Edinburgh Science Festival sermon

Science Festival Service at St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, 30th March 2014, 11.30am

Reading: Gen.1:24-31; Col.1:11-20

The theme for this year’s Science Festival makes a bold claim, that ‘science lies at the heart of everything’. Bold, because many religious believers today, and many of the philosophers, scientists and theologians of yesterday would dispute that claim, or at least want to tone it down a bit. For sure, these people might say, natural science tells us a lot about the world around us, and a lot about the human condition, but there’s a fundamental mystery at the heart of existence that can only be seen by the eye of faith. Hence, the important and very ancient distinction between physics and metaphysics, and between natural science and theology (or, the Queen of the sciences as theology used to be known). So goes the traditional way of thinking: natural science can’t possibly tell us everything, because in its commitment to naturalism (the idea that the natural world can be explained on its own terms) science is simply not competent to tell us about everything. ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy’, says Hamlet to his friend Horatio. Of course, Hamlet isn’t about naturalism and the limits of science, but this is a famous line that’s often quoted in this context of where does science stop and theology start. However, against Hamlet, and against all those who might want to set reactionary limits on science, there’s been something of a revolution going on over the last decade which has drawn science into the heart of everything, and in doing so has consistently challenged some of our most ingrained beliefs, some of them religious, but many of them to do with who we are as humans. And it’s that revolution I want to speak about here.

Now in speaking of science as a revolution challenging our ingrained beliefs, I don’t mean the very noisy revolution of New Atheism – Richard Dawkins et al. – who base their arguments against religion on the success of natural science. Instead, I mean a much quieter revolution, one that’s been going on in the science-religion field, the academic field of research I work in, that tries to understand the relationship between these two great truth-claiming edifices of our day, science and religion. It’s fair to say that many of us who work in this area are bridge-builders of one kind or another. We value both science and religion for their own sakes. And this quiet revolution that I’m referring to has come about because we want to build bridges, because we want to maintain a robust natural science which lies at the heart of everything alongside a robust theology which also lies at the heart of everything. We don’t want to set limits here, nor to threaten one discipline with the other, but to get to the heart of the matter, what is a human?, using all of the tools at our disposal, whether those tools come from physics or metaphysics, philosophy or physiology.

In fact, speaking of physiology, perhaps the easiest way to see what I mean is to think about the human soul, and how it relates to being human. What is the soul? Well, many religious believers, both today and down the ages, would say that the soul encapsulates the mystery at the heart of existence, the essential spiritual ‘me’: invisible, but essential; the thinking, feeling spark placed inside me by God which, after my death, will hopefully carry my identity into the afterlife. We’ve just heard a reading from Genesis that’s often used in this context, because it mentions how humans were created ‘in the image of God’. ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness;’ says God, ‘and let them have dominion over’ all living things. So the traditional Christian belief[1] takes that verse and insists that the human soul – unique to humans – carries this divine image inside us, it sets us apart from all other living creatures, and is the basis for dominion over the earth. Just as importantly, the soul isn’t accessible to natural science: it’s spiritual, not natural: it’s truly the image that belongs to God.[2]

That’s the traditional idea. But like I said, a revolution has been going on. That revolution started with Darwin, who brought humans down to size by pointing out that we’ve evolved from and alongside other animals; that revolution has carried on into the environmental crisis of today, which has brought an acute awareness of what humans have done to the earth, and a need to re-assess what dominion means; and that revolution is currently being played out in study of the human brain, the mind, and consciousness. For its becoming clear that all of those functions which we used to attribute to the soul – thinking, feeling, rationalising, yearning, loving: all of those innermost things that are me – they all come from the squashy grey stuff between my ears (my physical brain). Change that squashy grey stuff a bit, and you could well change me altogether; I might no longer be the same person, have the same thoughts, feelings and reactions. In short, I am that squashy grey stuff; there’s not something else intangible, detachable from my physical body. If I have a soul, it is my body.

I discovered this at first hand myself: one of my immediate family suffers from Alzheimer’s: severe neural deterioration over the last 5 years has led to a loss of memory, a loss of function, and most tragically of all, a loss of personal identity. Quite apart from the acute pain that my family feels about this kind of living bereavement, I’ve realised the impact this has had on my belief about the soul and human biology, a belief which was already mostly there from what I know in the science-religion field. But this brought it home. I can no longer believe that humans have a special extra something that contains the real me, distinct from my biology. I am biology and nothing more. The soul, if it exists at all, has to be what you see here, the physical me in my biological entirety, just like all other animals.[3]

Many of us who work in the science-religion field have responded to this revolution about the human brain and the soul, by re-assessing what it means to talk in religious terms about human existence and human identity, that idea that’s encapsulated in that phrase ‘the image of God’. If the ‘image of God’ can’t refer to my spiritual soul (because I don’t have one), then what does it mean? Well, many answers have been given to this – it’s a very active and complex debate at the moment – but quite a few cluster around an idea that goes by the name of ‘human uniqueness’. This idea says that OK, humans don’t have a soul, and our biology is very similar to other animals, but we’re still uniquely special since we’re the most advanced biological species, the most intelligent, the most technically capable, the most complex, and so on and so on.[4]

