodates’ his revelation to our capacities.
So in Genesis, God doesn’t speak by giving us equations of electro-magnetic radiation or general relativity. Rather, he speaks to an ancient culture in a way in which they can receive and understand it. Taking the Bible seriously involves recognising that it contains different literary genres, including, poetry, law codes and history. It is not a science book.
Just as we rely on the discernment of the early church to have drawn up the list of what’s in the Bible, traditionally the way the early church read the Bible has been an important guide for today. Augustine, for example, did not read the creation accounts in Genesis as implying a literal six times 24-hour period.
If they are not scientific accounts, what is the purpose of the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2?
It’s possible to get so concerned about the mention of timeframe that we miss the radical message. For example, the Sun and Moon, which some cultures worshipped as gods, are described in Genesis as products of divine creation that do his bidding.
The idea that God made everything, including matter, was contrary to classical Greek ideas. Platonism promoted the idea of eternally existing matter and that matter is irrational and associated with evil. Genesis, however, says that there was a beginning, that God made the world out of nothing and that he judged what he had made as good, including matter.
For Aristotle, God is the ‘unmoved mover’ blissfully unconcerned with the world. This is far removed from the image in Genesis of God walking in the garden in the company of his creation. The fact that humankind is made in God’s image and has God-given stewardship of the planet are further radical contributions the Bible offers. To tie Genesis to a narrow cosmological narrative or to dismiss it entirely are tragedies.
To what extent can God’s existence be scientifically proved?
The question of whether or not there is a God is not a scientific question; it is a metaphysical question – why is there something rather than nothing? The language of proof is not appropriate. Most of the things that really matter to us, such as love, cannot be proved as if they were mathematical exercises. We need to think in terms of giving reasons, evidence and pointers.
Does this mean that science cannot disapprove God, as the new atheists attempt when they maintain that evolution does away with the need for a Creator?
With evolution, the role of suffering and death – in the way in which the world has come to be as it is – sits awkwardly with theology. However, a church that had been born among martyrdom and had come through the Black Death was not unaccustomed to thinking about the place of evil and suffering. It’s in theology’s favour that it does find evil and suffering to be such a problem. That’s more realistic than some evolution-is-everything attempt to ‘explain’ why it ‘all makes sense’. Evolution doesn’t answer the ultimate question of why there is something rather than nothing.
The multiverse theory says that the finely tuned conditions that allowed for life on Earth could have resulted in other universes, with different tunings. To what extent is it a scientific attempt to rule out the possibility of a divine designer?
The theological question is: Why is there anything? If there is only one universe or an ensemble of universes, the question does not go away. However many universes there are, the personal challenge is to perceive the world as a gift, which is at the heart of why I believe in, and worship, the Giver.
Thanks to the Hubble Space Telescope, scientists have identified thousands of other Earth-like planets. In the event that intelligent beings were found there, or elsewhere, would they need a saviour?
Theologians have differed over the cosmic nature of sin and fallenness. The broader Western perspective, which has been interested in angels and so has not seen humankind as the only intelligent creature, has tended to see the Fall as having a cosmic nature. CS Lewis, though, did not see sin as being universal.
The supreme example of God being involved in his creation is the incarnation, where God took on not only human language but, in the form of Jesus Christ, also human body language. The bottom line is that if creatures need redeeming, God will redeem them.
The defining event of the Christian narrative is the resurrection. If Jesus was not raised, the whole of Christianity is false. What convinces you of the resurrection?
I do not regard the resurrection as metaphorical. In my own life and in the lives of others, I see the resurrection principle at work. I believe in the resurrection of AD 33 because I see the life of God breaking into people’s lives in 2016.
I like to think about the resurrection alongside creation and forgiveness, because they are all instances of God giving us what we don’t deserve. The resurrection followed the epitome of horrendous human actions – the crucifixion of Jesus. God then turns that horror into the means of our salvation. When I come across forgiveness given and received, I recognise something of God’s initial gift of creation and the re-creation that came about through the resurrection.
People being able to forgive one another is, for me, witness to the resurrection. Grace is the eruption of the newness of God in the world. The resurrection says that nobody is beyond the grace of God and the possibility of redemption.
This interview was conducted by Nigel Bovey and first appeared in The War Cry. It is used here with permission
Photo: Nigel Bovey