Priestly Priorities: Science

A paper presented at Cashel and Ossory Clergy Conference, 16 October 2013

I’ve spent thirty years and more dealing with people between the ages of 18 and 40 in one-to-one and small group teaching. One can’t help but pick up some inklings of how their minds work and have been trained to work, and one can’t avoid one’s own mind being influenced by them, being trained by them. You might say that the people I’ve dealt with are not typical of their age group. They are highly motivated, highly educated, richly endowed, and do not represent the population at large. And that is so, numerically. But in terms of the influence wielded by them and their like-minded peers, they punch above their weight in influemcing the development of society and culture. The church cannot afford to ignore how they think, what they think, or why they think it.

In 2011, the Barna Group published the results of a five-year study in which teenagers, young adults, youth pastors, senior pastors and parents were interviewed about their attitudes. It showed that three out of every five young Christians disconnect from their churches after the age of 15. I would have put the number higher than that myself, but the study was US based in largely evangelical churches, which might be relevant. The top five reasons include:

  • Christians are too confident they know all the answers.
  • Christianity is anti-science, out of step with the scientific world we live in.
  • At least one quarter were turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate.
  • They don’t agree with the churches’ attitude to sexuality. Most young Christians are as sexually active as their non-Christian peers.

If you don’t like surveys of American evangelicals, let’s go local. How many teenagers and young adults do we retain after the ‘Jesus wants me for a sunbeam’ stage? It is not uncommon for unmarried CoI couples to live together, despite (or perhaps because) their parents are staunchly CoI. They think nothing of homosexual behaviour they see in the animal kingdom—which, by the way, is common, and are not at all troubled by it in people. They willingly use the latest gadgetry in breeding, farming and horticulture, and see no reasons why humans should not use it on and for themselves.

The church does itself no favours by ignoring things like these. Or rubbishing them.

Perhaps church and church people think that engaging with science is not important compared to serving the poor. When I was young there was much talk of the social gospel. Bergoglio wants a poor church for the poor. And that’s absolutely right. But not exclusively for the poor. It’s easy in some ways to minister to those who have nothing, to patronize the poor, making ourselves feel good. The rich need pastoring too, and simply denying what are evident facts is no way for the church to win friends. It is more likely to win over these people by engaging with the world as it is, not as it used to be, or as faith leaders wish it were. Of course, science and technology can be used for evil as well as good, but the chances of its being used for good increase if we engage with scientists.

Science, they say, is based on observation and quantifiable evidence; faith, theology, religion, are not. As it happens, I think both these statements are simplistic and need careful parsing. The trouble is that I’m not the person to do it. I am not a scholar in either discipline. I have no background in systematic theology; what patchy background I have is in mystical theology. I have no background in the philosophy of science, other than to know that there is no single philosophy held by all scientists. My insights arise from knowledge of how the body is put together, how it develops from a single cell to what you see when you stand in the mirror with no clothes on, and how that probably repulsive image has evolved from the primaeval soup. This is history—history of the individual, the species and the animal kingdom. In a way, I’m an historian. Nevertheless, I have an analytical mind and a critical ability, so let’s see where I can take you.

en arche ain ho logos (John 1: 1). Logos to those people at that time, we are told, had a variety of meanings including ‘the system underlying all things.’ Natural science perhaps, the laws of the cosmos, the laws of science.

Heraclitus: ouk emou alla tou logou akousantas homologein sofon estin hen panta einai. Listening not to me but to the logos it is wise to agree that all things are one.

If you put this meaning of logos into John 1, you get:

In the beginning was the system underlying all things, and the system underlying all things was with God, and the system underlying all things was God. The system underlying all things was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

So, God as the laws of nature, the cosmic order—that is, the opposite of chaos. I dislike the word God, by the way, and try to replace it with ‘the Divine’, which is more what theos means anyway.

Since God is all, all creation is part of God. For me, creation ex nihilo means not that the creator took a lump of nothingness and made the cosmos out of it, but rather that creation comes from nothing else but God. The cosmos is being created out of the Divine self, which is love. Creation is part of theos, the Divine thing. ‘What is not God is nothing’, as Sergei Bulgakov said. Science, then, is incarnational, even incarnation itself, since Christ is Emmanu-el. This view—that we are all bits of the Divine, created of the Divine and by the Divine—has implications, of course. How do I account for the human propensity to cock up, to be like supermarket trolleys, constantly veering off course? How do I explain evil? Does this mean, then, that evil itself is part of God? That’s not a topic for today, fascinating though it is. But for now, let me get back to more earthed considerations.