Now you don’t need to be religious to believe in human uniqueness like this. I suspect that many of us, in our heart of hearts, think there’s something extra-specially accomplished about humans, quite apart from any religious reasoning. I’ve even heard well-respected biologists suggesting it, saying that humans have managed to extricate themselves from evolution. It is said that, through the development of human culture, healthcare, technology and all the rest, we’ve transcended the necessities that biology places on us, in a way that no other species has managed. We’re now above the evolutionary arms race of ‘survival of the fittest’. Well I’m not sure of this myself: it might seem to comfortable well-off intellectuals in the Western world that humans have transcended the struggle for survival, but that’s certainly not the case for humans everywhere in the world today, not even in the Western world. In any case, sophisticated human culture has only been around for some 6000 years: a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms, far too soon to say that we’re at the end of evolution. So to claim that humans transcend evolution smacks to me of a lack of vision at best, and what I call ‘species arrogance’ at worst. If there’s any truth in human uniqueness, I suspect it’s that we are uniquely arrogant among animal species.

Darwin did much to bring us down to size as a species, but even now more than 150 years after Origin of Species, human uniqueness is alive and well, as the debate on what ‘image of God’ means suggests. I don’t want to castigate human uniqueness though, if for no other reason than that science, while causing us to question human uniqueness, can also provide some good reasons for suggesting we’re pretty special, at least at this precise moment in evolutionary time. Our intellectual capacity, our use of symbols and language, appear to be more complex than in any other species we know of. And our love of religion as a human race bears that out. The New Atheists dwell on the negatives of religion, but if you look at the positives of religion – sophisticated theological reasoning, deep use of symbol and metaphor, highly-developed devotional music, art and literature – you’ll see some of the best examples there are of why humans are unusually accomplished among species, quite apart from the question of whether God exists or not.

But what a difference it makes once you start to say that God exists. Because then two of those religions at least – Judaism and Christianity – are uncompromisingly clear that if humans are anything special (and that’s clearly debatable), then it’s because of God alone. Charles Kingsley, author of The Water Babies, and an Anglican priest who embraced Darwin, condemned human uniqueness on these grounds a long time ago. He said that we humans naturally want ‘to set up some “dignity of human nature,” some innate superiority to the animals, on which we may pride ourselves as our own possession, and not return thanks with fear and trembling for it as the special gift of Almighty God.’[5] In other words, what he’s suggesting is the tragedy you find throughout the Bible of humans trying to make themselves God by their own efforts, of the pride that comes before the fall, of the arrogance which stands behind human uniqueness, however innocent it might appear on the surface.

So what of the ‘image of God’ then? If human uniqueness is a dead end, then what can it mean to say that humans are made ‘in the image of God’? To be honest, I’m not sure. Of all the answers that have been given, I find only one truly meaningful, and it flies in the face of science more comprehensively than any of the others. You heard it in the NT reading from Colossians, where we were told of the humble carpenter from Nazareth who died on a cross of wood, but who is yet ‘the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation’, we were told. And the passage continued: ‘in him all things in heaven and earth were created…and in him all things hold together’. This is an astonishing statement, on any level. It suggests that, if the Science Festival is right to say that science is at the heart of everything (and I think it is), then the humble carpenter from Nazareth, the means by which heaven and earth were created, is also at the heart of science. He’s the reason science is at the heart of everything. You can even turn that around. Science is the reason he’s at the heart of everything.

There are ways of taking this further, but that’s for another sermon another day. For now, in my closing moments I simply want to acknowledge that, if this sounds scandalously absurd, then you’ve grasped the scandal at the heart of Christianity, what often goes by the name ‘incarnation’, the Word made flesh.

It may not seem like it, but I’ve come back to my starting point, the quiet revolution in the science-religion field I spoke of, where science is at the heart of everything and the spiritual soul is no longer. I believe that science is truly at the heart of everything, but the reason I say that is because I believe that Christ the image of God is at the heart of everything.

[1] E.g. Catechism of the Catholic Church, #362-366; or Augustine, De Trinitate XVI.iv.6.

[2] Humani generis, #36.

[3] And that means that, if you believe in an afterlife, it must be seen in terms of full bodily resurrection from the dead. This is, in fact, my belief, that I may not have a spiritual soul, but I hope  to one day be raised into God’s kingdom biologically. It’s useful to note that this was also the view of the early Christians, but has to some degree been displaced on account of strong belief in the spiritual soul.

[4] Indeed, human uniqueness is something that’s still actively debated in evolutionary biology – to what extent are human beings the product of pure chance, or is evolution really directed in some sense towards the development of complexity and intelligence? Different biologists will give different answers to that, quite apart from any specifically religious beliefs.

[5] Quoted in Aubrey Moore, Science and the Faith (1889), pp.204-5.