I sat in the dark auditorium; the amplified voice of the speaker dwarfed the murmured conversations and hushed tones of note taking. Image after image of Ultrasound scans were projected behind the speaker’s head: often black and white, yet annotated with red circles and arrows. Sometimes pictures pulsated with red and blue pixels, flashing their indication of blood flow or occasionally there was the novelty of a three-dimensional image. ‘Here we can see…’, ‘Compare with this image…’, ‘In this case the fetus…’. I listened to the narration of terminal health issues and the manner of identification. As the representative of a commercial organization I had a legitimate reason to be there, as a scientist I understood what I was seeing, as a Product Manager I was looking for ideas, but as a Christian I faced a difficult juxtaposition: that morning I’d read the Church of England’s Daily Prayer and a line from Psalm 139 had lodged itself in the forefront of my mind. ‘You knit me together in my Mother’s womb.’ I was wrestling to reconcile this metaphor of a hand-crafted and deeply personal description for human development, with the stark reality of the photographs in front of me. How did I understand God to have a hand in human growth and development while also believing that there was a biological process where genetic tools turned out human machines? Where was God when creation didn’t go to completion? If God is the perfect midwife for humanity, why not intervene? As a scientist, do I sometimes let the observable facts of cell-division deny that God has a personal role in each individual’s creation?
As a student of Theology and Ministry, I continue to learn and have opportunities to engage with the writing of theologians. Essays are a means of synthesising what I’ve read, and translating it into my own words. My personal background is in Software Support and Development in the fields of Analytical Chemistry and Genetic Screening: the following essay represents a theological reflection which has grown from practical experience. This is a link to the original essay which was submitted to York School of Ministry as part of my study towards a degree in Theology Ministry and Mission.
My scientific world-view is strongly biased towards cause and effect, to predictability and measurability. Observing what is happening now seems to be a reliable method of extrapolating what has happened before, and what might happen next. Evolution as a theory fits neatly into this world view and is one I’m happy to accept, although I sometimes find myself fitting my faith around the observable facts. I believe that God is God, and can choose to intervene or not as and when God chooses. But seven days of Creation? Well, if God wanted to shortcut the majesty of doing it properly I’m sure that’s possible, but there seems to be something awe inspiring to entertain that God said, ‘Let there be light’ and through some flick of the wrist God set the Universe in motion – space and time began to stretch away. Black holes collide and the very fabric of space and time ripples across the Universe. The density of space leads to the aggregation of matter, which subsequently collapses under its own weight then ignites and bursts into light. These stars grow old, implode, then explode in supernovae; spreading their new creation of heavier elements across the cosmos. The process repeats, coalescing into new stars and planets: Earth eventually forms, the perfect distance from the perfect sun. Life begins, and grows: ‘How clearly the sky reveals God’s glory! How plainly it shows what he has done! Each day announces it to the following day; each night repeats it to the next. No speech or words are used, no sound is heard; yet their message goes out to all the world and is heard to the ends of the earth.’
The theory of evolution is still the most convincing scientific account of how complex organic molecules eventually learned to read, write and ask existential questions like, ‘Why am I here?’. A programmer, developing digital Artificial Intelligence, said that computer programs are always doing what they are programmed to. Even if the computer program is writing another computer program, eventually all actions are traced back to the intention of the programmer. Perhaps evolution was the means to put enough distance between creator and the created, to yield genuine free-will. The challenge of evolution (and not only to Christians) is the heartlessness of the process. Randomized genetic mutations eventually resulted in nerves that sense light or sound; giving sight to species that were once blind, and hearing to those that were once deaf. However, this same randomized process results in (what is clinically called) genetic disorder. ‘Change’, it seems, is the universal constant. Even when a human is built as close to ‘statistical normal’ as possible for a population; the body continues to change, to grow, and to die. One researcher recently said, the cure for cancer may well include the ‘cure’ for life too. It seems that the recipe for our development also contains the inevitability of our destruction, so did God really give us over to pain and suffering just so we could have free-will? Was there no other approach?
“Jesus loves me this I know, because the Bible tells me so”; even deep theologians like Karl Barth have overly simplistic statements attributed to them. How can a book communicate love? As scientists, we work with verifiable facts, not romantic fictions. There are few verifiable facts more heart-wrenching than sitting alongside a pregnant woman who knows her baby has microcephaly. In the light of horrendously painful truths such as miscarriage, is it a glib platitude to offer hope in the scientifically unverifiable love of an invisible God? More than that, how might someone with faith in this love respond to their God after the death of their baby. How can scientists who are Christian maintain their faith in the face of such suffering? How can, frankly, scientists believe in God?
It is a short step from believing in what we can measure, to not believing in what we can’t measure. This is the same short step that denies God because God is beyond measurement. The popular misconception that ‘true scientists do not believe in supernatural explanations’ has its roots in the late 19th century and has since become a ‘pop-culture truth’ through repetition by a vociferous few. However, we scientists have the creativity to formulate many theories and to believe the unbelievable, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. Theories may be at first not fully formed – a bit like a new born baby – unable to survive in the harsh reality of contradictory data. This baby-theory may die if scientists didn’t have faith that it may one day grow to be an adult-theory; robust and self-sufficient. Even adult theories may be counter-intuitive and contradictory: ‘Let there be light’, said God, and man said, “Is it a wave or a particle?” Light behaves like both, but modernist rationality demands that it be one or the other. Grown-up-scientific-theories sometimes even try to incorporate the supernatural: ‘spooky action at a distance’ is an observable reality of quantum entanglement for example. We know that one quantum particle can make changes to another with no physical interaction, even though we can’t explain why. How can a scientist believe in God? How can a scientist believe in a creator? It is equally valid to ask, how can a scientist rule out the Creator God when there is no evidence to support that, and when there is innumerable human experience to support the claim. Scientists once described themselves as Natural Philosophers, taking their vocation to be the ‘love of wisdom of natural things’. How much closer could a scientist be to the heart of a Creator God than to have a love in the wisdom of God’s creation? The same God, who looked at the results of creation and said, ‘It is good’. The same God who ‘so loved the world that he gave his only son’. Jesus told us to ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind. And Love your neighbour as you love yourself’, contained in Jesus’ words were a commandment to think – encouragement to be a Natural Philosopher.