For the ancients, Genesis in a way was part of their ‘science’: it helped explain where they were and how they got there. We use our ‘science’ in exactly the same way. If Genesis is part of Holy Scripture, then so is science, so is biology. Science is part of Divine revelation. Whatever else I am, I’m a zoologist. I look at theology through the lens of zoology. Theology has to fit biology, not the other way round. We are creatures of this earth—no more and no less. When you look at the first month of human embryonic development, you see a kind-of fast-forward evolution: first a single cell, then a blob, then a hollow ball, then like a shrimp with gills, then it develops a tail that regresses, and so on. This is the theory of recapitulation: ‘ontogeny repeats phylogeny’. We evolved (however you see that process) from reptiles into mammals—that is, the females have mammae, and among the mammals we are apes, and because we have opposable thumbs, we call ourselves primates (apes, not archbishops, though it’s often difficult to distinguish the two).

Many of the issues that put people off religion—that is, people who see every day that science ‘works’—concern biology. They don’t bother too much about particle physics because they can’t see it. But they experience biology. We are dealing with ourselves. We know we eat, scratch, blink, belch, fart and evacuate. We know we play with our own and with others’ genitals. Or at least have done so. And God made it all and saw that it was very good. So who are we to say that it is not? Any reading of Holy Scripture will tell us that Israelites, Hebrews, Jews, Greeks and Romans were much more at home with bodily functions than we are. The last lecture I gave before I was ordained concerned the embryological development of male genitalia, and how what went ‘wrong’ with the process to give rise to congenital anomalies in the male, was in a sense a reversion to the basic default setting, which is female. Then two weeks later the first sermon I preached as a deacon was on readings in which Paul was perseverating, as only Paul does, about circumcision.

It can take centuries for the church to acknowledge new developments. It disapproves of some and applauds others. It dislikes some things that ‘interfere’ with the natural world (fracking), yet says nothing about others that do likewise (antibiotics). It behaves like a tart when it comes to engaging with physicists and cosmologists, comparing the ineffability of the Trinity with our ideas of the cosmos, of particle physics, of string theory, yet hisses and spits at some biologists who work to better the human condition.

So often, the church seems either to condemn or to ignore. ‘Church’ and many so-called Christians come across as wanting the clock to be turned back to the days of candlelight with De Valera’s ‘happy maidens’ barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. These people must be frightened. And that’s understandable. Secularists and scientists heap scorn on ‘faith’, so faith leaders adopt a cowboys and indians ‘us good, them bad’ attitude. Like our Lord, young adults detest pretence and hypocrisy. Like our Lord, they condemn very little, but they can spot bullshit a mile off. And the church is full of it. Today’s people can see that the Scriptural world-view is demonstrably false, and yet are confronted by people of ‘faith’ who either will not admit it, or are mealy-mouthed about it. Rather than talking direct to the critics, church people tend to stay heads down within circled wagons, I suppose to prevent the devaluation of their theology and the loss of their heads. It seems to me that if theology is so easily devalued, it must be faulty. And those people afraid to put their heads up are the very ones who should be decapitated.

Why is this? It sometimes seems that any new scientific development will be opposed by some so-called Christians somewhere. At the root of this, I think, is the anti-intellectualism that is rife in all the churches, and certainly in the Church of Ireland. This itself springs from that basic human insecurity that is terrified of losing control. Just think how many parish problems arise from people who cling on to power and influence. It is profoundly unChristian. It seems to me that pushing at the limits of knowledge and convention is truly Christ-like. Those who resist exploration and refuse to take risks are un-Christ-like.

