What has science got to do with God? I can tell you straight away what science hasn’t got to do with God. Science is not about proving or disproving God’s existence. Science is the study of the material universe. God, as creator of the material world is, by God’s very nature, not a part of that universe. So God’s existence is outside of science’s expertise and scope.
But because science is all about exploring, explaining and making predictions about the material universe, it does have something to do with God, inasmuch as God is the creator of that universe. In just the same way that we might learn something about an artist’s technique, or ideas or even state of mind from looking at one of his or her paintings, so too we can come to understand things about God by looking at the universe that he called into being. I can’t, of course, claim to be the first person to think in this way. Far from it. The people we think of as the first proper scientists – people like Sir Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton and Galileo – certainly believed this. For them, science was most definitely a way of learning about God. They looked at the creation to understand the mind of the creator. What they saw when they looked was beauty and complexity, but also order. In these characteristics of the natural world, they saw reflected the characteristics of God. So science is valuable for Christians, not just for what it can give us in terms of knowledge about our world and the wider universe, but because it is another way that we can come to understand more about God.
That in itself is an important reason for Christians to engage with science but if it were the only reason, this would be an incredibly short sermon. Of course it’s not the only reason – at least I don’t think it’s the only reason, that Christians should take an interest in science. I’d like to suggest that there is another very important reason contained within our first reading today. In that passage, taken from the first creation narrative in Genesis, God tells human beings, “…fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” Unfortunately, down the ages that instruction has been misunderstood, misinterpreted and misused, so that dominion became domination, and subduing the earth came to be understood as exploiting all of the earth’s resources and ‘conquering’ the wilderness. A much better way, I think, of understanding the instruction to ‘subdue’ the earth is to make it habitable and productive. Naturally, this will require that some wilderness be tamed, that some land be used for human habitation and farming, but it’s emphatically not about exploitation and destruction. Rather, it’s about promoting the mutual flourishing of all of God’s creatures. To do that, we need to know how the things of the world work, how ecosystems work, how much we can take from the earth without doing irreparable harm, what we and our fellow creatures need to survive and thrive, as well as how to make the best and most productive use of farm land, for example. For all of that, we need science.
And what of dominion? We need to think of this in the context of the authority that God invested in the kings of Israel. Those kings had dominion over the land and people of Israel. Clearly, they weren’t meant to exploit or take advantage of the people or the land, and those kings that did found themselves on the receiving end of God’s disfavour. Rather, dominion was about exercising authority wisely and justly, about caring for and nurturing the land and the people. That is the dominion that all humanity is to have over the rest of creation. But we can’t nurture and care for the world if we don’t understand it and know how it works. Science gives us the knowledge and insight, and hopefully also a bit of wisdom, to enable us to fulfill our God-given calling as a species.
We might ask ourselves, “How have we managed to get things so wrong?” The answer to that is simply that, over the centuries, Christianity came to understand existence as divided into the spiritual and the physical, and decided that the physical – that is, the material world, is of less importance or of less value than things spiritual. In some cases, Christians have even believed that the material world is somehow bad or evil. But that’s not true. Turning again to the Genesis reading, we read that, “God saw everything that he had made and indeed it was very good.” That goodness may have been damaged or obscured by sin, but it’s still there, as is God’s love for his creation. Our Gospel reading shows us that God doesn’t keep the material creation at arm’s length. God values creation so much that he became a part of it by becoming human, so that he could restore it and rebuild the relationship between creation and creator, which had been damaged through sin. When Paul writes to the Corinthians about the Lord’s Supper, we see how Jesus uses the things of the material world – bread and wine, simple things – as a means of sharing God’s grace.
In the bread and wine we receive here in the Eucharist, God takes the ordinary material of creation and infuses it with his grace, making it extraordinary and holy. God does not disdain the simple or the material. In the Eucharist, there is no divide between physical and spiritual. If creation is good and is valued by God, then learning about the creation, discovering its wonders and its beauty, are also good and valuable. And if God uses the things of the material world as a means of pouring out his blessings on us, then we also should use the gifts of the earth to bless one another.
But we must be careful not to get carried away. As Christians, we have a duty to be vigilant, to speak out when we see science being used to exploit creation, or to do harm to our fellow human beings. As I see it, there are things that should concern us – things that risk reducing biodiversity, things that don’t respect the integrity of our fellow creatures, things that give advantage to the wealthy while further excluding those in our society already at risk of losing out. Christians have a wealth of ethical tradition on which we can draw to challenge scientific and technological developments that may be harmful, or that may be being taken forward without adequate thought being given to possible consequences.
But to be able to speak authoritatively, we need to know about the science. We need to know what is going on in the world of science, and we need to engage with it enough to be able to ask the necessary questions. Does that mean that we all need to be experts in all branches of science? Of course not. But we can all cultivate a basic level of understanding, at least in areas that interest us.
If you are a scientist or someone interested in science, share your passion! If you aren’t a scientist and have never engaged with science, don’t be afraid of it. As a church, our job is to say that science is not something that is outside the scope of our faith. We love God who made the world, and so we take an interest in the world that he made. And because God made and loves the material world, we as Christians have a responsibility to be diligent – to speak out when we think the material world is being misused, and to speak up to ensure that the benefits of science are used for the good of all, not reserved to the rich and the powerful. And we should pray for our scientists and for their work.
Science is valuable. It gives us knowledge and insight about the world around us, and enables us to improve life for ourselves and, if we are obedient to our calling, also our fellow creatures. Science also gives us insights into the mind of God, by enabling us to peer into the heart of the universe, the very building blocks of creation and its intricate workings, which tell us something about the creator. And by enabling us to see the world, the universe, around us in new and ever more detailed ways, science allows us to experience awe and wonder. In experiencing awe and wonder, we open ourselves to an encounter with God.