The challenge that faces most scientists who have faith is not the existence of God, but the problem of miraculous intervention, or lack of it. How can God allow suffering? Can God claim to knit me together in my Mother’s womb when childbirth has led to so much suffering and death? Pre-eclampsia has claimed the lives of so many women just when their new born infant needs them the most. How can God allow such a thing to happen? When we turn to the Bible for insights, we often find a confirmation that others have experienced the same thing. When Jesus was born, he was under threat of death by Herod but an angel warned the family and they fled to Egypt. For all the other infant boys who were murdered that night in Bethlehem, how would their parents cope with the knowledge that one family was warned?
The Christian hope of an answer isn’t found in simplistic theories; as scientists of faith we are invited to observe the facts. God invites us to open our eyes and see, to use all our mind to understand. The observable facts fall into two categories, what we see for ourselves and what others have witnessed to us. Considering human reproduction and the diversity of genetic makeup, we can clearly see we are not made like cookies, cut into the same shape. There are seven billion people on planet Earth yet this natural process didn’t resort to cloning. What a miraculous discovery it is that God did not get bored with us and settle for copy ‘n’ paste creation: the creativity with which we are made was intentional. When we read that God ‘knit us together in our Mother’s womb’, this is not a naïve scientific theory or practical methodology, it describes an intimacy between the creator and his creation. God says to each and everyone one of us, “I love you, I know you by name and I will be with you, whatever happens to you.” Who knows us better than God? We might know how the ADP-ATP cycle works, we might be able to explain cell mitosis to school children, we might be able to work together to decode the genome – but can we make our lungs transport oxygen to our bloodstream by thinking about it? We can no more wash the lactic acid from our muscles by positive thought than we can, by thought, make a single hair of our head grey. Amid this knowledgeable ignorance we find God reassuring us, ‘I know who you are and I love you. Who knows your inmost parts better than I do?’
However, the message of the creator to the created can only ever be paternalistic unless the creator has experienced the pain and suffering we experience. God is love; but is God empathy too? The same baby that was saved from death in Bethlehem, ultimately became the man Jesus who lived among us. The Christian statement of Jesus being ‘fully human and fully divine’ is no more trouble to believe than light as wave and particle. Jesus lived and laughed. He wept at the death of a friend, celebrated with the Wedding feast, was tired, angry and had compassion. Ultimately, he was tortured and died the death of a condemned man – what more empathy could we ask from our creator than to be with us in all our own suffering? God’s solidarity with the created is beautiful, but God’s resurrection of Jesus offers the freedom from death that all of creation craves.
So where is God in the suffering? Return to the maternity ward, to the Ultrasound room, and stand beside the Ultrasonographer as they spot the large nuchal translucency at the back of the fetus’ neck. What do you say? The Christian clinician understands that ‘God’s love and power extend over all creation’, this love is not limited two-point-five standard deviations of the mean. We know that ‘every life, including our own, is precious to God’ regardless of aneuploidy and regardless of brevity. It would be unethical to evangelize at this moment, but those who know the intimacy of God’s love for a fetus that will not live, might offer a silent prayer to God at that moment:
‘Thank you God that we are fearfully and wonderfully made. How wonderful are your works that I know very well. Our frame was not hidden from you, when we were being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld our unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for us, when none of them as yet existed.’
Natural philosophy, science, does not deny God but fulfils the commandment to use our mind. God loves us enough to give us the freedom we crave, but the price of that freedom is death. God knows each of us personally and intimately, but goes deeper than that to share in the reality of humanity. God dies the death we fear: a death of rejection and abandonment. In that death God reveals to us the limitations of life, the boundaries of the box we live within and shows us that these boundaries do not limit God. God shows us that he loves us beyond this mortality.
The following authors and books directly influenced the thinking and writing behind this essay:
Adams, Cocksworth, Collicutt et al, ‘Reflections on the Psalms’, (London: Church House Publishing, 2015)
Davison, Andrew, ‘Imaginative Apologetics: Theology, Philosophy and the Catholic Tradition’, (London: SCM, 2011)
Gooder, Paula, ‘Body: biblical spirituality for the whole person’, (London: SPCK, 2016)
McLeish, Tom, ‘Faith and Wisdom in Science’, (Oxford: OUP, 2014)
Nelson, P.G., ‘Big Bang, Small Voice: Reconciling Genesis and Modern Science’, (Hull: Botanic Christian Books, 2014)
Spencer, Nick, Alexander, Denis, ‘Rescuing Darwin: God and evolution in Britain today’, (London: Theos, 2009)
Spurway, Neil, ‘Laws of Nature, Laws of God? Proceedings of the Science and Religion Forum Conference 2014’, (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015)
van den Toren, Benno, ‘Christian Apologetics as a cross-cultural dialogue’, (New York: T&T Clark, 2011)