It grieves me to see the church tying itself up in sex and sexuality. The church seems to be enjoying this so much that it might be regarded as a form of autoeroticism—without the gratification. It’s in a knot about sex for one simple reason, and that is that it has not shaken off Aristotle’s view that the spermatozoön contains a miniature human. This colours its view of intercourse, of male masturbation, of birth control and of artificial fertilization. What does it matter how an embryo is conceived? The church has its knickers in a total twist about sexuality because it lacks a coherent theology of desire and delight, and because people refuse to look into their own souls, and refuse to even consider the science of pleasure and reward. What does it matter how people engage in mutual delight, so long as no-one is exploited? Most of those who huff and puff about such things need to come to terms with the fact that they are yesterday’s people. The world has moved on. And we in Europe don’t matter any more.

I look back on my life. Since my birth in rural Cumberland in 1950 I have witnessed the discovery and/or ready availability of domestic electricity, mains water, mains sewerage, vacuum cleaners, TV, motor cars, antibiotics, combine harvesters, electric typewriters, air travel, microwaves, amniocentesis, radioactivity for diagnosis and treatment, interplanetary exploration, mobile phones, discovery of the neutrino, ATMs, computers that fit in your handbag, automatic milking machines, driverless trains, robotic surgery, test-tube fertilization, DNA testing, medical scanning, growth of human body parts in the laboratory or on a different part of your own body, embryo manipulation, graphene. When I was born there were no planets outside the solar system. Now there are 1000 and counting. Newton’s physics, once thought the absolute truth, allows us to get to the moon and distant planets in this part of the cosmos. But it’s not ‘true’ when things get very small or go very fast. Nobody knows exactly what gravity is. Science is evolving. Our understanding evolves. Our brain evolves.

I grow and evolve. The Divine is as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end, but my view of the Divine grows and evolves. Because we are biological creatures, we think biologically. We can’t do otherwise, because that’s how we are wired. The need for ritual is hard-wired into the animal brain. Our whole approach to theology, which we have invented, and to doctrine, which we have invented, is biological. Our every action, good or bad, begins as a thought in the brain—that is, some sort of nerve cell activity. Our perception of God depends upon biology. Our brains are evolving, so the way in which we perceive God, and indeed our notions of God, must surely also evolve. For what it’s worth, I think there’s great scope for joint theo-biological exploration, and I don’t think we need fear the results.

Given that theology and doctrine are creations of the human mind, is it not possible that they too may evolve? John Henry Newman thought so. Papa Luciani did not rule out the possibility when in response to the conception of the world’s first ‘test-tube’ baby he sent his ‘best wishes to the baby. As for the parents, I have no right to judge them [who] may even have great merit before God for what they have decided and asked the doctors to do.’ Papa Bergoglio in a recent interview quoted Vincent of Lerins (who interestingly spent the first part of his life in secular pursuits, whatever that may mean) who said: ‘Even the dogma of the Christian religion must follow these laws, consolidating over the years, developing over time, deepening with age.’

I put it to you that we need to be developing new ways of talking about God—ways that sit comfortably with a world view in which science works. Let’s admit the limitations of some of the old ones, and of biblical literalism and bibliolatry. Let’s explain how the Biblical message reflects truth, and let’s be passionate that the Gospel of Christ was, is, and will for ever be, ground-breaking, authentic and unassailable in its psychological authenticity.

This is something that the desert fathers and mystics through the ages know all about. Over the centuries it was sidelined in favour of rules and regulations as Christianity aligned itself with politics and power. I am someone who thinks that separation of church and state is a good thing. The more that the Church surrenders trappings of politics and power, the more chance there is that it will become once again what it should be: unconditional love in action.

Psychology is properly a science not a humanity, and is taught as a science in many places, including of course Cambridge (though not, I regret to say, in that offshoot of Cambridge at the bottom of Grafton Street in Dublin). It grows from neuroanatomy and neurophysiology, and any psychologist worthy of the name will know something of those disciplines. I can remember the moment when, standing at the front of a Dublin lecture theatre, I glimpsed that anatomy, physiology, psychology, philosophy and theology are simply one continuum. That is, the way the brain is put together affects the way it works, which affects the way we think, which affects what we think, which affects how we think it, which affects our perceptions, which affect our concepts, which affect everything – including how we perceive and relate to the Divine.

Science can help feed the world: I approve of genetic engineering. Science can power the world: I approve of nuclear power, and I support the development of solar power stations on satellites, even on the moon, and ways to bring the energy back to earth. Science can help us to adduce arguments, contra Dawkins, that unselfishness has developed as a result of evolution. Science teaches us our place in creation: we are not the only intelligent organisms on the planet—did you know that jellyfish can use a coconut shell as a tool? The church and science can cooperate for the sake of the Kingdom.

