The Revd Jane Chamberlain, one of our graduates from the MSc in Science and Religion at Edinburgh, describes her time. This piece was originally published in the Diocese of Bath and Wells magazine, Manna.
From 2012-2014 I studied part time for a MSc (Master of Science) degree in Science and Religion at the University of Edinburgh. This meant flying to Edinburgh for one day a week during term time. Fortunately I live very close to the airport and my parishioners were unbelievably supportive in organising a rota and giving me lifts to and from the airport – no mean feat as it was week in, week out at 5.30am – even in winter! And although it was hectic being full-time in the benefice, the parishes and diocese were generous and supportive in allowing me some study leave.
I was drawn to the course when I read about it in The Church Times. It was a new course and the only one of its kind in Europe at the time. My first degree was in Botany, so I have always been interested in science and faith, particularly the work of the priest, theologian and theoretical physicist John Polkinghorne. At the time, there were some interesting debates about creationism going on in our benefice and I was also aware of the perceived divide in society between being scientific and being religious. My hope was that study would equip me for more effective ministry in this context.
The course was completely brain-bending! My favourite module was called ‘Cell, Creator, Cosmos’ and dealt with issues such as cosmology, evolutionary biology, divine action and miracles, and brain, mind and soul. I discovered that much of the noisy debate between religion and science has taken place within a poorly-informed view of the history and philosophy of science and its relationship with religion. Many people have been seduced by the scientific method into believing that reality can be reduced to a simple set of scientific laws. However, in-depth study reveals that within our universe there are genuine levels of irreducible complexity. I discovered that an unquestioning belief in all that science or religion teaches us leads to an entrenched and limiting perspective on the infinite beauty of God’s creation.
My dissertation focussed on petitionary prayer and how we might have a coherent understanding of it from both a scientific and theological point of view. I compared the work of John Polkinghorne with the biochemist Arthur Peacocke (who was also a priest and theologian). I discovered that they differentiate their theology depending on the degree to which they interpret Scripture literally. From both, though, I learned that there is enough fuzziness and possibility within the scientific description of the world to allow for petitionary prayer.
One of the great strengths of Polkinghorne’s approach to divine action is that he describes a model that works within the grain of nature. This acknowledges the tension between the God who acts with divine consistency and the spectre of the celestial conjuror. Regarding petitionary prayer, there can integrity in the human-divine relationship because of the openness of the created order to causality and unfolding. By the very fact of its being offered by us, prayer changes the pattern of potential events and presents God with opportunities to act which did not previously exist. The effects of prayer are not always easily discernible to humans and happen over a long time-frame.
The MSc degree has had a practical expression in day-to-day ministry. There have been times when it has enriched my preaching (I’m told!), it has certainly made me more reflective in prayer and pastoral situations, and it has given me greater confidence in challenging some of the assumptions that many people have about the capacity of science to explain everything. There is much to be gained from studying in this area and I’d like to think that as a result of the course my faith is more thoughtful.