It’s not difficult to use science in sermons: astronomy; immensity; silence; electricity; be born in us today; blood of Christ with blood cells carrying oxygen, fighting disease, healing wounds, bringing nutrients, absence of blood as death; Holy communion as feeding, divine exchange, longing, eros. Healing requires the clearing out of disease (confession and absolution). Using excrement to fertilize, that is, the fruits of our experience to enable is to grow, is straight from the Gospel. Sometimes I see people wincing and smiling. ‘Good sermon, Rector.’ At least they will listen.

The sun has been shining for over 4 billion years, and has over 6 billion to go. If you represent earth’s lifetime by a single year January to December, the 21st century is a quarter of a second in June. We are less than halfway through the process of evolution. Whatever creatures witness the demise of the solar system will be as different from us as we are from bacteria. God is working his purpose out. Enjoy the ride and stop fretting.

If we are to be taken seriously we need courage to confront these issues without appearing to want to stop the world, or to descend into pseudoscience that pleases only the sandal-wearing basket weavers. What I’d like to see is the church—that’s you and me—using science and its possibilities to engage, to enrich and to enchant. To enchant people to the Divine.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

And now, let me tell you how science has enriched my understanding of incarnation and salvation. Here is a conversation between theology and biology concerning Mary and the embryonic Jesus growing in her.

A prayer from the Liturgy of St Basil, addressed to the Mother of God:

Because of you, O full of grace, all creation rejoices, the ranks of angels and the human race; hallowed temple and spiritual paradise, pride of virgins; From you God was incarnate and he, who is our God before the ages, became a little child. For he made your womb a throne and caused it to become wider than the heavens. Because of you, O full of grace, all creation rejoices; glory to you.

Our faith holds that Mary is the means by which God the logos, incarnate word, incarnate wisdom becomes human. She was God-bearer, QeotokoV. Some say Mary must have been special to have been chosen to act thus as God-bearer. Some say she was conceived without sin in order to have been chosen. Maybe she was.

But for me, the whole point of the incarnation is that God chooses no-one special – God chooses one of us – God chooses you and me – in whom to implant divinity. Mary is the type. This is what makes Christianity special – he came down to earth from heaven. If he reserves a special vessel for himself, does he not then become further removed from you and me, less accessible to you and me? That is not what the incarnation is about.

By simple logic, if Mary is one of us, and Mary is God bearer, this could mean that we too are God bearers. Let me prove this with reproductive biology.

  • When an embryo is growing in the uterus, some of its cells invade maternal tissue. Some of these destroy maternal tissue and allow the embryo to exchange things with the mother.
  • Some of these embryonic cells also find their way into mother’s blood vessels and are carried throughout the mother’s body.
  • The invading embryonic cells are very unusual, in that they lose their individual boundaries and become a community without boundaries – individuals give way to a cooperative.
  • Embryonic cells remain within the mother up to and after she gives birth, so the woman is changed by the embryo growing in her uterus. After giving birth, the woman is no longer the same: embryonic cells have been incorporated into her.
  • The mother’s immune system is thought to recognize same-ness in the embryo and so does not reject the embryo (like a heart transplant might be rejected). This is not like the immune system for fighting disease that recognizes different-ness, but a phenomenon that recognizes common-ness.

Now put this in theological terms. During pregnancy, Jesus’ Divine cells invade Mary. Mary does not reject Jesus. Jesus and Mary exchange material. Some of Jesus’ cells are left behind in Mary after Jesus has been born, and by this means Mary has been changed, transformed by the 9-month Christ-pregnancy.

But Mary is the representative of humanity, of you and me. So by spiritual extension, the Christ-event that began with Mary’s pregnancy and transforms her, also transforms you and me.

Jesus’ divine cells invade Mary. Jesus invades us – the divine pilot light within, like a divine radioactive core, ready to saturate all our cells, all our being, if only we will let it. As embryonic cells devour maternal tissue to enable exchange, so the divine core within can, if we allow it, devour our less salubrious parts, to enable exchange with God. Bishop Lancelot Andrewes in 1614 wrote:

He was not idle all the time He was an embryo — all the nine months He was in the womb; but then and there He even eat out the core of corruption that cleft to our nature and us …. [We] were by this means made beloved in Him … this the good by Christ an embryo.

This is astonishing for 1614.

Exchange. The embryonic Christ and Mary exchange things through Jesus’ placenta. So we exchange with God: God sustains us, and we offer the sacrificial gifts of worship and compassion. All things intermingle for good for those that love God – intermingling of divine and human. I call this the doctrine of mystical intermingling, and I have patented it, at least with a former Archbishop of Canterbury who put up no objection, so it must be right.

So how do we allow the divine core to transform us?

  • Mary listened. We need to listen to God. We do this by listening to God within, the still small voice. This is the implanted word.
  • Mary did not resist. We don’t need to do anything other than to stop resisting. Honest self-examination is a key to this.
  • We let the divine core within expand to fill our skins from inside and suffuse all our tissues and thoughts. This is salvation, redemption, deification, theosis. ‘God became man so that man might become God’, said St Irenaeus, that ‘we might dwell in him and he in us’.

We are inclined to resist the God within. The pilot light is there, but the pride and hurts that are erected around it prevent its from shining out. If we stop preventing the Divine core growing within us (‘be born in us today’) we have the new creation happening from inside out. The fig leaves that we clothe ourselves with, the fat with which we ‘inclose’ ourselves (Psalm 17:10 Coverdale), melt away.

When our idols, our securities and defence mechanisms fall away, we feel empty. Now we find out who we really are. We’re so poor that we’re a shock to ourselves. We weep. But now—and only now—we are ready to be filled: we begin to be open to Divine love.

As Mary is suffused with divine cells, she is divinized. She is co-redemptrix. But Mary is one of us, so we all share in this redemptive power if we choose to: we can all light the way for others. At our baptisms, each one of us becomes a Christ who can participate in the energies of the Christ that is within us. We are co-redemptors. Mary, Mary, Extraordinary is a model for you and me.

This is a lovely biological model for self-abandonment to the Divine within, self-consumption by the Divine within. Lancelot Andrewes, yet again, is spot-on:

we are styled by the Apostle dispensers of the mysteries of God; and in them and by them, of all the benefits that come to mankind by this dispensation in the fulness of season of all that are recapitulate in Christ.

Recapitulate. I mentioned earlier the biological theory of recapitulation: the first month of our embryological development being, in a way, speeded-up evolution. I end by turning to another theory of recapitulation—that of Irenaeus in which the new Adam succeeds where the first Adam failed, thus neatly wrapping up everything into himself. The embryonic Christ concentrating cosmos into himself, the womb of Mary becoming, as St Basil has it, ‘wider than the heavens’.  According to Irenaeus, the incarnation sanctifies each stage of life: Christ ‘passed through every age . . . that He might be a perfect Master for all. . . . He came on to death itself, that He might be the first-born from the dead, . . . the Prince of life, existing before all, and going before all.’

In this typology, it’s the biology of Christ that is salvific. The biological theory of recapitulation is about the story of evolution incorporated into the development of every individual. Each one of us contains material from the big bang. The theological theory of recapitulation is a bringing together of all that into the Christ-embryo: ‘By becoming Son of God the Christ recapitulates all creation in himself.’ Charles Wesley knew this:

Let earth and heaven combine, Angels and men agree,
To praise in songs divine The incarnate Deity,
Our God contracted to a span Incomprehensibly made Man.
He laid His glory by, He wrapped Him in our clay;
Unmarked by human eye, The latent Godhead lay;
Infant of days He here became, And bore the mild Immanuel’s Name.
Unsearchable the love That hath the Saviour brought;
The grace is far above Of men or angels’ thought:
Suffice for us that God, we know, Our God, is manifest below.
He deigns in flesh to appear, Widest extremes to join;
To bring our vileness near, And make us all divine:
And we the life of God shall know, For God is manifest below.
Made perfect first in love, And sanctified by grace,
We shall from earth remove, And see His glorious face:
His love shall then be fully showed, And man shall all be lost in God.

Friends, enjoy your biology, warts and all. Farts and all. It was the Lord’s biology before it was yours and mine.

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